Making the most out of what you've got
We received the new CD by Ethel the other day. Ethel who, you may ask? Ethel Waters? Ethel Mertz? Nope. It's just plain ol' Ethel, or excuse me, ETHEL, American's premier post-classical string quartet (as they say so themselves on their website). OK, you know what a string quartet is. But what the heck is post-classical?
Well, as with all such terms, even such relatively recent ones, the definition of post-classical (sometimes spelled without the hyphen) is a little fuzzy and constantly changing. One website defines it as "music incorporating elements of classical structure and instrumentation thru (sic) relatively unconventional means," a definition which suffices about as well today as it did when the website was last revised in 1995. Composer and writer Kyle Gann has probably done more than anyone to popularize the term, especially on his blog; the term has also been adopted by the PostClassical Ensemble, the Washington, DC-based "experimental music laboratory." As far as I can tell, post-classical is more-or-less synonymous with "alt-classical," and might be considered a subset of "downtown music." Confused yet? Don't worry about it. When you hear about classical groups with names like eighth blackbird, itsnotyouitsme, or our friends ETHEL (unconventional orthography is quite the thing), you know you're in the post-classical world.
So, back to ETHEL, and to their new CD, "Heavy." Even before you open it, you know that this string quartet ain't the Juilliard or the Emerson. How? Well, the group's name is of course a tip-off. So is the packaging, a cheap-looking black cardboard square envelope, a little larger than a 45-rpm record sleeve, embossed with silver-ish writing and illustrations. Deutsche Grammophon or Decca wouldn't dare put their logos on such a down-market product, which is of course the point. Then there are the composers: post-alt-downtown superstars Julia Wolfe and David Lang (best-known as co-founders of Bang on a Can), celebrated clarinetist Don Byron (who contributes his "String Quartet No. 2: Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye) and a few other names I had sorta kinda heard of, like John Halle and Kenji Bunch— no Beethoven, Brahms or even Bartók. You then pull out a piece of red cardboard onto which the CD is affixed, and which contains the normal discographical details in almost illegibly faint writing. Detach the CD, pop it into the player, hit "play" and...uh-oh. Lo-fi. Really lo-fi.
Back to the lexicon. You remember hi-fi, or high fidelity, right? While the term is certainly pregnant with cultural connotations, mostly of the bland Eisenhower-era 1950s, hi-fi basically denotes attempts by both recording engineers and stereo manufacturers to provide the most realistic recorded sound possible. Expensive microphones, fancy recording consoles, powerful amplifiers, big, boomy speakers — that's hi-fi. Well, lo-fi is basically the opposite. Crappy microphones. Cheap mixing consoles. Hissy, fluttery cassette tapes. Or (and this is where the fun really starts) modern equipment deployed to simulate the above. At first (roughly the early 1980s), artists starting recording their homemade music this way because they couldn't afford anything better. Over time, as decent audio software and recording gear became much more affordable, lo-fi morphed from an economic necessity to an aesthetic choice. Many pop and rock musicians, mostly of the indie persuasion, continue to employ lo-fi sound to add a kind of aural patina to their music, often to evoke classic recordings of the music's distant analog past. Sometimes it really works, such as on two of my favorite CDs of 2011, Dirty Beaches' "Badlands" and the self-titled debut from Unknown Mortal Orchestra. On other occasions, however, I feel as if the artists are shortchanging themselves and their listeners by purposely hiding their skills behind murky recorded sound. Why would they do that?
I suppose you'd have to ask the artists, and you'd no doubt get lots of different answers. But to put together what I've gleaned from interviews, reviews and other sources, hi-fi is seen as slick, inauthentic, mass-produced, mass-cultural and plastic. Lo-fi is gritty, honest and real. Hi-fi is trying to impress. Lo-fi is not giving a f***. Hi-fi uncool. Lo-fi cool. All right, if the artists want to do it that way, that's their right. It's also my right to listen and evaluate, and to point out what I regard as the flaws in their thinking.
So back to ETHEL's "Heavy" CD. Does its use of distinctly lo-fi recorded sound help or hinder the cause? I'd say the results are mixed, and that the answer also depends on whence one comes to the CD. An indie rock fan, especially one with little experience listening to mainstream string quartets, might find the sound to be just right. A devoted chamber music fan might find the sound ugly. And a classical broadcaster (ahem), who very much likes both the works and the performances on the album, might hold back from playing it on-air because of how unpleasant it would seem to his listeners, next to everything else on his program. He...that is, I would feel differently if the album sounded better.
Now to the critical listening. In some selections, such as Don Byron's Quartet No. 2 (which begins with a few seconds of pre-echo, an audio artifact associated with analog recording and playback), lo-fi is intelligently combined with other kinds of sound modification to give each instrument a unique placement and color. In John Halle's "Sphere[']s" (sic) and Raz Mesinai's "La Citadelle," the distorted lo-fi sound effectively emphasizes the works' kinship to rock music. But on other selections, such as David Lang's "Wed" and Marcelo Zavros's "Rounds", I craved the kind of pristine digital production that would have allowed me to better savor the sound of bows on strings (probably pretty expensive bows and strings at that) in all its incredibly rich complexity. True, the sound does clear up a bit for these tracks, but not enough to do them full justice.
What, then, is the point? Why would artists intentionally make their recordings sound worse, when they have the means and, I would argue, the reasons to make them sound better? I think it's perhaps the confusion of the primitive, unfancy, "old-school" way of doing things with some strange notion of authenticity. To keep it real, the artists seem to say, you must not be too realistic. But you know why I think this is flawed thinking? It's because the albums of the past that the current artists are trying to emulate were made by dedicated professionals trying to achieve the best sound possible. If they had today's tools then, they'd have used them. There's a difference, a real audible difference, between artists and engineers doing the best with what they've got and those who intentionally do less than they could in obeisance to the gods of coolness. It's like the California winemakers who brag that they make a more restrained, European-style wine, then pour you a hollow, underripe version of what Europe does much better. The best European winemakers are dedicated to getting the most they can out of their grapes, and would kill to be able to grow the kind of ripe fruit their New World counterparts take for granted. The California oeno-phonies think it's more sophisticated, more old-world — more flat-out cool to minimize their grapes' potential. They're wrong. And as with the wine, so with the music.