Alone this morning, I was eating my breakfast to the music of Keith Jarratt in a recording of his Köln concerts from 1975. At the end, I listened at least as attentively to the applause.
That the recording producers included the several minutes of applause pointed up the contribution of an audience to a concert. This particular audience began, as the music ended, with the usual random clapping that built in a kind of crescendo, then transformed into a synchrony for a time, finally ending in a long, tapering sound of individuals merging their enthusiasm in white noise, a fading afterglow of emotional experience.
A performer has to be moved by such appreciation expressed by his audience. He had just completed his improvised concert, ending it as the music itself called for its own conclusion. In his heart and his fingers, the expression was complete. Whether or not he was anticipating the audience response, he had done his part. The afterglow was his heartbeat, gradually returning to quiet.
In my recording library I have thousands of tracks, pieces of music I’ve accumulated over the years, Many of the pieces (mostly but not all classical) I know by heart, and in my head I’m singing along with them as they play in the seclusion of my home. Mostly these days, I play my music when I’m alone; for some reason I hear it better without other people present, unless I’m intentionally sharing something with someone who I’m confident will listen, and get it just as I do. (Music played for atmosphere in a social occasion is different.)
Attending a live concert is another thing altogether. I’d much rather share that experience with someone I care for. To hear live music alone, I’m simply another pair of ears (and hands) in an anonymous crowd. I can participate in the experience of performance and audience, but it lacks the intimate welling of shared emotion that seems to need, like sex, another tuned-in soul.
Still, the experience of listening to a particular recorded concert such as Keith Jarratt’s Köln performance, or the memorial tribute to George Harrison, “Concert for George” in 2002, even in recording, is emotionally distinct from studio recordings. One can visualize the presence of an audience even if it’s only a sound recording. One of my favorites from many years ago is Wes Montgomery, playing with the Wynton Kelly Trio at the Half Note Club in New York. The live nightclub ambiance takes me there, where I can visualize the room and the player-audience relationship. I have a studio album of Roberta Flack that cries out for the same ambiance, for she began her career in the music world playing at Mr. Henry's Restaurant, on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, and her voice simply fits that kind of environment.
A more recent artist, Eva Cassidy, who reminds me of Roberta Flack, also began her career in clubs in D.C. I’m lucky to have a live album of her at Blues Alley in 1996, shortly before her death.
For some music that I grew up with listening to recordings, I don’t miss the sounds of the audience. I’m not sure how I would react to Rachmaninov or Sibelius in a live recording. They are simply too familiar to me. Of course, I’d jump at the chance to hear them at Hill Auditorium, even in performances by the University Philharmonic. The acoustics in my living room don’t compare with those in such a hall. And I’d stand and shout “Bravo!” along with everyone else at the end.
I'm grateful that my hearing loss affects music less than speech; even though I lose the high notes from a violin, for example, my brain seems to fill in the missing vibrations.
Music is not just music. A live concert or a polished studio recording makes a difference, but whatever the genre, it’s a gut experience that’s up there near the top of my life experiences.