The live music experience is still thriving, even as CD sales fall. For many bands, it is the primary way of making a living. It seems odd that even as we devalue recorded music, live music has stayed important. I believe it comes down to the experience.
A live performance is special partly because it is a shared experience. Even if you attend a gig by yourself, you are surrounded by like minded fans and the band. We are social creatures at heart and being physically present with others adds a power and intensity to the experience. You are forced to listen to every note. In addition, there’s always the danger at a gig that something might go wrong or the music will be played differently.
Which brings me to Zaireeka. This is a crazy experiment by one of my favourite bands, The Flaming Lips, that requires four CDs to be played at the same time. I had heard about this album for many years but finally had the resources to experience it properly. There are down-mixed versions floating around on the internet, but I wanted to wait until I could hear it properly, blasting out of eight speakers.
It was worth waiting for. The album is an incredible mix of strange noises and full on psychedelic jams that builds to the most intense cacophony of noise. There’s weird instruments, effects and frequencies you never usually hear. Sometimes the music switches from stereo to stereo. Sometimes all the parts come together, sometimes each CD is doing its own thing. It’s fantastic.
I’ve played it twice now and had a different experience each time. Because it is near impossible to get four CD players to sync up exactly, each CD plays at different speeds, so parts become unsynchronized or match up in new and different ways. It’s also by necessity a social affair, as you need at least one other person to press the other play buttons at the same time.
The album is probably the closest a recording can get to seeing a band live. More than just a collection of music, it is an experience. You are forced to listen to every note and savour it all. The album changes with each listen, depending on how you play it and where you put each CD. No wonder since the album came out it has become a live experience again, with listening parties popping up everywhere. People come together to enjoy the music, in a way that is quite unlike any piece of music. It’s right on the border between recorded music and a gig. For that reason the experiment is a wildly successful one.