When I was a kid, I asked my grandfather what his favourite music was and he gave me a puzzling answer. First, he groaned and huffed and shuffled his feet under his rocking chair, then he told me: “I don’t like the music you could get from tapes, it sounds dead to me.”
My grandfather didn’t like pre-recorded music?! My young mind felt like a cassette tape spitting its magnetized strip. What other kind of music was there? To me, music came from stored mediums, or from the radio.
A song was recorded because that was the scientifically ‘perfect’ form of the song, obviously, because that was what was decided to be the True Representation of that song. It bothered me to even listen to live versions of a song I knew because I couldn’t imagine why an artist would choose to change things in slight ways rather than keep everything exactly the way it was demonstrated to be best. It made sense.
Beyond my sister’s horrific violin recital, which certainly constituted something more like family-obligated torture – music wasn’t live. Music was a static, reliable, unchanging thing. Why would you screw that up with a fuzzy-logical sense of… “art”?
My recording-bias opinion stayed pretty much the same until I was in second-year at Trent University, when my musical world was rocked. A lone musician touring between Toronto and Ottawa was staying on my friend’s couch, and they threw an event while he was there. I didn’t know what a ‘House Concert’ would entail, but, like all the best events in life, I was unwillingly dragged there by a friend.
Turns out a House Concert amounted to Some Guy musician sitting on my friend’s couch with an acoustic guitar, and belting out songs about growing old, about his niece, and about a building on fire he once witnessed. I think I was sitting on a footstool, and the living room was crammed with people. It was the most amateurish arrangement my critical brain could imagine, but as I listened to Some Guy and his guitar, it sounded so amazing, so… “living”, that I quickly came to understand that I had misunderstood music.
As much as I love me some pre-recorded music, Neil Young will always cough during the same bar in “Heart of Gold”. Freddie Mercury will always sing into the very same note shapes, like his very own sing-a-long. My Graceland vinyl record will always skip in the same places.
Sure, a recording can be a wonderful document, but this house concert dethroned for me the notion that it was the epitome of music. It didn’t matter who Some Guy was, or how good his music was – it was the playing, it was the living of the music, that’s what shook me. I suppose I had to understand what a ‘living sound’ felt like before I could hear how ‘dead’ pre-recorded music can be.
Over the next few weeks, with fear flashing in front of my eyes, my shyness almost overwhelming, I summoned the courage to venture into downtown Peterborough to hear some live shows, and there, I discovered a whole new world of activity. It was noisy, it was flawed, it was crowded, it was smelly, and it was…glorious.
For the first time, I felt like I was part of some living musical organism. The older denizens of Peterborough often tell me that in this town in the 1970s, it cost $5 to get into a show and the beer was less than a dollar. Now, it still costs $5 to get into a show, and beer certainly isn’t less than a dollar.
Live music in Peterborough, I found, was as amazing as it was unappreciated. This isn’t just background noise. It isn’t just a performance. Live music is a real and living ritual in which you should be involved. It’s not perfect and that’s what’s great about it. Musicians don’t have to be perfect and they don’t have to be poor either. That’s just the choice we show-goers make when we Pay What We Can at the door.
I encourage you to support the live music in your community. I certainly feel like it’s changed me for the better and someday, when someone asks me what my favourite music is, I’ll be able to tell them how I feel now. I’ll remember my grandfather, and paraphrasing him a little, I’ll say: “I like music that people play when I’m in the same room. It sounds alive to me.”