Category Archives: Music

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.

Hello Old Friend, Hello New Friend

I’ve said that I expected to be posting again soon and today is as good a day as any.

As I said there, one reason for this blog being on hold is because of an issue affecting my (rather large) music library.

The short version of what happened is that in Spring 2011, I learned the hard way that Macs handle copying directories differently than Windows machines. This led to the loss of an unknown amount of my digital music library. I was able to recover all online purchases (as far as I can tell) but not the copied CDs. Since I didn’t know what I lost I decided to redo all my CD copying, this time using the highest possible bitrate and MP3 format.

I also decided to blow away my old playlists and build new ones. I felt I wasn’t finding things that I had and maybe new playlists would help.

This project is finally nearly done. There were some things that came up that put it on hold too. But after a year and a half of separation, I feel like I have my library back once again. Better yet, I discovered that you can now create nested folders in iTunes, which enables me to really organize things so I can find them.

The act of copying and building new playlists has been a very instructive one for me. It’s forced me to go through and relearn what I have, much of which was present but hidden due to the bad old playlist structure and iTunes inherent weakness in dealing with classical music.

On a side note, I may do a post here just talking about what I’ve learned about managing a large iTunes library. Oddly, it seems there’s little information out there these days. It’s like iTunes stopped growing in 2007.

As long and painful a process as it has been to rebuild my library, I’m actually grateful for the exercise. I’ve had a chance to rediscover old friends that I’d forgotten. I’ve also found new friends: pieces that I had bought but hadn’t listened to much because I just couldn’t find them.

In a way, I feel like I woke up one day and was given a gift of a new, large, diverse music library to explore and discover.

Given that I view this blog as a musical travel blog that actually works well. Not only can I document my explorations in finding new music: I can document my explorations through my new(ly recovered) music library.

As I work to get into the practice of writing more regularly again, this is a double blessing to me. Not only do I have the gift of this library, but I have the gift of it as a topic for writing.

Further proof that good does come out of bad.

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.

I’ve been plagued with ear, nose and throat issues all my life. As a young kid I had tubes in my ears, I had an operation to fix a deviated septum when I was 18 (which also made a slight cosmetic improvement on the tip to make it less round: so yes, dear reader I have had a “nose job” I suppose). And in my adulthood I get sinus infections and congestion on a regular basis.

But this has been one of the worst instances I’ve had in many years. Probably the worst since a long, dreadful incident in 1999 that dragged on for months.

This time at least, though, the pain I was feeling was so bad that I took myself to the doctor before anyone suggested it. If you know me, you know that NEVER happens.

That’s a measure of how much pain I was in. For nearly 10 days I was in constant, excruciating pain. Standing would make my head throb. Any movement at all really.

And there was the constant pain from pressure pushing outward within my skull and pushing down around my skull.

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.

Another thing about sinus issues and me: for some reason I find that sinus pain can directly and severely impact my mood. It’s like the physical sensation of pressure squeezing my head translates into an emotional feeling of feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

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.

And because these situations affect my mood, there is a commensurate realization of how depressed and anxious I really was. It’s like my body and spirit have been balled up under crushing pressure and I can’t realize how much pressure it was and how it was crushing me until it’s finally gone and I’m able finally to stand up and stretch. In that way it’s like being in a cramped airline seat for an absurd amount of time. You don’t realize the discomfort level until you can finally stand up and stretch. You’ve just been in survival and endurance mode the whole time.

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”. And I was thinking about it in regards to some of the ways I’ve been feeling blocked (like I outlined here). 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.

Today, I feel revived and rejuvenated. I don’t know that I’m healed or better. After all, some of what I’m talking about stretches far beyond this sinus infection (and for reasons I’m still not clear on). But at the least today I’m realizing how badly I had been feeling in some areas because I’m not feeling quite so badly. And that is a good thing.

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.

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.

Summertime

…and the living is easy.

Which is to say that we’re on a bit of a sumer hiatus here at Andante.

We’ll be back in the fall with new postings on new music experiences, including (as a teaser) my experience of Camille Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony number three (aka the “Organ Symphony“).

But for now, I’ll leave you with this to tide you over until we return.

Enjoy!

Thanks Google for the Doodle

Google gets kudos for their “doodle” tribute to Les Paul recently.

Not just for paying homage to someone who so richly deserves it, though that’s a part of it.

No, Google gets kudos for paying homage to someone in the arts first and foremost. To say the arts are under fire is an understatement. The very foundation of the arts as it has been most of my life is changing and eroding. Just yesterday, the Bellevue Symphony announced it was closing up shop after 43 years. A friend of mine has speculated that the concert music world is headed to a two-tiered system of just a few large, professional orchestras and a number of amateur community orchestras.

I think he may be right.

So Google deserves credit for paying homage to someone in the arts like this.

They also deserve credit for paying homage in a way that sparks individual creativity. If you do a quick search on YouTube you’ll see that people have posted clips of them using the “doodle” to play songs (and yes, “Stairway to Heaven” is one of them, I guess they didn’t see the sign).

Seriously though, every little bit helps. We’re in a society now that devalues arts and creativity so much that seeing a large company take a public stand to remind us of the importance of music and encourage us to make some ourselves is a wonderful thing. And clearly the world is hungry for more things like this: the doodle was so popular that it ran for an extra day.

Thanks Google for the doodle.