Tapes Hit the Road

For the last few weeks I’ve been driving around in my car learning Italian. I already know the difference between steak ai ferri and alla pizzaiola; I can ask for a pair of socks in brown, black, or gray; and I am ready to confront any native and demand of him authoritatively: “Dov’e la posta?” or as we say in English, “Where is the post office?”

This broadening of my linguistic horizons I owe to the installation under the dashboard of my automobile of a stereo tape-cartridge player, a machine which makes it possible for the first time to hear musical and spoken recordings in one’s car and which, even more important, has at long last put tape into the position of genuinely challenging discs as a popular medium for listening to music.

The tape versus disc battle has been going on for years, but although many serious music listeners have admired the fine sound of prerecorded tape releases, few have abandoned LP records in their favor. In the first place, tapes traditionally are more expensive than records; in the second, they require more skill in handling.

In recent years determined efforts have been made to overcome these obstacles. Most important is the development of the tape cartridge, a self-contained unit sealed in plastic so that the tape itself is never touched by the user. It’s as easy to snap a tape cartridge into place on a player as to drop a record on the turntable, but although several cartridges have been introduced, none until now has really established itself in the market.

The big change has been brought about, simply, by moving tape out of the home and putting it into the automobile. Of course, the car in many ways is an extension of the American home. Radios, telephones, air conditioners, playpens, work desks, even bars have all been installed in cars; it was only a matter of time until recorded music was in trod uced.

As long ago as the 1950s, Chrysler experimented with a record player for cars, but the needle kept being knocked out of the grooves despite all efforts to cushion highway bumps and jolts. The challenge was taken up by the tape industry, and in 1965 Ford and subsequently Chrysler and GM began offering stereo tape players as optional equipment on new models. Today stereo tape players can be installed on any car new or old; a first-class machine costs about $100, plus $25 installation charge, and less, as well as more, expensive models are on the market.

The type of system available on new cars from the Big Three auto manufacturers is known as Stereo 8. In these cartridges, eight sound tracks (four pairs of stereo channels) are contained on an endless loop of tape that runs at three and three quarters inches per second. The tape begins playing when the cartridge is inserted into a slot in the dashboard player. Each tape contains up to eighty minutes of continuous music, and if the cartridge is not withdrawn at the end it begins playing all over again. The sound emanates, in stereo, from two small speakers embedded in the front car doors. The doors themselves seem to serve as resonators; in any case, the total effect is to turn the enclosed area of the automobile into a kind of sound chamber. It’s a little like sitting inside a speaker, and one that is moving along the highway at fifty miles an hour in the bargain.

Ideally, the story ought to end there, with every American driving into the sunset with Stereo 8 filling his car with Mozart or the Monkees, depending on his musical tastes or those of the children in the rear seat.

But in the music business nothing is that simple or that amicable. Far from having the auto field to itself, Stereo 8 actually is facing several determined competitors. One of these is Stereo 4, an earlier system which uses four sound tracks rather than eight. Its playing time is less, but so is its cost, and it seems especially in vogue among West Coast teen-agers who cherish rock ‘n’ roll tapes.

Even a stronger challenge to Stereo 8 is expected to come from the cassette system of tape cartridges pioneered in Europe by the Philips Company of Holland and introduced here by its American affiliate, Norelco. A cassette is a miniature cartridge smaller than a deck of cards and less than half the size of a Stereo 8 cartridge. Originally designed strictly for tape recording, it has now been converted into a playback unit, and is heading straight for the automobile. By next spring, Norelco promises to have a cassette car player on the market, with a catalogue of prerecorded tapes from Mercury, Philips, Ampex, and others. The cassette system offers several apparent advantages: it is small and simple, and it can be used as a tape recorder as well as a playback unit in the car, enabling a motorist to record surreptitiously, if he so desires, the comments of the backseat drivers traveling with him. The big question with cassettes is their sound; their tapes travel at one and seven eighths inches per second, which is half the speed of Stereo 8 and Stereo 4 tapes and a quarter the seven-and-a-half inches-per-second speed that is standard on open-reel tapes. Stereo 8’s advocates contend that the slower speed is injurious to the sound quality; the cassette’s proponents reply, in effect: wait and see.

At the moment, though, Stereo 8 is the most solidly established of the tape cartridge systems. It is the only one available prebuilt into new cars, and the only one for which virtually all the major record companies are producing tapes, both popular and classical. Lines of accessories, such as carrying cases and tape-cleaning devices, are also being marketed. RCA Victor is backing Stereo 8 so enthusiastically that it has thus far refused to make its recordings available for any other car tape system. Capitol and Columbia, on the other hand, are hedging their bets a bit by also releasing some of their recordings on Stereo 4. Presumably all of the major companies are keeping their eyes on the cassette system. It’s not inconceivable that a battle somewhat similar to the 33 1/3 rpm-45 rpm war of the speeds in records may yet develop before standardization of auto tapes is achieved.

Would such a struggle be worthwhile? Or, putting the question another way, is stereo in the car worth the trouble and expense? It all depends. There’s no doubt that a Stereo 8 player such as I’ve been using sounds better than the average car radio. Moreover, it offers the obvious advantage of giving the motorist the choice of what he wants to hear, without the interruption of commercials, and without the fading and interference to which a car radio is subject. As to how much serious listening can be done in a car, that’s another question. In a way, that endless loop of stereo tape is somewhat like a stack of records piled high on a changer and providing background music to some other occupation. It’s no accident that most of the initial sales of auto tape cartridges have been of popular music, although RCA Victor says that classical sales have recently risen to 25 percent of the total.

I must acknowledge that I have found that listening to Von Karajan conduct Haydn’s London Symphony and Beethoven’s Seventh on a single Stereo 8 tape has added to the scenic pleasures of a trip along the Adirondack Northway, and that Arthur Fiedler’s frothy performance of a set of Strauss waltzes has lightened the way between exits on the New Jersey Turnpike. And on one occasion, none other than the Beatles averted a family crisis during a latesummer traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway, a fifty-mile stretch of road that has been called, with some justification, the world’s longest parking lot.

The most serious side of auto tapes to date has been displayed by the introduction of language instruction courses on Stereo 8 by RCA Victor in conjunction with the Institute for Language Study. These come in Italian, French, Spanish, and German, with cartridges for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students.

Language instruction via records is nothing new, but these tapes have been cleverly designed, with instructors tossing words and meanings back and forth in stereo from speaker to speaker. After a time, the listener is requested to shut off one of the stereo channels and provide the meanings himself.

Between pop music, classical music, and language instruction, tape cartridges seem to have found themselves a home in the car. The question now is, will they be content to remain there? Or rather, will the consumer who now hears Beethoven or the Beatles on tapes in his car be willing to spend money for a duplicate copy of Beethoven or the Beatles on the discs that he plays in his living room? RCA and others are now busily marketing tape cartridge players for the home, so that auto cartridges may be carried indoors and played either through an existing high fidelity system, or through a moderately priced, self-contained player.

Still, most industry authorities doubt that tape cartridges, at least in their present stage of development, are going to displace records as the best way to listen to music at home. The sound of a tape cartridge may be perfectly adequate for the small enclosed area of an automobile, but as of now it falls well short of the sound produced by up-to-date stereo records playing through quality components. If tape cartridges come into the home at all, it is likely to be as an adjunct to a fully developed high fidelity system. Even so, they may have their uses — such as making it unnecessary to take out the car for every Italian lesson.

Record Reviews

Mozart: Symphonies No. 39 in E-flat and No. 41 in C. “Jupiter”

Peter Afaag conducting Japan Philharmonic; Crossroads 22-16-0126 (stereo) and 22-16-0125

Peter Maag is a young Swiss conductor who made an excellent impression a few years ago in recordings with the London Symphony and other orchestras. Now he turns up conducting a Japanese orchestra in Mozart, again with impressive results. This sounds like bigorchestra Mozart, with emphatic rhythms, decisive accents, and surging lyricism. It’s not the only way to play this music, but it’s an approach that works. By now Japanese musicians have demonstrated their capabilities in Western music; furthermore, the first-class instrumentalism of the Japan Philharmonic is something to admire.

The Panassié Sessions

Sidney Bechet, Cozv Cole, James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier, Mezz Mezzrow, and others; RCA Victor LPV-542 {monaural only)

New Orleans jazz was out of fashion in 1938, when the French critic Hugues Panassié tried to resuscitate it briefly in these recording sessions, and it’s even further removed from “the scene” today. Nevertheless, there’s more than nostalgia to be heard in these nearly-thirty-yearold recordings; there’s also the brilliant playing and balanced counterpoint of such musicians as Ladnier, Mezzrow, and Bechet. I find the contents of the record somewhat uneven, but at least the first two entries—“Weary Blues” and “Really the Blues,” both recorded November 11, 1938 — are a vivid affirmation of what jazz once was, and what it seems unlikely ever to be again.

Jacques Brel Encores

Jacques Brel, singer, accompanied by orchestra conducted by François Rauber; Reprise (S)R-6246 (stereo) and R-6246 Jacques Brel is one of those French (to be accurate, Belgian) singers with an original mind as well as a musical flair. He creates his own songs, in the manner of the true chansonnier, and his comments are both pointed and poetic. A good example is “Les Toros,” an ironic song about bullfighting, a spectacle which makes “grocers take themselves for Nero, when English ladies think themselves Wellington.” The bull’s ultimate revenge, sings Brel, is to think of Carthage, Waterloo, and Verdun. Now that Georges Brassens, a similar artist, has been given one of France’s major literary prizes, who knows whether Brel may be next in line? Incidentally, the jacket contains excellent English translations, enabling even those with fractured French to piece together the words as Brel sings them.

Old-Timers’ Night at the “Pops”

Arthur Fiedler conducting Boston Pops Orchestra and its audience; RCA Victor LSC-2944 (stereo) and LM-2944 Any Boston Pops record is likely to be an informal affair, but this is especially so. Included are such instrumental standbys as Bizet’s Carmen Suite and Bach’s Air on the G String, following which the audience of 2300 is called upon to join in the singing of “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Jingle Bells,” and more than a dozen others. The orchestra is in fine fettle, but those 2300 Bostonians sound surprisingly circumspect, not to say stodgy, as they raise their voices with no great gusto. Maybe somebody should have told them they were on the air.

Jack London: The Call of the Wild (abridged)

Read by Ed Begley; Caedmon TC-1219 (monaural)

Perhaps the Lassie generation is beyond being moved by Jack London’s dog Buck, that noble and heroic Klondike husky. But Ed Begley’s magnificent reading of the story is a spellbinding experience, with every word clear and a steadily rising curve of excitement as the dog overcomes his foes, succors his friends, and finally finds his way to his own kind in the strangely moving ending. The novel has been telescoped into sixty-eight minutes of reading time, but its values are unimpaired.

Gade: Echoes of Ossian Overture, Opus 1

Nielsen: Helios Overture, Opus 17; Saga-Dream for Orchestra Riisager: Qarrtsiluni, Opus 36; Suite from the Ballet “Etude”

Johan Hye-Knudsen, Jerzy Semkow, and Igor Markevitch conducting Royal Danish Orchestra; Turnabout TV34085S (stereo) and TV-4085 This brief survey of Danish music from 1840 (Echoes of Ossian) to 1948 (Etude) turns out to be lively, melodious, and entirely agreeable. Niels Gade’s Ossian, which made its composer temporarily famous, is a dreamily romantic piece which echoes both James Macpherson’s poetry and Felix Mendelssohn’s music. The two Nielsen works are characteristic of a composer who is having a considerable vogue nowadays, and Riisager’s Etude is admirable ballet music. All in all, this is music for jaded tastes and weary ears, with the excellence of the performances contributing an additional element of freshness.

Piano Music of Latin America

Charles Milgrim, pianist; Crossroads 22-16-0114 (stereo) and 22-16-0113 Lecuona, Villa-Lobos, and Milhaud are the best-known names on this record, which also includes attractive works by Herrarte, Pinto, Tosar, and others. Darius Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil—of which seven are heard here — are intoxicating in their colors and rhythms. Ernesto Lceuona’s “Malagueña” remains a masterful piece, which bridges, as few others do, the gap between popular and classical music, and his “La Comparsa,” also on the record, is equally vivid. Mr. Milgrim’s playing is brilliant if occasionally percussive; all in all. this is a record of exciting, exotic pianism.

Thomson: Praises and Prayers; Sonata da Chiesa (Church Sonata); Sonata for Violin and Piano

Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; Virgil Thomson and Artur Balsam, pianists;Joseph Fuchs, violinist; Lillian Fuchs, violinist; and others; Composers Recordings, Inc., CR1-207 (monaural)

A strongly religious strain has always been part of Virgil Thomson’s musical makeup, and shows itself most markedly in Praises and Prayers, a song cycle which had its premiere in 1963. The texts are for the most part direct and pietistic (“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,/ Bless the bed that I lie on”), and the music is simple and beautiful. A similar impulse underlies the Sonata da Chiesa for Viola, Clarinet, Trumpet, French Horn, and Trombone, nor is it very far from the Violin Sonata. All these pieces were recorded at actual performances.

Nelson Eddy’s Greatest Hits

Nelson Eddy, baritone, with Risë Stevens, mezzo-soprano, and orchestras conducted by Robert Armbruster, Leon Arnaud, and Nathaniel Finston; Columbia CS9481 (stereo) and CL-2681 A whole generation listened enraptured while the late Nelson Eddy sang “Short’nin’ Bread” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” Autres temps, autres chansons; there’s more nostalgia than excitement in listening to some of these oldies. But Eddy was possessed of an authentic baritone voice (he once sang in Wozzeck for Leopold Stokowski), and he can still rouse a lethargic listener with “Stout-Hearted Men.” Best of all is “My Hero” from The Chocolate Soldier, recorded in 1941 with Risë Stevens, which demonstrates that two fine singers and a sentimental duet remain a timeless combination.

Film on Film

Enoch Light conducting the Light Brigade; Project 3 PR-5005 SD (stereo) Movie theme records are a drug (or at least a soporific) on the market, but Enoch Light utilizes clever instrumental arrangements and crystal-clear sound to produce a record with musical pith and robustness. The stereo is vivid and well separated, and the printed material provides a kind of road map to the sounds: if one doesn’t recognize the tuba solo in “Born Free,” the program notes point it out. One of the best songs is the theme from The Alphabet Murders, a frolicsome tune with a continental flair. Other movies represented include The Sand Pebbles, Hawaii, Alfie, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?