The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is continuing the practice of providing listeners with supplementary information through podcasts. Their regular service of using this medium for background material about works to be performed at subscription concerts has now been supplemented by a new Web page entitled “From the Archives: An Audio History of the San Francisco Symphony.” This is the result of nearly two years of research, collecting, transcribing, and studying by SFS contributing writer and pre-concert lecturer (and former SF Classical Music Examiner) Scott Foglesong. What is now available is a collection of twelve podcasts, providing about six and one-half hours of listening material, surveying the history of recordings made by the SFS from 1925 to the almost immediate present. Each of the podcasts can be played from the From the Archives Web page, and each is accompanied by a PDF page providing details about the recordings included.
The good news is that, taken as a whole, this is a very well-informed package of content. Anyone who has heard Foglesong deliver a pre-concert talk at Davies Symphony Hall or read one of his contributions to a program book can appreciate the depth of his understanding of the music and his rhetorical skill in communicating that understanding. However, these podcasts are less about the music being performed and more about the nature of performance practices and how those practices changed among both conductors and orchestra members over the course of the 100-year history of the SFS. This is a dimension of that history that could not be captured in Larry Rothe’s Music for a City, Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony, because, however much that book excels in the media of text and images, it cannot support the medium of audio. Furthermore, Foglesong’s insights go beyond changes in performance to address the changes in recording technologies and the impact of those changes on the available “audio documents.”
However, there is a down-side to having so much of value to communicate. Most significant is probably the need to honor intellectual property rights, which severely restricts the duration of an audio example. I can only marvel in awe at how much effort Foglesong had to put into both finding and extracting the audio examples around which his entire fabric of exposition is woven. Equally significant, however, is how all this content is delivered, once it was conceived.
At the risk of sounding too old-fashioned, I have to question whether or not podcasts are the best medium for this material. This is certainly not content to be heard through a pair of ear buds while sauntering down the street, and it deserves far more attention than can be safely accorded while driving. Back when I was supervising a research project in hypermedia authoring, we used to talk about the difference between “lean back” and “lean forward” media. Radio and television are “lean back,” to be enjoyed from a comfortable chair or couch or while stretched out on the bed. Web browsing and reading, on the other hand, require that you “lean forward” towards your computer screen, often with your hand on a mouse ready to pursue a hyperlink. These podcasts are “lean forward” content being given a “lean back” treatment; and that strikes me as more than a little unfair to both the legacy of the SFS and all of the effort Foglesong put into researching that legacy.
I would therefore raise the modest proposal that a primary unit of content for this material should be not the podcast but the individual audio file of each of the examples that Foglesong compiled. The texts that Foglesong prepared could then be converted to Web pages from which one would read the words, rather than listen to them. (One could still keep the option of listening on an episode-by-episode basis.) Each individual audio example would then be represented by the same kind of Flash Player icon currently used for a full episode, but it would only trigger the example itself. This would require far more “active reading” than “leaning back” while the podcast is played; but it would also make it easier for the reader to skim portions of the material while homing in on the material that happen to be of most interest at the time. Furthermore, having the text on Web pages means that all of the verbal content can be processed by a search engine, making it easier for the reader to find those specific areas of interest. Thus, for example, after having read in Rothe’s book that Hertz had conducted the American premiere of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, one could quickly find the audio example of the recording he made with the SFS of the opening prelude, along with what Foglesong had say about that recording and broader context of recordings made during Hertz’ tenure. (Where this particular podcast is concerned, one would probably also gain further appreciation of the improvements that came with the transition from acoustic to electric recording, which Foglesong explained in wonderfully clear language.)
The problem, of course, is that the demand for such a scholarly project is likely to be very low. While hypermedia technology has done wonders for “lean forward” reading, most of us still tend to prefer the “lean back” style. That majority is sure to gain much from Foglesong’s accessible delivery of the fruits of his two years worth of effort. However, somewhere out there is probably a graduate student who is as excited about hypermedia authoring as (s)he is about all the material Foglesong has made available; and recasting all that material in “rich” hypermedia would surely result in one hell of a software project!