Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Big in Taiwan

Well, hello to all the users of! A sudden spike in page views can be traced to a bunch of people having a look at my "Did you even listen to the same CD?" series.
But I have no idea why.
Anyone out there want to let me know? Comments are open...

Tre Bassi; Spark

A couple of off-the-beaten track releases from my recent listening:

"De Profundis"
Tre Bassi; Hille Perl; Lee Santana; Michel Godard
[Carpe Diem]

The first impressive thing about this album is its opening: you don't know what century you're in, or what continent. This is the sound of the serpent, in fact, as played by Michel Godard, and when a bass voice begins to chant something Latin you might feel we're straying into Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble territory, but we're not quite. Tre Bassi is a group of, well, three basses. How much repertoire there is for this combination I'm not sure, but this collection combines music from rather unknown 17th-century composers (Ebner, Benevolo, Grandi, Mazák, Cazzati, Cifra, Gletle, Eisenheut) with some new compositions by Godard and Lee Santana. It's a rather bizarre mix -- with texts ranging from an Ave Maria to Santana's quirky "Mr. Ed": "Skinner, Hemingway, Ogden Nash/smashing each others' balls on a billiard table/somewhere in your imaginary tropic of cancer/they are ruminating forth in the Devils Triangle/of Mary Tyler Moore/If you can't stand this,/who can?/You can't" -- but somehow it works because the sound-world remains the same throughout. This is the sort of album you can become very fond of. I think the term "Nereffid bait" is necessary. It's also my first exposure to the German label Carpe Diem, which has something of an ECM New Series vibe though without the expectation that you will genuflect in the presence of their awesomeness. Samples of "De Profundis" here.

"Downtown Illusions"
[Ars Produktion]

This quintet is, according to its own web site, "designing a new classical style, smashing the boundaries between various genres". I suppose the big novelty here is that along with violin, cello, and piano Spark brings two recorders. That in itself requires that the band do a lot of arranging of existing works and commission new music, and that's what we get on their debut album, which is a lot of fun. It kicks off with the hard-driving Harde Puntjes by "Dutch enfant terrible" Chiel Meijering and indeed ends (2 "bonus tracks" aside) the same way, with the piece now accompanied by a human beatbox; along the way we get a couple of pieces from Michael Nyman's Wonderland score, some works by contemporary composers I admit to never having heard of, plus Fauré, Bach, and Vivaldi. "Spark" is a most appropriate name, as there's great vitality and humour all over the album. The group has a bunch of videos up on Youtube so you can hear and see for yourself.
Here they are performing "Jack" by Michael Nyman (have you seen Michael Winterbottom's film Wonderland? You must).

(Those are Paetzold bass recorders, by the way)

Monday, April 25, 2011

That silver moon has never been so unpopular

This was going to be a thrilling live-blogging event covering the final stages of the Classic FM Hall of Fame, but then I had to cook the dinner and eat it and play several games of Uno and get the kids ready for bed and read Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Wolves in the Walls. So instead you get a post-Hall of Fame analysis. Actually as I write this, I'm listening live to the #1 entry, and the first thing I must say is that the audio on Classic FM's Internet radio player is crappy. It doesn't do the music any favours, at any rate.
And the shocking and incredible news is that RVW's lark has finally descended, to be replaced at the top by "Rach 2" as we sophisticated types call it. The same 10 pieces are in the Top 10 as last year, though in a slightly different order. The more interesting story of this year's HoF is how there was a small invasion of the chart by some pieces for brass band, namely Simon Dobson's Penlee (#106), Gustav Holst's A Moorside Suite (#118), Eric Ball's Resurgam (#202), and Ray Steadman-Allen's The Lord is King (#263). I haven't heard (of) any of these except the Holst. These unusual entries were apparently part of a concerted campaign - the sort of thing that got Malcolm Arnold's Padstow Lifeboat into last year's charts (and it vanished without trace this year).
Were there campaigns supporting other pieces, or did they just happen to do better this year than ever before? Is there any significance to Piazzolla's Libertango zooming up to #167? Or Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto no.2 or Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé becoming much more popular than ever before? We could thank the movie Black Swan for the highest-ever position of Swan Lake, but is there any particular reason why Beethoven's Für Elise, Rossini's William Tell overture, or Saint-Saens' Danse macabre are doing better this year?
Why, for that matter, has Dvorak's Rusalka fallen to an all-time low at #237? Beethoven's Romance no.2 was once #62 on the chart; now it's #235. Why? Why? For God's sake, why?

Saucy maid leads to apocalypse

Here's something I just learned about Bruckner's symphonies: they all have names. I was under the impression that the Fourth went by the nickname "Romantic" and you might designate the Ninth the "Unfinished" but that was as far as it went. I haven't seen any other titles on any of the recordings I own. But no, I'm ripping a recording of the First and here it is in Windows Media Player: "The Saucy Maid". LOL srsly? as Bruckner himself might have said.
Well, it turns out Bruckner did refer to his Symphony no.1 as "das kecke Beserl" which does indeed mean "the saucy maid", but it's not like it's the official title or anything and I don't think anyone's going to mistake this music for Rossini or Offenbach.
Then I try ripping the Second symphony and it turns out this one is called "Symphony of Pauses". Hmm, not bad. As the notes to Daniel Barenboim's recording on Elatus put it, "The orchestra falls silent with highly suspicious frequency".
So obviously now I have to know has everything been given a title? Google leads me to a discussion on Talk Classical, and there they all are:
Saucy Maid; Symphony of Pauses; Wagner; Romantic; Tragic; Philosophic; Lyric; Apocalyptic; Unfinished.
Poor Bruckner. Bad enough that nobody knows which editions of his symphonies to perform, but he also gets lumbered with a bunch of lame titles he didn't ask for. Try doing that to Beethoven and see how long you'd last.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Copyright extension watch

MEP Christian Engström posted on his blog yesterday:
I have just tabled a request signed by 41 Members of the European Parliament to review the Parliament’s previous decision to extend the copyright term for music recordings from 50 to 70 years. The MEPs who signed represented most of the different political groups in the Parliament.
It was the previous Parliament that decided it wanted such an extension in April 2009, but since we now have a new Parliament in place after the June 2009 EU elections, I and my co-signatories think it would make sense for the Parliament to take a new look at the issue, to see if this is really such a good idea.
...There are indications that the request may be opposed on various legalistic grounds depending on how you interpret the Rules of Procedure, but if that happens, we’ll see how to proceed.
Collecting the signatures was just the first hurdle in a rather long and complicated process, but at least we cleared that one.

Selling monody

I really like this recent release on the Glossa label, performed by Rosa Domínguez, Mónica Pustilnik, and Dolores Costoyas. And you might like it, too. In fact a lot of people might like it, but what are the chances they'll hear it, or even that they'll want to hear it? "Odi Euterpe: Italian monody from the early 17th century" is the sort of title only a specialist could love. The specialist can look at it and say "ah, so it's got at least one selection from Caccini's Le nuove musiche on it" (though then again you could probably say the same about any album of Italian monody from the early 17th century). But for everyone else, well, it sounds forbiddingly academic, doesn't it? You have to know who or what Euterpe is, and as for "Odi", Babelfish unhelpfully translates it as "hatred". And you have to know what monody is. I am deliberately not going to explain any of it to you, because that's the point I'm making.
So in the unlikely event that you are an inexperienced but curious listener of classical music and you've wandered into the classical section of your local record shop and come across this CD, you're probably going to pick it up, look puzzled, and put it down again. But there are so many unlikely events in there that you can't blame Glossa for not making an attempt to appeal to a market that hardly exists. Are there any feasible ways of promoting this kind of music outside its niche? ECM New Series and Alia Vox do seem to be able to attract a certain type of audience that otherwise doesn't go much for classical. But really what you need is someone to draw attention to this particular album, on a blog for example, and say, "hey, I know you don't listen to this sort of thing usually, and the title might be a bit off-putting, but actually really what this boils down to is a woman singing with a guitar-y sort of backing. It's not exactly singer-songwriter or folk music, but... Here, try a couple of samples", and then they listen to it and it turns out they do like it. Or maybe it doesn't sound enough like KT Tunstall for them and they never listen to your advice again.
Maybe the album could have been called "These Are Some Songs".

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whitesnake wins Pullitzer Prize for Music

It has been a long time coming, but David Coverdale and the guys have finally received the recognition they deserve, having won the Pullitzer Prize for Music. The band received the award for... oh. wait. Start again.

Chinese-born composer Zhou Long has won the 2011 Pullitzer Prize for Music for his opera Madame White Snake, "a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West."
I confess my ignorance of Zhou Long's music, which I shall attempt to rectify. Here I go again...

Monday, April 18, 2011

My father knew Charles Ives, for all the good it did me

Over at On An Overgrown Path, an intruiging proposal:
The new sciece of epigenetics has identified that the cells that make up our body and determine our wellbeing are not controlled primarily by our genes, but rather by the physical and energetic environment in which we live. It is early days and some of the advocates of epigenetics hover uncomfortably between science and shamanism, while similar approaches such as Alfred Tomatis' Mozart Effect continue to be treated with scepticism. But epigenetics is science rather than quackery, and if a medically proven causal relationship could be established between classical music and wellbeing, the case for live music, music education, music therapy and many other threatened activities would become much stronger. To date there has been little attempt to connect epigenetics and classical music. Surely it is it time to explore new ways of arguing the case for classical music?
I left a comment over there, but it's worth expanding a bit. Well, first of all it's worth addressing Pliable's first sentence, which makes a strong but not accurate case for epigenetics. In essence, epigenetics refers to, as Jerry Coyne puts it in a put-down of the hype surrounding the field, "inheritance not based on coding changes in the DNA". Which is to say that the environment (such as a stressful event like a famine) can affect genetics, causing changes not in the structure of DNA but in gene expression, changes that can be inherited (though only for 1 or 2 generations, it seems). Saying that our cells are "controlled primarily" by the environment is an exaggeration. Some specific epigenetics examples are known, but this doesn't of course mean that every single bloody thing that ever happens will cause a heritable change in gene expression, which is what that BBC Horizon thing linked above seems to imply:
At the heart of this new field is a simple but contentious idea – that genes have a 'memory'. That the lives of your grandparents – the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw – can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself. And that what you do in your lifetime could in turn affect your grandchildren.
Reminds me of Alexei Sayle's joke, along the lines of "They say that what you have to worry about isn't what killed your parents but what killed your grandparents. So I should be fine unless I'm attacked by a horde of Cossacks". As for genes having a memory, this is perhaps just a noble attempt to couch something in layman's terms but it invests a stupid mysticality into the process (the article is titled "The Ghost in Your Genes"). Yes, epigenetics means that a gene has a "memory", in the same way that my downstairs bathroom wall has a "memory" of when my son attacked the wall with a chisel - in this case, the "memory" is also known by the scientific term "holes".
The main point I was making in my comment on OAOP was, if you want to prove that listening to classical music has health benefits, then epigenetics seems an unnecessarily complicated way of going about it. We're talking about transgenerational effects, so unless you don't need results until, say, 2050, you can't study it prospectively. So that means you have to get today's adults and find out how much classical music their parents and grandparents listened to, and come up with an appropriate health benefit to study (stress hormone levels? IQ?). The huge difficulty is eliminating all possible confounders. If you're studying the impact of a famine, that's not so hard - people either went hungry for a period or they didn't - but for classical music you're talking about a lifetime of what you might call low-impact experiences that may often go hand-in-hand with other experiences - reading, for example - as well as accounting for the usual things like educational level and socioeconomic status. And of course these conditions apply not only to the grandparents but the grandchildren too. By deciding on an epigenetics approach you're going for an unnecessarily complicated level of study: why investigate the impact of a lifetime of classical music listening on an individual's children or grandchildren, when we don't even know the impact of same on the individual?
That sort of study would be easier to perform, though maybe not easy to produce a convincing conclusion. The so-called Mozart Effect, on the other hand, is much much easier to study: measure baseline levels of whatever property you're studying (stress hormone levels, IQ); play music for the subjects; measure the new levels; and keep measuring them to see how long the effect lasts. Meta-analyses cast doubt on whether there is an effect, though.
The other thing to remember with all of these approaches to showing societal benefits for classical music is - as commenter mrG alluded to on OAOP - that you must also be prepared for other, competing, studies showing the societal benefits of other forms of entertainment. You think that all Justin Bieber fans do all day is stand around screaming and wetting their pants? Hell no. They're in the labs right now. This is a war, people. We need to be ready.

Friday, April 15, 2011

8tracks mixes: Awards 2010, parts III & IV

At last! Here's the Concerto, Symphony, and Orchestral winners and runners-up, split between two 8-track mixes. As a bonus (well, OK, as a way of making up 16 tracks from 15 albums) there's an extra Gershwin track thrown in.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Twenty more years?

The record industry's attempt to get EU copyright terms on sound recordings extended from 50 years to 70 has received a big boost with the recent news that Denmark has switched sides. Previously part of a group that was blocking the Parliament-approved proposal at the Council stage, the Danes appear to have received the requisite number of blow-jobs from industry representatives to change their minds. Fortunately the Pirate Party isn't having this, and MEP Christian Engström has found a rule that could send the proposal back to Parliament, if he gets enough support. More details here.
Of course musicians (or, to use the correct term, copyright holders, which isn't necessarily the same thing at all) need a reasonable period in which they have exclusive profit-making rights to their endeavours. But seventy years? Surely fifty is enough. But of course it isn't, because if fifty is enough then in 2014 the first Beatles albums will be out of copyright, and then all those other still-lucrative acts that defined The Sixties will follow. So obviously this would represent a financial threat to the major labels, and apparently that's sufficient to persuade enough European lawmakers to go along with the idea. And in response the anti-extension campaign is highlighting the financial downside to the proposal.
I wonder if part of the problem - I mean the ease with which the 70-year limit is being accepted - is simply a time perception thing. The out-of-copyright Fifties just seem like history, but the still-copyrighted Sixties are still not too far away, musically and socially, and perhaps when a lobbyist says "we must protect this and make sure the artists are supported" it's easier to agree. And it's easier for the lawmaker to look into the future and think "yes, I'm supporting these important artists for another twenty years". But why doesn't the lawmaker look back? If we had a 70-year limit already, then Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" and Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" would still be in copyright. What is the argument to support that?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gold from Westminster

The latest Gramophone has a feature titled "The record covers from hell". Prominent among the 15 "worst record covers of all time" is the seventies label Westminster Gold.

The winner was this:

But I was rather impressed by this one, which is crying out to be Bill Bailey's new look:

All these images are from Sometimes they went for an overly literal depiction of the album contents:

This was the era of Benny Hill, remember:

Did they have a "top shelf" in record shops back in those days?

And finally, perhaps the least subtle of all:

BBC Music Magazine Awards

They have just been announced.
Orchestral: Prokofiev - Romeo and Juliet (LSO/Gergiev).
Chamber: Franck, Grieg, Janacek violin sonatas (Repin, Lugansky).
Instrumental: Shostakovich - Preludes and Fugues (Melnikov).
Choral: Bach - Motets (Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki).
Vocal: Schubert - Winterreise (Güra, Berner).
Opera: Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Jacobs).
DVD: Purcell - The Fairy Queen (Glyndebourne).
Newcomer: Ivana Gavrič (piano).
Premiere Recording: D Matthews - Symphonies 2 & 6 (BBC NOW/Van Steen).
Technical Excellence: Briggs - Messe pour Notre Dame (Hyperion).

Of course I must compare these results with what other review magazines thought. There's nothing surprising here; the only two that got several not-so-good reviews elsewhere were the two I would expect - the Schubert and Mozart. Winterreise's one of those works that's regarded on just too high a level for any recording to be universally acclaimed as a success, and there are some listeners who just don't like Jacobs's way with the Mozart operas.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tobias and the Angel

I hadn't given much thought to what had been my favourite album of 2010, which as it turns out is just as well, because I didn't hear my favourite album of 2010 until about a month ago.
Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel is a "church opera" written in 1999, and Chandos's recording is of a subsequent Young Vic touring production. The story is from the Old Testament (not the Apocrypha. The Council of Trent confirmed it to be canonical. Take that, Protestants!) and is set in Nineveh. Tobit is a man who risks severe punishment by arranging proper burials for Jews killed by the king; for his pains, he's rewarded by being blinded by sparrows shitting in his eyes. Now unable to work, he decides to call in a debt from a relative in Ecbatane. His son Tobias, currently something of a waster, offers to make the journey, on which he is accompanied by a mysterious stranger who (spoiler alert for the very slow) eventually turns out to be the titular angel, Raphael. Having had an odd encounter with a giant fish, they arrive at Ecbatane, where Tobias immediately falls in love with Sara, daughter of the man he's to collect the money from. Unbeknownst to Tobias, Sara's already been married multiple times, with all her husbands dying in their sleep - she's actually possessed by a demon named Ashmodeus. I will leave you to anticipate whether the demon gets exorcised, Tobit gets his sight back, or Raphael reveals his true self to general expressions of awe. And whether the giant fish has anything to do with anything.
Of course, the term "church opera" might suggest Britten to you, and certainly Dove's work does have the sort of music-for-the-people nature of Noye's Fludde and the like. Don't think "staid and holy". If there's a spectrum of staged music stretching from Parsifal to We Will Rock You then perhaps Tobias and the Angel is somewhere in the happy middle ground, along with, say, Stephen Sondheim (follow the undergrown path to yesterday's post). Some of the tunes are highly catchy (Jewish folk music style) and some of the music is inordinately beautiful. There are lots of stand-out moments, such as the cheeky children's chorus of sparrows ("Pee-oo! That was good") or the evocative music accompanying Tobias and Raphael as they set out on their journey. "Popular appeal" is rarely this appealing. Everything flows together wonderfully, and at CD-length it's the perfect size for its story - no padding, and no sense of cramming too much in. And the orchestration is spot-on.

Here's a 2-minute audio clip from the final scene, with Raphael sung by countertenor James Laing:

(Incidentally, I also recommend Chandos's previous Dove opera release, Siren Song, the tale of a sailor in love with a woman he's never met).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Someone in a tree

Yer damn right I bought the new Stephen Sondheim book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. From which we learn, among many other things:
When I'm asked to name my favorite song of those I've written, an understandable but unanswerable request, I often proffer this one. I like the swing and relentlessness of the music and the poetic Orientalism of the lyric, but what I love is its ambition, its attempt to collapse past, present and future into one packaged song form... Suffice it to say that this song comes the closest to the heart of Pacific Overtures: historical narrative as written by a Japanese who's seen a lot of American musicals.

Right hand/Left hand

I'm not sure quite what the relationship between the "Building a Library" feature in BBC Music Magazine and the "Building a Library" segment in BBC Radio 3's CD Review show is. The latter used to inform the former but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Anyway, there exist 2 conceptual items from the BBC entitled "Building a Library".
Last month's one in the magazine was Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. The top choice was Karajan/Bergonzi/Cossotto/Guelfi, but what we're interested in here is the one that appears as "One to avoid", about which this month's library-builder Ashutosh Khandekar says
In a field full of great contenders, my caveat goes a set [sic] that has been much praised but has serious flaws. Decca's 1966 version conducted by Silvio Varviso is radiantly recorded and has a great cast, but none of the soloists are caught in their prime. An inexperienced Elena Souliotis makes for a wayward Santuzza. Gobbi has superb dramatic instincts as Alfio, but lacks his finest vocal sheen. And del Monaco has lost the lustrous quality of his early years.
All well and good, but what image did they use to illustrate this "much praised" but flawed release?

Oh dear... does that say "A First Choice Recording from Building A Library"?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cutlery moment

Hey, wow, Nereffid's posted a new blog entry! First one in over a month! Bet it's going to be really profound.

Ahem. About that Grainger Edition... I've finally got round to ripping the CDs and came across this gem on the final disc - volume 3 of the works for solo piano. The CD info from Windows Media Player tells me that track 7 is titled "Spoon River - American Fork Dance".
I think Grainger would have approved.

Normal service might now be resumed.