Monday, March 2, 2009

Guest Post: Another Ritual

Claudius came through with a guest post


I recently got a turntable after having had only CD's for the last ten years or so. I'm downright relieved to hear vinyl records again, hadn't known how much I missed them.

Based on observation and my own experience of it, some harsh, unfair and over-generalized words about the "iPod-ization" of music:

  • First, mp3's and their ilk just plain sound like sh*t.  It's like our latest technology has whisked us back to listening to 78's or 4th-generation dubs of cassettes. So why have they caught on?
  • Convenience, yes. But also because, to the iPod-ized listener, sounding like sh*t doesn't matter, 'cause there's no listening anyway. Music is this stuff in your earbuds/docking station that goes straight to the background, it's for modulating your moods or motivating your workout, or squelching whatever troubling noise would happen inside your head absent the distraction.  And iPod-ized music is cheap and instantly obtainable, so naturally it's not greatly valued.

What's lost is the practice of actually listening to music: listening with full and sustained attention, as you'd attend to a good movie or book. Listening because it's important. There's music that demands and rewards nothing less.

Earlier today I listened to Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, with Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It's a 1951 recording on an RCA Red Seal LP released in 1958, part of a 7-LP set of Beethoven's nine symphonies.  I found it at a very cool classical record shop (I've been discovering these since I got my turntable): a narrow space in an old brownstone, with shelves of vintage LP's going up to the ceiling. To get at their Beethoven I had to climb a rickety ladder and I found rummaging around up there faintly, enjoyably hazardous.

The discs of this Beethoven set are perfectly pristine, as if they'd never been taken out of their wax paper inner sleeves. In 1958 the set would have retailed for around $3.50 per disc, or, in inflation-adjusted dollars, $150.00 or so for the seven-record set. It cost me eight dollars.

As for the sound of these records: I've heard the same Toscanini Beethoven recordings in a couple of different CD incarnations, and in that format they sound bad. RCA/Sony have tried various things to "improve" the sound of the old master tapes: adding fake stereo, fake reverb, hiss reduction, etc., all of which only muddles things and obscures what's there in the original masters. On these RCA Red Seal mono LP's, this music comes into its own: It sounds warm and full and right in ways I can't describe. It's the ideal medium for this particular music.

My point being? Ritual, vinyl, turntables; rummaging through record bins; blowing dust off the stylus; generally obsessing and fetishizing; whatever it takes to get you to sit your ass down and really listen, to find (or rediscover) the music that speaks deeply to you, and to give it a due place in your life: it may be worth doing. Balm for the soul.


Publius said...

The only thing I could try to add to this great guest post is that a good solid tube amplifier would add even more to your experience. A pretty powerful Sherwood S5000 or S5500 can be had for a pretty good price these days... and is cheaper than a coveted Harmon-Kardon or Marantz.

I hope that Mr. Degringolade doesn't think I was trying to hard sell him a turntable in my comment under his last post. I would actually give him a big discount for being a fellow... well, what? Prepper? Collapsnik? But like him, I believe that art, music, and literature will be even more necessary post-Whatever.

Keep on listening.

Mayberry said...

I try to just sit and enjoy music whenever I can. One never truly appreciates music until they do just that.....