A Reverie Influenced by a Recent Gift
For Christmas my mother kindly perused my Amazon Wish List and found something, frankly, I had forgotten was there. It was a recording of the 555 sonatas for keyboard by Domenico Scarlatti, the first-ever complete recording, by the now-passed Scott Ross. The set used to be huge, a large box, with single jewel-sized cases for each of the 34 CDs. Today, it has been re-issued into cardboard sleeves. While the box is still formidable, it's but a shadow of what it used to be.
The recording was made in the mid-1980s by Ross who was an American who moved to France. Ross' project was undertaken jointly by Erato Disques and France Radio. At the time I first came across this set, it was under lock and key, behind a glass barrier, at Music of Note, a classical and jazz shop (if I recall correctly) in Shaker Square, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A comment in this blog makes mention of the store, and it's passing alongside other specialty shops. Even the big boys are falling down, with the 2010 article documenting the demise of Borders Books and Music.
One thing I am a little amazed by today is how recent events seem as fresh and similiar as older events; for me (and this may be true for others my age too), things that happened in 1998 or 2004 do not seem that long ago. The Ross recordings were made around 1984-85 and while that does have a tinge of age, things that took place, say, in 2007, seem equally fresh as last week. My perception is one thing, but the thing I have noticed very clearly is that the way I purchase and listen to music has changed profoundly since those 20 years ago.
Last night I started watching The Black Mirror, a British series that is now available on Netflix, pointing out the negative possibilities with today's technologies. I love Netflix and the ability to pick what I want to watch, and when. I can do that today with music too, either through my own iTunes library on my Macintosh (or iOS device), or if I choose, through a subscription-based service such as Spotify.
The Way it Used to Be
I have very fond memories of shopping for music. You can hardly do that any more. Just as there are independent bookshops that will give you a taste of what a Borders experience was like not that long ago for books, I have found some music shops (one of my favorites, in Paris, La Dame Blanche is very small but very nostolgic). Upon moving to Richmond, I was so excited to finally live in a city that had a Tower Records. When I would visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, there was Schoolkids Classical. Cleveland, which I mentioned, even had a few smaller shops. I remember a small bookshop at the Rocky River Westgate area that sold books, bookmarks (!), and CDs. It's where I found my first recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, performed by Monica Huggett and the Raglan Baroque. My first visit to London in 1995 was awesome, as I found the Virgin Megastore. Visits to Boston revealed HMV (another London store), and in many of these bigger shops, like a Borders, there were complete classical sections. You could walk up and down the rows for an hour or more, flipping through a huge catalog of classical music. I'd often spend a lot of time straining to read the sides of the big box sets (always a sucker), and hunt for any new releases. You never knew what you might discover because there was no real outlet for news about what music was being released next, save for the music magazines like Gramophone.
For me, music listening's allure was caught up somewhat in the finding and purchasing of music. I am not sure anything I can shop for today in a store has quite the same feeling or excitement level. That's not to say record stores are not there; I got a similiar feeling just 2 years ago visiting Amoeba Music in California. But the days for these shops to still do a turn-over will be short-lived, at least outside of large urban centers. The trade of old discs (the vinyl and the plastic and aluminum varieties) will be their raison d'etre. Some of my CD jewel cases have notches removed, and I had to explain to a friend once, why. "They were used, and this mark ensured that no one would be asked to pay full price." Used CDs. Yes, that was a thing, and you could find some real bargains.
Cracking Open a New Purchase
Part of the fun was opening a fresh jewel case. (The mostly cardboard cases today, when I order a CD online, isn't quite the same.) Fidgeting to get the plastic off was a pain, but also a necessary right of passage as the owner of a new disc. Then, the ultimate thrill before popping out the CD, for me, was dis-lodging the booklet, opening it up, and then, after expelling all the air out of my lungs, I'd plunge my nose deep into the booklet and inhale. Ah! The smell of fresh soy ink. It was part of the experience.
After you listened to the music, read all the notes, then checked to see who all the performers were, what instruments they used, and maybe even what microphones were used to make the recording, it would all go back into the case. Then I'd scout out the new spot for the recording on my shelf. You stood back, and admired how your precious collection grew just a little bigger.
Choosing Something to Listen To
The next thing to do once the new recording had run its course was to pick something different to listen to. Like choosing a book in the store, the album art would help guide you; but in addition, the memory of a recording and its mood, adjusted for your present mood, all went into what you'd pick next for listening. This point is likely lost on younger kids today who may listen to music. Choosing music to listen to involved selecting a physical object off a shelf. You'd settle in to hear an entire album or at least several tracks, before moving on to something else.
Today, of course, we are not confined to using physical objects. All my listening is via computer. I do not even own a CD player, per se. I have always wanted one, and every so often I wonder if I should invest in one, at least one that is fancy and comes in one of those big, heavy cases that will match the other hifi equipment. Of course, I still like to buy CDs. I believe they are a wise investment in terms of price and quality (CD quality versus a 256kbit rip of a CD). Sometimes I do buy digital music, too. For one, I love choosing something and getting it right away. I'm especially moved to buy via iTunes if I see if comes with a digital booklet.
Software still lets us "choose an album" in the old sense, but there are other ways too. Random tracks. Playlists. Internet radio. More intelligent "radio" servies like Pandora, that randomize selections around our interests (KPOP for you, perhaps, or a "Bach Channel" for me.) While there is no Borders down the street of yesteryear, that seemingly had as many CDs as I'd ever want, and could only afford to buy over many years, today I can access an even wider catalog through many online vendors and streamers.
Streaming versus Owning
My nostolgia growing up of knowing certain recordings were being stored in our dining room cabinet, to going out to purchase cassette tapes then soon after CDs, has conditioned me to really like the idea of owning my music. To me, this my ability to hold an object or to point to a digital file that "is the music." I can't yet get my head around the idea of paying someone a fee (ala Netflix) to listen to music. The threat of having access to something today, and not tomorrow, is annoying to me. I do peruse You Tube a lot for musical recordings, but have no patience for the rips people have made with just the audio (and a still picture).
The only reason I like music on YouTube is if it's a video of a live performance. But somehow, even those that I have purchased on DVD are not the same as recordings by themselves. The visual element adds to the performance, but it also takes something away. I do occasionally watch movies multiple times, but I have never gotten serious about DVD collecting. Repeats of the visual tend to tire me more.
It's the last day of 2014. I now own more music than I ever had before (I do not throw things away.) I try to listen to music often. I am always plugging in my iPhone into the car. But I can't listen to music and effectively work or write. I need silence for concentration (or else music that is repetitive or mindless). Are any better off with more, rather than less?
Seriously, I just did a review of my 19th recording of Bach's Kunst der Fuge, and how awesome is that? I can shop for a recording made in 1981 alongside one made just this year, in 2014. There's a catalog of about 50 years worth of recordings available. And if I want, a streaming service can serve up a large chunk of that on demand.
I am not sure more is better. I think about it from the perspective of my attention span (how much can I listen to carefully to the extent I enjoy?) and also the perspective of the musicians. Today's new Bach violin concerto recording is competing with a recording made in 1988. Maybe they had theier due. But at a cheaper price, maybe the consumer will buy the old one, and what am I to do as the newcomer? How do all these recordings affect live music ticket sales? Is the convenience of having access to YouTube videos, and recordings something keeping people at home? Is there enough interest today in the kinds of music I'd like to hear or see live? Who, like Erato and Radio France would fund a huge project like the Ross recording I just received in 2015?
As a middle-aged man, I know I have to adjust to changing times and some changes offer advantages, and some disadvantages. As someone who is deeply knowledgable about technology and its affect on society, I am excited about the advantages. I just can't help smiling thinking back to what the journey to music enjoyment in 2015 has been like, especially as I start my listening marathon of Domenico Scarlatti's 555 sonatas.
But first, I have a lot of ripping to do.