Technical Problems

 One facet of music that’s often un­acknowledged is that technology has a large effect on it, not merely on the creation of music (i.e., through the development of new or somehow mod­ified instruments), but on it’s reception. For example, in 1948 John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain invented the transistor. By the mid-50’s, the transistor made its way into portable radios. This period, of course, saw the advent of people like Elvis, Bill Haley, and DJ Alan Freed. Unlike the large, home-based vacuum-tube radios, tran­sistor radios featured small, lousy speakers that emitted all types of music with a tinny sound. Rock and roll was, due to its very structure and the technique with which it was recorded, little affected by the radios’ acoustic limitations. Consequently, a correlation between the number of transistor radios sold and the rise in popularity of rock and roll music could, no doubt, be charted. Classical music, in those days, was considered to be “high-fidelity” music, something that was not played on a teenager’s hi-fi set. Moreover, except for programs like Texaco-sponsored Saturday afternoon performances from the Met, classical music tended to be broadcast on the FM band most inex­pensive transistor radios of the early 60’s picked up only AM stations (a change occurred when the so-called “under­ ground” stations sprouted on FM). The original “long-hair stuff,” then, was isolated.

The people who had a high level of interest in classical music often had a similar concern with the quality of their home audio equipment. Some teens had tape recorders in the 60’s; the devices were little more than novelties. Classical music aficionados, generally to a man, had massive reel-to-reel setups and were always careful to brush the stylus on their changer before putting it to vinyl. In effect, this group of people formed a cult of quality acoustics from which transistor radio-touting teens were barred. Even the vocabularies were different, not only with regard to per­formers and subgenres of music, but even when it came to acquiring discs. That is, teens “scraped together” frag­ments of their allowances and “picked up the latest 45.” The other listeners “invested in recordings.” 

The division remains, even though rock music has become more techno­logically sophisticated than classical music is. During the past several years, ads have appeared in publications like Rolling Stone for audio systems that classical music lovers of recent vintage would die an operatic death for. The sound quality of these assemblages of pre-amps, amps, tuners, changers with servo drives, multiple-way speakers, etc. is truly astonishing. What is, perhaps, more jarring is the fidelity of the Walkman-type devices that have prolif­erated of late in a manner similar to that of the then-newly developed transistor radios. By and large, the market for the portable stereos consists of young people; given the fact that the devices generally sell for approximately $100, teens can, and do, afford them. In effect, the young person of today who owns recordings (discs or tapes) by The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, and other technopop groups tends to have playing equipment that’s on a par with that owned by the typical lover of Beethoven, Brahms, etc. As a result, there now exists a possibility for the division to be breached, if not closed. It’s unlikely that the move will be in the direction from Wagner to Thomas Dolby, but the other way.

Three recent releases on the Nonesuch label could serve as effective stepping stones for someone who is interested in, after 20 years, giving The Beatles the boot and becoming involved with modern classical music. Step one is provided by The Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet (Nonesuch 78022), which features renditions of works by 20th­ century composers Barber, Milhaud, Arnold, Ligeti, and Ibert. Given the instrumentation, the music wouldn’t sound too foreign to virgin ears. Indeed, some of Ligeti’s music was used in the film 2001, which is, of course, a campus favorite. Moreover, many have re­marked that rock music tends to be monotonous; Samuel Barber’s works aren’t exactly scintillating. Next, the move could be through William Bal­com ‘s Second Sonata/Duo Fantasy/Graceful Ghost (Nonesuch 79058), on which Balcom plays piano and Sergiu Luca plays violin. Of the three Bolcom­ penned works, Graceful Ghost: Concert Variation for Violin and Piano has an uncommon accessibility: it is formally hermetic, yet has a riff-like texture that bespeaks an intimacy with jazz, a musical form that has inspired, among others, rock musicians.

Finally, there is Morton Subotnick’s Ascent Into Air/A Fluttering of Wings (Nonesuch 78020-1), which are parts one and three of a musical drama entitled The Double Life of Amphibians, a title that brings to mind Stevie Wonder’s most curious work, The Secret Life of Plants. The previous assertion about the “technological” superiority of rock music will crumble before composers like Subotnick. Ascent Into Air is a work for 10 instruments (in this case the CalArts Twentieth Century Players under the direction of Stephen Mosko) and “computer generated sound” (the drone is controlled by, or modulated by, the performances of the cellists). A Fluttering of Wings, performed by the Juilliard String Quartet, includes an “electronic ghost score,” which has the effect of shifting the instrumental sounds and which requires a good speaker system. Modern music enthusiasts who would rather listen to fingernails brushed across chalkboards than works by Eno, Fripp, etc. would find Subotnick to be deadly. 

While some might think that the closing of the gap between the two types of listeners would be a laudatory act, there is a danger involved. Consider the images of Alex in Kubrick’s rendition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, in his bedroom listening to “the glorious Ludwig von.” Small minds can be deva­stated by grand themes. (SM)


Dialing for Dollars

One of the reasons why virtually all of the well-known performers of what is designated “rock” cannot be considered artists in even the broadest senses of the category is that they are essentially businessmen and women. Certainly, their very appearances and the content of their noises (which have, admittedly, various melodic values) seem to belie this assertion, but the fact remains that even though the days of payola are, purportedly, ancient history, bottom lines are still the prime movers. The costs involved in producing, packaging, and marketing records are phenomenal, which explains why most record com­panies are parts of conglomerates.When Elvis worked clubs in Memphis in 1954, he made $10 per night. Nowadays, $10 is good for a single album and some change that wouldn’t even buy a meal at McDonald’s. Because of the develop­ment of cable television, which resulted in channels and channels and channels of air space, rock went more visual than ever before. Once, fans would tune into American Bandstand on Saturday mornings and watch, for the most part, teens dancing to popular records. Now, at any time, day or night, they can dial MTV and see their favorite players mugging on “videos.” When Coppola was making Apocalypse Now, he dreamed of making brief, videotaped features. This concept has been bastard­ized for MTV: no mere lip syncs, this is theater. One consequence is that the careers of many zillion-sellers, such as Duran Duran, have been made by the music network. Already-established personalities, those who were built primarily on radio and concert appear­ances, have felt the tugs of the mar­ketplace and so recognize that their images must be refurbished—updated. If dollar signs didn’t dance in their heads, they would undoubtedly stick to what they once, as many of them often put it, “believed in.” But no.

Jackson Browne is paradigmatic. In one grand leap he’s gone from an elec­trified folk-rock player to a turquoise­ tinted leather-suit-wearing chump whose music is on par with that played at high school graduation parties. But the look is right, “with it.” However, his Lawyers in Love album (Elektra/Asylum), which features the updated Browne, has merely a tough facade. The interior is gutless. The woman vocalist who once added strength and resiliency to some of Browne’s cuts, Rosemary Butler, is not on that album, nor did she accompany him on the supporting tour. That she has what he is pretending to is obvious on her solo album, Rose (Capitol Records), which is proof that when it comes to music, the audio is still more important than the visual. Unfortu­nately, the success of MTV seems to indicate that posing is usurping perform­ance in a field wherein the latter has not been all that noteworthy. After all, as all of the rock businessmen and women know, it pays to advertise, and video is a key sales tool. (SM)