Performing new sounds

crowds at a gig waving their arms, silhouetted by the bright lights shining out from the stage

© McClunie

Going to a gig is an exciting event. Often when we go we are already familiar with the sounds we are going to hear. We usually look forward to the additional pleasure of seeing music-making in action, and of hearing those familiar sounds (sometimes slightly adapted) in a visual context. But on other occasions we hear sounds that are completely new to us - a new voice, a new song, a new band, even a new style of music.

In the not-too-distant past, live performance was the main way to hear new music. In late 19th century Britain for example, people first became aware of the sound of the 'negro spiritual' through concerts by touring black singers from the southern states of America, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Songs such 'Michael, row the boat ashore', 'Deep river' and 'Swing low, sweet chariot' came across in these performances as something magically different from the church hymns and songs with which people then were familiar.

During the 20th century the record and the radio replaced live performance as the primary way that many new sounds were first heard, but there are many areas of popular music where live performance is still central to the process. For every musician with a record contract there are hundreds, if not thousands, for whom live performance of their music is the only way to make it known - the only way to let their new sounds be heard. Importantly, live performance can also build a following for their new sound in different places, a crucial element in establishing a reputation.

That is also the way it has usually worked in the case of new styles of music. Live performance was vital in making known the new sound of styles such as punk and in creating a following for it. In that case, too - as in others such as glam rock - live performance contributed the vital element of adding a visual dimension. Not only was the audience hearing a new sound, but that sound also came with new visual images. (For more on the importance of image, see Image and design.)

Record companies do not always support new sounds when they first appear - that is another reason why live performance continues to be important - but once a new sound has been committed to a recording and heard that way by the public, live performance tends to adjust its role. It may no longer be the main mode by which the new sound gets to listeners, but it retains the ability to present that sound in a vibrant public environment, which offers a striking contrast to the private space in which recordings are normally heard.

Follow the links below to explore some ways that live performance has enabled new sounds to be heard in Liverpool.