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 In recent years the objective of faithfully reproducing the sound heard in the hall has been replaced by the goal of creating an instantly gratifying sonic pseudo-event.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.Archive recordings of BBC Proms broadcasts used in preparation of this post:
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).
* 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
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.