Monday, October 25, 2010

Coldplay or Mozart? Yawn

(via BBC Music Magazine's web site)
Press release from Travelodge:
Alternative rock band Coldplay, the Canadian crooner Michael Buble and the Indie group Snow Patrol are sending Britons to the land of nod - according to findings from a new kip report issued today
The sleep study conducted by Travelodge surveyed 6,000 British adults to investigate which musicians Britons tune into at bedtime, to help them nod off. ...
Listed below are the top ten musicians that help Britons nod off
1. Coldplay
2. Michael Buble
3. Snow Patrol
4. Alicia Keys
5. Jack Johnson
6. Taylor Swift
7. Mozart
8. Barry White
9. Leona Lewis
10. Radiohead
... Twenty per cent of adults reported they love listening to classical music at bedtime, with the most popular sleep inducing composers being Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.
I suppose the main question this, er, highly interesting survey throws out is, who the hell is Jack Johnson?
So I Wikipedia him and discover "His highest–selling album is Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George, with 4 million albums shipped worldwide, due to the success of the 2006 Curious George film".
Oh, him. Now I have to stop this post before it turns into a rant about how much I hate that film.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not a Player hater

So I bitched a while back about Gramophone dropping its cover CD in favour of the web-based Gramophone Player, but having used the Player for a couple of weeks now I have to say it's rather good. It's not too cluttered, the sound quality is good, and the musical excerpts are nice and long. And the presence of video extracts is handy, too. It was a sensible move, timing the player's launch to go with the Awards issue - video of the winners' speeches are there, plus of course excerpts from all the winning discs, so there's plenty to attract the curious.
In terms of what it actually does, then, the Player's an improvement over the cover disc and can be welcomed as a good thing. But my concern over how it will fit my listening habits still stands. With a cover disc, I could come home, slump on the sofa, and listen to the disc while leafing through the magazine. Conversely, though, I'm more likely to listen to the music while doing things such as writing this blog entry. So I think the net result may be that, although the Player does a better job than a CD of supporting the magazine's content, the change in my listening will mean the music nevertheless becomes less an integral part of the magazine.

Incidentally, having noted that last year's Gramophone Awards gave not even a nomination to the 2009 Nereffid's Guide Awards recording of the year, I should point out that Lenny's Mass picked up the Editor's Choice award this year.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Not to sound over-dramatic, but..."

Oh, I'm against illegal downloading and music piracy generally of course, but you can always rely on someone from the record industry to make me want to change my mind. Here's Paul McGuinness in the Irish Times:
Mr McGuinness, one of the music industry's most vocal critics of illegal downloading, said internet service providers (ISPs) such as UPC were being "utterly disingenuous" in stating that they were "mere conduits" and could not be responsible for the behaviour of their customers.
The record industry lost a High Court case earlier this week in which it sought an injunction against UPC to force it to deal with illegal filesharers...
In an interview with The Irish Times , Mr McGuinness said the defence of "mere conduit" was "not an excuse when there are questions of national security, child pornography or terrorism".
Nice move, pivoting from music piracy to raping children.
Oh wait! There's more:
"Not to sound over-dramatic, but frankly it has got to do with the future of civilisation and a culture within our society. If we allow it to become accepted that writers and artists and musicians are not entitled to get paid for their work and they are, in some kind of daft way, pursuing hobbies where we will be in the future? We will get news from Google search and the telcos (telecommunications companies) and the ISPs will dominate the horrible new world".
You hear that, music pirates? If you don't stop, you'll destroy civilization and produce a world run by paedophiles, terrorists, and... uh... Google.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dogs and cats living together!

You can't quite miss it:
IMPORTANT NEWS FOR MEMBERS! In November 2010, eMusic paves the way for more music with a new pricing system.
Oh no they didn't!
Well... no, they didn't. At least, not for European subscribers. They're shifting from "today’s credit-per-track system to monetary pricing", which means that instead of 1 track costing 1 credit, 1 track will cost €0.49. But seeing as I'm currently paying much less than that, eMusic will basically fund the difference. Jolly nice of them. And this will continue for the foreseeable future, until the day when eMusic can give us Europeans some unspecified amount of music that we don't yet have access to, at which point we will see "variable pricing", which is another way of saying "more than €0.49 per track".
I can live with this, very happily; I was expecting a price hike. The "bonus" money they're adding to my subscriptions is greater than the cost of those subscriptions, and when they put it in real terms like that, it brings home just how good a deal I've been getting. When the price hike does eventually come, I'll be okay with it - I mean, I'll drastically cut the amount of music I get from eMusic, but I'll be able to accept that.
But in the U.S., well, it's a different story. The price increase is happening in November, and it's like last year's Sony debacle all over again. The customer response isn't as vociferous - I suppose most of those who'd be most angered left last year. The complaints this time around are more along the lines of "this is definitely the last straw", plus a number that are regretful rather than angry. That's the response I can relate to. Ten years ago, eMusic had a great niche pretty much all to itself, but things have changed too much in the download world since then. The new changes mark the final - well, probably penultimate - step in eMusic's gradual transformation into "just another download store".

Then again, perhaps the outraged should pause a second and ask themselves this question: if eMusic had never existed, and you learned today of a new download service that, for a monthly subscription fee, allowed you to download albums that were a little cheaper than its main competitors, would you say "hey, that's a pretty good idea - I spend X amount of money on music every month anyway, so I might as well spend a set amount at this one place"? In other words, is eMusic really that bad compared with its rivals, or is it that it's bad compared with what it used to be?

Friday, October 8, 2010

8tracks mixes: Celebrating Hyperion

Here are two 8tracks mixes: 20 selections from some of my favourite Hyperion albums.

Hmmm... 8tracks has changed the appearance of its embedded player. Doesn't look so nice, does it?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Quite agree, quite agree, too silly, far too silly

The world of classical music has been rocked - rocked, I say! - by this quote from Jonathan Harvey:
'Young people don't like concert halls... and wouldn't normally go to one except for amplified music. There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music... The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go and even talk perhaps.. and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. Nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions.'
(from On An Overgrown Path; ellipses not mine).
I'm not much of a concert-goer, or a believer in the concept of blasphemy for that matter, and at first glance this struck me as a sensible idea. But the more I think about it, the less I like it. If you're putting on, say, a Bruckner symphony, and you're happy to encourage the audience to "come and go and even talk perhaps", just what exactly is it that you think you're offering? If you're going to pander to that extent, then surely the battle's already lost. Harvey acknowledges that "It is, of course, not expecting as much of music as those of us who are musicians would want". Too bloody right it's not expecting as much. Have you really heard that Bruckner symphony if during the slow movement you nip out to get a cup of tea and then come back to the hall to have a chat about last night's X Factor? More pertinently, have I really heard it if I have to also listen to you slurping and yammering on beside me?
OK, try this. I confess to not having seen any of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and I'm reluctant to go see one because they sound rather staid and quiet and perhaps a bit boring. Do you (a) suggest that I rent an Ozu movie, preferably a colorized version, and just leave the DVD running if ever I need to leave the room to use the toilet or make a sandwich or whatever, or (b) tell me not to be an idiot, and go see the damn thing in a cinema, quietly sitting down for two hours like everyone does when they're in the cinema, and if I don't like it then I can just fucking get over it.
Who are these "young people" Harvey is talking about? The ones who are being "deprived" of classical music? Could we not just take them aside and explain to them that there are such things as "recordings" which they can use to expose themselves to lots of classical music, and that if they should develop a wish to see such music performed live, then they can go to a concert hall as long as they're aware that, just like when you listen to a recording, you have to be quiet and pay attention?

This just in: leading artist recommends that, to deal with the short attention spans of today's young people, galleries should mount paintings on those rotating advertising billboards so viewers don't have to look at the same picture for more than twenty seconds...

Happy birthday, Hyperion

It says here, that Saturn's moon Hyperion is "a remarkable world strewn with strange craters and a generally odd surface."
Oh, wait.
This post is supposed to be about the British record label Hyperion, 30 years old this month. Well, speaking of remarkable worlds...

Back in the days before downloads, or before Nereffid's Guide, neither of which is that long ago really, I sat down with a Gramophone Good CD Guide and made a list of all the Hyperion entries. It was a long list, and more to the point it was an intriguing one. I don't think I've lost my fascination, though I still haven't made much of a dent in the list in terms of actually hearing the recordings. As for browsing through the printed Hyperion catalogue, well that's a special pleasure, with page after page of unfamiliar repertoire in performances you just know are going to be wonderful. Along the bottom of each page there's a ticker tape-style running commentary from the label's fans (best quote: 'My wife said to me as I sat studying the pages of your supplement: "I remember when you used to look at me like that"!!!'). Is there another label quite as reliable, that inspires quite as much enthusiasm? Remember, 5 years ago the company faced legal bills of £1 million over a disastrous copyright case and was bailed out in part by donations from the record-buying public (me included; I think I paid for a couple of seconds of Robert King's Monteverdi Vespers).
Unfamiliar repertoire might be one of Hyperion's strengths, along with the occasional highly ambitious project - the complete Schubert songs, for all love - but take a look at Hyperion's "30th Anniversary Series", mid-price rereleases of 30 "landmark titles": Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Fauré, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Schumann, Vivaldi... There's not much there that could be called "obscure", which leads us to our thought experiment of the day...

Imagine a world where no recording made by one of the 4 major record labels, or by any company now owned by a major, does not exist. We lose a lot, of course; in fact we lose almost everything recorded before Hyperion's founding in 1980 (Harmonia Mundi, BIS, and Chandos are older than that). Obviously this would be a bad thing. But what are we left with? Could classical music enthusiasts survive in this terrifying world, barren as it is of so many of the great performers and orchestras? Would a new generation of listeners realise that something was missing, or would they be perfectly happy with the independent labels' take on the basic repertoire?
Such thoughts spring partly from what I wrote the other day about the perils of comparative listening, rather than from any case of "indie snobbery". In many cases we can easily say Somebody Already Did It Better, but history can have a very heavy weight at times.
What if Hyperion were the only label in the world?
I think we'd do OK.

So: Hip-hip-Hyperion!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 6: Philosophical Interlude

It's been quite a while since I did one of these. My simple excuse is that I have been listening to Mahler's music instead of writing about it, which I think we can agree is a better use of my time. But the original idea had been to blog my impressions of the many (many) recordings pretty much as I listened to them, rather than (as has now happened) listen to a huge amount of music and then somehow marshall my thoughts on the whole lot. It wasn't my intention to produce anything resembling Tony Duggan's very useful "synoptic survey" of the Mahler symphonies ("Mrs Kensington, we've performed a synoptic survey of your husband's liver and I'm afraid the results are not good...").

But what this delay in writing about the music has achieved is to give me a chance to consider the nature of what I'm trying to do, why I'm doing it, and what the end result could be. I've never been one to worry about whether recording A is better than recording B, except on the basic practical level of "will I enjoy this as I listen to it?" I trust the critics en masse if not necessarily individually to point me in the direction of excellence but by and large, assuming the performers are technically up to the task, I don't fret over whether my recording of a particular work is "the best", or, if I like a recording, whether I might enjoy another one more. So it's not in my nature to sit down and listen to many (many) recordings of the same piece of music and judge them against each other. That, however, is exactly what I'm doing with Mahler.

It's been fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes baffling. Of course comparing and contrasting recordings isn't just about picking a favourite, but also about learning more about the music. One conductor chooses this tempo, another chooses that tempo, and the question isn't so much which is the right tempo, but does this tempo make sense? Or one conductor's brass is prominent, another focuses on the strings, and the result for me is that I learn more about the work as a whole. Perhaps some sort of Platonic ideal of the music exists in my mind, constantly being subtly refined. The problem there is that it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking the music "should" sound a certain way, and if it doesn't then it's "wrong". The best critics don't think that way, but still I suppose everyone has their "did you even listen to the same CD?" moment. The question I'm learning to ask myself at this stage is, "so this recording doesn't necessarily match my concept of the music, but can it be a valid alternative?" And yet... ultimately it all comes down to personal preference, and some alternatives get rejected. Some time ago I formulated Nereffid's First Law of Music Criticism, which is that there does not, nor will there ever, exist a Mahler recording that every Mahler fan will like. From my own listening so far, I know this is true. I'm certainly out of step with Tony Duggan on a few things, and while I will defer to him and any other respectable critic (define "respectable"!) on matters technical and musicological, well, there it is: we disagree.

Sometimes I wonder should anyone even dare to compare one recording or performance against another. Is that what music is for, at all? Obviously if you hear a piece of music you already know well, you can't help but compare it to your previous listening experiences. But maybe we hear music too often, and can no longer live in the moment when we listen. After all, I've heard 13 different conductors and 12 different orchestras in recordings of Mahler's 1st symphony over the last few months. How many different performances did Mahler himself, or anyone living at that time, hear? It would be nice to be able to reset the switch before listening to another, and feel the music anew.

But then I put another recording in the player, and that mysterious seven-octave A shines forth on the strings, and I'm there again...