MUS 103 taught me to appreciate live music. I took the class to fill a core requirement my junior year. “Understanding and Enjoying Music” sounded easy, especially for someone who already understood and enjoyed music, and besides, it filled a gap in my schedule.
Thirty students sat in a thick semicircle three times a week and talked about music. Baroque, classical, romantic. Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. I’ll admit: it was easy, and I don’t remember much from that class, other than $5 symphony tickets and a few Beethoven binges while writing essays for other classes, but something Professor Nordling said on the first day stayed with me. Or maybe it was the second day. He played some sort of concerto through the speakers, and then, halfway through, he paused it.
“Ninety-nine percent of the music we experience is recorded music,” Professor Nordling said, “and that is a wonderful thing. It gives us variety and choice and all that kind of stuff, and a huge exposure. But it’s also a negative thing.” He walked across the room and held up an instrument. A violin, maybe, or a clarinet. “You forget that music is a human activity. It requires somebody taking a risk and standing up in front of somebody else and putting their fingers on an instrument with the risk that it’ll be out of tune, or that they’ll forget, or whatever. And you forget that it takes sweat and desire and passion and hard work and intellectual focus and all of this stuff—but watching something happen live reminds us.”
And he’s right. Right about the prevalence of recorded music and right about taking it for granted. I keep thousands of songs on my iPod. Millions more on Pandora or Spotify or YouTube or SoundCloud. The radio’s still around, too. I can hear Martin Garrix’s one hit wonder whenever I want, or I can jump back to the year when Counting Crows combined music and poetry in one of the world’s greatest albums, or I can pick from “Wonderful Tonight” or “Tears in Heaven” or “Cocaine” to fit whatever particular mood I happen to fall into at the time. It’s a change from the era of Beethoven, a change that has let music fall into the background. Pervasive and common and easy.
MUS 103 made music difficult again.
But this summer, I discovered the other side of recorded music. The side we didn’t talk about in Professor Nordling’s class, and the side that makes recorded music even more challenging, I think, than live music.
I used to treat recorded music the same way most people treat books. Celebrate the author. Gloss over the illustrator and the promoters. Know that copywriters and editors and publishing houses helped make that book happen in some sense, but the details stay fuzzy and probably aren’t all that important anyway. This summer, though, I learned to appreciate the things you’ll find on the inside flap of an album cover. The tiny white print between the lyrics and the thanks.
Audio Engineering: Catarino Alvarado
Mixing & Mastering: Bradley Miranda
Album Photography: Tamra Pontow
Video Production: Mike Brothers
Recorded music opens up an entire field of things to appreciate that go beyond the performer and the audience. Things like proper microphone placement, appropriately layered tracks, and photos that match the album’s tone. Recordings let you forget that music is a human activity, but they also remind you: recorded music is collaboration.
My brother recorded his debut EP this summer. It’s only five songs, with not many parts. Just a piano and vocals, plus a few guest instruments on a handful of songs. It’s easy to listen to. It’s easy to perform live, too, at least compared to a symphony, and the whole thing lasts less than eighteen minutes.
But it took three hours to record each three-minute song. First we made a scratch track, then a drum part, and then we recorded the piano and then the vocals, those last two in dozens of several-second bursts that combined all the best takes. And a good recording needs good microphones and good instruments and a proper studio with soundproofing, and even after you finish all the recording, then begins the long process of production that I still don’t understand, although I know it involves adjusting volumes so the bass drum matches the vocals and the duet sounds just right, along with feathering highs and lows and mids and adding just enough echo to make a mid-level keyboard sound full. That process took roughly a week. And that process, much like how Ezra Pound trimmed The Waste Land and Gertrude Stein influenced Hemmingway, is why production matters just as much—if not more—than the recorded performance itself.
The role of producer did not exist two hundred years ago. Now, it makes or breaks an album. The Black Keys, Beck, Portugal. the Man, U2, Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Norah Jones, Broken Bells. All share the same producer. The artists have talent, certainly, but the genius of their music comes from collaboration.
There’s album art, too, which requires a skill totally unrelated to musicality. The same goes for video production. Lighting? Acting? Plotting a three-minute story through two-second clips? Those aren’t the musician’s specialties.
This summer, I learned to appreciate recorded music. Recorded music that reaches into entire fields, each with its own specialties and subspecialties; recorded music that pulls a dozen different talents together into a single album.
My brother’s EP lasts only eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes of background listening. Eighteen minutes of playing in a live venue. But to create it, to turn the human activity of music into a recording, that process took thirteen people and an entire summer. That process taught me, more than MUS 103, how to understand and enjoy music.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.