Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Past Future of Recording

Today's progress through the Decca collection of the complete works of Benjamin Britten brought me to "The Burning Fiery Furnace." It therefore seemed appropriate that I follow up the listening experience by viewing Tony Palmer's documentary about how this particular recording was made, included as a DVD in the Decca package. I had gotten a real kick out of The Golden Ring, which had taken a similar approach to the first effort to record Richard Wagner's Ring cycle in its entirety, even if the film itself basically began in the middle of Götterdämmerung and followed through to that opera's final measures and a subsequent "wrap party." Producer John Culshaw is even more of a central character in the Britten film than had been in the Wagner, providing a lot more "color commentary" as background for many of the scenes.

What really stood out, however, was the opportunity to observe Britten himself in action. He was always relatively quiet, always deliberate, and frequently cheerful. Watching him at work reminded me of those occasions I had enjoyed of observing Merce Cunningham running rehearsals.

If watching Britten was the greatest joy, then Culshaw's comments at the end of the film were the greatest sorrow. He speculated that he felt audio recording had gone about as far as it could. This was, of course, a time of analog equipment, magnetic tape, and vinyl discs. The depressing thing, however, is that Culshaw may have been right. Technology has certainly advanced prodigiously from those days, but attention to the priority of the listening experience has declined even more precipitously. It is hard to imagine any producer of recordings not only sharing Culshaw's values but also following through on them with all the effort demanded. The general consensus is that such effort is not really worth while for a "customer base" that is only looking for ways to block out reality with a "personalized soundtrack."

There are, of course, a few of us left committed to what I continue to call "serious listening" in my pieces. However, we know we are dying off; and most of us are resigned to the fact that the young care little about filling our shoes. I suppose it is just as well that Culshaw did not live to discover that those who took listening and seriously as he did have become a vanishing breed with little "survival value" in a Darwinian world dominated by market-based thinking.

No comments: