Sunday, 11 March 2012

Listening on a shoestring...

Listening is (or, at least, should be) something of a necessity on a conductor's person specification.  Clearly, we do it during rehearsal and performance but it is not often that conductors talk about the listening they do outside of this more public forum.  A few are occasionally spotted in the audience at concerts and the opera house but it seems that the majority of the more celebrated conductors are happy to perpetuate the idea that they somehow generate their inspiration in a vacuum, uninfluenced by their contemporaries and predecessors on the podium.

It was, therefore, refreshing to see, in a recent Gramophone interview, Ricardo Chailly discussing the conductors, past and present, whose performances had informed his interpretations in his exhilarating new Beethoven symphony cycle.  This great conductor had suddenly became a mere mortal and my respect for him only grew as a result.  He remains one of the few 'great' conductors to discuss such influences.

Similarly, listening and watching performances, past and present, has been a crucial part of my development as a conductor.  I have been fortunate to have lived in cities with world-class concert halls (Birmingham and Manchester) and, particularly as a student, have made these my second homes.  As a student in Manchester I would attend concerts maybe once or twice a week (oh, how I miss the student prices!).  Then, as now, I would find my eyes glued to the conductor, trying to work out exactly what gestures were producing this sound and that.

Live performance is but a small element of my 'non-working' listening, however.  The size of my CD collection, augmented by the invisible bulk of MP3 downloads, is testament to much of the rest. Surely, a conductor should be familiar with the recorded 'literature' in the same way that one might expect a writer to be familiar with the written and printed repertoire in their genre?  Perhaps this is not the most suitable comparison but I suspect that you will get my point.  We are fortunate to have the interpretations of great conductors throughout the 20th century preserved on disc or, even better, on video.  The multitude of clips available on YouTube allow us to study their gestures and interpretations as never before and see how the various schools and techniques of conducting have evolved.

All of this is a convoluted prelude to what I hope will be of use to anyone reading my very first blog. I wanted to share the apparatus through which I hear much of what I have referred to above: my headphones.  I have got through quite a number of different pairs over the years but I cannot claim to be any kind of expert in this matter.  However, the two sets that I currently own were an astonishing bargain and worth sharing with readers:

For home listening, these are a snip at around £20:

They have a very long cable for wandering around the room and the cable disconnects from the headphones, which is useful when you stretch it just that bit too far on your travels.  The sound really is very good for headphones in this price bracket.  The open back design means that nobody will wish to share the room with you due to the sound leakage but it ensures you get a really wide, open sound stage, so important for the classical listener.  I have not heard them distort yet, even during the loudest demonstration of the 'Resurrection' symphony.

For out and about (which is where I do most of my listening), try these:

At around £40, these are a great investment.  They are among the cheapest 'balanced armature' earphones I have come across but do give great sound after they have been 'played in' a bit.  Don't ask me about why this is necessary but the recommendation is to connect them to the 'white noise' of an FM radio between stations at a loud volume for several hours before use.  They are not bass-heavy and have those all important 'mids' that the classical listener craves.  Furthermore, they are loud even when driven by your mobile or MP3 player.  Increasing the volume towards the maximum will likely lead to some distortion or that niggling feeling that you might prefer a CD quality recording, however.  They're pretty robust and the double-twisted cable seems to prevent tangles and that annoying scraping sound generated when the cable flaps around.  There is a nice case for easy carriage, too (also good for stowing an engagement ring in...but that is another story).  I replaced the rubber in-ear attachments with foam ones that mould better to my ear canal, but that is a matter of individual anatomy.

So, while those chaps in the music magazines may direct you towards some rather expensive listening equipment that few can afford, why not give these a try.  Let me know what you think.  Furthermore, maybe you have your own suggestions as to the best earphones for classical listening.  I am all ears...

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