The Diabelli Album in the light of day (literally)! And some thoughts on the Compact Disc, 40 years after it started being commercialized.
It took a long time, but my recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Opus 120, is finally out on Compact Disc, on the Orchid Classics London-based label, as well as remastered in "Spatial Audio" for the Apple Music and Apple Classical streaming apps! This marks the 200 year anniversary of the original publication date of this last and greatest set of Variations by Beethoven, in 1823.
Right now, I wanted to share this important news with you. It took a lot of work in the last months and weeks to get this done, and I have been more silent on this platform than usual, in part for this reason and also due to the preparation of concerts and the next album production, which we are getting closer to. Your support helps make these long-term projects real, and for that I am extremely appreciative and grateful.
The age in which we are living now is one of many societal, technological and geopolitical changes. I will delve into more of these themes and their impact on classical music in upcoming posts.
But it is to be mentioned here and now, to no one's surprise, that the golden age of the compact disc is long gone. In a way, it is too bad, as this technology actually works really well and provides an opportunity for great listening!
Nevertheless, at the moment, I do not see a good physical alternative to replace it.
As we are all so excited about dematerializing everything, we begin to feel a bit empty-handed. Or is it just me?
Most of you will have noticed in the past few years that vinyl records have again risen in popularity. Every rock band, jazz musician, and even electronic music DJ has released their albums on vinyl, often entirely skipping any CD release. This is of course always in addition to digital, streaming releases.
Many people love the large format for cover art and nicer inserts and booklets. They also love the warm sound that the vinyl record provides. I also love vinyl records.
But the distinct advantage CDs have over vinyls in classical music, is that they can play continuously for up to 74 minutes (some even longer). This is a massive change from the 22 minute-per-side for a total of 44 minutes on both sides that a record can play. This format works great for non-classical music albums, but for classical music, it's always been a difficult situation when most major works in the repertoire last upward of 22 minutes (most Beethoven Sonatas do), and when major symphonies from Beethoven's time to ours last upward of 44 minutes.
Not only does it make it difficult to listen to an entire work in one sitting (we literally have to stand up to change sides!), but it often means that we need box sets of multiple records for a single symphony. In the case of my Diabelli Variations, they would require two records, with tracks on all sides. Listening to them this way would break the flow Beethoven intended when composing them as a deeply intertwined set of 33 variations.
It is not accidental that the 74 minute length of the CD was determined based on the recording from 1951 of Beethoven's 9th Symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival, which is considered to have been one of the slowest but greatest interpretations of this universal music! In other words, the compact disc was in part invented to solve the problem of length specifically for classical music recordings, so that this music could be heard with integrity.
Imagine having to cut up a large scale painting into multiple parts to get the whole picture, never seeing it whole?
Going back to the vinyl is therefore not a true solution for classical music recordings (unless we were to double or triple the size of vinyl records!).
Today, we have digital streaming with limitless play time. However, it has created its own problems! We now shuffle almost everything, and rarely hear all the tracks in a symphony, a sonata, an opus number of multiple works, such as these 33 Diabelli Variations. To play a whole album on streaming requires a certain awareness, and attentiveness to what we want to hear.
The idea of the album as a statement, whether a single work or a collection of works that are curated and paired together for a certain effect, like in a concert format, is less and less successful due to the fact that we can change what we are listening to as soon as we are bored. This is the danger of "click-bait" but also of having to please a listener in the first 5 or 10 seconds of play. It's bad for art.
A record or a CD or a tape playing in a stereo system is rarely interrupted, and musicians get to have their creative ideas fully heard from start to finish.
Lastly, the loss of something to hold physically is having an effect on the way we select what we listen to, which is increasingly dictated by algorithms which claim to know better than ourselves what we will like (it is sometimes true, but leaves little room for surprise). It also makes it that much harder for less famous musicians or even less famous works of music (such as these Diabelli Variations, which cannot compete in fame against the Moonlight Sonata) from getting heard.
Yet our nostalgia for the past is having us resurrect vinyls instead of finding something new and physical to replace the CD but with more universal appeal. Nostalgia which may one day resurrect the full appeal of the CD in a generation or two!
And the day that "the cloud" (and the millions of servers which are used to stock all of our digital lives) bursts or goes bust, we will have nothing left, not even a CD of our favorite music to console us.
Of course I am being a bit flippant, but one never knows in a very uncertain world. More importantly, physical objects are not just there to stock information, like posters, paintings, books or records or CDs, but they are also there, around us in our physical spaces, to remind us of what we love, where we want our attention to go, and to serve as an expression of our taste, both to our own selves, and to those we welcome into our homes.
I think it's wonderful that we can today access any music we want from any part of the world in just a second. There is no way (and no room) for me to own all the physical albums of the music I listen to online. But there is some "desert island" music I do need to have in my physical sphere, even if it only serves as a reminder to go play it on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, or YouTube. I get to look at the object, I get to read the liner notes, and to follow the track list, and this stays true even if I am streaming that very album.
The idea that one cannot own a CD because they do not own a CD player to me is actually absurd, since the physical album is more than just a place to store information. It also is a whole work of art that the artist conceived of as a physical, visual, sculptural, and musical expression of his creativity. The ease with which we can find the same music online should not intrinsically kill the physical representation of that music. It is not because we can see the same images online that we should get rid of all the art on our walls.
So far, I have focused on recording precisely "desert island" music: the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, the Debussy Preludes, and now Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, all considered amongst the greatest masterworks of music history. You can be sure that physically owning these will never be meaningless!
Yet, I myself cannot guarantee that I will keep releasing physical CDs in coming years. And that is why each of my releases up to this point are uniquely special, uniquely important, and perhaps artefacts of a disappearing world which we will be happy to have in our collections years from now when we will entirely stop releasing music on this type of physical platform.
What are your thoughts on the compact disc? Please share in the comments!
In the meantime, here is how you can support my work and this album:
1) Buy the physical album to give to friends (the holidays are coming soon!)
2) Whether you have bought it or not, I do encourage all of you to stream the album on any platform you use, which you can easily find by following this link : https://orchid-music.lnk.to/diabelli
3) Subscribe and like my artists pages and my albums and their tracks on all streaming platforms that allow it (Spotify, YouTube, Deezer, Apple, etc.). This actually encourages the algorithms to suggest my music to more people, which can snowball.
Learn more about this and where you can get the album here:
For those of you who are supporters of some of the upper tiers here, you will be receiving albums shortly in the mail. If you have any questions, please send me a message here or to george [at] georgelepauw [dot] com.
I'll be sharing more about the special circumstances of the recording sessions next.