Stricken: Steve Jobs and Classical Music

One line from a Steve Jobs eulogy jumped up over my cup of tea this morning. It was written by Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker, describing his reaction to the news of Jobs’ death:

I was stricken. Everyone who cares about music and art and movies . . . is taken aback by this sudden huge vacuuming-out of a titanic presence from our lives.

Um, I care about music and art, but I was honestly more taken aback by the death of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson five years ago. She was an actual artist, see, and while Jobs enabled us to carry our music with us, the gift came with a price.

Reducing all of music to .99 cent “songs,” whether it’s Rihanna or Perotin, makes it difficult to find all of a composer’s works on iTunes and a bewildering endeavor if you are only looking for one favorite aria or tune. The gaps between tracks make listening to an extended work like an opera pretty irritating; iTunes and the iPod have tried to correct this, but sometimes they slip up. More significantly, to fit all those songs onto an iPod, the files have to be compressed, resulting in a reduction of the dynamic range and overtones that make for rich listening. A symphony played on LP might have pops and hisses, but a wide dynamic range and, with the right speakers, an eerily correct illusion of the spatial presence of the sound: you feel as if the orchestra is in front of you. Listen to that same symphony on CD and the sound is glossed over, and only gets flatter on an MP3.  (SACDs and other high-resolution CDs have largely fixed the problem, but hardly anyone is offering SACD-quality or studio master downloads.)  Compression favors pop music, with electronically produced and manipulated sounds.  Here’s Mac’s defense on the matter, but please read between the lines.

I’m not laying the blame on Jobs, and like everyone else I am stricken that anyone would die so young and from such a wretched disease. But this “titanic presence in my life” is not where I turn when I truly want to experience music and art.

Baker’s connection of music and art to Jobs is noteworthy. Baker was a bassoon player and aspiring composer before he developed an interest in writing fiction. In an interview, Baker expressed an early love for Bartok and Brahms, but confessed that he now listens to pop music. His affinity for classical music probably faded long before MP3s became standard fare, so if he hasn’t been listening to it at all, he might not recognize the difference. He listened to Suzanne Vega while writing one of his books. I’ve been listening to the mournful bassoons of Brahms’ 2nd while writing this:

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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