Special Guest – Maestro John Morris Russell – Has spent ten amazing years as Music Director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra; two time recipient of Ontario’s Lieutenant Governors Awards for the arts; nominated for both the Gemini Awards (2004) and the Juno Awards (2008). This internationally praised conductor is now (effective September 1 2011), heading to the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra to succeed the late Erich Kunzel. The Maestro and I sat down to discuss among other things, the history and development of the symphony and where classical music is headed.
John Morris Russell (2 of 4 part interview)
Can the resurgence in vinyl bring back vinyl for the avid classical music fan? – Coming from a site dedicated to buying and selling vinyl records, the question at first may seem to be a rhetorical one in its approach. That said, it is anything but a simple “yeah of course, because vinyl is the best” type of answer. There are many drawbacks to vinyl, some of which have infuriated the classical music lover since its conception some hundred plus years ago.
The first drawback being the fact that vinyl is a flawed medium that the listener needs to get past. To some, it starts and ends with: "I hear pops and hisses, and I don’t on CD, therefore digital is better." It is only when going back to listen to those same original recordings do you realize at what cost. Second, the CD allowed for the first time a whole symphony or large passage to be played from start to finish in a complete and uninterrupted performance for the very first time. I would argue that this has now become a moot point in today’s understanding of technology. What I mean by this is that I don’t know anyone who is excited about digital players being able for the first time to listen to, say, a full 4 hour opera without interruption. Who cares? We, as consumers, have been around technology long enough to know that we will probably never use these features (or rarely use).
Third, and one that should not be overlooked, is the idea that has been sold to the classical buying public: that classical music fans are slow to change their buying habits. The idea that getting someone as conservative as a classical music fan to re-evaluate their actions is the stuff of science fiction. I would challenge this argument. Although the perception of the classical listener is one of conservativism, I would argue the opposite is true. When it comes to music itself, one could easily argue that actual experimentation of music and sound starts and ends in classical music and not in Rock (or otherwise). When it comes to the music medium itself, the classical fan was the first to switch from vinyl* to digital. And the rest, as they say, is history. (and I’m sure there is data out there proving an almost clean break, never to return.)
But let’s stop for a second and review some things that aren’t immediately obvious at first glance. There are always pros and cons to any new development. This is especially true when it comes to a new medium. When Marshall McLuhan declared “The medium is the message.” from "Understanding Media", he wasn’t saying that the ‘message is the medium’ as some people have wrongly interpreted. He was saying that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we tend to overlook structural changes because they are introduced subtly over long periods of time. We, like people before us, when presented with a new medium, think that we immediately recognize it advantages and disadvantages, we understand its properties and how it was intended to be used. Even in some cases, we can have an educated guess what might replace it. What we don’t see until much later is when we look back after using it that there were some effects which we weren’t aware of when we first looked at the development (in this case the vinyl medium). These effects are called “unintended consequences” in the school of Communications. But I digress. Let’s get back to the argument at hand. Put another way, the question could be stated "what would it take to get classical music lover back into vinyl?"
The hole that was left in this mass exodus is unimaginably massive. Just think for a second; they have been making records for over one hundred years (since Edison’s time), and that whole time, they have been putting out classical music on vinyl. There is so much that has been released on vinyl that it would make your head spin. Really. Something else that needs to be noted is that Classical records have some of the best pressings, artwork, packaging and performances that have ever been captured and produced, and still only available in vinyl.
For audiophiles who are looking to get the wow factor from their system, I would argue that to ignore classical recordings on vinyl is like choosing to get into cooking, but only eating French food. It’s great, but there is the whole world out there waiting to be tasted. And here is the kicker, almost every seller you will ever deal with knows little to nothing about pricing it and by default mark it with clear-out prices. After a bit of time, and trial and error, you can pick out and discover some real gems. If you have any background in classical music (i.e. you know performers and composers that you like) you are 80% there. It should also be noted that some classical music on vinyl is some of the most monetarily valuable albums of any medium in any genre. People really go crazy for an album they are specifically looking for and pay a lot for it. Myself included. Some would say bonkers.
The digital medium has changed us in ways that was not intended or imagined. I believe that music on the digital medium has not only made the music worse, but also has made it seem expendable and not time worthy. What I mean by this is, for one thing, I believe that anyone is much quicker to turn off the mp3 player before the recording is over than to get up and take the needle off the record. If for nothing else, vinyl records force (focus) us to sit down and actually enjoy to music on a level that at best, is hard to duplicate. This matters. With digital music we have gained convenience and portability, and in turn, we have lost something that is hard to get back; taking time to listen to high quality, uncompressed, life changing music.
*I use the word vinyl referring to analog. Which, depending on your system, may or may not be pure analog