The Other Spin-Doctors

Why should it ever be acceptable to pass off as live a recording that has been extensively altered?

Jessica Duchen

Some called it the operatic event of the TV era: the broadcast of Rigoletto from Mantua, where Verdi’s opera is set, with Plácido Domingo in the title role. It took place over the first weekend of September, but some of the team had been in Italy since June making preparations. Each act was painstakingly staged in the location appropriate to the story and at the right time — early evening, early afternoon and late night — while the orchestra and conductor were piped in from the local theatre. Crucially, each act was broadcast live. The logistics of it were unimaginable and the response was suitably massive: fans in 148 countries set their alarm clocks for the next act and Domingo gave one of the great performances of his life. 

It was the live filming that really made the difference. Without that, it would have been as beautiful and powerful; perhaps even more so-no moments of dodgy ensemble, for instance. But it seems there’s an extra buzz of excitement about live music, even live on TV, and it’s not just about how much can go wrong. That’s why so many musicians increasingly utter the platitude that they prefer live recordings to studio ones.

Try the other side of the coin, though. The whole point of recording used to be perfection. Glenn Gould regarded recording as an art form in itself. He withdrew from the concert platform and devoted himself to recording so that he could achieve musical results which satisfied him more deeply than any one-off performance could. 

Musicians and their producers have been editing recordings ever since the process was invented. Precisely because a recording is not live, perfection can seem within reach. In the hands of a visionary like Gould, who was upfront about what he wanted to achieve, that’s fine. And think of the giant pop bands and their recording engineers: would the Beatles have been the same without George Martin? Equally, Brian Eno was crucial to U2 and Quincy Jones to Michael Jackson. The best classical producers are actually among the finest artists in the industry.

But there comes a tipping point at which wool can start being pulled: it’s when companies start to pass things off as something they aren’t.

The case of Joyce Hatto, which exploded across the press early in 2007, was a sad business: ageing record producer makes small technical adjustments to other artists’ existing piano recordings to disguise them, then issues them as the work of his dying wife. He is believed, until his cover is blown by canny experts with clever machines. Musicians are shocked, critics are shamed; film, radio and TV writers queue up for the story. 

The implications of the Joyce Hatto affair were far-reaching, for it revealed that much of the industry, never mind the poor old public, can be easily duped. Pianists’ copyright was violated, critics had declared Hatto the greatest pianist we’d never heard of, and probably no one would have known the truth without the technology to test it. The only comfort was that so few discs had been sold that those whose intellectual property had been swiped hadn’t lost out too much. At that time, stories began to filter through that this was not the first time such things had happened, nor was it likely to be the last. 

Think of the industry’s heady days in the latish 20th century when recordings were being churned out by the shedload. Memories were conjured of a fictional conductor whose name (complete with bio) appeared on a sleeve: the recording was really someone else’s, repackaged for extra sales. Norman Lebrecht recently wrote that the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s top notes in Tristan und Isolde were dubbed in by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. And I’ve heard claims that at least one pianist’s recordings that are presented as live have in fact been through dozens if not hundreds of small 
edits.

There are ways now to take things even further. Shortly before the great Rigoletto event, the newspapers were full of rumblings about the use of the Auto-Tune machine on TV talent shows. This handy device has been around for well over a decade and has apparently been used in a variety of pop recordings. It can bend a note from a dodgy pitch to an accurate one. After a furore sprang up around an admission that The X-Factor used this to doctor early rounds of the show, reports said that Simon Cowell had banned it from future editions.

Where classical music is concerned, the problem could be one for the Trade Descriptions Act. Why should it ever be acceptable to pass off as live a recording that has been extensively doctored? When does live stop meaning live and start meaning — well, semi-dead? Perhaps when the high-profile chamber music ensemble performing at President Obama’s inauguration turned out to be merely miming to a recording they made earlier?

Maybe it’s time to get over the mystique of live recordings. It’s cheaper, remember, to record a concert than to book a studio, ship in your performers, pay them and fill up the tea urns. If there’s widely thought to be something magical about “live recording”, it is to everyone’s financial advantage, the price for the excitement of the “live” being a healthy and human smattering of wrong notes. By all means issue a concert recording and allow some editing — that is nothing to be ashamed of. Just don’t try to pass it off as something it is not. 

Recordings could be around for a long time. Will the music industry continue to dupe its customers? Nobody wants to bear ill-will towards music, but if an atmosphere is created in which we sense that an industry is treating its customers with contempt, regarding them as ignorant dolts, then ill-will there will be. The bottom lines should be obvious: talent isn’t talent if it can’t sing; a recording isn’t live if it has been extensively edited; and studio recording can legitimately be regarded as an art in its own right. 

It’s all about money. And maybe that’s why those who are interested in the art of music, rather than the commerce, are increasingly going to concerts rather than buying recordings. If the mendacity of the record industry has sent listeners scurrying back to genuine live music, maybe that’s no bad thing. Live should mean live.

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