Personal Views on Live Performance and Recorded Art


last known picture of the colonel at a live recording session 3/31/00

For me, while live performance and recorded art are separate branches of the same tree, they require very different (if often related) approaches. I find the differences are so essential that each form requires its own approach, philosophy and rationale. I refer here mostly to musical projects but this is also in many ways applicable to any art form where this dichotomy relates or is possible. (Live novel writing was a good Monty Python joke but isn't something we have to worry about discussing.)


My preference, by temperament, is for recorded work. This is a somewhat marginal preference but is still definite enough to be worth commenting on, especially since it may explain some of my choices over the years to anyone curious enough to question them.


I suppose a good place to start would be with definitions. For me, live performance is anything with an audience. Even if live-in-the-studio recordings are as advertised, they're a different aspect of recorded art and do not serve the same purpose as a performance involving the moving of equipment and the entertaining of crowds. (Also applicable here is live theater- vs some kind of recorded version, whether for movies or television or video.)


Recorded art is anything that gets into a fixed form: music, writing, visual art, and movies. Live concerts or plays captured on film or video are recorded art, though obviously this is the link between the two approaches.


Recorded music and movies are obviously the new kids in town here, with visual art, live music and theatrical performance having been around in some form since around the time we stopped knuckle-walking.


Split up into these two categories, you can see pretty clearly how (and which) art forms feed each other. That's why musicals, operas, theatrical rock bands, and light shows are completely logical- they had to happen eventually. (The absence of overt visuals is frequently offset by the presence of dancing or intoxicants or both. And rock and roll stage posturing/musical grimacing definitely fits in here too.) On the other side, you have the concept album, high production values/studio artistry, the importance of packaging, etc.


Both approaches can be given to excesses and polar extremes. Both fall prey to unwritten assumptions about what they can and can't be, assumptions based on how things are done by the majority (or ruling power) at that point in time and location. As to how I feel about this and how I apply it to my work, rather than go into great detail about assumptions and extremes, I will simply say this: I accept no externally assumed limitations on my artistic freedom. As it says in the Jugalbandi Manifesto, "freedom of artistic expression supersedes all rules, spoken or unspoken, written or implied".


Live Performance


I see live performance as being about connecting with the audience. This does not mean you have to yell "clap your hands" or wave the microphone towards the crowd for them to sing the chorus. It does mean that performer and audience react off each other, in ways subtle or otherwise. This is one reason why I've always wanted improvisation as an element of every live situation I've been a part of; the interplay with the audience is much more pronounced and can have a direct influence on the structure of the music. With totally composed music, the effect of the interplay is much more subtle; dynamics and tempo can change, the performance can become more or less spirited. If you have a large and varied repertoire and a very flexible band, you might be able to call music out as seems fit for the mood of the audience; otherwise the band dictates the flow. There's nothing terribly wrong with this but it's somewhat rigid and one-sided and can make for an unpleasant evening if a set's song order isn't jibing with the audience's mood.


I also see live performance, in the case of music, as being about the experience- yet another reason improvisation is such a tempting element, since there is some excitement generated if an audience knows it might experience something that can only happen once. And again, this is why so many acts feature visual components- to provide an experience. The days when people could only hear songs by going to shows has been limited to the poorest of acts for a long time- even club bands can get tapes, vinyl or CDs out. So there has to be something else in it besides just hearing the music. Getting to see the musicians play- that's a big part of the experience. Getting to see how they move on stage and interact with the audience- another big part. And then there's the thrill of being in the same room with someone whose work you've enjoyed- there they are in the flesh but you still don't know much more about them than before. It's the somewhat illogical mystique of personal appearances.

There is a large group of people for whom going to shows is a lifestyle. For them, being out is fun and being at home is a drag. At this point the music, while still important, can start to become secondary to considerations such as what crowd comes to see the music, the scene to take part in, the total experience. Now personally, I have always been much more comfortable being on stage making music than sitting in an audience. That's not so much about ego as it is about egos- the annoying little things that make scenes what they are. Performing, for me, is usually a blast. Dealing with "The War of the Cool" is less of one. If you think any live scene is exempt from this kind of behavior, you're not paying attention. And if you've come to play, unless you're the only act playing that night, you're no less exempt from having to deal with it, and maybe even participating in it, consciously or not. Musicians from different bands are routinely more catty with each other than the audience. The nice thing is that when you start to play, often enough much of this vanity and bullshit disappears beneath it and people are lost in the music for a while.

This approach can also cause the mistake of thinking that a band and its music are represented by its audience. For some people this is a given: Zeppelin is for stupid stoners and punk is for people with green hair who dress funny. Or it may not be so much about despising others as it is about identifying with something- I'm more like this than that, so I'll go here. All of which is secondary to the music, which can be enjoyed by everyone who's open to it- usually a much wider spectrum of people. But admittedly, this can be harder at live shows, especially at clubs, where if a band does have a particular type of crowd you may feel very out of place or even threatened if you show up. (Some people like this and go for a good fight. They should all take up hockey and leave the rest to enjoy our music. And if they like to travel I understand soccer matches in Europe are great for this too.)

Of course there are also people for whom going to shows is a hobby and a lifestyle. These are people for whom simply experiencing live music tends to be the major consideration. They collect live experiences. And to them I say: there aren't enough of you! More, please! Go out and convert people or something. This is what it should be all about.


One thing I've disagreed with for a very long time is the idea that somehow a live performance of a song or piece has to sound like the recording. I see no point in this. If you want to hear the recording, listen to the recording. Bands that take on more and more musicians in an attempt to sound like their massively tracked studio efforts increasingly take on the aspect of a traveling circus; certainly, they don't really sound or look like a band anymore. It's become a cliche': two of everybody plus a percussionist and three female backing vocalists. That's a road show, not a band. I would much rather hear and see the original band playing stripped down but intense versions of their material than the traveling road show. I would rather hear and see something intense with a few warts than something "perfect" and diluted. Given the challenge, a good band can create amazing variations on their own music, which stays a dynamic thing, living, changing, and powerful. There are many positive examples I can give. Live Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin are some of the best (and best known). Despite lots of intricate studio work, they simply went out and played arrangements of the material. In each case I'm pretty sure that the circumstances of live and studio were viewed as very different so the approach to the music in each case was viewed as being necessarily different. This view seems to have fallen into disuse and/or disrespect. An alternative which bypasses this entire problem is to go into the studio and basically don't do very much different from what you would do live. This I think is a very honest approach and is fine if the band in question wouldn't really benefit from the kinds of things done with multiple overdubs. While I feel this is a good approach to keep in mind when writing, I'm a pretty firm subscriber to the old school and so don't feel very limited by the differences between studio and live performance. One thing is totally different from the other. And a live performance should sound every bit like a live performance- warts and all.


Lastly, there is a thrill you can get from live performance that you can't achieve any other way. When you've really connected with an audience, or been to a show that's moved you on some deep level, it will always stick out as a high point in your life. That's when it works, of course. There are frequently a ton of elements against that happening (bad crowd, bad sound person, bad billing, etc.); and yet the majority of shows I've played, once the music started, have been a lot of fun. Sometimes it feels so good it's nearly overwhelming. But the reverse is also true . I have played shows I wouldn't wish on Toto. These are the shows that make you ask yourself why you bother. If you're lucky, you get an answer quickly. If not...somehow or another you usually get dragged back anyway. And eventually you will probably rediscover why you bothered.

(This isn't limited to playing shows either. I went to a blues festival one year and was waiting to see Savoy Brown- nobody but Kim Simmonds left in the band, but that was enough for me. Before they came on I heard probably about 10 guitarists, and I was getting mighty depressed. They all sounded the same, played the same cliches, bored the pants off me, despite all being very competent players. At times like this the evidence seems to be overwhelming: the guitar is a boring instrument and no amount of technical expertise or pyrotechnic playing can change that. You start to wonder whether you can ever say anything interesting with the instrument or if you're just kidding yourself. Well thankfully Kim Simmonds came on and sounded like he'd just come from recording "Blue Matter". His playing was totally distinct and had a clear personality. It brought tears to my eyes because his individuality as a player made me feel vindicated, and I suddenly knew I wasn't wasting my time at all. It's an experience I will never forget. The lows and highs all in one afternoon!)


Recorded Art


For me, the parallels between recorded music and other art forms are natural and enjoyable. You can paint and sculpt with sound, arrange form and tonal color. It cuts both ways: visuals have rhythm and dynamics. As someone whose background was in film and visual arts long before I became interested in actually creating music, that crossover territory makes working in recorded music particularly satisfying and enriching to me. I was also writing prose and poetry before music, and those forms and rhythms relate strongly here as well, especially when dealing with musical interpretations of lyrics (or vice-versa). Sounds are very visual to me, and when I record I am usually aiming at creating more than just songs- even if on the surface, that's all they are. (That's all they have to be for most people, and that's fine. It's important not to lose sight of this. But I don't buy any kind of purism that denies the validity of exercising artistic vision either.)


The chief drawback of recorded work, as I see it, is the lack of immediate communication with the audience. The artist does not get feedback or validation unless approached- if they can be found. Whereas at a live show of course it's all right there. If you mostly do recorded work, not having this kind of validation can be disheartening. Another drawback is that material usually improves drastically with live performance, developing a more definite shape and maturity and energy. Again though, this is where the difference in approach can make for good results either way if explored properly. The formative nature, captured on tape, can be an attractive element in its own right.


I said at the beginning of this piece that I preferred recorded art to live performance, by a narrow margin. From some of my comments on the down side of concerts in the previous paragraphs, you are probably already getting some idea as to why. But there are other elements too, equally important. Time to elaborate.


When we recorded "Jugalbandi: 1999!", Hyam Sosnow and I were in a rehearsal room bordered all around by other rehearsal rooms, one of which was linked to ours by an air vent. We were recording live to DAT (as usual), and I was very set on being able to make every take count. We could hear somebody playing next door, being piped in along with the air conditioning through the vent. It was driving me crazy and I didn't want to start recording again until we found some way to jam up the vent and stop this sound from being so intrusive. Bear in mind it was in the middle of a heat wave and the studio was over a large auto repair garage, three flights up. Very, very hot. So Hyam couldn't understand why I was so set on blocking out the feeble air conditioning over a little bit of bleed through. He was convinced that once we started playing we would mask it completely. But since we are prone to lapse into quiet spots, I was unconvinced. He became fairly insistent that we just get on with it and when I refused he asked, rather annoyed, why a rehearsal recording should be so important to me. My usual mellow facade, eroded by the heat and the annoying sonic intrusion from the adjoining studio, was blown to itty bitty pieces. I yelled "We improvise. We don't know if this is going to be the best take we ever get of this. We don't know if it'll be magic. Sure it's a rehearsal. Sure we're doing a live gig in a couple days. But recordings are what survive us after our death! Don't you understand? We can drop dead tomorrow and chances are, this tape will still be here. Is Hendrix alive? No! But I can go home and listen to a concert. Granted nobody knows who the fuck we are and maybe nobody ever will, but let's say we get famous. I don't want someone in twenty years listening to this and thinking, 'this is great but what the fuck is that in the background?' Some people have kids. I have this. I'm stuffing something in the fucking air vent. OK?" He sat there slightly stunned for a minute and then thoughtfully said "Yeah. Didn't realize you felt so strongly about it. There's probably some padding around here somewhere...." I don't recall whether that cut was a keeper, but a lot of what we did after that was- and as it turns out the gig, which we were counting on for being our main source of recording, was not nearly as well recorded as these rehearsals, and the playing was less fresh. I'm not sure I'd ever formulated my ideas about recorded music all that clearly and I think my own outburst surprised me at the time. But I meant it and I still mean it. So there's one reason.


Another has to do with my background. I worked in and studied primarily recorded medium. And I was entertained and had my life hugely enriched primarily by recorded medium. Records, movies, books and visual art got me through childhood and adolescence. I saw live shows here and there but these were events- special treats but infrequent. I couldn't count on them when I needed art in everyday life just to make it bearable. It is in this spirit- remembering my roots, you might say- that most of my recorded work has been done. I wanted to provide for others, trapped in mundane circumstances, what my favorite recorded works had provided for me. Art which was available like packaged seasoning- portable, useful anywhere in any circumstance. A little seasoning can make the blandest food palatable. Wars used to be fought over spice trading. People need this kind of thing in their life. They need more than just subsistence.


In terms of music, I see recorded work- and not just overproduced or obviously studio work, but anything fixed and ready to play- as being at least of equivalent importance to live work, if not a great deal more important in the long run. Performances are events and events are important like vacations are important. But imagine if you had to live on dry toast and water except for maybe once a week, once a month, once every few months, etc. For most people who have a choice, this is unacceptable. You need more. And for most people, that's about all they can manage when it comes to shows. Whether it's time or money, usually something is in short supply. But they have their car radios, walkmans, boom boxes, etc. And they can get music that way whenever they want it, wherever they want it, most of the time.


Recorded music also doesn't discriminate on the basis of clothing, hairstyle, lifestyle choices or personal coolness: anyone with enough guts can listen to anything. You may think it takes no courage to listen to something in private, vs. going out into unfamiliar (or even hostile) territory at a club; but it does. It takes the courage to have an open mind- regardless of what your friends and relatives think, or your neighbors, or even yourself. It requires ditching preconceptions and allowing yourself to grow. Some people cannot court change this way and need a more outward manifestation; luckily, there are clubs and concerts for that. But if you go with the wrong people on the wrong night or have a bad experience that has nothing to do with the music, all your worst assumptions can be validated (seemingly), and the purpose is not served. So my suggestion is: before you give up on any form of music, isolate yourself with it and see if you can come to an agreement. And never, never be afraid to admit what you like. If people look at you differently because you don't quite fit a mold- fuck 'em. It all comes out of fear and insecurity. It's amazing how even the most openly non-mainsteam people can be conservative when it comes to how they expect people in their group to behave, and what their tastes should be. They'd hold back you and me and the rest of the human race if they could, but we won't let that happen now, will we? If we can all learn to agree to disagree, we'll get through this and have a more diverse and respectful world. To say nothing of a more open-minded one.


Recorded music can take on great personal or ritual significance- a couple can have "their song", people remember where they were or what they were doing the first time they heard a particular song or album, what their lives were like. This allows for personalized passage rituals. You can literally trace your life in songs.


To sum this up I'll go back to point #1. Look at it this way: a great live performance comes and goes and it's gone. It may stay in your memory and provide you with a lot of good feelings long after the event is over. There is a specialness to this which is undeniable. But a great recording has the potential to be enjoyed by countless millions more people than could have ever enjoyed a live show, for years after the performers have died- even if they died at ripe old ages like Benny Goodman or Eubie Blake! How many people can go into a museum and enjoy paintings from the middle ages or sculptures from ancient India or Egypt? How many thousands of people have viewed these things long after the artists have died? There's no guarantee anything will survive- the bargain bins of history are strewn with Ozymandian relics. But even those relics have their fans. If a few solitary people take in the ruins and find their time on earth a little richer for the experience, it's worthwhile. And if they can take the remains home with them and incorporate them into their lives, that's even better. It ensures that they will continue to be shared- immediately or eventually.

GS, 2001

photo: Michelle Klein-Hass, doing her best Dennis Hopper impersonation 

this writing (c) 2001 by Greg Segal, all rights reserved. It may not be reproduced whole or in part without credit, or for profit, without consent of the author. But if you want to print up a copy to read at home, feel free.


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