Pianist Krystian Zimerman kicked off quite a storm when he stalked off the stage earlier this month. “The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous,” he railed. Sigh. As much as I enjoy mining the troves for good tunes, Zimerman has a point.
It’s not about money, as some commentators (in the comments section) might speculate. Musicians net very little from recordings nowadays, which largely serve as promotion to presenters. A member of the American Brass Quintet once mentioned to me that in 30 years, their large discography had netted the group around $10,000, and this was in the 90s. Digital music is bad for classical music for other reasons.Namely, the sound quality sucks. Even pop listeners don’t like it. Yes, the Internet has brought classical music to places and people it might never have reached, but among the new listeners who might be potential fans, how compelling could they find great music when it comes out of the tinny, compressed sound of laptop speakers.
The clean, bright sound of CDs and downloads has also changed our expectations for live performance. Historic recordings reveal orchestras with unique timbres, varying by region like terroire. And passionate interpretations that sound rough and nearly mistaken. The Philadelphia Orchestra offers the best example of this transformation. Under Ormandy, the “Philadelphia Sound” of the strings was warm, rich and unmistakable. Now, they sound much like everyone else.
In any case, for real listening enjoyment, audiophiles go for vinyl. It’s making a comeback among pop listeners. Having done the better part of my musical studies in the CD age, it was revelatory to hear great historical recordings on records and a good sound system. Records might deteriorate and are notorious for background noise, but they offer a sonic depth of sense of space that cannot be matched by any digital system.
Really, give it a listen sometime. You feel as if the orchestra is sitting before you, it is that clear where each group of instruments is sounding. And because most records are with performers long gone, it is like holding a seance, keeping company with the musicians’ shades.