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.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Watford Town Hall - £10

Julian Lloyd Webber’s recent article in the Telegraph draws attention to the plight of Watford Town Hall, which is facing closure. In describing the singular importance of the hall as one of the finest classical music recording locations he risks underrating the importance of the venue to the wider community. The hall's demise can't simply be written off as just another sign of waning cultural elitism: anyone who sits back, content to see the destruction of one of the finest classical music acoustics will, in this case, be complicit in abetting the death of one of the most egalitarian public venues in Europe.

The Town Hall, built in 1939 and grandiloquently renamed in 1995 as The Coliseum, has been home to a broad spectrum of public events, from International boxing fixtures to classical music concerts, not to mention, innumerable prestigious recording sessions. Not only does it remain one of the finest acoustic music venues in the world, but, in its heyday, it underwent nightly transformations for wedding receptions, rock concerts and hip hop championships. Now in need of complete renovation the hall's future is under threat.

Despite being located in less than auspicious surroundings, it's ideally situated for development as a major regional arts centre. And according to a review commissioned by the local council,

“taking the lowest projected average per annum from Target Group Index analysis for the UK as a whole then, within a radius of only 12 miles, the potential attendances for classical music are 612,964. At the current capacity of 1,437 seats, this would in theory be enough for the hall to operate at 115% of capacity for 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year,”
which doesn’t seem too bad to me. However, the pursuance of such goals is apparently beyond the means of Watford Borough Council and the development of the hall as a major artistic centre “falls outside existing Arts Council Strategy.” A change of strategy is obviously beyond the bounds of imagination.

Classical CD Review claims that Dorati’s 1959 Firebird was the first recording to be made in Watford Town Hall but there seem to be well-documented references to earlier sessions - such as these Maria Callas tracks - which were recorded there in September 1954. An even earlier anecdotal reference to the hall’s use as a concert venue [featuring the late, daredevil, Sir Malcolm Arnold], can be found among Robert Meyer’s excellent Musical Reminiscences. While the hall has acted as a studio for many thousands of orchestral recordings, more recently it has also been used for a number of prestigious film score recordings including Lord of the Rings.

The Coliseum was already under threat of closure two years ago when it was reprieved by a contract with the BBC Concert Orchestra. But now that the orchestra is set to relocate to the BBC’s new Music Centre at White City, the threat re-emerges.

Watford Musical Heritage, a charitable organisation founded by Jonathan Brett – who is also the director of Classic Concerts Trust and English Classical Players - is charged with the preservation of the Hall. As the website makes clear, the aim

“is to generate a capital sum to provide an annual income with which to fund musical projects”, which would require

“an investment of just £10 for each of the 4 million people who live or work within easy reach of Watford.”

Watford is a Borough Council with an elected mayor and 36 councillors (Liberal Democrat majority) The elected Mayor is Dorothy Thornhill – email

To hire the Colosseum, email: or telephone Andy or Pat on +44 (0)1923 278954.