Monday, November 05, 2018

Music is the experience between the notes


In Memory, Music and Religion Earle H. Waugh identifies how music functions as a tool for subconsciously reclaiming the past. Based on research with the mystical chanters of Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods, he proposes that music releases deep-rooted formative memories. Readers who, like me, have deep-rooted memories of the time when the comfort limits of Proms audiences stretched beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein may well be interested in Sony's 5 CD Soft Machine bargain box seen above.

On 13th August 1970 there was an all-Bach Prom at 7.00pm in the Royal Albert Hall with a star-studded cast including Neville Mariner, Philip Ledger, David Munrow, James Bowman, Simon Preston and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. This was followed at 10.00pm by a late-night Prom with Soft Machine, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductors David Atherton, and Elgar Howarth. This concert, which was broadcast on BBC TV, opened with works by Terry Riley and Tim Souster, and then showcased three tracks from Soft Machine's Third album. Soft Machine was a progressive jazz-rock ensemble formed in 1966 and named after William Burrough's novel. It underwent numerous changes of personnel and name, and its heyday was from 1968 to 1972 when Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt were among those who entered and left through the band's constantly revolving doors.

My memories of Soft Machine stretch back even further than that 1970 Prom. Starting in the summer of 1967 I took a year out between school and university. That July I was in the south of France and so were Soft Machine, who were literally providing the vibes in St Tropez. (My post I am a camera - St Tropez 1967 has some period photos, and there is detail about that extraordinary summer in an article on the Kevin Ayers tribute website.)

The Soft Machine anthology spans their CBS years from 1970 to 1973 and reproduces the albums' original artwork. Earle H. Waugh starts his book by saying: "We are condemned to remember. Even when we wish to forget, to discover that we have forgotten, memory shapes our being". Listening to these Soft Machine albums again and revisiting their distinctive artwork reclaimed for me the formative experiences I have touched on in this post.

The anthology was released in 2010 as part of the Original Album Classics series that mined the Columbia back catalogue. Eight years ago the record industry was still fighting downloads with imaginative repackaging of physical product, and Spotify was still a very minor player. So even this post is subconsciously reclaiming the past. Despite an unexpected resurgence in vinyl and surprising resilience in CD sales, the mainstream record industry has today effectively given up on value added physical product such as the Original Album Classics series.

Which leaves me, and I wonder how many others, feeling alienated. I am an incurable music addict; but for me Spotify streams can never reclaim the past in the way that the physical time capsule of Sony's boxed set does. Music is the experience between the notes. Streaming services offer instant experiential gratification but little more. The fundamental problem with online music delivery is that there is not enough space between the music to relive old experiences, let alone embark on new ones.

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2 comments:

MarkAMeldon said...

On the other hand, the alleged 'death-rattle' of physical media has thrown up some wonderfully curated reissues of great music, especially from the likes of Sony Classical. Just a few weeks ago I purchased the Szell/Cleveland Orchestra box from Presto (here: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8463377--george-szell-the-complete-columbia-album-collection). The presentation is really very good, the remastering expert, the music fantastic.

Who would of thought such riches could be purchased for so little just a few years ago? Recently, I was leafing through some old copies of 'Gramophone' from the early 1990s, and was struck by the vast number of adverts from mail order CD suppliers (this was pre-internet, of course) but more so by the eye-watering prices of CDs that can now be picked up for relative pittances.

Pliable said...

It is a good point you make Mark, and one because my post was non-classical centred I, probably wrongly, omitted.

The classical side of the record industry is making a much better job of exploiting the boxed set opportunity. Like you most of my recent classical purchases have been retrospective boxes - Warner's Fremaux/CBSO set is just one example.

But how long will this last? The non-classical mindset determines classical strategies. And the non-classical mindset is physical bad, virtual good.