Hearing yourself

Matthew at Soho the Dog got tagged with an interesting challenge:

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

No-one tagged me (would I even know if they had? I have a feeling “tag” means something different than what I think it does), but here’s what I got:

From Geoffrey O’Brien, Sonata for Jukebox:

The vocal styles had not been corrected by reference to recorded music or adapted to the microphone. All that was about to change irrevocably, as singers learned how the voice could be something separate from its body. In his autobiography Truth is Stranger than Publicity, Alton Delmore of the classic country duo the Delmore Brothers tells how at their first recording session in 1931 they heard their recorded voices for the first time, and how in that instant everything changed for them.

OK, to be honest that wasn’t the first book I picked up. The first book I picked up was Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, which is written in such a way that p. 123 doesn’t have five sentences. The second was J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life, whose sentence no. 5 on p. 123 is wonderful (“We need Indian-fighters, gunslingers, tough sheriffs, the magnificent Seventh Cavalry!”) but marks the end of a section, which makes the next two sentences, the sober beginning to a new thought, a little surreal. (This is probably the point of the exercise. I’m just not getting into the random spirit of this thing.) But the O’Brien passage is the best, since it frames a single thought fairly coherently — all you need to know is that he’s talking about Harry Smith’s anthology of American folk music, and how it captures the sound of people who didn’t know how they sounded, “in the same way that the first movies briefly caught the demeanor of people who had never seen anyone on film.”

And this is a pretty nice thought. It’s one of the important things to keep in mind when you’re listening the earliest recordings of any kind of music. One of the biggest effects of recording is self-consciousness.  Listen, for example, to this 1907 recording of Vladimir de Pachmann playing an abridged version of the Chopin Barcarolle op. 60.
The most obvious media effect here is, of course, the fact that the piece has been cut in half in order to fit onto a single side of a 12″ 78 rpm disc. But there’s something else going on. Back when I was a piano geek teen boy, I read Harold Schonberg’s The Great Pianists again and again — it was to me what  “Legends of the NHL” or some such would have been for the kids I went to school with. I remember Schonberg ripping into de Pachmann in a way I now recognize as gay-baiting: I don’t have the book in front of me, but I suspect the word “simpering” was in there somewhere. De Pachmann, according to Schonberg, had an unmanly way with Chopin, all lavender tints and flamboyant queeny gestures. But really, the playing is surprisingly plain once you get past some of the old-fashioned rhythmic things De Pachmann does, like staggering bass and treble lines to emphasize the melody. At 1:06 (which is where de Pachmann makes the first big cut), the new theme that comes in is played with a kind of sloppy straighforward way — the right-hand chords are mostly unsynchronized with the left-hand triplets, but those tripets keep moving, dragging the right-hand chords along like a chain behind them.

I don’t think that de Pachmann is playing fast to keep the piece within the limits of the 78 rpm record — he’s already made his cuts. I think it’s that his rhythm is very free within a businesslike overall conception of phrasing — phrasing that doesn’t stop to admire every little bend in the road. Although people tend to think of early-20th-century recordings as being freer and freakier than our cold literalistic modern interpretations, the more modern style of playing is actually much more inflected, more more “interpretive,” much more apt to underscore smaller musical events. And, I suspect, this comes from musicians’ experience of hearing themselves on record.  Whenever I hear a recording of myself, at any rate, what I hear is absence of all the beauties of the music that I hear when I’m playing. When I play a piece, I feel a beautiful cadence — I hear it, of course, but in a kind of inner ear that is an amalgam of my actual physical ear and the ideal sound in my head. This kind of para-hearing isn’t the same as the pitiless literal “hearing” of the microphone, though. What I hear/feel/think when I play isn’t the same as the acoustic phenomena my playing sets loose in a room. Hearing a recording of yourself highlights the difference between inner music and physical music. In a world without microphones, this is a distinction without much of a difference. When you can tape yourself, though, you become much more self-conscious, and your job becomes one of training your ears to work more like a microphone. You work harder to convey all those lovely details that, in the microphones-less world, would remain tucked away in your head. You slow down, take time on the cadences, carefully ee-nun-see-ate every little thing that happens in a phrase.

Listen to the very last octaves of the Barcarolle. Bah-BUH, Bah-BUH. Simple, uninflected, matter-of-fact. Most modern recordings will play them out-of-time, with special emphasis. Bah — BUH . . . . BAH . . BUHH. I mean, it the END. This is SIGNIFICANT. We’ve BEEN SOMEWHERE. But not here: the end is the end. Finis. Next!

For some reason this reminds me of something David Mamet said about the actors and film. His whole theory of filmmaking is that modern filmmakers have become increasingly mannered as they have moved away from the fundamental craft of making movies, which for him is the “juxtaposition of uninflected shots.” He means a kind of filmmaking in which the story is advanced by a telling succession of images, none of which needs to be explained or inflected by, for example, showboating actors who try to give us an impression of the characters’ inner life. He contrasts the style of contemporary actors, most of whom he doesn’t like, to the old-timers. (His favorite actor is probably William H. Macy, who really does seem like a throwback to an earlier time.)

quoth Mamet:

The more the actor is giving himself or herself over to the specific uninflected physical action, the better off your movie is, which is why we like those old-time movie stars so much. They were awfully damn simple. “What do I do in this scene?” was their question. Walk down the hall. How? Fairly quickly. Fairly slowly. Determinedly. Listen to those simple adverbs — the choice of actions and adverbs constitutes the craft of directing actors. David Mamet, “On Directing Film” (New York: Viking, 1991), 68-69.

My thought: the more you see yourself on film, and see others seeing themselves on film, etc., the more you inflect your shots — just as in music.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Hearing yourself

  1. Andrew says:

    I’m sure you know it, but just in case, have you read Mark Katz’s “Capturing Sound”, much of which is about just these sorts of effects of hearing oneself on tape. He gave a talk at my school a few years ago, and while I haven’t read the book (it wasn’t out yet), it seemed really interesting.

  2. Scraps says:

    David Mamet accusing someone else of being mannered makes me laugh hollowly. His dialogue is absurdly mannered, a faux-naturalism that practically demands actors who will behave simply because god knows they aren’t being given a real character to inhabit with any nuance. There’s nothing wrong with mannerism as such, but mannerism in the guise of hyper-realism — that doesn’t understand that it is a mannerism — tends to take itself very very seriously.
    Macy is a marvelous actor, and whatever his acting philosophy may be, however much of a throwback he may be, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s simple. His performance in Fargo, for example, is a physical and expressive marvel, one of the most convincing and (horrifyingly, pathetically) compelling performances I’ve ever seen, and he brings that character to life down to the smallest behavioral details. (In a Coen Brothers movie, too; and when modern directors are being accused of being mannered, you know the Coen Brothers are near the top of the list of the accused.)

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