Monday, January 21, 2013
Authenticity: Don't Worry About It
This morning I listened to Marc Maron interview Dave Grohl, lately of the Foo Fighters and formerly of Nirvana. I love Marc's WTF podcast, and I'm a fan of Nirvana. It was interesting to hear some of the history behind music recording and how it's changed and all that.
Occasionally, though, this talk wandered dangerously close to You Kids With Your Computers And Your ProTools You Can't Really Make Music With Integrity.
Dave Grohl recently helped make a documentary about a recording studio. Featuring prominently in that movie is a handmade analogue mixing console that was used to create the album Nevermind.
I'm perfectly willing to believe that this was an amazing machine, unlike its counterparts, that helped make the album sound as it did. But there's also a vague suggestion burbling in there that to have authenticity and integrity in music you need to avoid technology, and that authenticity and integrity in general require staying close to the original versions of things.
That's a funny argument to make if you're involved in a rock band. Because obviously, you're already a million miles away from the original versions of things. I mean, according to that logic, all music should be unplugged and unrecorded.
It's weird to say, the technology my youth: good! The technology of today: bad!
There's a funny moment exemplifying this point when Dave Grohl is talking about how these days kids just do a take or two, and then they move on, figuring anything can be cleaned up with the software. He describes how, back in the day, he once worked with a producer who made him do forty takes of the same part of something before getting one that he thought was right.
Fine -- but it also doesn't really make sense. I mean, the whole idea of forty takes of the same part of something -- if you were coming at this from the point of view before recording devices, and you had the idea that authenticity and integrity required keeping it close to the source, well clearly the forty takes would be exactly the sort of thing you'd find abominable. Forty takes!
I've never bought into this particular form of authenticity or integrity at all. I mean, yes, there's something cool about doing things absent technological intervention. But then there's something cool about technology that allows you do to anything. They're just cool in different ways. If you program your computer to move some hammers inside a piano to play Beethoven just exactly how you want it to sound, that's not "playing the piano," exactly, but it is representing something honest and real about your musical judgments: it's representing what's in your head, without dependence on your particular hands and your particular nervous system. The second one isn't any less human than the first -- in some ways it's more human, because everything comes from someone's mind and not from the contingencies of certain hands or certain machines.
In my opinion, what makes for certain kinds of greatness isn't authenticity, but constraints. It doesn't matter what the constraints are: they can come from anywhere. But there's something about having to work within some set of boundaries, some ways things are made difficult, that makes end results more interesting.
This, I believe, is why painting is so endlessly and timelessly interesting. Even though a sculpture is three-dimensional and even though a photograph can depict things, painting has its own thing going on. Not because painting somehow has authenticity and integrity where sculpture and photography don't, but just because the constraints of paint on a surface happen to be the kind of constraints that drive people to do really interesting things, things they wouldn't consider doing if they had a different set of tools and a different set of possibilities.
So I would say: constraints, yes; authenticity, not so much.
The nicest part of the Dave Grohl interview is when he describes learning to play the drums by arranging pillows and furniture around his bed in a certain way, stealing some sticks meant for drumming in a marching band, and practicing endlessly to the records of Black Flag and The Ramones. It was a few years before his family could afford to buy him a real drum set. The end result was a very particular style of drumming: he hits really hard and moves really fast.
The story exemplifies a second theme of the interview: if you want to do something, just start doing it. Don't get obsessed with trying to become some kind of expert, with trying to hit it out of the park on the first try. I would add: and don't worry about being authentic, either.