One morning over winter break, I was browsing my Facebook newsfeed when I came across a blog post by Norman Lebrecht, whom I am a subscriber of (although I don’t always agree with what he has to say). Its subject was the current rankings of classical music recordings in the U.S., and how cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s recently released recording of the Elgar and Carter concertos had edged up to the number five slot. As an aspiring cellist and enthusiastic fan of Weilerstein’s work (her performance of the Elgar with a Chicago-area symphony had been the first time I’d heard the piece as a sixteen-year-old), I had been aware of the new recording, but hadn’t had a moment to buy it and give it a listen. Now, however, with my final exam of the semester complete and my mind eager to engage in an activity other than studying, I decided that the time was right to indulge in this latest interpretation of one of my favorite pieces. Logging into my iTunes account, I did a quick search for the recording, intending to purchase each track of the Elgar individually for only ninety-nine cents each (a price my graduate student budget can actually accommodate!). Yet to my dismay, I soon discovered that the all-important fourth movement was only available with a purchase of the complete album, due to the fact that it exceeded ten minutes in length. I shifted uncomfortably in my desk chair as I contemplated this dilemma. The price of the entire recording was $9.99. Should I save six dollars (which could be otherwise spent on a much-desired cup of hot chocolate at the local coffeehouse) and just purchase the first three movements, or should I bite the figurative bullet (forgoing the hot chocolate) and buy the whole thing? Or, should I simply forget the entire idea and just watch the video of Jackie du Pre doing it on YouTube (perhaps while drinking the hot chocolate)? Decisions, decisions.
Ultimately, I made the decision to cough up the $9.99-the prospect of hearing Weilerstein’s luscious tone embellish the poignant strains of the fourth movement was just too tantalizing for me to resist-but what subsequently struck me as intriguing was that these various options I had at my disposal gave me the freedom to make a decision in the first place. I had more than one way (and cost option) to listen to a piece of music without even leaving my desk, while a mere decade ago, I would have had to leave my house (!) and buy a CD at Borders or Tower Records in order to listen to a piece-and unless I felt like making the trek over to the local library, which may or may not have had what I was looking for, there definitely wouldn’t have been a “free” option. A couple of decades prior to that, the same situation would have been true for obtaining an audiocassette tape, and before then, an LP or a record. But now, with the unyielding sea of digital media gradually trickling into every aspect of our daily lives, such technologies have been rendered obsolete, and so has their cultural significance. In 1965, when Jaqueline du Pre released her own recording of the Elgar concerto, it turned heads (and ears) across the classical music world, but when Alisa Weilerstein (whom I’ll boldly venture to say is right up there with Jackie in terms of talent) released her recording forty-seven years later, it didn’t impact the field in quite the same way, merely because it emerged within the context of a different aesthetic.
Ironically, as the technology necessary for the creation of a quality recording has become easier to obtain and utilize, the influence within the classical music world of recordings themselves has lessened considerably, purely because of their virtual nature. In the past, if you were going to purchase a recording of a concerto, you were going to make a careful decision about which interpretation you were going to buy, since it would most likely be sitting in your CD collection for the next thirty years. But now, if the only thing you have to lose is ninety-nine cents, you will have no reservations in purchasing two, three, maybe even four versions of the same movement of a piece, which will subsequently proceed to languish in obscurity on your interminable playlist until that fateful day you drop your MacBook into the sewer and lose everything. Sure, you could feasibly back up your music-but how many of us honestly take the time to actually do that on a regular basis? The twenty-first century reality is that we’re quite literally walking around with our entire CD collections in our briefcases, with the potential to lose it all represented in one precariously placed cup of coffee (or, in my case, hot chocolate). Technology is constantly changing, and if the only place we store our music is within that technology’s evanescent brain, the potential for today’s recordings to achieve longevity is significantly diminished. As a result, recordings are no longer timeless but fleeting, only briefly rising to prominence before they are sucked, lost and forgotten, into the unrelenting void of the iTunes abyss.
Now, I’m not advocating that we should abandon online music entirely, shut down YouTube, and break out our record players; the progression of modern technology is unstoppable, and whether we like it or not, CDs will be a thing of the past before the end of the decade. What we can influence, however, is how we handle the situation, from both an ethical and artistic perspective. Just because something is virtual does not mean it is any different than something that is physical-it simply exists in a world in which we cannot penetrate. Thus, it would be in our best artistic and ethical interests to treat online recordings as if they were physical recordings, and take measures to ensure that we cannot lose them in the case of accident. There may never be a perfect solution to the conundrum represented by the influence of technology on the consumption of artistic products, but if we continue to keep our focus on the intended purpose of the product we are consuming, rather than the means through which we are accessing it, then we will ensure that the most cherished traditions of our art are upheld well into the future.