fb-pixel
third ear | jeremy Eichler

How did classical vinyl make an improbable return?

davide bonazzi for the boston globe/Davide Bonazzi

On a recent night, strewn across my living room carpet was an array of audio parts of a rather historic nature: a platter, a drive belt, a tone arm and cartridge, a counterweight, and an anti-skating weight. As I surveyed the spread, slightly daunted, I wondered whether this is how it might have felt to enter a blacksmith’s workshop, or perhaps the chambers of an ancient alchemist.

I was, it’s true, assembling a newly acquired turntable, and savoring the ironies, in 2015, of the entire exercise. A box of old LPs, retrieved from an unholy corner of my basement, sat nearby. Also nearby was a Mac that I have sedulously loaded over the years with many gigabytes of digital music. Was it me, or did the computer’s sleep light seem to be pulsing above the entire scene with a vague air of suspicion?

Advertisement



Not to worry, as the disclaimer should read: No aluminum unibodies would be harmed in this experiment. But it was nonetheless a thrill to be hooking up a turntable once more — and for reasons beyond nostalgia for albums past. In fact, vinyl LPs — that supposedly rickety sound technology of yore — have for the last several years been declining to accept the verdict on their own obsolescence.

Instead, they have made an improbable return in a wide array of pop genres. And now, finally, this trend is starting to arrive on classical shores. For the first time in decades, one of the major classical labels has begun pressing single albums again on vinyl, both new releases and, mostly, reissues from its back catalog. Others appear to be testing the waters. But there’s no mistaking it: Classical vinyl is new again.

Let’s take a moment to allow our iOS-addled brains to register this strange fact. Wasn’t history supposed to be heading in the other direction? Stores devoted to CDs — the technology that was supposed to supersede vinyl — have themselves all but vanished from the urban landscape. Even digital downloads are being edged out by cloud-based streaming services such as Spotify, with the fantasy they purvey of infinite choice. (Jorge Luis Borges, by the way, came to the idea a long time ago, and called it “The Library of Babel.”)

Advertisement



Of course, plenty of stalwart classical collectors have held onto their LPs straight through it all, tending the vinyl flame as others snuffed it out. But this newest phenomenon is something different: a return to active production for a recording technology that seemed to have been consigned to the dustbin. At a time when digital triumphalism reigns supreme, the thought conjures feelings of charmed incredulity — as if next we will be told that South Station has been forced by popular demand to open a new gate for those who, fed up with the indignities of modern travel, have begun arriving by stagecoach.

But the vinyl renaissance is real — if also in economic terms still a very small slice of the music market. As Barry Holden of Universal Music recently explained to me, the company’s first return to classical vinyl came three years ago with a Decca box set, and this year, Deutsche Grammophon will release dozens of single LPs. Holden expects the upward tick of classical vinyl to continue, both from its back catalog and in its new releases.

Advertisement



And classical music is obviously late to the vinyl party. The Guardian reports that at the Optima plant in the former East Germany, where Universal presses many of its new releases (as do many non-classical labels), production more than doubled between 2011 and 2014, straining capacity of the aging legacy equipment. Many of the factory’s presses were purchased in disrepair from territories of the former Soviet Union, then gutted and retooled by German engineers. This year the plant will produce 18 million records.

With numbers like this, it’s hard not to wonder what, on a deeper level, is driving this broader return. My personal theory is that the vinyl revival may have exposed a flawed set of premises underpinning the digital music revolution from the outset: that sound can be reduced to just another form of data, that it is indifferent to its own container, that the medium has no message, and that music can be accessed through increasingly frictionless and ephemeral modes of delivery without influencing the way we hear. More likely, it has always seemed to me, technologies for listening frame and mediate the act itself. They contain their own relevant histories. And each technology, in its own way, shapes the ritual and practice — simply put, the experience — of listening.

There was just one way to prove my idea, and with unimpeachable scientific rigor. I had last owned a phonograph some two decades ago. It was time to give vinyl another spin.

Advertisement



***

Building my new turntable turned out to be considerably more than a quick plug-and-play affair, though I confess that I relished the hands-on contact, real or imagined, with the machine’s underbelly. As I hesitantly stretched the drive belt into place, a passage came to mind from Milan Kundera’s novel “Immortality,” in which the author wistfully summons a golden, prelapsarian moment from the era of Goethe — a time in which modern inventions had made life more comfortable, but, as Kundera puts it, “an educated person could still understand all the devices he used.” Such a person still grasped how his home was built, how oil lamps produced light, what principles informed a telescope. “The world of technical objects,” Kundera writes, “was completely open and intelligible to him.”

Here already was perhaps one element of vinyl’s current appeal: This technology is more transparent. It has not been shorn of visuality. You can understand the principles, and watch the sound being produced. Compare this with music that mysteriously arrives through ear buds attached to opaque slabs of glass and aluminum after a button has been pressed or a person has intoned the word “Siri” to no one in particular.

As I tightened the final screw and heaved the turntable onto a shelf, another piece of the vinyl puzzle suggested itself: the utter lack of portability. The music is anchored in a physical place, typically in one’s home. How terribly limiting, I know. But could it also be that this adds to its appeal, that something in music pushes back against our impulse to stick it in our pocket and carry it along?

Advertisement



The question may have deeper roots. “Originally,” the composer R. Murray Schafer has written, “all sounds were original.” In other words, you once had to be at a performance to hear what was played. Schafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the fundamental breach introduced by the advent of recordings: a separation of sound from its original source.

In the early years of the phonograph, marketers seemed to intuit that the mind still needed a source onto which it could map what it was hearing. In his book “Capturing Sound,” Mark Katz describes the range of attempts made to close the gap, from the Illustrated Song Machine, which would cycle through images in time with the music, to something called the Edison Realism Test, offered in local record stores across the country. Customers were encouraged to sit in a quiet area and picture in their minds a live concert they had recently attended. Then — and only then, presumably — would they be able to grasp the recorded sounds as documents of an authentic performance, capable of moving a listener like the original.

These days we may trust our recordings more intuitively, but newer habits of far-flung listening would seem to have only increased our collective schizophonia, precisely in ways that the digital revolution has loved to celebrate. (Your music — set free! At the beach, in the park, or while conducting your research on the North Pole!)

Yet while this radical portability of listening can enable a pleasant embubbling of the self in public spaces, our connections to the music’s origins — as an actual event in sound — become that much more tenuous. Moreover, when music becomes a background soundtrack to life, it becomes easier to regard it as many people regard background soundtracks, which is to say, to barely notice it at all.

By comparison, it was rather hard not to notice the freshly pressed and very hefty LP in my hands: a new recording of a live recital by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. Had vinyl in fact grown heavier, or did it only seem that way given the shrink-to-nothing tendencies of the journey from LP to CD to MP3 to the cloud? Yes, in fact, it has grown heavier — thanks to a new audiophile standard of pressings at 180 grams, up from the older 120 grams. The bulking up is said to have many sonic advantages on its own terms, but it is also, incidentally, a striking departure from the digital world’s guiding obsession with thinness. (Here’s some ad copy you won’t be hearing for the next iPhone: “Now 50 percent heavier than before!”)

It’s not just the tactility of LPs, but also the experience of playing vinyl, that would seem to discourage the casual, ear-budded, aural-wallpaper approach to listening. Vinyl rewards close attention. The playing of the record is the event.

The salience of this fact returned to me as I inaugurated my new turntable not with Sokolov, but instead with a favorite old recording of Brahms’s B-flat Major Sextet (with the Cleveland Quartet joined by Bernard Greenhouse and Pinchas Zukerman). There it was, the sound I still recalled: warm and uncompressed and present in the room. E-mails queued up and calls went to voice mail. I had no desire to do anything but listen. The Sokolov recording, in addition to being a dazzling performance, conjured a similar island in time.

Listening, it turns out, is built into the early pre-history of the phonograph itself, and not in incidental ways. Historians of early sound reproduction tell of an obscure and long-vanished invention called the “ear phonautograph,” built by Alexander Graham Bell and Clarence Blake as part of the journey toward the first telephones and phonographs. This device attached a stylus to the small bones and the ear drum of an actual severed human ear, and transformed speech through a horn into the sketchings of sound on smoked glass. In short, as Jonathan Sterne illustrates in his book “The Audible Past,” before we wanted machines to play us sound, we wanted them to listen.

Sterne’s book and others in this genre are full of examples of famed inventions whose meanings and uses have evolved over time: telephone lines, for instance, that were once used to broadcast performances from the opera in Paris, or phonographs that people dreamed might one day be placed in post offices to record and play messages for those who could not read or write.

In this spirit, and after playing as many old and newly pressed records as I could find, I realized that with vinyl, both nothing and everything has changed. It appeals today for the same reasons as it did back then — the warmth, the sound, the euphony, the presence — but also for a set of entirely new reasons. Or, better said, old reasons given new valences by the wake of technologies that were supposed to have taken its place.

That latter category of charms flows from the pleasures of slowness, tactility, intentionality, historical resonance, and a firmer anchoring of sound in a particular space. Perhaps vinyl is best thought of as the scenic footpath that still improbably wends its way in the shadows of the superhighway. Small wonder, actually, that so many are now treading it once more, or for the first time.

Back in my own living room, the Mac’s sleep light appeared to have returned to its normal glow, apparently resigned to peaceably sharing its access to the amplifier. That’s good, because my newest addition to the stereo, this time, is here to stay.


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jeremy_eichler.