If you're going to muck it up, do it properly
Updated: Apr 22
A musician friend of mine observed that, musically speaking, I take a lot of risks when I’m performing. If I come up with a phrase or an idea, I tend to try to actually play it regardless of how difficult I know it's going to be and whether I consider it within the limits of my ability. Whether my dexterity stretches to facilitate an accurate rendition of the phrase in my head is another matter, and practise time, sleep quality over the last week and all sorts of intricacies of life affect how well I play. Including the weather, in fact: Raynaud’s makes fiddly passages tricky if the ambient temperature is ever below 16 degrees. Which, in Britain, of course, it is. As you can imagine, I regularly hit a lot of wrong notes.
To me, though, this presents a range of further possibilities: how creative do I need to be in the next phrase to cover up the mistake? And on it goes, perpetuating itself until my most elaborate performances are probably just a cascade of cover-ups around a chord pattern that exists only in my head.
Needless to say, this had always made any attempt at a proper recording somewhat difficult. A noticeable mistake at a gig is forgivable as long as you don’t make too many more of them in the same evening. A mistake in a recording indelibly burnt onto a CD is more than an annoyance. If you can’t even be bothered to put out a record without obvious mistakes on it, doesn’t that say something about how little you care for your music and your audience?
There is another approach. I could try to play my composition the same way every time, practise every detail, run through the piece for a whole week and record it at the end of day seven, when it’s buffed up, polished and gleaming like the Queen’s favourite soup tureen. But there are three reasons why I don’t do this. Let's get it out of the way: the third reason is that I can’t be bothered. The other two are more complex.
The studio recording is often supposed to be the definitive version of a song. That’s not the full sentence, because the full sentence is much longer and ends with “...that can be created within a time frame and a budget” (where, for most of us, a bigger budget simply allows the finished product to belie the limits of said budget). This process puts the song first: a particular chord progression, melody and structure, so immaculately set down to a perfection that would be impossible without the ability to re-record and edit each instrument at each moment.
However, I would argue that no song is really good enough to match a live performance of the song. A live performance, as the cliché crumbles, is about one moment in time which will never exist again. To this end, a recording of a live performance seems slightly dishonest. But happily, since we also know that "art is a lie that conveys the truth", we might as well go all in and follow this rather esoteric line of inquisitiveness to its destination.
There's music, and there's a music performance. There's a repertoire, and there's a concert. There's a song, but that song doesn't mean anything without interpretation. Since music can only be heard, you can't have a musical composition in the abstract without an honest rendition that exists in time*, and practise aiming towards perfection is not about mastering the music itself, but about using the music to express truth in ever greater honesty. Each performance (and, indeed, each listening) is subtly and richly different and helps to fill in another aporia in whatever meaning the composition has in itself. Hence, as lies go, a perfect, manufactured, edited and refined studio recording is a bit of a whopper.
You have to be a very, very good songwriter or composer to create music of such uniqueness and unpredictability and specialness that the composition itself outshines the performance. It's usually the idiosyncrasies of the performers, even on an album, that makes the song memorable, but only occasionally do you think, “It’s a good song, but the performance isn’t really up to it”. Studio recordings that use minimal post-production to enhance a great natural performance are usually the best.
This explains my first and second reasons: that I see my compositions as the face that the painting is based on, so to speak, and that I am not trying to replicate the face itself, but an expression. Yes, sometimes it does appear like a portrait of the facial expression of someone who is a bit lost, or has found that banana in their bag that they forgot about. Or shortly after they’ve walked into a lamp post. But usually it’s my deliberate attempt to capture something I've just thought of in the context of the piece.
As for the recording itself, it often takes as much time to edit mistakes out, or to splice bits of different versions together, as it does to just enjoy playing it all again, but slightly differently, and perhaps more cautiously. It’s frustrating after the sixth take and you’re thirty minutes into recording a piece that’s only four minutes long, but the session is also a rehearsal with the opportunity to listen back each time and learn more about your own technique.
If you practise all your music at the limits of your current ability, you push the false ceiling of your ability upwards, or at least touch up the paint on it. If you assume that the first ten takes are to bin off, you can have a lot more fun and a lot more freedom. You can then record your more cautious performance. The chances are, though, one of those ten practice takes will be the version you use for the CD. It will inevitably have some mistakes in it, and some of the wrong notes and mis-timings will be quite fun. They will inspire more ideas, and make the music more interesting. So again, in a Derrida-esque sort of way, each performance helps you to understand the music less, not more, because of all the ways you could have played it instead, intentionally or (since even wrong notes have musical significance), accidentally.
I had always avoided recording my music because I couldn’t play it properly. It turns out that I’ve not been playing it properly in quite the wrong way. My performances were too cautious, which made the wrong notes stand out, and I didn’t know what to do with them. Now, by regularly practising and performing bits that are really hard to play, I can not only make performances more interesting, but learn about improvisation as I’m playing. Another effect of this is that my cautious performances tend to be increasingly accurate.
Since March, for the first time, I have begun to record my compositions, as well as composing and recording a piece every week for my new Patreon. I am now recording at least a dozen pieces a month, which I never would have believed possible when pursuing a different, dishonest perfection. Please do enjoy the mistakes.
* Music can be imagined, of course, but it's difficult to experience it accurately in time.