I took my daughter to see The Nutcracker. It was fun. I know next to nothing about dance, but from my perspective, they did a nice job. Yet I didn’t enjoy it as much as other productions I’ve seen because there were no live musicians. The company was dancing to a recording. I found that to be very disappointing.
The recording was clearly a first rate orchestra (I have no idea which orchestra, something about the brass made me think Chicago, but there was nothing in the program). Everything about the recorded music was higher quality than the performances I’ve seen with real musicians. The recording had a full orchestra instead of an eight or ten piece ensemble. The fast parts were faster and the slow parts were slower. There were no discernable mistakes. Yet, I would have prefered real musicians, even of lesser quality, than an excellent recording. Why is that?
Some of it seems to be the possibility of hearing something new. Every performance is different, but a recording never changes. But that can’t be the complete story. The recording used during The Nutcracker was new to me.
There is also an excitement with live music that cannot be captured with recordings. With a recording, you know it’s going to be a good performance, otherwise they wouldn’t have released it. With a live performance, there is no guarantee. Anything can happen.
And live performers can feed off of each other and the audience. A recording can’t do that. The dancers had to follow the recording. There was no give and take. These are all valid reasons, but they feel incomplete.
I’ve always loved live music. It’s not that I dislike recordings, but given a choice, I will always opt for live. I think there are two reasons for this. First, a live performance is personal. If you are in the audience, they are literally playing for you. The second reason has to do with what I’m listening for when I listen to music.
When I listen to music, or experience any art, I’m trying to make a human connection. I’m trying to get to know the person, or people, making the music. I don’t care that Wes Montgomery plays the guitar except that the guitar is how he communicates with me. I’m not interested in the guitar per se. I’m interested in Wes Montgomery. If he could say the same things on a kazoo, I’d happily listen to that.
As a result, anything that gets in the way of direct communication diminishes my enjoyment of the music. My ideal situation wouldn’t even have amplifiers or speakers. I would be hearing the sounds as they came from the people or instruments. Every extra layer hurts my enjoyment a little bit. I think this is a big part of the reason I don’t usually like electronic music, samples and most of what came out in the 80s. In all three cases it is way harder than it should be for me to hear the person or people making the music.
I’ll close by clarifying that the use of a recording didn’t ruin the performance. I enjoyed myself. My daughter enjoyed herself. We got to spend the afternoon together. And the show was really about the dancers, who were good. I just couldn’t help wishing for a more direct artistic experience.