18 August 2012

Portable Music

Suggestions in this blog that the iPod, or its imitators, might not be quite the epitome of musical reproduction perfection it’s so often cracked up to be, generally prompts a flurry of comments from those who claim that it not only deeply enriches their lives but has become something without which they cannot imagine their continued existence.  Typical is this comment from a Singapore-based musician for whom I have the highest respect; “The accessibility of the iPod has made it my go-to choice for most of my listening, making countless bus, MRT and plane trips immeasurably more bearable”. 

I never leave a home without it
It had always been my impression that those of us fortunate enough to be musicians carry around with us a vast resource of music which we can call upon at any given moment, not on an iPod or Walkman, but in our heads, where our musical memories have stored just about every bit of music we have ever played or heard.  More than that, we have it with us in flawless performances and in the perfect sound unimpeded by the shortcomings of human ears.  Whenever I move house, for example, as I survey a bare room bereft of all the bits and pieces which, for so many years, made it a home and thoroughly imbued it with memories both happy and sad, I call to mind a passage from Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet where Vrenchen takes her leave with the aria, “The Last Sad Night in My Old Home”.  It is the perfect summation of my own mood and I relish the chance to hear again in my inner mind music which is both deeply beautiful and apt.  Strtangely, having never heard the opera live and only ever having heard it through my increasingly scratchy LP box set (on which, for some unaccountable reason, a blob of marmalade was deposited on The Walk to the Paradise Garden), what I hear and see in my mind is a version with all the technical and musical flaws expunged and with a staging which brings it more wonderfully to life than would be possible by even the most talented director.
What’s more, we don’t have to download selected tracks on to a device nor scroll through lists to find what we want to hear, it often comes unbidden to our consciousness.  Yesterday, for example, after a long day’s examining in Hong Kong’s New Territories, I took the train back to my hotel in Kowloon.  Sharing a packed carriage with hundreds of Hong Kong families returning from a day picking up cheap pirated goods across the border in Shenzhen (why do Hongkies returning en masse from over the border make so much noise?  It puts a whole new meaning on the word Caterwauling), I suddenly found escape from the hubbub all around me with a lovely passage of calm, tranquil music which completely took me away from my surroundings.  I had no idea what it was, but it worked a treat; and when I revisited it in my mind once I got to bed, I realised it was the slow movement of the Beethoven Spring Sonata. 

Of course, having something to do to pass a journey has always been a necessity with most travellers.  Long before the advent of iPods, cellphones or even the Sony Walkman, whole train carriages were full of silent crowds intent on extracting every last scrap of entertainment from their newspapers.  I well recall bumping into my old school mate, Alyn Shipton, on the commuter train from Waterloo to Surrey one evening and incurring angry looks and barely suppressed mutters of discontent as we interrupted the mass read of the Evening Standard without our talk and laughter.  Tables are turned now, and we get angry looks when our newspapers impinge on someone’s listening space.  Gone is silence; in its place the hissing of escaping sounds from iPods and the loud monologues of those on the phone (and what is about railways which renders mobile phone microphones useless causing the callers to shout at the top of their voices – a problem which seems particularly prevalent amongst Indian gentlemen using mobile phones?). 
But are journeys in Singapore that tedious that entertainment has to be found to while away the hours incarcerated in bus or MRT? My daily commute from Tanah Merah to Clementi was about the longest journey it’s possible to make on Singapore public transport, but even that was not long enough to get through an entire Beethoven Symphony, and if I chose to do it by bus (which usually extended it to an unimaginable 75 minutes), there was so much to see outside the upper deck windows that no music to distract from the tedium of the journey was necessary.  Yet Singaporeans seem to find even 10 minutes on a bus irksome.  The SBS decision to axe that offensively inescapable on-board TV channel which ruined so many bus journeys (and I’m glad to see that Hong Kong has now followed suit in ridding its buses of on-board TV) was made because so many passengers were finding their personal entertainment for the journey through their own portable devices that there was no longer any need for public entertainment media.  Now, on bus or MRT, nary a soul exists without white leads running from a portable device into their ears, and the space is filled with the insistent sibilants of poorly-suppressed ear-pieces.

Musicians should celebrate their freedom from such horrors; not sacrifice their own personal and uniquely wonderful musical equipment in favour of them.

1 comment:

  1. Dr Marc,
    I'm not sure if this comment fits better with this posting, or your discussion of YouTube. So I'll put it here anyway.

    This posting reminds me of an observation I heard may years ago: that the people who spend the most on high performance audio equipment, tend to play music on it which is the least demanding on either the system or their own ears. Doubtless this is not quite true, but it begs the question: do people enjoy the music or the noise it makes ? The music itself can be enjoyed from reading a score, running through it from memory, or listening to a tinny recording of a good performance, just as much as hearing it on the latest multi-channel, high-bandwidth, surround-sound, super-dooper whatever-it-is (of course with balanced low-impedance cables that cost as much per metre, as a ticket to a good concert). The constraint is whether one has the musical ability / training to hear the music in ones head (and to avoid appearing condescending, I should admit that I generally do not: I cannot read an unfamiliar score and hear it with an "inner ear", but only remind myself of a work that I already know - a far more basic skill).

    If the enjoyment is from the sound alone, then any reduction in quality must lead to a commensurate reduction in enjoyment. But if the enjoyment is in the content, in the music itself (and in much earlier posts you have done a much better job than I can, at explaining exactly what this means), then a fair degree of fidelity loss, distortion or whatever should have limited effect on its ultimate impact. Would you complain about a performance of Shakespeare if the high frequencies of some of the actors' voices were attenuated, or the projection from the left and right stage were unbalanced ? I think not, because it is in the message of the words and the interpretation that matters. Mistaking the music for the sound is a bit like Mr Bean (in the movie) assessing paintings by the appearance of the frames - and finding that many other people agreed with him.

    So, if you can play music in your head, at will, the poor sound quality of iPods and other personal music players should be of lesser importance. But if you can't, then they may be a good and convenient alternative. Except that the sound they make is very hard to hear above ambient traffic, bus or MRT noise, or indeed bunches of chatty people. I went through a brief phase of trying to compete with this, and turned up the volume to such an extent that it became painful. And I stopped for fear of damaging my hearing. The dynamic range of "classical" music is large, and when there is background noise you have to accept long passages where you hear nothing, followed by an explosion of sound, or else you constantly mess with the volume switch. (do iPods have a dynamic range compression function ? - that would be useful, but only in the same way that tomato ketchup is useful in fine cuisine).

    So I find myself agreeing with you in theory, but not entirely practice. For a number of weeks, while I recently moved house, I did not have my CD collection or player to hand. The result was that when the music in my head did not entertain me, I did indeed listen to stuff on YouTube. I felt like the travellers of a generation or two ago, who in the middle of nowhere could at least tune in a short-wave radio and listen to distorted and crackly voices from the BBC. And like water in the dessert, I cared little for the quality, I enjoyed it because it was there.

    Dr Peter