The Ward Report: Blue Note [On] Shuffle

     |    Wednesday February 8th, 2012

I used to have this nightmare that Steve Jobs showed up at my apartment in Berlin to thank me for my support of Apple (believe it or not, for a short while I was the go-to guy for English-speaking Berliners having problems with their Macs) and, as a token of his respect, gave me an iPod. He’d even loaded it up with some music. Knowing that I liked classical music, for instance, he’d put on all nine Beethoven symphonies. In this dream, he was on his way to another appointment, so he just said a few words and vanished.

So there I was, stuck with this expensive (at the time), unwanted gift. It did all kinds of things I didn’t want to do, and the principle underlying it was diametrically opposed to the way I thought about music. Sure, I had iTunes on my computer, but the more I looked at it, the more I wondered who’d designed it, who’d thought it out. The device was just another degree of alienation from my way of thinking. In my dream, I put the iPod in a drawer and hoped I’d never see Jobs again.

Jobs was still alive when I got my first iPod, although it was an iPhone which had the iPod capability built into it. In order to synch up my apps and all, I had to use the dreaded iTunes, though, and this caused a huge problem. I’ve had an account with eMusic for some time now, thanks to their occasionally tossing me some work, and somehow in the early days I checked a box somewhere on their downloader that delivered everything I downloaded onto iTunes. Thus, when I synched my iPhone for the first time, it got clogged up with gigabytes of music I was unlikely to want to listen to through it. I couldn’t figure how to get it off without losing the music for use in other ways, though. To be honest, what I’ve mostly done with the music I’ve downloaded has been to burn it to CDs and listen through a portable CD player. This way, I do something important: I preserve the integrity of the album.

The integrity of the album apparently isn’t of much interest in the iTunes universe, where the unit is a thing called a “song.” No matter if the unit isn’t, in fact, a song as defined by most musicians and music listeners. The computer has to call it something. Thus, the third movement of my nonexistent Symphony Number 3 by Beethoven is a song. And by doing this, the computer has done something else: as far as the computer, and iTunes is concerned, it is equal, on my nonexistent dream iPod, with the copy of the Kinks’ “See My Friends” dream-Steve also put on there (good choice, dream-Steve: I’m not much on Beethoven, but I do love the early Kinks). It’s also equal to all the other movements of all the other Beethoven symphonies that are on there. And that’s where it starts to get crazy.

What would happen if we took all the other music off my dream iPod and just left old Ludwig on there? Well, we’d press the button and we’d hear the first movement of Symphony Number 1 in C Major. For approximately 25 minutes, says Wikipedia, we’d hear its four movements, and then, because it’s an iPod, on the 26th minute or thereabouts, we’d hear the first movement of Symphony Number 2 in D major, an entirely different key and something of a jar. And so it would continue until we turned it off. Ah, but when we picked it up and turned it on again, we’d start exactly where we left off. Which might or might not suit what we’re trying to do. Unless we were very careful, before we could cue up whatever Beethoven symphony we wanted to hear, we’d get a shard of  what was playing when we turned it off, which kind of destroys an attentive listening experience.

Ah, but it could be worse. We could, through a slip of a finger, accidentally and without realizing it, hit the “Shuffle” button. Then we’d call up whichever symphony we wanted, start it, hear the first movement, and…then something else. What? Well, remember, we’ve only got the nine symphonies here. But the chances of it being the next movement of what we were listening to is slim. Now, it’s possible that, by doing this, we could hear Beethoven anew through this decontextualization. We would, that is, if we were already intimately familiar with the music. That’s how it’s worked for friends of mine who’ve transferred their CD collection to iPods: hearing song 3 by band A after song 8 by band B is the sort of revelation only a good segue on a good radio station could achieve! Marvellous!

But classical music isn’t about decontextualization: it’s all about contextualization, the relationship of pieces within the composition they form. These pieces, “songs” to Apple, are parts of a whole which was not supposed to be taken apart. The same, I dare say, applies to a lot of rock albums created after Sgt. Pepper. But when a song is just a song…

Let’s stick with classical music for a minute. I never, ever used my iPod part of my phone for what it was supposed to do. Last year, I even consciously put together a playlist called Road for a long road trip, only to find out that nobody’s invented a way to connect an iPod to a car radio that actually works. This wasn’t music I wanted to listen to while relaxing after the drive, though, so I still haven’t heard most of it. And when I’d open iTunes on my computer to play one of the CDs I’d burned, there would be iTunes, with the songs listed alphabetically. Because of my interest in early music (like I said, I’m not one for Beethoven, and, in fact, don’t own a single symphony or other large composition by him on all these CDs scattered around) you’ll find a lot of  “à 3” or “à4” at the beginning of the list and lord knows how many “Folie” (Jordi Savall has two discs of nothing but this tune) or “La Spagna” (a bassline much used by Elizabethan or Jacobean composers — again there are discs after discs of “La Spagnas”).

Festa_ 32 Variations on _La Spagna__Huelgas-Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel_5_Contrapunto 88 à 4

So at Christmas, armed with a large-capacity iPad as a blank slate, and an overwhelming desire to master a piece of Apple software that millions of others use with great ease, I decided to try an experiment. First, with a little help, I figured out how to delete all that stuff I had loaded on and start again. Now, one wonderful thing eMusic has done in the past couple of years is to acquire the entire Blue Note catalogue. Before the idea of branding drove the record industry totally off the rails, Blue Note, founded in the ’30s by a couple of Berlin refugee jazz hounds in New York, was one of the great jazz labels, particulary after World War II, when the LP record became the medium of choice for jazz artists because they could stretch out for up to 20 minutes on a tune if they wanted to. Armed with impeccable good taste, the label assembled a stable of musicians, an amazing recording engineer named Rudy van Gelder, and the idea of mixing everyone up together and just rolling tape. Later, they’d decide whose album was whose — it was the same band, just different composers and some people with a bigger space for solos — and they’d put it out. Blue Note, it occurred to me one night, sounded a lot like an iPod on shuffle if I was careful to load my albums carefully.

One by one, in they went.

Soon, I had 553 songs, 2.6 days, 6.07 Gigabytes of nothing but classic Blue Note on my computer from A Fickle Sonance (Jackie McLean) to Salt and Pepper (Sonny Stitt). Now for the experiment: transfer it to the iPad, put it on shuffle, pour a glass of wine, and lean back to a homemade radio station of some of the greatest music America ever made.

Did it work? Well, as you might expect, yes and no.

Yes: people accuse Blue Note of having a “sound,” which is not a good thing, because it implies that it all sounds alike, but they can’t hear past both the warm sound of van Gelder’s studio and the fact that the personnel isn’t radically different on every album. In fact, there wound up being two different eras of Blue Note in my selection, the hard boppers who kind of revolved around Art Blakey and his bandmates and graduates, and the kind of newer young guys who came in at the beginning of the ’60s and expanded that vocabulary and steered the entire field of jazz composition away from reliance on pop forms and the blues to something spikier but no less rooted and soulful. And, while the shuffle program did take me between these two eras, I never felt jerked from one to the other. This, of course, was due to my very, very carefully curating the selection with a strong idea of what I was getting. Well, almost: there were two “mistakes” in the program. For some reason, an album by the obscure gospel group the Harmonizing Four wound up in the mix, and one night I was reading and listening when one of their songs popped up, utterly unlike anything else I’d heard. Then another. It was more weird than unpleasant, and as if by magic, the next track was a deep groove by organist Jimmy Smith from the sessions for his classic album…The Sermon. And I also accidentally included the worst Blue Note album in my collection, Now! by Bobby Hutcherson, who appears on the cover with a balloonish Afro looking stoned on bad drugs. It includes tracks sung by Eugene McDaniels, a pop-soul guy who may have had the most mundane acid trips ever, to judge from his lyrics. On CD, I took it off after three songs. Excruciating. In the mix, however, there was a long big-band instrumental from the album that was just great.

And, inevitably, no: While the danger of decontextualization is far less than in many, many other cases, there are times when continuity is nice. But there’s another issue here which nobody talks about. Rudy van Gelder, with help from a revitalized Blue Note, has been remastering a lot of the label’s classic output for CD. What I’m downloading, though, is MP3s, and they’re only so good. True, a lot of the van Gelders are mastered at bit rates of around 232,000, as opposed to as little as 125,000 — and that’s still just not good enough. At least not for me: I actually spent decades listening to loads of live music, and, when I wasn’t doing that, music from vinyl phonograph records played on a darn good stereo system. Furthermore, all that music was played into the room, an acoustic environment that further shaped it. That’s why musicians loved Rudy van Gelder’s studio and schlepped their gear out to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey without complaining: there was something about the shape of the room he used (it was his house, actually) that made the instruments blend and sound great. So we’re used to a sound, and that sound is far more complex than we realize — until it’s not there. I find that I can’t listen to my Blue Notes on the iPad for more than 90 minutes without fatigue setting in: irritation, boredom, inability to follow what’s going on. And it doesn’t matter what I’m hearing; I just don’t want to hear any more. Part of that problem I put down to MP3s, and part of it to the fact that none of this music was recorded to be heard inside your head. I hate earphones of any kind because they deliver the sonic information direct from what the Germans call the Tonträger (“sound-carrier”) to your perceptive apparatus without any mediation by the sonic space. This is an incorrect delivery method, and our ears know it. (I was very happy the other day to hear a musician who’s been playing longer than anyone else I know agree with me on this). If we’ve ever played, sung, or heard live music, something in us knows the error is there.

This opens up another problem with the whole iPod, earbud culture, but it’s a social problem, not a sonic problem, so I’ll stop here, thank you for reading, and get ready to rant about this in next week’s Ward Report. See you then!