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Classical 101

New Technologies Offer Something Gained and Something Lost

Imagine what the experience of music must have been like before the invention of recording technology,  before iPods, downloads, uplinks, CDs, tapes, and even records and turntables, let alone old 78 RPM Victrolas. If you wanted to hear music, you had to listen to it being made in the present moment by someone else or make it yourself.  Live music was the only kind of music there was. I can't help wondering if that obvious fact helped increase people's appreciation of what they heard and not take it for granted.  I'm not saying that most people now do, but there is something about the push-button ease of our high-tech on-the-go lifestyle that says, "I've  got five versions of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony on my iPod, so I can listen to it anytime I want." But knowing how easy it is, how often do we actually listen to an entire symphony without thinking about or doing something else?  Has something been lost as well as gained?

The Pros of New Recording Technology

I am in no way arguing against recordings or recording technology.  This is not a Luddite screed.  It is a call to give more attention to the music we love, directed at myself as much as anyone else.  It has undoubtedly enriched all of our lives to be able to hear the greatest performers and orchestras in the world at the touch of a button and in sound quality of amazing fidelity, richness and depth. And I'm not complaining about having Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on as background music while we're doing something else, as if that were some kind of sacrilege (we all have things that need to be done, but we want a little music, too).  I'm thinking of the times we want to give our complete awareness to the music and for some reason can't fully appreciate what we're hearing. When so much is competing for our attention, and there's so much we have to do everyday, to sit down and actually attend completely to a symphony or concerto for half an hour without any interruptions can be a luxury. And even if we can make the time, our attention may wander because we have been conditioned to live in a fast-paced sound-bite media consumer culture in which fifteen seconds is a long time and  "big bucks" to somebody.  As we know "time is money," so we'd  better be doing something productive and not wasting our time.  But the full beauty of what some people have called "timeless"  music can only unfold in the present moment.  We have to be there too, or we will  miss it.

Being "Present" With the Music

I imagine the composer had to be intensely present when the music was being written and only existed in the  mind.  The artists who record it (or are playing it in concert "live") certainly have to be fully engaged, or it won't be a very good performance.  But if we are not fully present as listeners, surely something also has been lost.  What is all this activity for? We are the final link in the chain.  To gain the full benefit of what this marvelous digital technology has to offer, lets remember that long ago it was  impossible to hear so many outstanding  musical artists and ensembles with such ease. So, I guess the point is to keep listening to great music anytime you feel like it, but also set aside time in place of a TV show or a movie to lengthen those attention-span muscles with a complete symphony (Mahler anyone?), a  concerto or sonata, or maybe even an opera if you like vocal music.  Or, go to a live concert.  Your effort will be well rewarded with musical satisfaction, and you  may feel a greater connection with the community of music lovers throughout the ages.