Monday, 30 January 2012

The condition of music (decrescendo e morendo).

I’ve been paid several compliments regarding my Blog since my last posting. Excellent! This is always delightful, but given the way my mind works, it comes with a qualification. I am, after all, only as good as the last thing I wrote, and responsibility demands that I maintain a consistent standard. So, you’ll appreciate that I worry about crossing the line into self parody were I to pander to my own distorted idea of what it is my adherents — dare I use the word — desire from these articles. But oh, listen to me, I’m starting to sound despicably ungracious. I really should just take the compliment and get on with it. So if you’re reading this, and especially if you’re reading this having read a previous entry, then thank you. It is wonderful to know there really is a world out there. Ooh, I came close to saying ‘a waiting world’ then, but let’s not get too carried away just yet.

Anyway, my dear adherents, I am pleased to say these past two weeks have thankfully brought no further physical trauma, mental anguish or other misfortunes to me or my beloved, and life ticks along in at least no worse a fashion than usual. All of which meant I could curb my usual spleen and turn my attention to a subject that gives me pleasure without qualification: Classical music. Unfortunately I must postpone that subject until another day. However, my inspiration for this entry instead sprang from a somewhat disappointing moment I had earlier this week while engaged in the otherwise joyful pastime of shopping for Classical CDs.

I had received a generous Christmas gift of £60 in HMV vouchers from my kind and magnificent in-laws. Splendid! The usual evening walk home from work is easily modified to cross Oxford Street and thus make the largest branch of this record emporium an easy stop along the way. The missus was safely dispatched to pass the time in her own inimitable way around John Lewis and his seven floors of fun nearby, giving me a good hour or so to browse the three levels of His Master’s Voice. Some of you will be familiar with it: from the main drag of Oxford Street, you pass through tall, doorless portals into a vast open-plan space filled with immense rows of CD shelving, or ‘gondolas’ as they’re called in the trade (another story for another time). At the centre of this area are the escalator columns that take you upwards to the DVD section one way, down to the basement in the other, where the Folk, Jazz, Soundtracks and Classical Departments can be found — the latter of which is sequestered from the other areas and accessible through heavy, slow-hinged glass doors that provide an effective soundproof barrier from the rest. Once inside, you are confronted with an area of  similar dimensions to a tennis court, with more gondolas laid out in tiers, subdivided into A to Zs of composers, opera, early music, vocalists and so on. Something customer-friendly — and therefore by necessity, melodic and pleasant — is playing over the speakers. This music — and having considerably fewer customers browsing here than elsewhere in the store — helps maintain an atmosphere of almost sacred calm in this room.

While I’m here with you, I should point out that the tranquillity is frequently broken by what seems to be an ever-present hazard in these environs: the attention-seeking Classical music buyer. He (and it’s almost always a he, I have observed) will almost certainly be wearing a scarf, but will otherwise be of any age between 20 and 80. He feels the need to address each line of racking with the posture of a praying mantis, hands poised fussily over the serried CD ranks, fingers flitting over the jewel cases as if playing some vast, vertically stacked keyboard with what he fancies to be a well-practised action. As he searches, he underlines the visual urgency with sounds of questing bother and confusion, clucking disapprovingly at albums that displease him for reasons kept to himself or stopping on others with a clipped ‘ah!’ of delighted recognition. Trust me, his kind are there 75% of the time. I know his game: a stupid, irrelevant pantomime performed in the vain hope that any onlookers may consider this studiedly eccentric behaviour to be the outward signs of an inner heightened sensitivity and exactitude. He’s intensely irksome. I fight the urge to walk up to him, stand too close and shout “WHAT?” in his face. Oh and if you’re so fucking clever, then why are you reading out loud?

This last irritating detail apart, I’m very fond of the Classical Department. So it was I made my way down the escalator and through the glassed entrance. I had not been inside the room for a few months. Oh my, how things have changed. The feeling upon entering the room was not dissimilar to how you feel if you arrive first at a party (we’ve all done that), walk into an empty pub just after 11am (never done that? You haven’t lived!) or have ever wandered round the Square Mile of the City Of London on a Sunday (really no need to do that). Embarrassment. The lack of stock, inversely proportional to the abundance of available shelf space, lent the room a distinct air of embarrassment — a bantam puffing up in a poor imitation of heavyweight. You could sense that the gondolas had been placed a little further apart than was previously the case just to hold the ground. If I had noticed, instantly, how thinly the stock had been spread around the room, then it’s odds-on that someone in a position to decide the fate of this department would already have done so too. How much longer will this gentle and civilised sanctum be able to pay its way and retain occupancy?

Coming back up the escalator, (I’ll tell you what I bought another time) the main area on the ground floor also appeared in a new light. Only now did I notice a large section at the back of the store given over to multifarious music playback technology and gaming. It was laid out in painful imitation of a small corner of the Apple Store on Regent Street: perspex boxes with MP3 players and iPads upon them; rows of clear plastic tables at arm height, for people to try out games for Nintendo 3DS, XBox and the like. A lot of air in that part of the shop, but precious little to buy and even less being bought. The Oxford Street HMV once held a Guinness world record for the largest square feet of sales space for a music outlet. It may still do so if we consider the mere shell of the building, but I fear the visibly dwindling amount of stock on display in-store tells a sadly different story.

We all know the problem of course: it’s us. The rise of internet shopping has obviated most needs to hit the High Streets and we’ve all become complicit in this slow decline. Because internet shopping is great, isn’t it? It eliminates the arbitrariness of casual shopping: if you’re prepared to wait a few days, you’re more guaranteed to get a CD that the physical store may not happen to have on the day you stroll in. Some of us hate rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi, or battle with recalcitrant trolleys in overcrowded supermarkets  with overheated customers. Me, I love food shopping, but I appreciate how many people hate going on a Saturday (the most likely day to go for most people who work in the week) and would rather spend the time doing something nicer instead. I also despise bespoke shopping precincts, having never found a single one to be an enjoyable place to be for any time. Yes, the advantages of online buying are almost so self-evident as to need no further description.

The sad part is, the advantages of shopping in the High Street are somewhat nebulous and the pleasures more spiritual — if it’s not too strong a word — in nature, so they’re harder to defend. For a start, there’s a thrill of discovery that comes with shop browsing that I simply don’t think the internet can equal. But equally as important: it’s simply good to get out, isn’t it? I think many people need to engage with the outside world more often — precisely the kind of people who would, given half a chance, use the internet to the exclusion of all other vendors. Furthermore I’m not sure if everybody has something else they’d rather do, so all the time saved in not going out isn’t necessarily employed elsewhere in a quality manner. I worry about those people with neither the imagination nor recourse to fill their newly acquired hours. My main worry is that this veritable seismic shift in lifestyle has been adopted so wholeheartedly that we’ve abandoned one form for the other with insufficient consideration. Surely each way has its own rewards? It just seems to me that the internet holds all the practical, expedient cards — but that isn’t everything. To ignore the happiness you get from a good browse in a shop is to argue the value to one’s well-being of paracetamol over that of a good, hot cup of tea — and I would not like to imagine a world where one exists without the other. I’d happily put up with a shop full of people like Mr Classical Mantis every now and then rather than spend my afternoons sat alone at a computer — that’d be really irksome. Plus I can’t order a decent pint online when I want one, whereas my local High Street has a pub.

Another piece of the world is dying and its loss will prove a sad day indeed. The list of independent record shops that have died out in the past decade is almost infinite and many of the major players — Virgin, Fopp!, Zavvi, hell, even Woolworths — are either no more or forced to reconfigure themselves as online entities. No, HMV is not the first record retailer to find themselves in tough times, but at the rate things are going I fear they will almost certainly be the last. The very last.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Currently watching:
Doctor Who: The Sensorites (BBC, 1964)
The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes/The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes (Granada, 1990-1994)

Currently listening:
The Stone Turntable (Transglobal Underground, 2011)
King Of The Down (Arch Garrison, 2010)

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