Microbes and Mozart

Classical music recordings have allowed performing traditions to stagnate – good luck to those using them to treat sewage

Critics such as Norman Lebrecht have been warning of the death of the recording industry which, for better or (often) for worse, has been the major force in classical music for the last half decade. Lebrecht's suspicions have by and large proved correct, receiving further confirmation in figures released recently by the BPI which show an alarming 17.6% drop in classical sales figures since 2009 against a backdrop or a market-share decline, since 1990, from 11% to a meagre 3.2%.

To put this in perspective: a major US release such as Hilary Hahn's recent Bach: Violin and Voice disc, backed by a serious publicity drive (including an appearance on The Tonight Show at the height of the Leno/O'Brien controversy), sold a meagre 1,000 copies in its first week and fewer than 500 in the following weeks. To put this in perspective further: these figures were enough for Hahn to leap to No 1 in the Billboard classical charts.

But if it seems fair finally to say that the classical music record industry is up shit creek, it would be mistaken to assume it's up there without a paddle. Indeed, it may just have been handed a very sizeable paddle: one made, in fact, for no other purpose than paddling through shit. If reports are to be believed, a potentially life-saving new market has emerged in the form of the microbes used in the treatment of sewage. According to Anton Stucki, chief-operator at the Treuenbritzen sewage plant in Germany, his playing of recordings of Mozart's operas will stimulate the bacteria. "We're still in the test phase," he said, "but I've already noticed that the sewage breakdown is more efficient."

Stucki attributes this new phase of the much-trumpeted (but never proven) "Mozart effect" to the idea that the harmony to be found in Mozart's music corresponds directly to the harmony that binds atoms to atoms, molecules to molecules. It's another version of the ancient Greek doctrine of the harmony of the spheres, according to which music is simply a manifestation of the numerical proportions that hold the universe together.

One of the interesting things about such doctrine is that it allowed numerous scholars and philosophers to spend huge amounts of time studying music without ever having to yield to the temptation to hear any. Indeed, according to the ancient and scholastic division of musical learning, the two higher spheres of music – musica mundana and musica humana – had absolutely nothing to do with music as it was actually practised. The third and lowliest, musica instrumentalis, which concerned the kind of music you could actually play, was by and large beneath consideration.

That's all changed now, thankfully, and music is generally considered as less a branch of scientific learning than an art form, charged with human meaning. And one of the chief reasons for this, regardless of the cosmic harmoniousness of the music played, is that music has always been the most collaborative of the arts. It acquires the larger part of its meaning and value from the energy invested into it composing, playing and listening to it: and the live collaboration of the audience with the performer has always been a crucial part of this.

This is why I've always been suspicious of records and have never wasted too many tears over the collapse of the classical record industry in its current guise. Because so much of this live energy is lost in the transfer from concert hall to vinyl or plastic, the art of listening to music, as the philosopher RG Collingwood put it, changes from being one of "collaborating" to one of "overhearing".

Although the golden age of classical record industry produced some wonderful – and of course wonderfully preserved – music making, part of the trouble with it has always been the normative power it has held over the way we hear music, generating myths about "definitive" interpretations, stagnating performing traditions and turning the culture of classical music into a kind of starry-eyed collectors' club. With the passing of these once great gods, recordings are once again becoming what they were always supposed to be: mere records of live events.

So the news from the sewers of Treuenbritzen is good, not because it opens up a new, albeit somewhat smelly, audience for classical music, but because it reminds us that while the music of the spheres and other spinning discs may be excellent for the health of everything from atoms and microbes to planets and galaxies, live music is best saved for the living.

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