Monday, January 31, 2011

Never underestimate the public's intelligence

I feel as though phantom coughs, throat-clearings and other bits of audience noise captured in live recordings connect me with fellow music-lovers of the past, making us secret sharers of a kind. In short, I find that the imperfections of live recordings allow for a unique sort of intimacy - not simply with the music itself, but with other listeners who have heard the same music in the past. If I had more time, I would say more about other specific recordings that have done this for me, such as Wolfgang Sawallisch's 1989 reading of Wagner's Ring, which comes complete with stomps, crashes, shrieks, and other noises recorded live on the stage of the Bavarian State Opera during an actual series of public performances of the Ring.
That persuasive response by Joe Koczera is just one many to my recent post Do concert recordings make sound sense? Three things surprised me about the reaction to my criticism of the current practice of sonically emasculating concert recordings to make them sound like studio sessions. First, in an age circumscribed by the 140 characters of Twitter I was surprised to achieve one of the blogs highest ever daily readership figures with a post of 10,474 characters. Secondly, I was surprised to find I was by no means alone in feeling concern about the sonic compromises being forced on CD buyers by concert recordings. Thirdly and most importantly, almost every one of the well argued responses came from a very knowledgeable music lover who was not paid to express their view. In fact the professional music writers have been remarkably silent on the same subject, despite the fact that sonically compromised concert recordings are fast becoming the de facto industry standard.

The silence of the professionals is not very surprising because there are two very separate groups in classical music today. On the one hand there are the professional critics who, with a few notable exceptions, receive free CDs and concert tickets and are paid to write poodle pieces about them. On the other hand there are those who, like the readers who responded to my post, pay for their CDs and concert tickets and then express their views without renumeration simply because they are passionate about music. And there is a very big gap opening up between the two groups, a gap that is important for two reasons. First professional critics are full paid up members of the commercial/intermediary complex and secondly the non-remunerated group is far more representative of the classical music market.

Here are two examples to illustrate my point. The first comes from the responses to my LSO Live Nielsen post. Tam Pollard who writes one of the most widely read non-aligned music blogs Where's Runnicles? commented:
Fascinating post - thanks... I find myself largely in agreement... On a side note, Andrew McGregor speaking on [BBC Radio 3] CD Review described the Nielsen disc as "a well-worked Barbican recording" which had me more or less spitting out my coffee.
Now contrast Andrew McGregor's view with the comments from two CD buying readers:
For my taste the LSO Live series has been one of nearly unrelieved disappointment - a fine orchestra for sure but would anyone say any of that series becomes their reference performance of any work....? Surely not...

I agree with Nick. I have several LSO Live recordings in my collection; most were impulse buys and now gather dust on the shelf.
My second example is topical but not directly related to my concert recording post. Last week the Independent ran a lamentable piece titled Do we really need to sex up opera? At the Boulezian, another leading non-aligned blog, Mark Berry took up the challenge and in a post titled Journalism and the contempt with which our newspapers treat music demolished the Independent's article with forensic precision. A Boulezian reader summed the situation up very well in a comment:
Unfortunately, compared to what passes for music writing these days the article quoted is Erudition Personified.
There is no doubt the quality of professional music journalism is now a major concern. But of even more concern are the hidden agendas that underpin much of its shabby output. Lou Harrison's Gendling Chelsea for gamelan and voices sets aphorisms by Virgil Thomson. One of these is remarkably relevant to music journalism today:
Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information.
More on Lou Harrison here.

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