Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Audio Files, Part II of III: Adventures in Hi-Fi

900+ words of prelude to this simple, life-changing fact: last week, I decided to go bold and buy a pair of Bose headphones. This was not an easy choice. Last December, in a fitful state of finals panic, I stepped on official Ipod earbuds and my Sony earbuds on consecutive days in the same coffeeshop each time. It was an act of anger, subconsciously, at the time: I think, deep down, I was angry that Finale was being so honest about what my medieval music transcriptions sounded like, which is to say very—um, next topic.

I’ve also been doing some recording sessions with my brass quintet for our Fischoff competition audition/pre-screening video. (Jonathan Allen, our trombonist, has been blogging pictures from our sessions here.) The recording sessions were very enjoyable and informative, especially since we (or rather, the playback was) the authority figure. I like Jonathan's description better:

It has been a fun/challenging/frustrating/rewarding experience.
All told, we put in a fair amount of time and got stacks of usable takes in the UI's Pomerantz Center, which is not a typical performance venue, but had the best acoustics and availability of any building in our campus, in which the recital halls proper have been condemned. Josh Thompson, our first trumpet player, is honing his recording chops, and also cut a very fine audio feed from the sessions we can turn into a more formal demo. During playback, I used Jonathan's Bose headphones and was sold as if Herbie Hancock himself were persuading me.

And I focused my early Bose listening on two recent “American masterworks” (by more or less general acclaim)of the young century: Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls and Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, since both were recorded live by the fine folks at Nonesuch. Under this microscope, this “really listening,” I can hear coughs, programs moving, singers breathing, pages turning, a music teeming with life. Even a recent studio disc—Ensemble InterContemporain’s 2004 DG release of Boulez’s Le Marteau has a live dimension to it, not least because it’s perhaps the most “self-consciously human” rendering of the work of the few I’ve heard; rosin hits strings, calloused hand hits bongos, finger meets key, etc. etc. etc. (More on that work—and recording—in a later post.) Far from embodying the inert, technocratic stasis Boulez is known for, giving an extra dimension to the listening process (and doing so legally, unlike Ellison's listener), a shift in the ear presents an eminently verbal process: a ball of rubber bands coming apart, perhaps, with a few snapping along the way.

I even listened to two recent budget purchases of mine, interrelated purchases of compulsively forgettable guilty pleasures: Neil Diamond and Glen Campbell doing folk-rock covers—sound like plain-faced young ladies with pretty new haircuts who, well, look almost striking in the light. [Several other metaphors were stricken from the record]. The Glen Campbell rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in particular is epic: I detect a bunch of suspended, high bass motion that reminds me in particular of "Let's Go Away for Awhile" among other tracks from Pet Sounds, the outro to "I'm So Young" from The Beach Boys' Today album, and even the revolutionary harmoines of "Pom Pom Play Girl" from Shut Down, Vol. II. This is probably because Campbell recorded this album in 1967, right after touring as bassist with the Beach Boys after Brian Wilson's retirement from the concert stage, and performed on the Pet Sounds sessions. But enough about them.)

At the same time, I’ve been reaching an almost evangelical fervor about the process of listening when it comes to my Music Appreeshe students. And, now that the first round of 50+ concert reports are on my desk, I see the monster I have wrought: here are students, many of whom have no musical experience save for middle school chorus or band, scared that their listening won’t be close enough. Perhaps I overplayed the point a bit. The quality of the listening is stellar, for the most part, but accounts of each piece read like a musical box-score, with a few vivid metaphors mixed in. A friend of mine saw some students at a recent piano trio concert furiously taking notes with each change in texture, key, and even dynamic.

Oh, and of course one of the other first recordings I listened to with my new headphones? Andrew Kazdin's awesome Gabrieli productions, that sonically is... Yeah. Nothing more needs to be said on that, everyone knows it's awesome.

More on listening--part III! later.

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