Friday, January 6, 2012

One Does Not Shuffle a Beethoven Symphony

Boundaries help define art.
This week the Wall Street Journal ran a feature relating that some people believe iTunes is user-surly toward classical music. The two major complaints are:
  • The Composer meta-data tag—of equal or greater importance to a classical music listener than the Artist tag—is often blank in downloaded music, hampering search.
  • Chopping a classical piece into separate tracks for each of its movements invites crimes of playback. "One does not shuffle a Beethoven symphony."
The former is an issue with music labels, not iTunes, and hardly seems grounds to ascribe evil intent to inanimate software. The latter reminds me of the Henny Youngman joke that begins, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." But the issues give us an opportunity to talk about personalization.

There are two kinds of boundaries on an LP: there is the intended silence between tracks, and there is the break between sides A/B. The boundary on an audio CD is the hard limit of 74:44 as the maximum possible duration.

The innate boundaries in a creative work and the physical boundaries of audio delivery media do not always align. Buying pre-packaged music means accepting someone else's decision-making when there is a conflict.

The last step in the digital transfer pipeline is packaging material for export to audio files. Here you are the master of your own destiny, introducing or removing boundaries to personalize the result for the most important listener—you.

Two simple examples today. Come back for two more complex examples tomorrow.

          Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #4         

Title: Sweeney Todd [1976 Original Broadway Cast]
Artist: Soundtrack
Genre: Musicals
Year: 1979

Musicals are seldom perfectly symmetric. Sweeney Todd was released on vinyl as a 2-LP set. Act I is longer than Act II, covering sides 1-2 and part of side 3. Restoring the work to its innate Act I & II grouping on transfer was a no-brainer.

         Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #5        
Title: Piano Music of the 20th Century
Artist: Maurizio Pollini

Genre: Classical
Year: 1979

20 Jahrhundert is a mammoth 5 LP box set. Ignoring the 5 or 10 part grouping inferred from the physical packaging, a more natural arrangement emerged around the seven composers whose work is performed. In effect, I produced a "title" for each composer. Grouping the movements of some of the finer-grained short pieces into a whole (e.g. Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19, whose total running time is just over 5 minutes) also made sense.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Do you think iTunes handles classical music well? Please leave a comment.