27 March 2011

Long Live the CD!

Those fortunate enough to have been at the marvellous concert given by the outstanding Lautten Compagney period-instrument ensemble from Berlin in Singapore last week may well have noticed a table set up outside the hall at which a lady was selling CDs.  I have to confess I didn't get a chance to inspect it, but I assume it was selling recordings of the musicians we had heard live; and if everyone enjoyed the concert half as much as my wife and I did, they should have been beating a path to that table to get hold of such a tangible souvenir of a hugely enjoyable evening.

78 rpm record - HMV B.8034 circa 1931
(Count of Luxembourg Waltz by Lehar - Marek Weber & his orchestra)

In the sardine-can which masquerades as the lift which, if you are lucky, heads down to the car park underneath the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory concert hall, there was apparently a small person who had not only paid a visit to the CD table but had bought more than one of the items on offer.  I surmise this because a tall man whose head poked up above my fellow-sardines was looking down at someone and saying, incredulously, "You still buy CDs??".  Like the physical stature, the voice of the CD-purchaser was similarly small and the reply didn't reach my ears, but I gather it was in the affirmative because it occasioned scornful admonishment from Mr Tall; "I gave up CDs long ago.  I listen on my iPod.  I don't think you can still buy CD players".

33 1/3 rpm record - ASD2700581 -1984
(Or Shall We Die? by Michael Berkeley -
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Richard Hickox)
 It is a sad condition of the human psyche that we assume that, just because something is new it has to be better than something old (I still tell the joke of the piano tuner in Malaysia who couldn't believe I still had a 1933 German Grand and suggested I replace it with a brand new Korean one as soon as possible).  More than that, too many people fall into the same trap as Mr Tall and become so bedazzled by the concept of "new technology" that they assume its sole functions are to replace the old and create obsolescence.  I lose count how often I am told books are "out of date", that with electronic books nobody will need physical ones again.  Of course, anyone with a working brain knows this to be arrant rubbish (and thank God Google has been stopped from its crazy notion of putting every book online by the Intellectual Property courts).  Try doing some serious research without books.  On my desk as I write this (taking a break from an extended piece I have been commissioned to write on Stravinsky's complete Firebird) are three books – Vol.1 of Stephen Walsh's monumental Stravinsky study, Robert Craft's Dialogues and a Diary and the relevant volume of Grove – while one computer screen is showing a web page about the Russian Imperial Ballet and the other, when I move away from this piece, will return to my work in progress.  There are also five CDs with their associated booklets scattered around the desk.  Get rid of the books and, as it is far too time-consuming to be continually moving from one different web-page to another (and, of course, constant cross-referencing means often needing to have two pages at least open at the same), I have to clutter up my desk with even more computers and their associated screens and paraphernalia, none of which – even the celebrated iPad – occupies less space than a book. 

CD - 2011 - Sono Luminus DSL92127
(Mystery Sonatas by Biber
Julia Wedman)
So it is with audio carriers.  There has grown up a conviction that each new carrier simply serves as a replacement for the previous ones.  Hence the oft-heard lament; "I had to replace all my LPs with CDs.  Do I now have to replace all my CDs with whatever comes next?" The answer is no.  As yet there is no replacement for the totality of the services offered by the humble audio CD.  Yes, there are much more convenient ways to access recorded music but there is more to the CD than that.  A CD is a physical thing, something you can hold you can treasure, you can read (as well as hear) and you can enjoy simply as a physical presence.  At Gramophone magazine we were recently asked to submit our suggestions for the worst ever CD covers.  It might just as well have been a request for the best covers.  Nothing to do with sound quality or the contents; simply an excuse to celebrate the irreplaceable physicality of a CD with its booklet, its elegant (usually) prose and its carefully-designed cover.
Is this a full repalcement for the above?  Can you even guess what's on it?
I don't think so!

The table at the concert hall reminded me that a CD serves as an invaluable promotional tool for musicians as well as an ideal souvenir for music-lovers.  Young musicians still aim to make a CD to use as a kind of self-contained calling card and CV, while musicians on tour need such a thing to offer to their souvenir-hungry audiences.  Many of my most treasured CDs are ones I have bought from tables set up, just like the one in Singapore last week, as souvenirs of a lovely concert; and, I must say, it makes me feel good to spend money which helps the finances of the musicians while, at the same time, giving me lots of personal pleasure.  I can't really see selling audiences a web-site address for a download, or handing out pen-drives with audio files on provides the same thing. 

So, before you laugh at me and my friends for "still buying CDs", tell me what has come along to replace them.  As things stand at the moment, the CD remains unique and irreplaceable whether you are tall or short, fat or thin.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Marc. The thought of CDs being replaced in the near future is appalling to contemplate, although I suppose one day they will be, but even then there will be plenty of manufacturers who will continue to supply the necessary equipment to allow them to be played and enjoyed. I wonder what 'Mr Tall' would say if he realised that record players (some of which at the top end of the market retail at huge sums of money) for both LPs and 78 shellac records are readily available (and of course some manufacturers are still pressing vinyl 33.333333 recurring and 45 rpm 'extended play' discs). Reaching further back into musical antiquity, needles for use in gramophones that were built when the 78 (or 80) rpm shellac disc was the only medium available, can still be purchased from certain very specialised outlets. At least in those days, recordings were 'direct to disc' with no possibility of 'editing out and splicing in', which to me that makes them of far greater musical significance and worth (even if the reproduction is dreadful when compared to today's standards). There is an integrity in such recordings that is all too often missing in today's technically superior productions. I agree, too, that a physical disc is a joy in itself, although I don't feel the same affinity with a CD as I do with an (Eric Spencer?) LP or 78 rpm disc where the grooves can be seen and appreciated. Peter