Wednesday, November 02, 2016
Today's classical music is compressed in every way
Making the case for Stokowski the magician, Lisa Hirsch comments on Twitter that "The long list of works he premiered in the US tells you Stokowski was the real thing", while in a blog comment Philip Amos urges us to "Consider the orchestras he founded... the premiere performances he conducted... the inspired way in which he placed the sections of orchestras." To Lisa and Philip's advocacy I would add Stoki's pioneering work with new technologies. A 2013 Overgrown Path post described Stokowski's experiments in multi-channel sound with Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Philadelphia Orchestra, pioneering work that pre-dated today's surround sound systems by 80 years. And Fantasia, which was released in 1940 with a soundtrack by Stokowski and his Philadephia Orchestra, was the first commercial movie with stereo sound.
Later in his career Stokowski recorded for RCA at the time they were issuing CD-4 quadraphonic LPs; one example is the 1975 Mahler Second Symphony LP seen above. In the 1970s quadraphonic battle EMI/CBS's SQ and Sansui's QS systems encoded the rear channels at the same frequency as the front channels but with the phase of the rear pair shifted. The resulting front to rear separation was minimal and classical producers never took the system seriously: when I was at EMI classical sessions were monitored in stereo and quad remixes were delegated to the editors. In contrast JVC's CD-4 technology did not phase shift the rear channels; instead the LP carried four discrete channels, with the rear pair encoded above audible frequencies. In theory this delivered infinitely better front to rear separation. But the challenge of pressing LPs carrying frequencies up to 50kHZ (the limit of human hearing is around 15kHz) and producing affordable phono cartridges that could track these ultra-high frequencies proved insurmountable. So CD-4 joined SQ and QS as a technological white elephant.
It is one of classical music inexplicable conundrums that the art form is obsessed with new technologies - streaming, downloads etc - yet its celebrity practitioners have, unlike Stokowski, no active interest or involvement in the new technologies other than pumping out as much of their own music as possible. Today's new technologies such as MP3 files depend on compression of both frequency and dynamic range. By contrast the technologies that Stokowski pioneered expanded the frequency and dynamic range of the music. Today's classical music is compressed in every way - sound, repertoire and worldview. But things are changing outside the mainstream. As the New York Times reports, clubs with high-end audio systems delivering sound quality above all else are opening in London. These audio clubs are becoming meccas for listeners searching for the emotional connection to the music that the all-pervasive compression technologies have eliminated. Leopold Stokowski was not just a magician, he was also a visionary.
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