Friday, April 20, 2012
LP Boxed Sets
When we moved across town recently, I brought a quantity of LPs to the new house along with favorite books. Somewhere in the still unpacked belongings in the basement is more vinyl, some of which I've owned since my 1970s high school days. Several of the LPs I brought over myself are boxed sets that I've own for a shorter time, but still 25 or 30 years.
I enjoy a book by Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Da Capo Press, 2001). Koestenbaum has an ability to connect ideas about opera, sexuality, and art in dazzling ways. For instance, this quotation on page 60:
“I loved the idea of opera before I loved opera: and what I love, in this idea of opera, was the boxed set. I saw the gold and silver letters of mysterious words (I masnadieri, Götterdämmerung) engraved on the black spines of albums so thick they seemed books... Records for complete operas, since the advent of the long-playing disc in 1950, have come in boxed sets. A box is the antithesis of opera--the cult of the huge, the expressive, the uncontained, the grandiose. And yet a box is quintessentially operatic, for opera involves passing air out through the voice box, and because the most privileged patrons sit in an opera box. A box is a sexually suggestive figure: vagina. A boxed-set opera in the long-playing era most frequently holds three discs, and thus has the respectable, familial stability of the traditional three-volume Victorian novel. The boxed set contains and compresses opera’s immensity, and the mythically huge bodies of singers...” In his book, Koestenbaum pursues a remarkable journey of love, opera love, sexuality, language, and critical thought about culture and music. (“The opera queen must choose one diva...only one diva can reign in the opera queen’s heart,” he writes on p. 19, reminding me of my best friend’s passion for Julie Andrews.)
My own love of LP boxed sets seems such a mixture of minor insecurity and sincerity, at least in my original love for the sets. I had a passion for music and musical discovery; and yet, fearful of seeming pretentious (and thus not being liked), I wouldn’t tell anyone, allowing my boxed sets (broad and readable among the many single LP sleeves) to tacitly announce my passion for anyone who visited my dorm room or my home. And there were those “mysterious words,” read with a sideways-tilted head---Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Tannhäuser, Peter Grimes, Falstaff, Sämmtliche Cembalokonzerte, Messa da Requiem, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni. Those sets warmed my heart and, as I discovered this music over a period of time, such words alerted me each day to music to the music I need to spend time. But so did the words on the spines of beloved one-disc albums.
I also tend to be an eccentric listener to music, in that I get into the mood of listening to genres (organ music, opera, etc.), and I also like to explore big areas of a composer’s output. I loved Wagner and Britten and Mozart so I began to collect several sets until I had the entire Ring of the Niebelung and the rest of Wagner’s operas from Rienzi forward, and nearly all of Britten’s operas recorded on Decca/London (with those sets’ black spines and gold letters). I enjoyed LPs as art-objects, so to speak. My heart beat a little faster whenever I’d visit the college library and see all these opera sets and LP collections lining a wall. I have several CD boxed sets, and of course love the music. But as an object, the CDs never bring me as much aesthetic joy as LPs.
LPs are heavy en masse and take up space, and over the years I gave away sets because I didn’t listen to the music so much, but later I wished I’d kept as a keepsake. For instance, during a lonely time of living in the country, I found a dandy small-town used book store that also carried LPs, and I found Verdi’s Luisa Miller on an old gold-and-white boxed set from the Everest label. Eventually it was passed along to another such store, but I still remember the joy the set brought me, with its gold-and-white box humble in its comparative lack of glitz.
Others I’ve certainly kept. The earlier mentioned Marriage of Figaro, directed by Karl Bohm, is an purchase I can’t imagine giving up. The same is true with my several Wagner, Bach, Britten, and Mozart sets. Twenty years ago I spotted the colorful cover of a 6-LP collection of Haydn’s London symphonies, conducted by Karajan. The clerk said they had wondered who might seize that nice set, and I thought: Someone else appreciates the joys and discoveries of music in a box!