THE DETERIORATION OF THE QUALITY OF MUSIC INTERPRETATION
DUE TO THE DEFICIENCIES OF RECORDED SOUND
THE WORLD HAS NOT YET HEARD THE CONTENTS OF ITS RECORDS
© 1984 The Anstendig Institute
In the 1950's, knowledgeable musicians were already disturbed by a deterioration in the quality of music-making and in the ability of young musicians to interpret the expressive contents of music. They complained that music-making was becoming mere technical show without expressiveness. The ability of many performers to express something through the music was either absent or of an immature, vulgar, undisciplined level. The problem was considered very urgent because young students were found to suffer most from the lack of adequate insight into the expression of the works they were studying.
In the conducting class at the Juilliard School of Music, Jean Morel allowed his students to help choose the music to be studied. In the first class of the year, each student submitted a list of works he would like to study. Morel chose mostly from these lists, usually adding only one or two selections of his own.
One year in the late 1950's, Morel noted that no music of Mendelssohn was on the lists and that too many novelties were chosen rather than solid examples of basic musical problems and styles. After adding the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony to the list, Morel treated the class to one of his famous, but always justified, temper outbreaks. His complaint was that the public and professional music world alike had lost their aesthetic values; that, although musical performance levels still had far to go, no one was interested in doing things "better”. They only wanted something new. Few conductors cared about perfecting the way they performed the great masterworks so as to closer realize what the composers meant in their compositions, and even fewer were able to do so. Of course, composers of works of the most exquisite emotional subtlety, such as Mendelssohn, suffered most. Since exquisite music performed coarsely is nothing more than coarse music, those works were no longer popular because the public no longer heard performances as exquisitely and intensely moving as they should be. No one experienced any more the excruciatingly moving, heart-jumped-into-the-throat, almost painfully exquisite experience that is possible with just a little turn of a Mendelssohn melody when it is exquisitely played.
Other musicians at that time had similar complaints that music-making had become superficial and mechanical and that performers no longer exhibited any depth of expression. Columbia Records even distributed a complimentary 7-inch record of a 1966 interview with George Szell, in which he clearly states the problem and expresses fear for the future of music. But no one was able to put his finger on the main cause of this unhealthy development in the sonic arts.
The Anstendig Institute, along with a few other individuals and groups, has finally clearly recognized that the cause of the decline of musical values is the shortcomings of recorded sound. The loss of expressivity in the music-world can be traced directly to the inability of sound systems to reproduce the dynamic subtleties of recordings. While Morel and Szell, in their teaching, absolutely insisted that their students not use records to study their scores, they felt it was the laziness, lack of discipline, and lack of first-hand practice when using records that failed to train the student adequately. No one thought the recorded sound itself to be the cause.
Recent developments in sound-reproduction have made it very clear that the equipment used in the playback of recordings, particularly records, has never been capable of reproducing all of the information on the recordings and that the most incomplete aspect of most reproduced sound is the expressive content. Humanity has, for a full century, been listening to bad, distorted, disfigured sound from unperfected radios, sound-systems, and TV's. Besides those shortcomings in the sound-quality which are usually recognized, the original expressive content is simply not there. It has been replaced with a distorted, coarsened expression that differs enough from the original to be a completely different, less fine, less exquisite, infinitely less moving expression altogether. The degree of degradation depends on the sound system. But even the most expensive systems are not accurate, and most record-playing equipment in particular does not come close to reproducing the information in the grooves. The general public and professional musicians alike have become conditioned to accepting this low-quality, distorted, expressively degraded and changed sound to the point where they now expect their music to sound that way. Musicians imitate the wrong expressive content as well as the distorted sound they hear from their records and acousticians are even building concert halls that make music sound like the distortions of recordings. Ironically, when the sound is corrected, the results are often found to be "unnatural" because the distortions are missed.
Those who have recognized the complicity of bad sound-reproduction in the deterioration of music have not all realized that the most difficult-to-reproduce aspect of music, the finest dynamic details (the fine dynamic modulations), is the most important of all aspects of sound because it contains the expression. The point of music is to express something and thereby create an experience, emotional or otherwise, in the listener. But almost all shortcomings in sound-reproducing equipment affect the ability of the sound-system to reproduce the finest nuances that are the expressive content of the performance. This failing is worse with records because, in that medium, the dynamics lie in the undulations of the record-grooves which have to be traced mechanically by the pickup stylus. This mechanical step in which the pick-up cartridge has to turn the undulations of the record grooves into electrical signals is the weakest link in the whole sound-reproduction process.
Because of the microscopic size of the undulations of the grooves, enormous precision in the pickup is necessary if the signal is to be faithfully retrieved from the grooves. While the recording process has been extremely successful in capturing the expressive-dynamic information on records with the necessary precision, that precision has previously been unavailable in playback equipment. Only now, with the aid of laser-technology and other highly advanced manufacturing methods utilizing new materials, is it possible to make a pickup cartridge capable of retrieving essentially all the information from the grooves. The Anstendig Institute knows of only one cartridge that is completely successful in this respect--the newest version of the Win-Jewel cartridge by Dr. Sao Win. Laser-technology which Dr. Win developed for the government is used to perfect the shape and smoothness of the diamond tip and to drill through the length of the tiny ruby cantilever, on which the diamond is mounted (which allows vibrations of the cantilever itself to be eliminated by filling it with a vibration damping compound). This cartridge, which is a moving-coil type, uses tighter, painstakingly precise windings for the coil and the latest examples utilize super-strong magnets of a new substance, Neodynium.1 These parts have to be mounted with a precision only matched in fields such as optics and nuclear technology.
Until this last year, no one, neither layman nor professional, neither music-lover nor record critic, has heard what is on his records. I have purposely described the intricacies of the new Win-Jewel cartridge to lend credence to that claim. The technologies applied to that cartridge make a very definite difference in how much of the information on the record is reproduced. Furthermore, if the cartridge is not also mounted in a truly exceptional tone-arm, its qualities will be destroyed. (Such an arm was also supplied and carefully adjusted for our institute by Dr. Win.) After careful listening and comparison with some of the finest available cartridges, it became indelibly clear to The Anstendig Institute that mankind has yet to hear the contents of the millions of records that make up one of its most valuable treasures. Unfortunately, it also became clear that the last bit of information to be claimed from the records--the most difficult information to reproduce--is the dynamic subtleties which contain the real expressive content of the performance.
Every engineer knows that a fair amount of mechanical precision can be achieved with relatively reasonable cost and expenditure of effort, while achieving the last possible bit of precision raises the cost and expenditure of effort astronomically. But, especially with records, successful reproduction of the musical aspects of a recording is the result of this last bit of mechanical accuracy. With equipment of typical manufacturing methods and tolerances, the listener is simply not hearing the performance. Not only can typical record-playing equipment not accurately reproduce the records, most even add a great deal of their own colorations and dynamic inaccuracies to the sound. What is heard is quite different from and inferior to the expression of the original.
Whoever has heard music mainly through recordings cannot be aware of how exquisitely fine the musical expression can be in performances by the greatest artists. Most of those musicians brought up in the expressively barren atmosphere described by Morel are not only unaware of the finer musical subtleties, they are also unaware of the true possibilities of their own music-making. For those people, public and musicians alike, every new advance in their own sound-systems is a revelation. Suddenly, information is heard and experiences are realized which they never thought were on the records. Only the music-lovers or professionals lucky enough to have been in the company of such ratified musicians as Morel and Szell for a long enough time can know and be listening for the type of musical expression which should be on those records.
The public is used to thinking of good sound-reproduction in terms of whether a clarinet sounds like a clarinet, how clear the stereo imaging is, etc. Although these are the "building blocks” of a musical structure, such static factors are not those which transform sounds into music. The dynamics are what make sounds come alive as music.
To comprehend the present crisis in the musical world, it must be understood that music is an art that has been preserved and passed on by means of "oral traditions" which were fostered and transmitted with the same care and high moral sense as any of the great religious teachings. Music notation is a relatively new and very limited development in the history of music. Because the limitations of music notation only allow the preservation of the barest outlines of a musical composition, music remains an art that is passed on by word of mouth and personal demonstration. But today recorded performances by the great experts themselves have, to a large degree, taken the place of personal contact in gaining insight into the interpretation of the various musical styles as well as such basics as the correct manner of playing musical instruments. Because of the shortcomings of record-playing systems along with other unfortunate circumstances (chief among them, the loss of many great masters and much young talent due to the World Wars), those oral traditions are nearly lost.
in the field of cathedral building, the world has had a rude awakening to the
fact that almost all the old masters of the art have died and that less than a
handful of people still know the various arts necessary to build a complete,
ornate cathedral. Great effort is finally being made, in connection with a new
The situation in music is no less crucial and in no less need of energetic action if the oral traditions and the great heritage of recorded treasures in the vaults of the record companies are to be saved. The musical scene has expanded to such large proportions that it is impossible now to personally communicate enough of the oral traditions to save the situation. Enough musicians and members of the audience would not be reached. The only possibility is to perfect the necessary equipment and playback techniques to restore the greatest performances in the recordings of the past so that the vast professional and lay public can finally hear, study, and emulate them.
1 Non-linearities in the signal occur with the usually-used somarium-cobalt magnets when their strength is raised above 18 flux. One Win-Jewel cartridge made for and donated to The Anstendig Institute achieves a strength of 28 flux with perfect linearity.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.