The shock of the old

Why the latest isn't automatically the greatest

The shock of the old

The same seems to have happened with music, and recording techniques. I’ve been working through the back catalogue of Decca’s finest moments on a series of double-disc and box sets recently. Some of the best of these moments come from the late 1950s, from a time when studio engineers wore white coats and were experimenting with stereo sound as a new venture. Rather than multi-miking a venue, creating a too close sound of instruments where every valve press, finger squeak, or key stroke is heard with absolute clarity, these recordings often used a spaced pair of microphones with a single ambience microphone laid out in Decca’s distinctive ‘tree’ pattern, high up in a concert hall with natural ambience.

Many of these recordings represent the best in orchestra, conductor, and tonmeister working in true harmony. They are to the classical world what Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited are to jazz and rock. And yet, they often lie forgotten and ignored, and more current recordings (often featuring a young blonde musician in a little black dress on the cover) are preferred.

Music needs not to be played only in retrospect. Just because Ruggiero Ricci essentially ‘owned’ the music of Pablo de Sarasate in the 1950s doesn’t mean that no one else will ever match these remarkable recordings. And just because Julia Fischer is quite easy on the eye doesn’t make her recordings made in 2014 of the same any less powerful (Fischer’s mastery of both violin and piano makes her something of a force to be reckoned with, in fact). I find both versions are worth owning, because both have equal – yet different – merit.

I don’t like the ‘what have you done for me lately’ take on audio or music. I used the same system without significant change for more than 15 years, and have only recently explored ‘refreshing’ the equipment to keep up with the streaming world. And my music is a mix of the old, and the new. We need both, otherwise music descends into the shallow popularity contests seen every year on TV shows like The X Factor.

And that’s just terrible!

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