In this essay, I was somewhat inspired by the narrative prose style of Abi Andrews,
whose novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, I would encourage everyone to read.
This weekend I put my phone aside, as I often do, less as a kind of digital detox than as a way of quieting my mind and leaving myself open to the kind of thinking and hearing necessary for writing about or engaging deeply with music. It often strikes me that the music I play was intended to be heard in a world much quieter than our own -- both literally and figuratively -- and so this exercise of quieting the mind is crucial to getting at the actual "sense" of classical music.
All my greatest chamber music teachers bring up the idea of "listening to the room," which is, I suppose, a way of trying to hear something in silence. Ideally this is something that leads you to feel more comfortable playing in different spaces. A seemingly similar idea among musicians is that of "projecting for a hall." Fundamentally, however, these two activities are opposites, because listening is inherently reactive in nature, as opposed to "projection," which can be done obliviously. Listening is also essential to how chamber music can come to life. One teacher's definition of room listening is, "hearing the silence of the room and playing into that." Another teacher always says, "your trio has four players, the three of you and the space you're in."
Some other people who like room listening are audio engineers. I always smile at that first track whenever engineers send along a batch of takes: the one that's simply called "room noise." It sounds like a piece of contemporary art music with a possibly downtown vibe. Of course the irony of room noise is that it is recorded to be eliminated. Even so, recordings define rooms; they recreate the impression of a room in that they depend on real relationships in space. Microphones are placed relationally to instruments, and those distances suggest different kinds of listening. A distant microphone often gives the best sense of including a space in one's listening. Close microphones might suggest intimacy or even listening too closely. There is also a subtle sense at any distance of whether playing is intended for the microphone or ignorant of it -- whether the microphone participates or simply overhears.
I love this sense of overhearing in the early piano trio recordings of Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, and Gregor Piatigorsky. This sense is created partly through the position of the microphone, which all three instruments share. The microphone is placed at a medium to close range, which means that the microphone is much closer proportionately to the strings than to the piano, more so than if it were placed further back, and there is a sense of distorted balance that comes from the strings being right up close. At the same time, there is a sense of all three players filling the room with their sound, of playing "past" the microphone. This creates an impression of overhearing enhanced in this short video segment from a "documentary" made of the Trio:
When Heifetz introduces the Mendelssohn slow movement that they perform, he speaks -- as he plays -- past the microphone, to the interviewer at the back of the room, which we realize when we see the microphone itself set very close at 0:05. Later we also see a man listening outside at 1:40. This moment feels delightfully unscripted and reminds us of a point earlier in the documentary (before the attached segment), when our interviewer's -- and our -- first "hearing" of the Trio is from outside the garden window. There, the microphone, placed outside with our listener, is very literally overhearing, with the sound almost completely muffled by the class.
Today, the recordings that most imitate this impression of overhearing are those made in concert halls using only hall microphones. Here, though, the kind of overhearing is decidedly more objective than in the Heifetz trio recordings, and the purpose of such recordings is often archival. One such recording that comes to mind for me personally is of my trio performing "Schubert B-flat" from a recital last year at Jordan Hall:
Here, the further microphone placement conveys both a strong sense of the space as well as relatively accurate balance between the three instruments. The less positive side of this recording is that all three instruments sound a bit dampened. The dynamic nature of the performance has been lost. Often, however, it strikes me that we experience these archival recordings more similarly to how we would experience memories, where the act of memory itself recreates and alters the remembered fact. Thus, these recordings are most effective and valuable to listeners who either were there or are familiar with the space. The strength of these recordings is not in their fidelity but in their associative meaning; nostalgia, or at the very least imagination, is essential on the part of the listener in rendering the performance vibrant once again. The qualities of balance, space, and proportion, created by the microphone placement, are paramount because they allow the listener to imagine, or to recreate, the effect of the room, not dissimilarly to how an artist might produce a painting from a sketch.
Today's recordings are mostly done in studio, using close micing of instruments, followed by mixing that is used to recreate something of the original balance. These techniques amount to a kind of transcription that makes us aware of the fundamental differences between the medium of recording and the medium of performance. Ironically, close micing creates a much more accurate picture of the sound produced by instruments up close, but has very little to do with what a listener hears in a hall even twenty feet away. Yet, because of the dampening effect of recordings on the overall impression of performance, somehow, close micing in a recorded medium often has a more similar impression on the listener to sitting further away in a live medium.
Of course, the one way in which modern studio recordings do more closely resemble live performance is the way in which they are closer to what the musician hears. Certain classical musicians (and many more non-classical musicians) do employ close micing to create a very specific, but different effect of overhearing. This special type of overhearing has very little to do with whether or not the player is playing for the microphone or for the room, but simply with the voyeuristic sense (or its auditory equivalent) of hearing what the performer hears coming back from the instrument. I think of this as the great attraction of Igor Levit's recordings in particular. I find his recordings in some ways even more compelling than his live performances, in part because he plays so softly and with such specificity, but also for microphones that are uncomfortably close. There is a real sense of hearing something in his recordings that would be impossible to hear or even perceive in live performance, yet in his recordings this quiet speaking quality of the more intimate dynamic range is etched almost painfully into your mind. In his recording of the slow movement of Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, I was amazed that in the muted chords of the first theme I heard not only every voice of these sometimes seven-note chords, but the sounds of the dampers lifting and re-touching the strings with each pedaling, which began to take on a primary quality in my listening focus:
I have a feeling that this almost painful intimacy -- listening so close it is painful -- takes on a special quality in Beethoven's work, Beethoven who was known for his "difficult" but heroic characters and his extreme dynamic contrasts that "exploded" the range of what composers dared to do. Yet there is an intensely introspective quality to his late works such as the 'Hammerklavier' that were written in his period of total deafness. With these works, then, it would seem to make sense that the most quiet utterances would also be the most compelling, the closest, perhaps, to the inner hearing that emerges from deafening silence.