A maestro goes slumming

posted in: Music and recordings | 0

Thanks to hanging around the Bop Shop lately, I’ve found some interesting books. A fascinating look into the thinking of Johannes Brahms is one bit I will share soon. But the first little gems, to see if this dusty blog still works, are from “Recording the Classics: Maestros, Music, & Technology” by James Badal.

Drawn from interviews with eminent conductors from the early 80s to mid-90s, Badal inquires into their experiences with and attitudes toward records and record making. “The interviews are reproduced more or less as they happened,” attests the author, “minus a few potentially libelous remarks.” A low opinion of record companies is a common thread.

I loved what Kurt Masur had to say. His roots in a non-hierarchical social philosophy came through. And he apparently had a real common-man ability to poke fun at his own, very serious, business.

2016-03-15-Brian-Eno-playing-clarinet-in-Portsmouth-SinfoniaBadal: Do you listen to records?

Masur: I do listen to records. But I must tell you one thing. I listen only to two kinds of records: very strange ones, jokes about classical music.

Badal: The Hoffnung Festival?

Masur: Hoffnung, yes. I like them. I have a lot of the Portmouth Symphony (sic.) I don’t know if you know it. This is a kind of happening that I sometimes like very much.

If you haven’t heard them, you won’t know how absurd this is. Like so much treasurable English comedy and popular music, the Portsmouth Sinfonia was the idea of college and university students, in this case the Portsmouth School of Art. Why, they asked, should the performance of favorite concert masterworks be only the privilege of those who can play instruments? So, Sinfonia policy was that only those without musical training were qualified, and if you did play an instrument competently, you had to play some other instrument which you hadn’t played before. This insured the integrity of the Sinfonia’s particular stylistic concept. It’s also possible that some drugs were involved in all this. Add a couple creative ringers, composer Gavin Bryars and artist/philosopher/non-musician musician Brian Eno, and a one-time jape became a decade-long – – happening. Here, experience the magic yourself.

Garrard Hoffnung’s send-ups were a bit more sophisticated:

Anyway. Masur did have some serious things to say about the phonological sausage machine.

Badal: Erich Leinsdorf tells a story about a man who listens to a lot of records, goes to a live concert, and doesn’t like it because it doesn’t sound like his stereo.

Masur: Yes, yes, he’s absolutely right. And I try in our recordings, together with the technical members of the crew, to avoid giving people a different kind of sound than they could expect in a concert hall.

Badal: But still a good sound.

Masur: Still a good sound. But we still try to bring out things which are not well heard in a concert hall. But I always tell any technical man, “Please, I want to hear on record what I am hearing when I stand in front of the orchestra.”

Badal: Do you see a danger in the increased application of technology to music?

Masur: If somebody tells me, “Close your eyes,” and the sound from a stereo is as natural as that you could imagine if someone were in front of you making music, then I say that’s the highest point we can reach. But very often you have a stereo set which makes a sound you never can hear from any instrument, you never hear in any hall. And that’s a danger, especially for our young people. They go into a disco, and they are used to hearing this sound. And then they are coming in to hear the –

Badal: Electronic sound.

Masur: Electronic sound! And they are coming to hear the Bolero of Ravel and it is not disturbing for them because it is not enough. It is not enough. If I am at home, I like to play chamber music. I like to play very often on the clavichord. The sound is so small and so nice, and I have to listen very carefully so I can hear. And I always try to get to a point where I am able to hear whispering. If I am at home and I am listening to a fantastic stereo … and my ears are full of sound, it may feel like I have taken a wonderful drug, and I am very high. But, if I am high, I am losing control, and I never will have a spiritual impression. And that’s a danger because I think music is a kind of art which is able to fill your body, your heart, your soul, and your spirit.

The youth survived, but the question of whether the concert hall as home of spiritual enlightenment has survived is still open. If not, is recording the culprit, or broader cultural factors these men might resist recognizing? In another interview, a conductor whose career owed so much to recordings, Antal Dorati, also spoke in terms of danger, though more trade-off than mortal.

Badal: Do you see any danger to music from the increased application of all this technology?

Dorati: Oh no. I don’t see any danger at all. I think it serves music. However, everything, you know, has a backwash. To everything there are disadvantages. Now, you could argue that while this tremendous mass of new listeners who are arriving to our kind of fine music is an advantage, the superficial knowledge of this music is some kind of danger

Badal: The sort of thing you mentioned earlier about only knowing one rendition of a piece rather than the music itself.

Dorati: That, I would say, is a danger, but it is a danger I would willingly undertake for the ultimate gain … I do not say that recording is a blessing. No! And I do not go on my knees to thank God that recording has arrived. No! Music would be just as interesting , beautiful, and deep without recordings. But here they are, here we have them, and they have advantages. The advantages are twofold: there are more people listening to music than ever before, and there are documents. I’m using “record” now in the other sense. There are documents of sounding music – not only printed music, not only music which is written down. Those are the two advantages.

This sense that for all the advantages of recording technology, it can also represent a danger to musical culture is a recurring theme in the interviews. Charles Dutoit took a practical approach to the matter.

Dutoit: It has always been the problem of the relationship between a musician and this technology, and I think most musicians were very … suspicious of this technology. They hated to make records. But I personally don’t see a danger. If there is any danger, it is up to us to just react to it the right way, you know … I don’t really see danger as long as we master our own situation.

Because the invention of the talking machine happened to occur in the USA, it is tempting from our perspective to regard it as a quintessentially American thing, which like so many other inventions, we dominated in its commercialization. That’s not entirely true; English and European companies were vigorous in their exploitation of the medium and artists, but American money and culture cast a long shadow, as reflected on by the Swiss-born Dutoit.

Dutoit: You know, thirty years ago when I was in Switzerland, people were scared to death because of the Americanism. You know, after the war we said, “Oh, gee We have our traditions, we don’t like to think about money. We are not materialistic; we are educated in a certain way.” And then we were so scared because the Americans came over to Europe, and they had so much money, you know, and they were talking about their wonderful houses and their wonderful refrigerators, and their televisions and all these things. We thought that was so silly, and that was such a bad way to talk because there are other values. And we still think the same way; but we cannot avoid the fact that now everybody has a television, and everybody has a refrigerator, and everybody has a car. But still we have to accept this, and we have also to accept these new technologies.

I think it’s wonderful what we can do today with the recordings, digital and compact disks, and so on. I don’t know if we are going to improve on this. I don’t see how. It is so beautiful – you know, what we can do today. But I think it would be silly for me to say that I am against these developments, because the world is going ahead, and we have to live with that.