Sunday, February 28, 2010

I am not millennial

The Pew Research Center has a 14-question quiz that asks "How Millennial Are You?". (What the hell does that mean? "Generations, like people, have personalities, and Millennials -- the American teens and twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood at the start of a new millennium -- have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.")
So, Pew provides a chart showing the average quiz score by age. The oldest millennial gets an average percentage score in the mid-50s; someone my age (39) has an average of 30.
My score?
Further exploration of the site reveals that (a) this is about the average score of someone in their 70s, but (b) it's also a pretty common score for gen-Xers.
OK, here we go: Tsk! Young people! With their tattoos and their mobile phones and their facebooks...

Friday, February 26, 2010

An education

The previous post touched on the haphazard way we build up our music collections, which got me thinking about how one could go about producing a non-haphazard music collection. When I was operating Nereffid's Guide I always had a fantasy of someone saying they knew zero about classical music and needed me to shepherd them along the path. What would you do, if you had that chance to mentor someone? Where would you begin? Where would it end? These are thought experiments rather than blueprints for a perfect world.
First, there's the semi-non-haphazard method as seen by those Marshall Cavendish Great Composers series or the "starter collections" suggested in books or on the web: pick a fixed number of masterpieces, and get each one. That's the most realistic way of doing things, though of course there'll always be room for debate over what should be included. Some styles or periods will end up being better represented than others.
A quite different approach would be what I mentioned in the previous post: the well-put-together compilation album. Focus on composers, rather than works. An hour, or a CD length, or 100 minutes, or whatever, for each one. Obviously not one for the purists because it would mean picking individual movements, but this is just a means to an end. The other controversial aspect is that your Bachs and Beethovens get equal time to your Telemanns and Hummels. But at least it offers a broader perspective on the world of music. It's more of a "listen without prejudice" approach. Possibly your pupil might mentally rewrite history if they're not, as it were, obliged to consider composer A to be more worthy than composer B.
As an extension of that notion, one thing I'd love to try - but completely unfeasible - is a collection built up in chronological order. First your pupil listens to chant, then the Notre Dame school, the troubadours, and on and on. This way, they hear music evolve over the centuries. The beauty of this is that everything is heard in the context of what came before it. The big drawback is that the listener won't like each period equally and might be resistant to certain musical developments. They might prove to be a medieval conservative, for instance. "I don't like this Ars Nova! Why do they have to use these crazy rhythms?" They might not want to go on. You'd need a very willing pupil. But in the name of science (or art, whichever), I think it needs to be tried.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

An introduction to Ernö Dohnányi

For the last ten days or so I've been listening to a lot of the music of Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi, the 50th anniversary of whose death fell this month. He's not an especially well-recorded composer; ArkivMusic lists 145 recordings (compared with, say, 222 for Delius, 301 for Dowland, and 1,742 for Dvorak). All I'd heard of him was the Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, which has the most hilariously anti-climactic entry by the soloist, and a couple of solo piano pieces. So, with his anniversary, I decided it was time to take a proper listen. This is an opportunity that rarely arises - we build up our knowledge, and our music collections, in a haphazard way most of the time, so it's unusual to have the chance to immerse yourself in the works of a hitherto unknown composer.
Born in 1877, Dohnányi first made an impact aged 18 with his first piano quintet, which was admired by Brahms, and he was one of the finest pianists of his day. He was chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic for 25 years and director of the Budapest Academy from 1934 to 1941, when he resigned over government anti-Semitism. After the war, he fell foul of the communists, and he moved to the U.S.
I suppose you could call him a conservative composer, or at least not a ground-breaker. Bartók, whose music he championed, was only 4 years his junior but you'd never confuse the two. Having listened to quite a bit of Dohnányi's chamber and orchestral music now, I can say I enjoyed it without ever being blown away by it. But given my general tastes, that's not surprising. I certainly found enough fine music to easily compile an hour-and-a-half 8tracks mix, which is I suppose all that any composer can ask from posterity - I'm being facetious, but you know what I mean, don't you? Some composers, for various reasons, fall by the wayside, and I think a great way of getting them (back) into our consciousness is the well-put-together compilation album.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nereffid goes west

No posts for a whole week? Dear oh dear. The main reason was that recurrent time of year, beloved by working-at-home parents: mid-term break. So we decided to go to Galway for a long weekend. Travel tip for those planning to go to Galway for a long weekend: don't leave it till a week beforehand. So we ended up in Oranmore rather than Galway. But a pretty good weekend ensued anyway.

On our way home, we decided to take a detour to Clonmacnoise, but first get some lunch in Ballinasloe. Before they built the motorway, you had to drive through Ballinasloe, so it was never especially beloved by travellers. Now, though... Well, if there's any aspiring guerilla filmmakers out there who want to make a movie about a post-apocalytpic wasteland, then Ballinasloe at midday on a Sunday in February would be an ideal location. Options for lunch? There was a Supermac's. Or... another Supermac's. Or... yes, another Supermac's. Rather than turn round again and go to a supermarket for some sandwiches, we decided to just keep going, and take our chances in Shannonbridge. On the way out of Ballinasloe you pass over the River Suck. My response was "Yeah? Well so does your town!"

The first thing that strikes you about Shannonbridge is the sign, five miles outside the town, that says "Supermac's 5 miles". But we got a good lunch, thanks to the Napoleonic wars. Back then, there were worries that the French would invade Ireland, and so one of the defences built at the time was a fort beside the Shannon at Shannonbridge. Now it's a restaurant. Called The Old Fort. I meant to ask Ethan where Napoleon kept his armies, but I never got round to it.

Suitably fed, it was time to Come On Feel The Clonmacnoise...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Credo in unum Bernstein

Marin Alsop's recording of Mass was the Recording of the Year, according to the Nereffid's Guide Awards, so I should say what I thought about it.
I don't know very much of Bernstein as a composer. I don't think it's very many years since Mass even registered in my consciousness. I think I must have seen something about it on television - I can't remember what the program might have been - and I was intrigued by the concept. Not surprising: although I'm an atheist, I was raised Catholic, so I'm always curious about presentations of religion that might have held my attention or seemed relevant to me before I realised how areligious I was.
The short version of how Mass came to be: Bernstein was commissioned to write something for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971; he combined a variety of classical and popular styles and enlisted Stephen Godspell Schwarz for the words; and it's not "a mass" but a so-called theatre piece called Mass. It has the various elements of the mass, but a lot more besides, and a protagonist in the form of the Celebrant, who struggles with doubt. The premiere got a half-hour standing ovation, but some critics hated it.
My first exposure to the work, aside from whatever I might have seen on that unremembered TV program, was Kent Nagano's 2004 recording on Harmonia Mundi, which I heard about 2 years ago. Ultimately I didn't like it. Schwarz's lyrics really get on my tits at times - the combination of pop-psychology with cheap rhymes just strikes me as cleverness rather than wit. They also seem very much of their time, too, as does the general popular idiom used by Bernstein. It's just so "early seventies" (whereas the classical side of things doesn't seem dated at all). Add to that the fact that the supposed "rock" and "blues" singers and the "street chorus" sound like nothing of the sort, and the whole thing's something of a mess. The humour falls flat, and the rest is unmoving.
But wait: that's my review of the Kent Nagano recording. In 2009 there were 2 new recordings, one from Kristjan Järvi on Chandos and Alsop's on Naxos, and one thing I noticed, especially with the reviews of the Alsop, was that there didn't seem to be a mixed opinion about Mass itself. I'd come to regard the work as having aimed high and missed, and certainly the sleeve notes in the Nagano version seemed at times a little defensive, but clearly opinion has moved on since its premiere. The reviews did mention flaws in Nagano's recording, and the reviews of Alsop were so glowing, that I knew I'd just have to give Mass a second chance.
And... wow. Half way through the first disc I knew what I'd been missing: passion. I have no idea what Marin Alsop's religious beliefs are, but I know she believes in Mass. She's helped by a much more present recording, uniformly better singers, and an utterly convincing Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant. (I hadn't regarded Jerry Hadley as a weak link in the Nagano version, but some critics had, and I see where they're coming from now). The "seventies" idiom has been mostly toned down, the Street Chorus sound more like Catholics than Mormons, the rock and blues singers don't sound so Broadway, and the overall effect of these changes is that Schwarz's lyrics don't seem so trite anymore, because they appear to come from the heart rather than the brain. Basically this is an object lesson on how one performance can completely change your view of a work.
So, yes: Mass is a masterpiece, and this recording can deservedly be called the best of the year.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A long-lasting fame, of sorts

Heh! I knew that back in the Nereffid's Guide days, the reviews page on the Fine Arts Quartet's web site had a link to me because their Schumann string quartets disc for Naxos appeared on a list somewhere. What I didn't know - and just found out - is that all those reviews can be found on Naxos's own web site too. And, er, there I am: in the Naxos reviews section, in the list of "publications" between and Neue Musikzeitung.
The "review" isn't any better than "somebody said it was good". But it's nice to see an echo of Nereffid's Guide out there in the Internet, even if by now it's completely meaningless. I like to think that, every so often, someone looks through that list of review sources and says "Nereffid's Guide to eMusic Classical? What the hell is that??"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I don't know why I hadn't come across download site HDtracks before. Maybe it's because of the relatively small amount of content, or the fact that it's a US-only site. Maybe I had noticed it but somehow put it out of my thoughts; it's only in the last few months that I've seriously been looking at downloading from sources other than eMusic.
Anyway, HDtracks was launched a couple of years ago and specializes in high-quality downloads from independents. Classical labels there include 2L, ASV and related labels, BIS, Cantaloupe, Chandos, Delos, Dorian, ECM, Harmonia Mundi, Ivory Classics, Marquis, MDG, Musical Concepts, Naxos, New Albion, New World, Orange Mountain, PentaTone, Reference, and Vanguard. Others like CPO and Phoenix Edition are listed as "coming soon". The selection isn't as impressive as the label list suggests, though. There's fewer than 200 BIS titles, for instance. But there are some labels there, like ASV and MDG, that I've not seen for download elsewhere (right now I'm listening to this wonderfully vibrant collection of music by Christoph Graupner - "I like your music!" - Amelia). Prices are relatively good - $11.98 as opposed to the usual €9.99, for FLAC or MP3 - and everything comes with a PDF booklet. They also do audiophile-quality downloads, for a bit more money.
But hold on a second, Nereffid! I hear you mew. I thought you said it's a US-only site? Why yes, I did say that, didn't I? Not sure whether it's a bug or a feature, but they accepted my credit card and the perfectly legitimate US address I gave them (OK, not technically my residence but I've spent about 4% of the last decade there).
One snag with the site was its Java-based download manager. I couldn't get the download manager to run initially, but while I was waiting for them to reply to my request for assistance I managed to fix the problem myself - turns out I had multiple competing versions of Java, one of which was preventing the download manager from working. Unfortunately the download manager's the only way of downloading anything, which seems to be an unnecessary situation and probably causes a few headaches for users and HDtracks itself.
Given the fact that most of HDtracks' labels are also on eMusic, it's unlikely I'll be spending much time or money there, but it's nice to have an extra option, especially for those labels that don't otherwise want me to download their music. Hey, ASV: you were one of the 4 labels that attracted me to eMusic, and then you disappeared soon afterwards. It's not like your CDs are readily available in the Irish shops, either. You clearly don't want to take my money. But by God I will find a way to give it to you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Copyright Laws At Work

Every time you listen to Men At Work's "Down Under", a kookaburra gets its wings! The pop masterpiece reached number one in the UK and US in 1983, was performed at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, and was voted fourth best Australian song of all time in 2001. Now an Australian court has ruled that the flute bit was plagiarised from the song "Kookaburra", which I hadn't heard of until today but is apparently beloved the world over by girl guides, Australians, and sundry others. So beloved that you may wonder why it took until 2007 for someone to notice the similarity between the songs. But there you go. The band confessed that they knew what they were doing, so now the song's owners, Larrikin Music, stand to make a tidy profit from royalties.
This is all bad news for those who are already concerned about the long arm of the copyright law. "Kookaburra" was written in 1934, and its creator died in 1988; Larrikin bought the rights in 1990 for AU$6,100 and has since made what its parent company's music director calls "a hell of a lot of money" from users who had been under the impression it was a public-domain folk song. Copyright laws don't protect creators, per se: they protect copyright holders.
The bigger picture here is, what does it mean for "Down Under" to reference "Kookaburra"? According to Men At Work member Greg Ham, he added the flute riff to make the song seem more Australian. The song lyrics refer to Vegemite (invented 1922; owned by Kraft), and we instinctively know that Kraft would be insane to sue Men At Work for the use of its trade name. But in terms of what the song is doing, aren't the reference to Vegemite and the reference to "Kookaburra" equivalent? It's not the taste of Vegemite the band is giving its listeners, but the idea of Vegemite. And I think it's the same with "Kookaburra" - yes, the notes are similar, but (assuming you know the song) what the listener is supposed to get is the idea of "Kookaburra".
Music copyright laws need to be more lenient in this regard, and acknowledge the fact that a tune can become sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness (ironically, because copyright terms last so long) that obvious reference to it or riffing on it has to count as fair use.
I'm sure Colin Hay and his band mates agree. So in future, whenever I refer to Australia on this blog I shall call it Australia: Where Women Glow And Men Plunder. Fair use, mate.

Holy speech bubbles #2!

Oh, this is just too much fun.
Indulge me...

And one for Beethoven fans...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

8tracks mix: Nereffid's Guide Awards 2009

Here's two mixes, each 8 tracks long, with highlights from each of the 14 Nereffid's Guide Award winners. Wait a second, Nereffid! I hear you bellow. Twice 8 is 16, not 14! Well done, this is absolutely correct. There's two from the "NMC Songbook" seeing as they're so short, and two also from Bernstein's Mass, seeing as it's the Recording of the Year.

Part 1 covers Chamber, Living Composer - Vocal, Baroque - Instrumental, Opera, Choral, Concerto, and Medieval/Renaissance.

Part 2 covers Orchestral, Opera Recital, Solo Instrumental, Solo Vocal, Living Composer - Instrumental, Baroque - Vocal, and Symphony, and ends with the Recording of the Year.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Classical Grammys

Woah, record industry - bad move holding the Grammys mere hours after the Nereffid's Guide Awards. They're just so anti-climactic, you know?
Here, take a look at this year's winners and nominees.
Who the hell chooses these things? Oh, I'm being mean, I know. It's fascinating, though, to compare the Grammys with my version of What The Critics Think. The Best Classical Album was MTT's Mahler 8, which got positive reviews but nothing like the reception that my Recording of the Year, the Alsop Bernstein Mass, got. As for the other 3 nominees, the Shostakovich won my Opera award, Levine's Ravel got a few very good reviews but didn't make it onto the long list, and the Naxos Ravel L'enfant... was absolutely nowhere (which is to say, not a single reviewer thought it was very good).
Best Orchestra Performance? The Szymanowski very nearly made runner-up for me, and Zander's Bruckner 5 was the only other one you could call a contender.
Best Opera? The Shostakovich, obviously. Daniel Harding's Billy Budd was too old for inclusion this year but I think might have done well last year. I don't recall seeing reviews for the others.
And so it goes... some Nereffid Award contenders here and there, but also quite a few that made no impression at all. Maybe I'm just speaking from inside a coccoon, but the Grammy list seems rather arbitrary - almost as if the nomination process involved getting a big bag of CDs and picking a handful at random. This sort of vagueness is reinforced by the Best Small Ensemble Performance award, where voters had to decide between, for example, Vivaldi concertos and Josquin masses. Huh? Sure, any of us could pick a favourite, but how can you actually compare? That would be like the worst game of Top Trumps ever.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Did you even hear the same CD?

The albums that appeared in the Nereffid's Guide Awards are, by definition, those that were universally praised, or maybe at worst had one critic who was not overly impressed. Here's 4 albums that might have made the grade were it not for one oul' bollix who ruined it for everyone:

Bach: Solo violin sonatas and partitas. Viktoria Mullova [Onyx]
Nigel Simeone in IRR: "a great violinst - seemingly free of mannerism but with a superlative understanding of how to animate this music... all this is done within the bounds of superbly stylish Baroque playing".
Joseph Magil in ARG: "As usual, she plays like a student who has just learned a work and isn't yet sure what to make of it. Her attitude toward period performance is that it is a set of rules to be followed rather than a key to unlocking any of the music's mysteries".

Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise; Kuolema; etc. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen [Naxos]
Leslie Wright on MusicWeb: "This is one terrific disc! On the basis of this alone - and I gather from the reviews I’ve read of the first installment in his Sibelius series - Pietari Inkinen is a Sibelian of the first order. The young conductor, born in 1980, has the New Zealand Symphony playing its collective hearts out for him and the recorded sound is superb".
Donald Vroon in ARG: "This is a very boring orchestra, with no tonal allure. The conducting is dull as well".

Chopin: Piano sonata no.2, etc. Maurizio Pollini [DG]
Donald Manildi in IRR: "Pollini's lack of affinity for these works is clearly manifest in the mechanical hauteur of his pianism, his prevailing lack of colour and the unrelenting sobreiety of his approach. He reveals no fresh perspectives, no delight in Chopin's interplay of rhythmic and harmonic elements, and little beyond his well-known, tight-lipped, businesslike efficiency".
Jessica Duchen in BBC Music: "proves Pollini's stature as one of the greatest Chopin players of his time".

... and my favourite:

Schubert: Trout quintet; Variations on Trockne blumen. Martin Helmchen et al. [Pentatone]
David Hurwitz on Classics Today: "There is no finer performance available, and certainly none better recorded... this has got to be one of the most shapely, elegant, and effortlessly flowing versions ever committed to disc".
Jerry Dubins in Fanfare: "I found this disc repellent, and will never listen to it again".