Friday, August 31, 2007

Stupid Machine!

Two weekends ago I ventured to the western side of the state for the last time this summer for a two friends' wedding. (To each other. Congratulations Joel and Miranda) Being both musicians there were a few people there to wax musicological with, including a post-doc fellow from Lawrence and a friend starting her doctorate at Northwestern this year. (Congratulations Elissa) As conversations with other people tend to go I felt stupid and over my head by the end of it.

It's different kinds of stupid and over my head each time, however. This time I left the reception wondering just how ill-prepared I was should I attempt to continue on in musicology. It's not that I've taken less music history than the average performer, but most everyone else has had the opportunity (or obligation) to crawl inside many of the great masterworks, be it through song or orchestra or string quartet or whatever. Even at my most evangelical I can only find a handful of guitar pieces that might make mention in a general textbook.

Most of the major landmarks of the guitar repertoire, often the ones most responsible for extending the instrument's vocabulary such as Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal and Manuel de Falla's Homenaje a Le Tombeau de Debussy, are speedbumps in the respective composers' careers. A notable exception to this is Elliott Carter's Changes (no YouTube video, sorry), marking his turn towards production for solo instruments.

There are three exceptions to this quagmire, that I see anyway. One has managed to worm its way into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where it practically defines the music of a region. By this I mean Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez, particularly its Adagio. Yeah, it's famous and all, but taken in context a lot of its appeal comes from its quaint neoromantic stylings. The second is one of two appearances of any fretted instrument in the venerable Norton Anthology, John Dowland's lute song "Flow, my tears". That's cool , but it's really in there more to show how vocal songs became instrument works (see Lachrymae Pavan) and c'mon, it's the fucking lute.

I've got one tricksy weapon up my sleeve. Even passing musicologists know of Luis Narvaez's Guardame las vacas, a vihuela tune from the 17th century. Since it's the first documented example of a theme and variations. Booyakasha!

Perhaps I'm being too sad sacky about all this. While I lack the forced knowledge that playing important pieces brings, I also won't have the baggage that someone who bombed through said pieces in youth orchestra might have. Furthermore I'm sure people who've played dumber instruments have had success. Anyway, if you're unfamiliar with any of these hawt geetar jamz, all of the preceding links are to YouTube performances. So enjoy with gusto.

Pool image snagged from the Google Earth forums, photographer alas unknown

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Guard's Question Time III: Back to Schooled

Soho the Dog apparently is going to make this gatling quiz of his a regular occurrence. Since I was either outstanding or foolish or a combination of the both enough to make his gold star round-up of the last one, I am obligated, nay demanded, to participate in this one. I'm a sucker for them anyway.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Ha ha! You didn't say classical music! I could say when Lenny's "America" shows up at the beginning of Metallica's "Don't Tread on Me"!

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

Alarm Will Sound/Aphex Twin "Acoustica"

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

This is actually the hardest one to answer. Probably La Monte Young's naming system for his performances. They're difficult to drop into conversation. (Just as he is himself!)

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?

Britten, unless Tippett has written something for the guitar and then I might have to reconsider.

5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Does Anne-Sophie Mutter count? For safety's sake I'll say Alice Coltrane, also.

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Zappa's "I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth." Sorry Frank, too noodly this time. And there go everyone's web filters.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Cavalleria Rustica in Godfather III almost makes the film watchable.

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

I'm really surprised that no one has smashed the Sting Dowland album yet. But now Josh Groban! Barf barf barf.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Marvin Gaye, if solely for his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Frank Gehry, or Michaelangelo Antonioni

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Hetfield of Cooking

Just when I thought Anthony Bourdain couldn't get more awexome.

"I know there's deep inside (me) some lazy hippie who'd be perfectly happy to lay on the couch, smoke weed and watch `The Simpsons' all day," he said.

"I'm really afraid of that guy. I don't like him. I don't want him around. And my whole life is kind of constructed to avoid reverting to that guy: Stay busy. Stay focused. Try not to mess up."

The man is seriously the best thing on television. If it were not for the fact that they are separated by the network divide, a No Reservation/Feasting On Asphalt mashup would be the only thing that could supercede it. Alton Brown's worship of Americana combined with Bourdain's hatred of it would made for compelling TV.

Quote snagged from this Yahoo! article

Sunday, August 12, 2007

That Noise Is Bootleg, Man

Perhaps that crack with me mentioning the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the same breath merits some further explanation. I didn't always hold the idea that "all recordings are bootlegs" even in the past day I've realize some of the folly of such extremism. Say, for instance, perennial Guard favorite "For Ann (rising)"? As far as I know a performance of it is merely mashing go on the jambox, so is the individual listener less qualified to do that?

Electronic art music aside, my aphorism is a mashup of Alex Ross's stance of "All recordings are fakes" and some reviewer of Brian Wilson's Smile (I want to say Rolling Stone but then that would be admitting to reading it) calling it "the best bootleg of [his] original vision." The term fake seems too harsh to me, as though any pleasure derived from it is somehow dishonourable. Bootlegs, at least in the Phish tape-trader sense of the word, to me implies a lovingly made but essentially flawed product.

And it was the BSO that really hammered this home. Perhaps the naysayers are right that the imperceptible information that modern codecs does contain all the voodoo that makes a performances, or whatever. I was able to pay attention all the way through Beethoven 6!

From my original statement it does sound like it was Southern rock that opened my rock the powah of the rawk show. In fact Skynyrd was my first rock show; I went there with my bestest gentleman friend and his parents at the age of 13 (I know, late start). Too bad it was spectacularly terrible. The sound system was bad, the vocals were clipping the whole time, the playing was apathetic. To add insult to injury we had to cheer for 12 goddamn minutes before they put us out of our misery with their encore. If Johnny Rotten had come up to me putting a caring hand on my shoulder and asked if I had been cheated, I would have said yes.

But why? I'm crabby after attending a mediocre performance, but this sucked. For all the things are awexome for the Beatles destroying the songwriter/performer dialectic, it stands that a Skynyrd show is the only place where the yelling of "FREEBIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRD!" is acceptable, so you think they'd honor their exclusive rights and at least try to play it okay. I am not upset when listening to a Stravinsky performance because he isn't there, and yet rock covers always have a taint about them. So here's a case where the bootleg far exceeds the performance. Rock music is weird.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

You Can't Hear What You Can't Hear

A real post instead of apologies. I willingly identify myself as a young'un as far as musicology goes, so my kneejerk reaction to AC Douglas and the San Francisco Chronicle's curmudgeonry about iPods and the MP3 format is likely something less than unexpected. Hopefully here's a more polite version.

The concept of psychoacoustic models can be made to sound spooky: outright discarding of music! But the point of throwing away what you can't hear is that you can't hear it. You brain will fill in the gaps. Perhaps the audience replies "But I can hear it that." And that could be true, you may be one of those people, musician or audiophile, that has trained your ears to pick up on those subtleties. However therein you've accept the implicit burden of any connoiseur, other people en't going to even pick up on the details that you find pleasure in. It's sort of like standing at a liquor store deciding between Oban and Glenmorangie to look over and see three guys in visors holding a sleeve of red Solo cups and a case of Keystone Light. Maybe a better analogy is the difference between a scotch and water and a scotch and 7-Up. Whatever, I can't afford scotch.

Recall the size of the Interwub's pipes back in 1995 when the MP3 format went public, any other compression scheme that got a sound file to that realm was similar to listen to an AM radio over a telephone. It was the MP3 format that finally introduced real music (as opposed to instrument-based a la MIDI) to the Internet, which most people can agree has had positive consequences. Not just in terms of digital distribution but anywhere there was limited storage capacity.

Of course without reasonably sized digital music files there would not have been a market for digital music players. Now the iPod can plausably blamed for a number of things: the decline of the album, people not saying hello on the street, walking into traffic, etc. However discouraging people to attend live performance and the propagation of inferior sound files aren't two of them.

The first is old territory. A combination of the BSO and Skynyrd have taught me to treat all recordings as bootlegs. Very accurate bootlegs at times, but bootlegs none the less. The one overwhelming advantage of these bootlegs, especially in combination with my iPod, is the ability to put them into whatever context I choose. To refer to me as being part of the Great Unwashed Masses because I greatly relish listening to Michael Gordon's Trance during rush hour in Copley Square or Kenny Garrett by a river is bullshit. The loss in fidelity in MP3 compression is nothing compared to a shitty performance.

But yelling at the iPod for poorly compressed files is yelling at the wrong people. 90% of everyone is going to use the defaults, so the defaults will have to change for the better for the cloud of data to improve. And this happening. MP3, despite having survived for a decade of notoriety, is not a format for the ages. (For comparison, the ZIP format is 18 years old. GIFs are 22.) A growing number of files are using the AAC format due to its endorsement as the format for the iTunes music store. The touted DRM-free iTunes Plus files are also at a higher bitrate, and hence discard less material.

The audiophile's most likely savior, as it is mentioned in the Chronicle article, is the endless quest for more storage. The average MP3 for a 3 minute pop song, even when crushed to a paltry 64kbps, is still bigger than 1.44 MB and would have been considered immovable by floppy-era standards. Over the past five years iPods have leapt in capacity from 5GB to 80GB. Even an audio-completist such as myself hasn't been able to expand their library by a factor of 16 in that time. Even with videos, all this extra space will quietly lead to an improvement in lossy formats and maybe eventually a switch to lossless ones. (Although a biggening of the series of tubes may be more imperative as more and more people get their music that way.)

Alas, the standard of audiophilia goes up as well. 96 bit recording, 4 times that of the previous norm, is becoming the de facto standard, especially for 5.1 digital recording. Just as the old story goes that the length of a compact disc was dictated by Beethoven's Ninth, so could it be the yardstick again. Those of you that fear MP3s can finally join the digital music player cause, at 96 bits the Ninth perfectly fits an 80 gig iPod.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Farm Team

Windmill (Non-Operational)

Just as soon as I start to regain some semblance of a rhythm to this (Rhythm! Har!), fate sweeps me back to the farm. This one is a expected absence as opposed to an absence of sloth or ill inspiration. I'll try and post if I decide to be creepy and huff off of an unsecured wireless connection in my car.

In case any of you were interested in this farm I keep mentioning, here's a Flickr set of the mighty Hanson manor.