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Singing into space

A Tweet from Mark Summers about a blog post of mine on the subject of  acoustic space turned out to be rather timely. Although in the post I seem to be reconciled to amplified sound I sometimes still find it very problematic. Last night I did Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun (with the incomparable  Claron McFadden and phenomenal Gavin Friday), and as has become the norm the performance was amplified. I had the same reservations about this as I’ve sometimes had when Alternative History has to do amplified performances in concert halls, and although I think the performance probably worked it was a struggle to get there, all day while trying to get the sound right and in the performance itself (which invariably feels different from the sound check). This is not to detract from the work of the sound guys, who are awesomely competent and very patient on these occasions, but it’s about the nature of vocal sound and technique, what you do with it and who ultimately controls it. As I’ve written many times before, part of the joy of almost all the singing I’ve done has been interacting with the acoustic (it was in the Hilliard Ensemble’s DNA). I’ve often said the building is your amplifier, but it’s more like a palette that enables you to mix your vocal colour. This sound painting makes each performance as unique as the building it happens in, and I’ve been fortunate to perform in some amazing spaces from huge cathedrals to factories and lava tubes.  The first thing that happens when you use a mic is that you’re no longer negotiating with the acoustic, but with a virtual sound world created by the guy (I’ve only ever encountered one female sound person) on the desk. So instantly a huge part of your reason for being a singer vanishes – all that nuance, the micro-adjustments that you make depending on what comes back at you, not the heart of your performance so much as its guts.  The second thing that happens is that you adjust your technique to the fact that you’re suddenly very loud, so one of the main pillars of your conventional technique, the need to project the sound into a space while shaping a phrase, becomes redundant. Of course, you are still negotiating an acoustic space, but it’s mediated by someone who’s trying to minimise the effect of the building you’re in and create an entirely different one (reverb units are calibrated according to the type of building you want, so your own attempts to influence the acoustic are doomed to failure). You no longer balance your sound with your fellow musicians, you get a feed from a stage monitor and someone else determines this crucial musical relationship (another of the great joys of performing) for you.   You’re somehow partially de-humanised from the very first note, before you even get to the actual music (and Nothing Like the Sun has some of the most beautiful Bryars moments in his entire output so you can see why it bothers me). It’s no wonder some of us tie ourselves up in knots when faced with a sound system. Do you relax your technique, stand back and hope for the best? Leave it to the guys on the desk, we’re always told, so your performance leaves your mouth and you have no idea what’s going to happen to it.  Of course, none of this applies to proper microphone singing, which is an art in itself (and I’ve done plenty of that too) and in Nothing Like the Sun listeners have the opportunity to experience microphone singing from Gavin Friday – an absolutely electric wielder of the mic – and two classically trained singers who are simply being amplified. I wonder what a Martian would make of it.

My other complaint about amplification is an aesthetic one: a live performance should be unique, ie different from any other performance. Sound systems create a kind of ideal soundscape in which everything is optimised as far as possible, so they tend to sound all very similar (and they’re almost all very loud). Very few musicians I know are expecting to give an ideal performance, just one of an infinite number of possible ones unique to the occasion. And as an audience member I don’t go to a concert hoping that it will sound just like a louder version of a ‘perfect’ CD recording – I want something special to that occasion, that building, those performers. It’s rather ironic that we can spend all day trying to get the concert sound as good as it is on your hi-fi, while in the studio we try to get everything down in one or two takes and make it as live as  possible.

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