Category Archives: Music

The #BerliozWalkingTour Begins

“Andante” is that it’s a musical term meaning a tempo that is basically a walking pace. I adopted that as the name for my music writing years ago because I liked the idea of approaching music at a walking pace.

Over the years I combined that approach with my love of travel and adventure writing to crystalize my approach to writing about music. The idea is that I write about music as one writes about the things they see on a walking tour when exploring and finding things the reader may not know about.

I’m taking this a step further now by initiating focused “walking tours” that focus on specific subject areas.

I’ve decided to make Hector Berlioz the subject of my first “walking tour”.

The reason for this is because he’s not as well-known as many other composers and I think that’s a shame. His work is fantastic and also important in music history: in some ways you wouldn’t have Wagner without Berlioz.

So I think Berlioz is a good subject for my first “walking tour”.

The way this will work is I’ll be posting things here, on Tumblr and on Twitter all using the #berliozwalkingtour hash tag. I’ve also created a YouTube playlist for the tour.

If anyone wants to join in, they can use the hashtags as well: the more the merrier.

The best place to find everything I post will be on Twitter, as all blog and Tumblr posts will be announced there, as well as the Twitter posts.

In closing, let me leave you with Berlioz’s Messe solennelle. Berlioz wrote this piece in 1824. It was performed only a couple of times after which Berlioz said he destroyed it. A copy was found in 1991 by a Belgian schoolteacher in an organ gallery in Antwerp.

Berlioz’s music has been catalogued by D(allas). Kern Holoman so his works are labelled with “H”. This work is H 20a.

Here is John Eliot Gardiner leading the work. This can be found on the Berlioz: The Complete Works collection.

Reviving Andante

I have had a space where I’ve talked about music off and on since 2006.

Lately, it’s been off.

I’m bringing it back again, once again under the Andante label.

I’ll be posting blog articles here under the “Music” tag.

I’ll be posting clips and short things over at Tumblr: https://andanteblog.tumblr.com/.

I’ve got a separate Twitter handle for these postings here: https://twitter.com/AndanteBlog.

And finally, I’ve created a YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqeFkv81fmvCgb5qugDEo-g

Once again the premise is to bring a travel writer’s sensibility to the topic: sharing things I discover that I find interesting. I’ll leave the heavy analysis and critiques to others. This is all about finding interesting things and sharing them. Or at the least, writing them down so I don’t forget them.

Why Books, CDs, and DVDs are STILL Better

I get some grief from some friends about why I still prefer books and DVDs to subscription and streaming services.

In my inbox I got another reminder why this is the case.

I bought a movie through Target’s streaming service a couple of years ago, to try them out. And now I have a notification that they’re canceling the service.

They’re semi-helpfully providing the option of migrating your purchases to another service when they’re available. But it’s not guaranteed that they’ll have what you bought. In which case, you’ll get a credit (for the full amount you paid, I wonder?).

This highlights why I like books over e-books in particular. E-anything can go away for good. And unless you have your own copy (like I do my digital music library), you’re at the mercy of someone else who may, or may not be there tomorrow.

It’s why I have my own copies of all my digital pictures too.

This relates to security and privacy because this is really about trust and control if your information. And being a good security person I have low levels of trust.

Vint Cert recently highlighted another very real concern with e-everything. The real possibility of a dark age where all information and knowledge is lost in one fell swoop. Likely? Not necessarily. But not impossible. And security is always about thinking in worst case scenarios.

Someone put out what amounts to a handbook on how to rebuild civilization recently: The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. Ironically, though, there’s a Kindle version of the book, which would seem to totally defeat the purpose.

Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Decca

I’m ashamed to admit it, but Benjamin Britten is a composer I managed to live most of my life without knowing really anything about.

Chalk it up first to the anti-British bias there is in classical music overall. Which is strange, actually, because Britain is one of the strongest countries out there in terms of public and private support of classical music.

Be that as it may, though, I managed to get through life without knowing much about him (other than he’s from Britain…that’s easy, it’s in his name) and without hearing much.

My first exposure to Britten actually came in Alex Ross’ great book “The Rest is Noise“. That did inspire me to pick up a copy of his War Requiem. But I didn’t really get any exposure to Britten beyond that until I saw Moonrise Kingdom.

I have to give Wes Anderson credit: his use of Britten’s music in the film is one of the best examples I’ve seen of making the music a part of the film. Russell Platt has a great write-up on that over at the New Yorker.

So I’ve been slowly getting more into Britten and quite enjoying it.

But one thing that I’ve really only recently learned is that Britten had an extensive recording history with Decca. Specifically, Decca released nearly all of his works with him conducting or playing piano or otherwise under his supervision. Add to that, many of the works feature his long-time partner Peter Pears for whom Britten specifically wrote many of his works.

It’s an unusual and unique thing to have such direct access to a composer’s vision and intention directly. I can’t think of any other instance quite like this.

So you can be sure that I’ll be looking to Decca first for my works by Britten.

Of course, too, this falls into the “why didn’t anyone tell me?!” category.

But, better late than never, eh?

Meet Michael Nyman

As we get back into the swing of things, today we’re reviving the “Treasures” category.

The point of posts in this category is to share things that I have found on my journeys that are special, beautiful,  or unexpected. In short, they’re true treasures that I have found that others may not be aware of.

One way in which I view this blog as a “travel blog of music”.

Today’s treasure is one that I found over twenty years ago: the modern British composer Michael Nyman.

I first discovered Michael Nyman when I went to see the film “Prospero’s Books” on my wife’s suggestion. We had recently arrived in Seattle and she saw a new Peter Greenaway film was playing and suggested that we go. I admit, I didn’t know who Greenaway was at the time. I’d heard of “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” but didn’t associate the name Greenaway with it. But I was game to try something new, especially if it was “arty”.

My experience of “Prospero’s Books” is still one of the most amazing and profound film experiences. The combination of Shakespeare’s text from “The Tempest”, the stunning visual elements, the acting of Gielgud (bravo to a man at his age being game to take his clothes off for the film) and most of all, the music.

It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And, to quote Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” talking about Beethoven’s Ninth: “Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”

I had to know what that music was and who it was by.

I was lucky that the local video and record/CD store (remember it was 1991!) had a copy of the soundtrack on CD. I snapped it up and started listening to it regularly.

So I met Michael Nyman for the first time.

Typical for me, I would learn what I could about him (much harder in those days before the Internet as we know it). I came to learn that he had been a music critic who took up the challenge of “I’d like to see you do better” by those he critiqued.

Nyman’s style combines so-called minimalist elements with jazz and especially Baroque elements. Purcell in particular plays an important role as an influence in some of his work. Perhaps more than other modern composers, you can get a clear sense that Nyman views himself as part of a long musical tradition and shows it. He’s not looking to distance himself from that tradition but instead be a part of it. And that tradition includes the innovations of the last century including jazz. In that way, Nyman is, in my opinion, a healer of the divides that have riven concert music since the end of the Romantic period.

To that last point, perhaps the greatest thing that Nyman has done is make this music after the era of modernism listenable once again. Nyman is capable of some amazingly beautiful, lyrical pieces. His work for the film “The Piano” is a good example of that. I find it interesting to note that if you know that piece well and watched the old dubbed Japanese Iron Chef (before they changed the music) you’d notice that they use his music from the piano while showcasing the dishes.

If you haven’t gotten to know Michael Nyman, you should take the time. As is typical of British composers, he’s not well-known and not given the credit that he’s due. He’s a true musical treasure and as you get to know his work more and more, you’ll love it and him more and more.

I Didn’t Know How Empty Was My Soul Until it Was Filled

I’ve been fighting a very, very nasty sinus infection for nearly two weeks.

Today, though, I feel what could be the beginnings of  relief. I won’t jinx it by saying it’s gone, but I haven’t experienced any pain today so far.

Whenever I feel a sinus issue start to break, I reach a tipping point where I realize how much pain I was experiencing because, in the absence of it, I can feel the contrast. In some ways, my body suppresses pain in a way such that I’m not aware of how much pain there was until it’s gone.

To characterize this sense of not realizing what you feel until after the pain is going, I’ve often quoted a wonderful scene from the film “Excalibur”. Once Percival has successfully retrieved the Grail, he brings it to the withering and wasting Arthur. After Arthur drinks, he remarks “I didn’t know how empty was my soul until it was filled”. And then, the revitalized King rides forth to battle with his knights across a withering and wasting land that is reborn and rejuvenated by his passing. The whole time, Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana is playing. By the way, this scene is one of the reasons I maintain that “Excalibur” is an incredibly pagan film.

I loved that scene when I saw the film as a pre-teen. And it’s one of those scenes I come back to time and again to watch.

Interestingly, last night, I was thinking about how I was feeling and how there’s an affinity to the idea of the Fisher King (which is the myth that underpins the Arthurian Grail story). I was thinking of this quite independent of “Excalibur”. Specifically, I’d been thinking about the affinity between the infertility and impotence of the Fisher King and its contrast with and blocking of creativity, eros (in the Greek sense of erotic energy infusing all of life) and levity and how I have felt at times these past few months.

In the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, here’s the clip in question. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a blooming apple grove to go riding through.

Thoughts on Spotify, Last.fm and Pandora

You may (or may not) have noticed that it’s been many months since my last update. I won’t bore you with details but suffice it to say that I’ve been separated from my music collection due to a catastrophic copying error that has sent me on a long-haul project to recopy all my CDs and rebuild all my playlists and a home remodel that has put that project on hold for ten months or so.

It’s a huge undertaking and a pain, but ultimately it’s been a valuable learning experience and a chance to become reacquainted with my music library.

I plan to share some of what I’ve learned here, in the hopes that it helps others.

But for today, for this first post after hiatus, I want to return to the topic of online music that was at the center of my last post.

While I’ve been separated from my iPod and my owned music library, I’ve had a chance to try subscriptions to Spotify, Last.fm and Pandora. And after giving them a go, I’ve formed an opinion on them and am ready to share that.

Before I share my opinion, though, I want to share something that has been critical in helping me to form my opinion.

This image, by David McCandless at informationisbeautiful.net, is a very stark lesson in what online music means to artists.

Image courtesy of David McCandless at informationisbeautiful.net

The image is a bit dated and it lacks information about Pandora. But the overall message is a very stark one. Streaming music is BAD for artists, at least in its current business form.

It’s too bad because it feels like streaming is the future. But anyone who truly loves music has to care about the people that make that music. And in an era where music programs are being cut, orchestras are shutting down and the arts are under attack, one has to be mindful and conscious not just of cost but support.

And so, yesterday, I closed my Spotify and Last.fm accounts. I am keeping Pandora for now (in part because I paid for a full year of the premium service). But Pandora I intend to use as a means to discover new music to own.

I won’t miss Spotify or Last.fm: I didn’t find them revolutionarily easy to use. And in a way, by owning music and curating a library like I am, I have more familiarity and understanding of my music than I would with something just “appearing” on a computer-generated playlist. And Spotify I found to be hard to use in terms of discovery.

Pandora at least does a better job within its model in that regard. It finds for you and you accept that. And the fact that it can introduce me to new things I didn’t know of is of value both to me and to artists.

But for now, I’m happily rebuilding my iTune/iPod library and delighting in finding things that I’d forgotten about. I’ve found better ways to organize iTunes to make things more discoverable. I’ll be writing on that some time soon.

Crucible

Welcome to another posting in my word meditation series.

What’s most interesting is I’ve been using the word “crucible” to describe this period of massive, wholesale transformation these past three or so years. And I’ve been doing these word meditation postings. But, I’ve never done a word meditation posting on the term crucible.

What’s perhaps most inexcusable about this is the fact that I have training as a technical writer and I know that you should always define your terms on first use. To be fair, I did make an allusion to what a crucible is in the first post to mention it, “Who are you? What do you want?“. And in that post, I did link to the wikipedia page for crucible.

So as I do a proper word meditation posting, let’s use that as our starting point. A crucible is an object that can withstand high temperatures and is used in making metal and glass in particular.

A crucible is noteworthy for the fact that it’s able to hold and withstand the necessary destructive forces that operate within it to ultimately create something new. A crucible is thus a place where truly creative destruction occurs. And the forces within it are forces that typically can’t otherwise be controlled or contained. For instance, the temperatures involved in a crucible for making steel are thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. This is important because crucibles are used to create things that otherwise wouldn’t exist by combining elements together that don’t naturally combine. The incredible forces of destruction contained within are necessary to break down the components sufficiently so that they can become something wholly new.

This is part of the idea behind Arthur Miller’s use of the term as the title of his play about Salem Witch Trials.

This is why I picked this term, because I felt that this period of my life has taken elements of my old life and melted them down, combining them to create something wholly new. Ultimately this is a good and wonderful thing. But the process is violent, messy and, yes, destructive.

Beyond this, though, there’s other reasons for my choosing this term. One more grounded in my history.

You have to understand, as a boy, I grew up in steel and coal country. When I was a kid, the biggest employer was the local steel mill. Everyone worked there. This was before the bottom fell out from the US steel market in the 1980’s recession. I grew up in what is now known as the Rust Belt. But back then it wasn’t rusting, it was making steel.

Interestingly, the nickname for the city that the steel mill was in was “crucible”. So for me, growing up, that’s a term I heard often and in the context of classic blue collar life. Indeed, if you want to understand what it was for me growing up listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown (one hour or so from where I grew up):

as well as his song The River which describes the lives of so many people around me growing up and the life I managed to escape:

Interestingly, it was leaving that world that taught me the first painful lesson about how growth sometimes requires loss. My mother and I did succeed in getting out of the Rust Belt, and none too soon. A few months after we left, the steel mill had it’s first massive layoff, the start of a cycle that continues to this day. Last time I checked, the town I grew up in has lost about 1/2 it’s population since I was there. I knew I didn’t belong there and wanted to get out. So did my mother. But getting out came at a price for me: I couldn’t bring my dog with us because the apartment wouldn’t allow dogs. My mother found her a good home with a friend on a farm. So, she was happier I believe than she would’ve been cooped up in an apartment. But when you’re 12 and your dog is your best friend and companion it’s a steep price to pay. To this day, I keep a toy of hers with me. I think about her often. And yes, in a way, I regret that I had to lose her like that. In a way, that was my first crucible.

The Future of Music

One thing I found when I was at Microsoft is that my work had affected a shift in focus in regards to technology. Because new things ALWAYS have security problems, my work as a security person really made me incredibly conservative and risk averse as regards new technology.

In fact, I would joke when people would ask me if I was playing with something new that I don’t learn about a new technology until I have to patch it.

I’ve been making a point to roll that back and play with technology once again. To find that sense of play and wonder that I used to have.

One area I’ve been doing that in is in regards to music. And so I’ve been playing more and more with online music services. Pandora, Last.fm, and now Spotify.

I’m still learning what each does best, but I do have to say that I think we’re reaching a tipping point where the future of music is primarily in the form of online subscriptions rather than “owning” music.

Anyone that knows me knows that’s a huge thing for me to say. I’ve generally been of the “I want my own copy” school of thought. And there’s definitely a place for that still with rare and hard to find pieces.

But, with all of these options, it’s hard for me to see myself “buying” a CD or MP3 of something that’s widely available.

Another thing I’m finding about this new trend is the ability to find new and interesting music. Both Pandora and Last.fm in particular have models that help support that.

It’s interesting to see how this will continue to develop.

Interesting Posting on Chinese Music

Rather serendipitous to my recent posting “A Tale of Two Cultures” comes this posting from the Chinese Language Learning site Chinese Pod.

It’s a nice, VERY short overview of music in China that discusses the legends of the origins of music in China, the instruments, some music theory, and some notation.

Certainly well worth the time to read if you’re interested in world music.