A musical global village?
ON Oct. 1, the compact disc will celebrate the 24th anniversary of its launch in Japan by Sony. It might not, however, make it much past 25, at least in the form of the commercially produced product sold in shops. The age of downloading music has arrived.
Or to be more accurate, the transition to the age of downloading has arrived.
If this worries you, if it makes you angry or sad, get over it. The CD has had a long run. The LP lasted only slightly longer. Given the accelerating rate of technological change, for a medium to remain dominant for 25 years is remarkable.
Besides, neither you nor I can do anything about the situation. Kids, hooked on their iPods, don’t want CDs. With shelves long overstuffed and CDs precariously stacked everywhere, even in my bathroom, cassette tapes stashed here and there and LPs inaccessible in storage that keeps rising in price, I’m not so sure I want all this stuff anymore myself.
Thanks to the Internet and the iPod, plastic jewel cases, always environmentally objectionable, have become even more obviously cumbersome. Record stores are antiquated. Tower Records is on the verge of bankruptcy and could close any day. Even good old-fashioned stereo equipment has become passe to a portable-music generation.
But if you are confused about what downloading will ultimately mean for music, don’t feel alone. As media prophet Marshall McLuhan pointed out nearly half a century ago, any significant new means of communication alters the entire outlook of the people who use it.
And the possibilities of this brave new musical world are staggering. As I write in the morning, it is evening in London, and in Royal Albert Hall, John Adams is conducting his deeply affecting, war-haunted vocal work “Wound Dresser,” featuring as soloist the bass-baritone Eric Owens, who starred in “Grendel” at Los Angeles Opera in June. The concert is part of the British capital’s Proms festival, which is streamed live over the BBC, and I am listening to it on the same computer on which I am working. Earlier this morning, I recorded over the Internet “Die Walkure,” the second opera in a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at this year’s Bayreuth Festival, broadcast on a Belgian radio station. Yesterday afternoon, I purchased online a new orchestral work by the engaging Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra that was recently premiered by the Milwaukee Symphony and that is now being sold as a live recording on iTunes. I’ve burned that onto a CD that also includes Anders Hillborg’s addictive “Eleven Gates,” which the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered last spring and which is also available on iTunes.
We are getting close to inhabiting, at least as far as music is concerned, the global village that McLuhan believed would be the byproduct of the electronic revolution. But it is too soon to celebrate. McLuhan also noted that a global village doesn’t necessarily imply peace and goodwill among men and women. It could easily lead to intolerance and war, to a world distressingly like the one we inhabit. Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t automatically mean that mankind benefits.
The next wave
HOW the iPod and the Internet will affect music cannot be predicted. We have yet to make the required paradigm shifts in our thinking. At this early stage, you could be forgiven for believing that nothing more than another step on the evolutionary ladder of music reproduction has been taken, and only for the sake of convenience.
The 78 rpm recording, which held only about five minutes’ worth of music on each side, gave way to the LP, the long-playing disc, in the early ‘50s. The CD came along 30 years later as another giant step in handiness. Vinyl could store 30 minutes of music max per side; the much more portable and far less destructible CD held nearly 80 without a break.
But the CD, in moving music from the analog to the digital realm, began a powerful psychological shift that downloading has now completed. Music is a physical art form created by the pressure of sound waves hitting the ear, which mechanically turns the waves into electrical impulses carried by the nervous system to the brain. Records work the same way: The needle in the groove bobs up and down, tracing the wave form, which then becomes electrically amplified before it is returned to the physical world through loudspeakers.
With digital CDs, a laser reads numbers that are then electrically converted to wave forms. But at least we still had the disc. With downloading, music becomes entirely virtual. And given that the favored mode of listening to downloaded music is through an iPod or other MP3 device with ear buds -- and increasingly the kind that are inserted deeply inside the ear to drown out the rest of the world -- we have, as McLuhan again predicted, an electronic medium becoming an outright extension of the nervous system.
This is a profound sensory revolution. Always a social as well as a physical activity, music has been turned into an entirely individual pastime. The world’s music may be at our fingertips, yet we use it to isolate ourselves.
This antisocial aspect enters into the acquisition of music as well. The disappearance of record stores takes that away, although given the popularity of Amoeba Music in Hollywood, maybe not entirely. Meanwhile, Amazon.com continues to function successfully as a virtual CD outlet. But iTunes is obviously the future.
Something else new is that the whole iPod phenomenon is geared primarily for popular music. You might have the world online, but try to get it in some reasonable way onto your iPod. The LP was needed because longer works, namely symphonies and sonatas and operas, were terribly inconvenient (and expensive) broken up over numerous 78s. Sony masterminded the CD to last specifically the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Shopping at iTunes is also a new experience. The fact that it allows you to listen to excerpts before you buy encourages exploration. And the fact that you can purchase single songs, single movements of works or individual works further allows for musical experimentation. But the iPod recognizes only songs; all other forms of music -- be they ragas, operas or requiems -- are forced into its song-biased strictures.
For classical music, one advantage of downloading, which turns out to be catching on far more quickly than anyone imagined, is that virtual music means fewer middlemen. However much some of us love record stores, retail became the enemy of classical music recording. Unlike pop recordings with their typically short self life, classical discs are less timely, and the quantity of works and performances is enormous. Distributors hate classical. Record stores aren’t crazy about maintaining such a large inventory either. Over the last five years, classical sections in CD stores have been steadily diminishing in size if not disappearing altogether. Even Amoeba has lately cut back.
But with iTunes, just about anything is possible. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has leapt into the hip breach by beginning to market live recordings of certain programs released a week or two after the performances. Thus far, it is has put out two from last season’s Minimalism festival and two from its Beethoven Unbound series, in which new or recent scores were paired with Beethoven symphonies conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
To some degree, this might seem little more than a clever marketing ploy. Why give away the Philharmonic concerts via radio broadcasts when you can sell them? The sound on iTunes, a sticking point, is listenable, but no better. You don’t even get an intermission feature. What’s so hip about that? Plus there is nothing hip about the New York Philharmonic, which is releasing more conventional concert recordings on iTunes as well.
But accessibility makes a considerable difference. You don’t have to plan to listen or record off the air. And because iTunes has become the Tower Records of its day, someone with eclectic but nonclassical tastes might just stumble on the Philharmonic’s great Louis Andriessen download and find his or her horizons vastly broadened.
File under: Music
OF course, iTunes is but one place to get music. Essentially, it’s a jungle out there. You might easily consume a day doing nothing but hunting for music, sometimes finding something special and then after all that somehow screwing up the download. The technology has not yet caught up to the promise.
Still, I particularly like Magnatune, which has the motto “We are not evil.” The selection is not nearly as deep as iTunes’, but Philharmonia Baroque, the Bay Area early music orchestra, has begun selling its live performances on the site. And unlike iTunes, Magnatune gives you the option of selecting different size files, the larger ones having far more lifelike sound.
The other day, I downloaded a Philharmonia Baroque performance of Handel’s opera “Atalanta,” wonderfully conducted by Nicholas McGegan and featuring a splendid cast. I chose the best sound, and the result proved first-rate in every way. But what a chore! The 2 1/2 hours’ worth of music require 1.5 gigabytes of memory and take more than two hours to download at top DSL speeds. My 1-gigabyte iPod Nano was advertised as capable of holding as many as 250 songs, but that’s only if you compromise greatly on sound quality. The first two of the three acts of “Atalanta” in the best sound fill its memory.
Beyond the commercial sites, a wealth of live performances float around cyberspace, if only you can locate and capture them. The best bets are from European radio stations, which regularly broadcast and stream concerts. This is, however, a hit-or-miss business.
Just finding what is on is a major challenge. For that, the site Classical Webcast is handy. It lists various stations that broadcast music around the world and provides links to their websites. But you will be faced with an array of languages as well as huge variations in sound quality and ease of use. Try to find stations that stream at 128K -- which is not great (it’s the iPod low standard), but anything less is terrible.
BBC Radio 3 is probably the best classical station on the planet, broadcasting concerts from around Britain daily, but its sound is substandard. I’m especially keen on RTBF Musique 3 from Brussels, where you can hear the Bayreuth “Gotterdammerung” at 5 a.m. Friday. Radio 4 from the Netherlands is also full of treasures, but it has a difficult-to-read website.
American stations also webcast. But one of the most impressive, WHMT in Chicago, where I used to listen to the Chicago Symphony broadcasts, now charges for streaming ($65 for three months). Also, the Boston Symphony doesn’t allow WGBH to stream its live broadcasts; it’s holding out for selling them one way or another later. The orchestra refused to sign an agreement that most U.S. orchestras recently ratified in which the musicians ask for only a little upfront to permit their concerts to be recorded for broadcast or webcast or other forms of Internet exchange.
My experience, however, makes me think that downloaded music will not be a gold mine for musical institutions, given the sheer range of competition. The choices are already multiplying beyond any reasonable amount. I use a program called Relay Radio to record streamed concerts. My hard drive is full, so I burn them onto CDs.
Then they wind up in piles, piles that make me think I am keeping up with what is happening in the world of music. But of course I’m not. The day lacks the hours in which to listen. In the future, the piles will grow and grow.
Music is cheap (a blank CD costs pennies) and plentiful. Before long we will no longer think of it as products but services. That is the other paradigm shift with which we must contend.
So what to do? One step would be to let artists come up with ways of rethinking things. I found such an artist last month at the Bang on a Can Marathon held at the art museum MassMOCA in North Adams, Mass. He showed me a “CD” that Cantaloupe Records will soon release. It’s a jewel case filled with electronic components that produce rudimentary sounds. Each case is handmade and very cool. Cooler still was his cellphone -- a large white early touch-tone telephone from the ‘70s that he converted to a mobile.
We cannot, nor should we, stop progress. Technology now provides musical profiteers with new ways to control what we listen to and how we listen. But it also helps liberate music from ownership. My motto is: Power to the people, not the iPod.
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Point and click: Let the music begin
Looking for a place to enter the digital world? Check out these sites:
www.iTunes.com -- The most comprehensive site for purchasing online music, including exclusive live recordings from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony. It requires special software that Apple provides free.
www.magnatune.com -- A more limited site but one that includes exclusive live recordings of Philharmonia Baroque. It lets you choose what to pay and makes its recordings available in much finer sound than iTunes.
www.classicalwebcast.com -- An excellent listing of classical radio stations from around the world that webcast for free. It provides links to the stations’ websites as well as audio links.
www.operacast.com -- An obsessive daily listing of operas and operatic music broadcast in the U.S. and Europe, which includes many live performances from international festivals.
www.ubuweb.com -- A site devoted to the avant-garde, this includes a treasure trove of rare out-of-print recordings that can be downloaded for free.
www.archive.org-- Don’t even think of checking out this website unless you have an enormous amount of time on your hands. It contains, all free, 37,763 concerts and 90,122 audio recordings, along with tens of thousands of moving images and texts. The range of music is extravagant and includes the Haydn Quartet with Corrine Morgan from 1904, a live concert by the String Cheese Incident from Aug. 4 and nearly 3,000 Grateful Dead concerts. Of special interest is the Other Minds Archive, which contains concerts and interviews with composers from the Berkeley radio station KPFA-FM made in the ‘70s and ‘80s.