An unfinished record of what cannot be recorded

Notes on live recordings and liveness and living archives

Ornette Coleman went to his doctor asking to be castrated — soon after the request he’s back on stage with his double quartet playing his composition “Lonely Woman,” having settled for circumcision.   

The cutting off that record keeping demands, violent amputations of anything too human like error or murmur or glare or bend, means that studio recordings are pretty lies, dreams, too groomed for the wild. 

Live recordings however, gilded by adrenaline and the hermetic artist forced into entertainment in the service of her craft, are also cut and snapped and switch boarded toward the narrative and sound that sells best; they emerge antiseptic even at their most frenzied. 

Audience makes the true distinction between live and studio recordings. Spectators cheering, clearing throats, being attentive, being obnoxious, needy, entitled, grateful, belligerent, doting, aloof, there, requesting encores, walking out in offense or rapture. Spectators- for-leisure are different from managers, bandmates, sound engineers and groupies huddled in a soundproof room praying to catch a perfect replica of what happens. 

So-called albums as objects are mummies of the songs they comprise, and live performances of that same music before a living, breathing audience revivify the music and steal it back from the crypt of enterprise. And then we castrate those events and mummify them with recordings in order to listen to what it was like to come back to life. 

What is it like to come back to life with and inside of and through song? Can these resurrections be vicarious? Can another body bring yours back through its movement? What kind of ceremonial ritual sacrifice and cleansing does this style of comeback imply. What are the limits of this tendency to reanimate ourselves through one another that we call love or listening or song? 

And then there are the spectacular liars, performers who create a world on stage that is so distant from their daily reality that we become engrossed together, the audience and the musicians collectively improvising a fantasy. Ike and Tina, or James Brown or George Clinton or Sun Ra, or Fela are our best known examples; they all exist in this realm where the living myth exceeds any discussion of the acoustic conditions and the recording of the live performance is akin to making a film or capturing a fantasy as it’s happening. And the fantasy needs constant reinvention because objectifying it as a live performance that will be documented and sealed, steals all of its radical potential as a sudden mythic forest. 

The mutual escapism of the grand spectacle in opposition to and collusion with the shared intimacy of the quiet and deeply focused concert hall, like the one wherein Nina Simone has just hushed the crowd’s nagging whispers to better hear herself play piano accompaniment as she sings “Feelings” nothing more than feelings— these two opposing experiences make up the best that music that is called live has to offer. Anything in between these poles is din, static, or the mediocre chaos of a good effort to get to the spectacular or the deeply intimate. The failures are silly but make for decent recreation. The real thing, shows that are deep and never ending in their reverberations, are so transformative it’s terrifying to attend them and terrifying to look away. 

Do people prefer to be entertained or healed or distracted when they join a live concert audience and does that intention going in depend on the performer? Do people attend live shows out of habit, or out of the need for evidence that they were somewhere, alibis to abide. Will the circle be unbroken or see-saw until everything that we tried to cut and keep outside of the club and the sound makes up the current it needs and rides? 

Showmanship and non-performance possess a common temperament in that they both attempt to deflect the spectator, one through being larger than life and the other through performative detachment. What we call ‘the black aesthetic’ is a tonal language staged by and hidden from its most proficient speakers through one of these modes: either hyper-available or so exclusive it temps like forbidden fruit. 

Beyoncé is the greatest living performer. Her Homecoming performance at Coachella, 2018 transported all of us into the world of an HBCU and was the best pitch for historically black colleges since Debbie Allen’s 90s sitcom A Different World. Homecoming turned a mega-festival with a slumping and redundant influencer/ sell-out energy into a temple of awe and reverence that its trendy thirsty attendees didn’t even really deserve. Beyoncé is such a great live performer that most audiences fail to earn her. She creates a surplus of energy that is usually funneled back into worship so that her Coachella events felt like getting a new religion, everyone who watched was saved. And then doomed because nothing can top that extent of the black spectacular. 

Nina Simone is one of the best performers of all time in an opposing direction. Her shows aren’t as choreographed as Beyoncé’s, but she improvises sanctuaries whenever she takes the stage. Nina’s version of “Suzanne” , a story-song by Leonard Cohen about a wild and free spirited woman who seduces a frigid admirer, performed live at Amherst College in the summer of 1969, makes it clear that the song is as much her’s as Cohen’s. She becomes “Suzanne” and like its lyrics she gets you on her wavelength and lets the river answer. The romantic grain of the frail video footage adds a wistful drama to it all:  pink-hued stage lights as Nina wears the all black and low afro of late-1960s revolutionary dreams and tremble-steps and stomps and lilts to the song’s mission, to get us to be more like Suzanne, leaning out for love. Nina is at a college performing for mostly black students, while Beyoncé pretends to be a part of a college marching band for festival goers who paid hundreds of dollars a ticket and are drunken and drugged into an even deeper trance than the music itself engenders. Is one performance more meaningful than the other for its intimacy, or do they both generate and discard meaning from the performers, making context and audience mere accessories? 

Gil Scott Heron’s “Angel Dust” Live is a long, regretful, lustful lament about addiction.Live confession is part of recovery. Sometimes refusing to recover is the truest confession. Here is the damage I don’t want to heal, because it sustains me, some declare defiantly. Here is how I want to be ruined by my own obsessions. Here is my narcissism masquerading as self-sabotage. Heron’s live version is twenty three minutes long, mimicking the excess of near overdose as it lets the cautionary tale veer and hover and meander between denouncing the drug and being under its influence. This is how long the song needs to be to get from one side of addiction to the other, but this stretched out version could never come from a studio. Gil needs the audience there, he is testifying to them in a way that being in a room with the band and managers would never inspire. Live performance is generative when the performers know how to improvise. And it’s important to know how to improvise so it’s important to perform live, put oneself on the spot, start out singing about a habit and find yourself screaming and sweating through withdrawals on stage a half an hour later. 

Prince and Michael Jackson, both left for dead on stage, addicted to pain killers because of the toll strenuous live performance took on their bodies and souls. 

Every great jazz musician can play the sound they are hearing as it comes to mind. This is the ultimate live music, recalling itself on the spot, invented at the moment you hear it, contingent upon audience and context and also hostile to their tendency to want the familiar sing-along music. 

Cecil Taylor witnessing Billie Holiday 

Here I want to transcribe a conversation as live performance. Cecil Taylor is in his nightshirt backstage recounting the time he snuck into a New York club at twelve years old to see Billie Holiday sing. Young Cecil Taylor in awe, discovering the emancipatory femininity that oozed off of Billie’s aura and voice before he conjured his own creative freedoms.

So I walked down the hall; you had to turn left. And I said to Howard: what is that music? Billie Holiday, boy. So I told dad, I’m gonna go to see her. He said, no son of mine will ever go see her. However, he gave me the money, I’m twelve years old. And in those days in front of the clubs on 52nd street… tall black man, gold lapel, gold hat. And this man looked at me and said, kid, where do  you think you’re going? Now, what I said to them, I was lucky, because I remember mother’s … and he looked at me and he laughed, and he said young man, follow me. He took me to the end of the bar and he told the bar man, you bring this young gentleman, any soda.

When Billie Holiday walked out on that stage the first thing you saw was that gardenia. She’s dressed all in white, the gloves come up to here. Lofty manner. When she started singing, this arm did this, and that left leg dipped. And I said: where the fuck am I? And the next day at home I said, what that woman did to me, if EVER grow up, that’s what I’d like to do to an audience.