Friday, January 26, 2007

Jazz Outlaw

The following is a governmental response to a petition against The Licensing bill 2002-03.

"A great deal of misinformation has been circulating about our modernisation of the licensing laws in England and Wales and we are therefore not surprised at the level of concern that has been shown.

The Licensing Bill received Royal Assent on 10 July and is now the Licensing Act 2003. We believe that the Act will make it simpler and more affordable than now to stage live entertainment in the vast majority of cases and increase opportunities for musicians and other artists to perform. There will be no additional cost to provide musical entertainment on the new premises licence and fees will be set centrally by the Secretary of State to ensure consistency…

Short-term events would also benefit from the more informal system of permitted temporary activities under the Act, which would require a simple notification to the licensing authority and the police and a small fee of around £20. The Act allows for up to 12 temporary event notices to be given in respect of the same premises, subject to a maximum number of 15 days for the same premises during which permitted temporary activities may take place in a calendar year. The period permissible for any temporary event is a maximum of 4 days (96 hours). Furthermore, there is now an order-making power in the Act which - subject to affirmative resolution - enables those limits and the limit on the number of persons attending an event to be amended in the light of experience, should it prove that the balance between the rights of residents and the light touch approach of the system needs to be adjusted…." bla bla bla

Now here’s some of that ‘misinformation’ in a letter from the trumpet player Henry Lowther in which he describes precisely how the government’s new licensing regulations are damaging live music. “In the summer of 2005 I had the good fortune to be asked to play with a quartet, on a regular basis, in the Garden Cafe in The Regent's Park. This was for two mid-week late afternoons/early evenings per week for a period of three months, about 30 gigs in total. It was a delightful experience for all the musicians involved. We usually played outdoors, received generous and friendly hospitality and a good fee. The company who run the cafe, Caper Green, were delighted with the way it went (and so were the cafe's customers) and then invited us to play indoors for four Sunday afternoons prior to Christmas that year.

At this time the manager for the company said he would like us to play again throughout the summer of 2006, commencing at Easter, possibly three times a week and also maybe have us play in some of their other cafes. (Caper Green also run cafes in other Royal Parks, the cafe at Kenwood and also the restaurant in the Roundhouse.) As you can see, all of this would have amounted to a significant amount of employment for four musicians.

Unfortunately this came to nought thanks to the new regulations. In 2006 Caper Green, through their solicitors, applied for a Premises Licence for the restaurant in the Hub, a new sports facility in The Regent's Park, but found dealing with Westminster City Council complicated, difficult and time consuming. "It's a nightmare," were the manager’s words to me at the time. Among many other things, Westminster City Council, for some unknown reason, imposed a limit of no more than three musicians along with the installation of an expensive noise limiter even though the live music would be indoors and the Hub is located in the middle of the park.

All of this totally contradicts the DCMS’s claim that obtaining a Premises Licence with live music provision would be easy. Caper Green's intention was to obtain live music provision for the Garden Cafe once the Premises Licence was in place for the Hub but, as of last autumn, they never bothered, presumably because they had no wish to go through the troublesome and possibly expensive process again.

Prior to the implementation of this legislation, Royal Parks, being Crown land, were exempt from the necessity of a Public Entertainment Licence but are now required to obtain live music provision in their Premises Licence in order to engage musicians.

Why? If the system worked before why shouldn't it work now? This is just yet another example among many of the total logicality and stupidity of this bill. In the meantime the musicians involved lost considerable income with no compensation. In addition the public lost an opportunity of hearing good music in a pleasant environment.

The fact that the new licensing regulations don't require pubs, etc. to have a licence for them to present large screen televised sport or to play often loud background music is nothing less than a major concession to large corporate interests. Instead, this Government has chosen to regulate the performances of mostly minority and increasingly marginalised forms of music. Small venues, pubs, private premises, etc. who wish to present jazz, folk, improvised, experimental or avant-garde music are now in the almost Stalinesque position of having to seek permission from the State to do so and many of them simply don't have either the financial or organisational recourses to deal with it.”

Henry Lowther is one of Britain’s foremost and finest musicians.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Next Generation - high resolution downloads

Some good news to herald in - if somewhat belatedly- the start of the New Year: Linn Records, the label of the Scottish audiophile company, has launched what I believe to be Europe’s first high-resolution music download service.

Unlike other companies such as Naxos, who deceptively claim to offer CD quality when in fact what their Music Library provides is a low-fidelity 128kbps stream (CD is 1411kbps), Linn’s catalogue is available for download in true CD quality. Even more interesting, are the Studio Masters, of which there are only half a dozen at present, but which are available at the higher 24bit resolution. All are DRM free, WMA lossless media files and each download includes a Pdf file of the CD artwork, and presumably the CD notes.

This move is a highly significant breakthrough for the classical music (and the wider acoustic music) industry. With CD sales falling month on month the recording industry has been staggering along trying to reposition itself inline with consumer demand. Whilst the comparatively wealthy and agile popular music industry has been able to effect the necessary realignment with the emerging online market by implementing lossy (low-fidelity) downloads such as MP3 and AAC, the shrunken classical music industry has increasingly found itself left flailing behind; an unequal voice in an uncertain market.

And with good reason: if low-fi media files are able to represent the limited dynamic range of heavily compressed pop music tolerably well they are wholly unsuitable carriers for the broad dynamic range of acoustically recorded classical music. But without the support of the wider audio industry the classical music arm has insufficient strength to ensure the successful promotion of either DVDAudio (DVDA) or Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) both of which are excellent media for classical music. Linn Records is the first to meet this technological challenge head on.

Their website offers an extensive, at times amusing, yet straightforward explanation of how to get the most out of the service as well as the thoughtful inclusion of test files whereby users can identify potential difficulties before making a purchase. But at the same time it does seem to place an unwarranted emphasis on the files being “suitable primarily for use on a PC” - perhaps as a caution to the impenetrable difficulties often encountered by Mac users - but unfortunately this does suggest a certain circumspection about the relatively straightforward process of burning the files onto a CDR for use in a standard CD player. Likewise, while the site makes clear that the Studio Master files can be backed up on DVD it fails to suggest the use of DVDAudio authoring software such as Cirlinca or Discwelder that would allow users to play Linn’s recordings in a standard DVD-A player.

Anyhow, well done Linn!

photo: Phil Hobbs of Linn Records

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

La Scala says Boo to a Goof!

Well, it’s nice to see that classical music audiences are indeed still alive and kicking. While Domingo got away with having his knuckles rapped at the Met, Roberto Alagna - never one to be upstaged – has been firmly kicked out of touch at La Scala. It seems unlikely that his behaviour will be deemed acceptable, let alone reasonable, although there seems to have been little open criticism so far.

Certainly opera singing, being a highly rarefied art, demands qualities seldom found in your average Joe, which might've garnered some sympathy for Alagna’s predicament, were it not for the fact that La Scala is renowned for savaging those who are brave enough to confront its highly cultured and discriminating audience without first eradicating all trace of vocal insecurity or human weakness. [Callas, Pavaroti, Caballe and Fleming all having suffered similar assaults]. Alagna can no more hope to invoke sympathy by walking off the Milanese stage in a petulant huff than a heckled comedian can hope to assuage mockery by breaking down in tears. None the less, the human voice isn’t a machine; and the opera singer, lacking even the small protection that a temperamental mechanical contrivance affords other musicians, must display his or her human frailty to a demanding public in all its full-frontal nakedness. Indeed, part of the appeal and success of opera and theatre is the artist’s ability to reach out from the stage and make intimate human connection with each member of the audience. The utter tedium of televised opera represents the flip side of the same rationale: the electronic medium obfuscates human interaction rendering a pale 2-dimensional representation of the real, live experience.

But the rights and wrongs of Alagna’s behaviour interest me less than the audience’s reaction. Opera aficionados seem to be the sole remaining classical music audience to retain the right of veto. I can’t ever remember hearing booing at an orchestral or chamber music concert [except for the odd occasion when some contemporary work displeased a tiny minority]. Even a London performance of a work by Salonen in which an offstage percussionist knocked over a metre high tam tam, tearing open the scalps of 4 concert goers seated in front, failed to elicit anything but rapturous applause. This is perhaps attributable to the starchy straight-laced dilettantism of British concert-going audiences who I suppose typify my experience. But even here in Paris, de rigueur seal-clapping rhythmic applause at the end of every concert is endemic no matter the quality of the performance. I’d be interested in hearing other opinions – but I’d say that applause is most often a meaningless affectation providing one small window of opportunity for an audience to participate in what is all too often a predominantly passive experience where the overriding power of the social occasion dictates emotive conformity. From this perspective, one might conclude that Alagna ought to be delighted at having elicited a lively, active intuitive emotional response – albeit negative.

Is it reasonable to expect artists to perform to the very highest standard on each and every performance? Is it humanly possible for them to do so? I don’t really think so. Surely we have to acknowledge and accept some risk of disappointment on each occasion - regardless of the ticket price. What we should fear more than error is mediocrity. The pressure to be correct at all costs is one of the most destructive, anti-musical influences on modern performance practice.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Museum Tinguely

Pliable’s reference earlier this week to the Ticinese Swiss architect Mario Botta reminded me of the magnificent Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. Designed by Botta and built shortly after Jean Tinguely’s death in the early 90s, principally to house the artist’s kinetic sculptures. The museum offers a remarkable sensory experience. Tinguely’s clunky iron sculptures are not only tantalisingly tactile but many, like his Méta-Harmonie works - some of which include a variety of percussion and keyboard instruments amid their riotus construction – are also fascinatingly engaging sonic experiences.
With only 115 000 visitors each year Botta’s architectural space presents a wonderful opportunity to experience Tinguely’s multi-disciplinary art in an uncluttered, clarifying acoustic. His sound-producing machines, although of the most basic mechanical construction, seem compellingly engaging and imperfect compared to the blandness of the high-sheen contemporary sound world to which we are becoming increasingly inured. Long before the conception of Botta’s museum the sounds of many of Tanguely's machine-sculptures were recorded and released on vinyl but unfortunately I’m unable to find any currently available on CD. I'd say such a recording project would be a wonderful way of presenting the artist's work within the museum space of Botta's acoustic design - but then again - no one's asking me.
The museum continues to develop its cross-genre programme linking music and the plastic arts with exhibitions such as Edgard Varèse – Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, which took place earlier this year, as well as the periodic Roche n’ Jazz performances, which also encourage an appreciation of interdisciplinary arts within the museum space.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

That Old Black Magic

Not even the dead are safe from the venal machinations of the record industry. Now that the Beatles are crawling out of the vaults to make a 21st century comeback; it seems that Sinatra too has yet to croak his last croon.

Back in 1957 Ole Blue Eyes apparently had the idea of making a TV show performing his favourite songs in front of the camera with only a piano for accompaniment, leaving the Nelson Riddle orchestra to add their blazing brass at a later date. However, for one reason or another, the project fell on its face – the show was never completed and the recorded tracks have been languishing in the Sinatra Co. archive ever since - until now that is. Producer Ken Barnes, the founder and CEO of The Laureate Company - a music and movie restoration company - recently used British session musicians to add the Nelson Riddle arrangements to 28 new tracks during 2 days of recording sessions in London.

The practice of resurrecting the dead to perform with the living is not an altogether new idea: Nat King Cole, that memorable merry old soul, achieved this triumphal feat as far back as 1991 when he was dug up to perform with his daughter Natalie. Moreover, the addition of singers after the fact [though not always dead ones] is common enough even within the classical music fraternity. Indeed, few large-scale opera productions unfold without at least one soloist falling ill or being otherwise indisposed. The inevitable tracking session that ensues rarely attracts much attention, either because the practice threatens the idealised illusion of performance that the industry likes to perpetuate, or because the process invariably cedes discursive musical dialogue between interacting musicians to commercial pragmatism; the results of which are seldom more than a lop-sided dispute across the divide of space and time.

Whether such enterprises really add to the sum of artistic achievement: I’m not sure, but they certainly avert potentially catastrophic logistical and financial consequences for record companies without which, large-scale studio opera recordings would long ago have become a thing of the past.

Now playing – An Operatic First by Madame Cathy Berberian – I want to Hold Your Hand

The Sound of Music

Audio quality has, as Pliable obligingly points out, been a recurrent theme in my blogging throughout the past year. This is because I believe recorded sound is vital to the future of classical music. It is after all, the most ubiquitous and the most overtly commercial and therefore accessible means of consuming music currently available. Coverage of the elitism versus populism debate, the demise of record companies, and waning concert hall audiences continue to feature prominently in the arts [or more often, Entertainment] sections of the mainstream media as well as on the Internet. And, if recorded sound isn’t at the heart of each of these debates, it's certainly part of the art’s life support system.

I’ve tried to draw attention to the ways we listen to music and the means for doing so – the diminishing ability to appreciate it, and sometimes - with a certain cynicism - to the way in which some developments threaten to limit or undermine our experience.

Anyone with more than a cursory interest in contemporary developments and technology, and the facilities to evaluate the quality of sound recordings might find the following links interesting.

Millennia Media [part of the not-for-profit Millennia Foundation], is a manufacturer of very fine specialist pro-audio products, which has made available a selection of downloadable musical extracts from a 2004 recording of Handel’s Messiah by the American Bach Soloists and Orchestra directed by Jeffrey Thomas. The entire recording is available on the Delos Label but John La Grou presents the downloads in response to what he calls requests “for a ‘tutorial’ series on large-ensemble acoustic recording.”

The extracts, recorded at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at Davis, California are available as 44.1Khz (CD quality) WAV files, and - for those who can’t be bothered to wait approximately 1 minute for the files to download – MP3’s. The interest lies in being able to compare the final multi-microphone mix with a more minimalist version taken from the main pair of spaced omni directional mics.

For those using a PC, if you right click the download links you can save them to your computer hard drive, which will allow you to compare them more easily. If you have the ability to connect your computer to a decent hi-fi, or if you take the trouble to write the files to CD, you will have a much better chance of resolving the differences.

Nevertheless, listening to audio critically doesn’t come naturally: differences are likely to seem insubstantial or trivial at first. But if you focus your attention on specific aspects – such as the sound of certain instrumental sections, or on the acoustic resonance, differences between the two versions will gradually become more apparent.

On a more geeky-techie note; the Aurora Plug-ins site is a tremendous resource. It is “a suite of plug-ins for Adobe Audition or other Digital Audio Workstations, allowing

“room acoustical impulse responses [to] be measured and manipulated, for the recreation of audible, three-dimensional simulations of the acoustical space.”

The site also includes links to the Ramsete site - a CAD resource for room acoustic modelling on PC, where you can find a Wave Convolver and a complete CD-ROM available for download. The files (you’re not obliged to download the entire disc) include convolution samples and orchestral recordings made in an anechoic chamber, which will be particularly useful for exploring the difficulties of superimposing digital or convolution reverberation upon the existent sound of a recorded acoustic. Unfortunately, the site is rather complicated – and the download manual exists only in Italian!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Russian - Disarmed but Dangerous

Since September this year, when the terror ensuing from the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic aeroplanes allowed the government to impose severe restrictions on hand baggage, many, many musicians, such as Victoria Mullova, Ralph Kirshbaum, and Stephen Isserlis, have been refused permission to board aircraft with their instruments.

Even before this date, the difficulties of transporting any instrument bigger than a piccolo were considerable. Cellists have always been obliged to pay for an extra seat for their curvaceous companions and violinists could reasonably expect to become embroiled in lengthy negotiations at check in. I remember seeing a student violinist arrested (quite where, I can't remember) long before September 2001, for answering airport security’s inane question concerning the contents of his rather obviously violin-shaped case a little too facetiously - by claiming it concealed “A Tommy Gun.”

Last year, a member of Ryan Air’s ground crew insisted that my girlfriend checked in the spare strings she keeps in her violin case. Being a non-confrontational Swede, she reluctantly obliged but on returning to the boarding gate she met with an even more absurd demand; that she remove the strings from the instrument itself. Thankfully she was able to explain the idiocy of this request and was eventually permitted to board the plane. [She subsequently tried to garrotte a friend with her E string when she reached her destination but found it too short to get a good enough grip]!

Personally, I favour the introduction of a method similar to that, which, for a short time, governed the transportation of certain liquids, which had to be imbibed in the presence of security personal. Which reminds me - I once incurred the wrath of an enormous stentorian customs officer at Frankfurt Airport: A fearful female official who insisted that I verify the authenticity of my camera by taking a photo in her presence. When I raised the camera and snapped a quick one, she turned puce with rage, screaming at the top of her voice, “NOT OF ME!”

However, as of 6th November, new security measures came into effect for all passengers departing UK airports.” What's more - according to the department for Transport - you no longer have to carry your $3m Strad in a clear plastic bag: “Musical instruments are, as an exception, allowed as a second item of cabin baggage”.

On a less happy note - this change of policy arrives too late for Valery Ponomarev, a 63 year-old former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers who had his arm broken by French Police at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris this September while trying to board a plane armed to the teeth with a Conn Constellation trumpet. According to a spokesman for the airport police, the diminutive [5’5”, 140 lbs] musician “hurt himself by rebelling.” He was finally taken to hospital after being held for 6 hours - without medical treatment and without being allowed to make a phone call. Arthur Gilroy of My Left Wing, describes events less prosaically,

Valery... pitched a bitch at the gate when some pissed-off functionary at a loading gate decided to pull rank on him. They called security and four "giant asshole cops" took him someplace where there were no witnesses, tried to forcibly take his trumpet away and when he wouldn't let go of it with his right hand, pulled his left arm behind his back and broke it.”

You can read the full article here or (if you can be bothered to sign in) here and hear tiny clips of the man’s music here and here

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Stern Review

Whether we have Sir Nicholas Stern to thank for his report on the economics of climate change, or the former next president of the US for his film – I don’t know, but lately, environmental matters have reared up in the news like never before. Everyone is either keen to do something to reverse the impending meltdown, or to be seen to be doing something: which is not quite the same thing. Certainly it’s encouraging to see that ways are being sought to bridge the gulf dividing environmental concerns and economic interests. The Stern review makes clear that turning the TV off standby; paying more for long-haul flights or even depriving Arnie of his 8 gas-guzzling Humvees isn’t going to solve the problem. Sir Nicholas, who regards climate change as the biggest market failure in history, believes that we need “a carbon price, technology policy and the removal of barriers to international change.”

This is stunningly good news. Levying a tax on carbon will ensure that environmental costs are translated into financial costs and passed on to the consumer. But surely, the most equitable form of taxation would be a tax on all forms of non-renewable energy- not just carbon-releasing fossil fuel. How about if we were to scrap income tax, VAT, capital gains, car tax – the lot, and slap one big fat tax on all environmentally unsustainable forms of energy - which would include nuclear (fission), hydroelectric energy and, most importantly, food. Given that the average beef burger takes about a hectare of land to produce, the human food trough really ought to be an important consideration in the climate debate. Anyhow - a carbon tax would be a good start.

While the idea that we have the power to regulate, bully, and cajole our way out of environmental disaster with fiscal insentives is encouraging, it lets us off the hook a little too easily by allowing us to believe that we can buy our way out of the problem, thereby evading the full extent of the problem and its underlying causes.

As Jonathan Freedland points out in the Guardian, “governments are limited in what they can do because they no longer control the key economic levers”. Industrial commercial interests are in direct conflict with energy conservation and sustainability. The wholesale take-up of capitalism (which now seems to be synonymous with democracy) condemns us to rampant consumerism. Buying stuff is what we do – conversely; refusing to consume would have a detrimental effect on the quality of modern life. Which of us, for example, would forego re-charging our mobile phone or MP3 player (let alone turn down the central heating or restrict our diet) merely to conserve energy? Such notions are anathema, unthinkable, anti-social even.

The problem is exacerbated by the ubiquitous assumption that industrialisation – or development as it is now called – is necessarily good, useful and inevitable. According to Catton’s Overshoot’,

“…to industrialise the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s(fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty.”

Development – which necessitates consumption and therefore destruction – is intrinsically unsustainable. Or, to put it another way: there’s no such thing as sustainable development. Such views are no longer the sole preserve of environmentalists either: Joseph Stiglitz, the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning economist [at the World Bank and, before that, the White House] – who now fears a backlash against globalisation, makes similar claims and recommendations in his book ‘Making Globalisation Work’.

Catton, among others, conjures up the concept of ghost slaves as a way of Illustrating excessive energy consumption. Each ghost slave represents the energy the average human spends in one day (2-3000 kCal).

“Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen…Without reducing population or per capita energy consumption, modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths.”

He continues with this awe-inspiring comparison:

“The energy expended in two decades by a vast labor force of Egyptians stacking up some 2,300,000 blocks of stone (each weighing about two and a half tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops was less than the energy released in a few minutes by three stages of a Saturn V rocket propelling men toward the moon.”

We shouldn't be fooled into misplacing our trust in the comforting economic palliative of market forces while the overwhelming destructiveness of global commercialisation throttles the life out of the planet.