23 September 2011

Why Do We Listen?

The Bangkok Post today ran a CD review of the latest release in the excellent Bach Cantata series on Bis from Masaaki Suzuki and his excellent Bach Collegium Japan.  This was disc no.49 in the series and covered Cantatas 156, 159, 171 and 188; not among Bach’s best known essays in the genre, but getting an enthusiastic welcome from reviewer.  True, much of the focus on the review was on the borrowings and on Bach’s apparent penchant for “recycling his own music and that of other composers”.  We are not given any specific examples where Bach has poached from another composer in these cantatas and even where the reviewer suspects him of borrowing from his own music, details are very sketchy: the implication is that in place of the (lost) Sinfonia for Cantata No.188 Bach borrows from a concerto.  But which one?  “Nothing is lost in having the solo part played here by an organ rather than a different keyboard or string instrument”.  I’m well aware that Bach was, like all his contemporaries (Handel being the supreme example), happy to reuse and adapt earlier material, but I doubt I’d go so far as the sub-editor at the Bangkok Post who added the headline “Album pays tribute to the great recycler, JS Bach”.

Great recycler, or not, my interest in this review stems more from what it is physically reviewing than the dubious claims the reviewer makes for the music’s provenance.  For, while it gives some brief mention of performance and singers, it seems to spend rather more time complaining about the lack of documentation.  To get some background information, the reviewer apparently had to look up the Bach Cantatas website (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bach Collegium Japan).  We read that “if only BIS could begin including documentation”, which might seem odd bearing in mind how very good Bis documentation is, except that the review includes this remarkable comment; “The BIS label continues its lazy habit of not including along with their downloads the digital versions of the documentation that come with the physical disc”. 
Ah!  So this is no CD review, but a review of a download.  No problem now that that’s clear.  But why complain?  You know what you’re getting, so why expect something else.  And when the review concludes, “Of course, though, those who invest in the CD come out ahead in sound quality”, you wonder what it was all about.  Here we have a review of a product which, presumably because it’s cheap, is not as high quality as one which is more expensive. That’s a hard commercial fact, much more indisputable than Bach’s alleged obsession with recycling other composers’ work.  Why accuse a company of being lazy when all it is doing is offering up a cut-price, reduced specification version of a prime product?
Where the review goes so fundamentally wrong is to confuse what is being reviewed with something else. Contentious facts are one thing; a complete muddle over the target audience is an altogether different thing.  Presumably, the Bangkok readership who buys their recorded music as downloads knows all about its limitations, and do not want to have them highlighted still further.  It reminds me of the daft presenter on the BBC travel programme yesterday who, while driving a 1928 Alf Romeo, complained, “It doesn’t have power steering”!

This does raise an interesting question; what do people look for when they buy a recording of music? It’s probably true to say that the vast majority of those who buy recorded music make their choices on the grounds of the music, the artists and the quality of the actual recording.  I think most people would prioritise those differently, but those would remain the three principal reasons for buying.
Organists, of course, have a fourth reason; the instrument itself.  Plenty of specialist record companies in the organ world don’t bother much about repertoire, artist or recording quality, the thing they highlight is the organ itself.  “First recording of the newly-restored organ in xxxx” is a common catch on the CD booklets, and I’ve often heard comments like this from organ record collectors; “The music’s terrible the playing’s bad the recording not up to much – but what a wonderful organ!”.

That said, I know of people whose interest in one of the three key areas is so strong that the others pale into insignificance.  At school when LPs were still the cutting edge recording medium, I went to visit a friend’s home and was startled by the vast numbers of LPs his father possessed.  The thing that surprised me was the astonishingly eclectic taste the collection implied; Beatles alongside Beethoven, Rolling Stones alongside Ned Rorem, Errol Garner alongside Eric Coates, Dizzie Gillespie alongside Gabrieli, and so on.  There were speech records, sound effects records, avant-garde, pop, easy-listening and ethnic.  “Dad buys records for the sound they make”, my friend explained.  “He loves good recordings and hates bad ones.  He never listens to the BBC because their recordings are so bad, he says”.  I’d encountered my first true audiophile; someone whose interest had nothing to do with music but everything to do with the techniques of recording.
My old friend Arthur, of whom mention has already been made in this blog, only liked recordings of great performances.  He still inhabited a world where the 78 ruled the roost, and the audio quality for him mattered not a jot. The more scratches, distortions and fade outs there were, the better, and whether or not he liked the music was an irrelevance. The performance was what Arthur was after.

My preference is for the music rather than the performance; after all, I can never find in a recorded performance that same excitement I get from a live one. All the same, I can’t take a really bad performance on disc nor a disc where the recorded sound is so ghastly that it obstructs the music.  I can’t take downloads because I really value the documentation that comes with physical discs (indeed, I have bought discs simply because of the documentation; and, ironically given the recording which triggered this post, I buy the John Eliot Gardiner Bach Cantata series on Soli Deo Gloria primarily because of the lavish documentation that embraces every disc).  And I simply can’t listen to music on my computer; the whole business of downloads gives me a headache, so I NEVER do it.
I don’t like it, but I fully appreciate that others do and while I’d probably draw the line at reviewing a download, if I did, I think I’d steer clear of the risky business of comparing it with a CD; it’s about as pointless an activity as comparing live with recorded performances.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Dr. Marc,

    Download is a headache for me too. At least it is not for everyone. I had never purchased any download. Within the next 5 years or longer, CD/SACD/Bluray/CloudStreaming together with live concerts are where I'll put my money in.

    I have no idea where the Bangkok post reviewer got his download copy. BIS's partner in download eclassical has not yet put BCJ Vol.49 on their shelf. But criticizing BIS for not providing documentation is simply ridiculous. All BIS recording downloads come with documentation and free! You don't even need to purchase the recording if you're just interested in the documentation.

    For example Vol. 48 from the BCJ Cantata series.
    Link for the documentation