Big Helium Records BHRSM004 / www.bighelium.com
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Archive for the “Recordings” Category
Oct 11 2008
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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May 13 2008
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!)
May 07 2008
James 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
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.
Mar 31 2008
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.
Feb 15 2008
Just when you thought we’ve been musically laying low… There’s a brand-new online-only CD release by fellow S21 regular and composer David Toub, realized by yours truly (Steve Layton, for those of you who don’t read the bottom post tag). It just became available on iTunes (US, also now or very soon in UK/Europe, Australia and Japan) on my little NiwoSound label; expect its appearance on eMusic as well very soon. The CD is in the “electronic” genre at both places, but purely as a matter of expediting the release; if it’s not classical I don’t know what is!
David’s darfur pogrommen, composed only a few months ago, is another expansive minimalist essay; its single continuous movement clocks in at 47 minutes. There’s no real attempt at programmatic writing; rather — like many of David’s other pieces — the title is a marker of a moment, that can call up whatever associations the listener might have in relation to it.
The piece is for open instrumentation. David’s own first recorded version used synthy string sounds, but I decided to give it a kind of “old school” treatment: a Reich-Glass hybrid with a vibraphone and electric organ taking the two primary parts, and electric piano and two more organs adding secondary voices. It trades a little lushness, but finds a bright, hard and uncompromising edge.
The biggest influence is still “classic” 60s-70s Glass, but David has his own way with how figures intuitively expand and contract, the harmonies involved, and his preference for alternating and pulsing notes. But later in the piece there’s a spot that to my ears definitely pays tribute to Morton Feldman as well. Surprising and beautiful!
Though there are many clearly defined sections in the piece, like so much of David’s work there’s just no way to get the whole flow with separate tracks. So if you want it, it’s all or nothing. (You can preview 30 seconds of the beginning on iTunes, but it’s a laughably hopeless indicator of what unfolds…)
Anyone wishing to burn the download to disc can also download and print this PDF file, which gives you the entire cover art and inner notes. More musically, you can freely download the PDF of the entire score from David himself.
Oh yeah: play it LOUD.
Feb 13 2008
Growing up in a podunk, nil-culture, border-ish town in Washington State, half of my classical education came by way of drifty, static-filled, late-night AM listening to the CBC. Not only work by Stravinsky, Boulez, and Xenakis, but a whole raft of amazingly strong Canadian composers: R. Murray Schafer, John Rea, Claude Vivier and the like. Many of these recordings were CBC productions, and were something that gave me an early admiration of our northern neighbor’s commitment to the arts.
But now comes word that the CBC may be essentially shuttering its recording production; what little may remain will likely be committed to the more “relevant” world of pop. Happening just in the wake of the Grammy win of violinist James Ehnes and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey, of their disc of concertos by Walton, Korngold and Barber, it all seems especially ironic and bitter.
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Jan 24 2008
Last.fm is a social-network/music site out of London, whose visitors play a huge part in creating their vast database on musicians, their recordings, their popularity, and music of related interest. Users contribute by providing hard information, photos, opinions, and even “tags” that end up linking like-to-like across the spectrum. But many also download a bit of software as well, that keeps track of what they listen to on their computer. This information is used to build a profile of a listener’s likes, and lets Last.fm steer them towards other new music they’re likely to enjoy. If you’re a musician with recordings out there in the world, chances are good there’s already a page at Last.fm with your name on it. (If that’s you on the page, you can create an artist account and “claim” it, adding pics, bio, info, even music to the page. There were three different pages on even little ol’ me! — that I discovered, corralled and am tidying up).
But the big news these past days is that Last.fm has worked out a deal with all the Big-4 music labels (EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner) and numerous independents, that makes it possible to go to the site, simply type in a name, a “tag” or genre, and just start listening to complete tracks by that composer, performer or musician. You can listen by individual artist or album, or you can listen to a varied “radio” stream of music in the same genre. In the current beta version, you can listen to any track freely three times; after that (or before, if you were already feeling spendy) you can purchase the MP3s to download and keep. Even completely independent artists can sign on, upload and sell their music there, being paid directly by Last.fm.
How it all plays out… who knows? But artist or listener, just head on over and give it a test-drive.
Dec 29 2007
And you thought the only ones who needed to worry were the illegal file-sharers? After reading this article, think again:
…in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.
The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.
“I couldn’t believe it when I read that,” says Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA. “The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your computer is a violation.”