Raw or refined?

October 4, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

As an aspiring amateur hack of a writer, one of the first lessons in getting words on paper was to just start typing. Let whatever was in my head flow onto the page without worrying about prose or form.

Just start writing. It is easier to clean up and rejigger than it is to populate the empty space.

If we use that same advice in the recording studio our mantra might be “fix it in post”. Get the raw musical emotions out of the performer and make it sound good later.

Only, that doesn’t seem to work too well if your goal is to capture live perfection.

Music seems a much harder challenge than writing.

I have spent the last ten years working on my trilogy, Eemians, and inch by inch, drip by drip, the work gets better.

Imagine the same amount of time and effort applied to making a musical offering sound natural and spontaneous. I know some musicians can pull it off in the studio (Todd Rundgren was famous for obsessing over his musical output—playing every part in the work over and over again until it sounded live).

But, try that live and on stage. Imagine the skill, talent, and years of practice required to perform live in a manner that makes it fresh, spontaneous, and from the heart, night after night.

It’s like the old adage: how many years of hard work does it take to become an overnight success?

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25 comments on “Raw or refined?”

  1. I hate to say it, Paul, but practise makes perfect. Classical musicians often start very young and world long hours daily to even have a chance. I remember reading a biography of Charlie Parker, who just locked himself away for years until he perfected his technique. They rarely just pick up a violin, start playing and see how it goes. The better they get, the harder and more disciplined they have to get. You can be the world’s greatest dancer, but you still have to do class with everyone else every morning, and that’s what happens at every dance company. If any performer takes a performance for granted, they should stop performing. Dance is extremely high-risk, very physical and all about the performance on the night. I have no preconceptions about how much effort is required.

  2. I can equate these certain modes of dedication to being like a professional athlete. You always need to practice and be dedicated. You simply can’t loose enthusiasm or think of it as a job. You just have to truly love it. Of course, you can look at people in the music industry and see this. We know who has the passion and who has the drive. 🙂

    1. I think Paul’s idea of music is a bit narrow. Many types of performance include improvisation, such as jazz, dance (for example Kathak), even theatre. It may “sound natural and spontaneous” because it is. The fundamental problem with recordings is that people like to polish them to perfection, but want then to seem spontaneous as well. This is a fundamental contradiction.

      The whole point about live performances is that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen, and there will certainly be mistakes. I’ve never found recordings ever got anything close to “real”, I just think that’s a fallacy. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy listening to music at home.

      1. SNTBCWS… did you write this comment extemporaneously? I wish I could verbally expound what you just wrote word-for-word.

        Thanks for writing such a Spot On explanation of your perspective regarding this issue. It was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me.

        You just made my day!

        1. I just saw a DHL commercial on my iPad featuring Coldplay. The backdrop was one of their tours 5 or 6 years ago. We went to the show in London. It was a great live show – perhaps 70,000 people. I also like their studio albums, but they are a completely different musical animal. We also went to a 50% Coldplay (Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland) acoustic set in a church somewhere, 300 people, also completely different. It was totally improvised, it was a charity gig and they’d promised to attend, but had to do a BBC chat show that evening and got there when they could (why it was acoustic). It was fantastic because it was very spontaneous, they took requests and were constantly chatting with a woman upstairs in the audience.

          I don’t know who Todd Rundgren is, but I don’t know what makes a studio performance sound “live”. I’ve been to concerts recorded and released, some sound a bit like they did in the audience (Ibragimova Beethoven Sonatas live at Wigmore Hall), others utterly unrecognisable (Mavis Staples Live in London – at Union Chapel, Islington).

          When Paul talks about perfection I rarely have any idea what he’s talking about.

          1. Hope Paul is referring to figurative perfection and not literal perfection as that term does not really exist.

            “True perfection seems imperfect, yet it is perfectly itself“

            1. I don’t know what he means. I like the transient nature of these things, you go to a great performance, it moves you emotionally, and it’s ever to be repeated. Each performance is unique. I’d much rather spend $300 on a couple of tickets than $30 on a download I can listen to 10 times.

              1. Living in south Florida is much more difficult to find really great jazz but it happens occasionally.

                I have so many stories like you do mainly regarding jazz, one of which was Al Jarreau at Avery Fisher Hall. No one knew that his father had passed away the night before his performance but he came out and blew the audience right out of the space. When I left and was walking out of the theater area I could not feel my feet touching the ground. Al’s incredible vocal abilities (he was coined ‘the man with the orchestra in his throat’) can move an entire audience to feel an indescribable elation.

                Nevertheless, I still love to listen to music at home. Brings back great memories.

    2. Most of us born with abilities and deficiency. It is usually best if you try to excel at an ability you are born with. Some deficiencies you cannot overcome. An example of this is world class sprinters. World class sprinters are born as opposed to being made by hours of practice. The problem for many is they look at a world class sprinter and think to themselves that they could easily do the same thing if they had been born with the right body. That is WRONG. If they had been born with the right body then they could be a world class sprinter if they were totally dedicated to the sport and practiced like crazy.

  3. Ar, at least a mention of the ‘Eemians’…
    … having read the first few chapters kindly proffered in a pdf I’ve been patiently waiting. I understand it took Tolkien 17 years to write Lord of the Rings, so hoping Paul and I will still be around for its release…
    … from the first chapters it seems extremely well refined, which is what I expected 🙂

  4. I still think musicians have a certain percentage of gift and the rest is learned & practiced skill. It is those ratios that vary. As kids, I learned piano and my best friend Ian took up guitar. Like my dad, I was quick to mimic or invent chord arrangements but was never much at soloing. I could figure out the latest Elton John, Cat Stevens or Supertramp song in no time, but once I figured it out, I had no desire to ever play it again. I’m still like that. Composing or improvising stuff was more enjoyable. But I never applied practice enough and was always a bit sloppy. Personal lone playing is all I ever do. Enjoyable, but I never did get all that good.
    Now Ian played in bands making it to the level of Bruce Allen’s third highest highest ranking & earning act in the west coast bar band scene in the 80s.
    Ian was adopted and his folks were clean cut all round decent folk. And by all rights perfect parents. Dad was an engineer, mom was a nurse. No music other than their Roger Whitaker LPs. The were the Cleavers. But a bit more square. They (kind of) supported but never really accepted or cared for Ian’s rock & roll life or understood his absolute need to pursue it. And they would have been devastated if they ever learned of Ian’s fondness for the electric lettuce… In his 30s, Ian looked up and connected with his birth parents. They are still together, pot smokin 60s ex-hippies, his dad is a guitar player, mom is a vocalist in a choir, one brother plays drums in a local band and the other is a professional jazz bassist. And Ian did get to play and smoke a few together with his real father. You just can’t write believable fiction like that. The apple and the tree…

    So, nurture or nature…?

  5. I have completed a 315-page non-fiction book. It took many years of research, a couple of years of writing and then another year of editing. During the writing I found that what read well at first did not read so well after taking a break and coming back and reading it again later. Extensive edits and wordsmithing were called for. Also, the sequence of ideas and emphases in the book changed as the work progressed. The cover, the final text formatting, choice of font, editing and indexing were painfully tedious, but critical to the reader’s overall impression. It wasn’t a “sit down and just let the words flow” type of book. In scientific, theological and historical works, the accuracy of every word and phrase matters. The introduction and the conclusion were the most difficult sections to write. When comparing the difficulty of composing music or writing a book, much depends on the skill and inspiration of the composer or writer, the amount of training or research required, the degree of innovation and the length and complexity of the compositions. One cannot assume one is more difficult than the other without considering all factors. When it comes to books and poetry, “refined” is definately better than “raw.”

    A good example is the posts in this forum. It’s mostly “raw.” They result in miscommunications, misinterpretations and often confusion. If the posters took more time to compose their thoughts, review them for accuracy and logic, and refine them, they would communicate better. But the edit clock is ticking, even now as I am typing this! LOL

    1. I agree. Which is one of the reasons I tend to compose and edit my posts and responses in a word processor, and when I think the piece makes sense and is easily understood (or difficult to misunderstand), it’s ready for publication. At that point I copy and paste it to the forum.

  6. Our Melbourne Audio Club members get together in members homes for a concert.
    Many times the tracks most enjoyed have been recorded live in front of an audience. There is a frisson due to the pressure of only one chance to do your best.

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