Can you listen to Joni Mitchell, Above & Beyond, and Bruckner on your iPod?

I know that hi-fi bores are right up there in the league of untouchables, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and philatelists, stamp collectors to you and me, but there has been a major revolution going on out there in the world of recorded music.

Anyone who listens to cds, let alone vinyl, are seen as either hopeless romantics, blinkered reactionaries or just poor old geezers who have let the World move on without them.

I am talking, of course, about mp3 players which, in the way of capitalism, has really come to mean iPods, the most successful of the brand names.

They are wonderful things, as essential to modern life as mobile phones and Wiis. In case you don’t know, Wiis are those electronic participation games that make you look totally deranged to people catching sight of you through the window.

All three of these products have a real street-cred presence, a bit like crack but not nearly as bad for you, so the right, most up-to-date, cool, accessories are also an essential part of the game.

With iPods, small is what it is all about. Little, preferably white, boxes, hidden away with tiny little white headphones. Well, no actually, the tiny headphones are OK but gigantic big ones are much more the thing. The bigger the better, a marvelously ironic contradiction of the original miniaturist idea. The whole point is that these things change to keep ahead of the crowd.. when I get that iPod with big headphones, it will all have moved on again.

I have an inferior version of the iPod and, one day, I hope, some kind person will buy me the real thing. Please someone, maybe (Sir)Fred Goodison, the very rich but failed chief of the Royal Bank of Scotland, please Fred, I would be very, very nice to you if you sent me one today.

I started to think about this when I read the other day about a Californian professor, Jonathan Berger, from Stanford University who has been running a research project where students have been listening to music from a variety of sources to have their reactions monitored.

For eight years, now come on Prof. eight years is a long time, for eight years he has been asking them what they prefer: vinyl, cd or mp3.

He has been trying to find out why some people swear by vinyl with all its crackles and scratches, sorry I mean with its brown, mellow sound, whilst others insist on the crisp, maybe unrealistic, clarity of the cd.

The majority, though, of “young people” say they love the “tinny” sound of mp3 players. They say that, even though they know that the reproduction isn’t as good as in the other formats, they still prefer it.

Well there must be something in what they say because by April 2007, 100 million of the little things have been sold worldwide.

There is no question in my mind, and don’t forget that I haven’t got a really good iPod yet (Oh please Fred, go on!) but, to my mind, they are wonderful things. They can turn any walk down any street into a movie and any bus journey into a drama.

But tinny, yes that is exactly what they are.

If you are allergic to any talk of technology, go make yourself a cup of coffee for a minute, pick your feet or gaze out of the window remembering that time in Rio.

Good, they’ve gone.

Well the “problem” with mp3s is that they encourage record companies to issue “compressed” recordings which leave the music with a “sizzle” which could also be described as a tinny sound.

This is what a new generation of music fans have grown to love and, as they are the principal consumers of music, the recordings have changed to meet the demand.

So the main loser is contrast.

Do you remember when music had both quiet and loud bits? Well apparently we should get ready to forget them because modern recordings compress the extremes and give us one, usually and inevitably loud level.

Great for dance music but less impressive for Debussy, say, or Leonard Cohen.

Now, talking of singing Canadians, as I was, I turn quickly to Joni Mitchell and her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

I have been playing it a lot recently on my cd player, the one with the really good amplifier and fantastic speakers…don’t get me wrong Fred, I am not rich, they are old but perfect. So when I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1977 album the other day, I do not lie but it was no iPod experience.

Just take the opening track: that evocative overture with, apparently eight guitars tuned differently and sleazy harmonically edgy backing vocals from Joni and the not yet famous Chaka Khan. The music, quietly, gently and sweetly discordant, slips away and the great bassist Jaco Pastorius sounds one deep, reverberating note on his electronic guitar.

Wow! My whole room vibrates. That is what furniture was invented for – it is only there for Jaco’s guitar, I promise you.

The many wonders of this album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, will have to wait for another blog because it is so good, so under-rated and so forgotten, that I owe it to M/s Mitchell to give it more time.

So let’s go back to Paco’s bass note. I play it on my mp3 player -I have already warned you that it isn’t an iPod….a-hem, Fred. Well the music obviously doesn’t sound as good but it really isn’t as bad as you would think either. Where my coffee table and stripped floorboards join in the game when I play the cd, it is my head that helps out on the mp3.

When I trained as a singer, I was shown how to use all those resonance chambers in my head, it works, remind me to deafen you sometime with a rendition of O sole mio.
Well those chambers work, along with the brain or I suppose I mean the imagination. So if you can’t listen to Jaco Pastorius in my room, and you are welcome any time, you really can have a lot of the experience out there on the street. You will just miss out on my superb coffee.

When I was a student at music college, we had a weekly lecture from an English composer (still writing I am glad to say) who deliberately ignored the sophisticated sound system in the lecture hall and chose to use instead his own small, dare I say it, tinny portable devise.

We were studying Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony which so benefits from excessive, neighbour-deafening volume but he insisted that the best way to listen to music was with your imagination. I have tried to practise that ever since. Mostly out of poverty, Fred.

So Bruckner’s Eighth is perfectly acceptable on an iPod, let’s get that straight (Professor) Jonathan Berger. We just have to bring a bit extra with us to the party. If you can do that, then you have the opportunity to liven up a trip round the supermarket with something much more inspiring than canned background music.

Let’s go back to those “young” Californians at Stanford University.

The music they say they love is mostly, sadly, not classical. It is the newly minted, specially compressed sounds of dance music, designed specially for the iPod and the dance floor. Mostly it is loud, fast, simply harmonic and really exciting.

If you are a fan, then I don’t need to explain but for others, it is too easy to think of (Professor) Berger’s musical guinea pigs are mindless and unmusical.

I like dance music, OK, so count me among the converted but I discovered an extreme form of dance music last year, Trance, yes, I am asking you to drop that mindless and unmusical prejudice rather like I did when I first came across this stuff. It is exciting, uplifting and it is perfect for your iPod, well mine, if Fred does his duty.

When I say discovered, I mean, fell in love with it, happily surprized to find something totally new to me in music which could still send me into a spin.

Trance is, like all dance music, loud, with a repetitive beat, and a strong high melodic line. It is also very fast….faster than other types of dance.

My brain haemorrhage has stopped me going to one of those epic gigs where you dance all night to these ecstatic sounds…I have no idea how the dancers manage to keep going at this speed for so long. Well I have a good idea how they do it but that is a secret.

Best of all the Trance artists to me are three nerdie-looking guys call Above & Beyond.

They have studied their music and know what they are talking about. They have seen the significance of Baroque classical music, especially Vivaldi, with its focus on a a perpetual bass, a high singing top part with moving harmonies in between.

Vivaldi, and, even better to my ears, Rossini knew just how to delight with harmonies that never need to go beyond the obvious.

Rossini in particular, was the master of telling us new things in our own language….he was also the great composer of neurotic excitement.

Above & Beyond bring these qualities more completely to Trance music than any of their rivals and I, for one, just love them.

Compression gives this music no problems. We know where we are sonically but we are still amazed, and, yes, moved, by the power and emotion that they can bring to an otherwise potentially formulaic genre.

Above & Beyond exist in many forms, as composers, performers, djs, radio producers: they are chameleon-like even in their name. Last year, as OceanLab, they produced one of my favourite albums of 2008, Sirens of the Sea. They also produced another album last year of their club remixes of their 2006 album Tri-Star. The “hit” single from the earlier album was Home – a moody, gently rhythmical piece that is beautifully sung by one of their many guest artists, Hannah Thomas. Last year it emerged as a fully-fledged and, I think, sensational remix which has been playing in my head ever since.

It is the idea of these remixes that I find so interesting and, oddly, so similar to Baroque music. A&B, like their revered, serious music predecessors, can write a piece that works on one level and then totally transform it without losing its central core.

So listen to it, loud if you can, and I hope you will follow me into their world. I will take this one song as an illustration of what, I think those Stanford students are listening to.

OK the rhythmic beat is unrelenting, you may think unoriginal but you would be missing the point. What was gentle and poignant has now become dangerous and desperate. The singer, in a new vocal line, is like an animal on a desperate hunt. Dare I say it is wolf-like, lupine? The original vocal line then begins, but now fighting for its own survival against the pounding bass.

She is desperate: “Here I come to find myself, catch the tide, looking for a peace at the end of the line.”

Unsurprisingly, well this is a song, she is in love, ecstatically and desperately…so much so that she fears she will be washed away “turning like a stone.” This is a scene set on the seashore at sunset. Again you may think that this is well-worn material, but that again is the point.We are being taken to somewhere that we too recognise, visually and emotionally.

“Will I wash away, turning like a stone? I need a place where I belong.
Call a setting sun, to throw me down a rope and take me to a place called home.”

This, for me is the moment, in this new remix, we get a glimpse of Rossini, the serious, romantic, doom-laden composer so often ignored. We are taken so unaware by these simple, perfectly timed and yet ecstatic chords which grow and grow until you want but don’t want them to stop. You know just where this woman is heading and what sort of Home she is talking about.

She is there on this shore with her lover “in a world I design.” In this dream, of course, they say goodbye but the music takes us to that world that she designed and it is a better place, we hope. A place where the reality she sees with eyes closed can become truly real – described here in those desperate, glowing and, yes, compressed chords.

Tinny or not, played on any system, just like that Bruckner symphony, if you give it your imagination, you will be moved and you may well want to dance too. It makes me want to dance like a wolf, with my new iPod, on an island beach at sunset but it works on my cd player too and sends those coffee cups a-rattling.

So let’s not be tied down by all that hi-fi tedium, let’s hear it for the music, just like those Stanford students and that old music lecturer at my college.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Wolfie,

    I’m with you on this one. Having to spend a great deal of my time on the London Underground network, and therefore spend most of my time travelling with my face in someone else’s armpit, I think mp3 players are an essential part of modern life.

    Having to get the central line at 7 in the morning is helped out considerably by an mp3 player and the libretto of a decent rossini, verdi, puccini or dare i say it, aaron copland, the tube turns into a different experience. i don’t care, unlike the professor man, that the sounds are a bit less full and rich because the power of the music takes me somewhere else – and crucually, away from someone’s bloody armpit!

  2. Excellent Mercredi, so good to hear that your mp3 is so versatile….you sound a bit harsh towards armpits though…..we all have them!

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