Toccata and Fugue under Leopold, 1991
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A little experiment from a writers workshop, a reach to the ur-text through the ears.
Esmond Ring hears Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, composed in the early 18th century, as performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of the legendary Leopold Stokowski, as performed in 1940 and remastered (not for the first time) by Buena Vista Records, for the original Fantasia soundtrack, as played from a newly purchased Pioneer PD-5700 CD player, amplified through a late 1970s Sears integrated stereo system, pushed through two blown Virtuoso Tuned Port speakers.
Esmond is able to hear each of these factors of course. He has made his endowments an art form, much as Bach did. But he attempts to shun the reflection until he has heard the music completely, or, perhaps better stated, until he knows all that he has heard. To facilitate this need to know, Esmond picks up the Pioneer remote and programs the Toccata (translated merely “Track 1” in CD-speak) to repeat. Dissatisfied that two playings will be enough, he changes the program to repeat “Track 1″ four times. Bach is a classic, after all. Then, wondering if perhaps even four playings (each at 9:22 in CD-speak but 9’22” in classical-music-speak) would be enough to absorb the genius and imaginations of both Bach and Stokowski so imperfectly reproduced, he programs the new CD player to repeat indefinitely. He suddenly realizes that BWV 565 has been performed for nearly 300 years, Stokowski’s version for over 50 years, and that the recording he currently plays still sells well–at $90.00 for the deluxe edition–and its mystique has not yet faded. Yet perhaps those ears had been less well crafted.
“Ears less perfect than his own, less disciplined than his own, are too easily seduced…”
Esmond Ring has been struggling with this for some time as well. As he works to supplement and complement his Pioneer with CDs, he has been meticulously careful to select only the finest of classical recordings. Popularity, he has argued, must not be a criteria for selection. Ears less perfect than his own, less disciplined than his own, are too easily seduced by too-romantic strings and tympani, too easily frenzied by too-performed movie favorites and music treasures. He knows the danger composers and titles by heart, now–Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mussorgsky, Mozart, Mahler, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov–The Ode, The Fifth, The Unfinished, The Pictures, The Requiem, The Resurrection, The Bolero, The First, The Scheherazade–and knows that his present selection nears the top of the list. But in so knowing he also knows that his free and informed selection works to improve his aural analysis for it is not now colored by his prejudices. He knows he must be similarly cautious and informed in deciding which of the danger recordings is the finest.
But what is finest and what is fine are refinements that he feels uniquely qualified to undertake. His sensitive eardrums receive the digitally coded (1-Bit processed) material. They filter the mush of the Virtuoso Tuned Ports which have a dynamic range far inferior to even the average listener. They isolate the music from the dusty static and distortion of the Sears amplifier; they make amends for the exaggerated engineering effects in balance and level and microphone placement, likely the result of young men suffering the angst of real pioneering. And then his ears add. They replace what was filtered with what must have been true, not the clumsy oversampling of a wired gadget, but the natural vibrations of Leopold’s hands and the plunging waves and itchings of horsehair. And the subtle cramping of Johann Sebastian’s fingers.
Esmond Ring then crosses the expanses of three centuries with several stops along the way simultaneously, recognizing that the Pioneer only stretches art as it should, flawed along history & across technology.