Allegro, allegro, we all fall down

I remember once listening to David Owen Norris, concert pianist and one-time BBC presenter, reviewing recordings of something-or-other on Radio 3’s Building a Library. He made some comments about the digital information stored on the CD along with the music not being very accurate. Now there are CD players that will display the title of the CD and the name of the track being played, but he was (uncharacteristically) wrong in believing that this information is stored on the disc. Apart from the music itself, the only other information is what is needed for the player to be able to play it, namely the number of tracks and their length.

Readers will probably be divided into those that still buy CD’s and those that have never heard of them, the standard way of listening to music nowadays being to stream it. For the benefit of the former group (who are mostly my age) streaming music means listening to it via the Internet, usually using a phone, though there are some very good players that you can install in your home, such as those made by Sonos. Essentially you just search for the music you want to listen to, click on it and it will play. It is a bit like Rediffusion but you aren’t bound by the programme schedule.

For the benefit of the latter group (who are closer in age to my grandchildren), a CD looks the same as a DVD (I hope you still remember those) but comes in a smaller box and will play only music. They were considered by everybody except HiFi buffs (a religious movement in the 1980’s) to be a significant upgrade on what had gone before, which was LP’s. The CD-naive will be familiar with those, as LP’s seem to be coming back into fashion, along with Polaroid cameras and measles.

Crushed beetles

I still have a lot of LP’s, but also some 78’s. These were like LP’s but thicker and much more brittle. They were made from crushed beetles and originally designed to be played on a clockwork gramophone using needles which were usually made of steel, but sometimes hawthorn or bamboo if you didn’t want the disc to wear out so quickly and you were prepared to go to the trouble of harvesting and sharpening them. There was a mechanical system to match the impedance of the needle in the groove to that of air, which worked rather like the human ear in reverse, a horn (which might be hidden in the base or could be enormous) forming the final component in the system. There was no volume control but you could always put a sock in it. My organ teacher had a huge gramophone which dwarfed the Blüthner grand piano that it stood on in his living room, and you could sit behind it and enjoy listening to the sound of operas being bounced off the wall in front of you. Unfortunately each disc would only hold a few minutes of music, and my mother once told me that she had to take home Wagner’s Ring from the local library in a wheelbarrow.

So how did David Owen Norris’s CD player know how to display the correct (or in his case, incorrect) titles? It seems that the string of numbers that comprise the track lengths in seconds are enough to identify a CD uniquely in almost all cases, which means that there are online databases which your player (or your software, if you are using a computer) can search using this ID, and download the album title, track name, artist and more (the technical term for this is metadata, more commonly known as tags). I have found this quite useful when ripping CD’s (i.e. copying the music and converting it to computer files) in order to produce playlists to listen to in the car (strictly speaking this breaches copyright, but if you have already bought the CD yourself and you are making a single copy for your own personal use they are unlikely to sue you).

Do you have Adagio by Symphony?

The other thing I found about these online databases is that there is no consistent standard when it comes to classical music. Is the artist Beethoven or Symphony or Allegro or Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Simon Rattle or something else entirely? Obviously the people tasked with entering all this data are idiots who know a lot less about classical music than they think they do, though to be fair to them the databases themselves don’t seem to have been designed with classical music in mind.

This meant additional work when I was ripping my CD’s since I couldn’t just accept the defaults, but the real problem comes when you want to stream classical music.

Driving me potty

Imagine, for a moment, that you are sitting down to watch a movie at home using whatever streaming service you subscribe to (Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, for instance). You feel like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so you enter the title into the search box. What comes up is a list of titles such as Harry Lime, The IPCRESS File (with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer), When Harry Met Sally, Pennies from Heaven (by Dennis Potter), Tales of Beatrix Potter, a documentary on pottery, perhaps a medical training video about Potts’ fractures… you get the idea. Hiding somewhere among them you find Harry Potter, but it turns out to be a collection of favourite clips that some nerd has compiled. You repeat your search over and over again, varying the terms. Finally you find what you are looking for. You hit pause while you go and pour yourself a stiff whisky, and then settle down to watch.

Aaaarrgh! It has been dubbed into Turkish. And worse, the scenes have all been rearranged into alphabetical order.

Anybody who has tried listening to classical music with Napster, Spotify or any of the other popular streaming services will be very familiar with this experience. The music is all there (somewhere) but it is all but impossible to find what you are looking for. Whoever designed these services (and the players that you use them with) clearly has no idea that classical music is conventionally arranged by composer, that there may be a number of artists involved (soloists, orchestra, choir, conductor), and that each piece usually consists of several separate movements played sequentially (and not in alphabetical order). They may also not realise how confusing it is to refer to individual tracks as songs, even when there is nobody singing and they are just sections of a longer whole. If you usually use opus numbers, the Köchel catalogue, the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or any of the other standard ways that musicians use to identify pieces, don’t bother.

No wonder people my age are still buying CD’s.

Classical Archives

So I was thrilled to encounter a service called Classical Archives, which works on my iPhone and has a very simple interface. You can search for or browse a composer, and clicking on the name will bring up a list of categories (orchestral, instrumental etc.). Clicking on one of these will summon a list of pieces, and finally you can see all the recordings to choose from. If you aren’t sure what you should listen to, there is also a Must Know button, which brings a compilation of what they consider to be the essential music by a the composer you are interested in, which is a good way to expand your listening knowledge.

However, there seems to be an idea that anybody who wants to listen to classical music isn’t very technically minded (have they never heard of organists?) so the interface, while simple, is rather limited, and won’t let you browse your favourite pianist or opera singer, for instance. You can’t download tracks so you are limited to using it where you have a signal (that rules out a commute on the London Underground), unless you want to pay extra for them, and the bitrate is limited to 320 bps (bits per second). The bitrate is a measure of how much data needs to be downloaded to play the music, and puts an upper limit on the sound quality. While you probably won’t hear the difference on a smartphone, if you are listening through reasonably serious HiFi it is noticeably inferior to CD.

Idagio

So there you have it. Or so I thought until recently, when I encountered Idagio. This is another streaming service that is really quite different. They have taken the trouble to design their search engine around classical music as it actually is. You can search by composer, artist, instrument, period etc. and use these to filter the list of entries until you have found what you are after. If you end up with a single track, you can expand this to the album it comes from, and other related recordings. You can download music to listen to later, and you can specify the bitrate up to full CD quality (be warned that the highest quality settings mean downloading a lot of data and this can get expensive if you go over the allowance that your telecomms provider has given you).

If you don’t know what you want, and are simply looking for something to match whatever else you might be doing, or to expand your musical knowledge, you can hit the Discover button to bring up all manner of curated lists, and if you have been smoking something home-grown there is the Moods button, which lets you move your finger around a colour-changing screen to pick Joyful, Nervous, Radiant, Melancholic or whatever.

A quick tip for anybody wanting to use Idagio with Sonos. The Sonos search engine is a lot less sophisticated, but you can use the Idagio app instead to find what you want, then add it to your personal Collection, and Sonos will be able to locate it there.

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