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