Recently I had the pleasure of listening to internet broadcasts of several performances from the most recent Van Cliburn competition. It was wonderful to hear these world-class players, and of course everything was live.
I have always appreciated live concerts, but recently I have come to value them even more as extreme editing in pursuit of perfection with studio recordings has become the norm. Unless you attend a live event, the chance to hear a true performance where a person or group plays a piece straight through from beginning to end seems to be becoming more and more of a rarity. And although the perfection attained in recordings through editing can provide superb renderings of a sort, they aren’t real, and at times I do find myself a little frustrated by the ubiquitous hyper perfection. I guess you could say that at those times I’m in pursuit of something more human than perfect!
Editing is not actually new of course—it’s been around for decades, but until some time in the 80s it was a tedious process with tape splicing. However with digital music editing software, it's so easy to replace anything that isn't just right—not only an outright mistake but a note too loud here, a note too soft there, a phrase that doesn't quite have the right shaping here, a passage where the articulation is not quite crisp enough there, etc. With any given phrase, bar, or even single note, the ideal rendition can probably be found in at least one of the numerous takes and readily dropped in, or the notes might be directly manipulated with the software. People spend days putting together a patchwork of snippets that finally result in the 'perfect' performance. And given enough takes, I could imagine it sometimes becoming exasperating to make the final choice of just the right rendition for a given section of the music from a wealth of excellent options. The process could in theory be almost endless.
Editing out wrong notes for a recording that is listened to repeatedly makes some sense, but it seems to me that the obsessive editing produces a result that is not only artificial in that it is no longer an actual performance but, in a way, is less and less representative of the performer. Yes, the artist played all the snippets, but s/he did not walk in and play the piece this way. Also, played in the studio, the piece will already be missing some of the vibrancy and excitement of a live performance, but does heavy doctoring remove these qualities even further? I suspect it might, although this would be difficult to prove without the ability to compare recordings of the same piece by the same artist around the same time that are live in front of an audience, in the studio without doctoring, and in the studio with significant doctoring.
One classical music producer stated that the number of edits on his recordings typically number around 400. However another producer said that in his experience that number is low, with the actual number often being closer to 800. It would be interesting if the number of edits were disclosed along with the other information published with a recording. Then you would know what you are getting, but the second producer mentioned above said that would never happen!
On one hand, I’m surprised that more artists do not eschew so much editing in favor of recording completely honest straightforward performances in their totality in real time. But on the other hand I can understand, given that flawlessness through editing is everywhere, they might feel they are putting themselves at a disadvantage, even though in some cases their unadulterated performances may in some ways be superior.
Of course I can enjoy and marvel at many recordings without invariably thinking about the fact that they were probably produced with the help of 400 to 800 edits. But if I want to hear recordings of actual performances, end to end in real time, I have to look for performances by artists willing to ‘stick out their necks’ (not easy to identify, but pianist Valentina Lisitsa is one), or I can turn to something like the Cliburn competition.