Technology has changed the way we look at a lot of things, including music. The oldest form of recording that I have personally owned is the 78, a big, clunky, heavy piece of vinyl that was replaced by the 45 for singles and the 33⅓ for long play recordings, known as the "LP". Here is an article about this technology. There seems to be a bit of a revival of the LP and some people have always argued that an LP through a suitable system, is far superior to any of the digital formats. But my point here is just that LPs and the systems required to play them are heavy and cumbersome.
In comparison, the digital formats, starting with the CD, are lots more portable. A hundred CDs are much easier to transport than a hundred LPs. Then there was the huge revolution of the iPod that enabled you to take thousands of songs along with you in your pocket. So when you go to that desert island, you can take everything with you.
There is a kind of subtext to this story though. Whereas the 78 was not great fidelity-wise, the 33⅓ LP, with a good sound system (turntable, amp, speakers) was, as long as you took care of it. The huge advantage of the CD, from a product point of view, was that you could sell everyone the same music all over again and that CDs tended to make inexpensive sound systems sound better because they had a crisper, more defined sound. To audiophiles, with really good sound systems, the early CDs just sounded harsh and cold. But they weren't buying nearly as many CDs as the masses, so who cares?
Here is an interesting discussion of formats and quality by someone who knows the technology well. He says:
Audio fidelity is a cultural issueMy position on this is a little eccentric. As a performer, I regard all recordings as both a boon and as unfortunate. Some of the essence of music is always lost as soon as you record it--no matter how good the quality. Music coming out of a speaker or earphone is not quite music. Music to me is what happens when I play, or someone else plays or sings. A recording is a bit like a postcard: it resembles the beach in Rio de Janeiro, but it's not the same!
Is it, perhaps even, genre-specific? You don’t get too many people blasting Rachmaninov or Ornette Coleman out of their mobile phone on the back of the bus, and nor are many hi-fi buffs serious collectors of Dubstep.
But back to my main point, and I do have one. With the development of recorded formats that can contain huge amounts of music in a few ounces of plastic you can put in your pocket, the idea of "desert island" discs might seem meaningless. But I think that it just enables us to understand the real point of the metaphor. If you could only have five discs, which five would they be?
In other words, the point of the metaphor is to goad you to make an aesthetic judgement. What music is crucial for you to listen to, and what music is just filler and fluff? Does the existence of the iPod mean that we never have to think about this? Will we just shuffle-play our way through life?
You see, I think not. In the post I just put up, about musical form, I found myself choosing examples the same or similar to ones I have chosen before. This is not, or I hope not, just because I just can't think of other ones. I think it rather reflects that fact that some music is absolutely fundamental. If you are talking about literature, then Ezra Pound may have been correct in saying that there were only a few books you had to read. But you had to know them very well. His candidates were the Bible, Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. That's it. But, of course, you could spend your whole life reading them.
Have we, at least when it comes to music, forgotten this way of thinking? Well, lots have, certainly. And it is doubtful if the educational systems we have now are doing very much to compensate, even University departments of music.
So if I were to make a list like Ezra Pound's for music, what would it be? Not too difficult, I think:
- J. S. Bach (especially the Art of Fugue, the Well-Tempered Clavier and the cantatas and oratorios)
- Beethoven (especially the piano sonatas, the symphonies and the string quartets)
- Shostakovich (especially the symphonies and string quartets)
- Mozart (especially the concertos, operas and symphonies)
Anything past that would be a huge, ferocious debate. And right now, probably most people would disagree with my inclusion of Shostakovich. But given time, they'll come round. Now let's listen to one of those Mozart piano concertos: