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10:25pm on Tuesday, 24th July, 2007:

White Russian Noise


When I was revising for my exams at university, there was so much noise going on around me that I found myself constantly interrupted. People were playing their music as loud as they could so as to drown each other out. I knew that if I wanted to get any work done, I'd have to get myself a pair of headphones and cover their music with music of my own.

But what music?

Anything with words in was going to be as much of a distraction as what I'd have had to listen to anyway, so I made a decision: unhip and untrendy though it was, I was going to buy a classical music tape. I'd heard some classical music, knew I liked some of it if not all, and so I went to London (having found no classical music tapes in Colchester) and the HMV store in Oxford Street (not the big one, they hadn't opened that yet). There, on the top floor — so top it was almost an attic — I found the classical music casettes. I didn't know all that many classical pieces that I liked, but thanks to Fantasia I knew the Nutcracker was among them. They had several versions, though. A shop assistant saw me browsing and asked if he could help. I asked him which was the best one, and he pointed me at the complete recording of the full Opus 71 score by Antal Dorati conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. It cost £6.50, which was more than my train ticket to London was at the time, but it was a "2 LP double musicassette" and he said it really was the best, so I got it.

When I got back, I listened to it. Yes, it was fine. So I listened to it again, and again, 4 or 5 times a day while I was revising, and it kept out the distractions.

Over the years, I must have listened to that tape hundreds of times. Now, though, with tapes all but dead and digital music the order of the day, I thought perhaps I ought to transfer it to my PC. Unfortunately, not only are tapes a thing of the past, but so are players that have Dolby stereo on them. As a result, my tape has a very large degree of hiss on it. I could probably buy something to perform the Dolby algorithm on it digitally, but it would doubtless still hiss pretty badly as it's been played so many times.

Now of course, I'd been on the lookout for a CD version of this particular performance for some time. It has to be this one, though, no other: if it were another one, I'd notice the difference, and then it would distract me. If I want to block out distractions, then I need some noise that isn't itself going to distract me. Several hundred listenings later, Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra are it. I never found it, though: I never found the recording re-released on CD or anything else. I checked iTunes and it wasn't there. I was pretty well resigned never to find a copy.

And then, last week, on a whim, I typed +Dorati +Nutcracker +Concertgebouw into Google and top of the list was Amazon. The original was on the Philips label, and they re-released it on CD 6 years ago as one of their 50 greatest recordings. How come I didn't find it last time I looked?!

So I bought it (for less than the original tape cost me), and today it arrived. I've just played it while I was typing something, and am pleased to say I didn't hear a thing. It's the exact same recording, except for one small detail where someone drops something part-way through and it was taken out in the remastering. I'll soon learn not to notice that, though.

So now, once more, I can block out the rest of the world with my favourite piece of what may as well be white noise.

Oh, and if you read the reviews on the US Amazon site (there are none on the UK one), you'll see that this is indeed regarded by many as the best recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker around. That HMV shop assistant was telling the truth — how about that?

Referenced by Music While You Work.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).