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‘See Hear: Record Production as Aesthetic Spectacle’

Gerry Moorey

Bath Spa University


This paper is about the relationship between performance and recording. Though the categories of the live and the recorded have usually been defined in opposition to one another, I am concerned here to indicate points of overlap and cross-fertilisation. As Philip Auslander’s work on ‘liveness’ attests, it is really untenable in today’s ‘mediatized’ world to treat performance and recording as mutually exclusive. In fact, they have never been as separate nor as different from one another as might be supposed. Nor has one entirely dominated the other, though it is true that the music most people listen to the world over is now recorded music. This doesn’t stop it being the case that the relationship between performance and recording is a largely symbiotic one. To put this another way, the recurrent anxiety and uncertainty about what is ‘live’ and what is not marks the site of, not just the antagonism between these two fields, but also of their convergence and interpenetration. I’d like to illustrate this with a few examples.
    Paul McCartney’s televised performance in 2005 at Studio 2, Abbey Road, represented something of a high-water mark in the performance of record production, or record production as a performing art. The select audience gathered in the room where, some forty years earlier, the Beatles had recorded their albums, were privy to a concert in which the utilisation of production techniques was elevated to the status of an aesthetic spectacle. The former Beatle used a primitive four-track mixing desk to ‘bounce down’ sounds in order to produce – in ‘real time’ – the kind of innovative, multi-layered compositions that had represented such a step forward all those years ago.
    In this regard, the visual aspect of the performance was just as crucial to its overall impact and meaning as the aural one – the audience could see what they were hearing. This was particularly poignant in light of the Beatles’ decision, relatively early on in their career as recording artists, to bow out of concert performances altogether. Put quite simply, the visual element of George Martin and the Beatles’ art had been largely missing, whereas now we could see, for example, what the Mellotron looked like that, with its peculiar warble, had graced the opening to ‘Strawberry Fields’; and what’s more, via McCartney’s explanations, we could understand how the thing worked, and how the Beatles’ use of it had been innovative in the history of popular music. I think it’s important to treat these demonstrations by McCartney as part of the performance itself, rather than as interludes within it. As I will be arguing later, the maturation of technological forms – in this case, recording equipment – is often accompanied by an aesthetic, as opposed to a merely technical, delight with their inner workings and their very materiality.
    Obviously, the recording studios at Abbey Road are an important cultural site: in fact, due to the album of the same name, they are possibly the most famous studios in the history of recorded sound. The TV programme of this event, broadcast on BBC 2 and entitled ‘Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road’, can therefore be seen, to some extent, as an exercise in nostalgia, but not, I think, in any simply negative sense. What it did, by enacting in real time the kinds of multi-step procedures that had produced the Beatles’ works, was to make a convincing case for the recording studio as a site of performance, with studio-craft rather than musicality as it has traditionally been understood, as the object of that performance. So the concert’s nostalgia was not so much a wistful reminiscence of the golden age of pop but rather a spatio-temporal compression of that history as well as of the actual process of record production. This kind of space-time compression seems to me to be characteristic of the effect of new technologies or forms of mediation when they are brought to bear upon older technologies and older media. What, in its day, had no doubt been an extremely protracted and painstaking process, now seems immediate and spontaneous.
    I’d like to look now at another example of the way in which studio-processes are increasingly being presented in the manner of live performance. It seems that any self-respecting popular music documentary must, as a matter of course, contain some footage of a producer and/or artists at work in a recording studio. (Obviously, in a growing number of cases, the artist and the producer are the same person.) At the very least, we expect to see an interview with a well-known, possibly famous, record producer leaning, in a somewhat self-aggrandising manner, against the amassed buttons, dials, and displays of their favourite mixing desk. The ‘Classic Albums’ series on BBC 2, for example, featured each week’s chosen artist or producer using the original studio tapes of one of the album-tracks in order to construct a performance in what is problematically referred to as ‘real time’. Again, I think these exhibitions of studio-technique should be regarded, not just as demonstrations, but as performances in their own right, especially  in view of the altered status of ‘live’ performance, in which many artists – especially dance and electronica musicians – employ precisely the same techniques of combining and re-combining already-existing layers of sound. In stepping more and more into the public eye via stage and TV appearances, record producers become more like performers who, ironically, have to prove that they can ‘cut it live’ by demonstrating their studio-craft in real time. Whereas in the early days of popular-music recording, there was a much stricter partition between producers and performers, what we find nowadays is that live musicians frequently resemble record producers, who themselves resemble live musicians.
    The fact that there exists a growing number of record producers who are internationally famous suggests a certain level of development in the history of recorded sound. In a manner that parallels the trajectories of other contested or controversial art-forms – possibly all modern art-forms at some stage or other –, the status of the record producer has changed from that of engineer, technician, or artisan to that of artist, though it is important to stress that he or she still retains some of their former ambivalence due to the heteronomy and ambivalence of the culture industries as a whole. The status of the record producer is no doubt aided by the general dissemination of knowledge about how multi-track recordings are produced. In his celebrated essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin claims that the technological reproducibility of works of art allows everyone, potentially at least, to become a critic. It is an interesting facet of popular-music culture that an averagely-informed listener is able to pass comment with relative ease on the production values of a particular recording, and almost anyone with any sort of exposure to pop music can place a recording in terms of its era, based, in part, on those same values. Record production is a practice with a well-established history and one capable of being reflected upon. So we should not be surprised, in this context, by the growing exposure and recognition granted to producers and production skills in general: it follows as the result of a more widespread knowledge of, and interest in, the procedures and techniques of record production, helped in turn by the proliferation of home recording studios. To extend Benjamin’s point, we might say that the mass production of sequencing software and mixing desks allows everyone to become, not just a critic, but an artist. But the ‘democratisation’ of record production is, however, Janus-faced: the stardom of the few and the anonymity of the many reinforce one another, just as the rise of the superstar-DJ in the nineties gave rise to, and was simultaneously founded upon, the rise of the bedroom-DJ.
    The fact that producers or artists whose work is largely studio-based should come under pressure to demonstrate that they can ‘cut it live’, even if this merely requires them to show off their studio-skills in real time, might seem a bit incongruous, but it is entirely consistent with the unexpectedly persistent ideology of rock, in which the alleged ‘liveness’ of music is assumed to constitute, in large part, its authenticity. As Philip Auslander remarks in his book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, ‘rock recordings create the impression of being performances taking place in a single space and time, even for a listener who is fully aware that the performance exists only on the recording’ (Auslander 1999, p. 65). The ‘visual culture of rock’, most notably music videos, plays an important role in contributing to this impression of ‘liveness’. Rock videos typically contain real or mock concert footage, as if to legitimate and authenticate the recording. Interestingly, and in contrast to the pop music against which ‘rock’ is largely defined, rock videos often contain clips from recording sessions, which again tend to emphasise the ‘liveness’ of the studio-performance. It is ironic, then, that in the MTV era, videos have become the benchmark against which live performances are judged, with many stadium and festival gigs resembling giant video screenings. Auslander draws attention to the circularity of the relationship between live performance, recording, and video: ‘While the video authenticates the sound recording by replicating the live production of the sound, live performance authenticates the video by replicating its images in real space’ (p. 91). For Auslander, the music video has supplanted both the recording and the live performance as the primary object of popular-music culture, and yet, at the same time, it relies on them heavily in order to produce its desired effects of ‘liveness’ (p. 94).
    So in rock culture especially, recordings and live performances exist in a dialectical relationship. This complex negotiation between the two was part of the Abbey Road event that I mentioned. The concert was ostensibly a live event, but very obviously a televised one which, furthermore, made the use of recording equipment from the 1960s an integral part of its very ‘liveness’. By bouncing down layers of sound on a four-track mixing desk in real time, Paul McCartney was simultaneously recording a performance and performing a recording. The incorporation of this technical process into the performance as a whole owed much to the advent of a more recent piece of technology, the loop-sampler.
    Loop-sampling takes the multi-tracking procedures of the recording studio and applies them to a live setting. As such, it represents a curious re-appropriation of the music industry’s tools-of-the-trade on behalf of live performance. The construction of a piece of music via the addition of extra layers of sound and their being equalised or tweaked transforms the recording process into an aesthetic spectacle. The spectator-listener is dazzled by the apparent spontaneity of the process, as various instruments are picked up, used – frequently in novel ways – and, discarded. Eventually, the whole process is dissolved and then begun again. Thus, recording, which once froze musical time, is now being used to restore it to its original state of evanescence and intangibility.
    In spite of its potential for innovation, the types of song-structure employed by loop-sampler artists tend to be quite traditional, often starting with a bass or rhythm track, then introducing chords or a riff before, finally, the vocal comes in. Ironically, the prevalence of this kind of song-structure was itself promoted and reinforced by multi-track recording, which has often been used to introduce each new sound-texture separately so as to create the impression of the various instruments existing in a spatial relationship to one another like in an orchestra.
    Marshall McLuhan once wrote that ‘the “content” of any medium is always another medium’ (McLuhan 1964, p. 23). Within the medium of loop-sampling, what one finds is an encapsulated version of the medium of sound recording and record production. This is an example of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin refer to as ‘remediation’: ‘the representation of one medium in another’ (Bolter and Grusin 1999, p. 45). Their argument is that new media don’t just supersede or supplant older ones but, instead, maintain ‘a constant dialectic with earlier media’. Contemporary media are therefore promoted on the basis of their being new and improved versions of older media – more immediate media – but they achieve this status by adopting many of the protocols and stylistic features of the media that they were supposed to supersede. Similarly, earlier media are adapted in order to resemble their more recent counterparts. Bolter and Grusin give the example of cinema, which, in its infancy, was based very much upon the theatre. Theatre, in its turn, changed to become more filmic, making greater use of background music, for example.
    I think something analogous can be seen in the case of the loop-sampler, though its relation to earlier forms of technology is perhaps more complex. As I have already argued, the loop-sampler ‘remediates’ the recording studio, allowing multi-step production processes to be done in real time. In addition to this, it enables earlier equipment such as McCartney’s four-track machine to be used as if they were loop-samplers. This dual performance/production aspect of the loop-sampler is emphasised in adverts for them, which focus on the way in which they allow you ‘to layer phrases in real time’ or ‘explore the expressive options of sound-on-sound performance’.  In a sense, what they are promoting in these examples is the loop-sampler as a novel twist or innovation within the already existing paradigm of multi-track recording.
    But the loop-sampler also mediates and is mediated by other technologies too, notably ones that are more associated with performance than recording. As a foot-operated device, the loop-sampler is, in an important sense, yet another effects pedal, albeit one that radically alters the parameters of the sounds that are available and their distribution across the musical fabric. But its scope is potentially more simple and far-reaching even than this. Alongside every other technology that has found its way into live settings, from microphones and electric guitars, to turntables and other pre-recorded elements, what the loop-sampler ultimately remediates is live performance itself: it calls into question what constitutes or what counts as live performance. I’d like to pause for a moment to consider Bolter and Grusin’s point that, initially, new technologies are defined in terms of what has gone before, but that, later on, the distinctiveness of their form of mediation is recognised. At the moment, the loop-sampler’s capacities as a performance-tool are described very much with reference to, and in terms of, conventional notions of ‘live’ music. KT Tunstall, for example, regularly uses a loop-sampler during gigs, including her performance at the 2005 Mercury Music Prize. When asked why she uses one, she replied: ‘Basically, it’s the cheapest band in the world’. Similarly, an advert for the Boss RC20-XL describes it in terms of ‘a massive one-person band’.
    This last description seems to me to be particularly pertinent. In a sense, loop-sampling bestows the kudos of cutting-edge technology upon the rather more earthy and unassuming spectacle of the one-man band. The busker with guitar, harmonica-stand, bass-drum and hi-hat pedals represents a pre-industrial precursor of the record producer : a vagabond technician, whose extraordinary skill and co-ordination is never awarded its full recognition because it is seen (or heard) more as a circus act than as a genuinely artistic pursuit. Unlike more prestigious forms of musicianship, whether in the classical concert hall or the contemporary recording studio, the one-man band doesn’t conceal anything. In fact, quite the opposite: the spectacle of seeing a multi-instrument solo performer consists of their laying bare the precise manner in which the sounds are produced. In short, the musical ‘object’ produced by a one-person band is incapable of being fetishised.
     ‘Loop-sampling’ is therefore an undecidable category, perched somewhere   between recording and live performance, hi-tech and lo-tech. Its use in contemporary performances stems, in part, from the anxiety in rock culture that I touched on earlier: namely, the uncertainty regarding what is live and what is recorded, as well as the requirement for one to validate the other. Thus, loop-sampling produces an impression of spontaneity, immediacy, and technical skill, all of which have more commonly been associated with conventional group performances, or else with the intimacy and apparently stripped-down sound of the solo singer-songwriter. The sense of immediacy associated with these more established modes of performance has, however been largely usurped by the exaggerated hyper-immediacy of video. In seeking to solve this problem, it is perhaps ironic that artists should turn to a piece of recording equipment. In some ways the primary value of the loop-sampler lies in the fact that, when used skilfully, it can help to make performances seem ‘live’ and spontaneous once again rather than just a bad simulation of a pop video. Loop-sampling also helps to expand notions of musicianship in live performance: equalisation, and various other forms of tweaking and sound-combining become legitimately musical skills rather than merely technical ones.
    To sum up, I’d like to return to the question of the relationship between live performance and recording. Obviously, the ‘live’ and the ‘recorded’ were socially and historically constituted as binary opposites: before the advent of recording, it wouldn’t have made sense to talk about ‘live’ performance. Yet, their relationship to each other has been characterised by ever-increasing flux, interchange, and uncertainty, with their overlap marking a significant site of renewal within the culture of popular music. A time might come when the distinction between them seems parochial or even absurd, but for the foreseeable future at least, live performance and recording look set to continue their fertile dialectic in which each is continually tested, reasserted and transformed.

Bibliography

Auslander, P. 1999. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York)

Bolter, J. D. & R. Grusin. 1998. Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA)

McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media (New York)