Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why I still by CDs (it's not because I'm old)

Yes, I still look for -- and purchase -- CDs. I'm not a technological dinosaur by any means. I have no problem downloading (legally) just the hit song of a current group. I, like many others, am not willing to pay for filler.

There are three basic reasons why I still purchase a lot of music and rip it myself, though. If you haven't gone all-digital, perhaps one or more of these apply to you.

Liner notes
Most of the music I purchase these days falls into one of two categories. If it's popular music, then I'm getting compilation albums of obscure genres, defunct record labels, or career highlights of forgotten or little-known bands.

I always know what I'm getting into musically, but I rely on the liner notes to put things into context. How did the label start? Why did it fail? What was the band's lineup at the time of the recording? How was the regional market for this genre different than the national? These are some of the things I expect the compilation liner notes to answer (and for the most part they do -- especially British releases. They take this stuff seriously).

I also buy a lot of classical music, and liner notes are equally important there. I'm long past the stage where I need to read about Beethoven tearing up the dedication page to the "Eroica" symphony. I'm very familiar with that story -- but then I'm not buying yet another version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, either.

Rather, I'm purchasing works by lesser-known composers, or modern composers. I rely on the liner notes to provide biographical information (especially for the newer composers), and detailed information surrounding either the composition or performance history of the work.

Was Joachim Raff's first symphony well-received? How was Leo Smit's music saved and championed after his death in a concentration camp? How did Robert Simpson fit into the musical world of Tudor England? This information helps me appreciate the works on a different level. They're not just music floating in space, but rather part of the vast continual tapestry of classical music stretching from the middle ages to the present day.

Multi-movement classical works
I know for most people, hearing a single movement out of a symphony or a piano sonata is no big deal. It's short, it has the hit tune, and after a few minutes its over.

Unfortunately, I don't function like that. While early music suites were put together casually (even by the composers) and could be mixed and matched, by the time you get to the 1600's, composers are starting to use mult-movements in their works to provide contrast and drama. Monteverdi in 1624 strings together several madrigals to make up his drama "Il combattimento di Tancreci e Clorinda." Each madrigal stands alone musically, but it's only when you hear them in sequence that the full story and dramatic pacing comes through.

And most of the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven was written specifically for multi-movement forms. The typical classical symphony begins with an uptempo rousing first movement. Then there's a slower second movement in a related key to change the pace. Then a lively scherzo (but much lighter musically than the first movement) in triple time to get the juices flowing again. Finally, the last movement, which is lighter in construction than the first movement, but faster to get everyone excited again.

While each movement has a beginning and end, they're not four separate pieces of music strung together. Beginning in the1800s composers carried over themes, motives, rhythmic patterns from movement to movement. So to fully appreciate the over-arching structure of the music, you really have to hear all the movements in order.

I can't purchase classical music except movement by movement ($$$) and once I've downloaded it, I can't really control how they'll show up in shuffle. Yes, I could make folders for each work, but really: that doesn't solve the problem.

In iTunes, I can join adjacent tracks to play as one continuous "song." Works for me. Now when Haydn's "London" symphony comes up on shuffle play, I know I'll hear the whole thing (which is the way I want it). Ditto for Vaughan William's chamber opera "Riders to the Sea."

Multi-disc classical works
Unfortunately, I can't load everything onto iTunes and join tracks. Havergal Brian's First Symphony is so big, it's spread over two discs. And you can only join tracks from a single disc in iTunes. So that one has to sit on my shelf for later listening. Ditto with my Wagner Ring Cycle (averaging 3-4 per opera), and other larger symphonic and operatic works.

So if I want to listen to something that runs more than 75 minutes (and I do with fair frequency), my only recourse is to pull the discs off the shelf and put them on.

Unavailable and irreplaceable recordings
Most of the stuff I'm really interested in just doesn't turn up that often as a digital download. So even if I wanted to go that route, I generally don't have that option. A good number of the discs I purchase are actually out of print (or seem to become so shortly after I buy them).

But that's fine, because at least I have a hard copy for backups. And I've needed them. I recently had a 1TB hard drive go belly up before I could adequately back up my music library. I lost some downloads I'm not interested in replacing, and some I won't be able to even if I could (the band websites are no longer online) but the Kurt Hessenburg Symphony on Cassandra? No problem.

So that's why I still buy CDs. Most of them used, many out of print, but still. The ones I pick up still have value beyond the digital tracks they contain.

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