Audio, Etc. (Aug. 1978)

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We do a lot of talking these days about bringing the concert hall into the living room-how about bringing it into the concert hall? If that sounds redundant, I mean of course via recordings. They do it all the time in Great Britain.

Recently a well-known pair of British record/hi-fi people decided to try the idea over here, in the name of their two organizations. They were Joan Coulson of EMI, the huge British record company, and Raymond Cooke, once of Wharfedale, now heading his own British company, KEF. It happened right in New York and I was there, the whole time. I can report to you first-hand, then, that the operation was successful but the patients nearly died.

You never saw such a bewildered batch of press and dealer people in your life.

This was not like any hi-fi demo-it was a concert. And I mean a concert.

Joan Coulson, who has been EMI chief all-around public relations manager for years and who herself has presented recordings in public for much of her career, was a most winning hostess and commentator on the music-that wasn't the problem. Graceful, enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable, she made a pretty picture up on the small stage of Carni Hall, in the crook of a flower -laden (and silent) grand piano. But this time she was up against more than even she could manage. I had to admire the professional ease with which for almost two hours she tried to reassure her New York audience that all this classical music really was very good listening, even at this considerable length-phew! They were trapped. The leaden weight of the Unaccustomed was just too much, at least for this audience.

To be sure, some of those present were charmed, knowing perhaps both the music and the English tradition that it represented. There's usually a happy soul in the gloomiest audience, a silver lining to every cloud, and this was in fact a beautifully organized presentation of its kind. But unfamiliar-so unfamiliar! It wasn't Coulson's fault, nor that of Ramond Cooke, at the controls-he also had been in the same thing before he teamed up with Coulson. It was simply the nature of the presentation itself. A gramophone concert.

Musical Samples

Now in America we have a very keen sense for new media of every sort, and we quickly develop ways of usage for each, depending. When the press and/or public here is invited to a playing of recordings in public we know what to expect. It happens often, and there's nothing very new about it-the technique is by now sure and effective, if hard on the music. Whether the sponsor is a hi-fi firm or a record outfit, whether the intent is to show speakers, pickups, artists, or new systems via numerous channels or even something positively digital, the format is generally predictable. Superb audio equipment, of course. With plenty of power.

Not only loud music but short. Our musical excerpts by custom virtually never run their proper musical course, i.e. until the music itself allows for a natural break. Instead, time being of considerable essence, we use the merciful fade-out. Or the merciless grab off, complete with stylus squawk. One minute? Maybe two? That's about it, either way. Necessary because busy press people, the general public, avid for other surrounding sensations, as at a hi-fi show, expect the proceedings to be concise and to the point, with music in its proper place, strictly on a sampling basis.

To put it another way, our public hi-fi is very seldom a concert, nor is it so intended. We play our music at leisure when we are at home, or we listen to it on the air.

The only semipublic occasion when a whole musical work, or at least a whole segment, gets played straight through is as background while conversation rises up. This we enjoy (and I often do myself) because we feel it is a natural thing for recorded music. But even so, most straight -through playings are by accident; nobody got up to turn the machine off, or suddenly substitute a different recording. A very few are deliberate, and as a musician I must quietly bless the perpetrators thereof.

But I have long since recognized that, with us, that sort of musical sensitivity just isn't in the nature of public recorded -music presentations, which have their own virtues in their own way. I am merely describing, then, rather than criticizing; this is the way we work, over here, and any exceptions to the above procedures merely prove the rule by being exceptions. I enjoy hi-fi demos of any kind when they are well done, even though now and then I wince at the awful musical mayhem. By common consent, musical meaning is just not a part of this picture. And though I do think minor improvement is easy with half an ear, I go along with the general idea. It's us.

Gramophone Concerts

In England, things are more conservative. They have their hi-fi demos, too, but on the whole they take their recorded music-much more literally than we do-as music. To them, curiously, it does not too much matter whether music is recorded or live--they feel the same about it. So why not listen in the old reliable ways? Like a concert. Coulson and Cooke were brave souls to come over here with a show that is, you might say, the ultimate product of that British way of thinking. If recorded music is music, then why not a concert of that music? "A musical experience," they called it, and it is indeed out of an old and established tradition in their country. True, the hi-fi itself was not unlike that which we also use, though all of it was British made. But it was not the fi that mattered. Not even Joan Coulson's first-hand EMI commentary, drawn direct from her long experience inside that big company-she knows all the artists and engineers and seems to have been at every recording session--not even all that could disguise the solid fact that what we heard in New York was a true concert, just like a concert of live music. We were there to listen, like any other concert audience, and at length. Can you imagine it? In the U.K., you must understand, there are some 300 "gramophone societies" which meet regularly to discuss and "to learn about musical matters related to the gramophone." And, of course, to play recorded music to the membership. On an American scale this would involve thousands of such groups, if we had them. We have a handful, I have heard. On the other hand, we do have in the hundreds, at least, our hi-fi and audio clubs, which in the American manner also meet to discuss and to play a vast range of musical recordings. In these the music can be extremely well served and surely often is. But, as I have reason to know, it also can be subjected to all the mayhem and indignity customary in professional demos and with a lot less justification. How often, for instance, are musical works played straight through and in respectful near silence? If I am right, very seldom are these American meetings actual musical concerts. And yet-our informal approach is perhaps better for us if the music is given half a chance to say what it has to say. I only wish it were more often.

Moreover, in England there is a larger scene, a positively awesome tradition, in fact, of actual gramophone lecture -concerts on a scale hardly believable to Americans. Which is where the New York "musical experience" comes in. There have been monster affairs such as the concerts put on by Gilbert A. Briggs, long-time genius of Wharfedale, in, of all places, the Royal Festival Hall. (Imagine a sold -out phonograph concert in Carnegie Hall.) Others, an astonishing number, run as regular concert series, very much like the "live" sort and often in similar halls. Still more go out "on tour," recordings, equipment and all, throughout the U.K. and Eire. The whole movement is a most unusual aspect of what we used to call "live vs. recorded"-played out on a grand scale before large numbers of people.

So, as you can understand, the idea of an actual concert of recorded music is a thing the British take for granted.

Two Masters

Joan Coulson has long been a leader in these. In fact, she came to EMI's notice through the public gramophone recitals she was giving as a sales promo for records. (How often do we try that?) She was primarily music -minded, a pianist, but at EMI she founded not only a lecture service, about recordings, but even an EMI Advisory Service with useful info on how to present gramophone music in public situations. On that basis she still travels widely with her own presentations of this popular sort-popular, that is, in England. She has earned all sorts of public honors for it, and she is even an active member of the AES often seen around the conventions.

As for Raymond Cooke, he was a child violinist, then an industrial chemist, into radar and, finally, an audio man working for Gilbert Briggs himself at Wharfedale where he assisted Briggs at the giant Festival Hall affairs and others as well. Eventually he founded his own KEF Electronics, specializing in speaker manufacture, but he has not lost his keenness for the musical concert via recordings, and it was in this fashion that he joined up with EMI and Joan Coulson for the New York venture.

So there's the background. What was the New York "musical experience" like? In a purely technical way, it was a masterful solution to the problems of playing recordings intended for the home into a concert hall space. I have never heard a more professional job, and I was astonished at how easily every sort of music came across in the Carni Hall set-up, from solo harpsichord to full orchestra and chorus. I bow to two masters of the art! As for the fi, it was plenty good in the British manner, four Quad 405 amplifiers in pairs feeding a total of 800 watts into the two KEF Model 105 speaker systems on the stage in stereo.

Up in the back balcony were two Ferrograph Series 7 tape machines.

What bothered the New York audience was basically the music. These were people for the most part not particularly musical but very familiar with the normal American approach to hi-fi demonstrations. What got them was first of all, the sheer quantity of material. Hours of it! A whole evening, no less. (Well, what else do you expect in a concert?) More specifically, the 16 musical numbers on the program, plus one dividend, were each played straight through to the music's normal end, except in a few very long movements-Bruckner--where there was a discreet fade-out at a good spot.

During these very long (relatively) sequences we all sat rigidly in total silence in our concert hall seats--precisely as at a live concert.

Now this was very unsettling, as it is usually for all who go to live concerts for the first time. For recorded music, it is just not a thing we Americans are prepared to do in public. At home is another story. There we listen in peace and relaxation. Imagine, then, a very faint slow movement from a Scarlatti harpsichord sonata, a baryton Trio (a sort of cello with extra plucked strings) by Haydn, and so on, complete movements-played from start to finish.

Quiet Quads

I think that perhaps the most unnerving aspect-for this audience-was the volume levels. Again, a matter of literalness. We like our recorded music loud, especially in public. Our highly developed sense for the medium tells us, I think rightly, that this is a different form of musical propagation and it needs solid volume, perhaps to make up for the missing live performers. But the English levels, even with 800 Quad horses, were never really loud and often quite low. These, indeed, were literal concert levels--as an audience hears them in the flesh--and far from the 110 dB at the mikes up on stage. As I say, it was a concert, even in this special sense, meticulously and admirably so. I think that its very power to make our audience acutely uneasy proved how consistent it was with the British viewpoint. I might add that Coulson and Cooke got warm applause when the end finally came. I think we all understood that this was a noble venture, impeccably carried through.

Now I am no believer in non-education, and I deplore our general lack of listening courage in respect to classical music of many kinds. We should be less fearful. It doesn't bite. It can be pleasing even at length. We should listen longer. But-- a gramophone concert in a concert hall? In the end, I think that a less literal format, under some new name, might provide an easier musical experience for the American listener and with more attention to the demands of this different medium. Surely, there are ways to graft the British idea onto American practice with benefit both to music and fi. I've always thought so. It should be tried, and often. But I would want Joan Coulson and Raymond Cooke on hand to do the producing.

P.S.

One technical aspect you may have guessed-no discs. Instead, we heard something of a rarity, at least among large recording companies, two-track Dolby A copies in stereo made direct from the EMI masters of each recording, de-Dolby A in the playback. Hence the Ferrographs--two, to avoid waits for rewind. Not too many members of our audience realized how beautifully this eliminated the amplified rumble, hiss, and gunfire popping of a disc record, even the best, as blown up in a large space. We heard only velvet silence as a background--except for one item. That was Scheherezade with Sir Thomas Beecham, EMI's very first stereo release. In those days there was neither Dolby nor dbx. On this one we heard a faint hi-fi hiss. Now if we just had master tape copies for ALL our hi-fi demos.

(Source: Audio magazine, Aug. 1978; by Edward Tatnall Canby)

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