Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Real Deal

Michael Caine and Shelley Winters in "Alfie" ~ 1966

Recent posts (and the discussions that followed them) have prompted more thought about the changes in technology we've experienced in the past few years. We've come light years from just two decades ago, when the word "digital" wasn't even in our vocabulary. Technology has given us tools of communication that we never dreamed possible, and those developments have spilled over into other areas of our lives, as well.

Today, technology affords music producers the ability to create a virtual orchestra from one keyboard. It can remove noise distortion and even correct the pitch of the human voice. It can consolidate separate sound tracks into one and allow a level of perfection never before attained in music  recording. I'm sure that's just the tip of the iceberg.  It's evident now that there is a very real difference between the digital world of music production and the world of live performances. As I learned yesterday, this fact is neither good nor bad. There is plenty of room in the world today for expertly crafted music, whether it be the "digital" product, or the "real" one. 

Have you seen the amazing and beautiful "Lux Aurumque" by Eric Whitacre and his Virtual Choir? Here's the link: . No one can argue that this composition isn't original, beautifully executed, and well performed.

It's thrilling to see today's technology being used so artistically. Yet, as wistfully as I wish for actual books to stay in the world, I wish the same for real music. Sometimes recorded, but sometimes lost to the world forever, live performances carry with them the element of surprise and improvisation that's just not present in the electronically perfected versions.

Enter Alfie.

I recently saw a gorgeous little video snippet of British singer Cilla Black recording the song "Alfie" and was mesmerized. A little bird-like wisp of a woman, standing gamely, confidently, in front of a studio filled with musicians, as well as a conductor who was also the composer of the music.  Her performance, and that of every other musician in the studio, was inspiring.  The energy in the studio was palpable, with each participant playing off the other's contribution to that energy. It was authentic. Real. It was special, and it made an impression on me because it was real.

[Tracking down information on "Alfie" proved to be interesting and a bit insane, as most worthwhile British entertainment is. Most recently (2004), it became a movie starring Jude Law as Alfie, but the movie itself is such a diluted version of the first movie version (1966) that it's just not worth seeing...and I'm usually up for anything with Jude Law in it.  Please, take my word for it and skip this one. Go back in time to the 1966 version with Michael Caine and Shelley Winters. 

Actually, the story exists in novel form too, but it was written by Alfie's creator, Bill Naughton, only after the 1966 movie was produced. Not only that, but, working backward on the timeline, we find that before the movie came two stage productions, first in Great Britain, then briefly on Broadway in the U.S.  Finally, we can see that "Alfie" originally dates back to 1962, when it was a program on BBC radio called "Alfie Elkins and His Little Life."  Who knew?]

"Alfie"--the radio show, the stage production, the movies or the novel, has fallen far short of masterpiece status. It is, at best, a provocative little film full of  promiscuity and pathos. At the end of the story, a crestfallen Alfie is simply left wondering, "What's it all about?"

Enter Burt Bacharach.

With painfully poignant lyrics by Hal David, Bacharach's music transformed this minor movie into something significant. With vocals by Cilla Black, it became an icon.

[Politicians, busines owners, parents, teachers, doctors...we all would do well to listen closely to these lyrics...Are we meant to take more than we give, or are we meant to be kind?]

"What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?"

This is the rare footage of the title song to "Alfie" being recorded in 1965 at Abbey Road studios in London. It's a perfect example of the extraordinary magic that can happen when a group of people perform together as one. This live element is what elevates a performance from great to sublime. In this video, it's incredible to see Bacharach conducting, absolutely inhabited by his music. You can hear the tiny scratches in the audio recording. This audio was digitally remastered in 2003, but I prefer the less-than-perfect original. The final shot showing the entire orchestra, including the huge harp on the left, is fascinating. What a collaboration. Enjoy.

Today I wish for you the thrill of a live performance.


  1. Great post today! I agree that almost anything with Jude Law in it is great, but the new Alfie? I switched it off after ten minutes.

    I, too, love the song. In fact it often makes me cry when I hear it. I love Joss Stone's version - but really any version.

    and I'm with you about LIVE MUSIC. Yes yes yes.

  2. Thank you, Reya!

    It's sad indeed to know that even Jude Law couldn't rescue that movie. Sheesh. (Though I did last longer than 10 minutes just watching his adorableness!)

    I must admit, that song puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it. Glad it's not just me.

    Long live Live! xoxo

  3. A subject, obviously, close to my heart. Work in the studio can be long, and arduous. Most people have no idea what goes into any master recording. Then, there are these rare moments, and knowing that you have captured that, is gratifying.
    On the other hand, as a performer, nothing beats live performance. I'm addicted; and I'll be off to do it again tonight :-).

  4. So what's this all about?

    I love the video, with scratches and seeing Cilla Black as a "bird-like little wisp of a woman. Loved seeing Bacharach as a fluid "conductor" literally conducting the current from his vision on thru the performers and instruments including his piano an on to the recording mechanism.

    Without all the technology we're blessed with, at the click of a few amazingly well designed square buttons and a "cloud" of digital magic which seems to store art endlessly, ready for our eyes and ears whenever we wish to point them that way, I would never have known or heard or felt the experience, which by the way came to me via an art form that is so new we haven't named it, in which a writer assembles components, that taken together are quite lovely in themselves, in this case called Smiling Heart.

    One of these days, in a schedule which has me challenged like the rest of us, I'll get to see some live performance. For instance, without question I will enjoy tonight's episode of my daughter who will entertain us with some new material, even if it is just a story about some silly boy in her class, or a new dance she can't wait to show us she's learning.

    But a concert or a play or a ballet, yes, someday I'll see another one. But thanks for your art and your groupings of elements, including the scratch of this record. It is alive. I'm alive.

  5. At Christmas, my sister and I went to the Messiah at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. Sir Andrew Davis was conducting the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. He changed the presentation so that the emphasis was a more modern interpretation instead of the traditional emphasis and the whole piece had more power in places where it was needed. Seating in the mezzanine next to the sweet voices of the choir's soprano section had its own joy. I was really taken by the fact that the tenor had coloured his hair to exactly match the wood on the violins and cellos (spiffy) and the mezzo soprano had the most beautiful dress. None of this can be experienced in a recording.

    I also like that professional choirs are going out to shopping malls and other public places to perform randomly. I long to be part of such a random experience. This is another wonderful blog, Jo. Thank you.

  6. Hi know that I wrote this post with you and Danny and my daughter and all the other amazing performing artists I know in mind.

    It's all magic to me. Singers, musicians, dancers, actors, anyone with the nerve and the ability to get onstage and offer a bit of their souls to the rest of us...well, I'm in awe of you.

    I can well imagine how addicting it is, Rick. I hope it's one you never break!

    Many thanks for stopping by. xoxo

  7. I understand what you're saying, Dubby. I'm amazed at the magical medium that is blogging, and the artistic tool that it becomes to many talented artists. How lucky we are to be able to hit a button and be transported back to 1965 to see a video of Cilla Black and Burt Bacharach, a painting of Monet or Renoir, or a dance performance of New York City Ballet or Gene Kelly!

    I only hope that as our technology grows, our capacity to include appreciation for live performances grows with it. As you so perfectly put it, it's what makes us feel alive.

    Thanks so much for your observations, Dubby. xoxo

    I only

  8. YES, Linda! Your powers of observation are mighty. "The Messiah" live with the Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir...WOW.

    I do the same thing when I'm at a live performance, trying to soak up every detail of the experience...the theater, the ushers, the audience members, all are every bit as interesting as the performance itself. We become part of the performance, too, adding our own unique energy to the mix.

    Random acts of art? Love the flash mobs!

    Thanks for your kind comments, Linda. xoxo

  9. All of this post is j.u.s.t. SPLENDID<3 There is nothing I could add to the above! Love...

  10. Thank you, Vicki! I think your visits are j.u.s.t. fabulous and much appreciated. xoxo

  11. Last evening, I checked the movie listings from my cable company and there it was finally: "Nowhere Boy," a lovely, small British film about John Lennon's early years in Liverpool. Although she's not depicted in the film, I can imagine a very young Cilla Black hanging out at The Cavern, smoking cigarettes (didn't they all?) and being cheeky with the "lads." Thanks, Jo, for another splendid post. So enjoy reading your blog.

  12. Oh, Jan, thanks for the tip! I'll be looking for "Nowhere Boy," as you and Dubby both have recommended it now.

    Yes, cheeky Cilla and the lads...LOVE it!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Jan. It's always great to hear from you.


Your visit makes my heart smile. Thank you.