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What I think about LPs versus CDs.

My Luddism takes numerous forms, all of them harmless enough, some of them a source of merriment to my friends: I am hopelessly unadventurous with my computer, for example, and, though I do not use it, I am reluctant to throw away my electronic typewriter--just in case of, well, I don't know, in case of some huge, unimaginable, armageddonesque cyber-melt-down of some sort. And, of course, I prefer my long-playing records to my CDs.

So many people prefer LPs to CDs, it's almost a secret society. The oft-uttered truth of the matter, sonically speaking, is that long-playing records sound warmer and rounder than CDs. At least they do to those of us making up the stubborn, rearguard association of vinyl-lovers. The sharply perfect, digitally encoded sound of the CD often reads, to my aging and perhaps nostalgia-tuned ear, as dry, brittle and bloodless. Clean, yes. But as novelist D. H. Lawrence once put it, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (he was making fun of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac at the time), "Don't be too clean, it impoverishes the blood." And it may be supposed that what is true for the cleansing of the body may hold true for sound as well. It always strikes me as particularly touching when a recording company such as, for example, Mercury (Polygram) exults in its ability to impress on a cold, unforgiving CD the warm (unclean) mono recordings made, let's say, with a single Telefunken microphone in 1953.

But it's more than just warm, round sound that so sanctifies the LP. I don't know whether this admission is going to seem overly quaint, but the fact is, I don't mind surface noise in the least. I'm not fond of gunshot, backfire-like bangs that lift you out of your chair, of course, or scratches like leg traps that hold you to the same musical place forever until you whack the turntable with a mallet. But I actually like the faint crackle, the errant pop, that is the inevitable aural fate of a much-loved, oft-played LP. For me, that slight crackle is as comforting as the hiss of logs burning in a fireplace, because it means the recording has a history--a history to which one has perhaps oneself contributed: the crackling and popping is an index to the LP's venerability, its endless revolutions in your heart, its homey audio signature. And if you've bought the LP second-hand, its aural imperfections are a testament to somebody else's close devotion to the same music. Surface noise is a sort of validation--of the music's centrality in your life and the record's straining to keep on holding its music and bring it to you, a little differently each time, perhaps. I am a part of all that I have spun.

And of course, given that an LP is about as big as an atlas or an art book, you can actually look at the damned thing. I find it relaxing to be able to read liner notes without having to peer at them through a magnifying glass. Years ago, when I was producing the CBC radio show Morningside, I decided it would be fun to invite DJ emeritus, the late Clyde Gilmour, to come in each week and talk about and play for us one track of a favorite LP. We'd call the segment "Gilmour's Album" (an affectionate reference to his long-running CBC record show Gilmour's Albums). I remember being first astonished and then delighted by the way Clyde employed his LPs: each sleeve he brought in was plastered with clippings and notices, facts and reviews, a kind of scrapbook for the artist or performance within, a musical trunk with stickers showing every place it had been. Try turning a CD into a filing system. After hearing Mahler's Fourth by Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Toronto recently, I tried to stuff a local newspaper review of the concert into the CD I bought that night--and, predictably, broke the jewel case.

This is the way I listen to opera recordings: I pull the desired work from the shelf the way you'd take down a much-loved book. I like the heft of the big box of music and text. And I like the smell of it (it smells like a book, whereas a CD, of course, smells like nothing). The opera I've just now selected is Antal Dorati's reading of The Flying Dutchman (1961), with George London, Leonie Rysanek, Giorgio Tozzi, Richard Lewis and more. I fish out the first LP (RCA's Living Stereo, blood-red labels, vinyl black and glossy as ebony), place it reverently on the turntable and get comfy on the couch, propping up before me the big box with its all-important volume of libretto inside. The cover is a work of art all by itself--deep, endless matte black, with the opera's title in cursive yellow and everything else in crispy white. Near the bottom, looming from the darkness, is a painting of the Dutchman, his haunted eyes burning corrosively into the middle distance. He is life-size. His eyes are as large as mine. This is the sort of graphic drama no CD can furnish. The libretto is a big, double-quarto size, in soft, creamy paper the color of oatmeal. And I can see the type. There are photographs, period etchings, bilingual texts. And there's a lot of storage space inside for clippings and musings. My Flying Dutchman--which, of course, cost me a third of what it would cost as a CD--is a splendid artifact as well as a sonic delight.

And there's all that minor surface noise to remind me that this is art we're involved with here--and art is, after all, artificial.
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Author:Dault, Gary Michael
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Words:949
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