I walked into the studio for my first recording session in 30 years. I hadn't played my cornet for a while, but a friend, a singer-songwriter, was recording her first CD. She had asked me to play on one song. The studio felt familiar: microphone booms, a grand piano, headphones hanging on music stands, and heavy dark drapes lining the walls.
But one thing was different.
I was alone. Where were the other musicians?
I knew that recording was done this way nowadays, but I hadn't been ready for the empty studio.
I unpacked my cornet, sat down on a stool in front of the microphone, and put on headphones. My job was to improvise along with the singer – in jazz parlance, "to fill behind the vocal."
From the recording booth, the engineer said, "OK, let's go."
In my headphones, I heard the tracks recorded earlier – the singer, guitar, bass, and drums – and played along.
We ran through the song a couple of times to warm up. We began recording and did the song all the way through several times. Then we recorded sections, some of them several times – and not just because I fluffed a note. "We want to have lots of material to work with," said the engineer.
When the engineer and the singer felt they had enough, we were done.
As I packed up my horn, I listened expectantly for the playback of "the" take, the one chosen (at least for now) as the final version. But there was no "the" take anymore. The producer and singer would listen to all of the takes, select the phrases they liked best from various versions, and then arrange them and graft them onto the rhythm track.
The final mix might include my intro from Take 8, a phrase from Take 3, and a snippet from Take 18. If they decided they didn't want a horn after all, the engineer could make my cornet vanish.
As I was leaving the studio, I met a bass player with whom, it turned out, I had just recorded. I knew the drummer on the CD, although I hadn't seen him in years. I still haven't met the guitarist. But the CD sounds great, and I'm proud to be on it.
That recording session got me thinking about music and technology. From the chants, drums, and conch-shell trumpets of our prehistoric ancestors until what seems like the day before yesterday, music was a communal experience. Only kings could summon musicians to play for their solitary pleasure. The rest of us listened to music with our neighbors at festivals, in worship services, and at public celebrations.
If we wanted music at other times, we made it ourselves by singing hymns or folk songs, congregating on the front porch with fiddles and banjos, or gathering around the piano in the parlor.
The opportunity to hear a legendary performer such as singer Jenny Lind might come once in a lifetime ... or never.
Then came technology. In early recording studios, the performers squeezed together to play into large metal horns. The tapered horns carried the sound to a vibrating needle that etched grooves into a spinning disk of wax. Listeners spun replicas of that disk on turntables, a needle read the grooves, and the music played through the horn of a phonograph.
Microphones and magnetic recording tape improved sound quality and opened new artistic vistas through splicing, editing, and overdubbing. Now we could even record live performances.
Cabinet radios with glowing dials turned living rooms into concert halls featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Louis Armstrong, grand opera and the Grand Ole Opry.
With today's alphabet soup of entertainment technology – FM, CD, MTV, DVD, MP3 – we can listen to any kind of music, anytime. A few clicks on a computer mouse can summon a performance by any musician who has ever recorded. We can listen through a device smaller than our thumb, through headphones and ear buds that block out distracting sounds – and other people.
Once in a high school hallway, during the clamorous shift change between classes, I saw several students scattered along the hall, sitting on the floor, leaning against the lockers. Each wore headphones wired to a discus-shaped CD player. Each sat immobile, eyes fixed on nothing, seemingly unaware of one another or of the streams of students and teachers flowing by. They were digital hermits in the midst of a crowd.
Once a force that drew us together, music now can keep us apart.
We can't blame technology for the actions of people who abuse it. Our ability to capture, shape, and share music is a blessing. We can make and hear music in ways undreamed of by our ancestors. But every innovation exacts a price.
I enjoy listening to my friend's CD. I hope she asks me to play on her next one. I'm also going to ask her if I can come to one of her gigs and sit in.
The leader of the jazz band at the college where I work has invited me to join the band. Maybe I'll do that.
I miss playing music with people. I miss playing music for people. No other experience generates the vibrancy we feel when we gather in a living room or a concert hall to play and to listen to music together.
That's why we call it live music.