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Some Thoughts on Jeremy Denk’s “Flight of the Concord”

There is a fantastic feature on the emotional and existential challenges of recording classical music in the February 6th issue of The New Yorker (you will need a paid subscription to read it). The author is Jeremy Denk, pianist and über-gifted music writer, who recounts his trials confronting Ives’ Concord Sonata in the recording studio.
Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of what I consider one of the finest pieces of writing about music I’ve come across in recent times (I am not alone in this assessment), I thought I would use Denk’s essay as a platform for some of my own musings about recording. (Hint: If you decide to read the New Yorker essay, you will find much of what follows articulated in a more elegant and articulate way).

First, a basic yet dangerous dichotomy. Recording creates commodities that are meant to be sold, or, in the alternative, post-Napster music industry we live in, to help performers generate revenue through booking better gigs, securing academic positions, and so forth. On the flipside, recordings are also documents of who we are as performers at any given time—a snapshot of sorts, a frozen moment in the life of an artist. These two elements are intrinsically at odds—the commodity side implies some kind of permanence (see for instance the listener’s quest for a “definitive” interpretation), while the documentary nature of the process necessarily hints at the transitory and ephemeral.

The other “problem” with recordings lies in the technical/technological realm. I have yet to meet a classical recording artist who would deny their extensive reliance on editing. As artists take advantage of the possibility to produce an immaculate (if doctored) performance, contemporary audiences have also come to expect the same level of “perfection” from live performances (often because they are blissfully unaware of how much editing has been done in the process). In a sort of vicious circle, performers end up taking fewer chances on stage, aiming for a technically sound rendition rather than an interpretively adventurous one.

Denk touches on both of these points and then some, but my favorite part of the piece was his analysis of what went through his mind during the actual process of recording. In my own (much more limited) experience, I have encountered some of the same feelings—the alienation when confronted with a familiar passage that has suddenly and inexplicably become elusive; the maddening efforts to replicate an “almost perfect” take; the voice in my head quipping that every tiny interpretive choice I am making is being documented and engraved in secula seculorum, Amen.

All of these inner difficulties make the recording process a completely different ball game than live performance—and perhaps one for which traditional musical education does not really prepare us.

At the end of the essay, Denk paints a picture of himself, secretly (and perhaps ashamedly) listening to the finished recording. I have found it can be extremely difficult to silence the inner critic and just enjoy the playback of the little bit of noise that I made. Beyond the mere production of a commodity or the safekeeping of a historical moment, recording is a privilege—it holds the possibility to create and curate something to be cherished as well as shared. All of the narcissism and self-doubt notwithstanding, it remains a worthwhile endeavor not just from a pragmatic and professional standpoint, but also from an artistic and emotional one.

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