Flight of the Concord

Jeremy Denk
The New Yorker

An excerpt from "Flight of the Concord" which appeared in the February 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Download the full article here.

By Jeremy Denk

The perils of the recording studio.

ABSTRACT: PERSONAL HISTORY about recording Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata. Every year, classical musicians record themselves for posterity. It’s a way to be visible, to escape the fleetingness of performance, and to reach people who will never hear you in concert. But it’s a perverse purchase: in exchange for a considerable financial investment—these days, few recordings are made purely on a record company’s dime—you receive many hours of narcissistic suffering. Writer tells how he decided to record the “Concord” Sonata. If you play a lot of Charles Ives, you have to put up with the raised eyebrows of other musicians, who refer to him as “a crazy insurance salesman.” This is frustrating. He was actually a spectacular insurance salesman who co-founded an agency and made a fortune. And, despite the day job, he was no dilettante; he was a unique, curmudgeonly visionary. Writing nights and weekends and publishing his works privately, he composed exactly how he wanted, freed from public taste. Although his works were written in the first quarter of the twentieth century, they sound much more like the kind of avant-gardism that took hold a few decades later. The “Concord” Sonata, written over a number of years, represents Ives’s attempt to synthesize all his thinking—about music, art, and life—in a single vast statement. When it was first printed, in 1920, Ives also wrote a thirty-thousand-word essay, in which he explained that the piece was an “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago.” The sonata is in four movements—“impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a Scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” Describes how the writer came to love Ives’s work. Discusses the preparations for recording, including the placement of the microphones and adjustments to the piano. Then it is time to do the real work: inching through the movement, isolating, perfecting. The most maddening paradox of recording is that what you hear in the playback does not resemble what you’re sure you played. You hear two tracks at once: what you desire and what you have produced. Tells about the painstaking process of editing the hundreds of takes into a finished recording. Ultimately, editing turns out to be even more nerve-racking than recording. In the moment of playing, the logistics of just hitting the notes distract you somewhat from the continuous choices you are making. But in the edit you have nothing but choice. And yet you feel helpless, since everything has already been played.