On creaks and coughs and candy wrappers

The advantage of a highly resolving music system is that you can hear deeper into recordings. The disadvantage is that you can hear deeper into recordings.

For the last couple of nights, I’ve been listening to Promises, a recent collaboration between Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Almost the entire 46-minute, nine-movement album is built on two chords, played simultaneously on an acoustic piano and a celeste. The instrumentation swells and wanes—Sanders’s intense sax lines piercing into prominence, the large string section turning cacophonous, a Hammond B3 doing its best Atom Heart Mother impression.

The recording is quiet and pristine, except for what I assume is the piano bench. The thing creaks. It squeaks. It even rumbles (although, on second thought, maybe the rumble isn’t the bench but a keyboard pedal that needs a little TLC). I’m pretty sure none of it is supposed to be audible, but the studio mikes caught it anyway, so now, there it is, like a pimple on the Mona Lisa’s face. Yes, these distractions are low in level. All the same, they are noisy little stowaways, auditory jabs that prevent transfixion.

I’ll just ignore them, I decided many times. But that’s futile, thanks to what psychologists call “ironic process theory”: when you actively attempt to quash certain thoughts, you’re more likely to have them. Trying to overlook the accidental noises is the audio equivalent of trying not to think of a pink elephant.

There are opposing schools of thought about these mildly pockmarked recordings. Nonscored sounds interfere with our enjoyment by breaking our concentration, argues the persnickety crowd. Such flaws enhance the experience by making the track more human and inviting listeners into the artist’s acoustic space, answer more tolerant folks. I seem to have graduated cum laude from the first school, but I remain sympathetic to the second.

The more raucous the music, the less I care. There’s a mean amplifier hum on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing” and on “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police. John Bonham used a Ludwig Speed King bass drum pedal that was sometimes dubbed “the Squeak King” for its famously noisy spring; the sound made it onto Led Zeppelin tracks like “The Rain Song” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”

I prize every one of those recordings, warts and all. Cleaning them up is no more advisable than removing the oxidation from the Statue of Liberty.

In the end, it all comes down to genre, and to degrees of grittiness and chaos. The ceiling caving in during a Sex Pistols live session? That’s instantly integral to the event; don’t you dare edit it out. A few pages of sheet music falling to the studio floor when Reinbert de Leeuw plays Satie? As my teenage daughter would say, “Can you not?”

Speaking of clavier virtuosos: Both Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett (about whose loud humming and exclamations I shall remain agnostic) had famously creaky piano stools. There are music fans who love listening to The Goldberg Variations in part because they can “hear” Gould’s body sway, courtesy of his loose-jointed, moth-eaten chair: To them, that’s a feature, not a bug, but it drove the people in the control room batty.

In the liner notes to Gould’s 1965 interpretation of Beethoven’s Opus 10 Sonatas, producer Thomas Frost wrote, half-embarrassed but with a keen sense of humor: “[H]e has stubbornly refused to part with [his chair] in spite of all counsel and advice—and an offer from the Smithsonian Institution. It has come to this: Columbia Records has decided to call upon the powers of science to construct a facsimile of the famous chair which will have the same swayability without the noise. Until then: Glenn Gould refuses to give up his chair. Columbia Records refuses to give up Glenn Gould.”

I subsequently found a video of Gould walking into a recording studio where you can briefly see the joints of his piano chair swaddled in rags—the engineers’ apparent attempt to tame the wretched thing’s racket.

And why shouldn’t they? During classical concerts, it’s not uncommon for audience members to glare at people who cough, or who denude a piece of candy in the middle of a quiet passage. Do the shushers and dagger-starers go home and enjoy recordings that contain random nonscored sounds? Unlikely.

Sure, the difference between a creaking piano bench and a rustling candy wrapper is that the former sound was made by the artist. But does that mean we have to embrace it? Would we feel closer to Chet Baker if he’d concluded “My Funny Valentine” by breaking wind?

Some lean in that direction, sort of. Richard Beaudoin, a music professor at Dartmouth College, loves the nondeliberate sounds that can get on the nerves of philistine ‘philes like myself. In the journal Music Theory Online, he praised the “evocative sound-world” that Gould’s chair helped create:

“Just as facial micro-expressions offer valuable and often revealing information that enhances the meaning of spoken words, the placement and density of Gould’s chair creaks provide audio signals of physical activity. As such, they are integral to our interpretation of his interpretation.” Fine.

I propose this détente between the two camps: Let’s fix the issue before it arises. Before the engineer punches that recording button, have a stagehand or handyperson tighten the joints of the piano bench, and apply lubricant to unruly hi-hat or bass-drum pedals. As far as I know, there’s no evidence that Bonham and Gould viewed the creaks and squeaks as vital, rather than incidental, to their art.

In the pursuit of peace (and, please god, quiet!), a screwdriver and a can of WD-40 will go a long way.

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