04 October 2016

Long-Playing Nostalgia

John McCarthy gave a talk the other day on nostalgia.  He is in a good position to speak dispassionately on the topic since, when he looks back, he must always remember those dreadful five years he spent as a hostage of a Jihadist group in Lebanon; if anyone has an excuse to avoid nostalgia, it is McCarthy. He pointed out that nostalgia was once considered a sickness (those with a knowledge of Greek classics – or access to Google – will recognise in the word’s suffix the Greek word for pain) and he spoke of a Russian general who had ordered any of his men suffering from nostalgia to be buried alive.

(How different things are in Russia today.  Those who suffer from nostalgia for the autocratic days of the Soviet Union are elevated to President.) 

Vladimir Putin and John McCarthy aside, most of us today welcome nostalgia as that warm inner feeling when we look back, nearly always through a heavily selective memory, on those moments of our existence which, in comparison with current reality, seem positively Elysian.  And as we grow older, so nostalgia exerts an ever more appealing lure in our bid to escape from the present and wallow in the past.

Such nostalgia was in the air yesterday evening when I attended a talk given by Natalie Ng on the Long Playing Record.  At least, that’s what the talk was supposed to be about.  It was intended to introduce the new archive of LPs which has come into the possession of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and to investigate LP recordings of 18th century music.  However, there had been a breakdown of communications somewhere along the line and not only did Ms Ng never scratch the surface (pardon the pun) of an LP, but her talk barely impinged on 18th century music.  She did promise to compare early recorded performances of Beethoven’s Fifth, but even this was peripheral to a talk which was basically a fascinating overview of the history of recorded live performances.

Singapore is largely out of step with the rest of the world in having so completely dismissed commercial recordings in favour of pirated downloads, and while Ms Ng was quite right to say that CD shops have ceased to exist here, the industry, certainly so far as classical music is concerned, is far from dead, even if it is just a shadow of what it once was.  Demand for top quality recordings of first-rate performances is still there; it just doesn’t exist in Singapore.

So her talk was essentially flavoured by nostalgia. Looking back to the days when people cared enough not only to go out and buy recordings, but to go through the physical effort of actually playing them.  She drew attention to the facts that; 200 years ago, you had to go out of your house to find music, and had to concentrate exclusively on listening to the music you found out there; that 100 years ago you had to go through the effort of putting the 78 on the turntable, winding it up and placing the needle on the record; and 50 years ago taking the LP out of its sleeve and actually standing by the record player in order to select the track you wanted to hear.  The cassette tape with its headphones had taken music out of the public arena and transformed it into a solitary experience, while the CD, she told us, was the first time listeners had been able to “create their own playlists” from the comfort of their chairs, through the use of remote controls.

For the students present, this was obviously something of an eye-opener.  Part of a generation in which music is ubiquitous, free and personal, the idea that people would have had to make physical and financial sacrifices in the pursuit of music was clearly something they had not all previously considered.  Ms Ng’s concise and unbiased approach meant that she stated the facts without allowing nostalgia to intrude.

But nostalgia does intrude for me, and while I am happy to accept that my personal nostalgia is usually nothing more than a sickness, on this occasion I think it indicates something rather more fundamental to society in general.

The implication (not stated by Ms Ng but clearly picked up by some of her audience) is that since the advent of commercial recording of classical music in the early 20th century, technological advances have improved our musical environment.  Now we have unlimited access to whatever music we want to hear, when we want and wherever we want.  We can cut out the boring bits of a Mahler symphony and repeated ad infinitum the bits of a Rachmaninov concerto we particularly like.  We can distort a composer’s creation for our own personal gratification and we can impose on others our musical tastes by publishing our “playlists” or playing our music so loudly that it seeps into the consciousness of others.  We can use music as an escapism, locking ourselves into our own world behind our earphones, and as an accompaniment to mundane existence by having it on in the background as we perform our daily chores.  But is this an improvement?

We have reached musical saturation point.  It is impossible to go through any part of any day without conscious or unconscious exposure to music.  What has taken composers and musicians a lifetime to create, we dismiss as background noise to our own existence.  We demean the act of creation and debase the skill of performance.  Quality is secondary to quantity, the value of the creative process is devalued by economy of access.  Even in yesterday’s talk, voices were raised to question why anyone would pay for a recording when they could download one for free. 

It will come to a sticky end, and I predict it is not far off.  At some point we are simply going to take music so much for granted that it will slip out of our reach.  If this absolute saturation of music is the price we have to pay for renewing our acquaintance with music as a rare and privileged art accessible only to those who make the physical and financial effort to engage with it, then it is a price worth paying for replacing nostalgia with reality.

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