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06/22/1999

Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

A few years ago, well, 26 years ago to be exact, my wife and I
visited Moscow where a highlight was a performance of the
opera "Faust" in the Kremlin. It was a truly grand production,
including members of the Bolshoi Ballet, outdoing the "Faust"
we had seen at the Met in New York. The Communists'' use of
culture and top-notch entertainment as opiates to compensate for
the people''s otherwise drab and servile existence was clear. The
tickets were very reasonable in price and the audience obviously
included the "working class" as well as the affluent.

I''m ashamed to confess that, until this year, we lived in New
Jersey for over 46 years without once going to a New York
Philharmonic concert. Recently we attended a concert which
began with a pleasant Mozart piano concerto performed by a
charming Mitsuko Uchida. In contrast, the other piece in this
pre-lunch program was heavy stuff indeed. For the first time, the
Philharmonic was performing the hour-long Shostakovich''s 11th
Symphony, which won the USSR''s Lenin Prize in 1958. The
basis for the symphony is the "dress rehearsal" for the Russian
revolution of 1917, the 1905 massacre of some 130 and
wounding of hundreds of other people in the Palace Square in St.
Petersburg. The Russian born conductor, Yakov Kreizberg,
describes the experience of conducting this work as akin to being
"hit by a train." (Kreizberg actually was enrolled as a child in
the Glinka Choir school right next to Palace Square and once
performed in the choir with Shostakovich only a few feet away in
his box seat.) Well, at the end of the hour I think all of us in the
audience felt that we had indeed been hit by a train. As the baton
fell at the last note, Kreizberg stood facing the orchestra,
obviously exhausted. There was absolutely no applause for at
least 5 seconds; the audience was so thoroughly drained and
emotionally involved. We left feeling that we had truly
experienced something quite special.

Naturally, when I got home I immediately thought of the
relatively new blue light emitting diode (LED) and the
limitations of listening to or watching a concert via the media of
compact disks, videotapes or TV. How many of you still use (or
have even heard of or used) the old fashioned long-playing and
single records played on turntables with diamond tipped needles
or styluses? Just the other day I saw an article stating that many
audiophiles still maintain that the digital modes of recording
musical performances do not begin to capture the true sound of
the symphony orchestra or the operatic aria. The sophisticated
music lover alleges that, despite the occasional pops or
scratchiness of the record, the emotion just is not captured in the
technological stolidity of the CD. This article appeared just as
we were discussing the fate of our disgracefully overflowing
basement and the collection of records contributing to the mess.
Now I must resurrect our long neglected turntable and see if the
comments ring true. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my
hearing has probably degraded so that I won''t be able to tell the
difference.

Oh, "What about the blue laser?" you remind me. You may have
read my earlier column on red, green and yellow LEDs. The
Holy Grail for LED workers had been for decades the
achievement of a viable blue LED. Some of you may remember
that years ago there was a big improvement in the color rendition
of our color TVs when someone, I believe it was at Sylvania,
came up with a better blue phosphor. This allowed increased
intensities of the other colors and the skies were bluer and the
roses redder, as we see today. With red, green and blue LEDs
the possibility of combining these colors to give any other color
comes into play. Back in the early days of the LED, we had
hopes of making flat panel TVs using LEDs but didn''t have the
blue. Later, it turns out that the common liquid crystal displays
in the laptop computer filled the bill in a satisfactory and much
cheaper fashion.

But what does this have to do with music? Well, blue light has a
significantly shorter wavelength than red or infrared light. This
is important in the compact disk or the DVD that is now
appearing as standard in your multimedia computer. The music
or video stored on the disk is really just a bunch of little holes on
the surface of the disk. The holes are burned into the disk by a
laser. Now a semiconductor laser is essentially a fancy LED that
emits a narrow beam of light that doesn''t spread out like the light
from a light bulb. The size of the hole that can be burned into
the disk depends on the wavelength, the shorter the wavelength
the smaller the hole. When the disk is played, the presence or
absence of a hole is picked up by a laser in your CD player;
again, the smaller the wavelength the smaller a hole the laser will
detect. By using blue lasers, an offspring of the blue LED, a
very sizeable increase in the amount of information that can be
stored on a disk will result. Will this increase translate into a
more realistic sound and picture clarity? I don''t know the
answer but I''d be willing to predict that nothing will ever match
the experience of a live performance.

A couple months ago, we saw on public TV a "Live at Lincoln
Center" simulcast of a tribute to Duke Ellington in which
Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra joined
the New York Philharmonic in a program of Ellington music.
My wife and I agreed that the program was not very inspiring
and in fact we regretted that, coincidentally, we had tickets to the
very same concert two days later. Well, being there in person
vividly demonstrated the limits of technology in conveying the
essence of the musical experience. As with the Shostakovich, we
thoroughly enjoyed and were caught up in every piece and the
enthusiasm of Kurt Masur and the members of both orchestras
was something to behold. The joint was really jumping! And
the sound emanating from those instruments were totally foreign
to our concert in our home.

This reminded us of the time we attended one of Frank Sinatra''s
last concerts, at the Garden State Art Center in New Jersey.
Fortunately for us, Old Blue Eyes'' voice was in good form that
night but what impressed me most were Nelson Riddle''s
fabulous orchestral arrangements. The sounds were like none I
had heard. For the first time, I realized the genius of Riddle and
of Frankie himself in the perfect blending with and enhancing of
his voice by the orchestral accompaniment.

Allen F. Bortrum

[Editor: Dr. Bortrum has been travelling extensively in Europe
the past few weeks. Upon his return I will encourage him to
answer some of the questions that a few of you have been
asking.]



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-06/22/1999-      
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Dr. Bortrum

06/22/1999

Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

A few years ago, well, 26 years ago to be exact, my wife and I
visited Moscow where a highlight was a performance of the
opera "Faust" in the Kremlin. It was a truly grand production,
including members of the Bolshoi Ballet, outdoing the "Faust"
we had seen at the Met in New York. The Communists'' use of
culture and top-notch entertainment as opiates to compensate for
the people''s otherwise drab and servile existence was clear. The
tickets were very reasonable in price and the audience obviously
included the "working class" as well as the affluent.

I''m ashamed to confess that, until this year, we lived in New
Jersey for over 46 years without once going to a New York
Philharmonic concert. Recently we attended a concert which
began with a pleasant Mozart piano concerto performed by a
charming Mitsuko Uchida. In contrast, the other piece in this
pre-lunch program was heavy stuff indeed. For the first time, the
Philharmonic was performing the hour-long Shostakovich''s 11th
Symphony, which won the USSR''s Lenin Prize in 1958. The
basis for the symphony is the "dress rehearsal" for the Russian
revolution of 1917, the 1905 massacre of some 130 and
wounding of hundreds of other people in the Palace Square in St.
Petersburg. The Russian born conductor, Yakov Kreizberg,
describes the experience of conducting this work as akin to being
"hit by a train." (Kreizberg actually was enrolled as a child in
the Glinka Choir school right next to Palace Square and once
performed in the choir with Shostakovich only a few feet away in
his box seat.) Well, at the end of the hour I think all of us in the
audience felt that we had indeed been hit by a train. As the baton
fell at the last note, Kreizberg stood facing the orchestra,
obviously exhausted. There was absolutely no applause for at
least 5 seconds; the audience was so thoroughly drained and
emotionally involved. We left feeling that we had truly
experienced something quite special.

Naturally, when I got home I immediately thought of the
relatively new blue light emitting diode (LED) and the
limitations of listening to or watching a concert via the media of
compact disks, videotapes or TV. How many of you still use (or
have even heard of or used) the old fashioned long-playing and
single records played on turntables with diamond tipped needles
or styluses? Just the other day I saw an article stating that many
audiophiles still maintain that the digital modes of recording
musical performances do not begin to capture the true sound of
the symphony orchestra or the operatic aria. The sophisticated
music lover alleges that, despite the occasional pops or
scratchiness of the record, the emotion just is not captured in the
technological stolidity of the CD. This article appeared just as
we were discussing the fate of our disgracefully overflowing
basement and the collection of records contributing to the mess.
Now I must resurrect our long neglected turntable and see if the
comments ring true. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my
hearing has probably degraded so that I won''t be able to tell the
difference.

Oh, "What about the blue laser?" you remind me. You may have
read my earlier column on red, green and yellow LEDs. The
Holy Grail for LED workers had been for decades the
achievement of a viable blue LED. Some of you may remember
that years ago there was a big improvement in the color rendition
of our color TVs when someone, I believe it was at Sylvania,
came up with a better blue phosphor. This allowed increased
intensities of the other colors and the skies were bluer and the
roses redder, as we see today. With red, green and blue LEDs
the possibility of combining these colors to give any other color
comes into play. Back in the early days of the LED, we had
hopes of making flat panel TVs using LEDs but didn''t have the
blue. Later, it turns out that the common liquid crystal displays
in the laptop computer filled the bill in a satisfactory and much
cheaper fashion.

But what does this have to do with music? Well, blue light has a
significantly shorter wavelength than red or infrared light. This
is important in the compact disk or the DVD that is now
appearing as standard in your multimedia computer. The music
or video stored on the disk is really just a bunch of little holes on
the surface of the disk. The holes are burned into the disk by a
laser. Now a semiconductor laser is essentially a fancy LED that
emits a narrow beam of light that doesn''t spread out like the light
from a light bulb. The size of the hole that can be burned into
the disk depends on the wavelength, the shorter the wavelength
the smaller the hole. When the disk is played, the presence or
absence of a hole is picked up by a laser in your CD player;
again, the smaller the wavelength the smaller a hole the laser will
detect. By using blue lasers, an offspring of the blue LED, a
very sizeable increase in the amount of information that can be
stored on a disk will result. Will this increase translate into a
more realistic sound and picture clarity? I don''t know the
answer but I''d be willing to predict that nothing will ever match
the experience of a live performance.

A couple months ago, we saw on public TV a "Live at Lincoln
Center" simulcast of a tribute to Duke Ellington in which
Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra joined
the New York Philharmonic in a program of Ellington music.
My wife and I agreed that the program was not very inspiring
and in fact we regretted that, coincidentally, we had tickets to the
very same concert two days later. Well, being there in person
vividly demonstrated the limits of technology in conveying the
essence of the musical experience. As with the Shostakovich, we
thoroughly enjoyed and were caught up in every piece and the
enthusiasm of Kurt Masur and the members of both orchestras
was something to behold. The joint was really jumping! And
the sound emanating from those instruments were totally foreign
to our concert in our home.

This reminded us of the time we attended one of Frank Sinatra''s
last concerts, at the Garden State Art Center in New Jersey.
Fortunately for us, Old Blue Eyes'' voice was in good form that
night but what impressed me most were Nelson Riddle''s
fabulous orchestral arrangements. The sounds were like none I
had heard. For the first time, I realized the genius of Riddle and
of Frankie himself in the perfect blending with and enhancing of
his voice by the orchestral accompaniment.

Allen F. Bortrum

[Editor: Dr. Bortrum has been travelling extensively in Europe
the past few weeks. Upon his return I will encourage him to
answer some of the questions that a few of you have been
asking.]