MUSIC: Music That Can Never Be Recorded by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Music That Can Never Be Recorded by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I recall a cartoon I saw nearly forty years ago.  A youngster is listening to a symphony orchestra in a concert hall and turns to his parents to observe: “It’s just like stereophonic sound.”  Recorded music had preceded the experience of the real thing.  It was a prophetic cartoon, picturing what has become the case for a new generation: technology defines reality and frames our understanding and expectations.

But there is also a certain dissonance between the cartoon and our current situation.  Back in the 1970s, when the cartoon appeared, audio technology focused on reproducing as closely as possible the sound of instruments spread across a stage, giving us a sense of their placement in the orchestra and providing in “high fidelity” the timbre of their blended voices.  I recall how I kept trading up my speaker systems, seeking through higher-quality “woofers” and “tweeters” a sound ever closer to the original.  Now all of this has changed.  Our new electronic devices make music more available than ever before, but they also have radically altered the quality of reproduced sound and the nature of our listening.

Consider, for example, the difference between listening to music on an iPod and listening to music on a stereophonic high-fidelity system.  On the iPod you listen as an individual, confined to the space between your ears, but with the stereo friends can listen together.  And what a difference in the quality of the sound!  We have gone from high fidelity to a low approximation of the richly nuanced sound of live instruments and voices.

I once saw a newspaper article that discussed how people have come to accept the degraded quality of musical reproduction in exchange for its easy accessibility.  I can personally attest to this.  Years ago, if a church musician asked me to preach on a major choral work, I purchased a recording of it and listened to it on my stereo.  But now when I am asked to preach on a work I do not know, I get online, go to Naxos, and listen to the piece through the micro-speaker of my computer.  I get an idea of the music: the melodies, the dissonance, the harmony, the rhythm.  They are all there but in such a reduced way.  A mighty chorus of voices sounds like squealing mice, and a cathedral organ sounds like a band of tin whistles.  Listen to “St. Anne’s Fugue” on your iPod or computer and then go with your musical colleagues and other organ lovers to hear the same piece in a recital in a great stone church with rich reverberation.  The sound bounces off the walls and floor; it sets the fibers of the wooden pew you are sitting on vibrating so that your own body is filled with the vibration; and you have an awareness that you live and move and have your being in the sound and through the sound and with the sound, along with everyone else who is listening.  You are connected to all of them by the breath of the blower and by tone and timbre and rhythm and energy.  The music is making you more fully human by reaching into the wholeness of your being as a bodily creature and by helping you to live your communal identity as a member of a group of interconnected listeners.  This is the music that can never be recorded.  A semblance of it can be reproduced, but it will be be the same music.  It will not be the music that reaches to the very depth of our physical and spiritual being.  To lose touch with the music that can never be recorded is to lose touch with what the ancients called the music of the spheres.  It is the music of the soul, the music of the spirit, the music of our creaturehood; and it is the music we keep alive through live performance.  It is a holy and gracious thing to do.

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