Thursday, May 29, 2008

thoughts and questions on how music is (and will be) experienced

I have been loving my Ipod, and am approximately half-way through ripping all my CD's and adding them to it. I have also been discovering "podcasts." I have been able to really make use of my time in the car, for example, by listening to something called "Coffee Break Espan~ol" (how do you type a tilde?), improving my Spanish a little bit. I am also able to enjoy "Car Talk," a show I am almost never able to listen to "live."

I downloaded a lecture from Arizona State, the first in a semester-long course on the History of Jazz. I like to listen to Jazz but I certainly do not have a good grasp of how it developed, and in general I am familiar with my favorites (such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis) and have only a passing knowledge of, say, Charlie Parker or Oscar Peterson - though I did briefly meet the latter once after he'd played at the Hollywood Bowl - my friend Edwin Outwater knew him. In any case, the first lecture (I don't know who the Professor of the course is - he has many interesting insights, though he is an awkward public speaker) mentioned that once upon a time in America there were many, many people who played instruments. Thousands of amateurs provided the musical entertainment in the home. Live music was, once upon a time, a more popular form of entertainment than it is now.

This has changed, of course, because of the advent of radio, 78's, LP's, CD's, and now MP3's. People don't need to learn to play for themselves because they can listen to Martha Argerich on a pair of headphones. Live music is great, but one has to get off the couch, get dressed, hire a baby-sitter, and (perhaps worst of all) adhere to someone else's schedule. We can listen to recorded music at midnight if it suits us - and we can even listen to it more than once. Plus, as Glenn Gould might have pointed out, a recording *can* be free of flaws, coughing, etc.

I'm sure many people (including myself) feel that even a very hi-fi recording (nowadays, should I say, "sampled at a high bit-rate"?) listened to on expensive headphones lacks the special qualities of hearing a live performance by a great artist. But is it inevitable that the inconveniences associated with attending live concerts (not to mention the exorbitant cost) will kill concert-going? I mentioned in a previous post that our world today encourages the "on-demand" consumption of music. Will younger people today be unwilling or unable to commit to, say, the Boston Symphony Saturday evening series, where decisions about what and who the audience will hear are made years in advance?

This is problematic for a musician like me, because frankly I don't make much from recordings - my income is from live concerts. I think that is true for most classical musicians. I don't know if it is true for pop musicians. (this article from the NY Times explores this issue from the point of view of the record labels:)

One difference between a concert and a recording is that a concert typically has (and needs) variety - the stereotypical orchestral concert opens with a short overture, followed by a concerto, and a symphony on the second half. A piano recital tends to include music from different eras and by different composers. But when people buy a recording, they often (usually?) buy "the complete Beethoven Symphonies" or "Mozart Overtures" or "Prokofiev Piano Concertos #2 and #3". When listening we make our own "programs" which can be long or short, can include music for different instruments or even have Liszt and Led Zeppelin on the same program.

If I want to continue to have an audience, will I need to start taking requests, like a pianist in the cocktail lounge who can somehow make "Send in the Clowns" sound the same as "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman." (Oh that reminds me of the horrendous video Franco Leon shared with me:)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

the enlightenment that comes from shuffle play

I am the proud owner of a brand new Ipod - I have never before owned or even used a portable MP3 player, and having had this only for a few days now I can already say that I love it. I am at the beginning of what will be a long process of transferring something like 1200 CD's first to my laptop and then to the Ipod (I got the 160 GB model so I think that should hold everything with room to spare). So far I am in the middle of "Beethoven" (most of our CD's are in something like alphabetical order) and I am re-discovering some wonderful recordings like Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is absolutely positively on my desert-island discography - of course, thanks to my Ipod, the list of recordings I could bring to such an isolated place is now outrageously large.

It may surprise people who know me to find that I am enjoying the "shuffle play" feature of my Ipod - yes, I find the sense of the "whole" in, say, the op. 57 Sonata to be important; a great piece of music is definitely more than the sum of its parts. So it is a little odd to hear a movement of the Barber Piano Concerto, followed by one brief Bach "Goldberg" Variation, Maria Callas singing Bellini, and then the first movt of Beethoven op. 14#1 (as you can see, I am basically limited to composers whose name starts with "B" - are any of you familiar with the children's book that my kids like called "the 'B' Book"?)

I actually believe that shuffle play is an important and potentially enlightening part of the world today. Why? So much of the way people experience music and other media nowadays is "on-demand" - we expect to hear what we want, when we want to hear it. In my previous post, for example, I noted the pleasure I had from downloading Rachmaninoff Preludes in a matter of minutes for my immediate consumption. By contrast, there was a time (long before I was born!) when you could only listen to a couple of radio stations - maybe the baseball game and the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Of course it is great to get what we think we want - but what about the many things we don't already know about, or which we have perhaps forgotten? Rather than do a google news search for the stuff we think we care about, what about learning about something unexpected? It is important sometimes to cede some control of our lives and allow our minds to receive the unplanned. The nation and the world become increasingly fractured, a kind of modern-day Tower of Babel, when we each spend our time listening only to music we already like, or to political commentators with whom we already agree, associating only with people who are in the same profession, or of the same social group or the same religion.

The above link is an article in the Boston Globe about different personality types and where they tend to live. The extent of my knowledge on the subject is what I read in the article, but it does seem like an interesting field of study. One personality "barometer" is "openness to experience," and I think this is something that is definitely endangered by the "on-demand" culture that new technology has made possible.

So my advice to myself is: use that shuffle play once in a while and discover something unexpected.

My wife and I don't really rent movies as much as we used to (the leisure time to watch movies is quite scarce these days) but we used to enforce a strict policy of alternating the choice of movie -and we would not make an effort to accomodate the other person's tastes. As a result I saw some chick flicks that I would never have chosen on my own (e.g. "Steel Magnolias") but ended up really enjoying (I admit it!).