For as long as we have had sound recordings (which, is pretty much since the beginning of the twentieth century), we have been able to think of music as a purely aural experience, one that has been extended with the rise of the gramophone, the home stereo, the Walkman, and the iPod (just to name a few re-inventions of Edison’s original cylinders). Until computer technology made it possible to hear music produced by a virtual means (say, through sequencing software), all music really cannot be divorced from people making the music.
Today, with YouTube, so many of my favorite albums have been (illegally) ripped into videos that typically have no valuable visual component, but if you’re at a computer and don’t mind running YouTube in the background, you can basically listen for free. I often won’t listen to those recordings, mainly because I think of YouTube as first a visual medium, and second, one that includes sound. I am not sure if I am unique in this regard of thinking/behaving. I do, however, love watching YouTube videos (including those I imagine, too, are illegal copies) of concerts and DVD rips. To see the musicians performing with synchronized sound is of course second only to being there, at the concert. Over the years, I have purchased several video recordings like this on DVD. I regrettably do not always listen to them, mainly for reasons of convenience. My stereo systems are not set up for video (no TV), and if I’m at the computer, what beats the convenience of something like YouTube? (I will also admit, I have watched my DVDs more than once not from the DVDs, but from the bootleg copies that are on YouTube, just because of the convenience.)
Music videos are nothing new, of course, and I was there when the birth of MTV took shape in the 1980s. Many videos made for music television was not just performers on a stage or in a recording studio; music videos became their own creative medium that tried to give context to popular music, and some may never have shown the musicians performing, properly. It was entertainment, for sure, to enhance the music.
I bring this to light because I question the future of recorded classical music in our current media-dominated society. That is, I think we may be finally ready for a video to be the new medium for music recordings. Two popular publishers online of late have been the JS Bach Foundation and the Netherlands Bach Society All of Bach Project. The first is a project to record and sell all of Bach’s cantatas on DVD. The second is more ambitious, a recording of all of Bach’s music for release, free, online in HD video. Both offer us visual images of performing musicians playing music. So far, a lot of what has been released is of high quality, and I’d wager that it’s of equal quality to what has been recorded through traditional means, through the likes of the world’s top record companies. If Bach isn’t your first taste in music, consider too Medici.tv, which currently advertises 1500 videos of classical and opera selections.
I find the recordings at All of Bach compelling for a number of reasons, and I think among everything I have seen, they set a high bar going forward. The price tag for accessing this developing library first takes away any restriction to their great content. In addition, they have been producing extremely well-done videos with both high fidelity for video and for audio. A typical video might work like this:
- A scene is established outside the recording location, such as a church, a home, etc. Over silence, the title of the work appears on screen.
- The music begins with moving video of either the performer or the space in which they are playing.
- Throughout, the video will feature the performer, the instrument, and the environs.
It’s always tastefully done.
In addition, they’re featuring many times interviews with the musicians on an aspect of the work, or its performance. In this video of BWV 1066, we get a treat of both the performance of the work, notes, and an interview with a musician. In this case, it’s the lead violinist, Mr. Sato, who presents the findings of his research and trials with setting up the musicians as they may have performed in Bach’s time. For someone very interested in the music, it’s history, and its composer, this is very valuable stuff, not unlike well-written liner notes from an album.
Of course, we may not always want to see our music; part of our culture is listening to music as background sound, just as I am now, listening to Vivaldi cello sonatas on headphones as I write about Bach’s music, performed in video online. But the option to see it is pretty awesome. The thing that makes live music concerts so interesting to me is to see the performers, their facial expressions, their opportunities to talk to the audience, and the fascinating mechanics towards how the music is being made (from key presses on a bassoon, to the way singers move when they sing). If we can get around the convenience of music alone as sound by itself, watching our music returns us to the origins of how music was historically enjoyed.
There, is however, a trade off I see. Recordings are always limited to one “take” in time. It’s a copy of one experience (or the best experiences in a larger context of time) and without the visual reminder of that, we’re pretty much set on accepting that. Add in the visuals, however, and we have a more overt reminder that it’s the same thing again. Same outfits; same facial expressions; it’s clearly a repeated, recorded experience.
As Gould once imagined a future for recordings where musical performance might be enhanced by the consumer at home in being able to vary the sound or tempo of a recording, I too can imagine an evolution of today’s excellent examples offered through sites like All of Bach. Perhaps, the evolution of this idea (already accommodated, I must admit, through DVD specifications) will include our ability to change cameras/angles, where in the orchestra or hall we are “virtually seated,” and maybe in 3.0, we can swap out different takes or even different musicians.
Until then, I have a feeling there’s a compelling argument for recording more than just the audio in today’s world. What I hope for is a honest, not overly-produced expectation, that’s more like All of Bach and less like MTV.