Sunday, November 4, 2012

Desert Island Discs?

This used to be a frequent device in music journalism: write a column about which LPs you just had to have if you were stranded on a desert island. Do people still do it? I bet not!

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 issue
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.
 My 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!

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:


Craig said...

I actually do agree with you about Shostakovich -- his string quartets, anyway. I don't know his symphonies well enough to say one way or another.

My list would have J.S. Bach (especially the Goldberg Variations, Well-Tempered Clavier, Art of Fugue, music for solo cello, music for solo violin, Mass, and Passions), followed by a generous amount (we are being generous, right?) of medieval and Renaissance polyphony, especially Machaut, Dufay, Josquin, Victoria, and Byrd. After that, allow me a few late works of Beethoven (string quartets, piano sonatas, symphony, and the Missa Solemnis), the late operas of Mozart, the string quartets of Shostakovich, and a smattering of Schubert. On a desert island I would die quickly, but with this music I would die pretty happy.

MPS said...

For me, one tune: The Schubert-Liszt Ständchen as recorded by Horowitz on his "Horowitz at Home" CD.

I want to hear this as I die.


Bryan Townsend said...

Oh darn, just when I think I am being all bold about Shostakovich, turns out my readers agree! The Shostakovich symphonies are of different levels of quality, but the 5th and 10th are extraordinary works and the 6th, 7th, 9th and 15th great music.

I will eagerly seek out Horowitz' Ständchen. I have a classical guitarist friend who says he wants to die just after playing this piece by Frank Martin:

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, and yes, Craig, I was mulling over what to include of your list of great composers of polyphony, but the problem is that there are so many really great composers in that group! I wanted to just keep to a tight, short list as Pound did.

Nathan Shirley said...

Boy that piano needs a complete overhaul! ...just kidding.

If I were to make an "essential" list, it would quickly grow so long it would be ridiculous... I think Pound was being a bit nieve. The Bible?? Perhaps if you are a student of western civilization, but writers would do much better with Chekhov.

Even your essential music list I would only take bits from- The Well-Tempered Clavier (Glenn Gould) yes, Art of Fugue, no thanks. Beethoven Symphonies, perhaps just the last 4. Shostakovich, I'd certainly take a few of his pieces, but much more Prokofiev. Mozart, just his last works (I'd take more Schubert and Chopin).

But how could I leave out Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony? Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze? Etc, etc... No, I'd have to kill myself before I was dropped off on the island.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think there is some fundamental law of musical aesthetics that states that Every List of Necessary Music Will Be Missing A Couple of Pieces!

Nathan, you should hear Sokolov playing the Art of Fugue!

I love every piece you mention, by the way.

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes the Sokolov Art of Fugue is fantastic for sure, and the piece is no less fantastic. However as much of a contrapuntal marvel as it is, musically it just (to my ears) isn't on the level of much of his other music, the Passions for example. I think that is part of the point of The Art of Fugue perhaps, to show what can be done with everyday musical ideas, like The Musical Offering.

My point is every artist takes their own path. Many would agree on at least some essential works from a list, but they would all disagree more than not, even on the basics. This is especially true of the more eccentric artists who are no less important than some of the "pillars". For example my list would include Pictures at an Exhibition. A piece many theorists don't even like, but one of the most creative and influential works in classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good point, Nathan. My way of looking at music is undoubtedly influenced a bit by my engagement with philosophy over the years. For example, in philosophy the dialogues of Plato are a true foundation in that he engaged with most of the problems in philosophy. So much so that an English philosopher wrote this:

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39

I guess that I feel that in Western music, you could almost say that ever since Bach, all harmony is like a series of footnotes to him! Perhaps a poor analogy... But I think that some music by some composers (The Art of Fugue) is like the inner bones of music. Composers like Mussorgsky do amazing things with the flesh, but the bones were already there. But, like I say, I'm uneasy about the metaphor!

Craig said...

Speaking of always leaving pieces off, I can't believe I forgot to put the Mahler symphonies on my list!

Mind you, with the Mahler symphonies and all that Bach, I'm not even roughing it on this island.