Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Jazz: Analog Music in a Digital Era?" by Steve Provizer

Gentlemen, we must not have an analog/digital Gap
When you talk about the struggle for economic justice for jazz musicians (see posts below), you have to talk about the why's and wherefore's of the shrinking jazz pie. One factor I've yet to see explored is this: People, especially those who grew up in the digital sound era, have become used to a certain kind of "pristine" low-noise (and highly compressed) sound, and attendance at live performances may be taking a hit because of this. In a digital era, I believe that jazz-at least mainstream jazz-is, by its nature, analog.

Let's go back a bit:
We humans tend to adjust our expectations as necessary. Until the mid-1920's and electronic reproduction, recordings were fairly crude and listener expectations were low. When you bought a King Oliver record in 1924, you understood that it would be a vastly inferior sonic experience to hearing him live. During the 30's and 40's, recording technology continued to improve and people expected better audio.  Then, in the 50's, stereo, recording tape and the long playing record significantly raised the bar. When you bought a studio-recorded Blue Note record, you expected to hear audio quality that approached what you got at a live performance. 

A cultural meme was alive and well: "There's nothing like hearing music live."

Up to the 60's, most recordings still represented "performances," an entire band playing together either in an acoustically-controlled environment (studio), or live on location. Then, isolation booths, layered sound and significant editing became much more widespread. Plus, the content of recordings began to seriously diverge from what could be heard live. People did not expect to hear Sgt. Pepper or, for that matter Ascension, in concert.

Over the next few decades, recording moved from the analogue to the digital domain. CD's and digital files replaced the cassette and LP's for personal listening. In every genre, recordings were expected to sound crystal clear (if reduced in quality by compression to MP3's).

While there were always comments along the lines of: "They sounded better on the record"-and popular recorded solos were duplicated live-more and more, rather than conceiving the LIVE performance as something that a recording should try to capture, the RECORDING has become the standard by which the live performance is judged. 

The truism "there's nothing like hearing music live" has been taking on serious water. 

Theatrical spectacle, stacks of amps and enormous woofers get rock and pop fans to live shows, giving them an experience they can't get on their ipods. On television, performances like Robert Glasper's recent appearance on David Letterman demonstrate that TV has the tech to give us the hi-fi experience. Film does too, although with atrocious decibel abuse.  Not so the typical jazz venue.

Ancient fetishists like me, who abide the scratches and clicks that we grew up hearing on vinyl can live with less than stellar sound, but we're already deeply invested in the music. For young people, lower quality audio can be a reason, along with high prices and lack of media attention, to make going out to hear jazz a non-habit.

There's been a lot of blog talk about jazz musicians making more of an effort to relate to the audience-to make a better "presentation." This is important, but jazz venues must reckon with current audio expectations or expect increasing erosion in a demographic whose attention they must capture.

Truth is, I don't know if even a staunch effort to produce better live mixes of acoustic instruments will stem the tide. Recording has become atomistic to the degree that recordings can fairly easily be pieced together note by note and out-and-out mistakes seldom slip through the digital editing net. Plugging in a MIDI cable will always guarantee a cleaner signal than putting a mic on a trumpet-especially in a live performance. 

Jazz is a music that thrives on getting in and out of dark corners, but it doesn't seem to be thriving on the native soil of Digital-Vania.


dlwilson26 said...

You may enjoy reading Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction." It is a little opaque and may be slow going, but it is worth plowing through.

David Wilson

Steve Provizer said...

David, I did work my way through it at one point. I was put off by the extent to which he, like Adorno, doesn't _get_ jazz. (I mention Adorno in my review here-

It would probably serve me to go back and reread Benjamin with a different agenda. Thanks.

dlwilson26 said...

Adorno was a classically trained pianist and a snob. Smart guy, but didn't understand jazz at all. Benjamin didn't write about music much--mostly art and literature. But Benjamin understood popular culture in ways that Adorno had blinders. It's Benjamin's notion of modernity that you want to extract from all those words. That and aura.

I read your book review. His stuff is what I consider to be frivolous culture theory. It is at such a remove from the content and at such a level of abstraction as to be almost a pure subjective treatment. I find it hard to recognize jazz and music in it. It says more about his obsessions than anything.

Steve Provizer said...

Very pithy precis of A. and B.-also of Gabbard's film book. I'm curious to read GIddins' take.

AudioFile said...

Tech Note: Television (digital) has compressed MPEG audio at about 160 kbits per second - better than an Ipod in stereo, but set up to accommodate 5.1 (6 channel) surround sound. Refering to:

"On television, performances like Robert Glasper's recent appearance on David Letterman demonstrate that TV has the tech to give us the hi-fi experience."

John Milton said...

nice written

Steve Provizer said...

Appreciate the comment. Thanks for reading.