There’s no sediment at the bottom of a Bud

Of course, I was not alone in my reaction to yesterday’s Guardian piece on the alleged death of the recording industry.
A must read is at The Rest is Noise, where Alex Ross thoroughly and meticulously debunks that whole notion of  dying industry through, wait for it…. actual facts and figures!

At an Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton reproduces a piece from Naxos UK’s managing director, Anthony Anderson. He points out there were over 1000 new releases from independent labels in 2006, compared with the 100 releases cited in the Martin Kettle article. Pliable also makes a nice wine comparison.

Jen offered a good comment to my previous post on this subject: “Pretty much the “Everything” recording industry is being revolutionized by things like itunes, etc. It’s not the product that needs rethinking, it’s the distribution”

I actually agree and disagree. Let’s go back to beer and wine (my favorite topics, I’m afraid). The genius of modern American master brewers and wine makers, in my opinion, was that they were able to identify the ways in which some of the classic European brands had atrophied. The quality might have been high, but the style had become needlessly limited by tradition- it was too easy to know what a German lager or a Bordeaux was going to be like just by its title.

The success of the HIP movement outside baroque music has shown that there is a commercial opportunity for those who can come up with a new way of playing Beethoven and Brahms. Much as I admire some of their work, I remain skeptical that simply playing fast and without vibrato really counts as a sophisticated and mature aesthetic approach. It is certainly a catchy gimmick, but the current generation of HIPsters are going to have to show that they can take the movement  beyond some of the simplistic and easily discredited orthodoxies of its founders.

Meanwhile, for more than two decades in Budapest, Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra have been reinventing the institution of the orchestra. Here is an orchestra of world-class musicians who regularly start the day with player-directed warm-ups and sectionals, and who might at any time take time out of rehearsal to play a Bach chorale. Every player is encouraged to play chamber music and have a musical voice in the orchestra. Instead of taking the American approach of “we’ve played Brahms 3 100 times, we don’t need to rehearse it too much,” they BFO say “we’ve played Brahms 3 100 times, so we need to allow ourselves the opportunity to explore it and keep it fresh for ourselves and the audience.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Gergiev’s approach at the Kirov, where they play so much repertoire on so little rehearsal that nobody can every dare to get complacent for a second. I remember a visit to the Proms a few years back when they played Boris Gudonov, a three-hour Gubaidulina choral work and a symphonic program of the 3rd Prokofiev Piano Concerto and Shostakovich 4 in the space of less than 24 hours. I can’t imagine anyone who saw it wasn’t in awe of their endurance and concentration, and I’ve never heard the fugue in the first movement of Shost 4 played more ferociously. Their approach is a bit like jazz- daring, improvisational, risky, and when it works, pretty exciting.

Nobody could fault the professionalism and polish of any major American orchestra *, but is that really the goal? Nobody every accused Madonna of releasing un-polished records; Top 40 music is turd-polished to within an inch of its life. Also, what is the cost to the individual musician when her beloved art form is reduced to a profession, when the joy of discovery and exploration of music is replaced by the endless grind of churning polished subscription concert after polished subscription concert. One thing I love about the Vienna Philharmonic is that they’re not afraid to play like shit- they’re fearless about taking risks, and more concerned in creating inspired performances than keeping up the appearance of a well-oiled machine.

I’ve written before about the New Queens Hall Orchestra, who are actively trying to form their own approach, which specifically eschews the quest for technical perfection as a goal in itself (although the play at an exceptionally high standard), and who make truly live recordings. Somebody needs to give them a million bucks and hire me to make records with them- it would open a lot of ears (even with some other conductor).
What all of these orchestra’s share is a commitment to excellence, as defined by them. They believe in what they’re doing, and they believe the artistic product is the mission, and that the market success of the orchestra follows their quest for excellence, not their marketting department.

On the other side, here is an article that shows the heartbreaking lack of common sense and vision seen at too many American orchestras these days. An established orchestra has PAID a consultant to tell them to change their name. How much did this consultant get paid to bestow this bit of wisdom on the board? I bet it’s more than any of the players make. I’m reminded of Muriel’s Wedding, when the title character vows to start a new life,  and to through off the shackles of her old life. Freed from the burden of being Muriel, she blossoms in to….. Mariel. Maybe Spinal tap offers the best example “we were called The Orginals, but then it turned out there was another band called The Originals, so we changed our name to The New Originals.”

What’s next, the New York Funharmonic? The Berlin Philharmaniacs? Why not just sell naming rights? We could see a whole generation of Haliburton Symphony’s out there! Maybe the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra will realize there’s more money in calling themselves the Charlotte Church Orchestra.

* I want to make absolutely clear that not only am I  not faulting the polish of the US major bands, I’m not faulting them for anything at all. I don’t think even most musicians full understand the awe inspiring amount of talent, musicianship and experience in a group of 100 virtuosos who’ve all survived the traumas of the audition process to be there. However, to be totally honest, even though there are great, great things happening at orchestras all over the US, I’m not convinced that the standard structure from the audition process through the collective bargaining process to the rehearsals and concerts themselves is worthy of the institutions, the musicians or the music these days.

 c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “There’s no sediment at the bottom of a Bud”

  1. Jen

    Here’s yet another thought on this subject. Fifteen years ago, an independant classical recording was almost out of the question. But with current technology, anyone with a decent computer, a good microphone and access to a recording space can put together an album. I know this, because my group is among that 1000 independant Classical Record releases in the past year, and we are starting on record #3, most of which will be recorded in my living room using all my own equipment.

    I am not a particularly amazing violist, either. I’m sort of an ‘everyviolist’ Classical musicians think of recording as being this mysterious process where only the best players are entitled to record and distribute a CD. I understand and respect the need for high quality, and pursue it myself. But Garage bands don’t think this way at all, and the market is flooded with their product. Some is high quality, Some not, but I still give them credit for the attempt. It’s impossible to distribute a recording that doesn’t exist!

    The music recording industry is shifting from being a mass market product where one would have to go to a store to purchase a cd to a computer driven industry where you download music, most of which you ‘discovered’ yourself on someone’s myspace or poking around on itunes. There is a certain pride in discovering a band or artist online and supporting them. This is how my students get their music. When asked ‘when was the last time you bought a CD?” most of them say “Two years ago!” They pride themselves in finding independant artists and sharing their new music with friends. This is true of our group, too. We’ve sold more records online than we have at our live concerts, or in the record store.

    Thanks for listening!

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