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reclaiming records

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In a teaser for the book Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for His Vinyl and His Past, Eric Spitznagel explains the aftermath of purchasing his first CD in 1988. "Over the coming months, I began selling off my records," he writes, noting that "It never occurred to me that I might ever run out of records:"

The last time I counted, somewhere around 1987, I had in the ballpark of two thousand. The first purge of three hundred barely left a dent. And from there, it was just a few records here, a few dozen there, as I needed them. I never made the conscious decision to deep-six my vinyl. It was always just, "Shit, I need beer money for the weekend. Oh wait, I still have that copy of the Stooges' Raw Power!" It was like a low-interest-bearing savings account with guilt-free withdrawals. I was never going to get rich on a bunch of old Elvis Costello records held together with Scotch tape, or a Purple Rain that was so warped it sounded like the doves were crying because Prince was having a stroke. These weren't investments, they were just antiques from my past that had small yet immediate monetary value.

As someone who has purged not just records, but also books and comics, during various life changes, I'm interested in reading about the rest of his quest.

Angus Batey opens his ears to the Miles Davis classics Agharta and Pangaea, calling them "Extreme music, made by a man at the end of his rope, leading a band who were ready to run through walls to make something new and exciting every night:"

Davis - never one to settle for re-doing what he'd already tried - seemed to have succeeded in alienating almost everybody. He pissed off the jazz purists at the end of the 1960s when he brought British electric guitarist John McLaughlin into the studio to help make the album In a Silent Way.

If that wasn't bad enough, the follow-up, Bitches Brew, took Davis further down the same road.

His next disc, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, was a commercial disappointment. "While jazz aficionados were deriding him for 'selling out'," writes Batey, "Miles's new music was in fact so pioneering and different that it was going over everyone's heads:"

On the Corner, released in 1972, was vilified at the time, and has had the balance reset far too heavily since in reappraisals that hail it as a masterpiece. The record has easily as much wrong as right with it, and in many ways it represents the sound of almost two decades of careful and craftsmanlike refinement of ideas, sounds and style being driven at a steady pace and with care and deliberation into a solidly built brick wall.

"This band was all about the art," he continues:

...everything, from composition and set-structure to the intensity of the performances to the sheer volume at which they played, was an exercise in immersing the audience in the sound, overwhelming the senses with musical data, building a new sonic world that the listener has to inhabit and discover for themselves. [...]

No two sets were ever exactly the same, but neither were the performances unstructured or chaotic. The band knew exactly what they were doing, but there was no pre-planning about what changes would happen when. They would take their cues from Miles, who would tell them when to change tack, and what piece of music to segue into next, by playing deft little musical cues or by physically signalling to cut off certain passages and start others.

Audiences at the time--and many even today--were "unable to classify the work according to our established taxonomies:"

We lack not only a map, but also a functioning compass. Therefore we conclude that this is 'difficult music', that these forbiddingly long chunks of improperly named, barely navigable, often very abstractly shapeless blocks of sound have been built into walls so high we cannot climb them - so daunting and monolithic we can only stand awestruck in their presence before retreating to the comforts and securities of three-minute songs with recognisable hooks and names that relate to the images the tunes conjure or the lyrics a vocalist weaves in and around the tune.

On the reissue front, he opines that "one sincerely hopes there's something spectacular being lined up to honour the 1975 vintage band:"

Bootlegs exist of other gigs from that Japanese tour, as well as of shows back in the States later in the year, some of which are reckoned to be better than Agharta and Pangaea. An official release for as many of these as decent-quality recordings exist of would satisfy listeners approaching this music from both traditional and non-traditional routes: an extended immersion, complete with the usually detailed sessionography and scene-setting booklet notes the series delivers, would help demystify this astonishing music and place it in an enhanced and broadened context - while those who crave this music of excess would simply delight in being able to immerse themselves in even more of it.

The takeaway?

"This is some of the most adventurous, committed, spirited, inventive, beguiling, consciousness-expanding, exhilarating, and exciting music ever made."

The albums, as can be heard below, are the very antithesis of easy listening--but they can be very rewarding. Here's the Agharta album:

PsychCentral reports (h/t: Disinformation) that teens who are more into music than reading are more likely to be depressed:

...young people who were exposed to the most music, compared to those who listened to music the least, were 8.3 times more likely to be depressed.

Reading appears to show protective value as those who read books the most were one-tenth as likely to be depressed.

The other media exposures were not significantly associated with depression.

I'd be interested in a larger study--this one had only 106 participants--to see if different musical genres had any effect on the results. For more information, see the press release from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Combined data from British and American studies link classical music to high intelligence (h/t: Simon at Classical Values):

"[M]ore intelligent Americans are more likely to prefer instrumental music such as big band, classical and easy listening than less-intelligent Americans." [...] "On the other extreme, as suspected, preference for rap music is significantly negatively correlated with intelligence. However, preference for gospel music is even more strongly negatively correlated with it."

The study "Why More Intelligent Individuals like Classical Music," by Satoshi Kanazawa [author of the study linking liberalism and atheism to IQ] and Kaja Perina, is forthcoming from the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. The study's abstract observed the following:

Recent work on the evolution of music suggests that music in its evolutionary origin was always vocal and that purely instrumental music is evolutionarily novel. The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis would then imply that more intelligent individuals are more likely to prefer purely instrumental music than less intelligent individuals, but general intelligence has no effect on the preference for vocal music. [...] Additional analyses suggest that the effect of intelligence on musical preference is not a function of the cognitive complexity of music.

I have some speculation between the type of music that is conducive to one's occupation and the correlation between occupation and IQ.

From slaves in the fields to chain gangs in prison, manual labor has a long association with vocal music, which may perhaps carry over to the modern variants (pop, rock, country, R&B) that one might hear on an assembly line or at a construction site. I wonder if the lyrics of those genres might interfere with whiter-collar work that often employs language (scientists, engineers, technical workers, writers).

When I'm reading a technical manual, writing a procedural document, or juggling database tables, I gravitate toward instrumental music (Bach's Art of the Fugue, Brandenburg Concertos, cello suites, and the Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets; Mahler's symphonies; almost anything by Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, or Monk) and will shun most vocal music that I otherwise enjoy--but only if it's sung in English. I don't remember enough German for Schubert's lieder or Wagner's Ring to become distracting.

If simultaneous language tasks can overwhelm the brain's speech centers, could this lead to a preference for instrumental music?

Congratulations!

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I don't watch the Grammys, so I was completely unaware that the phenomenal singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding won the "best new artist" award.

Read more about her at her website, at Wikipedia, or from my posts here and here. To top it all off, NPR reposted this 17-minute video of her playing a few songs during an in-studio concert. That video couldn't be embedded, but here's the next-best thing--a duet between Spalding and Bobby McFerrin during the pre-telecast:

I mentioned musical chills before, which MSNBC revealed was the subject of a recent study:

PET scans showed the participants' brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favorite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces. Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened.

Dopamine surged in one part of the striatum during the 15 seconds leading up to a thrilling moment, and a different part when that musical highlight finally arrived.

[study co-author Robert] Zatorre said that makes sense: The area linked to anticipation connects with parts of the brain involved with making predictions and responding to the environment, while the area reacting to the peak moment itself is linked to the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotion.

The McGill University study by Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor (HTML, PDF) explains that "Pleasure is a subjective phenomenon that is difficult to assess objectively:"

However, physiological changes occur during moments of extreme pleasure, which can be used to index pleasurable states in response to music. We used the 'chills' or 'musical frisson' response, a well-established marker of peak emotional responses to music. Chills involve a clear and discrete pattern of autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal, which allows for objective verification through psychophysiological measurements.

The study observes that "through complex cognitive mechanisms, humans are able to obtain pleasure from music ... which is comparable to the pleasure experienced from more basic biological stimuli:"

Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.

Music isn't the only way to soothe the savage breast; the abstract from this study (h/t: Skeptical Humanities) informs us of the following:

A recent study showed that people evaluate products more positively when they are physically associated with art images than similar non-art images. [...] These findings are consistent with our hypothesis, leading us to propose that the appeal of visual art involves activation of reward circuitry based on artistic status alone and independently of its hedonic value.

multiple holidays

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Today certainly qualifies as a multiple-holiday day: it's Winter Solstice, there was a total lunar eclipse [see also NASA and Sky & Telescope], and it's both the final day of Zappadan and International Rush Day.

I saw some of the eclipse this morning--the first one on the Winter Solstice for over four centuries--while I was out for a slightly-earlier-than-usual run. Despite my thirst after the first few miles, I heeded Zappa's advice and stayed well clear of the yellow snow:

I would have loved a few of these yellow snow cupcakes after I got home, though:

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Speaking of Zappa, I finally finished reading the MOJO special issue on him and his work:
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It was an interesting read, and now I need to find one of these buttons:
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Last but not least, it's also International Rush Day (Americans write today's date as 12/21, but it's 21/12 for much of the rest of the world).

Whatever you choose to celebrate, don't forget that axial tilt is the reason for the season!

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sad songs

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Daniel Watternberg asked "What Makes a Song Sad?" in The Atlantic, noting that:

Scientific American recently reported on a Tufts University study that purportedly lends experimental reinforcement to the widely accepted, albeit vague, notion that the interval of a minor third (two pitches separated by one full tone and one semi-tone) conveys sadness, in speech as in song.

The Scientific American article about communicating sadness in a minor third quotes Meagan Curtis from Tufts's Music Cognition Lab:

"Historically, people haven't thought of pitch patterns as conveying emotion in human speech like they do in music," Curtis said. "Yet for sad speech there is a consistent pitch pattern. The aspects of music that allow us to identify whether that music is sad are also present in speech."

Her co-authored paper "The Minor Third Communicates Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music" (PDF) suggests that "human vocal expressions of sadness and anger use pitch patterns that approximate those used in music to convey the same emotions:"

The pitch patterns that were used similarly across domains to encode sadness were the descending minor third (300 cents) and the descending minor second (100 cents). The ascending minor second (100 cents) was used to encode anger across domains. [...] The ascending interval of 600 cents (the diminished fifth) was positively associated with a small proportion of variance in the happiness and pleasantness ratings of the speech samples.

The authors admit that these conclusions may be biased by the specificity of their sample:

Given that the present findings are specific to patterns produced by speakers of American English, it is necessary to examine the prosodic patterns produced across cultures to determine whether the minor third is used universally to communicate sadness. Such findings will elucidate the whether the minor third is a vocal pattern tied to the physiological manifestations of sadness.

In addition to its minor key and dirge-like tempo, the melodic line of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," that ubiquitous aural accompaniment to tragedy, is replete with minor thirds (if music theory isn't your strong suite, Wikipedia can help you out). Thomas Larson's book The Saddest Music Ever Written discusses the Adagio in depth, and it's on my TBR list.

A British group called Cage Against the Machine is promoting John Cage's famed "silent" composition 4'33" in an attempt to make it the top song (h/t: Bonnie Alter at TreeHugger) during Xmas this year. The Guardian has a nice article here, and a video of the entire recording session is here.

I have to thank Norman Lebrecht for mentioning the publication of the 4'33" score by Edition Peters. Leaving a copy of it on a music stand would be an interesting conversation-starter; interested parties can see images of it here without coughing up $5 for a copy:

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Note: Since it's still Zappadan, I should mention that the 2-disc set A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute features a FZ rendition of 4"33".

Zappadan

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There's a neophyte-friendly "Remembering Frank Zappa" piece at PopMatters, observing that Zappa "was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it's difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy:"
Zappa's dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now. [...] His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. [...] His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category.
The piece inexplicably fails to mention Zappadan, the annual holiday between the dates of Zappa's death (4 December) and birth (21 December). I recommend the ongoing Zappadan series over at Mock, Paper, Scissors, which features various Zappa clips (musical and otherwise). During Zappadan this year, I'll be listening to The Grand Wazoo (my first Zappa album), Joe's Garage (an old favorite), and Yellow Shark (a new favorite). Zappa's serious talent didn't mean that he couldn't be wickedly funny. For example, here is Zappa's response to the Christianist "Parental Advisory" warning stickers on CDs:
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Dave Brubeck

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Today is the 90th birthday of pianist/composer/bandleader Dave Brubeck, best known for the ubiquitous jazz-in-odd-meters disc Time Out. The Brubeck Quartet's great alto sax player Paul Desmond wrote the classic "Take Five," which also features a nice solo by drummer Joe Morello: For further listening, I would suggest the CD box sets Original Album Classics 1 and Original Album Classics 2.They each consist of five classic albums from the Quintet's quintessential fifties-to-sixties era, and can be had for about $30 a piece--quite a bargain!

too much Miles?

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PopMatters' Will Layman asks "How Much Is Enough?" in the continued reissues of Miles Davis albums, noting that although "His 40-year body of work is one of the highlights of 20th century art...the record companies who control his legacy have shown seemingly little restraint in repackaging Davis:"

In 2010, they are not only selling a re-mastered box set of Bitches Brew, but they are re-releasing nearly all of Davis' recorded output for Columbia in a new trumpet case format and have even licensed a micro-brew in Davis' honor: Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew. [I discussed both the box set and the beer here.]

It's a marketing blitz that begs a question. Is there any reasonable limit on the re-selling of Miles Davis? How much can we really value Bitches Brew, or any cherished favorite, just because it comes in a new wrapper?

Haunted by the specter of Miles' post-retirement Warner albums being collected into a box set, Layman asks, "do we really want to hear outtakes from Doo-Bop or The Man With The Horn?"

Maybe it's just me, but I think that my Miles Davis Box Set days are behind me. I crave the long booklets and the whiff of the "Good ol' Days," sure, but I mainly crave just listening to the music. I don't think that these releases are damaging, but sometimes I fear that they just crowd out vital new music that should be heard.

But, to be sure, I still listen to Miles--boy, do I. This month, it's Bitches Brew I'm reinvestigating. Forty years on, it still sounds jarring and beautiful, thrilling and inevitable. May it ring like that forever.

Too much Miles is probably impossible, but too much marketing is an all-too-common problem.

Colin Eatock's "What's Wrong with Classical Music?" identifies "a litany of reasons - or at least perceptions - that collectively go a long way to explain why large swaths of society can be driven away by my favourite music:"

Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid - and often there's no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can't pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there's no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they're not in a foreign language.

Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can't survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound - and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don't. In a word, classical music is "elitist": originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world - and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values. You say there are living composers who still write classical music? Never heard of them.

Classical aficionados, writes Eatock, "are denizens of a strange subculture, outside the mainstream."

People who have heard nothing but popular music all their lives (again, a considerable chunk of the population) will, of necessity, develop certain assumptions about what music is "supposed to" sound like. Someone who only knows a repertoire of three-minute Top 40 songs in verse-chorus form may find a lengthy, textless orchestral work daunting and interminable. Someone weaned on percussive rock or rap music at high volumes may hear a string quartet as feeble and wimpy. And someone who admires the "natural" voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, may experience Plácido Domingo as artificial and overwrought.

These sorts of reactions are, I believe, the greatest challenges facing the classical-music world - because they underscore a fundamental rupture with the core values of the music itself. How does one "fix" the "problem" that a violin is not an especially loud musical instrument, or that Schubert's Octet has no words, or that Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is an hour and a half long? Ultimately, classical music is what it is, and its survival depends upon some portion of the population accepting it - and embracing it - on its own terms.

out of the limelight

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Over at GeekDad, Dave Banks writes "21--no, 12 Geeky Reasons Why Rush Should Be Inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame." He mentions their 24 gold- and 14 platinum-selling records and their 40 million discs sold, but his justification goes far beyond mere mercantilism. Read it, and go sign the petition for Rush's induction. It's been a few years since I saw Rush live, and an Induction ceremony set would make me quite happy.

While examining the list of HOF inductees, it appears that the most obvious omission besides Rush is Yes--I don't understand how that seminal progressive-rock group could have been overlooked, either.

So, about that upcoming box set "Mahler: The People's Edition" that I mentioned a while ago...

DC's classical station WETA issued a plea to "Make the People's Mahler Interesting" (h/t: Jens Laurson at Ion Arts), noting that "one could create a marvelous, superbly interesting Mahler cycle of individualistic, rare, splendid interpretations that would be a boon to obsessed Mahlerites everywhere, even (and especially) the seasoned collector:"

Could is the operating word here, because the worst case scenario is that where the People's Edition merely mirrors the fame of recordings and ends up something where all included symphonies are already readily available, and/or are already in Universal's big box "Mahler, Complete Edition". What a terrific opportunity completely gone to waste that would be.

Go here to vote; voting closes on 15 September, with the box set due in November.

Columbia is at it again. 2009 saw the release of an enormous (70 CD, 1 DVD) Miles Davis box set from late last year called The Complete Columbia Album Collection:

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They've announced an even more elaborate set due to drop on 14 September. At a cost of $1200, the limited-edition Genius of Miles Davis collection will contain all eight of the metal-spine "Complete Columbia Edition" box sets, and is packaged in a trumpet-style case along with an art print, a t-shirt, and a reproduction of Miles' favorite trumpet mouthpiece.

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The music in these sets (all of which I've listened to repeatedly) is fabulous, but why hasn't Columbia remastered some of the Miles Davis live discs instead of repackaging these box sets? Agharta and Pangaea belong together in a remastered set, and the 1965 Plugged Nickel box set is long overdue for similar treatment. Instead of remastering those rare gems, Columbia has chosen to repackage the more readily available ones.

The 50th anniversary set for Kind of Blue and the upcoming 40th for Bitches Brew have some enticing extras, but the "Genius" set is just marketing run amok.

What would Miles do?


update:
Dogfish Head, a boutique brewery in Delaware, is producing a Bitches Brew beer as a tribute to the legendary Miles album:

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the original release of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis' 1970 paradigm-shifting landmark fusion breakthrough, we've created our own Bitches Brew - a bold, dark beer that's a fusion of three threads imperial stout and one thread honey beer with gesho root, a gustatory analog to Miles' masterpiece.

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I've enjoyed several of the Dogfish brews, and this one sounds like another winner!

I already have three box sets for Mahler's 150th anniversary--multi-conductor complete sets from EMI and Deutsche Grammophon along with a symphony cycle by Bernstein. There's at least one more set scheduled for release later this year (h/t: Zach Carstensen at Gathering Note): DG's Mahler: The People's Edition is to contain a cycle of his symphonies selected from the vast DG/Decca archives, based on votes tallied online here.

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[The title and cover art seem more appropriate for a Soviet composer--think Khachaturian, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich--than an Austrian like Mahler, but I'm here to write about the music.]

I see two general possibilities for this set. The first would be a best-of-catalog box set--perfect for new Mahler fans who don't have a complete symphony cycle in their collection. The second would be a best-of-the-unavailable-discs set--better suited for seasoned Mahlerites who have several cycles in our collections already , and whose preferences tend toward the rare and unusual. Jens Laurson at IonArts points out that with our votes, we can make:

The difference between a cycle no one needs, because it just duplicates what we already have at home, or one that everyone will want to run out and grab. The key to that, apart from finding enough willing supporters of this idea, is to pick the most interesting, difficult-to-get, and out-of-print albums that DG/Decca offers us.

Laurson offers a full slate of suggestions, none of which I have heard. I would not ordinarily recommend unfamiliar recordings, but this voting opportunity may be the easiest way to get these rarities back on shelves. (Several of the other options interest me, and I hope that the long-OOP Boston/Ozawa recordings will be re-released as another complete cycle.)

When BBC Music Magazine ran a story on Wagner's Ring cycle, there was an omission that I felt needed to be rectified. Here's what I sent them:

Michael Scott Rohan's "What's Wrong with Wagner?" article from your April issue was an encouragement to this "perfect Mahlerite" who has been somewhat daunted by the sheer scale of the Ring cycle. In the sidebar entitled "Five steps to Wagner fulfillment," Rohan mentioned--among various examples of "light relief"--a 1989 graphic novel version by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, which was described as "vivid but straight."

I would like to draw your attention to a more recent version of The Ring, completed over the course of five years and collected in a pair of softcover volumes in 2002 [Rheingold and Valkyrie; Siegfried and Gotterdammerung] by another legendary artist: P. Craig Russell. At four hundred pages, Russell's Ring adaptation is twice the length of Kane's--and of correspondingly greater depth as well.

Russell is no dilettante when it comes to recreating musical drama on the printed page--his other adaptations include everything from Wagner's Parsifal and Mozart's Magic Flute to Salome, Ariane & Bluebeard, Pelleas & Melisande, "The Godfather's Code" (from Cavalleria Rusticana), "The Clowns" (from I Pagliacci), and a pair of Mahler's lieder ("The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" and "Unto This World").

In addition to illustrating numerous stories both classic (everything from Kipling's Jungle Book and Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales to a Robert E. Howard Conan tale) and contemporary (Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman), Russell has also illustrated several of his own stories. His work has a visual inventiveness that is well worth investigating; opera fans who remain unfamiliar with Russell's art are doing themselves a disservice.

Interestingly, Wikipedia's page on the Ring Cycle mentions neither the 1989 Roy Thomas/Gil Kane adaptation nor Russell's far superior version. The opening page from Das Rheingold is a prime example of his artistry:

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I'm just doing my part to help turn some "Ring nuts" into comic-book fans.


links:
Russell's website is here, and fellow fan François Peneaud has posted many samples of PCR's art here.


update (5/30 @ 10:14pm):
PCR was interviewed on the public radio show "Here and Now" (the audio is here), which echoes this LA Times piece.

A big tip-of-the-hat to Scott Payne at League of Ordinary Gentlemen for linking to this video:

Rock Sugar isn't exactly typical listening for a music snob like me, but it's hilarious! While I'm in the mood, here's another great mashup:

Joanne Lipman's NYT Times op-ed "And the Orchestra Played On" will no doubt elicit comparisons to the maudlin movie melodrama Mr Holland's Opus, as both feature student musicians gathering for a final performance in honor of former bandleaders--except that this story is real:

Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us better than we had any right to be. He scared the daylight out of us. I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.

Which is why, decades later, I was frantically searching for an instrument whose case still bore the address of my college dorm. After almost a half-century of teaching, at the age of 81, Mr. K. had died of Parkinson's disease. And across the generations, through Facebook and e-mail messages and Web sites, came the call: it was time for one last concert for Mr. K. -- performed by us, his old students and friends.

[...]

When I showed up at a local school for rehearsal, there they were: five decades worth of former students. There were doctors and accountants, engineers and college professors. There were people who hadn't played in decades, sitting alongside professionals like Mr. K.'s daughter Melanie, now a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There were generations of music teachers.

They flew in from California and Oregon, from Virginia and Boston. They came with siblings and children; our old quartet's cellist, Miriam, took her seat with 13 other family members. They came because Mr. K. understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together.

Many who have experienced that bond can relate to the conclusion of Lipman's piece:

Back when we were in high school, Mr. K. had arranged for Melanie and our quartet to play at the funeral of a classmate killed in a horrific car crash. The boy had doted on his little sister, a violinist. We were a reminder of how much he loved to listen to her play.

As the far-flung orchestra members arrived for Mr. K.'s final concert, suddenly we saw her, that little girl, now grown, a professional musician herself. She had never stopped thinking about her brother's funeral, she told me, and when she heard about this concert, she flew from Denver in the hope that she might find the musicians who played in his honor. For 30 years, she had just wanted the chance to say, "Thank you."

As did we all.

I hope that her violin continues to be an outlet for her, and a source of comfort in times of distress. Would that we all had the opportunity to so honor our former teachers in the company of old friends.

Last week, Alex Ross announced that his next book will be released on 28 September. Entitled Listen to This, and utilizing this New Yorker article as the basis for its first chapter, Ross aims to "approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world."

Given how much I enjoyed his twentieth-century music appreciation book The Rest Is Noise, I'll be pre-ordering Listen to This as soon as it's available.

A recent WSJ piece showed that actual playing time in NFL games is about 10 minutes and 43 seconds. As the article noted, football "is the rare sport where it's common for the clock to run for long periods of time while nothing is happening:"

After a routine play is whistled dead, the clock will continue to run, even as the players are peeling themselves off the turf and limping back to their huddles. The team on offense has a maximum of 40 seconds after one play ends to snap the ball again. A regulation NFL game consists of four quarters of 15 minutes each, but because the typical play only lasts about four seconds, the ratio of inaction to action is approximately 10 to 1.

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey were performing on stage during the halftime show for about 12 minutes, probably exceeding the time of the players' on-field efforts. The veteran rockers said as much during a press conference last week:

"We're going to be playing for about 12 minutes at halftime," he said. "But I've heard if you take out the commercials, there's about 11 minutes of playing."

"We're going to be playing longer than the players," Townshend added.

Their ages (65 and 64 respectively) mark this as a past-their-prime performance, but at least they played better than Peyton Manning.

Esperanza Spalding

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I mentioned the phenomenal bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding before, and here are a few clips of her high-profile performances over the past year: playing "Overjoyed" in honor of Stevie Wonder at the White House,

performing during the White House's "Evening of Poetry, Music & the Spoken Word,"

and a gig, at Obama's request, in honor of his Nobel Peace Prize:

Her website has a list of upcoming tour dates--if you get a chance to see her perform live, I suggest that you take it--talent like hers is rare!

loudness wars

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A brief NPR piece on "The Loudness Wars" (h/t: Nathan at FlowingData) helps explain some of what's wrong with modern music: digital mastering tools let recording engineers increase the volume of the loud and quiet parts of the music unequally--reducing the dynamic range and making records more uniformly loud. This poster (9MB PDF) illustrates how music has been "physically getting louder:"

Because louder music creates a more immediately pleasing effect on the listener, record execs have been ordering the volume knob cranked up for the last three decades. This could be chalked up to harmless capitalism, but the problem is that audio can only get so loud before it begins to lose all the stuff that makes it so good. Once you compress the peaks and valleys of rhythm and sound too far, it becomes the visual equivalent of typing in all caps: All the loud sounds are loud and so are all the soft ones.

This YouTube video reminds us that "When there's no quiet, there's no loud:"

Wikipedia's "Loudness War" article goes into more depth, explaining the problems caused by clipping the peaks in recordings with a reduced dynamic range. It also references Robert Levine's "The Death of High Fidelity" from Rolling Stone, which identifies the non-technical result of this digital manipulation: "by maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song." The industry group TurnMeUp (Bringing Loudness Back to Music) is trying to foster an atmosphere conducive toward more dynamic recordings, and I wish them well.

Long-time readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my deep love of libraries (historic, home, public, and Google), so it should surprise no one that the experience of reading a text (or of listening to music, which I'll get to later) is something about which I ponder as we move further into the digital age. Wilson Quarterly's multi-article feature on "The Future of the Book" from their Autumn 2009 issue has several articles on the subject. Christine Rosen's "In the Beginning Was the Word" and Tyler Cowen's "Three Tweets for the Web" are interesting, but "The Battle of the Books" by Alex Wright has this wonderful line:

"A hundred years after Gutenberg, only a relative handful of people had seen a printed book. Yet a mere 20 years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, more than a billion people have used a Web browser." (p. 64)

The potential of technology to transform the reader's relationship to texts is obvious enough, but Rebecca Rosen's sidebar "This Is Your Brain on the Web" approvingly quotes historian Marshall Poe's observation that "A book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it." While it's easy to blame the hyperlink-happy Internet for its users' attention problems, books have their own mechanisms for diffusing attention. Bibliographies, indices, appendices--not to mention footnotes and endnotes--all lead readers away from the original texts and toward others; hyperlinks merely deliver the results more immediately.

The immediacy of book-buying is made easier by various e-book devices, but not without detractors. Benjamin Dangl explain "Why I'll Never Buy a Kindle" at AlterNet, writing that "a lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore:"

There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book - a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they've been, whether it's a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can't share a Kindle book and so history doesn't cling to it the same way.

Alan Kaufman hyperventilates at HuffPo, calling the Kindle "A Concentration Camp of Ideas:"

Today's hi-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form that society would be better off without. In its place, they want us to carry around the Uber-Kindle.

The hi-tech campaign to relocate books to Google and replace books with Kindles is, in its essence, a deportation of the literary culture to a kind of easily monitored concentration camp of ideas, where every examination of a text leaves behind a trail, a record, so that curiosity is also tinged with a sense of disquieting fear that some day someone in authority will know that one had read a particular book or essay. This death of intellectual privacy was also a dream of the Nazis. And when I hear the term Kindle, I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.

Technology's effect on the experience of music listening is somewhat similar. A friend pointed me toward this Boston Globe piece on music collectors, where Jeremy Eichler writes "I've been thinking not only about the virtues of high-tech listening but also about what's been lost in our headlong sprint into the digital future:"

This is not a Luddite's lament, or a cri de coeur about the significantly reduced audio quality of those compressed MP3 files. I love having more music at arm's reach than ever before, I love taking it with me wherever I go. But I do find myself wondering why, exactly, collecting music now means so much less.

Divorced from the physical object, collecting should mean less; listening, however, means as much as ever. Although it is "extremely hard to fetishize an MP3" in comparison to older (and more physically imposing) media, the downside to digitization is that "A digital file that lives on our computer is immaterial and deracinated, shorn of context, not to mention liner notes:"

The personal aspects loom large for many collectors, and a home library becomes a kind of autobiography, an index of one's quirks, passions, and adventures. [...]

Yet it is not only the object itself, but also the process of bringing it into our lives that has changed. For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life's quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.

That is certainly true in my case, the most memorable being a lengthy quest for a recording of Shostakovich's "Novorossiisk Chimes." After finally locating a copy, my hour-long drive home (in a CD-less car) seemed interminable; my pleasure at shaking the walls when first listening to it was that much sweeter by the contrast with the preceding silence. Is our experience of texts and music tied to their media, or merely temporarily anchored by them? Will we value that experience as highly as we move toward constant accessibility?

I'm still not sure.

This kiddie-book parody (h/t: Tengrain at Mock, Paper, Scissors) is spot-on:

20091124-goognightkeithmoon.jpg

For a narrated version, click here.

I love the '80s

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Amazon has a free download of the following symphonies:

Brahms 3
Mahler 1
Tchaikovsky 5
Dvorak 6
Borodin 3
Saint-Saens 3
Bruckner 9


20091109-ilovethe80s.jpg

All told, it's a 492MB download...about 5 hours of music. (They're offering a bunch of other freebies as an incentive to get people to install their MP3 Downloader software...their tactic worked in my case!)

Did I mention that it's free?!

chills and cellos

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The paper "Chills As an Indicator of Individual Emotional Peaks" (ht: Vaughan at Mind Hacks) noted that "chills [defined as "goose bumps and shivers"] are a reliable indicator of individual emotional peaks, combining reports of subjective feelings with physiological arousal" when listening to music. The authors studied 95 subjects who listened to a variety of selections from Mozart, Bach, and Puccini:

...chills were reported by participants of both genders, of all ages, and with virtually all levels of musical education. The influence of familiarity with the stimulus was tested in detail, confirming that familiarity with a certain piece has a strong impact on the frequency, and that, at the same time, a more intimate knowledge of the piece does not increase the number of chills significantly.

I can attest to the last point, using two of Shostakovich's compositions as examples. His "Festive Overture" is a dramatic and stirring piece, but it doesn't give me chills the way "Novorossiysk Chimes" does. Another interesting point was the study's observation that "neuronal circuits corresponding to networks activated during sex, food intake, and drug abuse are activated during chill episodes." Since the experience of music is that powerful, can Musicoholics Anonymous be far behind? (And if MA is to have the standard twelve steps, will they be in three bars of four or in some other meter?)

"I admit that I am powerless over Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D..."

After mentioning Beethoven's infamous "Hammerklavier" piano sonata in this post a few months ago, I went to refresh my memory about the piece--and realized that I didn't have a copy in my collection! The 10-disc set of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas by Vladimir Ashkenazy seemed like a good choice for rectifying that problem, but the American edition was nearly $80; I found a Canadian edition at half that price, which was even cheaper at a certain online auction site. One of the great things about classical music, as noted by Ben at Classical Convert, is that it's a very cost-effective musical genre. Where else can one find ten CDs with over ten hours of phenomenal music--no filler tracks or sub-par "alternate" takes--for less than $3 each?

Even outside the realm of box sets, many classical labels price the single discs from their back catalogs very reasonably. Naxos and Arte Nova discs are in the single-digit price range, as are EMI's Encore (formerly Seraphim) and EMI Recommends lines, with Warner Classics' Apex line being slightly more expensive. EMI's Gemini line and Virgin's Veritas series cover the two-disc price point, with the EMI Triples and Deutsche Grammophon Trio series populating the niche just below the larger and more comprehensive box sets.

Does anyone have a favorite classical CD line that I've overlooked?


update (7/26 @ 4:27pm):
HMV and Classic FM have a "Full Works" series--which I've seen advertised in BBC Music, Classic FM, and Gramophone magazines--but the discs are exclusive to HMV and don't seem to be available on this side of the pond.

I don't remember where I saw this mentioned, but the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (recently voted "The World's Greatest Orchestra" by Gramophone magazine) is performing a complete Mahler cycle:

20090622-rco-mahler.jpg

I'm so glad that I live in Amsterdam!

<wakes up severely disappointed>


update (6/23 @ 1:36pm):
A belated h/t to Universal Edition; if you're a fellow Mahlerite, check it out!

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