The power of recording II

After last week's column in which I wrote about my ambivalence toward recordings, and more specifically about how individual recordings can have an unfortunate effect on future performances and repertory choices, this seems like a good time to turn toward more constructive ideas. For any endeavor which is demographically-challenged, as art music certainly is, it is important to remain positive in tone or risk driving away potential interest. Nonetheless, one cannot hail every performance as wonderful, simply because it exists, or one risks a particularly contorted solipsism. So while the performers have the task of trying new things and forming interpretive choices, or more basically to say "yes," critics are frequently tasked with saying "no" and somehow I find myself in that role, whether I like it or not. It remains my belief that direct & honest feedback is a positive force, and is ultimately more stimulating to art than rote acclamation.

Besides the fact that performers have usually lived with core classical pieces for their entire lives, and so generally find interpreting the music more natural and direct than they do with early music, listeners are often exposed to this music and its appreciation in school. The lack of preparation strongly affects the reception for both early & world music performances. In short, it makes listeners more susceptible to marketing. For instance, some early Renaissance performances are so obviously done with nearly complete unfamiliarity that they would be laughed off the stage for an analogous effort devoted to Beethoven. Just imagine someone who had never seen or heard any of Beethoven's music being handed a late quartet and then sight-reading it onto recording a day or two later... yet similar things happen quite often with early music. And they are lauded. I want to step back from that thought, to linger for a moment.

This is partly an economic problem. Ten mediocre recordings will bring in more money than one good one, barring luck. Of course, today luck finds its expression in marketing. A "good" recording is somewhat more likely to strike it rich, but only somewhat... it doesn't come statistically close to compensating for the ten recordings it might need to replace. In the recording business, those numbers yield to a frantic search for that one big hit from which to extract some money and fund more money-losing projects in the hope of striking it rich again. In fairness, while it would be wrong to say that the big hits are musically exceptional, it would be equally wrong to say that they are below average. The result is simply bound up with marketing, politics, and happening to be in the right place at the right time. While things are not actually so harsh, given the existence of various foundations and other sources of funding, it would still be crazy to expect recording companies to downplay marketing in favor of education. However, that is exactly what I would like to see, and perhaps some constructive ideas can arise here. The answers certainly aren't easy. Even for the individual performer, told repeatedly to market oneself, it can become an enjoyable game and an engaging endeavor on its own. Couple that with the fact that it is frequently more rewarding in worldly terms, and it is hard to resist.

Fortunately the situation is not nearly so bleak. Many liner note essays take a highly didactic approach, and describe the music and the performance approach as dispassionately as possible. I still see essays which honestly discuss the weaknesses of a piece, or place it with respect to other repertory without hyperbole. Those efforts should be lauded, especially as the other "style" becomes more widespread. If anything, this is one of the traits which continues to separate art music from popular music. Indeed, we have performers giving seminars and master classes, and any number of people who are unreservedly generous with their time and honest with their intentions. And we have even more who would like to be. Returning to topic, the recording provides the best vehicle for educational endeavors, because it is the most convenient. Scores & workshops cannot reach many people, and concerts are not generally the appropriate venue. With a recording, the music is in one's possession, and one may read the notes and listen to it in any order. Concert presentations cannot be ubiquitous, because the timing can never be pleasing to everyone.

Many people read, both to be stimulated and to be educated, and the same is often true for listening to recordings. It is a market, and one which many labels continue to address. It could also be approached more systematically, and I suppose it will be, as more educators realize the potential to reach a distributed audience. One major challenge is that learning on one's own is more difficult than learning in a group, and the recording medium combines its convenience with isolation. Some listeners will take this isolation to extremes, but it is always present to some extent. There is much to be said for experiencing the reactions of others while experiencing the music, and the cues to learning available in a setting of this type are marked. Farther afield, it seems clear to me that the community of learning is more fundamental to public education than the formal instruction. What this means is that recordings are not as fully illustrative as concerts, and of course this fits clearly with the nature of music as a social activity. The latter aspect is perhaps most difficult to maintain today, but it is an element which must be maintained in future performance traditions, if they are to reach the loftiest aspirations.

Evolution of technology

Since CDs are a recent change in technology, and we're on the Internet, it seems natural to look toward technological advancements in the distribution of music. Multimedia & hypertext are already a major asset for developing educational materials. Even before the web took off, it was clear that music distribution would involve signals over wires, rather than passing objects around. Record companies will likely become giant Internet servers, and music distribution will be primarily via downloading. The listener could save a copy as appropriate. The major technical barrier is bandwidth to the home, in order to download music at reasonable quality levels. Currently, it is rather abysmal, and very slow, but then I am not overly enamored of CD sound either. Along with a backbone for electronic commerce, bandwidth is the main thing the big record companies need before concentrating on electronic distribution. If the Internet retains its open accessibility for both consumer & provider, this step will make a range of music even easier to obtain, since for a small label the expense & hassle of opening a server will not approach that of setting up distribution and maintaining inventory.

There is little doubt that such a change will occur, although the ramifications remain unclear. Like the change to CDs, some small companies will likely be left in the dust, unable to adapt. But more will appear, and the nature of the medium does seem more conducive to their success. I am definitely concerned that we will face another drop in sound quality. I suppose this niche will be filled as well, in terms of hardware, but the incentive to create more bandwidth for the connoisseur is limited. Many people seem happy with "real audio" and the like, and I cannot perceive whether this is wish fulfillment or true lack of discernment. The storage aspect is a definite concern for the regular listener, and something for which the major commercial interests have competing priorities. Complete feasibility is at least two decades off, but it might be forced sooner, especially given the cost savings for the labels. This could open up some fabulous possibilities, and it is good to be optimistic. Multimedia presentations of substantial depth could be built up, and large-scale recording projects could be undertaken easily by subscription, with limited production & distribution costs. While these do occur now, they are obviously difficult to pull off, and the existent multimedia projects are very limited in musical scope. The social aspect is problematic, and it remains to be seen how a future directed toward computers can accommodate humanity. Well, this is an idea to which we must return, as I have gone on too long already.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb