Collector goes for a record: theme, variations

January 23, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The history of collecting is littered with unfathomable excess. From Imelda Marcos' shoes to Margaret Woodbury Strong, who collected bathtubs (but was never known to take a bath), there are people who collect with such obsessive repetition that one can scarcely believe they're human.

Among the common manifestations of this phenomenon are those who collect moments that exist at the vanishing point, but are captured on video and sound recordings. There are times when I look about my house and am astonished to see the history of Western music collected four times over. CDs, LPs and cassettes are everywhere; one false step and they rain on your head. I become even more astonished when I realize I own more than 60 recordings of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto.

Why would any rational human being own so many recordings of the same piece?

There are periods when I play every recording of certain pieces. This came to mind a few weeks ago when a friend called and heard in the background what had been on the stereo a month earlier.

"Still on the [Brahms]'Handel Variations?' " he asked.

Brahms wrote only 25 variations on a Handel theme, but the piece has been recorded many more times. I was in the process of listening to them all. There were superficial reasons for such compulsively encyclopedic listening: I was trying to determine what was the best recorded Brahms "Handel"; I liked the piece and hadn't heard it in a while; I was reviewing several new recordings and wanted to put them in context.

But, really, you can't ever figure out what the "best" performance is. And you don't need to listen to an entire discography to review a few new records. But something demanded compulsive repetition of the Brahms "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel."

Other occasions have demanded other pieces: Procrastination while finishing incompletes during my sophomore year in college called for Chopin's dreamy G Minor Ballade; studying for Ph.D. comprehensive exams made repeated hearings of the same composer's tragedy-filled "Funeral March" Sonata inevitable; and writing the dissertation was accompanied by all 48 preludes and fugues in Bach's seemingly endless "Well Tempered Clavier."

Listening repeatedly to one piece turned each of these solitary activities into rituals.

Unlike going to concerts, listening to records tends to be done in isolation. It's interesting that one of the world's most popular classical-music radio programs is the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" -- though "Desert Island Books" makes more sense; at least you can read on a desert island.

While reading books is something you can do in isolation, listening to music is something more: It produces isolation. It is -- particularly in the crowded, noisy atmosphere of urban life -- a substitute for silence, something that permits withdrawal into the kingdom of the self. Listening to the Brahms while running at the gym, I do not hear basketball players screaming at each other. Even better, the music enables me to forget that I am the slowest runner there and that 10 circuits equals only one mile.

Architecture is sometimes called "frozen music," but centuries ago Western music served as the architecture of time. Certain activities demanded certain types of music, dividing the day and year into units: Matins were sung in the morning; vespers at night. Great occasions, such as Christmas or Easter, were celebrated with music specifically written for them.

tTC The 19th century, with its idea of art for art's sake, changed all that and separated music from its public function.

Records have taken music even further: They have transformed music into standardized, flexible modules. Now you structure the time in your private life in terms of certain pieces. You can listen to Vivaldi's upbeat "Gloria" in the morning and Ravel's spooky "Gaspard de la Nuit" late at night.

Pieces like Brahms' "Handel Variations" are perfect for repetitive activities, such as running, which call for casual listening. Variation form, in which an idea is varied and repeated, permits you to tune in and out; sonata form does not.

The truly obsessive listener takes this private pleasure to greater extremes. His collection -- almost all obsessive listeners are collectors -- permits him to vary the experience by changing the performance. The bigger his collection, the more he can withdraw into his solitude.

Why "him" and "his"? Because almost all record collectors are men. Many women love opera so much they regularly travel to New York -- or even Santa Fe, San Francisco or Milan -- to hear rarely performed operas or beloved singers. I have never heard of a single female opera lover who collects records obsessively. It is rarely the case, Freudians tell us, that women are fetishists.

It is preponderantly men who fix butterflies with pins or mount moose heads over fireplaces. Women occasionally still wear fur coats, but they're rarely the ones who killed the animals to whom the fur once belonged. It's men who are driven to stop time by capturing what is evanescent. This is, of course, an impossibility -- to freeze what is living is to kill it -- and the result is compulsive repetition. It's no accident that one of the great collectors in history was a Spanish nobleman -- long since celebrated by the likes of Mozart, Moliere, Bernard Shaw and Byron -- named Don Juan.

Juan collected women -- "in Spain alone," Mozart's "Don Giovanni" tells us, "one thousand and three" -- transforming them into objects in his eternal (and obsessive-compulsive) pursuit of the perfect woman. There's undoubtedly a sexual component to my quest for the perfect Brahms "Handel Variations," but I'm not sure I want to know what it is.

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