Earlier this week I was excited to read that the musician PJ Harvey will be recording her next album in a box at Somerset House in London. Together with her band and production team, she’ll be labouring behind one-way glazing as ticketholders come and go, watching her at work.
As ever with such events, especially in London, the feeling to follow the excitement of its discovery was one of disappointment as I learned that the event had sold out. But the idea still strikes a positive chord. In an age of autotune and spotless production where we’ve largely lost the sense of intimacy conveyed by the crackle of vinyl or the sound of singer-songwriters’ naïve bedroom recordings on cassette tape, it’s a good thing that a performer is inviting audiences to see the creative, real-time process of making music. It’s a process of trial and error, accidental discovery, creative debate and teamwork that can be forgotten when we sit down to listen to a polished product or to watch a slick music video.
Reading the news of the project has reminded me of the joy of live music and led me to resolve to see more of it in the year ahead. I’d somewhat given up on gigs of late, feeling defeated by camera phones in my line of sight and frustrated by people talking in quiet moments, seemingly incapable of distinguishing between a live piece of music and a YouTube clip watched at home.
At one gig last year, I watched a performer renowned for being somewhat troubled stand on stage as she reinterpreted her own album tracks and she grabbed my attention by altering songs I’d grown used to enjoying as background music at home. I thought the performance was a standout one, so I was disappointed to later read opinions online suggesting that the singer’s exercising of creative license over what is, after all, her own work was somehow annoying; how dare the woman not sound exactly like her CDs!
Perhaps somewhere we’ve lost our respect for the creative process – and the right to experimentation – that making good music often entails; good sounds don’t always come ready-made and squeaky clean, though it seems that’s what we’ve come to expect. So I’m happy to hear of PJ Harvey’s plan to lay that process bare to an audience at Somerset House. I’m only sorry that I don’t have a ticket.
Alice Bloch is a producer for Monocle 24.