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I came across the following lines:

Make no mistake: the setting matters. There are many ways to listen to Indian classical music-in the private, somewhat sterile perfection of the CDs and DVDs we play at home. But I happen to think music sounds best outside.

At first I thought, sterile here meant "pure", but then I stumbled upon another meaning of sterile: "lacking imagination, creativity, or vitality".

I want to go with the latter definition, because here the author is against CDs and DVDs and prefers outside, but I am not sure. What does "sterile perfection" mean in this context?

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4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your second reading is correct. The writer intends to imply that digital recordings lack "soul", not that they are uncontaminated.

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You are right- the analogy is with a hospital or laboratory: sterile meaning functional, no imagination, clean etc.

So here it would imply that the music is technically perfect but has no flash of brilliance or creativity.

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As @chaos suggests the sterility is in the recording not the music itself. I attribute "creativity and brilliance" with the music. In other words "The same musical performance could be recorded digitally and in analog" and some might complain that the digital recording seemed sterile and lifeless while the analog recording was fuller, richer and more vibrant. –  Jim Jun 13 '12 at 17:36
    
I read it more as the music itself, for example many of the old blues guitarists were terrible at playing the guitar and singing in tune, but their passion makes the song; compared with some modern speed metal - technically amazing, but leaves me cold as there is no passion at all. –  Rory Alsop Jun 13 '12 at 17:56
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Sterile also means unable to reproduce, and I think the metaphor is similar to dead. Any music lover will tell you that a musician can bring feeling and excitement to a piece in a way a computer could not; it's just lifeless.

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The second definition you quote is in the right direction for this context, but perhaps slightly misleading. The writer's complaint is not that music on CD lacks imagination or creativity -- it may or may not -- but the third part, that it lacks vitality. It is, as TymLymington says, "dead".

The term "sterile perfection" is a common phrase: the writer you quote did not invent it. It is used to describe an artistic, literary, or similar work that meets all the technical criteria, but is nevertheless lifeless. If a poem or song had perfect rhyme and meter, if it was about a stirring emotional subject, and yet when you listened to it lacked that undefinable something that makes it interesting and moving, you might say that it had a "sterile perfection".

I'm not much a music lover so I don't have much to say on the idea being expressed.

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