Yearly Archives: 2011


If anyone seriously interested in creating music isn’t listening to Björk, and namely her new album, Biophilia, I don’t know what they’re doing.  I’m talking here to composers, producers, singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, whatever.  Music industry types are certainly taking notice, since project is being released simultaneously as an album and an app.  The app is said to be revolutionary, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is.  Not having an iPad myself, I can’t comment.  But that’s OK, since everyone else is already talking about the app, and I want to talk about the music itself, which is more than enough topic for conversation.

Many Björk albums have an orchestrational unity.  With Vespertine, she explored the tinkly sounds of celestas, music boxes and harps; Medúlla was a study in a cappella; Volta was largely defined by brass.  Biophilia incorporates all these sounds and textures, and of course Björk’s many flavors of electronic beats.  She adds some startling instruments to her palette, the tesla coil being one, and the commissioned gameleste being another:

But Björk’s real sonic obsession on this album is the organ, and she gets everything she can out of it.  There are Messiaen-like cluster progressions:

There’s are chiffy bass lines and percussive jabs:

And a sort of minimalist, modal/tonal hymnody:

Now, as with all Björk projects, this one is a collaboration, so one does wonder who is directly responsible for writing these organ parts.  Until I can see some liner notes, I’m glad to believe that Björk herself.  She arranged much of the brass music for Volta, and like that album, the organ harmonies here are so integrated with the vocal lines, it seems impossible that she is not their author.  And even if she’s not, she certainly deserves credit for assembling the whole thing.

I think that what appeals so much to me about the organ on this album is that as Björk steadily expands her use of electronics, she also steadily expands her use of acoustic instruments.  What’s more, it sounds to me like she has translated some of her previously electronic ideas into acoustic ones and, in some cases, even re-translated them back into electronic ones.

I don’t know if that even makes any sense.  Just go listen to the album like 30 times.  It has everything you’d want from Björk: epic hymns with brass and choir, aggressively undanceable dance music, bold modernist compositions, and haunting, contemplative etherea.

Here is why GLEE is the worst

Let’s ignore for a second the fact that the writing is AWFUL, that the plots never make sense, that the characters are hackneyed, that the integration of music into story is woeful, that the treacly overproduction of each and every song is an aural demoralization, and that most of the scenes are so poor that it makes me uncomfortable to watch them by myself.  No, all of that is Glee’s own business, and it’s my fault for watching it.

But when Glee decides to put on a high school production of West Side Story, it gets PERSONAL.

And since, after an artist has died it is the duty of his self-appointed representatives on earth to guard his reputation, I present a list of grievances so far this season re: WSS.

1) Mercedes and Rachel are going up against each other for the role of Maria. And why is that?  Is Mercedes really prepared to sing the high C at the end of Tonight?  Has anybody on this casting committee bothered to consider the RANGE and VOCAL TYPE needed to play any of these parts??

2) Rachel’s statement that she would sing the “classic Maria song ‘Somewhere'”. Though there is a brief — and I mean brief — a cappella reprise of “Somewhere” by Maria at the very end of the show, the theatrical version of West Side Story assigns this song is to an off-stage voice.  The actual actress playing Maria is onstage enacting the Ballet reenactment of the first act.  Somebody please do your homework.

3) Dear Idiots: the melody of “Cool” has two notes on both of the first “Boy”s. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Here’s what you did:

And this was after Mike Cheng proudly announced that he’s been “working on his singing”.  Sounds to me like he and everyone else at Glee needs to work a LOT HARDER.

4) Leonard Bernstein has not been mentioned once this season. Kurt name checked Stephen Sondheim in this past week’s episode.  It’s not like a have a problem with that per se – I’m all for mentioning the hallowed name of Sondheim whenever possible – but the line he delivered made it sound like Sondheim was the creator of West Side, and yes, he was one of the creators, but I just don’t want Lenny to be forgotten in the hubbub, since if they’re going to crap all over his songs, they might as well help popularize his name/image/work among the younger generation.  I don’t seem to recall them having mentioned him in connection with “Ohio” last season either.

So that’s why Glee is really the worst, and why it’s a crying shame that I’m going to have to keep watching it this entire season to keep them honest about their use of the West Side property.

Having said that, I will admit that Darren Criss is the perfect Tony.

Metadatal Rubrick

What with Spotify‘s arrival on our shores a few weeks ago, there have been a lot of comparisons between it and other services like Rdio, Pandora, and, of course, iTunes.  Steve Smith wrote a great article in the Times comparing the services from a classical music aficionado’s POV.  He noted that all these services have decent classical music libraries, but because of the craptastic state of Classical Music Metadata, they can be hard to search.  Here’s what he said:

The problem, as usual, comes down to data, specifically, metadata, the information that tells a computerized player what content the files on a compact disc contain and how to organize tracks you’ve downloaded from the Internet. When you pop a CD into your computer, your music player displays metadata associated with the files on the disc: usually the artist, the album title, the track titles, the date of issue and not much else.

That’s straightforward enough when you’re dealing with pop music, where songs are the lingua franca. But as anyone who has ever browsed through classical recordings on the iTunes Music Store knows, it can be daunting to locate and compare specific recordings of common works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” And the results can be muddled; is the “artist” Beethoven, the orchestra, the conductor or some combination? As yet, no standard for classical metadata exists.

OK guys – I’ve got this one.  Here’s how you should do your classical music metadata:

and here’s why:

Composer: For most classical music people, this is the single most important piece of metadata, so put it all the way on the left. As you can see, I put the composer’s first name first: it breeds familiarity.  In these days of everybody wanting to make classical music “more accessible”, doesn’t that somehow seem appropriate?

Grouping: I feel like this is the single most neglected metadata category around.  And it is so very useful to anyone seeking to organize their classical music elibrary.  Here’s why: so often, the Name category for a classical track ends up looking like this:

The people who set up the original metadata for these files were trying to cover their bets and get all the info in the Name category.  Big mistake.  The actual title of the piece, in this case the name of the movement, is hidden!  Well, we know one step to getting the solution: put the composer in the Composer category.  But then do we leave the files looking like this?

Luckily, we don’t have to.  There’s a handy category called Grouping, so that we get a very neat looking presentation:

I find that using the Grouping category makes browsing an individual composer’s works much, much easier:

Name: I’ve mostly covered this already, but the one thing to note is that in classical music, there’s often the issue of movement number, i.e. 1. Allegro non troppo.  Should it be an Arabic numeral or Roman?  Who cares?  Does it matter if it’s even there or not?  Yes and no.  This very much depends on how the album information is organized.  [More on that soon.]  I usually just stick with whatever is already in the Name section.

Time: This section is somewhat superfluous, since the timing is given in the Play box at the top of the iTunes player.  I keep it around because it’s useful for programming concerts.  It’s also sometimes fun to order your music by timing.  That way, if you’ve got 15 minutes before you have to run and catch the bus – and not a second more – AND you want to fill that time completely with music, you could come up with a list like this*:

*this is also useful for hard boiling an egg.

Album: Album is the Big Daddy of all the metadata.  No matter what you use as your basic organizational category (i.e. Composer, in my case), Album is automatically the next category of preference.  This used to bother me a lot, and I experimented with changing the Album titles to match the organizing principle that I wanted to follow, so that I could, say, have all the symphonies of Alfred Schnittke listed in order:

But I found that this became way too time consuming, and I usually wanted to keep the actual name of the album for future reference.  And sometimes, you actually want to listen to an album in order, so now I don’t mess with it, and I just live with the fact that pieces that I would logically expect to be adjacent to one another simply are not.  Sometimes life just doesn’t live up to our expectations.

Artist: Again, I usually just leave this as it comes, unless it’s totally nonsensical or if I can simplify it a lot.  i.e:


So, this is what I’ve come up with.  I know that others do it differently.  Gabe, for example, alphabetizes by the Composer’s last name, and uses Album View.  These days, what with iTunes 10.x or whatever we’re on, there’s tons of categories to choose from.

So, how do you guys do it?

Great Moments in Classical Music Cinematography

Lots of blog space has been devoted to the various horrors of classical music LP and CD cover art.  But methinks a great deal of plumbing is left to do in the world of video!

1. Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
Alexis Weissenberg, pianist; Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Let’s start with this chestnut from Herbert von Karajan, an entertainment dynamo whose vast ego pushed him to ever more creative, and ludicrous, video projects.  It’s moments like this that have made his an ever-reliable name in the cringe department:

The color scheme, the obvious miming on the part of the musicians, the irreverent placement of wind players, the great “action shot” literally coming from the piano’s action with no discernable movement from the hammers: it’s a veritable smorgasbord of delights.  [Not to mention that 2:10 – 2:20ish makes a very convincing case for filming classical music performances in 3D!]

2. Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra, mvmt. 4
Lorin Maazel, conductor

So, lot to pick apart here.  First, there’s the fact that Maestro Maazel seems to be communicating with his home planet during the opening 10 seconds of this clip.  Then there’s his utterly unique solution to the tricky meter transition right around 2:19. [By the way, let me just interrupt here and say that one often hears about Loren Maazel being a conductor with a flawless technique.  I mean, 4rlz?  My sneaking suspicion is that the original source for this popular opinion is none other than… Lorin Maazel.  I’m not saying that he’s a bad conductor AT ALL… or am I?]

Then of course there’s all the camera spinning, the gong action, the trombones, etc…

3. Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Sergiu Celibidache, conductor

OK, so I’ll finish this installment with a little gem that first came to my attention via one of those “The Art of Conducting” VHSs that I used to watch like 10 times a day when I was in high school.  A very young Celibidache conducting Beethoven’s “Egmont”:

There’s no fancy camera work here, but there is some amazing editing (I mean, come on, 7:13? Srsly u guys?) and the fact that Celibidache’s hair looks like it was spring loaded by the special effects department.  And then there’s that set, which, what exactly is it?  Might it be a discarded “Lion’s Den” from a production of Der Freischütz.  For a nation destroyed by war, trying to reclaim its international reputation by means of its illustrious artistic tradition, this was an… interesting choice.