Thursday, 7 May 2015

Raging against the machines

Maria Callas as Madama Butterfly
For all that technology can bring us some really wonderful things, and enable us to do so many things we couldn’t do previously, it can also be tremendously frustrating.

And since penning a frustrated piece about iTunes almost two years ago, things have not actually become much easier.

To begin with, it was disappointing to learn, earlier this year, that Apple has discontinued the classic iPod, which could carry a vast amount of music around – perfect if your collection (which is still growing) includes full operas.

Discovering this, I decided to get one of the most recent iPods, with the largest amount of memory possible, and mothball my old classic for a while, since they’re now selling for a lot of money.

While the new one is smaller and less weighty, it also has nowhere near the memory of its predecessor.

This is partly to do with the cloud. The trouble is, I don’t like the cloud. I don’t buy digital music these days for a reason: it’s my collection, which I have paid for, and I do not want the risk of any hacker or even a company deciding, via technology, that they can control my music (or any other data – and we know what’s happened to some very personal photographs out there).

I do not wish to have to ‘stream’ my music when I want to listen to it.

If people do, then fair enough. But I do not – and I should be able to have that option. I should have the option of not having my device (in this case, my new iPod) showing every piece of music that I have purchased digitally in the past – and then insisting that, if I want to listen to them, I stream them, even though I downloaded copies originally and, in an odd case, have backed them up on disc.

So they exist, in effect, in my computer, but I can no longer decided whether or not they appear on my iPod and, if they do, it seems that they are not the copy I downloaded, but one that I can stream, because the iCloud says: ‘Oh look – you downloaded this freebie six years ago, so that means you want access to it at all times, even if you have not checked it when trying to organise your portable music. In which case, I, the all-seeing, all-knowing iCloud, will put a picture of the relevant cover art onto your iPod for you, so that you can stream it whenever you wish’.

Except, of course, I don’t wish. It clutters up what I want.

And what I want to carry with me to listen to is currently undergoing an extremely rewarding expansion phase.

Opera has been a very gradual learning curve for me. Even after visiting the English National Opera a few times, the damn has only been truly broken this year with our going to the Royal Opera House.

While the ultimate operatic experience is always going to be seeing a production live, listening is a wonderful way of learning.

And with such a wealth of historic recordings to choose from, you can listen to more than one and, therefore, learn to compare productions, the speed of playing a score, which parts of the orchestra are emphasised and which are the truly great voices.

Herbert von Karajan
When you can get hold of a copy of, say, Madama Butterfly, with Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan, for just £3.97, then this isn’t an expensive exercise either. You wouldn’t get a pint of beer in London for that these days.

Actually, I’ve had a marked reluctance to do the comparison thing: I try to look at authoritative sources such as Gramophone to discover what is the ‘best’ recording ever – hence my having invested in Solti’s Ring over von Karajan’s – but that doesn’t necessarily teach you much when you don’t compare it to anything else.

It’s a slightly odd approach, since I have several cases of musicals where I have more than one recording – and also of orchestral music: there is more than one Rites of Spring on the shelf and more than a single copy of Mozart’s Requiem, while I did a little experiment a year or so ago, using digital downloads of the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by various conductors in an attempt to compare – and it is amazing what differences there can be.

But I shall strive to overcome this reluctance.

Television can also offer some opportunities to explore more.

Just recently, for instance, The Other Half spotted that Sky Arts 2 was screening the Royal Opera House’s 2013 production of Puccini’s Turandot.

I was utterly absorbed for the duration: Lise Lindstrom is wonderful as the eponymous ice queen and young singer Eri Nakamura excels as the tragic Luì.

Marco Berti in Turandot
Marco Berti is a bit sort of … well, wooden …  as Calaf, but comes good in the end when he gets to sing that iconic aria, Nessun Dorma. And then there’s Andrei Serban’s staging – a visual treat. The plot may be flimsy, but the music is more than adequate compensation.

It’s worth pointing this out, because this film is available on disc and is also bound to crop up on TV again at some future date.

Enamoured with the music, I decided to get a copy (and upload it onto my iPod). It was easy to find a recording to pick: Zubin Mehta conducting Joan Sutherland. Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Peter Pears (along with other names I am not familiar with).

And it is sumptuous to listen to.

We’re on a roll with Puccini: I’ve managed to get tickets for a run of La bohème at the Royal Opera House in July. It’s the final night, with Plácido Domingo guest conducting, which itself is a thrilling thought – I have vinyl recordings of Domingo from several decades ago: my love of music is far from new; just the broadening of my experience and horizons.

And here’s a thing: the ROH website is brilliant for booking, as it has a picture for each seat and for the view from that seat.

I had long fallen into the trap of assuming that the ROH is always very expensive, but have been thankfully disabused of that – together with a fear that it might feel rather intimidating.

Our seats for July rolled in at £40 each, which is cheaper than most of the theatre tickets we’ve had in recent years and easily comparable to sporting events these days. And the view look excellent.

In the meantime, I have a Pavarotti recording to prepare myself for that night – so I’ll know the story better and won’t find myself concentrating too much on the surtitles.

The only problem I can see is running out of space on the iPod and then having to fart around within the classical genre rather than simply uploading all my classical music.

Bloody machines.

Id have to resort to reading while commuting – mind, Michael Tanners Wagner, which challenges a number of attitudes toward that musical giant (including some utter daftness from people who should know much better), has been a fascinating and highly informative read.

Old and new – there are plenty of options in this musical voyage of discovery.

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