Thursday, August 09, 2007

My [final] take on the iPod

Let me preface this by saying, I have an iPod. I've had one for several years now, and I am very fond of it. There is a good deal of classical, as you might imagine, on there - but only in complete records. The idea of a "greatest classical hits" playlist is alien and more than slightly abhorrent to me. If Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Gustav Mahler needed a complete work to make their point, then I should have enough respect for those men and their respective genii to make an effort to have their complete works. So should everyone.

Here's a thought experiment: Boil Götterdämmerung, to pick one evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen, down to one monologue, duet, trio, chorus, or prelude that sums the whole thing up. Not the idea. Not the feeling. Not the sensibility of the music-drama. The whole plot. Good luck. This is why bleeding-chunks records are a bad idea without a solid knowledge of Wagner's overarching idea. Symphonies and chamber works are right behind, in the sense of a contained cohesion and need for completeness. For example, Franz Schubert's piano trio in E flat (D. 929, if you're keeping score) has a memorable theme in its second movement. Stanley Kubrick used this movement to great effect in Barry Lyndon (1975), which is - to me - Kubrick's greatest film. I digress. He, i.e., Schubert, quotes himself in the last movement of the trio. If you picked the "wrong" movement, you wouldn't get it. The reference would be lost on you. These are just a couple of examples from my listening this past week, and there are infinitely more.

For popular music, save "concept albums," this isn't a problem. I can listen to "What Light" off Wilco's Sky Blue Sky all I want. I'm not missing one thing. The eponymous track and "Hate It Here," for a pair of examples, don't really need "What Light" and vice versa. It's not even close to a problem, though it once would have been, and I blame radio for, in its turn, killing "albums" in favor of "a collection of great dance songs" (pace Pink). Classical music, though I should say "serious art music," can't handle this treatment. The iPod, though, with its basic architecture, until recently all but imposed this treatment on classical records. Apple finally introduced gapless playback, so it's less of a problem, but it took them long enough. The iPod is a great way to hold, enjoy, and transport a great deal of music relatively cheaply and efficiently.

Sound quality is another story. On one of the online classical music message boards that I frequent (there aren't many, so guess), another member made some snarky comment about people who listen to low-quality rips, while he had lossless files. My argument, there as here, is that the iPod and - indeed - computer listening is antithetical to the idea of serious art music. The quality of the file doesn't matter if you're going to be listening to it in a state of mind not wholly devoted to it. You can make line-level (i.e., 1411 kbps) files, listen to them on high-end headphones (I'm increasingly in love with the Grado RS-2), but - if you're in a bus, on a plane, or otherwise distracted, you're missing the point. Only Erik Satie wrote music designed to be wallpaper. Serious music must be taken seriously, and the iPod cries out, "No! Music is just another part of your daily routine." God save the society that views Beethoven's 9th or Wagner's Parsifal as "just another part" of workaday life. These composers wrote their music with the utmost seriousness and the expectation that their audiences would take it at least as seriously. Mahler, anecdotal evidence has it, feared that his Das Lied von der Erde (I think, but could be mistaken) would drive people to suicide. It doesn't get more serious than that.

One caveat to sound quality: obviously, higher bitrates are better. I've never noticed much lack of detail, though you can tell the difference if you A/B some files, but low bitrate recordings seem constrained and boxed-in. They don't have room to breathe, largely because the audio codec assumes that you can't hear the "breathing." That's just not true. In fact, some venues breathe differently (which is why the Philharmonie seems boomy and warm on record, and the Jesus-Christus-Kirche seems drier and more analytical). They're not making this stuff up, professional-grade microphones are awfully sensitive and air moving is going to do its thing, whether or not we hear it. One exception is historical recordings, some - like Furtwängler's premiere of the Vier letzte Lieder - just aren't going to sound good, no matter how high you push the bitrate up. Degraded source material isn't going to have much of a difference made by file size.

Now, for the general caveats. I listen to serious music on my iPod. I listen to it in situations where I fall victim to my hated "sonic wallpaper." But only after listening to and obsessing over these pieces. On a decent CD rig, in my easychair, and often in the "right state of mind." Like Iago, I'm not going to say much about that last bit. It's not a grave sin against music to listen to serious music on an iPod; not the same way, at least, that a song like "Fergalicious" is a grave sin against music. It helps, though, to remember that you're diminishing not only the composer's intention (unless otherwise stated), but also - and more worrying - your enjoyment of the music if you aren't giving it your full attention.

These men (and women) have something to say that deserves to be heard. The least we can do is hear it.

The essay that prompted this post.


At 5:32 PM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

I recently went to Europe for some operas/symphonies/plays. I bought an 80G iPod before I left and filled it up with all kinds of stuff. One niche is complete operas.

I don't have any problems with the sound --I'm totally not an audiophile and as long as it sounds presentable, I'm fine with it-- but the way it's organized is driving me insane.

On my recording of Don Giovanni that I uploaded (Gilulini on EMI), it has 30+ tracks on each CD, because of all the recit. Despite fiddling with iTunes and being extra-careful to make sure every track is labeled exactly the same except for track # and disc #, even after going through the entire set of files, it still played them out of order.

So, I deleted all those files, re-uploaded them, making sure I had the tags perfectly in order and...same thing, they won't play in order no matter what. There's probably something in the underlying code that screws the ordering up. For all intents, that opera is unplayable on my iPod.

Even worse is the Davis recording of Benvenutto Cellini. All the 75 or so tracks play in perfect order except....the overture. Again, I've doubled-checked the tags carefully to make them conform, deleted the files, re-did it and it still is the same. It drives me nuts because there's nothing I can do differently.

As for the whole "the classics deserve undivided attention", I completely disagree. That's how I familiarize myself with long pieces, I just play it whenever --doing dishes, in the car, as I fall asleep-- and when I feel I've absorbed the overall structure, harmonic/melodic picture etc., I'll focus on the micro-details. If I only listened to operas or symphonies when I could give them 100% attention, then I'd listen to each piece about once a year.

Remember, in Mozart's day, concerts were largely informal by our current standards: the lights were on, people socialized while the music wass playing etc. Mozart and Beethoven probably didn't expect crowds to sit still and silent, I simply don't think that was the culture as the time.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Also chipping away at classical music: its use in TV commercials. "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta?" used to sell insurance? "Voi che sapete" to sell "The Sopranos?"

There's no attempt to find a connection between the music and the thing being advertised; the music is wallpaper meant to impress simply because it's "classical." So we lose any sense of the drama, the communication that makes the music great.

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