Saturday, October 28, 2006

Notes & Queries

A recent question in the Guardian’s Notes & Queries - Could a professional symphony orchestra play the standard repertoire without a conductor? – set me thinking. The rather abstruse role of conductor seems strangely anachronistic in today’s pragmatic world. I feel sure that his contribution and importance is widely misunderstood and undervalued – even by musicians, who often resent the high fees that the more notable maestros continue to command. Having worked with one of the top London orchestras on two different recording projects on the same day, I’m fortunate to have witnessed the astonishing impact that a change of conductor can have.

A good conductor is more than an expensive human metronome and a truly great performance is much more than the consolidation of the musicians’ disparate musical ideas. The rarefied skill of the great maestro allows him – or, less often, her – to impose their own, unified conception of a work, communicating a personal interpretation directly to the orchestral musicians – often without recourse to verbal explanation and sometimes even without any discernable gesture. I've also witnessed the great Rozhdestvenskyconducting’ the entire second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony without so much as twitching a finger - a performance that is preserved as an unedited take on this recording. Such performances are beyond definition, which makes it all the more surprising then that the 21st century maestro has not yet been 'rationalized', out of existence.

Musically speaking, the symphony orchestra is far from being a democratic body; indeed some of the finest conductors throughout history were renowned autocratic tyrants. As Daniel Barenboim points out,

"Any professional conductor can make a professional orchestra play the way he wants them to play. But that's not music. Music is when the conductor and the orchestra breathe as from one collective lung."
Sitting in front of one of today’s great conductors can still be an intensely powerful (if not disturbing) experience: an experience from which most audience members are unfortunately excluded. Can our orchestras look forward then, to the removal of the most tyrannical maestros and the forcible imposition of freedom and democracy on the orchestral world?
picture credit Clive Barda

Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy Birthday iPod

Happy Birthday iPod. 5 Years old today. A revolution has taken place before our very ears – or so some would have us believe. If the iPod revolution is indeed a revolution it is one of miniaturisation, storage capability and, of course, of sales & marketing. Any revolving in terms of musical or auditory transmission has been in a decidedly backward direction. One can’t help but feel that comparatively recent developments, like DVDAudio and SACD, although still turning, are grinding in terminal entropy like the buckled remnants of a bicycle accident. Whatever happened to hi-fi?

I’m all for choice: but the choices are being made for us. Take hi-definition TV for instance. The medium offers the possibility to radically improve picture quality to previously unimagined standards. And what do we get - 180 channels of pap, whose quality is inferior to a decent PAL TV signal? Similarly, DAB is outperformed by FM radio.

The quality of most consumer goods is determined by the price and quality of the goods you buy. If you buy a cheap watch on the market it’ll be unreliable and won’t work after the first week when the battery runs out; if you buy a Rolex, you get the best watch money can buy. The same has always been true of audio reproduction equipment. If you bought a cheap receiver or player and were happy with the qualitative compromise: that was your choice. But now, we’re moving into an era where compression algorithms and low bit rate encoding are threatening to condemn everyone to inherent compromise. Yes, you can still buy CDs, but for how much longer? Even now, few high street shops have anything but the latest derelict chart toppers on the shelves. The classical department in my local FNAC has now been consigned to the 4th floor, which it shares with religious books and iconography.

So what’s my gripe with compression when millions the world over are as overjoyed as they are awed by being able to cram their entire record collection into one tiny hand-held pod.

I don’t believe audio compression is intrinsically bad, but it is a complex business that rarely receives more than scant attention. Most current forms of lossy compression are based on ill-founded assumptions about the human auditory system. It is widely assumed for example, that a certain amount of masking renders some sound inaudible and therefore unnecessary. Compression algorithms commonly treat stereo signals as highly redundant but a stereo signal carries more than twice as much information as a mono signal because it also contains a phantom image. Consequently, spatial information, ambience and reverberation are lost in translation. These might not be seen as especially important features of rock, pop, trip hop and trance - music that has already suffered severe audio compression - but classical and other acoustic recordings are left substantially worse off as a result.

Evidence seems to be mounting that more and more people are finding compression systems an unpleasant disappointment even though they may not realise quite why. One of the most notable and negative attributes of poor quality audio is its power to bore. Any audio professional will tell you how tiring it is to listen to a second rate reproduction system. In fact, background listening - although anathema to the serious music lover - is one of the best ways of assessing audio quality and the technical success of a recording.

So if the prospect of another 5 years of podding fills you with dread – never fear, the next commodity fad is already twinkling in Steve Jobs’ eye.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nobel Peace Prize 2006

Bush and Blair’s slaughter of 655,000 Iraqis, under the guise of introducing ‘freedom and democracy’ to Iraq, is more likely to secure the reattribution of the inauspicious title, ‘Butchers[s] of Baghdad’ than the Nobel Prize for Peace. But they may find it more than a little galling to note that this year’s prize (like last years') has been awarded to a Muslim.

Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist has won the prestigious award for pioneering a system of "lending tiny amounts of money directly to some of the neediest people on the planet."* “Bangladesh has been reducing poverty by 2% a year since the turn of the millennium,” thanks to someone actually putting his money where his mouth is!

*Randeep Ramesh - Guardian

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Songs from the Larynx

Sting hopes that the release of his Songs from the Labyrinth on the Deutsche Grammophon label will not provoke a "turf war". But although the likes of Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming and perhaps even Andreas Scholl would no doubt dearly love a slice of Stings' patch, they're no more serious contenders for his market than he is for theirs.

As Sting quite reasonably claims, Dowland's songs are better suited to a chamber music environment than to the concert hall, so Rock n’ Roll’s intimate microphone technique is a more appropriate vehicle than the overblown operatic voice. It’s a good argument: so why then, is the result so embarrassingly dreadful?

To begin with, acoustic chamber music demands many more qualities of a singer than does amplified music. If Sting’s voice were really unplugged – exposed to a real acoustic and denied the pour-over panache of artificial reverberation - it would be quite, quite unremarkable; just like your average joe. This in no way detracts from Sting’s string of successes. It’s just that his strengths lie elsewhere. He doesn’t have the vocal technique to perform acoustically [especially with only the tiny sound of a lute for support]. Instead of vocal colour and variation – we get only peculiarities.

Sting’s claim that Dowland’s songs were 17th century pop, may have some truth in it but to take this as a sign that they will fit right in with his standard rocky repertoire is taking rather a lot for granted. Contemporary rock and pop performance is just as stylised as classical music. Sting’s pseudo American-pop dialect is no more inherently human or nadural than the overblown voice of an operatic tenor: each is a product of convention, era and tradition. 17th century singers probably sounded closer to the present day notion of a folk singer – who knows - but the truth of how they sounded is largely irrelevant to modern sensibilities. It’s not so much how things ought to sound, as whether they’re pleasing and beautiful to the modern ear.

Perhaps we should take the trouble to re-educate our ear? But the point is that we’re culturally conditioned [by exposure to the world around us] to like what we like. The margins for personal adaptation are small, and necessarily require the conscious overriding of innate predilection. Consequently, we expect to hear the music of Dowland and his ilk performed by classically trained singers – and more recent popular idioms by the innately talented, who do them best.

Each to his own, I say. If you're in doubt – compare these two versions of 'In Darkness let me Dwell'

* Sting * Andreas Scholl


It's unusual to find myself taking a more conciliatory view than Pliable over On an Overgrown Path but having read his article, I can’t honestly say that I think Sting’s motivation was wholly commercial when he embarked on this project. There's an honest resonance to his interview in the Telegraph when he claims that he was far from convinced about releasing a recording of this project until “the very last minute”. And in Billboard magazine, "We really did this for love, and whatever happens next is in the hands of the Gods, really."

Although Sting claims it was the Cecil letter that persuaded him to turn his explorations into a record, I think it might be more revealing if we were to ask who was responsible for bringing Sting’s “labour of love, labour of curiosity” to the notice of Deutsche Grammophon. This, I imagine, is where the commercial exploitation begins – and it exploits Sting as much as the rest of us. An aging rocker, living a super-real life, whose lasting fame is founded on fickle, transitory pop music, is easy prey for a culture monger like DG. I’ve little doubt they sold him the win-win idea of establishing his credentials as a serious artist while broadening his appeal to wider, cultivated audience – quite an appealing legacy.

Everyone I think, admires Sting for his music, his questing and his exploration, but we should do him the honour of giving an honest appraisal of his work without leading him, or allowing ourselves to be led down the labyrinthine path of cynical marketing.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Come on you miner for truth and delusion

Since finding an LP of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album ‘Wish You Were Here’ in a Parisian rubbish bin the other day I’ve been plunged into reminiscence. I can’t say precisely what sent me into such a welter of wistfulness; whether the lyric, “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun,” or the indefinable sense of anticipation that an LP still embodies, or simply noticing the fact that the band spent 7 months recording the album – 7 months in Abbey Road Studios! That’s certainly the stuff of dreams today – for musicians, production staff, and not least, for the studio.
Anyhow, some good has come of the wallowing: I’ve turned up some relics – no - gems from the past. For a start, there’s a rich catalogue of recordings made for Conifer Classics, which after disappearing from the market for the best part of a decade, have now re-emerged on the Decca label. And then there’s this unreleased recording I made with a group of Austrian Musicians [Andi Schreiber - violin, Christian Musser - oud, Ewald Oberleitner - bass, Stefan Heckel – piano] in a church somewhere near Graz several years ago. The recording never saw the light of day, mostly because 3 days' of therapeutic acoustic free improvisation turned out sounding unremittingly introvert: a fine recording experience, but perhaps not one to share with the wider world. However, I can recommend that you seek out more of Stefan Heckel’s music and resources. He’s a fine, sensitive musician and an admirable person to know.
Anyone else who fancies “running over the same old ground,” or basking “in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph” should give me a shout – I’ve got this copy of Wish You Were Here to get rid of.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


It's not often you find a fresh scoop on The Crunch, but here one is! How is it that you can read it here but not on Google News I wonder? Not still working on the facts are they?
No pictures yet I'm afraid, but all I can say is that there's definitely NOT been a terrorist attack in New York. It's an accident - the first of its kind - perhaps a helicopter, perhaps a small aeroplane that has accidentally crashed into the 20th and 21st floors of a building on 72nd street NY.
I imagine we can expect the building to crumble neatly to the ground sometime during the night?