New Record

A long-standing desire was fulfilled last week when Coldplay released their new album Viva la Vida. Regular readers of this column are aware of my love for the long-playing record and one of my regrets has always been that, due to the limited release of vinyls nowadays, the days of queueing for a new album on the day of release have eluded me. Now that records are making a phoenix-like comeback (with rampant re-releases), record companies are not averse to the risk of launching albums simultaneously on vinyl and CD.

The revival of the LP in the age of MP3 may appear anachronistic, as is the growing legion of listeners who are rediscovering the warmer sound of turntables compared to the cold precision of digital music. According to Nielsen Soundscan, almost a million LPs were purchased in the United States alone in 2007, while over half a million turntables were sold. These numbers exclude the sale of used albums and record players that has always flourished on eBay and local record stores.

When the sale of vinyl records was eclipsed by the audio cassette for the first time in 1983, not only was an inferior audio technology crowned king, but it also paved the path for copying of music either from vinyl or another cassette. The high hiss and low signal-to-noise ratio of tapes meant that the cassette was never the format of choice for purists, while the sequential access to tracks ruled out its use in discotheques and radio stations. However, the compact size of the cassette popularised its use in cars, and provided a welcome alternative to radio on long commutes. Given its technical deficiencies, however, it was not surprising that the cassette ceded its leadership position in less than a decade to the compact disc, a more worthy successor to the LP. But as music formats "evolved", the already high and bright sound of CDs was further exacerbated as digitally compressed music began gaining popularity in the last few years.

Ironically, it may be the venerable long-playing record that pulls out the music industry from the prolonged depression that was onset by the simplicity of illegal copying. While turntables that allow conversion of albums from analogue to MP3 are now available, vinyl buyers pay a premium price for the sound quality of LPs and are less likely to settle for a recorded copy on tape or MP3.

Record companies are also being forced to think outside the box (or outside the case for CDs!) to regain the loyalty of music lovers and prevent themselves becoming obsolete. The success of iTunes and Amazon's MP3 store has made physical albums redundant to a vast majority of young listeners, and with groups like British rock band Radiohead allowing the buyer to name their own price for music downloads (zero dollars is also an option), the equation between the artist and the consumer is constantly being redefined. It was interesting to see Coldplay's LP include a copy of the CD inside the box (for in-car use), and it is hoped that this is a model that more and more labels will begin to adopt. Not to mention that this would allow millions of audiophiles to have their cake and eat it too!

I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.
Don McLean, American Pie

Musical Prodigy

In 1929, after listening to a violin recital by a thirteen-year artist, a Nobel prize winning physicist rushed backstage and exclaimed, "Now I know that there is a God in heaven." The child prodigy was Yehudi Menuhin and the Nobel laureate was Albert Einstein.

Music, more than any other art or science (with the possible exception of mathematics and chess), has had its unfair share of child prodigies or wunderkinds (German for "wonder child"). Classical composers like Mozart and Chopin, Liszt and Bizet had all performed publicly before hitting their teenage years. In fact, legend has it that six-year old Mozart had proposed marriage to the future Queen Marie Antoinette after performing before the Austrian royal family!

Child prodigy accounts trigger the age-old debate between nature and nurture. In several cases, parents of prodigies are involved in the same field as their offspring and goad them to follow in their footsteps at an early age; for instance, Picasso's father was an artist, Mozart's father was a musician, and Nijinsky's parents were dancers. There is no doubt that family conditioning plays an important role in the prodigy phenomenon, as does the greater environment, which would explain the abundance of young chess champions in Russia, gymnasts in eastern Europe and musicians among Jewish families. A more recent trend has been to discover young talents in Asia, where hard work is still venerated and discipline is more stringent than in the liberal west. It should also be remembered that the prodigies we read or hear about are only those who have been brought to the limelight of publicity by families or schools capitalising on, or even exploiting, the savant's skillset, while there may be an iceberg's worth of latent talents immersed below the surface.

All these thoughts come to mind as I read about Robert Vijay Gupta becoming the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra's youngest violinist at the age of twenty. Almost ten years ago, I had the good fortune of attending young Gupta's solo recital at the Calcutta Town Hall. The city's celebrities had come out in full force to witness the precocious child's talents, and were silenced by the poise and self-confidence with which he regaled the audience. Standing on a platform so he may be visible above the conductor, Gupta's tiny fingers flew across the strings of his Stradivarius even as his no-nonsense face reflected an expression of adult intensity. To this day I remember the night like a Cinderella fantasy, with the crumbling venue made resplendent in its original Doric grandeur, and a ten-year-old prodigy leading the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra with the same Sarasate piece that the Spanish artist himself had played at St James Hall in the presence of Sherlock Holmes.

Sociologists often make a distinction between an extremely gifted child who mimics existing art at an early age, and one who has a highly-focused talent along with a powerful drive to develop it as she matures. Usually only time can reveal which category a wunderkind belongs to. In the case of Gupta, given that he has also picked up a pre-medical degree at seventeen, let us hope that his motivation for music may make him a modern Mozart.

For the first twenty years you are still growing
Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It's the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
R S Thomas, To a Young Poet