The Machine Of A New Soul

I never tire of beauty, particularly in women and crafted objects, and I never tire of intelligent solutions to old problems. You won’t find any gorgeous chicks in the above-linked video, but there’s craft and thought aplenty. Tim Sway is a musician and artist who applies modern thinking and machinery to the traditional art of guitar making, and applies it properly. What I mean: Most of the mechanized guitar-building out there is designed to imitate hand processes: Gibson, for example, now uses a CNC to cut the body blanks that were cut by pantograph-style saws in the Seventies and sawn by hand in the Fifties.

Sway, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to replicate human processes with a machine. He creates new processes that work the way the machine works. Here’s an example: Fretboards are traditionally cut with hand saws and chisels, then inlaid with mother-of-pearl or some other material that is cut in a separate process. This is never a perfect process so then you use filler to make it right. Sway uses a CNC end mill to cut out the inlay patterns, then fills the resulting holes with epoxy. This is messy, but running an end mill over the mess levels everything out and creates a perfect inlay.

That’s the craft of it. Here’s the art: On the airplane fretboard, the airplanes are oriented to create single overlapping side dots where a traditional guitar would have a separately inlaid side dot, and oriented to create double overlapping dots at the octave marks. This works because the CNC machine shapes the hardened epoxy precisely the way it shapes the fretboard.

It should be mentioned that the airplane fretboard is destined for a 29.6″ scale bass to be played by my son. That’s not the only piece of original thinking in this particular instrument, and I can’t wait to show it to all of you when it’s done. One interesting part: it’s almost entirely recycled, both in the industrial sense (the fretboard is Richlite, a post-consumer waste product) and in the local-craft sense (the wood is all sourced from existing doors, tables, and recovered flooring). That’s not the way I’d prefer it; I like my Paul Reed Smith Private Stocks with their mammoth inlay and woods that haven’t been legal to harvest for fifty years. But Sway has his own set of ethics that he applies to the process.

My long-time mentor, Edward Tomarken, has often written and spoken about his desire to reconcile the academic division between the arts and the sciences. What Sway is doing here, creating art with a soulless machine, is just the beginning of what can likely be done with such tools. It’s usually the case that the artist doesn’t appear until well after the tool does; the Fender Precision Bass existed for about fifteen years before anyone started to play it near its potential, and another ten before anyone could envision it as a solo instrument. The Avid CNC router hit the scene twelve years ago; think of Sway as its first James Jamerson.

Well, He Was Right About That

Is it a cover if you’re just playing the music again with different people? When MTV used The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” to open the channel in 1981, very few people realized that they were hearing something between a cover and a remake. The original version was written by a trio of British artists and recorded in early 1979. Half a year later, two of the three got back together as “The Buggles” and recorded the definitive variant.

While looking for the lyrics of “Video” today for an Avoidable Contact column, I came across the above live peformance from 2004. Trevor Horn, the bassist and vocalist, is in fine form, as are the original backup signers from 25 years prior. It’s a true pleasure to watch, even if Horn commits one of the few mortal sins in music by playing the electric bass with a pick.

Were The Buggles a one-hit wonder? Possibly — but Trevor Horn was anything but. He produced everything from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” to Seal’s debut album. Along the way, he was executive producer on Jeff Beck’s infamous “Emotion & Commotion”. Oh, and he also was the actual musician behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, playing all the parts himself after the band couldn’t quite make it work in the studio.

It’s easy to see Trevor Horn, the prototype of the inventive and technically flawless musician/producer, as a dying breed. But not only is the idea of the bass-playing producer alive and well (cf. Fiona Apple’s dueling bassist/producers, Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo), Horn is also partially responsible for the changes in music between his performing heyday and today. In the course of producing Poison Arrow by ABC, he learned how to program the Roland TR-808, then learned how to trigger it via MIDI. So in a way, Horn wasn’t just a prophet of video killing the radio star, but also an instrument of digital music killing the analog star. Oh-a, Oh-a!

Like Kryptonite to Funk

Have you ever heard of Ken Griffin? He was a big recording star back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How big? Well, he sold millions of records and there are about two dozen 10″ and 12″ LP records of his released by Columbia, perhaps the biggest label of that era. While Motown has the distinction of scoring two hits with the same song, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, by two different artists, Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, Griffin got to the top of the charts twice using essentially the same recording over again.

Griffin had gone into the recording studio in early 1948 and recorded an instrumental version of You Can’t Be True, Dear,  originally “Du Kannst Nicht Treu Sein,” by composer Hans Otten and lyricist Gerhard Ebeler. The English lyrics and title were by Hal Cotten. Apparently it was a popular song as many musicians and singers recorded it that same year. Griffin’s recording was released by Rondo, an independent label. At some time after the original recording was released, Rondo released a vocal version, with singer Jerry Wayne’s voice dubbed over Griffin’s take, with the organ subdued in the mix. The vocal version went to #1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers chart in April, 1948, staying there for seven weeks. Then Griffin’s original release got to #2. Together the two recordings charted for 23 weeks and sold 3.5 million copies. Continue Reading →

The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away. Continue Reading →

George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road”

The Beatles’ final studio album Abbey Road was released on LP in the United States on September 26, 1969. As will be discussed after the jump, audio-industry maven Philip O’Hanlon pulled together (under the “Magnum Opus Rediscovered” banner) a coast-to-coast Abbey Roadlistening party” for Saturday, September 28, 2019, in which 40 audio dealers will play the remastered album on “fine audio” (or “high end”) equipment, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM (local times).

Which is all fine and good. But I for one wish that the participating audio shops would have extended the duration of their events by not all that much time (32 minutes), and spin what is to my mind, far and away, the best Abbey Road cover album ever, George Benson‘s woefully under-appreciated The Other Side of Abbey Road. Will they, won’t they? Matters not. It’s easy to add this gem to your collection!

Starting only three weeks after Abbey Road‘s US début (October 22-23 & November 4-5, 1969), producer Creed Taylor (who produced this record for Herb Alpert’s label A&M) convened a rather astonishing gathering of participating musicians at engineer Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio. Don Sebesky was in charge of their comings and goings, in that he was the arranger. (Benson sang, as well as playing guitar.)

How’s this for an (incomplete) lineup? Ray Barretto, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws, Idris Muhammad, George Ricci (brother of Ruggiero Ricci), and Emanuel Vardi? More information (and sound samples) after the jump. Continue Reading →

When Sofie Sings

von otter good

I chose to kick off the Music-Video Fridays series on my site, The Tannhauser Gate, with Anne Sofie von Otter, from her live-in-Paris 2004 DVD Voices of Our Time—a Tribute to Korngold.

The daughter of the Swedish diplomat Baron Göran Fredrik von Otter, Anne Sofie von Otter studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and made her début as Alcina in Haydn’s Orlando paladino in Basel in 1983.

In addition to her notable successes in the oratorio and opera music of Bach, Bartok, Elgar, Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart, von Otter’s art-song repertory encompasses Brahms, Grieg, Korngold, Mahler, and Sibelius. In 1993, her Grieg song-recital CD (with Bengt Forsberg) became the first song recording ever to win Gramophone magazine’s “Record of the Year” award. Were that not enough, she has also collaborated with Elvis Costello, and with Brad Mehldau.

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An Evening of Roses

In 1957, Israeli composer Yoseph Hadar put music to the words of poet Moshe Dor and created one of the great modern love songs, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Evening of Roses. It was first recorded by Yafa Yarkoni the same year. A year later it was a local hit in Israel for the Dudaim folk duo and as they toured around the world it was popularized internationally in the folk music craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It’s been recorded by a truly diverse group of artists including Harry Belefonte, Miriam Makeba, and Nana Mouskouri, all in Hebrew, with Mouskouri doing an original Greek version. Yarkoni even rerecorded it in Spanish, with a Mexican orchestra. In 1974, Yugoslav prog-rockers Dah recorded Šošana, featuring a melody based on Hadar’s tune. A year later, the band moved to Belgium, changed their name to Land, and they recorded an English version titled Shoshana, which became enough of an international hit that, according to Wikipedia, became a popular soccer chant in Europe. Continue Reading →

Auner Quartet: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, String Quartet No. 2 in a, Op. 13

The musical form I had the most commercial success in (as a classical-music record producer and label owner), was the string quartet. Granted, my remarkably successful string-quartet recordings consisted of quartet arrangements of sacred and traditional Christmas music. But those recordings are a lot more “classical” in character than “crossover” in character. In other words, no Frosty and no Rudolph. My three original JMR Arturo Delmoni & Friends Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas CDs have been reissued by Steinway & Sons Recordings as a 3-CD set.

Whatever happens to me from here on out, evidence of my devotion to the string-quartet form will live on. That’s because I am the dedicatee of Morten Lauridsen’s (to-date) sole work in that genre, a transcription for string quartet of his chamber-choir chanson “Contre Qui, Rose.” “Contre Qui, Rose” is one of Lauridsen’s settings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s French-language poems. Lauridsen chose among the Rilke poems that mentioned roses for his 1993 cycle Les Chansons des Roses. The story continues after the jump link.

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Christmas Music (Part 4): ORA Singers: “The Mystery of Christmas”

ORA Singers: The Mystery of Christmas
Music of Allain, Anonymous, Byrd, Hall, Hyde, Lauridsen, Macmillan,
McDowall, Peacock, Rowarth, Rutter, Samitz, Sixten, Tallis, Williams, and Weir.
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 905303
Downloads (24-bit/96kHz stereo AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal.

Recorded at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, January 23-28 and August 7-12, 2017. Nicholas Parker (all tracks except track 5) and Tim Handley (track 5 only), producers; Mike Hatch, engineer. Support for the arts from the Pureland Foundation. Total time 76’37.

My previous Christmas-music recommendations can be found here: Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

Here’s a fantastic new recording from a group new to me, Suzi Digby’s ORA Singers. They are as good as any handpicked professional choral ensemble out there. (I have heard most of the top ones live.) This collection showcases ORA’s “Unique Selling Proposition,” which is to prove that today, we are in a Golden Age not only of choral singing, but also of composing works for vocal ensembles. (Funny; I have long said the exact same thing about the art of the string quartet. We live in a golden age of the string quartet—both for playing and for new works.)

Therefore, ORA’s (for lack of a better phrase) business plan is to commission 100 new works for chorus over the course of ten years. (They are well on their way to achieving that goal, having commissioned 40 works in three years.) To make it even more interesting, Ms. Digby’s approach is to ask today’s composers to create works that are personal reflections upon the choral glories of the past, especially the masterworks of the Renaissance. Ambitious, yes. But several of the new works on this disc should find their ways into the standard repertory fairly quickly.

As a producer of classical recordings, one of my favorite Shibboleths (or, rubrics or axioms) long has been that, once your CD has started playing in the CD player of the reviewer, radio programmer, or record-store buyer, you have only ten seconds to make the sale. Furthermore, I believe that you make the sale only by giving the listener that “You are in good hands with Allstate” feeling. If the listener gets the feeling that your performance is for you a nerve-racking tightrope walk, no sale. (Obviously, there are exceptions to my little rule. Not much at all happens in the first ten seconds of Mahler’s Symphony 1; at least, not much by which you can distinguish a great performance from one that is merely unobjectionable.) In the case of the ORA Singers’ The Mystery of Christmas, convincing me took only the first four to eight seconds of the first track.

More information, a performance video, and sound bytes from The Mystery of Christmas after the jump. Continue Reading →