Glenn Gould was a prodigiously talented pianist and considered the best interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations of any era. Thanks to – or because of -his prolific, varied performances (concerts, radio, television, film) he became better known more for his on-stage idiosyncrasies than for his music. Nevertheless for those who knew and understood music, Gould remained a genius.
Despite sell-out audiences in New York, Los Angeles, and London, Gould abruptly left the concert stage at 31 and turned his attention entirely to recording.
He felt that performing distorted his music. No matter how hard he tried to block everything – the hall, the lighting, and most importantly the audience – he was unwillingly but irresistibly influenced by them. His music was less his alone than a product of his environment. A studio would allow him to control every aspect of his music. He could play, replay, edit, and re-edit until he had gotten the phrasing, tonality, richness, and precision that he wanted. The final product would be his and his alone.
Indian music is as complex, fascinating, and intriguing as anything in the West, but is based on an entirely different tradition. Although following the same tonal structure as the West, it has no written score; and although based on classical themes (ragas), it is as improvisational as jazz.
Perhaps most importantly, the musical tradition demands interaction with the environment. There are ragas for the morning and evening and for different seasons, and the artist is expected to pick up on the subtleties of the day and the hour – the light, the air, the rain - and reflect them in his playing.
The artist’s rendition of a particular raga will depend not only on its formal structure, but how he feels; and even more importantly how the audience feels. There is a give-and-take in Indian classical music performances that are unheard of in the West. Audiences vocalize, clap, and shout at particularly moving passages, and the artist, sensitive and attentive to this emotion, translates it into his playing.
So, is the music of an Indian concert performance any more real than the meticulously crafted recordings of Glenn Gould?
A lot has been made of singers who lip-synch their renditions ‘sung’ at important events. Beyoncé admitted to lip-synching at President Obama’s inauguration. Mariah Carey was booed on Times Square for her lip-synching at this year’s New Year’s Eve (2016-17) event. Her ‘fake’ rendition of one of her most popular songs was exposed because of a technical snafu. The reaction was predictable although perplexing.
Mariah Carey's appalling New Year's Eve performance is just one more example of a star treating their audience with disdain. It's time to push back (The Sydney Morning Herald)
What exactly is wrong with a performer lip-synching her music, arranged by her, and recorded by her in the manner of Glenn Gould. Beyoncé wanted a perfect performance and to leave nothing to chance. Why shouldn’t she lip-synch? Those who saw her live had no idea she was not actually singing for her stage presence, her delivery, and her very emotional presentation were all authentically her.
Auguste Rodin made bronze casts for his sculptures, but assured that only a limited number of each would be made. He understood how flooding the market with ‘reproductions’ would lower the value of his art. On the other hand, when viewers see The Kiss, are the seeing the original or a copy? Those artisans who reproduced Rodin’s work used the same materials and the same technique as the artist when he cast his original; so in a sense they were producing originals not reproductions.
More importantly, does it matter?
To some, it does; and the only way to experience Rodin is to view the one and only first edition of his works – the sculptures that he cast from his bronze. To others, it is the beauty of his vision that counts; and each and every cast reproduction reflects it.
What about carefully-done, accurate reproductions of Rodin’s work? That is copies not made from his bronze casts but produced in a modern factory using computer imaging and laser technology. They are certainly far from the ‘original’ but state-of-the-art technology has made reproductions virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing.
To some music lovers the value of the live performance has as much to do with risk as it does with artistry. No one wants Gould to miss a note or Beyoncé to miss a cue; but that is what makes concerts so exciting. Not only human brilliance but also human failure is there for all to see.
Others understand – as Glenn Gould did – that environment affects performance. Although Gould believed it destroyed his personal, artistic vision, most concert-goers feel that it adds subtlety and dimension. A lip-synched performance by Beyoncé could never possibly have the emotional charge of a live performance. Audiences pay for a real, spontaneous, immediate, interactive performance, not something engineered and constructed.
This of course demeans the artistry of Beyoncé. She does feel the power of her verses because she wrote them. She may not alter her phrasing during the lip-synching performance, but her body-language, her expressions, her energy, all reflect the moment. A consummate artist like Beyoncé does not need to use her vocal chords to produce a chilling, moving rendition of her songs. In fact, as in the case of Glenn Gould, ‘really’ singing might take away from the power and emotion of the moment.
The flap about lip-synching is no mere distraction for People Magazine. In this age of virtual reality where the virtual is indistinguishable from the ‘real’, questions about validity, value, and experience have been legitimately raised. If there is absolutely no difference between a virtually-generated image of a lion on the African veldt and the real thing; and through virtuality the observer can actually be there on the savannah with the lions, why would anyone choose the ‘real thing’, watching through binoculars from a Land Rover.
Of course in this interregnum between reality and virtuality rules, Beyoncé wants it both ways. She has no problem with lip-synching at the Inauguration, but she refuses any photoshopping of her images. She wants the public to see her as she really is, not some publicist’s version of her full-bodied, heavy-booty self.
This is all to say that we are all going through a difficult transition, trying to sort out fact from fiction, reality from virtuality, and the relative value of both.
One thing is clear – the perception of truth, fact, and reality is undergoing a radical change. It is becoming so difficult to sort out the real from the staged, the objective from the subjective, opinion from conclusion that many of us have simply given up. In the end, who cares? The proof is not in the pudding but in the perception of the pudding.