On the Classical Cloud

I’ve been turning over Alex Ross’ piece from last week’s New Yorker, The Classical Cloud, in my mind for a little while now. A sort of nostalgic look at CD collections and the problems with subscription-based music, there’s a lot right with it. Ross writes:

My working process as a critic revolves around a stack of disks that I call the Listen Again pile: recent releases that have jumped out of the crowd and demand attention. None of this happens as easily on the computer. I experience no nostalgia for the first music I downloaded, which appears to have been Justin Timberlake.

A Listen Again pile will be familiar to any music fan who’s grown up in the last fifty years. For some, like my dad, it was a stack of vinyls wedged between record player and cabinet for convenient access. For others, it was a compilation patiently cobbled together on a 180-minute mixtape. For me, it was four or five CDs squeezed into the ludicrously oversized pockets of the trousers I used to wear to school.1

But the absence of nostalgia for downloads is Ross’ experience, and mine differs. Today, I keep an equivalent playlist on my phone: albums I haven’t heard for years, that deserve a listen anew, or that I’ve just bought, and am listening to on repeat. And, unlike Ross’ Justin Timberlake download, I have favourite artists and albums I’ve never heard on CD: Kate Bush, Martin Stig Andersen, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio; Peter Aidu’s extraordinary solo performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.2 Would my enjoyment of The Sensual World have been greater if I’d heard it on CD instead? I don’t see how it could have.

Ross goes on to highlight some of the problems with streaming, the primary one being the pittance made by musicians and labels on Spotify. Writing of Leon Fleisher’s extraordinary recital All the Things You Are, released by family-run independent label Bridge, Ross concludes that “only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.” He may be right.

But he makes a point in the article that I find it hard to agree with:

There is a downside to the glut of virtual product and the attendant plunge of prices. … [T]he streaming model favors superstars and conglomerates over workaday musicians and indie outfits. Its façade of infinite variety notwithstanding, it meshes neatly with the winner-take-all economy.

Ben Thompson, author of the business blog Stratechery, has argued that the internet provides a new kind of market. The incredible size of the internet allows a handful of giant corporations to dominate, as large corporations always have, to a scale that they haven’t reached before. But the diversity and reach of the internet are also unprecedented, and no corporation can satisfy every desire of every customer. 

This provides extraordinary opportunities for small enterprises too: there are niches that large companies will no longer be able to fill, but which are precisely what a small proportion of people want. And a small proportion of the people on the internet can still be an enormous number—more than enough to sustain a small business. Thompson has compared this, on his podcast Exponent, to a rainforest: fertile undergrowth thriving beneath enormous trees, but with little room for anything in the middle.

It’s not, in other words, a winner-take-all economy. It may be winner-take-most, but all is beyond the reach of even the most massive players.

That’s where Bridge comes in: in order to survive, independent labels like Bridge have to be extremely focussed, and there has to be a clear, desirable distinction between them and their competitors. And it may be that Spotify is not the place for them, that they need some other means of distribution that will make them both easier to discover and allow them to reap more rewards from that distribution. I do see some opportunities here: Spotify’s labelling of classical music is, as Ross points out, even more chaotic and inconsistent than iTunes’. And classical music makes complex demands for a relatively small audience: it may not even be worth Spotify’s or Apple’s while to fix it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anybody’s.

People have been prophesying the death of classical music for generations, but today it has a wider reach and more opportunities to be heard than at any other time in history. Labels will come and go, and small labels will be vulnerable for a long time, but the music is still here because people love it, and people always will.

1 Honestly. For what it’s worth, the other pocket contained a far-from-slimline Discman, cigarettes, and keys.

2 For two pianos. It needs to be seen to be believed.

How to talk to a female composer

Alex Ambrose, writing on the WQXR blog:

Begin with basics. Always lead with the question, “What’s it like to be a composer and a woman?” or “How does being a woman influence your music?” Women love having their personal, defining creative impulses reduced to outdated stereotypes of gender, and don’t at all find it ironic that men are never asked “How does being a man influence your music?” as if estrogen and testosterone were the creative juices feeding all artistic inspiration. Or, maybe estrogen just makes it harder to compose?

It wouldn’t take a lot to rework this article into How to talk to a female professional.

A musical commemoration of World War I

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I this year, and I’ve seen some touching tributes. This is the first I’ve heard of a musical one, though. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic have recorded a couple of pieces together under Simon Rattle, to commemorate the dead. Mark Brown, in The Guardian:

The commemoration at the St Symphorien military cemetery is one of three big events taking place on 4 August – the centenary of the declaration of war – and the only one with cultural content.

Rattle chose two works for the LSO and Berlin Phil to record: the last movement of Brahms’s German Requiem and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The latter is laden with symbolism as Butterworth himself died in the trenches.

It’s a beautiful idea, and the pieces are well-chosen. I hadn’t heard of Butterworth before reading this piece, but using a piece by a composer who died in the war is as moving and true a tribute as I can think of. I took a short trip around some of the war sites in Belgium earlier this year, and what stayed with me most of all is what a pointless waste of life it all was.

Later in the piece, Brown mentions some problems that the orchestras had to overcome in playing together. Quoting Nicholas Kenyon, the creative consultant on the project: “There were interesting little problems, like they don’t play at exactly the same pitch.”

I knew that orchestras on the west and east of the Pacific used to play at slightly different pitches, but I’d thought that as recording spread, those changes were pretty much wiped out. There’s a video on YouTube where you can hear, in chronological order, the first two chords of every major recording of Beethoven’s third symphony. At first, it’s jarring, even unpleasant, with sometimes major differences in pitching. As you come into the sixties and seventies, though, it starts to feel more like a warped record, with generally just slight variations. You get to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the only outliers are those played on traditional instruments, pitched noticeably lower than modern ones.

I suppose that at the level of these orchestras, the differences in fine tuning only become apparent when they play together.

Alive Inside

Dawn Chmielewski, at Re/code, on the new documentary Alive Inside

Audiences first encounter Henry hunched over in his wheelchair, head down, hands clasped firmly together, unresponsive to the world around him.

As soon as a pair of headphones are placed on his head, the 94-year-old dementia patient opens his eyes, sits up straight and begins swaying and humming along with the music. Henry speaks animatedly about his favorite band leader, Cab Calloway, and even begins to emulate the jazz artist’s style of scat singing — at one point launching into a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I first encountered Henry’s story two years ago, through a promotional video for the film. That music can reach people who have even lost the ability to recognize their loved ones is incredibly moving, and the transformation in Henry’s case is astonishing.

I hope the film gets cinematic release on this side of the ocean. It sounds like one not to be missed.

Red Hot Bach

This is a rather neat little app from The Red Hot Organization—a free app that’ll let you listen to, and muck about with, music by Johann Sebastian. It’s a good selection, including some classic recordings (the aria from Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, the prelude from Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the prelude from Cello Suite no. 1, to name two) along with modern interpretations.

The app is free, but connected to a full album (Red Hot + Bach), with a wealth of recordings. I can’t vouch for the album as I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but all the proceeds from the group go to fighting AIDS, so what’s not to like?

I found this app through The Guardian’s Top Twenty iOS apps of the week.

Brandenburg in Summer

It was about a year ago that I first discovered that the Brandenburg Concertos, surprisingly, make perfect driving music, particularly in sunshine, and best of all if you’re not in a hurry. They’re Bach at his most optimistic, his lightest, and his most exciting, and are some of the most extraordinary pieces of music in history.

Their own history is extraordinary too. They were given to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, in 1721, but after receiving them he realised (or decided) that he couldn’t afford to have them performed, so left them on a bookshelf. There they stayed until his death thirteen years later, when they were sold for a pittance—a little less than $25, in today’s money. They vanished, and were forgotten, until their discovery in the Brandenburg archives in 1849. They were published a year later, and so were first performed a hundred and thirty years after their completion.1

This means that most of the great composers of the late 18th and early 19th century—household names like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—never had a chance to hear them. Even Felix Mendelssohn, the musician probably most responsible for the revival of interest in Bach’s music, died two years before they were rediscovered. Imagine how much he would have loved to conduct the first performance of the great lost works.

If you’ve never had a chance to listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, or if it’s been a while, then take some time out of your Sunday to hear them now. They’re true summer music, as bright and as light-of-touch as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but far more creative. Each one is fairly short: six concertos in all, consisting of six different combinations of instruments, each one showing off its instruments’ strengths.

And they can all be had for free, in a superb performance by the Czech Republic’s Musica Florea, here.

1 Actually, probably a bit longer. It’s very likely that they were completed before 1721 and just collected for the Margrave.

Some Rachmaninoff for your Easter Sunday

Normal(ish) service will resume as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, enjoy this extraordinary performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Artur Rubinstein.

Two parts, alas, but the split is clean.

With most pianists, it’s worth watching their hands for the athletic performance, but keep your eyes on Rubinstein’s face here: no matter how virtuosic it gets, he looks like he’s taking it all at his leisure.