On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

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We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

All these criticisms have a point: in removing imperfections, different performers are necessarily becoming more alike, to the extent that they share a common ideal of beauty. But the aesthetic of perfection is still very powerful by virtue of the fact its ideal is impossible to achieve. It has artistic impact in part because we recognise the heroism of the work it takes to approach as near to it as our best performers do. Virtuosity embodies dedication, and our response to it involves gratitude and admiration of the depth of commitment to our shared art along with appreciation for the resultant beauty.

I have been thinking about this a lot in the context of my listening experiences over the last year, which have been predominantly of virtual ensembles. These have brought into focus the extent to which the effectiveness of an aesthetic of perfection is predicated on that impossibility.

Once you move out of the real-time jeopardy of live performance and into audio editing software, many of those things that take years of dedication to achieve live can be, if not actually created, at least manipulated by the audio editor. Tuning, balance, synchronisation, tone quality: the audio equivalent of photoshop can correct our mistakes and glamorise our voices.

But in the process, the classic critique that the pursuit of perfection erases individuality really comes into its own. Processed sound, like processed food, is consistent and immediately appealing, but largely homogenised. I often myself asking: would I be able to identify who was singing this if it weren’t for the video?

Moreover, when the polishing process is no longer bounded by the limitations of the human condition, you sometimes find the sound getting so processed that it moves into a kind of sonic uncanny valley, slightly too unnatural to be fully believable as human, yet not so removed from the natural voice to be heard as deliberately mechanised. An ideal that in live performance has us reaching towards the superhuman, when rendered through technology veers instead towards the inhuman.

The lockdown listening experience has shaped my responses in a number of ways:

  • It has inflected how I listen to vocal recordings in general, bringing an increased sensitivity to – and decreased patience for – heavy processing of the sound. I am much more aware of the manipulation of the tone in tracks I used to take at face value
  • It has focused my attention on what makes an ensemble’s sound distinctive to them. I notice that I am most entranced by those groups that don’t compromise on their commitment to the shared sonic ideal and yet still sound like themselves and nobody else.
  • It has really heightened my appreciation for the real-time jeopardy of the pursuit of perfection in live performance. This has opened up a whole set of other thoughts about living in the moment and value of transience, but I’ll leave those for another day

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