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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3 comments:

Antoine Leboyer said...

Actullly, in this respect, Karakan also understood the importance of the medium as a message.

These days, Karajan's and Stokowski's style have made them out of fashion but who has taken their place to be speak and reach out ?

Best from London (where I saw Shostakovitch's Dadaist the Nose yesterday in a packed Covent Garden, much to my surprise).

Pliable said...

Good point about Karajan Antoine, thank you for making it.

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2009/08/when-sound-really-mattered.html

MarkAMeldon said...

Although no longer a geeky "audiophile", I do think that sound quality is very important with notated music. This is especially true with, for example, solo piano which I understand is very difficult to capture well. Some early Naxos solo piano recordings were awful, but producers such as Erik Smith of Philips managed great sonics with many of Mitsuko Uchida's Mozart and Schubert discs back in the 1980s and 1990s. Interestingly, many of these old "quad" recordings have been successfully remastered by Polyhymnia and released by Pentatone on SACD as were, some years ago, many Mercury and Living Stereo recordings.

Now, my 53-year old ears just are not what they were 20 or 30 years ago, but I can hear a clear improvement from SACD discs via a recently acquired end-of-line Denon CD/SACD player. It is such a shame that SACD is becoming harder to replay (and I only listen in 2-channel stereo, by the way, as I have just the two ears) and source. We have the exceptions like BIS and Challenge Classics, but I note Hyperion threw in the towel on SACD some years ago, which is a matter of much regret.

Had more labels followed the lead given by Alia Vox and produced sumptuous SACD discs, well-packaged and with decent notes, we would, I think, have been blessed and sales might have been better than expected.

It won't happen now, of course, as the "major" labels merely wish to churn out mega boxes of old recordings that sit and glower in the corner.