Thursday, January 06, 2011

Is the loudspeaker the enemy of classical music?


UK recorded music sales decline for the sixth consecutive year. Pink Floyd signs a new five year contract with EMI. HMV to close sixty record stores. Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic release contemporary music on an independent German label. Classical music online portal Dilettante.com closes. Unrelated chance factoids - or maybe not?

Apeiron for large orchestra by Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud (b. 1974) was given its world premiere in June 2005 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. Staud's background as a student of Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Jarrell gives a good indication of his style as does this extract from the composer's own notes for Apeiron:
The complete work (ca. 20 min), scored for 101 players, consists of six large sections of sometimes diverse duration. It moves from quiet repose to orgiastic ecstasy, from concertante passages of chamber-music character to sections using block-scoring, which in their turn are succeeded by dense passages characterised by polyphony or timbral mixtures, sections that strive inexeroably forwards, or sections of near silence.
Deutschlandradio Kultur recorded Apeiron with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie in Berlin at the time of the works' premiere. This excellent sounding recording was licensed to German label Kairos, and EMI released Rattle and the orchestra from their exclusive contract to allow it to be issued on a Kairos disc in 2007. Apeiron is the only appearance by the Berlin forces on the disc, the other four works are for performers ranging from chamber orchestra and wind band to solo piano.

Despite the diverse provenance of the music the sound on the Kairos disc is universally excellent. If you have the right sound system, and that is a proviso I will return to, Johannes Maria Staud's passages of orgiastic ecstasy and block-scoring should even satisfy bass fetishes like Jeff Harrington.

Listening to the CD again yesterday after reading of the latest problems in the music industry took me down an interesting path. If indeed new and younger audiences are part of the solution, works such as Apeiron must have a role to play. Its composer is sub-40 and Apeiron shares an orgiastic quality (not to mention ecstasy) with other music industry success stories such as Pink Floyd. Staud's abstract soundworld is no problem for a generation steeped in the non-linear and non-narrative world of the internet. And the visceral bass should satisfy even the most hardened rock addicts. But only if you hear it in concert, which is very unlikely. Or if you hear it on a high end audio system, and therein lies the rub. IPod docks of dubious sound quality are rapidly becoming the de facto audio standard. And Apeiron played through a typical iPod dock is a sonic disaster that will deter rather than attract new audiences.

Back in the late 1960s, when all we could afford were bookshelf speakers, I took scary taxi rides up a Yugoslavian mountain to hear Pink Floyd and other bands played at impossibly high levels in an open air disco as the sunset over the Adriatic. Because in those days a performance space had opened up between live rock concerts with their crude but state of the art PA systems and our 10 watts per channel home audio systems.

A similar performance space is opening up today between Apeiron heard in the Philharmonie and Apeiron heard on a £30 iPod dock. For a while pop-up restaurants were the latest foodie-fad. Could pop-up concerts in venues with high end audio replay systems be a way forward? After all, Gabriel Prokofiev's pioneering Nonclassical evenings are simply a variation on the pop-up concert concept. Did we all misunderstand Jonathan Harvey when he talked about amplfying classical music? Did he really mean transmission only occurs when reproduced sound quality approximates to a live performance? Audio storage and processing can be miniaturised but the laws of physics cannot. Deep bass requires a lot of air to be moved, which can only be achieved using big speakers. Is it a coincidence that one of the classic designs for deep bass speakers is the transmission line? Are mobile media and its diaspora part of the problem and not the solution for classsical music? Or does the problem, unlike the bass, go even deeper? Was Benjamin Britten right when he said, with appropriate qualification, "the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music"?

* The performance of Apeiron is a revelation. Hearing a first rank orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic play new music is a very powerful reminder of just what a good band they are. It is also a reminder of the woefully undervalued Karajan BPO three LP set of the Second Viennese School. Perhaps Brilliant Classics can save it from the corporate dumpster?

** Other Kairos delights on the path include the music of Claude Vivier and Kurtág's Ghosts.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. The Kairos CD of Johannes Maria Staud's music was bought from Prelude Records. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

6 comments:

Kevin said...

I think the answer is multiplicitous. Still, the loudspeaker is a symptom as much as it is the "principle enemy." The very thing you seem to champion in the Staud piece--the "orgiastic ecstacy"--which I'd say is something I also champion in the music I prefer, is found everywhere. That is to say, the event, the spectacle of concert music, the sense of occasion seems to no longer play an essential role in its reception, precisely because the orgiastic is everywhere; it's symbolized by the proliferation of the loudspeaker. (Though it also plays its part in how it is disseminated) We can turn on the radio, or the TV, or get in the car and we have access to Beethovenian sublimity. As an event, concert music's role seems diminished to an everyday occurrence, despite being diluted or filtered or removed from its context.

Ugh. Maybe I've been reading too much Jean Baudrillard, lately.

TE said...

Listening to Floyd on a mountain in Yugoslavia reminded me of Tom Stoppard's excellent "Rock 'n' Roll" which, by the way, also used loudspeakers effectively.

mrG said...

The loudspeaker, and the microphone, are principle problems, you are correct. Let's see if I can sketch the physics in a blog comment ;)

First is perceptual: why did classical sell in the first place? I answer by saying "what colour is humphrey bogart's skin?" or better, Lena Horn. You will answer those two pretty readily, but to a great many people the true answer was "some shade of grey" having only seen them both in black and white films. We spontaneously assign normal tone to their skin because we are very familiar with skin tones. To the 'traditional' classical audience, ie the first stereophonic generation and those before them, the personal experience with the experience of a symphonic ensemble was real, and they would then project their experience on to the deficient recordings and the piece would come alive in their mind. That audience, however, is today very aged, rapidly vanishing, and the generations that followed them, sadly, have very very limited experience with any music that is not mediated by electronics and speaker cones. This is important.

Second, when two violins emit a tone, their instruments will sympathetically sync like mentronomes on a floating board; where the wave length is large relative to their physical proximity, the expanding spherical phase-locked wave form power adds as the square of the amplitude of the sources, not linear addition, but exponential; musical ensembles create a sonic laser that bathes listeners in a visceral grip that is far more than just boomy bass jiggles. Microphones only sample those 102-player spheric wave generators at specific points (or a small plane with paddle-shaped ensemble mics) and, tragically, when mixed in a console, the wave powers lose all phase information; to the Speaker Generation an orchestra is no laser, it is nothing but a bunch of instruments. Thus they gravitate to more PUNch vainly seeking the visceral engulfment, speakers get larger, wattages boost, bass is enhanced, it is a game they cannot win because they are departing from a lossy source.

The solution is to return to that situation were nearly everyone older than the age of 6 days old has ample, regular and vivid experience of the living sound of music, and thus can compensate for the electromechanical devices with their imaginations, and the way to do that is emphatically not by making the concert hall into a disco system, the death spiral of ever greater spectacle or boosting the ticket prices beyond everyday reach.

mrG said...

The loudspeaker, and the microphone, are principle problems, you are correct. Let's see if I can sketch the physics in a blog comment ;)

First is perceptual: why did classical sell in the first place? I answer by saying "what colour is humphrey bogart's skin?" or better, Lena Horn. You will answer those two pretty readily, but to a great many people the true answer was "some shade of grey" having only seen them both in black and white films. We spontaneously assign normal tone to their skin because we are very familiar with skin tones. To the 'traditional' classical audience, ie the first stereophonic generation and those before them, the personal experience with the experience of a symphonic ensemble was real, and they would then project their experience on to the deficient recordings and the piece would come alive in their mind. That audience, however, is today very aged, rapidly vanishing, and the generations that followed them, sadly, have very very limited experience with any music that is not mediated by electronics and speaker cones. This is important.

Second, when two violins emit a tone, their instruments will sympathetically sync like mentronomes on a floating board; where the wave length is large relative to their physical proximity, the expanding spherical phase-locked wave form power adds as the square of the amplitude of the sources, not linear addition, but exponential; musical ensembles create a sonic laser that bathes listeners in a visceral grip that is far more than just boomy bass jiggles. Microphones only sample those 102 spheric wave generators at specific points (or a small plane with paddle-shaped ensemble mics) and, tragically, when mixed in a console, the wave powers lose all phase information; to the Speaker Generation an orchestra is no laser, it is nothing but a bunch of instruments. Thus they gravitate to more PUNch vainly seeking the visceral engulfment, speakers get larger, wattages boost, bass is enhanced, it is a game they cannot win because they are departing from a lossy source.

Lastly, I return to John Cage and his comment upon hearing a symphonic work and a young boy in the row behind remarking to his father, "that's not the way it goes!" - recording by making a record freezes expectations, today very often on an unattainable artificial edited 'performance' that, while numerically closer to some perfection, I think, misses the point. The point being what the Chinese call 'yue', that the experience of music is a form of medicine.

The solution is to return to that situation were nearly everyone older than the age of 6 days old has ample, regular and vivid experience of the living sound of music, and thus can compensate for the electromechanical devices with their imaginations, and the way to do that is emphatically not by making the concert hall into a disco system, the death spiral of ever greater spectacle or boosting the ticket prices beyond everyday reach.

Steve Freeman said...

I took a look at actually buying this album, but the label is not helping. Not in Amazon UK, not available in their own online shop, not turning up on various search engines, not available for download. I could search out a record shop, but there aren't any good ones on my usual routes. You might want to drop them a note.

Incidentally, the Karajan set, like an amazing amount of material, is available on Spotify.

rchrd said...

I agree with mrG. The solution is more exposure to live concerts. But the concert world has priced itself out of existence. When I lived in NYC (in a previous century) I went to 3+ concerts/week, and they were quite affordable. These days we don't go to concerts at all .. can't afford the $40 and up. And the way concerts are programmed these days, there's rarely more than one piece on the program worth the cost.

Very sad affair. There is nothing that can surpass hearing music live, without domestic distractions. Unfortunately it's becoming a very rare occasion.