On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

From the Bed of Procrustes to a Bed of Roses

[Italian version]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: November, 2014

I. Prologue

At the risk the Old Scribe’s chorus of plebs, stage left, will squawk that I’m trespassing on their territory, here’s a brief refresher in Classical Greek mythology: Along the sacred road between Athens and Elusis, site of an important shrine to the harvest goddess Demeter, was the stronghold of Procrustes, a son of the sea god Neptune. Procrustes made a practice of accosting travelers and inviting them to stay with him, and any who accepted he would force to fit an iron bed, either by stretching the hapless victim or else by cutting his legs off short. (Procrustes did not play fair: he kept two beds, just to ensure no one would ever fit.) Eventually Theseus, major mythological hero guy, subdued Procrustes and gave him a dose of his own medicine, ending the abuse.

“Uh,” you’re doubtless thinking, “even for a column on vintage audio, this seems to be going back a bit far. So is it a lead-in to something about Mercury records? Or the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek?” No, although the focus is indeed Classical (music), my subject is something quite new as viewed by a devotee of records and equipment that are very old. And so, with that Delphic pronouncement, let’s have a go.

II. Cut Him Off at the Knees!

[A 2-minute cylinder]

The phonograph record has always been a sort of technological Procrustes. At first, any popular entertainment passing by was invited to come in, but no song, hymn, recitation, march, minstrel show sketch, sermon, banjo solo, classical tune (usually in band transcription), or whatever could last more than the two-minute playing time of a standard wax cylinder. The first disk records, at only 7 inches diameter, played about the same length; the situation eased a bit as the largest standard “78 RPM” disk sizes grew first to 10 inches (about 3-and-a-half minutes maximum duration) and then 12 inches (about a minute longer). Experiments with larger disk sizes met with disfavor in domestic circumstances. As recounted in an earlier article, cylinders ultimately matched the playing time of 12-inch disks by a design fix before eventually fading out of the market. And there things stayed for about four decades.

Now, the 3- or 4-minute limit was actually ideal for the likes of popular songs, single opera arias, and short encore or character or salon pieces, and these became the backbone of every company’s catalogue, but longer music like symphonies or operas presented a problem. During most of the acoustic (i.e., pre-microphone) era, the record companies’ usual response was Procrustean indeed: they truncated longer works to fit one or two record sides. As usual, the primary odd man out was Pathé, which beginning in 1911 issued a series of relatively complete operas in massive sets; Gounod’s Faust, for instance, spanned some 56 record sides. Even here, however, Procrustes lurked in the background: for reasons that remain obscure, the company recorded everything to large master cylinders and then dubbed mechanically to disks, and when a disk side ran out before the cylinder the engineers would simply cut off the music. As a result, the amount of music contained in one of these “complete” sets can vary depending on the size of the records chosen for a particular release!

The Gramophone Company undertook two or three less ambitious efforts around the same time, but these were all exceptions to a general rule. Far more typical was, say, a Victor issue of its house orchestra in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, cutting each of its dozen-minute movements to fit one four-and-a-half-minute side.

[A large set of 78s]

Toward the end of the acoustic in the mid-1920s, a different approach took hold: long works were spread more or less complete across multiple records with mid-movement breaks if necessary. A typical symphony or concerto would take three to five records. If the piece took an odd number of sides, the set might feature a decorative pattern pressed in the final side or, more commonly, include a filler. To make the whole package more appealing and easier to store, the records would be housed in hardbound folders with separate sleeves for each record—that is, in albums. That’s why an LP is sometimes called an “album”: it’s a reference back to the days when that much music would have been sold as an album full of records. Meanwhile, single records in paper sleeves continued to be the standard medium for songs, popular or otherwise; opera arias; or short instrumental pieces (with a break in the middle for those running more than five but less than ten minutes). Procrustes was still present—repeats would routinely be omitted to avoid adding records to the album, making it more expensive—but his influence was much diminished.

A brief digression: one critic in the 1940s wrote that every time he attended a performance of Tchaikowsky’s popular first piano concerto, at least a third of the audience would start to stand up at a certain point about 4 minutes in. See, that was where the first side break fell in Artur Rubinstein’s ubiquitous recording of the piece….

III. Stretch Him on the Rack!

Time, and the 78 era, marched on. By the years following World War II, Procrustes was reasserting himself: despite some critical ire, the record companies began occasionally packaging what formerly would have been singles, classical or popular, into album collections priced by the disk. To buy, say, a particular Chopin mazurka played by Maryla Jonas or song performed by Fats Waller, one was forced to pay for several other selections as well. Of course, what was an annoying exception during the 78 era became the norm once LPs displaced 78s. The situation with LPs was the mirror image of that with 78s: playing time was ideal for longer works, which could be presented without disruptive intra-movement breaks, but much too long for shorter works like single songs or encore pieces. The 45 never caught on for classical music, and even as a partial solution for popular music it was an imperfect solution, as the full LP record, with its expanded demands for content, supplanted the individual song as the primary unit of commerce.

As a result, where once the collector would have bought a single Bach chorale prelude on one record, now he was constrained to buy a record with a string of preludes on each side, arrayed in long sequences that discouraged playing just a single selection from the middle. Instead, the easy (read: universal) way of playing these records was to play a side from start to finish, creating an artificial “suite” of chorale preludes that came to be associated in the listener’s mind as a unit. The single work or single song lost much of its identity as an individual work of art. With quiet, contemplative music, like the Bach chorale preludes, the result could be a nice, restful snooze by the end of the record side, all because these pieces were being sewn together in a way never intended by the composer. Tape, be it open reel (lost the battle with the then-new LP) or cassette (starting to win the battle at the end of the LP’s reign), made these “internal access” issues worse yet. Procrustes smiled.

Enter the CD, and after the briefest of frights the Procrustean smile became uncontrollable laughter at an opportunity turned into an even greater liability. Because of its long playing time, the CD was designed to incorporate a robust access system that broke music into tracks, which were further subdivided with index points. Take, for example, Bach’s six suites for solo cello, each with six movements. On LP, each suite would most likely appear on a single side. On CD, by contrast, four would fit on a single disc. Under the original plan, these would be divided into four tracks, one for each suite, and each track would have six index points, one for each movement, all accessible by controls on the player. To play only the third suite, the listener would select track 3, press “program,” and then press “play.” To play only the gigue from that suite, he would select track 3 and then index 6. Playing single selections often would not even require reference to a track list.

Reality, of course, proved much different. A few early discs fully adopted the new system; the Newport Classics label, for instance, “analytically indexed” some of its Beethoven releases by assigning each movement a track number and each movement's subdivisions (exposition, development, recapitulation, coda, etc.) a separate index number. Alas, for whatever reason—chicken and egg issues? relatively low utility for popular music?— the disc and equipment manufacturers mostly ignored index points, settling on the track number for all purposes. Hence, to return to our Bach cello suites, in practice playing just the third suite requires consulting the track list for its beginning and ending track numbers and programming each of the six movements separately. That process is enough of a hassle that the listener usually will just play the disc from one end to the other, meaning the “artificial suite” phenomenon has grown from strings of short pieces to strings of long ones. When the couplings are hackneyed, long multiple works tend to be stretched in the listener’s mind into single very long ones: Schumann’s piano concerto and Grieg’s piano concerto become the Griegmann Concerto in Six Stylistically Incompatible Movements. Procrustes dances a little gigue (track 18 of 24).

IV. Theseus Saves the Day

To summarize, then, recording media have always emulated Procrustes, forcing music into conformity with a gradually expanding set maximum playing time, sometimes doing violence to it in the process. Happily, modern computer technology finally offers us a way to put Procrustes to bed for good: the home “music server,” which is just a fancy name for (a) a moderately capable computer with a big hard drive and suitable software for copying, processing, and playing back music, or, perhaps, (b) something like the Cocktail Audio X10 - CD player/music server/streamer reviewed in the November 8 issue of TNT. In effect, the server lets us revisit those days when so many of us would tape “playing copies” of our LPs, which we held as “archive copies,” but with far greater power for managing a large collection of music.

Our readership (and authorship!) being what it is, I hear rapid sharpening of pikes, raising of barricades in the streets, and assembly of kindling around stakes, so please let me hasten to clarify a few points. First, having been a collector for more than 40 years, I bow to no one in my love for physical records in all their diverse forms. I’m not suggesting that anyone should copy his collection and dump it. Second, computer audio is not synonymous with the deservedly disparaged .mp3. Nowadays, home computers can work with files at much higher than CD resolution with no need to degrade them for storage. Third, copying music to a computer is not synonymous with “going to all downloads.” Rather, it takes a dry-eyed look at the records we all love, acknowledges that they have shortcomings as well as virtues, and addresses the former in a practical way. Fourth, while I know none of us wants to admit it, downloading very likely is our best case future, and going to a computer-based system now will greatly ease integrating electronically delivered material into our collections when the time comes. The worst case? Streaming compressed audio from the cloud could displace the hoary concept of “owning a copy” of a recording, which would be the end of “collecting” as we know it. I submit that is a scary thought!

None of these considerations, of course, directly relates to eliminating the Procrustean effect. Let’s start with those artificial “suites” assembled for the long-playing formats. The computer at last gives us a tool to break the seven-decade tyranny of the coupling; a hard drive is indifferent to the length of a given piece of music, and each can be given its own individual identity again. For example, in my own system a Windows file tree assigns each composer a folder with subfolders for individual performances of individual compositions. To play Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the Schumann piano concerto, which Deutsche Grammophon assigned the clichéd coupling of his recording of the Grieg concerto, would involve taking a path like this:



Concerti (at this level, there would also be folders for symphonies, solo piano works, songs, etc.)


Piano (at this level, there would also be folders for violin and cello)


Richter, Sviatoslav (at this level, there would be folders for all the pianists I have playing this work)


Three music files, one for each movement of the concerto, for playback (I use WinAmp in “play folder.”)

The default is to play the Schumann concerto without so much as a note of the Grieg. Playing that concerto involves following a similar path down from the Grieg folder, again easily locating all the performances in one place and selecting the one desired. Once they’ve been saved in the system, the same approach can be applied to individual Scarlatti sonatas, individual Chopin ballades, or any other works that must be clumped together artificially to fill out long physical media sides. Note that the computer doesn’t care in what format the recording was issued; it’s easy to store rips of CDs together with downloads and dubs from cylinders, 78s, LPs, and tapes at any level of resolution desired. Just make sure you keep good backups, please!

A caveat: My system is idiosyncratic, in part because I was an early adopter and in part because it’s designed to maximize disintegration of album couplings and flexibility in mixing formats. It requires a lot of manual data entry and does not save album art. Since I set it up, software has become available that will identify CDs, display album covers, and do all the labeling for you. That last is, at least potentially, an important virtue: data entry is the bane of all who set up servers. Note, however, that if it preserves those pesky album couplings or has trouble handling other formats, the software compromises what I see as the computer’s most important strength in handling a music collection. As always, do your research carefully in advance and recognize that how you set up your system will involve tradeoffs.

How about for the collector of pre-LP records? Needless to say, nothing can be done for music that was truncated before recording. Moreover, the music server does not of itself address the issue of long works split across short-playing sides. Nonetheless, it dovetails nicely with other computer functions that do address the side length issue. For splicing together continuous performances from multiple record sides, and thus eliminating the playing time restrictions of 78 RPM records, basic audio editing software yields far better results than open reel tape and a razor blade ever did, and even free noise reduction software can be made to offer more lifelike results than anything that was on LP transfers. (CD transfers can be better, but that’s a subject for another article!) A server can save the results of a restoration project without the need to plan out CD-ROM programs and, more importantly, as an integral part of a music collection without regard to original format. At that point, all music, whenever and however recorded, comes to be on an equal footing, each composition standing on its own, without regard to any format or time limitation. Procrustes, RIP.

[Enjoyed while writing this article: The “Seikilos Song,” the world’s oldest known complete melody, taken from a Greek funereal inscription dating to somewhere between 200 BC and 100 AD, as rendered in a duet improvisation by Oskar Gottlieb Blarr and Peter Rübsam on organ and bagpipes, respectively (Koch Schwann CD 316 021 F1, CD reissue of Schwann Musica Mundi VMS 2049, a 1976 LP).]

Copyright 2014 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com