Please listen to this audio file and answer the question below. The file ... contains three versions of the same 1'15" excerpt of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.491. One is the original uncompressed CD-quality audio, the other two are compressed, like you’d download from iTunes or Amazon. Can you tell which is which?Responding in the comments section of the post, we wrote, in part:
[I]t depends on the audio system you’re using to audition the clips. If you’re using the ordinary MP3 audio system like, say, the audio system on your computer or an iPod, you probably won’t notice any difference between the clips. If, however, you’re using a high-priced, high-quality audio system (the two aren’t necessarily the same thing), you’ll notice the difference immediately. Given the ubiquitousness of the iPod and other crap audio systems, you’d be pretty stupid to pay out more bucks and give up more storage space for a CD-quality MP3.The blog author's response to this was both unexpected and, on further thought, thoroughly dismaying:
I can’t believe that you have used an iPod to play back any of the lossless formats it supports through good-quality headphones and still think it is a “crap audio system”. I worry that if your idea of “mediocre” starts somewhere beyond this, then you’re hardly typical of even classical music purchasers — indeed it may well be that your idea of “good” surpasses the quality of the electronics used to record most classical albums in the first place.Our first thought was that the writer was simply pissed at us for dissing what's become something of an icon and de rigueur accessory for the under-thirty crowd, and we responded in kind with a snarky quip. But on giving further thought to that blog author's response, we, with a quick thrill of horror, began to suspect that this guy was simply expressing what he and his generation of classical music aficionados really feel to be the case; viz., that the iPod, with "good-quality headphones" attached, is actually a respectable audio system for the serious listening of recorded classical music. If that, in fact, is truly the feeling of most of today's young classical music aficionados, and their ears have really become that appallingly desensitized to the inaccurate reproduction of classical music, then classical music is in far deeper trouble than even its most pessimistic doomsayers imagine. For, as we've here written previously, unlike recorded pop music, with recorded classical music,
...dynamic nuance, nuance of timbre, and acoustic accuracy, among other such matters, are sine qua non, and even the very best existing CD format is incompetent to capture all that needs to be captured.But perhaps we're being just a tad alarmist concerning this blog post author's response. Perhaps he really was merely pissed at us for dissing one of his icons. One can but hope.
And then there's the problem of playback. Even given the very best existing CD format, hearing the playback of classical music so recorded through the earbuds of, say, the ubiquitous iPod is simply a joke. An insidious joke. A most insidious joke indeed. And the joke is on us — all of us. It's no mere bon mot to say, "You can get used to awful" P.D.Q., most especially when one has no point of live reference or too infrequent experience of it as is the unhappy case today overwhelmingly where classical music is concerned.
That’s not true [viz., our contention that the test was not valid as the playback systems used were not standardized or even considered]. This is market research. It’s not up to me to tell people how to use the product. Record stores don’t tell you that you’re not qualified to buy music based on your choice of CD player. Everybody was asked the same question. It wouldn’t be very useful to know what people thought about music played back on equipment that they didn’t own, and it seems completely reasonable to assume that almost everybody bothering to take part in the experiment would listen on the same stuff they’d use for any other music download. If we only asked people that own high-end stereo equipment, we’d only be asking people that already agreed with you. That would be like excluding sick people from a drug trial. It’s not my fault that you got it wrong. If you’d spent two minutes going to fetch a pair of headphones instead of insulting me, you might have done better.The aggrieved Mr. Proper Discord, who imagines that our pointing out the fundamental flaw in his test was intended by us as an insult directed at him personally, misses the point (surprise!). What we wrote simply said that the test results do not confirm his hypothesis that "most classical music fans can’t tell the difference between CD-quality downloads and the compressed kind you get from mainstream music stores" as he imagines they did. In order for that hypothesis to be confirmed, all conditions of the test would need to be standardized for all participants which they clearly were not. A key factor in such a test is the playback equipment used to audition the test file which playback equipment was not even considered much less standardized. It's our stated contention that when auditioned via the typical crap computer sound system or an iPod, no one would consistently be able to hear the difference between the test file's three excerpts, but if auditioned via a high-quality sound system, only the tone deaf would not be able to hear the difference. Beyond all that, it's a matter of continuing dismay to us that Mr. Proper Discord apparently still imagines that all that's required to transform a crap playback system into an acceptable one for the serious listening of recorded classical music is a pair of "good-quality headphones."
I’m against people who present [for instance] a Mozart symphony and say, “Okay, now I’m going to dissect this work and show you what it really is.” To me it’s a false point of departure. Our job as performers is to surrender our own egos and to completely open ourselves to the work itself and to transmit that work as if we’re not there. This is on the one hand a very easy and simple thing to do. On the other hand, we’re all crippled by our own egos. To me, I’m not interested in knowing what my interpretation is. When I was studying at The Juilliard School, the big movement was objectivism vs. subjectivism and the popular methodology was, “You have to find your own feelings, your own voice, and you have to find yourself. What’s your take on this piece of music?” Well, I had an allergy to that type of conversation. I thought, “I know what my feelings are and I couldn’t care less what my own feelings are. I want to know what the object is.” Is that objectivism? Well, yes, that’s objectivism. I want to know who Haydn is. I want to know who Beethoven is. I want to know how their music works. How does it fit? Why is it this? And why is it that? And to me, the beauty of that method is that you can devote yourself to the other, and a byproduct of that is that you find yourself. However if you go from the other point of view -- the “find yourself” subjectivism -- you don’t find the other. It’s very simple -- so simple that we don’t do it enough.RTWT here.
Stephen Sondheim, possibly the most sophisticated and least sentimental composer ever to write a show tune, celebrates his 80th birthday on March 22. New York is waxing ecstatic. The first of several major celebrations took place on Monday amid much congratulating and fussing, whooping and hollering. The host turned out to be the underutilised New York Philharmonic, not exactly your average pit-band. The locale was Avery Fisher Hall, capacity 2,738 and essentially too large. The conductor was an old Broadway pro, Paul Gemignani. Lonny Price, the slick director, assembled a massive cast that actually honoured the tired label, “star studded.” TV cameras loomed.RTW 339-word T here.
At the opening, [Eschenbach] kept the cellos hushed to the very edge of audibility (it's a tribute to the NSO cellists that they brought it off), which let him gradually build the volume and tension to great cresting breakers of sound. The orchestra responded by putting its heart into the music, and the Washington Chorus (which did its own Verdi Requiem last April) sang reliably and honorably. But Eschenbach followed the piece's emotional contours at the expense of its structure. The performance was so spiritual that it sometimes floated off into the heavens, losing its anchor to the ground — that is, its rhythmic pulse. The phrases kept battering against the confines of their proper tempos, now fast, now slow, so that orchestra and soloists sometimes had trouble staying together. It would be nice to blame it all on the soloists, but it wasn't all their fault. A lot was their fault, though. In this chorus-heavy city, the Requiem is usually done by somebody at least once a season. But even in an age that suffers a lack of good Verdi singers, the piece is seldom heard with such bad soloists. Evgeny Nikitin, the bass, was the least offensive. His voice was at least the right size for the part, but he sang with such unvaried color, squeezing out a harsh, flat sound, utterly disregarding the pronunciation of the Italian vowels, and coming in so often under the pitch, that he didn't give much enjoyment. Nikolai Schukoff, the tenor, was described in his biography as a lyric tenor who "has since developed towards heavier roles"; he sounded (when one could hear him) like a lyric tenor who is in the process of pushing his voice toward strain and collapse. Mihoko Fujimura offered a ramrod-straight, echoey mezzo-soprano with considerable range, but no legato line. That is, instead of playing her voice like a violin, she tended to break her phrases at ill-chosen moments (like the end of the otherwise successful opening of the "Lux aeterna"), or failed to support her sound. Soprano Twyla Robinson, by contrast, coquetted shamelessly with her own lines, breaking the phrases where it pleased her, swooping up or hauling off to take aim at a high note that her voice was too slender to deliver adequately -- and showing blatant disregard for the written rhythms in what felt like defacement of the music rather than mere haplessness.Reading the savage attacks launched by the commenters on Ms. Midgette's blog, one might be forgiven for imagining that the vitriol of their prose was provoked by the spiky, uncompromising, bluntly honest critique quoted above, but that's not it at all despite all appearances to the contrary. What subliminally provoked the vitriol of those savage attacks was the unfortunate, cringe-inducing wording of the simile that constituted Ms. Midgette's lede grafs. Wrote Ms. Midgette:
A bride who wants to look beautiful, they say, should pick ugly bridesmaids. That adage worked for the conductor Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night. He led the National Symphony Orchestra in a Verdi Requiem that featured such an awful quartet of vocal soloists that he could only look better by comparison.Ouch! We know what Ms. Midgette meant to convey by that simile, but her careless wording made it sound as if she were suggesting that Eschenbach purposely and calculatedly hired a dreadful quartet of singers for the express purpose of making himself look better. The clear absurdity of such a suggestion (talk about a contradiction in terms!) — an absurdity not even a rank tyro would be guilty of perpetrating, infinitely less so a critic of Ms. Midgette's skill and erudition — should have alerted one and all that the wording of those unfortunate grafs was merely a rare and uncharacteristic lapsus calami on Ms. Midgette's part, and let it go at that with perhaps an amused smile. No such common good sense. The loyal, devoted, and outraged NSO homies were out for blood, and would not be denied their full measure no matter the clear lapsus. So much for the (typical) discernment of blog commenters.
Champions of the idea of a return to the concert etiquette of the 18th and 19th centuries where the "regulated" audience practice was, for instance, to show approval by clapping between movements, are forever citing examples of famous composers of the time seemingly showing their pleasure in, even approval of, the practice, the point of adducing the examples being to convince us that if the practice was approved by composers such as those, then we should have no objection to, ought to even encourage, such practice today. But the examples adduced by these champions are totally specious, and citing them, the worst sort of sophistry. That, for instance, Brahms thought a new piano concerto of his a failure because instead of applause there was only silence after each of the first two movements, or that Mozart purposely wrote into a movement of a symphony certain passages calculated to provoke an audience to applause, and reveled in the success of that device, shows only that both composers were keenly aware of, and sensitive to, the prevailing concert etiquette of their respective times, and what was expected and when from an audience as a sign of its pleasure. The examples in no way demonstrate those composers' in-principle pleasure in, and approval of, that etiquette. It was simply a fact of musical life in those times, the consequence of largely musically ignorant and uncouth audiences, both aristocratic and bourgeois, and as working composers who depended on those audiences for their daily bread and cheese, Mozart and Brahms had little choice but to accept and play by the rules of that etiquette. Classical music critics writing today who champion such changes in our present-day classical music concert etiquette for the express purpose of making the classical music concert more inviting to, and comfortable for, the masses ... are simply as wrongheaded about the matter as they could possibly be, notwithstanding how well-intentioned their championing, and seem oblivious of the wholesale damage that would obtain were their proposals put into actual practice. One classical music critic [Mr. Ross, who was left unidentified in the original post] who champions such make-it-inviting-for-the-masses alterations to what he considers, generally, the ossified and elitist classical music promotion and concert practices of the present-day declares in hopeful metaphor, "When the age of the dinosaurs ends, the age of the mammals begins." I suggest that a better metaphor for what would obtain were the practices this critic and his like-minded colleagues champion put into actual practice would be what obtained on the island of Guam when the alien common brown tree snake was by error introduced into the environment, whereupon their numbers rapidly multiplied. In fairly short order, all native bird species on the island disappeared, their song silenced forever. Today, only the squawking of chickens and the hum and clatter of modern-day commerce prevail there.Mr. Ross's response to this (on his blog, The Rest Is Noise) and to others who joined the fray was,
There's [a] dark truth behind so-called concert etiquette. It lets audiences off the hook. Instead of delivering an informed, passionate reaction to each segment of the concert as it unfolds, they can sit in neutral silence until the end. A truly engaged audience would applaud warmly when it's called for, remain silent when applause is inappropriate, and boo when the performance falls obviously short.And that's essentially the same position Mr. Ross takes in his above linked piece for The Guardian although somewhat attenuated and more circumspect. Our response to that position is the same today as it was back in 2005; viz.,
I must say I agree with [Mr. Ross's] sentiment, and would even welcome such a practice in the concert hall. Problem is, it works properly only when an audience is made up entirely of the musically informed and knowledgeable; i.e., genuine connoisseurs. It most certainly does not work — cannot work — with a "mixed" audience where some or many are largely ignorant of classical music, or whose exposure to classical music has been of the superficial, cultural/social obligation sort; ergo, the tacit "rules of conduct" for the classical music concert audience. It's simply the most sensible way to go about the thing today, and speaks to the reality of present-day classical music concert audiences.
Notwithstanding my criticism, even excoriation, of "hardcore technical" analysis in such critical writing ... and my praise for "impressionistic" analysis ..., I agree there's room for both methods, and that a marriage of the two is desirable when handled in such a way as to serve a better understanding of the music under discussion rather than as things in themselves. It's just as egregious an error to wax over-the-top poetic in "impressionistic" analysis as it is to discourse in academic detail and at academic length in "hardcore technical" analysis of a piece of music, or to take the position, as did one academic musicologist, that the only way to analyze a piece of music is by means of "the dispassionate, the unbiased, the scientific, the musicological way." And what exactly do I mean when I say that "a marriage of the two is desirable when handled in such a way as to serve a better understanding of the music under discussion"? I mean that only when the "hardcore technical" is used to provide clarifying or illuminating concrete example of an "impressionistic" point made in general critical writing on music (as opposed to, say, critical writing for use in music theory courses or other specialist venues) is it being used as it ought to be used, and that its use in any other capacity in such critical writing is decidedly out of place, and hugely counterproductive.Given our clear antagonism toward technical critical writing about music for non-specialist audiences, why, then, did we find this by Mr. Adams on Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony so utterly engaging? Because it's an exemplary instance of that marriage we spoke of above.
Until I got serious and really learned the piece last year, I could at best say I “recognized” Sibelius Six but never had a handle on it. It is among the most elusive pieces ever written. Much is made of its Dorian modality, and some writers correctly point out the dubious habit of saying the work is “in D minor”, when at best we ought to say, as Lou Harrison did of one of his symphonies, that it is “on D” rather than “in D”. But what no one I know has ever mentioned is how critical another chord is in this symphony — the half-diminished seventh (i.e. your fabled “Tristan chord”). It’s the composer’s special way of integrating the melancholy, resigned purity of the Dorian mode with the more emotionally dangerous and mercurial half-diminished chord that gives all late works of Sibelius their eerie moodiness. That is the case with the Seventh Symphony.... Arvo Pärt makes use of similar melancholy-saturated minor modes, but it’s Sibelius’s peculiar genius of mixing his with the more chromatically ambiguous diminished triads that makes his music both more evocative and less expressively monochrome. The Sixth Symphony opens with a simple, sustained counterpoint for strings alone. The first notes are played by the second violins in divisi, marked mezzo forte. That dynamic itself presages the many interpretive problems lying ahead. It would be easier if it were pianissimo or forte — no problem there. But MEZZO forte is so…blegh! What does he mean? And so much of the following music lies in that “mezzo” zone, including the tempi. The first movement is “Allegro molto moderato,” (or “lively but only VERY moderately so). Many of the markings in this symphony are “poco,” or “moderato,” or “mezzo” this or “mezzo” that. The feeling is not unlike visiting a home where everyone talks in a grave, hushed whisper.It's been a half-century since we left conservatory where we "studied" harmony (the scare quotes because we mostly spent our classroom time there playing cut-throat Monopoly at the local cafeteria which was our hangout), and what we learned has grown severely arthritic due a half-century of disuse, but, still, we understood fully the sense of what Mr. Adams wrote, and, further, imagine it would be understood by any regular concertgoer or devoted classical music listener whether he'd studied music formally or not. But perhaps we imagine too much. RTWT here, and see what you think.