Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freedom Fried

The notion of ‘freedom’ is rarely out of the news at the moment. Most often because it features heavily in the missives emitted from the White House. It seems to go hand-in-hand with democracy, but present circumstances have blurred and befuddled this comfortable coupling. On the one hand there’s Hamas: democratically elected by the Palestinians - and the ever-tightening grip of Britain’s nanny state on the other. Then there’s the infamous Danish cartoon: freedom of speech, or insensitive prejudice?

This week, I counted 20 different types of marmalade in my parent’s local supermarket. That’s freedom of choice. Unfortunately, I couldn’t compare the choices with those available in any other shop, because, owing to the overbearing dominance of the aforementioned outlet, there’re no longer any other marmalade-mongers in the town.

With continuous CCTV surveillance there’s little need for the responsibility that was once the traditional partner of freedom. The introduction of identity cards and a raft of other hurried, ill-considered laws scrabbling onto the statute books there are fewer and fewer liberties left to protect.

Why is the public so complicit in its loss of freedom? Fear is perhaps one possible reason. Terrorism, militant Islam, lung cancer, rogue states, the axis of evil and Al Qaeda are only a few of today’s fearsome threats. And then there are the perpetrators: Bin Laden, Saddam, Abu Hamza etc, who are nothing less than international bogeymen. Surely we’re not safe in our beds with the likes of these roaming the mountainous wastelands of Afghanistan and Finsbury Park.

As a result, it seems a surprisingly simple task to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and force through a raft of new authoritarian laws. Freedom implies choice – no, it doesn’t imply it: it necessitates it. If I am a free man, I am free to commit, as well as not to commit crimes: and it's imperative that I have the choice. If I drive along the street and I know for a fact that to exceed the speed limit will result in a speeding fine – I no longer have a real choice. It follows then that I am relieved of my responsibility in equal measure. I no longer drive at a speed that I believe to be safe, but at a speed at which I will not invoke the wrath of the law. That is not freedom.

Six men went on trial last week for the theft of Edvard Munch’s Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Security at the museum was pilloried because it was so lax and because the security staff, unlike the thieves, were unarmed. Of course, it is easy to laugh at misplaced trust after the event, but what makes people most trustworthy? Imbuing them with trust, or depriving them of responsibility? Trusting is risky and all too often gives way to abuse, but that’s the nature of freedom. Which is preferable – to live in a world where crime is rife but where the majority trust one another and reap the multifarious benefits that ensue – or to quest for the eradication of crime by all available means, including the sacrifice of freedom? That ‘violence breeds violence’ is a truism, but we keep on with the bloody war on terror anyway.

Freedom of choice is about more than marmalade, and having 120 TV channels. It's about whether to be social or anti-social, whether to prize one’s own rights more highly than the preferences of others. But it cannot be absolute in any society because one person’s freedoms will inevitably impinge on another’s, which is what happened to the Danish cartoonist. Europeans are [quite justifiably] adamant in defending their right to print such material, while at least as many Muslims are outraged; not necessarily by our freedom of expression, so much as our wanton lack of respect in exercising it.

With the world in its current condition, one might hope that the western - so called democratic free world - might have the self confidence not to need to become quite so defensive when the Muslim community [already squaring up to those it sees as its oppressors] feels the need to defend itself and its beliefs. We may well have had a justifiable right to publish and re-publish those images, but would it not have been more respectful and wiser in the circumstances to have apologised for the offence and quietly let the story die - especially in the light of the string of subsequent climb-downs, suspensions and resignations? Besides, I have to wonder quite why it took the Muslim community at least 4 months to find out about the cartoons. Who told them and when? The term Agent provocateur springs to mind for some reason… after all, where would we be without the ‘War on Terror’ and its bogeymen? It’s time we assessed what we mean by freedom, and decide whether it’s something we want to cherish, aspire to, or proscribe.

Monday, February 13, 2006

ultimate choice - absolute freedom

The Internet is quite wonderful. Its appeal, in presenting almost unlimited choice is a truly contemporary phenomenon. Any musical group, no matter how esoteric is now able to present its music to a truly global audience. What idealistic egalitarianism! The record buyer, or consumer as they are now termed, is no longer at the mercy of cynical marketing executives in large multinational record companies. Freedom and liberty prevail.
Only one small question remains. How do we select the music we want to hear from the plethora available?

The mainstream media is continually cajoling the public to vote for the greatest of them all: whether it be the most famous historical personage, the greatest ever Britain or the latest and best teen pop idol. Such votes reveal little beyond the abject wretchedness of uninformed democratic choice.

When we buy books or CDs online we are regaled with other products bought by other of our supposedly like-minded contemporaries. The intention of such marketing is clear but why should we suppose that our fellow consumers are any better informed than ourselves? Do we really want our choices informed by nothing more than the uniformity of popularity?

Besides, whoever said that the public are only interested in discovering the very best? Uniqueness is surely a more desirable trait, and this is to be found in differences between one performance and another, between one interpretation and another. The quest for the best not only devalues variety, it denudes music of its humanity and its capacity for expression.

New systems are becoming available to help online music lovers to make new musical discoveries that suit their taste. Websites, such as Pandora, develop databases by using feedback and by monitoring patterns of usage in order to be able to recommend other music that they deem likely to be to the user’s taste. To me, such systems seem to be stultifying in the extreme. The cleverness of the site is terrifying, compelling and patronising in equal measure. But Pandora's claim to be able “to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level” by analysing “the unique and magical musical identity of a song” including “everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics,” is truly wide of the mark. Whilst musical analysis can be fascinating, stimulating and no doubt rewarding, what it has never been able to do with any success is to predict, prescribe or otherwise quantify the essence of music and what determines its appeal. It is common to speak of music as ‘a language’. If this is so, then it is a language beyond words: irreducible and impossible to paraphrase – wherein lies its power.

Unguided, unconsidered, disinterested recommendations may have something going for them, but if we don’t take pains to develop and inform our tastes they will be subsumed by mediocrity.

Record company artist and repertoire personnel used to guide the public through the contemporary musical landscape. Even the brand names of the larger labels suggested quality and musical maturity. The role of today’s A&R representatives are so circumscribed by the bean-counting executives to whom they answer that their choices are less recommendations than attempted predictions of up-and-coming stardom.

If the Internet is to offer real choice and to free us from the ravages of rampant directionless commercialism it must not abandon us to the desert of proliferation - an excess of choice is as baffling and inhibiting as a dearth. And like freedom, choice is not especially desirable when absolute.
“The record listener is a child of the supermarket. His self-expression is almost entirely a matter of selecting among packages that someone else designs. And he tends to think that these packages exhaust the possibilities. That kind of freedom can be tyrannical.”
Evan Eisenberg The Recording Angel

Sunday, February 05, 2006

hi-fi dummed down

Everything is black and white these days: Right and wrong, good and evil, for us or against us [by the way - we’re against you George]. Whatever happened to the grey areas: to subtlety, to the implicit, to ambiguity, to the transitory? Not everything can be deconstructed, quantified, referenced and categorised – least of all, music.

We could be forgiven for overlooking this annoying anomaly of the contemporary world when music industry professionals present us with a simple choice between lossy and lossless audio. The terms themselves are clear enough – insofar as they describe types of audio data compression. But the fact that they make no mention of the quality of the original recording can be misleading. As far as I can tell, iTunes files are limited to 128Kbit/sec, which they claim to be ”high-quality format that rivals CD quality”! Not much of a rival in my estimation – variable bit rate or not. To compress these files with a lossless encoder saves nothing, when 90% of the data from the original recording has already been jettisoned.

The name Compact Disc doesn’t merely describe a format, or data carrier, it also defines a clear standard of quality: at least the commercially available (Red Book) CD does. Typically, Apple (and it is not alone in doing so) suggests that iTunes makes it wonderfully easy to create your own custom music CD. Well, what they are describing here is not a CD in any qualitative sense, but as the public, quite reasonably associates the carrier with content; I think that such claims are misleading.

For the last decade and more, classical engineers have encoded their recordings at 20, and later at 24bit resolution – presenting a data stream of more than 2000Kbits/second, a quality only available commercially on a comparatively limited number of HDCDs and DVDAs. This chasm between state-of-the-art Hi-fi and what the public seem to be prepared to accept [in the name of portability] leaves the industry professionals in an invidious position: are we to continue making recordings at the highest possible quality, or follow the market trend, and record in lo-resolution?

Such an enquiry deserves to be left in rhetorical limbo but it does pose another question: what actually is contained in all that apparently redundant data? It’s all audio information after all. We’re told that it’s a pile of stuff of no real interest that we probably can’t hear anyway. I for one don’t believe that it’s quite so easy to define what we can and cannot hear. Besides, I find it extraordinary that less than 20 years ago not only hi-fi enthusiasts, but music lovers in general, were embroiled in heated debates about the relative merits of vinyl and CD. It wasn’t an esoteric debate either; the exclusive preserve of woolly-bearded audiophiles, but was of concern to everyone who wanted to ensure that an unscrupulous industry shouldn’t fob them off with a substandard product.

As Andrew Dickson noted in the Guardian, "Classical's not dead - it's discerning. Fans aren't uncooperative - they're uncared-for".

Classical music is more dependent on hi-fidelity than popular music for the simple reason that it requires a much wider dynamic range to capture effectively both the nuances of low-level ambient sound and the blazing fortissimo of a full symphony orchestra for example. Dynamic range refers to the difference between the softest and loudest sounds that a system can reproduce.

A broad dynamic range is not a prerequisite of most popular music forms for a number of reasons. Consequently, it is comparatively common to employ audio compression techniques to reduce or compress recorded sound. Audio compression is a delicate craft used to reduce the range in decibels between the loudest and softest audio signals. The sound of a whispering voice, for example, depends less on the absolute sound pressure level than on the character of the sound. It is quite usual to hear a very soft voice quite clearly above an entire rock band [Think of Moorcheba for example]. This is obviously not a natural acoustic phenomenon but the crafty work of audio compression. Its effect is to render popular music quite effectively within a limited dynamic range, thereby allowing us to appreciate the full range of softly spoken lyrics and full-bloodied screams without needing to make continual adjustments to the volume control. It also allows sound engineers to balance the very different natural sound levels of soft acoustic instruments with much louder electronic instruments.

Many of the elements which comprise modern popular music are electronic but even those which originate in acoustic sound become heavily stylised in the production process; acoustic instruments and voices are close miked to exclude acoustic reflections or reverberation and recorded sounds are often treated with special effects or given an unnaturally liberal coating of artificial reverb to enhance the raw, natural sound. Indeed, it is rarely the intention for popular music forms to even attempt to re-create a real acoustic. Moreover, audio compression has the added benefit of facilitating listening in the car, on portable players, and in noisy environments without undue disruption from background noise, and it makes it much easier to data compress the resultant audio with little sacrifice to the sonic fidelity.

The objectives of classical music recording differ from those of popular music recording in its attempt to capture and reproduce the experience of listening to music in a real acoustic space. [Artificial reverberation and other effects are used only to enhance the sense of reality or to try to re-create the concert hall experience.] Audio compression is not an effective solution because the intension is, as far as possible, to preserve the illusion of listening in a real acoustic space – or to capture the true essence of a live performance. Rather than making soft sounds louder we need to hear, and feel the difference between soft and loud – the full dynamic range of natural acoustic music.

These are not easily quantifiable qualities to capture or reproduce but if we are to improve the quality of recorded music we must continue to forge ahead with technological developments and to pass these on to the public: the alternative path of least resistance leads only to mediocrity.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Why isn't elitism popular?

When we’re not plunging into the tired old hi-brow versus populist debacle, we’re worrying about how the world’s greatest symphony orchestras are going to validate their existence by dragging sufficiently large audiences into concert halls.

But who exactly is doing the worrying? If the throngs at so many of the European music festivals or the wealth of sense one reads in blogs and even in the mainstream media are taken as signs of vitality, classical music is very much alive and kickin’. So what’s changed? What is it that has sparked a panic?

We ought not to confuse reduced spending with disinterest. If there are fewer concertgoers than formerly, it could well be a rejection of the type of concerts on offer rather than music per se. Serious classical music fans are unlikely to clamour to renew their subscriptions when so many of the concerts are billed as ‘An evening with the stars!’ and other such bile-brewing monikers. By employing popular marketing techniques PR agents alienate the musically literate in their misguided attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator or, as they prefer - a wider audience: they sacrifice an established audience in vain hope of attracting a new one.

Classical music recordings represent another manifestation of the same problem, (one to which I’ll return another day) but even wholesale abandonment of the commercial spick-n-span, cellophane-wrapped characterless pap that is the modern classical music CD wouldn’t necessarily signify an inherent disinterest in the music contained within.

Modern PR methods that value image above integrity sit uncomfortably alongside high art forms such as classical music. The tools are necessarily blunt, the techniques brutal and the returns must always be measurable, which as Andrew Clark points out “is anathema to the philosophical/mystic ethos of serious music. Marketing eulogises the spectacular and emphasises the superficial. It aims to maximise sales on a short-term basis. It places a premium on visual presentation, not inner substance. All this marks an enormous shift for a sober, demanding art form that was never intended for a mass market.

The tiresome truism that classical music needs to attract new audiences is now accepted as fact, but the public at large, generally speaking, are not all that bothered about classical music – and they never have been. You cannot make an elitist art form popular by whipping up a bit of ill-conceived spin. Besides, to convert the masses you need missionaries not spin-doctors. Today’s classical music missionaries - those musical exponents who, as truly great artists, care with a passion for their art - are for the most part, un-flashy, introvert and unmarketable. As a result, they remain in comparative obscurity as far as the wider public is concerned.

Instead of widening the audience for classical music, PR merely despoils it for short-term profit. The exploitation of an art form for profit where there is no objective quantification of good, is manipulative and patronising.