Shamans of sound

In an article behind Classical Music magazine's paywall the MD of Signum Records Steve Long states that "Streaming is making classical music accessible to all; anyone who may have felt intimidated by a classical department of a record shop or a concert hall can now try the music". Which is typical of the dangerously blinkered view of new technology and new audiences taken by senior figures in the classical industry. Streaming and other online delivery technologies have, in fact, decreased what really matters - quality access to classical music.

As has been well-documented, a priceless infrastructure of mainly independent knowledgeable retail stores has been obliterated; to be replaced by the hegemony of a few avaricious online corporations which have a stranglehold on music distribution, which pay musicians a pittance, and which view classical music as a minor irritant that gets in the way of pop blockbusters. Steve Long makes the same mistake as virtually every other senior music industry executive of ignoring the opportunity cost of streaming and the other baits being used to attract new audiences. When a benefit is derived from investment, the cost of any negative impact of delivering that benefit is the opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of changing classical music presentation to appeal to a new audience is the proportion of the core audience driven away by the changes. Attracting an impressive number of new listeners - a metric often bandied around in self-congratulatory press releases - is only a measure of gross audience gain.

The sole meaningful measure of audience growth is the net figure: new audience minus lapsed core audience. The RAJAR data for BBC Radio 3 portrays vividly the impact of opportunity cost. Despite undoubted gains from Classic FM derived from dumbing down, the audience for Radio 3 continues to decline; because the once loyal core audience is driven away in greater numbers than the new audience gained by accessibility initiatives. Similarly, the devastation of classical music's bricks-and-mortar estate by online delivery means less music consumed by the genre's once loyal core audience - including me. The irony of Steve Long's eulogy to new technology is that it appears in Classical Music magazine. This is part of the Rhinegold Group of print publications which is in the final process of being sold to the Mark Allen Group. Mark Allen specialises in acquiring print magazines - including the Gramophone - suffering from a terminal decline in their audience caused by disruptive online technologies.

"Gramophone magazine of blessed memory" lamented a reader, and the pale shadow of its former self that is the current Gramophone is another startling example of the impact on quality of disruptive technologies. Yet another opportunity cost of streaming is the inexorable decline in sound quality. Senior industry executives are among those clamoring for a new £250 million 'sonically perfect' London concert hall. Yet the same executives sing the praises of streaming services such as Spotify. Industry leader Spotify uses the OGG Vorbis file format which is smaller and even more compressed than lo-fi MP3. My recent post Recorded sound quality is the Cinderella of our digital age received a very surprising number of page hits. In it I said Vittorio Ghielmi's 'Gypsy Baroque' album is a welcome reminder that the art of great recorded sound is not entirely dead. However there is very clear evidence that although not dead, great recorded sound is in the process of being killed by streaming.

Back in 2009 and before the hegemony of lossy streamed audio, Jonathan Berger, a music professor and composer at Stanford University, carried out research with student requiring them to rank sound quality from sources ranging from hi-resolution files to MP3s. The results showed that students prefer the sound of MP3 files to higher quality sources. Jonathan Berger's conclusion is pretty obvious: MP3's are the de facto standard for the young demographic, therefore saturation exposure to lo-res sources is altering their perception of what sounds 'good'. To quote Audiotronics magazine, a preference for crappy sound is actually becoming learned behavior. So in these days when what the audience wants is what it gets, we must accept that great recorded sound, like high street record stores, intelligent music journalism, silence between movements, and music blogs , will soon be a thing of the past. Which prompts me as a riposte to Steve Long to share with MP3-conditioned younger readers a brief personal selection of the recorded sound that I, and many others of my generation, perceive to be 'good'.

That header photo shows Klaus Tennstedt. All his Mahler recordings for EMI, but notably the Third Symphony with the London Philharmonic from 1980, combine sonic impact with a natural sound image. Tennstedt, who was a true shaman of sound, must take much of the credit. But it is shared by his EMI producer John Willan and balance engineer Neville Boyling, and it is also shared with the late and much-lamented Kingsway Hall. An overlooked irony is that great concert halls rarely make great recording venues. Which is why so many legendary recordings of the past were not made in concert halls. And it is also why the current financial constraints that force many new classical recordings to be made at concerts are contributing to the demise of great recorded sound.

Another legendary non-concert hall venue is Abbey Road Studio 1. This was the venue for Sir Adrian Boult's 1974 recording of Tchaikovsky's rarely heard Third Orchestral Suite, again with the London Philharmonic. The twelfth and last variation (Polacca: Moderato assai) was used for audio demonstrations when first released on vinyl, and the CD transfer perpetuates the vivid but lifelike sound. Production credit is Christopher Bishop who produced so many great recordings from EMI's analogue Indian summer, with Bob Gooch at the mixing desk.

It is no coincidence that Vernon Handley studied with Sir Adrian and that Tod's cycle of Sir Malcolm Arnold's magnificent and woefully neglected symphonies is my next choice for great recorded sound. Conifer quite justifiably had a reputation for great sound and Vernon Handley's 1995 performance of Sir Malcolm's First and Fifth Symphonies captured in Walthamstow Assembly Hall - again a non-concert hall venue - is for me one of the most impressive classical recordings ever made.

Time now for a distinctly left field shaman of sound. That is Havergal Brian in the photo below. His 10th and 21st symphonies performed by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra were recorded in 1972 with Robert Simpson producing and Angus McKenzie as balance engineer. Angus McKenzie was an audio polymath and he captured Havergal Brian's lucid orchestral writing in astonishingly graphic sound. The venue was De Montfort Hall Leicester, which just to be prove me wrong is both an excellent recording and concert venue.

However if there was to be a prize for the most impressive classical recordings ever made my odds-on favourite would be Antal Doráti's 1959 complete Firebird ballet made for Mercury in Watford Town Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. That is Doráti in the photo below; his Firebird is one of the major achievements in the history of recorded music and was made using a crossed microphone pair and Ampex 350 series three channel ½ inch tape recorders using valve (tube) electronics. Also noteworthy in these days of heightened gender awareness is that the producer was Wilma Cozart Fine, whose Wall Street Journal obituary was headlined 'Recording Pioneer Who Led Classical Music's Hi-Fi Wave'.

To misquote Paul Simon, those are my songs for the asking. My choice of shamans of sound is strictly personal and subjective, and others from the pre-MP3 generation will have different favourite. The art of recorded sound may soon be extinct; but let us hope that, despite the blinkered view of senior industry figures, these and many other great recordings of the past will live on in CD, vinyl, and hi-resolution file formats.

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Chuck Stark said…
I have to disagree respectfully with Pliable's negative assessment of the impact of streamed classical music. I speak as a past-middle-aged music consumer who has loved classical music all my life. I play two instruments (albeit as a rank amateur), attend more than two dozen live classical concerts each year, and have an extensive collection of recordings and high quality playback equipment. Classical music is one of my great pleasures and I would join Pliable in lamenting any development that threatened its survival or health.

But I love streamed classical music, for which I use Tidal's CD- or MQA-quality stream. Through streaming, I regularly listen to and enjoy a far broader range of works and performances than would otherwise be possible, or at least economically feasible.

To give an example, I checked Tidal for the availability of the recordings to which Pliable refers in this blog post. To my pleasure by not surprise, nearly all of them are available on Tidal. (The only exceptions are all but one of Handley's recordings of Malcolm Arnold's symphonies.) Of these, none but the Dorati Firebird is in my library of recordings. I look forward to listening to them. I suppose that in some ideal but unrealistically prosperous world I might have bought CD's of all these recordings in order to experience what Pliable hears in them; but it's not likely.

I assume Pliable is correct in observing that streaming has disrupted the income flow that many previously enjoyed from physical recordings. But this is typical of the introduction of any new technology, and things eventually adjust themselves, albeit differently from the earlier state of affairs. I expect, too, that streaming enables less well-known musicians and ensembles to reach audiences that would have been unavailable to them if they had to rely on the costs and vagaries of CD production and distribution.

I do indeed agree that most current recordings lack the realism and impact of the best simply-miked recordings of the past. RCA's Living Stereo series and Mercury's Living Presence recordings come to mind as examples. But not all earlier recordings were very good, and many of those being made today are.

Please excuse my verbosity, but as a classical music lover whose life has been enriched by the enormous enlargement of my library through streaming, I had to chime in.
mathias broucek said…
Thanks again for your excellent blog. The idea that younger folk PREFER mp3 is a scary tale of how familiarity trumps quality every time. I'm also alarmed by how angry people can get if you tell them that you can hear the difference between hi bit rate mp3 and FLAC...

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