Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anthologizing Recordings

A recent confused of calcutta post about "little orphan albums" has unleashed a bit too much naive and sentimental claptrap about how music is practiced; but it has also brought to light some interesting comments about "compilations," which have led me to think about my own interest in collecting anthologies. Of course the very word "album" is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a "blank book for the insertion of collected items," meaning that every album is basically a compilation. Back when the duration of a recording was limited to the side of a 78 RPM shellac disc, an album tended to be a collection of songs, either popular or more serious (such as opera solos). As recording technicians became more skillful, they could work with material of longer duration; so an "album" of, for example, Beethoven's third would consist of, say, a dozen of these discs in a "book" that looked a bit like an album for photographs whose pages were envelopes for the discs themselves. So it is that we now have so many valuable audio documents of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. My parents had albums like these, and they had a lot to do with the formation of my first impressions of music.

These days the duration of the recording process is no longer an issue; and, as a result, the connotation of "compilation" as evolved in some interesting ways. One of the confused of calcutta comments cites an interesting example from the vinyl era:

There is an ‘orphan’ album I would like to find in digital form - about 30 years ago Guitar Player magazine brought together a collection of guitarists such as Lee Ritenour, BB King, Barney Kessell/Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell, Albert Collins and a few others and recorded a double vinyl album - not strictly speaking a supergroup, as they didn’t all play together … but a fine collection of music all the same.

Given my own interest in the nature of performance, I would not mind having a copy of this collection, as it provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the breadth of variety in the ways that each of these artists approached the same instrument. In a sense what Guitar Player was doing was compiling a synchronic "snapshot" of the state of the art of guitar-playing, illustrating, in audio form, the sorts of issues that would come up in the articles was publishing.

However, as I recently wrote about another compilation project in the classical domain (The Sibelius Edition), my particular interest in anthologies runs more to the diachronic approach to listening. Thus, while I very much enjoy my Music & Arts CD collection of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven symphonies over the period from 1942 through 1994 (which is to say in the midst of the Second World War), I equally enjoy having the EMI Classics collection of the post-War recordings made between 1950 and 1954; and I particularly appreciate the recordings of the third symphony, since both of these were made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Thus, while I continue to hold to the belief that there will always be intricacies in the practice of music that can never be captured by recording techniques, I also believe that such practices are very much "organic" processes that develop, grow, and evolve over the course of time. Recordings that provide us the opportunity to track such processes as they emerge in the works of an individual composer (such as Sibelius), performer (Arthur Rubinstein recorded the four Chopin scherzos for RCA three times, in 1932, 1949, and 1959), or ensemble (such as the Vienna Philharmonic, under not only Furtwängler but also so many other conductors).

Furthermore, while I have framed my argument with examples from classical music, I am just as passionate about listening to jazz diachronically. As I have already mentioned, Lennie Tristano did not leave us with very many recordings; but they are one of the few handles we can grasp in trying to understand his approaches to performance, composition, and particularly improvisation. Indeed, the Tristano anthology compiled by the British company, Proper Records, has managed to assemble, where possible, multiple takes from single recording sessions, allowing the listener to follow the path of improvisation as it leads in several different directions. Then, of course, if you really want to get serious about a diachronic approach to improvisation, you can listen to the Mosaic compilation of the recordings that Dean Benedetti made of Charlie Parker. Between March 1, 1947 and July 11, 1948, Benedetti "chased the Bird" to his club engagements with recording equipment, just for the sake of capturing his solos.

Whatever my enthusiasm for diachronic listening may be, I am the first to admit that it is no easy matter. I am not even sure I can yet introspect will enough to write about my own approach to doing it (or, for that matter, how well I feel I can do it). What I do know is that I could not do it at all without the benefit of drawing upon all those recorded documents that are now available through different players in the music business. Some of those players do a better job, and I am never shy about voicing my preferences and peeves. Nevertheless, having the documents at all is important to me; and, whatever Jean Baudrillard may have had to say about the "infantile" nature of collecting objects, these particular objects have become invaluable to me!

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