09 June 2011

Getting to the Music

It's that time of year again.  The time when I have to collect my array of parcel cutters, scissors, letter-openers and my trusty old Swiss Army Knife in order to sit down and listen to some music.

Why the assortment of vaguely lethal stationery requisites?

In the next few days large boxes of CDs will be arriving at my door, every single one shrink-wrapped in plastic, some so tightly wrapped that only a young woman squeezed into her Little Black Number in order to strut her stuff at a Saturday evening concert in Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS has less air between inner self and outer garments.  Some CDs even have two transparent wrappings, a visible one and an invisible one which announces its presence only after you have broken every fingernail attempting to prize open the jewel case.  Some add a tricky band of gooey and irremovable tape over the top.  And while some give you a small strip of coloured plastic around the case, by the time you have worked out where the end is and pulled the thing off only to leave the two parts of the transparent wrapper still firmly adhered to the jewel case, the temptation is to resort to the sledge hammer.  In over 25 years of opening CDs I have still not mastered the art of removing the wrapper without damaging the jewel case.  My desk and library floor are littered with razor-sharp fragments of plastic from disintegrating jewel cases. 

And it doesn't stop with the prising off of the transparent film (ironically called "protective", yet every bit as damaging to the contents as placing it under the wheels of a slow moving military tank transporter).  Bits continually fall off the jewel cases and most quickly develop an unnerving inner rattle as those viciously sharp teeth which hold the centre of the CD in place fall out one by one.  Even as I write, I have stabbed my foot on one such nasty lost tooth – age detaches but certainly doesn't wither them.

Why do CD manufacturers insist on wrapping their products up in such tight and irremovable films?  The answer is probably to do with terrorism; an openable jewel case is seen as a potential repository for an incendary or explosive device.  If I were a terrorist, certainly, I'd scour the shelves of HMV for an opeanble CD of Chopin in which to place my device.  Just imagine the triple satisfaction for a terrorist of causing mayhem in a shopping plaza, for a shopper of destroying one of the world's less endearing retailers, and for a musician of blowing up some of the most flaccid and insipid drivel known to man. I just wish someone could devise a secure means of packaging CDs so that it doesn't require a surgical operation (with an 80% failure rate) to extract the jewel case intact.

At this point there will be several of my regular followers slavering with glee, barely able to get the words out of their mouths (or typed on to their touch-sensitive screens).  I can anticipate them now; "Told you so...Dinosaur technology…CDs are dead…Downloads...File Sharing…Cloud…blah blah blah".  My avoidance of such methods of obtaining recorded music being well documented.  And they are right.  You don't have these problems when you file share, legally or otherwise.  Downloads, Cloud, files uploaded to iPods may have their drawbacks (don't ask me, I don't know) but removing moulded transparent wrappers is not one of them.

But I cannot live without the CD despite the problems.  No other music carrier, I understand, is as convenient when it comes to quality of sound, ease of access to specific points in the music, choice of performance, side-by-side comparison and readable documentation.  I sit on the plane, CD in my portable player, earphones on the head, listening to the greatest recorded performances of all time and reading detailed, learned and immensely informative documentation – often with a lovely piece of art work to feast one's eyes over – and wonder if life could get any better.  Can you do this with those other methods?  I'm told not and, frankly, I've never seen anyone with those irritating white wires hanging from their ears enjoying themselves so much; in almost every case they are doing something completely different at the same time as hearing their music – reading a semi-pornographic magazine, playing on their games console, texting on their phones or jogging.  Which makes me think the sound and presentation of music cannot be anything like as absorbing as it is with the good old CD.

I'm no dinosaur, although admittedly I still listen to vinyl and 78s (I was never ever into cassettes), and I embrace new technology for what it is; I do not assume that all new technology is designed to supplement or replace earlier technology.  Nobody has come up with a suitable replacement for, say, automated traffic signals (despite the fact that all cyclists and most Malaysian drivers appear unaware of their existence in the first place) and this piece of 1920s technology is still part of our everyday life.  Ditto the CD.

And why, you must be burning to ask, am I about to unpack so many CDs in the next few days? 

The Gramophone Awards voting process is upon me and in the next month I have around 100 hours of serious and intense listening to do.  How convenient it would be if the companies could simply transmit their latest CDs to us online.  But they don't because, quite simply, there is no alternative at present to the CD.


  1. Perhaps an efficient vacuum cleaner ought to be added to your paraphanalia? At least then your scriptorium would be safe to walk around!!
    I'm sure all CD users will sympathise with your comments, though. Pete

  2. Dear Dr. Marc

    (There were technical problems when posting this comment. Please help me delete those multiple posts if they managed to turn up..)

    One thing I enjoy or excite about CD, is the removing of moulded transparent wrapper when the new CDs arrive. The physical "touch" is what missing from "cloud". But I really hate the CD jewel case, the hinge is so fragile and the "sharp teeth" often broken from the center even before opening. The super jewel case comes with most SACD is much better. Sad it didn't become a norm for all physical disc containers. I hate the bulky DVD case as well.

    I really don't mind other wearing the white wiring iwhatever gadget, as long as they keep the volume safe. Some of them make their earphone as loud as loudspeaker and allow damaging their ears permanently. I have yet heard someone listening to classical in such manner though.

    Like a quote in photograpy "The best camera is the one that's with you". I'm not very particular about the way getting to music. A desktop SACD player when at home; a portable CD player when at work; mobile phone tuning to FM or connect to "cloud" when outdoor. I enjoy each of the way that gets me closer to the music: )

    My copy of the latest Channel Classics recording of St. Matthew Passion is on the way to my mailbox. Guess it will be a serious contender of the baroque vocal award. Btw, dear Dr. Marc, do you listen to this SACD in multichannel or stereo?

    Vincent Wang

  3. Dear Dr. Marc,

    As an usher at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, I once was assigned to sit next to Maestro Vanska pre-preparing CD's for his signature. We had a great little device that slices through and removing the transparent film very easy. I had to work fast to keep up with Osmo, and heartily recommend it. Here's the link http://www.kk.org/cooltools/archives/000139.php.

    All the best,