Desert Island Dilemma x 4100

The music classroom of the future, they say, will possess a computer on which the professor can scroll through a menu and select any significant piece from the history of music, click on it, and have it immediately heard over the classroom sound system. I forget who “they” are, or where I heard or read this, or who was supposed to upload the utopian CD collection, nor do I yet know of anyone living in this fantasy world. The technology is there and would be easy to install, but my department isn’t putting the money into it yet, nor is anyone else’s I know.

But, taking matters into my own hands, I’ve come as close to it as anyone I know of. For my birthday (which I share with Coleman Hawkins, composer Judith Shatin, Rene Magritte, Bjork, Goldie Hawn, Marlo Thomas, and Voltaire, you could look it up) my parents bought me (I was very specific in my request, and went through my tech-literate brother) a 250-gigabyte external hard drive. (I’ll give the commercial: the brand is Maxtor, and it’s really sturdy-looking.) The device advertises the capacity to hold 4100-plus hours of music MP3s, and I’m putting it to the test. As of this writing I’ve filled 13 GB with more than 1400 tracks, trying to think of every piece I’ve ever used in class or even mentioned to a student. This is going to be the iPod from hell, and I’m planning to carry it into class knowing that there’s no piece I could possibly want to play that isn’t on it. I’ve loaded it with all the Mahler symphonies, the last seven Bruckner symphonies, the last four Sibelius symphonies, the complete Berwald symphonies (don’t ask), most of Haydn’s symphonies, the complete Nancarrow player piano pieces, all of La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, two of Sorabji’s complete works including the four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum, the complete Beethoven sonatas, the complete Mozart Piano concerti, most of the Brahms piano music, the complete Hummel sonatas, all the available Dussek sonatas, lots of Josquin, most of Stravinsky, lots of Cage, and so on and so on. It will be my push-button repertoire machine. I’ve already tried it out – a major-minor motive in the Brahms first concerto reminded me of a similar moment in a Mahler symphony, and I played the beginnings of several movements before getting the one I wanted, the fourth movement of the Mahler Seventh. For years I’ve walked into class fumbling a tall stack of compact discs. Now I walk in with my laptop and Maxtor hard drive, and play anything from my CD collection I can think of.

The question is, of course, given 4100 hours of music storage space, what do you select? (Afterthought: I guess for people whose CD/vinyl collection doesn’t reach the five-digit range, this wouldn’t sound like a pressing concern.) Having copied more than 200 hours of music and only filled five percent of the disc, it’s not really an issue yet, but it will be. This is not a complete classical repertoire disc. There are composers I never refer to. I don’t see any reason to include Dvorak or Puccini, and I never mention Tchaikovsky in any flattering way. I play Mozart’s concerti and operas, but rarely his sonatas and never his symphonies. The name Verdi, though respected, goes unheard in my classroom. On the other hand, less new (postclassical) music has gone on the drive than you’d expect – as much as I love their musics, I don’t often get a chance to talk about John Luther Adams or Beth Anderson. It’s kind of a very generous desert island problem, preparing not the playlist that I’d want to listen to the rest of my life (though that inevitably goes into it), but what I can use to point out interesting things to students. And in case I want to play The Well-Tuned Piano or Feldman’s six-hour Second String Quartet, I have the luxury (if that is the proper word) or doing so without having to change CDs.

And so once again I spend dozens of hours changing formats for my recording collection: in youth I taped records on cassettes, in the ‘80s I bought compact discs to replace vinyl records, in recent years I transferred cassettes and vinyl to CDRs, and now I’m putting all of those onto one mega-drive. A composer friend of mine has gotten rid of her CDs altogether, after storing all of them on a similar hard drive. I worry that the entire culture is gleefully relinquishing something in terms of audio fidelity by settling for MP3s; if a new, more audiophile format emerges, I will doubtless spend yet more hours transferring once again. I’m not selling any CDs, because (as a frequent writer of liner-notes myself, after all) I need and enjoy the packaging. A colleague to whom I showed off my hard drive innocently asked whose recordings of the Mahler symphonies I selected, and I struggled to remember, with only partial success. With every transfer, it seems, something is gained, something is lost, and access to contextual information always seems to decline.

In the current climate, of course, an additional advantage forces its way to mind. In case the Bush administration succeeds in equating liberals with terrorists and outlawing them (which they certainly give every impression that they’d love to do), I may need to escape over the border to Montreal in a hurry. In that exigency, the Maxtor 250-GB offers a respectable fraction of my CD collection that I can carry in my briefcase when I’m forced to leave everything else behind. In the meantime, my teaching may be considerably enriched.