The unnecessary dimension
The unnecessary Dimension
The other day I read an interesting article in which it was argued that the best way to listen to music of any kind is in mono mode. Even though of course our brain is wired for “stereo surround” mode (because we needed to know if the sabre tooth tiger is before or behind us while hunting in stone-age times) it could be said that this information is actually not necessary when listening to musical sounds. What do we gain by having an electric guitar coming in from the right, or left? What do we learn when sounds come from behind us, above us or below us, except that it might confuse our brain? John Lennon famously preferred the mono version of “Sgt. Pepper” and he had a reason. Many modern mixes of Independent or Jazz music are produced in mono again, on purpose. Some producers long for the old mono “wall of sound” again, for increased intensity of the music.
When going to the cinema the goal nowadays seems to be to immerse the viewer in a supposedly “real” virtual environment. Cinemas pride themselves for having the best sound systems that nobody could afford in their home, for having high resolution 3D-projection that would never look good in your living room, etc. In the competition for the audience against the thriving home entertainment sector cinemas have opted to become “spectacle” again, like they used to be in the beginning.
I enjoy 3D and Dolby Surround myself, but I would never think that 3D and Dolby Surround make a good film by themselves, they are just contemporary means to create total immersion, nothing more. And I would be the first to admit that this “immersion” can be counter-productive when telling a good story, because the immersion actually distracts from what the film wants to tell us. The immersion works only for certain genres, others would suffer from it. Why would anyone want to watch a romantic comedy or a political satire in 3D, and with surround sound? There is a reason why Woody Allen chose black and white for many of his films, or why “The Artist” could be such an international success.
I often tell my students that “sound” doesn’t interest me at all as a composer. This often confuses them – isn’t “sound” the domain of a composer? Weren’t many composers in the past obsessed with the “perfect sound”, or the definite acoustic environment? Didn’t Richard Wagner torture his architects to create the perfect “mystical abyss” from which his refined orchestral sounds could come hither?
Today’s music simulation software is becoming more and more perfect because of the last and current century’s obsession with “sound”. Most amateurs cannot tell a digital orchestra apart from a real one, and I know some professionals who can’t either. This creates some kind of splendid trap for many composers. It allows them to perfectly create their imagined pieces in audio form, far removed from any practical constraints. Often this becomes a kind of isolation, as the sound clouds of the internet are full of digital pieces which have never been performed in front of an audience, and most of the time you can tell why.
When I talk to pop- and film composers they mainly talk about “sound”, not about the strength of their invention, which I would find much more important. Somewhere along the search for the perfect sonic realization of music the awareness of the true inner qualities of music has diminished.
Avantgarde Music has always been looking for increasing immersion as well. The sound systems of the IRCAM in Paris are impeccable. And not only since Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” composers are looking for more and more spectacular sounds that swirl around the head of the listener. These are pieces you have to listen to with closed eyes. And perhaps – in a hidden part of the brain – your old stone age-self cries out in pain as it is imagining hidden tigers that spring on you from behind.
All of this doesn’t hold any fascination for me. Of course it is not true that I am completely disinterested in sound. I’m very much interested in balance, for example, for reasons of clarity. But Mono forces you to get the balance really right, whereas already in stereo you can evade the problem by putting things to the far right and the far left. When composing in mono you have to really decide what is important for the listener instead, and that is a question that every composer worth his ilk should be able to answer. Most can’t, and just throw everything at you, like in one of these early 3D films where somebody stabs you in the eye every minute.
Musicians and instrument builders in the past intuitively knew this. The greatest old concert halls usually have a unified sound – not stereo, but mono wherever you sit, and with equal audibility. Pianos are stereo instruments when you play them, but in a concert they become mono, as the lid projects all notes at once. Organs are stereo instruments when you stand before them, but when you listen to them in a church they tend to fill the whole room, and that is a much stronger experience. And – once you think about it – Richard Wagner got it right as well, as his deep orchestra pits unify the sound so immensely that the listener of his operas is not distracted by identifying the famous Rheingold harps as coming from the left only, for example. Which in the end does not matter at all anyway.
All in all I think returning to mono is a valid trend. And whoever doesn’t believe me should listen to the great mono recordings of the great past masters. Thelonious Monk, Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Schnabel, Ginette Neveu, Enrico Caruso… Are we missing any emotional impact when we listen to their tracks, only because they are not “up-to-date” by today’s standards? And is music’s main attraction not exactly this: its emotional impact?
We should rather worry about not trusting the emotional impact of our current music anymore, which apparently is so weak that we have to support it with high-end “fidelity”, SACD quadrophonic-multi-surround-state of the art replication. The music business in general, classic and pop, does not only support the obnoxious guy who drives through your street with his pimped car and his pumping sound system, it has become this guy.
Whenever I’m touched by a current piece of music I know exactly that it isn’t because of its sound at all, but because of its content.
Bring back mono any time, brother. I certainly wouldn’t give a damn.
Moritz Eggert, 6.10.2014