The Power Of Production

File this under Yet Another Candidate For A Saying To Be Known As “Baruth’s Law” After My Death: Enthusiasm for the accoutrements of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner. Consider, if you will, auto racing. I have never met a front-running talent who truly cared in any way whatsoever about the brand, layout, “DNA”, or “heritage” of the car he was driving. Nor are these people historians of their sport. The people who make history rarely read it. Conversely, any time I meet someone who blabs on and on about their intimate connection with Porsche or Ferrari or Shelby, they are absolutely garbage behind the wheel. To some degree, I can personally attest to the way this process works; I started off as a Volkswagen fanatic ham-handing my way around Ohio roads, obsessed with the difference between 8-valve and 16-valve GTIs, but I ended it as a fellow who can match data with any but the very best racers and who is also entirely indifferent to the particulars of what I’m driving or where I drive it. Achievement in a subject is the mortal enemy of contentment within it.

Music is not an exception to Baruth’s Law — in fact, it aligns with the Law so closely that we can use it to detect a flagging of ability in musicians. It is no coincidence that men like Slash and Jimmy Page become progressively more obsessed with their guitars as their musical drive and creativity gradually fades. The Jimmy Page who recorded the “Stairway” solo with a beat-up Telecaster in a hallway is not the same fellow as the Jimmy Page who used a TransPerformance-equipped Gibson Custom Shop R7 Goldtop to play the Zep reunion show thirty-four years later. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. John Mayer was obsessive about his gear from the beginning, featuring a Novax Expression on the cover of “Room For Squares” and then moving to an intimate relationship with the Fender Custom Shop before developing the love-it-or-hate-it Silver Sky with Paul Reed Smith. Those exceptions, however, are few and far between.

What causes the death of enthusiasm as proficiency increases? I suspect that it is a variant of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” trope. As kids, we want to believe in the superiority of a particular car, bike, or guitar; as we actually learn to operate these devices we begin to see them as tools with limitations to be overcome. You start by pulling Excalibur from a stone, but after ten years of close-quarters combat you find yourself cursing the thing for having too shallow of a blood groove. About twelve years ago I caught the gig of a very talented seventy-something bluesman who had made his name playing Les Pauls but who on this particular evening was sporting a beat-up PRS CE bolt-neck. “Why aren’t you playing the Les Paul?” I asked him. “Don’t you miss the tone?”

“Ah, fuck tone,” he spat, “the Gibson is too damn heavy for my old shoulder. And it never did sound that good anyway.” Which made me wonder: If equipment doesn’t matter, and tone doesn’t matter, what’s left? The answer, of course, is production.

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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 →

Guest Post: Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen (Trailer)

Last Friday, Deutsche Grammophon released the CD Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen. Amazon’s pre-order price for the CD is $12.59, which is a truly excellent price. But this CD would be a bargain at full list. There is also a 24/88 hi-res PCM download from HDTracks, reasonably priced at nearly 90 minutes of music for $20.98 (There are two bonus tracks with the download). The album will also be streaming from Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal. And if you don’t mind reduced sound quality and the occasional advertisement, the album appears as an authorized playlist on YouTube. That’s right! You can hear the whole thing before you buy it!

My experience in producing and selling classical-music recordings is that most people don’t have formal training in music history or music theory, but they do want beauty in their lives, and they recognize it when they hear it. This is one of those recordings. If you care about choral music, especially contemporary American choral music, or if you simply want to add some beauty to your life, please vote with your wallet and buy this CD (or download), and also please consider buying half a dozen, a dozen, or more, as stocking stuffers (or, as “holiday,” or even non-holiday gifts). Lauridsen’s music is contemporary music that honors the entire tradition of choral singing, from O magnum mysterium‘s soundworld, which to me calls to mind the soundworld of Allegri, to Madrigali—Six FireSongs on Italian Renaissance Poems, which is perhaps best described as modernism—but with a heart and a soul.

Trailer embed and track listing after the jump. Continue Reading →

Indianapolis International Violin Competition Semi-Final Video and Results

One of the most important international competitions for young (ages 16 to 29) violinists takes place in the United States every four years. (The other top-tier classical-music competitions that include violinists, Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky and Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth, also run on four-year cycles.) While one might expect the US entry on that list to be hosted in California or New York, the venue is: Indianapolis, of 500-mile auto-race fame—and for excellent reasons.

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Guest Post: The Saddest Song

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica: Astor Piazzolla, “Oblivion” from “Henry IV”

This piece originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

I think that the assertion that the Nobel Prize in Literature is essentially silly (and therefore, we are fools for taking it seriously) has something to be said for it. (Those happen to be the positions of the British novelist and translator Tim Parks.)

Not one of: James Joyce, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Henry James, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Nabokov and Chekhov made the cut. But strange omissions compete with strange awardings—John Steinbeck “got the gong” (a slang term for a large medallion), yet James Joyce did not? Furthermore, the requirement that a candidate must be alive to receive the prize meant that late-blooming (or posthumously published) authors such as Kafka, Proust, Calvino, and Mandelstam could not even be considered.

Still and all, there are a few unimpeachable selections (Bob Dylan, in my opinion, is most definitely not among them).

In my opinion, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Solzhenitsyn, Faulkner, and Hermann Hesse all deserved the money and the medal. I even think that Sigrid Undset (who?) was a deserving recipient. Undset’s massive (1400 pages) Medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter should be much better known. I am tempted to say that if you loved The Lord of the Rings, you should try Kristin Lavransdatter. (In the period when she was “working up to” Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset had published a Norwegian translation of the Arthurian legends.)

For what all this has to do with Gidon Kremer and Astor Piazzolla, please click on the jump link. Continue Reading →

Music Is The Weapon, But Then Again, It Always Was

AT THE CORNER of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.
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Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.

Welcome to the world of “weaponized classical music”, where homeless people, thugs, dirtbags, and “teens” are actively repelled through the high-volume application of music that they don’t happen to like. It’s a tactic that is well over thirty years old, having been started with “Mozart At The 7-Eleven” in British Columbia back in ’85. In any era but this one, people would hear about this and chuckle. In $THE_CURRENT_YEAR, however, we must respond with everything from academic papers to the increasingly-shopworn boilerplate accusations of bigotry and racism. In the process of doing so, however, we will lay ourselves out to the possibility of deconstructive evisceration. Allow me to wield the knife. As Pusha-T said a few weeks ago, it’s going to be a surgical summer.

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In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018

David Wilson, assembling a WAMM loudspeaker, 1986. Courtesy of Wilson Audio.

In Chicago in 1972, Peter McGrath was holding down a part-time job in a stereo store, while he pursued his graduate studies in fine art.

For those who were not alive and aware at the time, the early 1970s witnessed the dawning of the second Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The first Golden Age encompassed the late 1940s through early 1960s. Pioneering companies included Fisher, McIntosh Laboratory, and Marantz (electronics); Klipsch (horn loudspeakers); QUAD (electrostatic loudspeakers, and electronics); and Acoustic Research (acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, and turntables). The great hi-fi companies of the 1950s established the component stereo system (consisting of a turntable and sometimes a tuner or reel-to-reel tape deck, vacuum-tube amplification, and loudspeakers) as a vital part of what was understood to be “the good life.”

I think it is tremendously important to point out that although hi-fi started out as a hands-on hobby for technically-inclined males, by the late 1950s, high-quality music playback in the home via stereo components was almost universally regarded as something to aspire to—even if in many cases, people had to settle for suitcase stereos or the massive pieces of furniture called console stereos. Going back and reading general-circulation magazines of the 1950s (as well as male-oriented magazines such as Esquire and Playboy), one is struck by the prevalence of advertisements for hi-fi components and loudspeakers, as well as for “culturally improving” book and record clubs.

More context, backstory, and appreciations of David A. Wilson, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

John Mayer And The Search For Content

“I hope you like it… it took me 90 minutes to make it.” That’s John Mayer’s pitch for the “New Light” video, which he teased on Instagram the day beforehand with endless discussions on “content”.

As usual, John’s on to something. We live in the era of “content” rather than “creation”. Creation takes time, but the Internet isn’t hungry for creation. It’s hungry for content, which is ephemeral by nature and by design. It takes a while to interact with creation, but content is the equivalent of the Burger King Mac N’ Cheetos. You consume it, perhaps glancing at an advertisement as you do so, then you move on.

This didn’t happen by accident. This situation was created by reasonably smart people who had some reasonably smart ideas regarding creation versus aggregation. For a meandering and fairly spergy but still perceptive insight into the gap between creation and aggregation, take a look at this article about the never-ending battle between Yelp and Google. Yelp was designed to take advantage of Google Search, but in doing so they made themselves hideously vulnerable to Google’s every whim. Furthermore, they serve as a living example of “the commoditization of content” in favor of aggregation.

John Mayer doesn’t need Google. He has a built-in fan base who pay attention to his every move, even when that move is eating hot wings while wearing a $75,000 watch. You can look at this video as an example of authentically aristocratic disdain for “content pushers”, or you can see it as his wink and nod to an aging fanbase. Hell, it might just be a chance for him to show off some rare and expensive pieces of Japanese street style. I don’t know. The rest of us out there aren’t so lucky. We need to keep generating content the way a child needs to tread water once he’s too far off shore to come home — and for the same reason.

Cashing In With The Satans Of Swing

Twenty-five years ago, I happened to find the complete tablature for Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” during a late-night session browsing USENET on the university VAX. I printed the whole thing out, for free, because back then my school let VAX users print whatever they wanted for free. Amazing, right? When I think of all the things I printed out at school just because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find them again. We had no way of knowing that Google would end up buying most of the USENET archives. We had no way of knowing there would be a Google. We still thought that the Internet would end up taking us to the Singularity. What fools we were. Anyway, after printing the tab out I tossed it in a 3-ring binder. Then I forgot about it.

About five years ago, I found that binder, pulled out the tab, and fussed around until I was more or less able to play “Sultans Of Swing”. I was reasonably proud of myself for having done so. It’s a brilliant tune and there are parts where the timing is more than a little tricky. I never shared this accomplishment with anyone, so I’m not sure why YouTube thought I’d want to see the above video. Maybe the almighty algorithm knows me better than I know myself.

There are two talented musicians at work in this song, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but what impresses me the most is how well it’s been monetized. After the jump, I’ll explain all the ways that this “Sultans Of Swing” cover is making cash. Less clear than the how, unfortunately, is the who. Who’s actually getting paid? It’s not as simple as you might think.

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