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Unmediated Music

September 2, 2013

I’m a big fan of PBS Idea Channel, a YouTube channel hosted by Mike Rugnetta and powered by, you guessed it, PBS.  Each week, Rugnetta applies philosophical theories to popular culture in an attempt to get us thinking.

One of my favorite episodes is called “Are MP3s and Vinyl Better Than Live Music?”  In part, it’s because Rugnetta dancing to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is so funny and adorable.  But I also like it because it made me think about how we consume and interpret music.

Rugnetta argues that it’s difficult to hold a live performance as the “definitive” or “authoritative” rendition of a piece of music, because of how music is consumed in the modern era.  We stream songs on Spotify, hear them on the radio, watch videos for them on YouTube, etc.  And when we hear these songs performed live, we expect them to be similar to those recorded versions.  In other words, the recorded versions of songs mediate our perception of the live versions.

I did have one major question after watching it, though (which he does address at the end of this video): What about when your first exposure to a piece of music is a live performance?

Well, I decided to experiment with that idea, in typical non-scientific fashion: I went a concert featuring artists I’d never heard before.

The show in question was held on August 30, 2013, as part of WYEP’s Final Fridays concert series.  The headline performer Bobby Long, with an opening set by Pittsburgh’s own Bastard Bearded Irishmen.  Unlike my normal routine for seeing artists who are new to me live, I deliberately avoided hearing a single note from either’s output, to have as fresh a listening experience as possible.

Both sets were pretty good, and I definitely enjoyed hearing new music.  Further, I found my experience differed drastically from the times I’d seen artists I was previously familiar with.  For starters, I could barely make out a single lyrics in half of the songs, leaving me to just tap along to the groove.  And, based on the extended jams and false endings, I could surmise that these acts were playing for a live, immediate effect, rather than recreating a recorded sound.

But–and this is when the experiment fell apart–I quickly discovered that I could not escape the claws of mediated music.

Let’s start with the headliner.  When I looked up Bobby Long on Wikipedia before the show, I learned he was a British-born singer-songwriter in his mid-20s.  Whether or not it’s a fair comparison I’m not sure, but my mind instantly lumped him into the current English folk scene: guys like Ed Sheeran, Ben Howard and Jake Bugg.

This assumption, I feel, mediated my reception of Bobby Long’s music.  Sure, he didn’t sound like any of the musicians I just listed (lucky for me, as I don’t like any of them), but I went in expecting a series of soft acoustic numbers.  There were a handful of those, but his set was dominated by electric guitars and blues-lyric structures.  Again, this was a positive in my book, but I was taken aback by the difference between expectations and reality.

Now, I had forgotten the name of the opening act when I looked up Bobby Long, so I didn’t accidentally spoil my fresh mental state that way.  And while “Irishmen” may have suggested Celtic music, that didn’t register with me when I sat down.  But, despite all that, one instance of mediated music came through: the cover version.

Towards the end of their set, Bastard Bearded Irishmen performed a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.  I’ve heard this song a hundred times, and I found myself comparing their rendition to the take on At Folsom Prison.  For instance, I was impressed how they alternated the instrumental bridge in the song between an electric guitar and a mandolin, creating a more off-kilter feeling.  It may not be a mediated experience in the same sense that Rugnetta was talking about, but I was still using a recording as a reference point.

So, what’s the result of this non-scientific, small-sample study?  It’s that getting a truly unmediated experience with a live performance is rather difficult.  In these two cases, I had never heard any of the artists’ music and yet I still feel my experiences were mediated by some form of expectations.  It’s an interesting commentary on how connected culture is in the modern era.

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