Bach To The Future, Ctd

A reader writes:

I’m a part-time musician, and I consider myself pretty fussy about sound quality, but I can’t tell you how tiresome I find these digital music Luddites and vinyl purists.  The only time anyone (including those with Golden Ears) can detect the “lower sound quality” is when they are sitting in front of a high-end stereo in a good-sounding room.  Not in the car, not while cooking dinner, not at a party.  The places that most people listen to most music doesn’t lend itself to detecting minuscule effects. Digital music has made the listening experience dramatically better for nearly everybody, and those who find it a step backward can still buy vinyl and four- figure turntables if they wish.


I have to disagree with the assertion that sound quality is going down, and that live, in-person concerts are superior.  I’m a decently musical guy who listens to a lot of classical music, and I thoroughly enjoy going to a classical concert.  But I would never say that the listening experience qua listening experience is better (I’m not talking about live pop/rock/etc concerts).  If I just want to listen to music, I’d prefer even my little iPhone ear buds to being in a concert hall.  There, you have to put up with coughing and sneezing, with people talking, rustling, shifting, and applauding at the wrong places.  Or (and this might be a L.A. thing) you get people who are there not because they like the music but because they like events – they like the concept of being at the symphony.  I can’t stand those people.  I listened to some terrible soprano shriek her way through Bach’s Cantata 51 and the woman beside me lept to her feet in rapturous applause for a performance for which I wanted my money back.

If I really want to deeply listen to something, my iPod/iPhone and a pair of headphone is all I need – jack the volume way up so I feel immersed in the sound.  You just never get that at live concerts.  And I’ll take any marginal loss in sound fidelity in exchange for no lay people sneezing and coughing and shifting around me.


As a classical musician who has worked for the last 36 years in symphony and opera orchestras, I would like to weigh in on whether old ways of listening are obsolete. I had a rather unpleasant argument with my boyfriend, which actually lead to the beginning of the end of our relationship.

He is a guy who loves technological wizardry, and was asking my opinion about the relative merits of some €12000 loudspeakers compared to some €6000 loudspeakers. My answer was that it didn’t really matter; all I needed was a satisfactory sound quality and my needs would be met. When he asked me why I had such a low bar for listening to music, I reminded him that we were only talking about recordings, which have their place, but that real music is the act of a human being creating music in the presence of other human beings, and that no matter how expensive the speakers, we were still only talking about a recording, which would never be (for me) a truly musical experience.

There followed a somewhat heated give and take about whether a fine recording is a better musical experience than a less-polished live performance, and after trying to get my point across, without success, I finally gave an example which probably crossed the line, but made my point. I asked him if he would make love to Brad Pitt’s dead body. In the silence that ensued, I told him that no matter how beautiful the body was, no matter how perfect, the body could not make love back to him. We musicians who still work in the world of live, unamplified music know that the energy that we stream to the audience is returned to us in an intense simultaneous interchange, an intimate human experience that can not happen with a recording, no matter how perfect.

I am the first to recognise the value of recordings in making all kinds of music available to all kinds of people, but a musician would never mistake one experience for the other. It saddens me that the majority of listeners today are content with their earphones, and don’t even know the the world they are missing.

Another would agree:

No, there is no substitute for live music: Live streaming or telecasts are not the same, nor are live recordings.  And I absolutely agree with Stefan Kanfer – it does not matter if we are talking about a large or a small venue, rock or jazz or classical music.

I was a casual fan of Pearl Jam until I saw them live.  In the space of two or three hours, I went from “Hey, those guys are pretty good!” to “I cannot believe I waited so long to see them live! Maybe if I hustle I can get tickets to every remaining show on their tour!”  The same can be said of classical music: I studiously avoided Mahler until my son showed a passion for music.  Being in Avery Fisher Hall when Alan Gilbert and everyone in the audience quite literally leapt into the air at the end of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony changed all that – what a rush!  No recording could have grabbed my interest and drawn me in like that.

I hope that our ever-advancing technology – and I do love it, my iPod is in so many ways superior to my first Walkman or my not-really-portable Discman – does not kill the concert-going experience.  I’m already watching in dismay as orchestras add “tweet seats” for customers who apparently just cannot bear the thought of turning off their phones and listening to the music they paid to hear.