Home listening is the new classical norm

Due to the appalling COVID-19 pandemic live classical music in concert halls is certain to be seriously curtailed for some months. Which puts the focus for most people on home listening to recorded classical music. For a very long time the great and good of the classical world have been fixated on the acoustic excellence, or otherwise, of concert halls. So it is now time to shift that fixation on sound quality to home listening. Because in classical music sound is what matters most, whether in the concert hall or in the domestic environment.

There has recently been discussion about headphone listening on a social media account frequented by the classical alt-right. The general view expressed was that headphones are like laxatives, only to be used as a last resort. Thankfully I am neither critic nor classical influencer. But in my seven decades on this planet I have been privileged to work for the BBC and a major classical label, and to have heard many of the world's great musicians playing in the world's finest concert halls. But, as regular readers will know, I also have a high-end audio system (those are my B&W 803 Nautilus speakers in the photo), an iPod Classic and several top quality pairs of headphones. And I am not ashamed to admit that some of my greatest musical experiences have been while listening on headphones, as well as on speakers and in the world's great concert halls.

For Western classical music properly positioned monitor-quality stereo speakers are always the preferred option. But do classical music's great and good never travel on aeroplanes? And properly positioned monitor-quality stereo speakers aren't feasible when watching the heart-stopping sun sets on the remote Greek island of Gavdos. The categorisation of headphone/earbud listening as some kind of illness just shows just how out of touch with reality the so-called experts are. And, most importantly, it shows how little chance classical music has of connecting with a new audience - aka head-fi generation - for which headphones/earbuds are the default listening mode.

Several UK classical critics hang out on the social media account mentioned earlier, including some vociferous advocates of a 'world-class' concert hall for London. These same critics pass judgement in the Gramophone and elsewhere on the sound quality of classical recordings monitored and mastered on high quality studio equipment. So how 'world-class' are the domestic audio systems used by these critics? As pointed out previously, I have first-hand experience that the quality of audio systems used by music journalists often leaves a lot to be desired. Home listening is the new norm. So it is time for the critics who complain they can't hear the cellos in the Barbican to share details and photos of the world-class equipment and listening rooms they use for reviewing purposes.

Please don't start the nonsense about Twitter is a parallel universe where the rules and professional integrity of the real world do not apply. Whether we like it or not, and I certainly don't, social media is now the real world. So if you express an opinion on Twitter don't bitch when it is taken seriously. Does anyone take Trump's rants less seriously because they are expressed on Twitter? And reading social media comments that are not privacy protected without participating is not 'trolling': it is trying to understand the zeitgeist. (Note how agreeing with a social media opinion makes you a 'friend', while disagreeing makes you a 'troll' or 'stalker'.)

Yes, snarky comments about headphone can be dismissed as typical social media vacuity. But what is disturbing is the dogma preached by an influential group that it is only possible to be emotionally engaged with music when listening to politically correct Western classical music in a manner approved by the so-called experts. Because headphones can provide a very moving listening experience for those prepared to step outside classical music's restrictive comfort zones to have their musically educated ears cleaned.

Speaking of cleaning the ears of experts, ambient electronica has featured here before and this post gives a heads up to the compositions of David Parsons. He is much more than a synthesizer geek: he studied sitar in India and one of his notable achievements is recording and curating the magnificent Celestial Harmonies seventeen CD anthology The Music of Islam which featured here in an earlier post. (Do please read his biography, which really highlights how diversity has become a misused mantra in Western classical music.) David Parsons is one of many composers of perfectly valid art music whose compositions are far more engaging when heard on headphones.

My featured CD is David Parsons' Inner Places seen below, about which he explains: "I wanted to create some music that could possibly provide sonic worlds which the listener could journey to in their imagination. The word loka in Hindi/Sanskrit can mean a world or realm of experience. The track titles simply translate as First World, Second World, etc. I did not intend to color the mind with descriptive titles, so that you, the listener, could create your own realm of experience."

One of the more minor tragedies of the present pandemic is that it has not been seized on as an opportunity to turn back to our inner worlds. Instead outer worlds have maintained their hegemony via an avalanche of ephemeral social media content. If you only watch one more video on YouTube during lockdown I urge you to make it Daniel Schmidt's Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds. Daniel is a meditation teacher as well as film maker and many of the themes of his movie are shared with On An Overgrown Path, including the centrality of vibrations to music and, indeed, all matter, and the importance of the cymatic images created by Alexander Lauterwasser, who was the son of Karajan's court photographer. Daniel Schmidt's 2012 film was released free online; so its four parts can be viewed on YouTube or complete on Amazon Prime.

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mathias broucek said…
Some of my most memorable experiences of listening to recorded music have been on headphones or even in the car...

And in these lockdown times, music on headphones in the garden is a great pleasure.

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