Posted by: ronontheroad | August 11, 2013

Authentic, definitive, or just live performance

Choir rehearsal for Passion 2012

Choir rehearsal for Passion 2012


“There are people who are interested in nothing but musical excellence, only working with the very best, and that is a wonderful thing, but for me, when somebody makes a note for the first time or connects with it for the first time, that is really fascinating, endlessly fascinating.” Gareth Malone.

A couple of months ago, after six months prior rehearsal, I was musical director for Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! Because of (mainly) space constraints, I had to re-arrange the orchestration for a minimal band: a couple of keyboards, percussion, a violinist, and a trombonist.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to re-orchestrate: in 2012 I staged a production of Adrian Snell’s The Passion which I arranged for 12 musicians rather than full orchestra. For that I also composed additional music. Apart from musical theatre involvement (as MD and as rehearsal pianist), I am also part of a worship band at church.

And this has got me thinking about performance – about repeatability, authenticity, and the like.

In some cultures, artistic expression in drama and music is about reproducing skillfully the same performance as the teacher’s, and the teacher’s teacher’s. In others, the skill is in taking the basic material and improvising something new each time. For some musicians, it is trying to use the authentic instruments and performance techniques to re-create a sound for which we have no recording. Here, we get used to a particular performance – one that we hear broadcast or played from a CD or MP3 – a “definitive” performance. There is an expectation that musicians must be able to recreate the exact sound – whether this means using the same model of guitar, pickups, and amplifier – or finding digital “sound-alike” patches. And as a member of a cover band from time to time, I can understand the conflict between trying to sound close to a particular group whilst playing live and not having the ability to recreate a studio mix.

So here’s the beef – as a musician, I want every performance to be unique, a response to my mood, the audience, maybe the weather. On the other hand, I can understand that when we are doing four, six, ten performances of a show we want the audience experience to be consistent. Not just the audience – I’ve found that dancers and singers listen for cues in music that I may not be aware of, and woe be me if I play something a little differently!

But is there a “definitive” performance? I found myself listening to a Pink Floyd tribute act – and was thinking “the synth sound is wrong“: by that, it wasn’t quite the same as on the recording I’ve grown up with. Does it matter though? Did Pink Floyd always manage to produce exactly the same sound at every gig? (Not easy with analogue systhesisers that you can never quite get the same settings twice!) Or is the experience of hearing the music performed live, created in front of our ears, more important?

For me it is the latter – live performance may never be as technically “perfect” as a recorded session, nor will it be identical each time. It is the subtle differences, the slight changes of tempo, the way that players listen to and respond to each other that makes the performance.

And the mistakes, of course. Nobody’s prefect!



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