Archive for the “Recordings” Category

(Thanks to Kevin Austin, who runs the Canadian Electroacoustic Community e-mail list, for pointing this one out):

Every serious classical listener/collector has spent time probing through the hiss, pop and crackle of early monophonic 78 and 33 rpm recordings; though the sound is tinny and boxed in, they love the magical feeling of somehow being brought closer to some vital moment, performer or composer.  Until 1958 people could only buy monophonic records; some might have heard stereo sound previously in a few push-the-envelope films like Fantasia, but for at least a couple generations mono was all they had. Yet there had been a number of experimental tries at stereo sound, going back as early as the 1920s (the BBC’s first attempt at a stereo radio broadcast was in December 1925). One of these pioneering experiments has been wonderfully documented on the Stokowski.org website.

Leopold Stokowski might have had a bit of the showman in him, often shrewdly picking music, concerts and events with a little more than average glitz and spectacle. But especially early on, we can’t forget that he was very friendly with a lot of the avant-garde of the day, and had a keen interest in new ideas.  His Philadelphia Orchestra began broadcasting concerts in 1929, but he was disappointed with the poor fidelity. Stokowski approached Bell Labs looking for some way to improve the sound; there he hooked up with Bell’s legendary research director Dr. Harvey Fletcher. Fletcher was doing groundbreaking work on electrical recording, new microphones and recording equipment, constantly searching for ways to expand the frequency, dynamic range and spatial presence of recordings.

They worked out a deal where in 1931 Fletcher would install the latest equipment in the basement of the hall (the Academy of Music) that the Philly orchestra used for broadcasts, making the orchestra a test subject for their recording experiments. By the end of the year they were able to push the recorded spectrum all the way to an unheard-of 13,000 Hz (though still in mono) in a recording of Berlioz‘s Roman Carnival Overture.

But most amazing of all was the work of another of Fletcher’s researchers, Arthur C. Keller. He’d devised a system that could use two microphones at once, each cutting their own sound to a separate groove on the master disk. With this new stereophonic setup, in 1932 Keller recorded Stokowski and the orchestra performing Scriabin‘s Prometheus: Poem of Fire (part 1; part 2). As far as we know, this is the oldest stereophonic music recording in existence, and for all those lovers of the 78 rpm records from this period the quality is just stunning. It would still be more than a quarter-century before the technology could advance enough to where everyone could finally listen at home in stereo.

Arthur Keller came out of retirement in 1979, and assisted by Ward Marston made the modern transcriptions you hear here, from the original master disks stored at Bell Labs. All thanks to them, and to the folks at Stokowski.org for sharing the story (there’s plenty more to learn there too, so don’t forget to go check out the site).

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While online culture increasingly favors a posture of transparent, even mundane personhood, Igor Ballereau and Jody Pou buck this trend with the enigmatic netlabel SHSK’H.

The name, the presentation, and the music all project a common esthetic: hushed, cryptic, reverential and sensual.  This singularity of vision makes the experience compelling.  Both the performances and recording quality are awesomely good.

There are currently three releases, presenting works by Ballereau, Kenneth Kirschner, Aaron Siegel, Giuliano D’Angiolini, and Etsuko Chida performing traditional Japanese koto kumiuta.  Recordings of Webern by Jody Pou and Emily Manzo are planned for this summer, and something for Garth Knox will go up this winter.

The recordings are made available free under a Creative Commons license, but donations are invited.

I’m inspired by both the music and the model; SHSK’H makes a persuasive case for the website as performance space.

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Given the rarity of records and performances of the music of Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) through the 1970s, my first encounters with him were like everyone else: references in the “populist music of the 30s and 40s” section of 20th-century history books, and as arranger of the American version of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera that we all knew from the old (& wonderful) original-cast recording. Works such as his iconic The Cradle will Rock and Airborne Symphony were still talked about, but quite hard to track down and hear. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that revivals and reassesments began, with good biographies coming even later.

Though his trajectory parallels Weill’s or Copland’s in some way, moving from serious, cutting-edge classical to more readily accessible forms derived from popular music and musical theater, Blitzstein stuck with the agitator’s role to the end: works with a strong social message, whether against dictators of fascism or capitalism, and solidarity with the dispossesed and outsider. His reward as a political outsider was to be blacklisted in the red-scare 50s; and as a sexual outsider (though married, Blitzstein was rather openly gay) to be beaten to death in Martinique.

But before all that, there was the 20-something student from a well-to-do Jewish family, studying in Europe with both Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger. This younger self, as John Jannson’s Blitzstein website writes, was “a self-proclaimed and unrepentant artistic snob who firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite. He was vociferous in denouncing composers – in particular Kurt Weill – whom he felt debased their standards to reach a wider public.”

That young, arty-elitist composer is the one that our good friends at Other Minds have set out to document, with a new CD hitting the shelves May 12th. Titled First Life, it contains a number of unpublished and barely-heard works from the late 20s and early 30s, given passionate performances by pianist Sarah Cahill and the Del Sol String Quartet. This is smart and energetic music, filled with then-experimental flourishes, and well worth putting on your shelf or in your playlist.

WNYC’s Sara Fishko recently profiled the CD, as well as the rest of the great Other Minds CD catalog, on her The Fishko Files program; it’s still up for listening here.

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April 18, 2009 is National Record Store Day. Despite the embattled state of the “brick and mortar” retail record business, dozens of shops are planning a host of events, including in-store performances, giveaways, and the sale special products (including limited edition 7” vinyl singles) to celebrate the day. A website has been set up, listing participating stores and events occurring on the 18th.

Last year, Kay and I had a grand time on Record Store Day in New Jersey, visiting Vintage Vinyl, Princeton Record Exchange, and Jack’s. This year, we’re planning to check out the aforementioned, plus Sound Station in Westfield or another contender in NJ/NYC.

Check out File Under ? throughout the week for updates on instores and promotions.

Making an appearance on Record Store Day? Let us know in the comments below.

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Various Artists - the language of

QUIET DESIGN RECORDS


the language of is a compilation CD of ten pieces by eight emerging composers in NYC, many of whom are associated with the Wet Ink Ensemble.  Released by Quiet Design Records in Austin, TX, this compilation is a forward-thinking treatise on a constantly evolving new music scene.  The production, recording, and design chores were undertaken by the composers and their colleagues, thus comprising a very personalized aesthetic. the language of is an essential purchase, not only for its DIY approach, but because it contains a variety of exciting, well executed compositions.  And due to the wobbly legs of the music industry, resourceful composers could do well by using this CD as a business model.

There is an immediacy and yearning to the music featured on this CD.  The emotional content (which, of course, varies from piece to piece) is enhanced by the recording techniques used to create the myriad sound-worlds, an approach that is both startling and engaging.  There is not one ounce of sonic sterility that one might find on pristinely recorded chamber music CDs.  Many of the recording techniques used are in-your-face, close mic’d, compressed, and manipulated to each pieces’ ambient requirements.  Some of the pieces that most represent traditional chamber music are ambient mic’d, a representation that provides a bird’s-ear-view (sorry about that one) for the listener, or an aural realism, if you will.   The variety of production from piece to piece is therefore more akin to the world of rock, jazz, and experimental music.  The packaging, designed by composer Clara Latham, is an attractive and environmentally friendly cardboard cover that features nothing in the form of liner notes (this may be one of my only complaints, but it definitely adds a veil of mystery to the release).

A brief overview of each piece follows after the break: Read the rest of this entry »

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Veda Hille – Indie pop plus Hindemith!

 

Vancouver’s Veda Hille is an indie singer/songwriter who fashions classical instrumentation and catchy tunes into an erudite pop style. This Riot Life, her latest CD, draws on a wide assortment of influences. Its frequent eschatological references and cryptically, messianic-tinged lyrics (“Ace of the Nazarene,” “Book of Saints, ““Rose of Sharon”) represent a recent find: an old hymnal belonging to her grandmother.

The harmonic sophistication and extended formal designs of her songs reflect Hille’s classical training, as does an unorthodox rendition of “The Moon,” a Shelley setting by Paul Hindemith. Prog-rock inflections are present too; “Book of Saints’” hook cribs the chord progression from the final section of Yes’ “Starship Trooper.” And “Lucklucky” combines minimal ostinati and a chamber orchestration with an abundantly appealing chorus. Who would’ve thought that Hindemith could rock?!?  

 

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Sunday Music: CD Samplers in the Era of Pandora
Sunday Music Volume 4

Big Helium Records BHRSM004 / www.bighelium.com

Unlike the album driven days of yore, today it’s all about the mix. From purchasing single tracks digitally at online stores such as Itunes and Amazon to the internet radio sensation Pandora, which tailors ‘stations’ to a listener’s preferences, music is presented as eminently accessible; instant gratification, inevitable. While all aforementioned methods of mix are exciting in their potential for discovery, surfing the impossibly commercial Itunes or using Pandora’s efficient but sometimes ham-fisted engine is unlikely to provide the enlightening swerves and hidden treasures found on the best mixtapes and compilation CDs.
Sunday Music, promoted by Barnes and Noble and released by Big Helium, has to cast a wide net; but despite this, the fourth volume of the series is an intriguing mix of classical and crossover-classical fare. There are chestnuts such as Magdelena Rozena’s fluid rendition of Lascia chi’io Piange from Handel’s Rinaldo and Bernstein’s Somewhere from West Side Story: Symphonic Dances. Also included are current favorites: Hilary Hahn playing Bach beautifully and Sting singing a lute song: Robert Johnson’s Have you Seen the Bright Lilly Grow. While no one will mistake the latter for Rogers Covey-Crump or Andreas Scholl anytime soon, his crooning take on the Elizabethan repertory has introduced a number of listeners to its charms.
True, some of the pop-oriented moments – Lisa Gerrard’s evocative but somewhat out-of-place instrumental The Unfolding and Craig Armstrong’s regrettably New Age take on Be Still My Soul – dilute the classical bent of the CD and may raise the eyebrows of purists. Rather, what makes Sunday Music 4 better than your average comp disc are its adventurous classical choices. The inclusion of up and comer Eric Whitacre’s Lux Autumque, with its lush cluster chords and ambient atmosphere, is a master stroke, as is Anna Netrebko’s glorious rendition of O Silver Moon from Dvorak’s Rusalka. Pepe Romero playing Rodrigo and a Schubert Impromptu performed by Wilhelm Kempf round out the disc in handsome fashion. While designed for the Sunday brunch set, this CD promises to keep things interesting and may well spur on many a conversation about classical music discoveries; something that keeps the spirit of the mixtape/comp CD very much alive.

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Steve Reich’s seminal 1967 Piano Phase has always been a fantastic challenge for any two pianists. But here is the Russian Peter Aidu (b. 1976) going them all one better, by performing both parts solo, on two pianos at once.

Released on the netlabel Top-40, the complete recording is available to freely download at Archive.org. (There’s also a link there to further information on the pianist and release, and the MP3 download at Archive.org is fine, but I would recommend NOT visiting directly the Top-40 homepage. There may be some malware lurking there!)

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James CombsJames Combs, composer… Ah, where to start?… I met James years ago, in our formerly-shared hometown of Seattle. Truly a “regular-Joe” in person, giving little hint of the ornate wheels spinning underneath. An anecdote on James’ blog seems a perfect illustration of the man and the work:

A Minimalist Experience
A boring Sunday, really not so much different than any other Sunday.  March 16, 2008, I went for a drive to run some miscellaneous errands.  My wife informed me that we were in some need of household items which could be purchased at the nearest store.  So heading to the store on this boring Sunday, I am ever increasingly slipping slowly, steadily, into a trance state while driving.  I am sure it was not unsafe, and I believe there is a name for it.  Highway hypnosis.  The condition where you arrive at your destination while not recalling much of the way there.  I remember arriving at the store that boring Sunday and noticing the parking lot was quite full.  This pulled me out of my trance to an irritating degree.  Not finding one parking spot, my wife decided to run in and get the couple of items and I would simply drive around the parking lot until she made her way back outside.  So I started driving steadily, cautiously through the parking lot which went in a round about.  The first loop, I was concerned with looking out for other cars, but I have to say by the time I made it to my second lap I was really feeling the track, memorizing all the angles.  By the time I hit the third lap I was steering around vehicles and halting with expert dexterity for crossing traffic through the parking lot, the track.  I can’t remember what lap I was on when my cell phone rang and woke me up from my hypnotic state.  It was my wife wondering why I kept driving past her, waiting outside the front of the store.

Self-taught, James writes smallish, fairly static, elegant and polished yet absolutely irrational piano pieces. Pieces from another century’s drawing room – though that century could only be invented in the here and now. Maybe if we overlayed glass slides of Chopin, Satie, Stravinsky, Feldman, Glass, Eno, then maybe… Each small piece has the quality of a Mark Ryden painting; antique poise and luminescence recalled in a disturbing dream from just last night. James makes no claims to intrude on Brian Ferneyhough’s turf; yet for all their simplicity these modest piano pieces show the most wonderful intuition for line, sonority, weight and color, all at just the right moment. I suppose we could call the pieces “etudes”, but what they teach would be philosophical rather than technical. There’s also a kind of deadpan humor, a bit of Buster Keaton or even Steven Wright (“I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time’. So I ordered french toast during the Renaissance.”) running through the whole ethos. So what kind of music is this? Again, I’ll let James explain:

“Classical” … The meaning of this word pertaining to music obviously is defined as a musical form.  So what is this meaning?  Ask any average guy and he would probably say “like what Mozart and Beethoven composed.”  Hey, he would be absolutely correct.  I mean, there was an age long ago termed the “classical period.”  This period was defined not only within the music, but paintings, architecture, poetry, etc.

So if you ask the average “Joe” what contemporary classical is, they might scratch their head and reference ?  I mean, most likely.  And that’s the problem.  Is rock a period?  Is jazz a period (I know about the age, but we’re talking music)?  The term “classical” is a definite problem.  It links the past to the present under false pretenses.  Imagine Philip Glass or Steve Reich being asked “what genre of music to you compose for?”  They answer “impressionism.”  That is if we swap out the word classical in favor of the word impressionism, both a period so would it matter? 

Does the use of the word classical as a blanket definition of all eras of this form in turn form a bias within academia and elitists?  Meaning, to pick classical as the word might say to some that the era of classical itself is the most relevant to every genre.  Here in Seattle our “classical” radio station rarely strays (some might say deviates) from the baroque, classical and romantic eras.  I would bet that to be the case for every metropolitan city around the world. 

Do you want a solution?  Take out “classical” as the definition of all periods in aforementioned music and replace with “amaranth.”  An unfading flower. 

I compose amaranth music.  I compose amaranth music in a contemporary style.

James first self-produced CD release, Charmed Elixers, is available now on both CD Baby and iTunes.

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At the start of 2007, I told you about my composer/sound-artist pal Chris DeLaurenti’s great new CD release, Favorite Intermissions. A collection of recordings made during symphony concerts around the country, of everything but the concert itself; the warm-ups, noodles and doodles from both pre- and mid-concert, framed to draw our attention to the fun, beauty and serendipity these moments hold. Released on GD Records, it included a wonderfully cheeky cover, a parody/homage to the classic Deutsche Grammophon covers (shown here for illustration only!): 

Response was good, with positive notices in places like the Wire, Signal to Noise and even the New York Times. But an 800-pound fly showed up in the ointment: Universal Music Group, now-parent to Deutsche Grammophon, took a dim view of Chris’ cover-art tribute, demanding that all copies be immediately recalled and destroyed.

After lengthy negotiation, Chris’ CD has been given the green light again, and is once more available, though now with this slightly revised cover. To learn more about the pieces and concept, you can listen to an interview with Chris about this work, and his musical/phonographic work in general.

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