What is more definitive of a person than the art they choose to keep? Our albums, our books, our comics, movies, and magazines not only say something to others about the kind of people we are, but also mean something enough for us to display them in the first place. Possessing those words and sounds is a way for us to always have the creative work that we love around. In this sense, they are the company we keep. I wouldn’t trade my records and books for the world.
But I’ve been reading “Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and
the Musicians’ Union, 1942-1968” by Michael James Roberts, a study not only catering to a specific audience that I am gleefully a part of (my socialist music nerd-heads, what up?), but also one that has completely opened up a whole history of musical production that I had not even considered. Now that we all have access to digital downloading that makes acquiring music simple, most of us have a difficult time fathoming what it must have been like before recordings were so ubiquitous. Before the advent of recorded sound, anyone who wanted to hear music (and wasn’t a musician themselves) had to attend a live performance.
Once records were invented, the American Federation of Musicians (a labor union dedicated to fighting for the working rights of musicians), saw many of their members out of work, being replaced by the new technology. They launched a campaign to convince Americans of the superiority of music in-the-flesh. One of their earliest arguments against records was that live performances simply offered better sound. This, of course, was absolutely indisputable in the early days of recording. Even though sound quality is an argued topic today among specific format enthusiasts (I’m looking affectionately at you, vinyl geeks), it is no question that we have a variety of comparatively exceptional recording at our disposal. But when we stop thinking about simple sound reproduction, and start thinking about the live experience as something that cannot be translated into physical copy, then we begin to acknowledge all of the benefits of art live, beyond just hearing. The sound experience, as I like to call it, becomes (oddly enough) visible.
For me, nothing has compared to seeing my favorite performers live or hearing authors I admire read their work aloud. Beyond the sheer giddiness of proximity to your idols (though little tops touching Eugene Hutz’s hand, personally), there is something about art in the moment that opens up a world to the viewer-listener, creates a culture of camaraderie with other fans, let’s you be touched by the performer themselves (sometimes literally), and makes never-heard-before pieces feel familiar while making known pieces ring anew.
Like any good random internet blogger looking for a bit of backup on my nascent opinion, I took to Facebook to try to see if people I knew had experienced that transcendental feeling one gets when watching live performances. And it seems the experience is universal. Answers came pouring in, left and right.
There was Jenn who relayed a story about how Sylvia Plath’s infamous “Daddy” is forever etched into her mind since her first encounter of the poem from her high school English teacher’s recitation. Even though he was a “tubby, middle-aged man with a bad mustache” he transformed the words into something visceral with his wild gestures and booming inflection
Another friend, Tanya, told me that she had once relentlessly made fun of the band Phish, but that when a friend dragged her to a show she realized that “the mechanics they used for instrumentation were relatable to jazz and classical music . . . the dimensional sounds actually told a story along with musical theory and the skills were pretty impressive.”
Countless others shared their emotional stories of hearing music and poetry performed. But the most striking example and convincing argument for the transformative power of live performance came from an old friend of mine, Norm:
“I had been a Nine Inch Nails fan since I was 18, when I first discovered his [Trent Reznor’s] music from an old VHS at a friend’s place. It wouldn’t be until 3 years later that I would see NIN live. I remember standing there in the theatre with the lights on, generic radio playing, when all of a sudden the lights dimmed to black, the curtains billowed away, and the drummer’s snap on a snare rang out as they opened with my favorite song at the time, “Bullet in a Gun”. I was mesmerized. At the end of the song they took all of these guitars – guitars I recognized as purchases from the Fragility album tour – and flung them into the air, letting them come crashing down with a final, emphatic crack on that snare drum. I remember everyone at that time thought that Trent Reznor was done for. He had purchased a funeral home that he was going to die in – that’s what everyone assumed. No one expected him to come back. But there he was and so was I.”
I questioned Norm about whether the music had changed for him at that point, since it was the first time that he was seeing them live. His answer is a final contemplative thought on which I end my piece:
“You know, at that point I was so obsessed with NIN that the music was pretty much gospel, so I wouldn’t say anything necessarily changed, in terms of meaning. But it was a moment in time, his Downward Spiral tour, and I was there…
I was present. It mattered. It meant something.”
To purchase “Tell Tchaikovsky the News” please visit: https://www.dukeupress.edu/Tell-Tchaikovsky-the-News/
*Photo of Phish found at http://phish.com/
*Photo of Sylvia Plath quote found at http://art-sheep.com/