December 2002 - Once again, it's that time of year when all the world's problems fade in the glow of the holiday season, as justice, war and even the economy wither before the most daunting challenge of all - finding the perfect gift. To the delight of the record industry, amid the dissonant din of ads touting every product or service of mankind we're increasingly lured to lavish box sets. Indeed, it's a rare music lover who doesn't give, receive or at least crave one. In a way, box sets are an ideal present, combining the convenience of a preprinted card with a heft and expense that shows how much you really must care.
So what's wrong here? Only that box sets are the latest signpost down the hundred-year path of completely trivializing music from an intensely human marvel into a bulk commodity.
Barely a century ago, music had to be experienced live, whether in a concert hall or played oneself. As a result of the required effort, music was revered as a select treat and lavished with the attention warranted by such a rare and precious treasure. Now, though, in our electronic age, music can be conjured or dismissed whenever the mood strikes by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Consequently, it has been pushed into the deep background as subconscious atmosphere, mere sonic wallpaper to decorate our everyday lives. But convenience breeds banality.
From the very outset, marketing and artistry have battled to shape the record industry. Marketing often won. The earliest discs were single-sided. There was no technological reason for that, but it was good business - why provide two songs for the same price as one? Once double-sided records became the norm (at a higher price, of course), the next step was the multi-disc album - why sell a single record for a dollar when for the same effort you could sell a half-dozen for six? Even so, the bulk packaging produced a profound artistic benefit - instead of mere excerpts and encores, entire symphonies, concertos and even operas became feasible, at first carved into four-minute 78 rpm slices and then presented whole through LPs and tapes. But soon the marketing imperative took hold again with the rise of the box-set – why sell a single Beethoven symphony when you could sell all nine? Soon any self-respecting artist was expected to produce not just a single favorite work but a full cycle of all six Bach cello suites, all 17 Mozart piano sonatas or the entire Wagner Ring.
So what's the harm in making a buck? Isn't that the good old American way? In these times of multinational business conglomerates, belt-busting restaurant portions and generally conspicuous consumption, isn't big better? No, not always. With art, there's the nagging issue of quality, not just sheer quantity. Mass output defies the unique nature of inspiration.
The fact is that most music was not meant to be heard in such large portions. Take Chopin. While his Etudes were published together as two groups of twelve, and his Preludes as a single set of 24, all his other works were written and published individually or at most in bunches of only two or three. Yet nearly all Chopin LPs and now CDs amass his entire output in a single genre as an integral set. This may make sense commercially, but not musically. Chopin never intended these pieces to be heard together, but rather savored individually or arranged into well-balanced programs. No recital, past or present, would ever present them en masse. Even in the hands of a master interpreter fatigue sets in after only a few, and a full two hours of all 19 nocturnes or all 51 mazurkas is way too much.
Larger-scaled works are equally demeaned by bulk packaging. Take the Beethoven symphonies. Each is a complete emotional journey, a self-contained universe. Rarely, if ever, would two appear in the same concert (and then only if separated by a lengthy intermission). Yet, for the last 40 years it has become the norm to market boxed sets of all nine played by the same forces, tempting the owner to jump right away from one to another. But to merge the powerful triumphant conclusion of Beethoven's Fifth directly into the gentle pastoral opening of his Sixth destroys their distinctive moods and devalues them both. At least with LPs you had to pause long enough to change or flip records, but when coupled on a CD they run together, barely seconds apart. The magnificence of even the greatest music dissipates without the proper setting.
And lest you think me a snob, I'd say the same for Chuck Berry, Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. My sets of their original 45s and 78s are the most heavily-played part of my collection. Each side is a finely-crafted masterpiece. But their impact is blunted and ultimately ruined when heard one after the other. I truly don't see how anyone could enjoy an entire CD, much less a box, of these songs. Too much of any good thing isn't good at all - even constant happiness eventually leads to boredom.
A related trend is pop artists who stretch a single idea into an entire career. Some grind out shameless derivative schlock - think of the Union Gap's inexplicable string of successes with Woman, Woman, Young Girl, This Girl is a Woman Now, Don't Give In to Him and Lady Willpower. Others, though, like Arthur Crudup or Bill Haley, had credible, unique styles from which they rarely deviated. But, fine as they are, their records all sound much the same. When heard individually on the radio or jukebox as part of a diverse blend they're great but when assembled onto an album side or, worse, an entire CD or box set they become numbingly dull. Life, after all, isn't just a bowl of cherries or even a fruit cocktail - we all need some variety.
In the LP era, some artists reached beyond the single to conceive of their work in terms of entire album sides as artistic wholes. (And let's remember that the idea arose in the early 'fifties with Frank Sinatra, Gordon Jenkins and lots of jazzmen well before Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds.) But even then, each side was meant to stand on its own and leave its own impression. Extracting some songs for CD compilations or running several sides together ruins the intended effect.
One more problem with mass output - every recreative artist responds with especial insight to certain works and performs others with more a sense of duty than visionary zeal. Toscanini's Brahms First and Fourth Symphonies were as riveting as his Second and Third were plodding bores. Yet, just try to find the gems of his several Brahms cycles packaged without the dross.
There's yet another danger: box sets can mess with our cherished memories. Just as Genesis is followed by Exodus and summer by fall, so in the natural order of things does Scarborough Fair lead inexorably to Patterns, Cloudy and then Homeward Bound. Or at least they did on the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme LP which seeped into the souls of so many aspiring teen folkies and poets of the mid-'sixties. But not on Old Friends, the 1997 box that sought to be the definitive Simon & Garfunkle collection, but instead cruelly and needlessly scrambled the track order. Indeed, Old Friends serves as a catalog of pop box sins - many songs in the S&G canon arbitrarily omitted, some replaced by live renditions, yet others prefaced with annoying spoken prologues; and there's only the stereo mix of At the Zoo, with its silly and meaningless phase distortion, instead of the punchy mono hit version. (Yet, the Old Friends CDs run under an hour each, and had plenty of room to include both the deleted tracks as well as the bonus items.) Admittedly, box set producers face daunting choices between breadth or affordability, hits or obscurities, originals or outtakes, chronological or thematic order. But we're all creatures of habit and the impression the artists intended with their original material needs to be respected and preserved.
Having said all that, there's nothing inherently evil about box sets. Indeed, box sets can be marvelous. To mention a few favorites, they can provide a handy overview of a genre (Island's Tougher than Tough survey of Jamaican music, Rhino's Doo Wop Box); spotlight a career (Eric Clapton's Crossroads, the Kronos Quartet's 25); thoroughly archive the entire output of an artist (Columbia's seminal Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings; BMG's massive Arturo Toscanini Collection); preserve the thrill of an historical event (Rhino's Monterey Pop, the New York Philharmonic's Bernstein Live); and enrich our appreciation with alternate versions and unreleased takes (Sony's Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, Ace's Little Richard - the Specialty Sessions). The key to box sets is how you use them. As a trove of material from which to mine a choice performance they can be a truly wonderful resource, but as a lazy way to evade the responsibility for arranging music in your life through careful selection and astute taste they menace the impact and import of music.
But enough abstraction - what about the immediate need for that special gift? Well, why not move beyond pre-packaged bulk to make your present one of meaning and discovery? If you've found a gem recently, give your friends copies (legitimate copies, of course). If you heard an emerging artist in concert, over the radio or on CD, help spread the word. Expand a young enthusiast's horizons with great historical performances. Break the tedium of the tried-and-true with something worthy but obscure. Above all, add a personal touch by explaining why you chose this particular gift and what it means to you.
Restore the human dimension to the awe of music. Think outside the box!
Copyright 2003 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.