Dumbing up is the way to reach new audiences

Sitting with Jude Mansilla in the CanJam room at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest he told me, "When I started the Head-Fi site I imagined it a 'gateway drug' to two-channel room-based audio." Judging by the attendance and activity in the CanJam area, headphones have become more than a gateway - for many young and old audiophiles they're a final destination.
That is Steven Stone writing in the The Absolute Sound. For an audience ranging from young to old the immersive experience of headphone sound has become a destination, yet classical music remains fixated on a different destination - the 19th century convention of the proscenium arch soundstage. In an insightful essay in The New Enquiry Elizabeth Newton posed the question: "Audio fidelity is more a matter of subjective emotion than empiricism. But what are we trying to be true to?" Her question generated considerable discussion on the audiophile website AudioStream, with one protagonist opining that "My idea of hi-fi is to make the possibility of losing oneself in the music happen as often as I choose...".

The experience of losing oneself in a performance and thereby being transported to a higher level of consciousness is the raison d'être of art music. Claudio Monteverdi declared that 'The end of all music is to affect the soul', and in the classical field it has been the power of the performance that traditionally has provided the immersive experience. But new technologies now provides a different but equally transcendental immersion through headphones and ear buds (head-fi), and surround sound. The classical industry is, however, unwilling to acknowledge this fundamental change in listening habits, and despite an obsession with reaching new audiences has been puzzlingly reluctant to experiment with the non-notated discretionary variables of spatial location, acoustic and absolute loudness. Digital technologies have become the de facto standard for classical music distribution, yet the potential offered by the same technologies to immerse listeners both in the concert hall and through recordings is resolutely ignored. Instead band-aids such as applause between movements and disco lighting are touted as the snake oil that will rejuvenate classical music. There is a dangerous dogma abroad; namely that using new technology to overthrow anachronistic performance conventions is a form of dumbing down. However there are exceptions, and one notable exception is the Spanish independent label Neu Records. In their artistic manifesto Neu Records makes a very persuasive case for dumbing up contemporary music by exploiting new technologies:

21st century composers are in a unique situation, with an inexhaustible range of technical resources, highly refined musical languages, the aesthetic perspective gained from the cutting edge of the twentieth century, and technological developments that multiply exponentially the ways listeners can access music... Written music, except for certain kinds of religious music, has always been composed to be played on a stage in front of the audience. Since the first multi-channel recordings were made, almost all producers and sound engineers have been faithful to this “frontal” approach to music, using surround channels only for picking up the room’s reverberation. However, listening to a surround recording is not like attending a concert; instead, it means placing yourself at the centre of the sound experience, while contemporary music does not need to comply with the spatial concepts of the classical concert. Playback equipment is a tool permitting the creation and reproduction of acoustic spaces, and allows us, in cooperation with composers, to design tridimensional sound spaces.
Neu Records are pursuing their belief that contemporary music does not need to comply with the spatial concepts of the classical concert, and among their work in progress is a Morton Feldman series with sound described as "almost spaceless" - the header photo shows the 360° microphone array used in their sessions. Past posts On An Overgrown Path have featured Neu Records' surround recording of Ramon Humet's music made with the London Sinfonietta and discussed the philosophy behind the immersive sound, while another post highlighted their first release of the music of the Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos (b. 1973). Now comes the premiere recording of Bernat Vivancos' Requiem made with the Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Kļava. Although Vivancos trained at the celebrated Escolania de Montserrat which is one of the oldest choral schools in the world, his Requiem does not adhere to the liturgy of the Catholic Mass. Instead, to quote the composer: "The idea is that this prayer should be new, without linking it to any previously established canon. It is intended to be a luminous meditation on transcendence, in which a selection of open, plural texts and reflections responds to a non-confessional vision of the end of human existence". Accordingly the sources for the syncretic text include Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Denis Diderot, Pope Francis, Kahil Gibran, the New Testament, and Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahai faith.

This contemporary Requiem is truly immersive, and purchasers of the double CD have access to Surround 5.1 and HD FLAC Stereo mixes. But spiritual immersion is achieved without resorting to gimmickry; scored for voices, solo cello and cello quartet, percussion and accordion, this is timeless music that transcends fashionable idioms - sample it here. With this recording Bernat Vivancos and Neu Records show how contemporary music can leverage digital technologies to reach a new audience without compromising artistic integrity, and it is appropriate that the final part of the Requiem quotes Monteverdi's Lasciatemi morire, because this is indeed music to affect the soul. The music's worth can be judged from the provenance of the sleeve notes. Neu Records is an independent label based in Barcelona and has no apparent connection with Jordi Savall's Alia Vox label other than a shared Catalan identity. However the sleeve essay is contributed by Jordi Savall, and his concluding words are eloquent testimony to the power of dumbing up:
Fortunately, thanks to the complex, historical process of discoveries and creation, of recovery and, finally, also, of recognition of the atemporal value of every work of art, we see that, today, a better knowledge of our thousand-year- old musical heritage can act as an element of inspiration and revitalisation in the creative practice of contemporary music; new composers of our own day are being widely incorporated into this veritable, new musical Renaissance that we are experiencing in the twenty-first century. The innovative richness of the works by Bernat Vivancos are, I believe, the clearest and most striking proof of the vitality of this new musical Renaissance. His extraordinary talent and his profound spirituality are placed at the service of a process that is the invention of a new language which, in spite of its complexity and modernity, is capable of transmitting to us pure beauty and emotion. Perhaps this is the great mystery of creativity in any true work of art, in one capable of achieving a perfect balance between technique and emotion, between beauty and spirituality, creating a web of new sounds which, becoming our own, will never cease to move us

Bernat Vivancos' Requiem was supplied as a requested review sample. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Unknown said…
Vivancos is such a breath of fresh air. Thank you for this glorious music, and thank you Neu Records for this beautiful recording. Bob Shingleton's reviews are always erudite and inspiring. We at Yarlung Records have just begun surround sound recordings--working with engineer Tom Caulfield who comes to our California sessions from Boston. So far so good! Our first 5-channel releases are scheduled for 2016. I have been a two-channel purist since before Yarlung began, but am happy to investigate other formats to deliver musical experiences for our listeners. So happy that Neu Records is leading the way.
--Bob Attiyeh, producer
Yarlung Records

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