Flawless Recording

It takes courage to record. 

Recording is a completely different animal from live performing. It is under far greater scrutiny than a live performance. An audience tends to give grace in a live performance for small mistakes, missed jumps, a blurred pedal…perhaps because they get wrapped up in the shared emotional experience; listeners seem to share a sort of sympathy with the artist. In a recording, that grace is considerably lessened: the listening audience expects perfect execution down to the slightest nuance. Why is this? 

Perhaps it’s because when we listen to a recording we have a machine between us, or in some cases, many machines. We are physically isolated from the artist. Because we lack the ability to see the performer while listening– we don’t share the same space or breathe the same air or even hear the same sound - we’re removed from the immediacy of music-making. In the absence of the artist’s presence, our expectations for perfection go up and patience goes down. It is a curious thing and it makes the recording process quite intimidating. As an artist you feel even more vulnerable and exposed when you attempt to permanently etch your music onto a recording than when you perform on a stage. At least on stage there is some distance between you and your listener, a cushion of space that insulates you a little. As well, the fleeting nature of the performance is in itself a grace, as the listener can only “replay” a memory rather than a slightly imperfect performance. Lastly, there is an expectation of give and take in a live performance as the artist gives music to the audience, the audience receives it and gives back an immediate response. In live theater this is particularly telling, as a “good” audience can give incredible energy to the performers which then shows itself in their performance. 

For my Commonplace Beauty recording, I was determined to present myself as you might hear me in one of my living room concerts: to try to achieve the feeling of an intimate performance space where the music is immediately accessible. If there are any illusions in my recording, it is the illusion I tried to create of my listeners being there with me in my living room; the illusion of the give and take, of us sitting together in the same room and enjoying music at the same time. This desire to present as “real” a picture of me and my playing as I could brought up a few questions. For one, would I encourage my sound engineer to add reverb in the mix to make my piano sound bigger or to make my living room sound like a concert hall, or would we aim for as “true” a sound as we could get? For another, how much editing in the form of cutting and pasting the best “takes” would I ask for? When I first began the recording process, I was surprised at how many extra-musical decisions were required.  

I wrestled with the idea of splicing together “the best of” Cori. Of course I would like to be heard at my peak, but showing only “the best of” feels a little fake to me, especially if it cannot be easily reproduced in a live setting. I admit that I have a double standard, as I also come to listen to recordings others have done with the expectation that they will be free from errors. I don’t want to hear mistakes over and over again, and truly they can be a distraction from immersing oneself in, and being able to enjoy, the music. With my own music, though, I wanted to produce a beautifully artistic album that was “me” at the piano with no illusions, no barriers; as transparent as an electronically produced album could be. To me this meant minimal splicing (In the end, I made only two “cuts”); instead I chose the best version of each piece, even though it meant leaving in a few mistakes. 

A few years ago a company, I think it was Dove, put on a marketing campaign that showed women as they were without makeup, flaws and all. Their aim was to show that beauty can be found in every woman. My goal in Commonplace Beauty was the same: to show the beauty of music presented by a humble artist not covered up by fancy hair and makeup. At the heart of it is not a desire to flaunt imperfections, but a desire to reveal what God is doing in me. He made me, gave me talent, and is working in me to accomplish His purposes for me. He is perfecting me. I will always do my part to make my performances as perfect as they can be, but ultimately perfection isn’t my goal; reflection is. To reflect Christ’s beauty and perfection in my playing is my ultimate goal, and I will do what I can to remove any barriers I can in my musical performances. 

That said, I don’t intend to demean any artist who has chosen to cut and paste. Vladimir Horowitz, a pianist I have tremendous respect for, agonized over many takes and did what he needed to cut and paste his best playing into what he deemed an acceptable recording – but he lived in a different time. 

There is tremendous pressure on artists in this technological age to present a flawless image. How you present yourself to others is at the forefront of our minds now. There is much pressure to conceal flaws. I think we need to counteract this by boldly presenting true pictures of ourselves; again, not flaunting mistakes or being lazy about our art, but revealing the reality of the process truthfully as we seek to create the most beautifully poetic and excellently executed performances of music, and indeed of any art. This was at the heart of my creation of Commonplace Beauty, to offer my music with as much truthfulness and excellence as I could in a single album, mistakes and all.

Leave a comment