Technology

The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B002LCOQTG

I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

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"You're Still Going to Get Dated"

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

52157.girltalkalbum.jpg

This image proudly not used with permission.

What does it mean to be digital? Only a computer can say for sure, and they’re not talking. As for us human’s, we’re still analog in the way we think and function and act, and I hope we’ll stay that way for the conceivable future. We are not digital, but our tools are increasingly digital. It’s the conflation of the two which leads to the wrong question being asked, which further leads to answers that are jejune and materialistic. Why isn’t Negroponte’s book completely available digitally? Because being digital loses out to making money.

So, asking the wrong question means we can never get close to the answers we need. The right question, I think, is what does it mean to have digital tools? This is the answer that a lot of people and organizations, record labels most famously, are struggling with. Having digital tools means, fundamentally, that information of all kinds can be immediately and widely available (except, of course, “Being Digital”) and that the same information no longer has the structural integrity to which we’re accustomed. We think of things like books and recording as objects, when their physical manifestation is their packaging. This is not to denigrate the packaging – the Kindle has no appeal to me, because their is a physical part of reading that has to to with the pleasure of holding a book, smelling it and turning the pages. The package can also be an important part of the work itself, as it is with McSweeney’s, which consistently finds exciting and satisfying ways to put words in the palm of the reader’s hand. The same is true for music. Although I currently have almost 60GB of digital music, that’s still far less than what I have on CDs, and digital music cannot produce the same rich packaging that is possible with the physical object.

Still, what books and music are, fundamentally, are structured sequences of words and sounds, and those exist independently of their packaging. And those can be digitized. With that, all of a sudden, a book or recording can be broken down to its component parts. Again, and this is because we are proudly analog machines, with a free-flowing and unpredictable imagination, this is not a new idea or procedure. But with digital tools, it’s far easier to make use of these opportunities than it was when scissors, razor blades, glue and tape were the means of (re)production.

Artists have been challenging the integrity of works for at least 2000 years, and it was the early 20th century that saw the creation of new work from fragments of other work become a codified method. With digital tools, this method suddenly becomes available to everyone, and this is the exciting and to some worrying possibility. We are all post-modern now, and in the dated, practical, not theoretical sense. The means of (re)production are in the hands of the masses, and development of material history that Karl Marx never predicted, especially because he didn’t have much use for the masses themselves. However, when you see how frightened politicians, news organizations and especially record companies are of the digital masses, it’s clear that we are seeing some constructive threats to the status quo. That part is good; most politicians, news organizations and record companies are ignorant, stupid and sclerotic, knowing only “how things are done,” rather than knowing howto do things, and of benefit to only a very small circle of people.

The part that’s not good, however, is that revolutionaries are also utopians, and attempts to create utopias on earth always end up damaging people’s lives, often permanently. With digital music, i.e. the world of sampling and file sharing, the damage is taking money out of the hands of the actual producers, the musicians themselves. And it’s happening, clothed in the easy language of anti-corporate rhetoric. I have no sympathy for the giant music labels – they bully, they use their weight to take possession of work they themselves did not make, charge almost $20 for something that takes about $.75 to produce, and pay salaries to a select few that have no actual relation to the worth of their work/contribution. The fact that musicians can now produce well-made music inexpensively and sell it, digitally, directly to listeners is fantastic. But there’s some problems as well.

Take Girl Talk, and his new record “Feed The Animals.” Until last week I had never heard of him, and now, as if he were my proverbial tipping point, I not only have heard him enough but I’ve been brought to the point of . . . blogging! Indeed! I read the article with interest and was moved to download “Feed The Animals” as a sort of experiment. I used to spin records at dances in college, and I love radio, so for a long time that was what my idea of a DJ was. I’ve been interested in this rising and hazy connection between DJs as record spinners and DJs as musicians – something that digital technology makes incredibly simple – and I certainly see the possibilities in have previously recorded music and sound available as the raw materials to make new music. What seemed different about Girl Talk was his use of well-known contemporary material and his complete thumbing his nose at the idea of copyright (here I should mention that as a composer, I think copyright is important in that people should be able to not only make money from their own work but have it identified as their creation, but I also think copyright is granted for too long and is too restrictive). Composers and musicians have been making music out of other people’s music for more than a thousand years, that is they have used previous material as a basis for making their own new work. It’s how composers learn and it’s how jazz is made in general and it’s how garage bands practice. Now it’s become an entire branch of pop music, and people like DJ Shadow and especially DJ Spooky are taking material and truly transforming it into their own new work, and no a more avant-garde basis Christian Marclay has been doing tremendously creative work for decades, making music out of old LPs, the ultimate DJ as musician, and a point where they package and the content are equally important material.

So then, I wanted to hear this for myself, and I came at it feeling a bit of sympathy for his defiance of the record companies. But this was an experiment for me, and since he himself is freely taking other people’s material, I felt that $1 spent on “Feed The Animals” was appropriate. I’ve now listened to it, and I think it has two serious flaws, one philosophical and one aesthetic. But first I want to say that it is incredibly accomplished technically. Just because digital tools make it possible to splice together and mash-up recordings doesn’t make it easy to master. And it is masterful. Aesthetically, it’s interesting to hear bits and pieces of contemporary pop history appear over the transom, little evocative surprises; “What is that from?”, “I know that!”. It’s also, ultimately, dull, relentlessly 4/4 square, a digitally quantized beat and the same tempo and dynamic level for the entire length. Girl Talk says he wants to be a musician, not just a party DJ, but he’s not the former and not much of the latter, it seems. Though the impression I get is that’s okay with his fans, mainly young and white, who want music to drink beer to.

The biggest problem, though, is not musical. Girl Talk is proud of not paying rights, which means he’s proud to be a criminal, because the record is pure theft. I am a great believer in fair use, and also in giving that as generous an interpretation as possible. But when Girl Talk uses a songs entire lyric, sampled as is and recast but not transformed into his own material in the least, that’s is simply not fair use. That is plagiarism. Fair use exists to allow discussion of work and to allow the creation of new work from older material. Girl Talk is doing neither. The article states that his is possible because “his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from . . . ” is simply not true, and anyone with ears can hear that it is otherwise. His samples are extensive and his use is so mechanical and so without musical quality and thought – he has not made music so much as shown how other music can be stacked and shoved together – that there is none of his own quality in the record.

An example of what I feel falls under fair use, and which takes previous material and transforms it into something utterly new, and wonderful, is the work of Ergo Phizmiz. His collaboration with People Like Us on “Perpetuum Mobile” is delightful and astonishing, made with great humor and musicality. Here is a case where most of the samples are indeed short, and at best only vaguely identifiable as perhaps something heard in passing, somewhere, sometime before. The more extensive samples are turned into new pieces of music that successfully take old memory, of which music is the ideal art, into new memory. The difference may fundamentally be that instead of revving up a party to a specific number of beats per minute – and how unbearably material and dull is that – they seek to make music. That’s what makes a musician, and what makes possible the new out of the old. Here’s an interesting take on that process.

Digital tools especially made “Perpetuum Mobile” possible, the collaborative process and the final production. This is a whole new world of music that is happening right now and is genuinely new. Musical ideas have been reworked through history, by Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky and before and beyond. But now actual music, that actual piece of grooved vinyl or magnetic tape or binary code is being reworked in an almost physical process, and digital music making is starting to require an entirely new way of thinking about make music. I welcome this, and I welcome that fact that anyone with a Mac and a microphone can make a record. There’s a lot of musicality out there, and the means of production are now in the hands of the artists. I think more than anything else that is what scares the record companies. They existed to finance huge chunks of studio time and to distribute recordings, but now musicians don’t need the studio and can distribute everything themselves. The chairman of UMG should make himself useful coming up with a better business model. It’s not like it isn’t out there. The established companies that I see taking advantage of the ease of recording and distribution are DG and Decca, as well as the in-house labels of institutions like the Chicago Symphony. Yeah, it’s the stodgy world of classical music that has adapted to new technology the best (that and Peter Gabriel, of course). Recording complete concerts and making them digital downloads, with PDF booklets, is simple and brilliant. No expensive takes and retakes in the studio, and a unique musical experience. Want to hear great orchestras play great music in the concert hall? There it is. Also, if the prices I’ve been buying this stuff at are truly accurate, than these same type of labels are making profits off their excellent back catalogs and still making it dirt cheap for the consumer (hurry, the comparable Eugene Ormandy set I paid $9.99 three weeks ago is now $49.99 download). By offering something unique at a good price they essentially remove the need or desire for file sharing. It’s not complicated. But of course these labels don’t need to huge margins to finance their CEOs’ salaries.

I’m sorry I spent that $1 though. And I don’t doubt the thief is going to keep it. You should go take it for free, though. And pass it around.

"You're Still Going to Get Dated"

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

52157.girltalkalbum.jpg

This image proudly not used with permission.

What does it mean to be digital? Only a computer can say for sure, and they’re not talking. As for us human’s, we’re still analog in the way we think and function and act, and I hope we’ll stay that way for the conceivable future. We are not digital, but our tools are increasingly digital. It’s the conflation of the two which leads to the wrong question being asked, which further leads to answers that are jejune and materialistic. Why isn’t Negroponte’s book completely available digitally? Because being digital loses out to making money.

So, asking the wrong question means we can never get close to the answers we need. The right question, I think, is what does it mean to have digital tools? This is the answer that a lot of people and organizations, record labels most famously, are struggling with. Having digital tools means, fundamentally, that information of all kinds can be immediately and widely available (except, of course, “Being Digital”) and that the same information no longer has the structural integrity to which we’re accustomed. We think of things like books and recording as objects, when their physical manifestation is their packaging. This is not to denigrate the packaging – the Kindle has no appeal to me, because their is a physical part of reading that has to to with the pleasure of holding a book, smelling it and turning the pages. The package can also be an important part of the work itself, as it is with McSweeney’s, which consistently finds exciting and satisfying ways to put words in the palm of the reader’s hand. The same is true for music. Although I currently have almost 60GB of digital music, that’s still far less than what I have on CDs, and digital music cannot produce the same rich packaging that is possible with the physical object.

Still, what books and music are, fundamentally, are structured sequences of words and sounds, and those exist independently of their packaging. And those can be digitized. With that, all of a sudden, a book or recording can be broken down to its component parts. Again, and this is because we are proudly analog machines, with a free-flowing and unpredictable imagination, this is not a new idea or procedure. But with digital tools, it’s far easier to make use of these opportunities than it was when scissors, razor blades, glue and tape were the means of (re)production.

Artists have been challenging the integrity of works for at least 2000 years, and it was the early 20th century that saw the creation of new work from fragments of other work become a codified method. With digital tools, this method suddenly becomes available to everyone, and this is the exciting and to some worrying possibility. We are all post-modern now, and in the dated, practical, not theoretical sense. The means of (re)production are in the hands of the masses, and development of material history that Karl Marx never predicted, especially because he didn’t have much use for the masses themselves. However, when you see how frightened politicians, news organizations and especially record companies are of the digital masses, it’s clear that we are seeing some constructive threats to the status quo. That part is good; most politicians, news organizations and record companies are ignorant, stupid and sclerotic, knowing only “how things are done,” rather than knowing howto do things, and of benefit to only a very small circle of people.

The part that’s not good, however, is that revolutionaries are also utopians, and attempts to create utopias on earth always end up damaging people’s lives, often permanently. With digital music, i.e. the world of sampling and file sharing, the damage is taking money out of the hands of the actual producers, the musicians themselves. And it’s happening, clothed in the easy language of anti-corporate rhetoric. I have no sympathy for the giant music labels – they bully, they use their weight to take possession of work they themselves did not make, charge almost $20 for something that takes about $.75 to produce, and pay salaries to a select few that have no actual relation to the worth of their work/contribution. The fact that musicians can now produce well-made music inexpensively and sell it, digitally, directly to listeners is fantastic. But there’s some problems as well.

Take Girl Talk, and his new record “Feed The Animals.” Until last week I had never heard of him, and now, as if he were my proverbial tipping point, I not only have heard him enough but I’ve been brought to the point of . . . blogging! Indeed! I read the article with interest and was moved to download “Feed The Animals” as a sort of experiment. I used to spin records at dances in college, and I love radio, so for a long time that was what my idea of a DJ was. I’ve been interested in this rising and hazy connection between DJs as record spinners and DJs as musicians – something that digital technology makes incredibly simple – and I certainly see the possibilities in have previously recorded music and sound available as the raw materials to make new music. What seemed different about Girl Talk was his use of well-known contemporary material and his complete thumbing his nose at the idea of copyright (here I should mention that as a composer, I think copyright is important in that people should be able to not only make money from their own work but have it identified as their creation, but I also think copyright is granted for too long and is too restrictive). Composers and musicians have been making music out of other people’s music for more than a thousand years, that is they have used previous material as a basis for making their own new work. It’s how composers learn and it’s how jazz is made in general and it’s how garage bands practice. Now it’s become an entire branch of pop music, and people like DJ Shadow and especially DJ Spooky are taking material and truly transforming it into their own new work, and no a more avant-garde basis Christian Marclay has been doing tremendously creative work for decades, making music out of old LPs, the ultimate DJ as musician, and a point where they package and the content are equally important material.

So then, I wanted to hear this for myself, and I came at it feeling a bit of sympathy for his defiance of the record companies. But this was an experiment for me, and since he himself is freely taking other people’s material, I felt that $1 spent on “Feed The Animals” was appropriate. I’ve now listened to it, and I think it has two serious flaws, one philosophical and one aesthetic. But first I want to say that it is incredibly accomplished technically. Just because digital tools make it possible to splice together and mash-up recordings doesn’t make it easy to master. And it is masterful. Aesthetically, it’s interesting to hear bits and pieces of contemporary pop history appear over the transom, little evocative surprises; “What is that from?”, “I know that!”. It’s also, ultimately, dull, relentlessly 4/4 square, a digitally quantized beat and the same tempo and dynamic level for the entire length. Girl Talk says he wants to be a musician, not just a party DJ, but he’s not the former and not much of the latter, it seems. Though the impression I get is that’s okay with his fans, mainly young and white, who want music to drink beer to.

The biggest problem, though, is not musical. Girl Talk is proud of not paying rights, which means he’s proud to be a criminal, because the record is pure theft. I am a great believer in fair use, and also in giving that as generous an interpretation as possible. But when Girl Talk uses a songs entire lyric, sampled as is and recast but not transformed into his own material in the least, that’s is simply not fair use. That is plagiarism. Fair use exists to allow discussion of work and to allow the creation of new work from older material. Girl Talk is doing neither. The article states that his is possible because “his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from . . . ” is simply not true, and anyone with ears can hear that it is otherwise. His samples are extensive and his use is so mechanical and so without musical quality and thought – he has not made music so much as shown how other music can be stacked and shoved together – that there is none of his own quality in the record.

An example of what I feel falls under fair use, and which takes previous material and transforms it into something utterly new, and wonderful, is the work of Ergo Phizmiz. His collaboration with People Like Us on “Perpetuum Mobile” is delightful and astonishing, made with great humor and musicality. Here is a case where most of the samples are indeed short, and at best only vaguely identifiable as perhaps something heard in passing, somewhere, sometime before. The more extensive samples are turned into new pieces of music that successfully take old memory, of which music is the ideal art, into new memory. The difference may fundamentally be that instead of revving up a party to a specific number of beats per minute – and how unbearably material and dull is that – they seek to make music. That’s what makes a musician, and what makes possible the new out of the old. Here’s an interesting take on that process.

Digital tools especially made “Perpetuum Mobile” possible, the collaborative process and the final production. This is a whole new world of music that is happening right now and is genuinely new. Musical ideas have been reworked through history, by Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky and before and beyond. But now actual music, that actual piece of grooved vinyl or magnetic tape or binary code is being reworked in an almost physical process, and digital music making is starting to require an entirely new way of thinking about make music. I welcome this, and I welcome that fact that anyone with a Mac and a microphone can make a record. There’s a lot of musicality out there, and the means of production are now in the hands of the artists. I think more than anything else that is what scares the record companies. They existed to finance huge chunks of studio time and to distribute recordings, but now musicians don’t need the studio and can distribute everything themselves. The chairman of UMG should make himself useful coming up with a better business model. It’s not like it isn’t out there. The established companies that I see taking advantage of the ease of recording and distribution are DG and Decca, as well as the in-house labels of institutions like the Chicago Symphony. Yeah, it’s the stodgy world of classical music that has adapted to new technology the best (that and Peter Gabriel, of course). Recording complete concerts and making them digital downloads, with PDF booklets, is simple and brilliant. No expensive takes and retakes in the studio, and a unique musical experience. Want to hear great orchestras play great music in the concert hall? There it is. Also, if the prices I’ve been buying this stuff at are truly accurate, than these same type of labels are making profits off their excellent back catalogs and still making it dirt cheap for the consumer (hurry, the comparable Eugene Ormandy set I paid $9.99 three weeks ago is now $49.99 download). By offering something unique at a good price they essentially remove the need or desire for file sharing. It’s not complicated. But of course these labels don’t need to huge margins to finance their CEOs’ salaries.

I’m sorry I spent that $1 though. And I don’t doubt the thief is going to keep it. You should go take it for free, though. And pass it around.

Brokeback Mountain Stream

One of the major opera events of the year is the premiere performances of Charles Wuorinen’s operatic version of Brokeback Mountain. The opera comes directly from the story by Annie Proulx, who herself transformed her writing into the libretto. There is an obstacle, however: these are at the Teatro Real in Madrid, and the closest must of us will get is Tony Tommasini’s review.

Except, my friends at medici.tv are generously streaming a live webcast of the opera on this Friday, February 7, 2 p.m. EST. Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle star as Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, Ivo van Hove is the director, Titus Engel conducts. Here’s a preview:

http://www.medici.tv/brokeback-mountain-wuorinen-teatro-real-madrid-titus-engel-ivo-van-hove/embed/

Brokeback Mountain, Wuorinen – Titus Engel, Ivo van Hove – Teatro Real Madrid on medici.tv.

If you can’t catch the live stream (aren’t you working in front of a computer, though?), the webcast will be available for streaming for ninety days, starting Friday. There is also an iOS medici.tv app for watching on a mobile device, and it works nicely depending on available bandwidth. While you’re enjoying the show, considering a medici.tv subscription, they have a mind-boggling library of live and archived music, opera and dance performances, and the aesthetic and technical quality is unsurpassed.

Things to Do While Going Out of Your Mind With the Heat

If you can’t enjoy the classic bourgeois pleasures of a country house and/or foreign travel when the sun rushes down at you and the ozone makes your throat ache, you can at least dream the dream in reality, so to speak. My friends at medici.tv have created a new version of their mobile app, dedicated to the great summer festivals like Aix-en-Provence, Verbier and Salzburg. Just like their current app, it connects your iPhone and/or iPad to live and streaming performances of classical music. You get the most content with a paid membership (a great value), but the app connects you to a free performance per day. Go someplace with it.

Live George Benjamin

Who among us would not want to be at the Aix-en-Provence Festival? Since the press announcement landed in my in-box at the beginning of this year, I’ve thought about it every day. The pleasure of attendance would be two-fold: to enjoy great music in a beautiful locale, and to know that I had achieved some success in life that would allow me to enjoy great music in a beautiful locale. Perhaps, someday …

But until then I, and you, can tune into medici.tv Saturday, 11:00am EST. No misprint, because the world premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin begins at that time in Aix-en-Provence, and it will be streaming at the site. And catch the New York Philharmonic 360 program while you’re at it.

Links of a Dirty Old Man

An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.

 

Summer has just begun, and that means it’s not too soon to think about where you’ll be sitting in come the fall. The brochures and booklets are starting to arrive, and

  • Miller Theatre, always one of my favorite places, has got a series of Composer’s Portraits that for range and depth exceed event their high standards.
  • BAM has a new theater and is filling it with things for their Next Wave festival. The monolothic work, and worth admiring, is Einstein on the Beach, but they are also hitting the extreme points of range and breadth. For music alone, there’s So Percussion, Phil Kline and Theo Bleckmann and a silent movie from Ernst Lubitsch with music by Brooklyn’s own Numinous.
  • You won’t be getting a booklet, but mark your calendar’s for Petr Kotik’s festival of music from John Cage and his contemporaries. I have seen a lot of Cage performances so far this year, and keep track of all the centennial festivals, and this is the one to see, for both the programming and the musical and intellectual understanding.

    The Golden Record

    Mankind has breached the outer edge of our solar system, with some humble offerings of our particular genius. If you grew up wanting to be an astronaut, like me, it’s a poignant time.

    And if this hasn’t crossed one of your feeds, take the time to read on l‘affaire Emily White, or as I would call it, wisdom versus blithe ignorance.

     

    Related articles, courtesy of Zemanta:

Great Gifts Come in No Packages

While I’m not interested in promoting consumerism, I do like to suggest music worth spending your money on, and this time of year, that often means recommended recordings (and the 2011 Best of Year lists will be appearing this week here at The Big City). But I want to offer an intriguing idea for a gift for someone you care about, including yourself, and that’s ideal for last minute shopping, since it requires no package and can be sent, and received, anywhere in an instant. That gift is medici.tv.

Medici.tv is what you get when people who really know what content is create something for the web. In other words, it’s one of the leading examples of how classical music producers have taken full advantage of the possibilities of digital technology. The DIY distribution of digital music is commonplace these days, less so is digital access to live and recorded media events, things that appeal to the eye as much as the ear. Medici.tv provides live streaming of musical performances, as well as an extensive catalogue of recorded performances; concerts, opera, dance, documentaries. The ‘talent’ consists of the finest musicians from across the globe; a quick browse of the catalogue notes Claudio Abbado, Jonas Kaufmann, Sviatoslav Richter, Yehudi Menuhin, Alisa Weilerstein, The Berlin Philharmonic, and a quick look through the list of composers brings up choices such as Kurt Sanderling leading Das Lied von der Erde, Glenn Gould playing Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25, Boulez leading The Rite of Spring, a 2003 Ring cycle using four different directors, and Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. This is what we critics call an embarrassment of riches.

The content is the equivalent to an excellent core classical music library, live on your screen at any time. The effect is of bringing concert halls that are often thousands of miles, multiple time-zones and several languages and currencies away into your home, or your lap. I know we were promised jet packs, but this is something both more prosaic and more creative, which is why the futurists, obsessed with gadgets and not human experience, never thought of it. Fortunately, the classical music nerds did.

http://www.medici.tv/martha-argerich-plays-prokofiev-classic-archive/embed/

Argerich, Previn: Prokofiev on medici.tv.

Medici.tv is offering gift cards covering three- and six-month and one year subscriptions, starting at what seems to me is the ridiculous bargain of $40. If you buy by Christmas Eve, the recipient will be able to enjoy previously unreleased performances of Martha Argerich playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. See for yourself on Boxing Day, when the site offers a free day of viewing.

UPDATED: With the Argerich content direct from medici.tv

Revenge of the Nerds: The Meek's Inheritance

The story of how the digitization of music revealed the music industry’s feet of clay has been told more than once, but it’s never been properly explained. File sharing may be the prevailing symptom, but it’ s not the actual cause. Something preceded the creation of Napster, and that was the desire, even the need for many music fans, to have a Napster. As far as I have seen, after the many books and articles on the subject, no one has touched on the parties responsible, the decisions they made, what they thought they were doing and how they were fooling themselves. Perhaps it’s because it’s been told from the standpoint of business, when it’s really a story about music.

It’s also a lesson in the difference between music as a creative human activity and the music industry (or recording industry) as a manufacturing business. Music is made by composers and musicians, artists. Recordings are manufactured directed by business executives and produced in factories. Musicians understand this difference inherently, and develop the skills to not only produce their art but to manage the organization of their work and careers, on scales small and large. Business executives do not understand this, they’ve proven this in fact, no matter what their words say.

What this means in practice is that when a musician is selling you music, you get music, content, and when an executive is selling you what they call music, you get a package, which may or may not contain some substantial content. Before the digital era, the recording industry sealed LPs and tapes into jackets and boxes, shrink-wrapped them and it was a business. Those packages, more and more frequently, contained one, maybe two tracks that you would hear on the radio and enjoy enough to want the package, yet it was mostly so empty. Those two tracks, if you were lucky, were surrounded by . . . so much packaging, like aural excelsior that you couldn’t through out.

It wasn’t always like this. One of the curious, happy coincidences of history is that recording and reproduction technology was developed as the great era of pop music as a songwriting craft was getting under way. For over half a century, pop music was as song driven art, and each hit song was recorded by multiple singers in multiple styles. People came for the song, and they left with the artist, but content was king. The continued expansion of radio as a medium for music, and the development of the 45rpm single, moved pop music into a star driven form, and eventually the singer was king, with or without content (this story is told extremely well in two excellent books, the critical How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll by Elijah Wald and the impressionistic, brilliant Sonata for Jukebox , by Geoffrey O’Brian). The music industry began selling the star, and that meant getting that one hit record and making the rest of the album as a sort of excuse (the current, long-lasting atrophy is a sad and worrisome example of what might be the twilight of the American experience; vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent executives seeking the next big vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent pop star, because in their tiny, limited, monochromatic socio-economic universe, like can only recognize like, producing the type of inbred offspring incapable of surviving outside their sheltered, decadently cosseted environment).

The only people who were surprised to find that music buyers wanted that one song and were fed up with having to swallow the whole stinking, crappy album, and were champing at the bit to find a way to just get that one damn song, were the music industry executives. They actually thought they were selling music, rather than just a package (by this time the jewel case). I certainly would never imagine that these captains of industry had any decent taste to speak of, but capitalism indicates that they should be self-interested enough to know what their product actually was. Of course, businessmen, seeking favors, handouts, begging for politicians to protect them from competition and living like parasites off the tax laws they successfully game, are not capitalists.

Musicians are. They have to be, they have to survive. And it is so very difficult to make a living playing music, so very difficult to run a band, and ensemble, a performing organization, that those who survive, let alone modestly succeed, prove by doing so that they are for more talented and skillful – and imaginative – managers and administrators than the vast mediocre landscape of CEOs and politicians who claim the wisdom and mantle of executive leadership. When you look at the line of candidates up for the Republican presidential nomination, try to imagine any of them trying to run a their own big band, like Darcy James Argue, or create a career like Cecil Taylor, or produce Make Music New York. Then pick yourself up off the floor when you finish laughing.

To musicians, the ability to not only professionally record and produce their own music, at what is now an exceptionally low cost, and then to distribute it on their own (and this is really the vital thing), has been just the thing they had been waiting for and they have taken advantage of the tools of digital media to a far more creative and greater extent than any business of any kind, especially the ones that base their model on the internet. Because the musicians have content, they also have had it. The best example of this is what symphonic orchestras have done as recording contracts withered and died. Of any groups playing music based on the old pop-songwriter model, it is the orchestras, who are built on centuries worth of content and share that with the public. That’s what they do, it’s all content! The major ones, and many lower level ones, also have recorded their own performances for decades for their own archives. With that, it’s really no step at all to this: a growing catalogue of digital only concerts, recorded directly from the stage and with little or no post-production editing. They’re not recording sessions, they’re concerts, and they’re being recorded anyway, and they music is great, and the musicians play it exceptionally well, and . . . so . . . why the hell not?

For music lovers, this concept is heaven. Not only is great music available to them that they previously could only have heard in the concert hall, but, for almost a year, the only recording of the new Arvo Pärt Symphony No. 4 that was available was the concert one from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And last fall, the Berlin Philharmonic went from concert to digital with their tremendous Mahler Symphony No.2 performance in the space of a month. Content, distribution, not a music industry honcho in sight.

Many orchestras have formed their own labels for digital and physical reproduction and distribution; LSO Live was one of the first, and others include the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The New York Philharmonic produced a digital only Mahler cycle under Loren Maazel. You can even watch live performances, via the web, of the Berlin Philharmonic. But no orchestra has done as much with media as the San Francisco Symphony. They started their own SFS Media label to produce their monumental, wonderful Mahler cycle, all recorded in concert, and are continuing to produce new recordings, including their new Ives/Copland concert recording. But the most expansive, ambitious, exciting and satisfying media venture they have undertaken is their “Keeping Score” program, and true multimedia production for DVD, the web, audio and television, where it is now returning, starting this week, for two episodes on PBS (check your local listings or go here to search for broadcast dates and times in your area – in New York City, WNET will air the program on consecutive Saturdays, June 25 and July 2, at 2pm. After broadcasts, full episodes will be available for streaming at video.pbs.org.).

You should watch these, whether you have never heard of Gustav Mahler – the subject this time around – or you know everything about Gustav Mahler. “Keeping Score” is the greatest examination of great music that has been done outside of the esoteric language and analytical techniques of the academy. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the Symphony (think of him as a CEO with actual talent and a paycheck he earns) is a protege of Leonard Bernstein, the great explainer of art music to the public. Bernstein was a great, essential figure in American culture, but in this are, Tilson Thomas surpasses him. He has the advantage of new technology and new ideas about media, of course, but it’s to his, and SFS Media’s, credit that the programs exploit their medium’s possibilities to the fullest.

Previous episodes have examined the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Appalachian Spring from Aaron Copland, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz and the Ives Holidays Symphony. They are filled with vivid biographical details, things that tell us about the composers and also the specific circumstances and possible meanings of the music. We see the chamber where Berlioz labored at the Cantata that would win him the Prix de Rome, we tour Shostakovich’s apartment, we witness the kind of holiday parade scene that Ives loved as a boy. Tilson Thomas, friendly, charming, lightly passionate, speaking with the inherent confidence that what he is telling us is interesting and important and so never selling, is a brilliant tour guide through the physical, mental and aesthetic geographies of these composers.

These pieces are more than just collections of notes, spaced out at a duration that seems daunting to people not used to classical music. They are intellectual and emotional ideas and experiences put into physical motion. Each composer had the context of their life that brought them to the point of creating their pieces, and this is especially vital for Beethoven, Ives and Shostakovich. All the DVDs are tremendously fascinating, even gripping, and completely entertaining throughout, but the Eroica is so important, and Ives and Shostakovich’s pieces are so deeply mysterious, that the insight Tilson Thomas provides is a thrill, even breathtaking. The final movement of the Beethoven Symphony begins with a jokey tune, in such extreme contrast to the sweep, power and emotional depth of what came before, that it can be disconcerting. But when MTT sits down at the piano and demonstrates how it came about – Beethoven, participating in an improvising contest, turned his rivals music upside down, played that and then spun off a series of variations on it – the great genius and plain humanity of the composer is revealed in a way that is both astonishing and funny. That variations finale is a way of Beethoven demonstrating his own heroic ability, proud, petulant, generous, humorous all at once, like music itself.

The Ives and Shostakovich stories are penetrating. Their music has so much complex, personal psychology, hints of things that we may comprehend but can never truly understand. Meaning in Shostakovich is an impenetrable mystery. Since he could never safely say what he meant, we can never be sure that we know what he means, or that he’s being sincere. Keeping Score shows the reasons for his fear and insecurity, as well as his reasons for his desire to be an accepted artist in the political culture of the Soviet Union. Tilson Thomas doesn’t answer the questions, but he gives us the best ones to think about as we listen to the music. He also penetrates the details of the composition to show us, with music, how Shostakovich created that sound that makes him unlike any other composer. The episode on Ives Holidays Symphony is a tour de force of biography and musicology. Ives psychology is deeply complex and essential to understanding the musical decisions he made. It’s a mix of hero worship of his father and disappointment in that same man, a longing for the memories he had of his home town, whether real or fantastic, an idealization of his country, a need to both carve out his lonely path and be noticed and accepted. There are many fragments of memory, image making and bits of American traditional and popular music in the piece and to hear them in their original context, and even in a small New England town, opens up a beautiful window into the piece, turning something dense and knotty into something transparent and, like Beethoven and Shostakovich, so human that we can understand how a man could say something we ourselves could not image.

But that is the way these programs work, with all the composers, and expect the same from the Mahler programs. There is more to them than all I’ve just written though, the best part: each includes a complete performance of the work in the episode. The stories and analysis that comes before makes you sit up and take notice, really listen, and that adds to the benefit that these are absolutely great performances from what is arguably the finest orchestra and conductor in the hemisphere. The playing, the ideas, are so musical and so polished, with strength, energy, confidence and tremendous phrasing, color and expression. SFS Media has released these as separate audio CDs, and all of them would be excellent first choices for anyone interested in the music; the Eroica and Symphonie Fantastique recordings are the finest I have ever heard, the best out of some extremely fine competition, and the Holidays Symphony is not only better but, strangely, almost too good. Ives has an inherent roughness, even clumsiness and chaos, in his writing that is integral to his art – the sense that he barely has the language to say the strangest, most personal things he wants to express is important – in that a sense of struggle makes his music speak honestly. The San Francisco Symphony plays the music with such unbelievable skill that they make it sound like an accepted, common part of the repertoire. In a way, that’s deeply subversive, and also a fitting tribute, that musicians have set themselves to Ives with such dedication and purpose that he sounds, well, like a “Classical” composer.

This is the second in a series of articles. Read the first one here.