Part of my resentment about the way recordings are made is that I feel bullied — by changing the way the music is made, someone is trying to change the way I listen. Which has made me even more reactionary in my tastes. I always found a romance in those old ’30s recordings of Billie, Basie, and Ellington, with their limited fidelity. But I think that’s tied in to how we experience music in our imagination — these old recordings take us to another time and place. It’s one of the reasons I don’t get much enjoyment from DVDs of musical performances. After the first glimpse of a man who’s been dead for decades, and whom I never saw in life — Coltrane, Monk — I want to go back to the audio recordings. Unless I’m seeing a great filmed narrative documentary, a video performance forces my attention on the screen when I’d rather let my imagination roam with the music in the air. So, too, I’m drawn these days to old classical recordings — the Busch Quartet with Rudolf Serkin (transferred from 78s made in the 30s), Walter Gieseking playing a broadcast performance of a Brahms intermezzo in 1933, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a live performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony from January 1945.
One of the things I like best about the Furtwängler Brahms is not just the performance — by turns elegiac and electric — but the audience’s coughing, which is quite pronounced during quiet passages. It’s evidence of the mortal human presence beyond the immortality of the music itself, connecting our time to theirs (Vienna, the final months of World War II).
You can hear that presence, too, on a new five-CD set, Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings: 1934–1959 (ESP-Disk) — the chatter and screams of live audiences in small clubs and big concert halls, when Billie was a hit maker. (Listen to those screams as she sings the opening phrase of “Fine and Mellow.”) On Remixed and Reimagined, Billie all but vanishes on the last few, house-heavy tracks. On a noisy “All of Me,” the beats and the synths fade for a few moments, applause and Billie’s voice fade in for nearly a verse, then Lester Young, before the beats rush in again. As the music fades under Eddie Heywood’s endlessly repeated sampled piano riff, there’s finally nothing but the crackle of surface noise — a signifier of something that actually happened once, somewhere.
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