Monday, August 15, 2016

Should we change the way classical audiences listen?

Does the sound matter anymore? Well it does seem to matter, if the large and mainly positive response to my recent critique of the BBC Proms broadcasts is anything to go by. One reader's response extended comment is being posted below because it provides a different and worthwhile perspective on the tension between broadcast/recorded sound and what a listener hears in the cheaper seats of a large concert hall. The main thrust of my post was that the non-immersive sound heard from those cheaper seats is an obstacle to engaging new audiences, whereas the reader using the pseudonym Iarful comes from the opposite direction and argues that the problem is the artificially immersive sound heard in today's broadcasts and recordings.

It may be the same difference, but Iarful's viewpoint is important. His/her reminder of the Quad high-end audio brand's strapline of "The closest approach to the original sound" raises the important question of what is the objective of a classical recording or broadcast? Is it to faithfully reproduce the sound heard in a good seat in the hall? Or is it to create a sales/ratings maximising immersive sonic experience? In his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term 'pseudo-event' for events created specifically for the media. In recent years the objective of faithfully reproducing the sound heard in the hall has been replaced by the goal of creating an instantly gratifying sonic pseudo-event. Anyone with access to recordings of Proms from the first decades of stereo relays can easily confirm this. Auditioning these archive recordings - see list below for those I used - immediately reveals a sea change in the BBC sound balance. In the 1970s the orchestra was more distant (but not too distant), the sound had space around it, the stereo image was more stable, there was depth as well as width in the soundstage, and solo instruments were not spotlit. The bottom line is that the archive sound is less fatiguing and more truthful to what is heard in the hall, and the differences are not subtle - they are very striking.

That slogan of "The closest approach to the original sound" deserves further consideration. When Quad founder Peter Walker came up with the strapline the reference sound was what was heard in a good seat in the concert hall. But as has been explained before, the reference for the majority of listeners is now the up close and personal sound of headphones. So soon priorities will invert, and although the closest approach to the reference sound will remain the goal, the reference sound will change to the immersive experience of recorded/broadcast music. When this happens, to attract new audiences digital technologies will have to be used in concert halls to provide a more immersive sound. But that heretical development could be avoided if audiences are taught the lost art of listening and educated to the nuances of concert hall sound.

So do we change the sound or do we change the way audiences listen? There is no doubt that changing the way audiences listen should be the first priority. But what is very puzzling is that among all the agonising over ageing and shrinking classical audiences, no consideration has been given to teaching audiences the art of listening; in fact quite the opposite. Music education for children is vitally important, but so is music education for adults - particularly young adults. Where are today's equivalent of programmes such as David Munrow's Pied Piper, André Previn's Music Night, Anthony Hopkin's Talking About Music, and Leonard Bernstein's televised Young Person's Concerts which introduced millions to the subtle art of classical music?

Iarful also makes the important point that overlooked recording formats such as ambisonics and binaural may be the key to providing immersive sound without turning recordings/broadcasts into sonic pseudo-events - that header image comes from a YouTube video of how to make a binaural dummy head. Again it is puzzling that given classical music's new technology obsession - streaming, downloads etc - so little attention has been paid to alternative recording formats. But I have said enough; here is Iarful's comment:

I was grateful to see this reminder of the artificiality of the current Proms sound (especially as it is informed by a former professional's understanding of the reasons behind it, both technical and artistic) and mainly wanted to add a reflection from the perspective of musicians, to complement the article's concern with the audience. But with reference to kirkmc's comment, I remember (vividly) my first exposure, well over 30 years ago, to an ambisonic recording of a concert (reproduced without height). My first reaction was that it sounded almost like mono - because hall sound does from most seats after the artificial conditioning of stereo reproduction. My ears soon adjusted to the much greater realism of course and were astonished at the end when I heard applause from all around me followed by people talking in the row behind, their seats tipping up, etc. Stereo sounded absolutely pathetic for a long time afterwards! As far as I am concerned the 'near-mono' of ambisonic rules OK - except that, sadly, it still doesn't, decades later.

A week ago I was involved in a discussion on reproduced sound which included two professional pianists. The first was horrified to learn how the Proms sound picture is constructed in the control room from multiple close microphones with artificial reverberation, etc. - just deeply shocked. The other teaches in a music faculty which also runs a sound engineer course, the students on which hone their skills by recording concerts or rehearsals at the musicians' request. She related how there is also the option of recording without the students' help, where a pair of microphones descend from the ceiling and the digital recorder starts. She said that very often she prefers the results produced by this set-up. When I said how I often felt with modern reproduced sound it was impossible for the ear to focus its attention as it can in real life, to concentrate on this or that strand in the music or a particular performer (no doubt caused by the ultimate lack of coherence you describe, and in the early days of digital by its poor performance at low level) so that there was a sort of barrier beyond which one could not hear, she agreed enthusiastically: "Of course!" For all the limitations it may have, the 2 microphone set-up will give a truthful account of balance between the different musicians and just the sort of coherence which is necessary for the ear to do its work, for one to listen actively. So for very different reasons, those who produce the music are also less than satisfied with current practice.

As I write I have just been listening to the afternoon repeat of the Brahms 2nd piano concerto from the Proms. A review I read commented that Peter Serkin was at times all but inaudible in the hall. There was of course not a hint of this in the Radio 3 balance. This is an 'improvement' for the listener at home, but that old Quad slogan of "the closest approach to the original sound" has been well and truly abandoned - for good and for ill. To my mind there is a lot more of the latter than most people think, especially if we want audience members to be able to use their ears (and the brains that are connected to them).
Archive recordings of BBC Proms broadcasts used in preparation of this post:
* Elgar Symphony No. 1: Boult/BBCSO July 1976
* Brahms Symphony No. 3: Boult/BBCSO August 1977
* Janáček The Ballad of Blaník & Martinů Double Concerto: Mackerras/BBCSO July 1979
* Janáček Taras Bulba: Rozhdestvensky/BBCSO August 1981

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Pliable said...

John Mclaughlin Williams comments on Facebook - 'This is an overdue discussion of expectations perhaps "corrupted" by recordings, and how real music in real halls actually sounds. I've often been annoyed by the unnatural balances in classical recordings. DG is an awful perpetrator in this regard; it's like every record they put out is a fantasy.'

MarkAMeldon said...

Very interesting! Why is it, I wonder, that my 53-year old ears have been thrilled by listening to the first few discs of the Decca Mono Sound box set that arrived at my home courtesy of the River People for £50 yesterday? Further exploration of late mono recordings and other, much older, recordings of broadcasts from the likes of Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch, from labels like the much-missed Tahra and Music & Arts has brought the realisation of two important, but perhaps obvious, things.

Firstly, these broadcasts, interpretive quirks and sonic imperfections notwithstanding, are of real performances, not digital reconstructions mad in the editing suite of a studio by one or two sets of ears.

Secondly, they just sound more natural to me. I have a copy of the Mercury Living Presence Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition and Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik in late mono (hard to find nowadays, unfortunately) and it sound great, with back/front depth. There are many other recordings made in the late 1950s that are as good.

I was recently at a friend's and the Bob Dylan Mono masters of his 1960s albums sounded far better than the "mixed for mono" overly-wide stereo releases, as did some Miles Davis discs.

On the other hand, most of the few SACDs I own sound very natural in two-channel sound through a recently acquired Denon CD/SACD player; I'm thinking here of discs from BIS, Harmonia Mundi and various small German labels. It's such a shame that SACD is seemingly a vanishing format.

Many CDs released in the "Great CD Rush" of 1984-1999 sound terrible and I agree with the other comment here about the truly dreadful "4D" recordings issued in the 1990s by Deutsche Grammophon, in particular.

Don't even get me started on the often weird "surround sound" 5.1 SACDs that I have heard - almost without exception I much preferred the two-channel offering.

Finally, whilst to me sound quality is terribly important, despite my 53-year old ears, this can only be a subjective response in an individual sense; it's hard to be objective IMHO.

Back to mono anyone?


iarful said...

Thank you very much for your response to my comment. You have sharpened my argument by your presentation, and also widened the debate. I concur completely with your description of the earlier Proms sound. It struck me most forcefully a couple of years ago when, in comparing interpretations of the piano part in Oiseaux Exotiques, I pulled out a cassette of a Proms performance from 1995. More recent than your examples it nevertheless caused me to email a friend in the industry: ".. the sound picture .. is VERY different from the Proms sound of today - much more resonant, more sense of space or more particularly depth. ... less 'precise' perhaps, certainly less 'clinical' but much more convincing, and with far more of a sense of the hall." (and I was not even listening on my best system)

Whilst a case could be made for engineering a CD to give an experience very different from that enjoyed by a typical audience member if this allows a better insight into the work(s) - even though my caveat about the necessity of a properly 'transparent' sound would still apply, surely the point of broadcasting a concert is to 'transport' the listener at home to the hall. When the hall acoustic was provided by a main stereo pair, just hearing the audience noise behind the announcer's voice as we 'went over' to the Festival Hall or wherever it was created the same sort of anticipation one feels when attending a concert. I do not experience that frisson with a Radio 3 relay today.

You also focus on the very serious question of 'the art of listening'. The kind of programmes you mention will certainly have helped develop mine, but their impact resulted not just from the uniquely gifted individuals concerned but also from the much narrower range of electronic media then available. I am not sure it can be reproduced in 2016. Today online courses such as Jonathan Biss's lectures 'Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas' offer more extended explorations in a more permanent form, a tremendous democratisation of learning which the internet makes possible; but the numbers are not comparable: I see a Gramophone article of July 2013 remarked on the fact that 19,500 people had already signed up to Mr Biss's lectures. And he was certainly lecturing 'to the converted'. So you are right, the BBC still has a vital role to play here - but first it would have to find today's Antony Hopkins or David Munrow, and then that person would have to want to devote a significant part of their time to broadcasting. Maybe the answer will be through the greater diffusion of the actions already undertaken by musicians such as Mr Biss or Nicola Benedetti (and one can think of many others) who will rightly want to continue to devote most of their time to playing.

Marc A Meldon's remarks on the delights of his Decca Mono box also find a resonance in my own recent experience. A day or two after the discussion I mentioned, a friend who had been rediscovering her LPs brought out a 1951 Westminster recording of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto by Paul Badura-Skoda and the Vienna Staatsoper under Scherchen. Mono of course and with occasionally noisy surfaces, it had a fresh, detailed sound and a spontaneity of execution that were captivating and seemed to come from another world. As Mark says, a real performance and more 'natural'. According to Wikipedia's article on the Westminster label, "its slogan was "natural balance", referring to its single microphone technique".

Are we collectively rediscovering some fundamental and simple (if occasionally inconvenient) truths about recording and performance? Mark praises the products of BIS and Harmonia Mundi; they are companies, it seems to me, where musical values have always been paramount, and this is as apparent in the quality of their sound as in the soundness of their A&R decisions. DG's recent choices seem to reflect very different values and priorities.

iarful said...

an afterthought about interpretation:
Catching up with another Prom, the Aurora orchestra's which a friend had enthused about, I was a little surprised by the reading of the Strauss oboe concerto, finding the orchestra's playing 'rather cut up into chunks' I noted in an email to him. But now I wonder if they were playing like this to counter the Royal Albert Hall's generous acoustic and the BBC seriously misrepresented them by almost completely eliminating it in the very close sound picture they provided. Does a similar sonic contradiction explain their rather raucous Jupiter symphony (where the subtlety of Abbado's version with the Orchestra Mozart is much closer to my ideal)? It would be interesting to know what people who attended the concert think of the transmitted sound - even more so to hear from the musicians.