trading fours: remember ‘albums’?

from my album collection

from my album collection

Back with “trading fours” today, the occasional series here where we talk a little about four recordings on some common theme.

This one came to mind recently when a friend was getting ready to take a long flight. He’d just gotten the new iPhone, and was frustrated in the experience he was having with iTunes in trying to download some music to take with him on vacation. The problem? You may already know where I’m headed with this. He likes classical music. Turns out, to purchase a particular recording of is favorite Mahler symphony, he could only get the piece (we’re talking about one symphony here) by downloading it in seven different individual files – at .99 per download.

He did it, because he loves Mahler and couldn’t think of a better companion for the trip. Then the question was, if the symphony’s broken up into seven different files – would it play continuously, or would there be inordinate breaks between each segment, potentially ruining the intended flow and continuity of the work? Since he’d already spend $7.00 on the work, he was happy to find that it did play continuously once downloaded into the phone.

This is a pretty common iTunes experience, though when you’ll encounter it seems rather random. Not all multi-part classical (and non-classical, for that matter) works are treated that way in download form. I’ve asked the question of  iTunes but have not received a response: does it just depend on the variability of the recording ripping process on their end? Is it because the people responsible for the process don’t know the music well enough? Are there no internal policies that would inject some common sense and help inform the process?

My best guess is that this happens as a direct result of how the music is formatted on the original recordings. Sometimes a piece (a symphony, a suite, whatever) is a single track on a CD; other times the individual parts of a piece are on separate tracks. It’s a considerable hurdle that radio stations are having to overcome now too, as music libraries are going digital and playback systems are set up to work with these digitized (mp2 or mp3, generally) files. In the work I’ve done in this area, it comes down to ripping a work’s files individually, loading them into audio editing software (I’ve used ProTools, CoolEdit and Vegas) and editing the individual selections into a single, cohesive file. Save, render, and you’re good to go. The seven-download Mahler symphony is now transformed into a single, beautifully contiguous, 74-minute file. It’s the kind of work that even today’s best audio ripping programs can’t do automatically, it takes a real, live pair of human ears to do the editing. 

Now factor that process out over an average classical music library: CDs often have several different pieces on them, and music archives often contains thousands of these CDs with multiple, multi-movement works on them. No wonder classical radio has been relatively late in adapting to the world of digitized music. Without a dedicated, skilled, classical music-knowledgable staff to help with this process it can be an overwhelming proposition to digitize a library.

More has changed about music today than the process of digitization itself. There’s also the terminology. Remember “albums”? When I ask the question, you might think I’m talking about vinyl LPs. I could be. The two words are synonymous. But in our new digital world if you still say “album” when you actually mean “CD” or “recording”, it can lead to that fleeting moment of realization that using “album” dates you in some unflattering way.

Let’s just shoot that one down once and for all and stop being mildly embarassed about saying “album”. The word also means a ‘collection of music’, so it speaks to a recording’s content, not its format. “Album” continues to be relevant in our digital world – CDs and LPs are both “albums”.

So. That brings us back to “trading fours”. With the iTunes scenario in mind, today’s theme is “four albums that should be heard, beginning to end, as a single piece”. (Incidentally, I own all of these albums as CDs.) Because the musical expression in each of these works develops intentionally throughout the course of the experience, and “dropping the needle” (21st century version: “downloading only one part of it”) and listening randomly doesn’t allow you to follow the arc of its artistic intent. Yes, for deeper listening, you can/should also take the time to listen to the individual parts as well. If I rallied against that, then I’d be in favor of brilliant moments like Pink Floyd’s “Money” or Coltrane’s “Psalm” rarely – if ever – being heard on the radio since the days of ‘album sides’ and ‘album formats’ are mostly gone, where it would be possible to hear those moments in the context of the larger work.

My point is: techology is great, it makes music more widely available and accessible to a bigger audience than ever before. I’m all for that. But do guard against allowing the constraints of the delivery mechanisms shape, inform, or ultimately determine the quality of your music experience. That, alone, is the artist’s job.

#1 – John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” – Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm. A personal journey of faith, and redemption. Simply put: perfection.

#2 – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #4 (Leonard Bernstein/NY Philharmonic/soprano Reri Grist) –  One of Mahler’s shortest symphonies, (still no guarantee that it won’t be broken up into individual downloads on iTunes) the Symphony #4 is described programatically as “a child’s vision of heaven”. It starts enchantingly with the gentle shaking of sleighbells and ends with the song Das himmlische Leben (“Heaven’s life”) where the ‘child’ (generally a female soprano part) sings, “There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours.” Indeed.

#3 – Omar Sosa, Battista Giordano & the Tenores de Oniferi “Isolanos” – Recorded live (Nov. 18th, 2007) at Sardinia’s Cagliari European Jazz Expo – In the best tradition of ‘East meets West’ cultural cross-blends, this one’s an extraordinary ‘West meets West’ effort to fuse the traditional sounds of Sardinia with the rhythmic energy and rhythmic sensibilities of Cuba. All in a (very!) live environment. It starts with a jazzy intro, continues with a ‘world music’ percussive overlay of Latin and African rhythm, and then, – enter the tenors. In the ‘tenor singing’ tradition native to Sardinia (and Corsica, for that matter), their polyphonic blend of voices sends this album into another musical realm altogether. Neither here nor there, it is successfully BOTH. Isolanos offers a surreal, melodically lush, and sonically exciting landscape. The tracks are continuous, like being in a live concert with only applause for segues between the pieces. 

#4 – Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – For the next 43 minutes set aside all superlative and iconic associations with this album and just — listen. From Speak to Me to Eclipse, it’s a complete vision.

The offer stands for Trading Fours – send me your top four picks along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together, and I’ll do the rest and get yours posted here. Pass on the tradition of learning about music from friend.

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