All posts by Hans Buetow

A Twist of Xmas

This time of year, when even the moments of quiet contemplation are bought and paid for by a car manufacturer or jeweler, where does one go for some real Holiday feeling? Where are moods that reach beyond jolly?

twist of x-mas.jpgCollin Rae, Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at Naxos, has an answer. He and his team have combed through more than 2,500 recordings to gather together a truly lovely disc of music – A Twist of Christmas – that won’t make your tummy ache from the sweetness.

Although, looking at the cover, you can’t be exactly sure what it will do to your tummy. This is, you will quickly note, not your typical Holiday CD.

“I think the cover art infuses the ‘darkness’ I was pulling from the music, while it also infuses a cute sense of humor as well,” says Rae, who feels that, in our world of “dark cartoon culture,” these two extremes go together well.

Darkness is, indeed, the focus of the disc, with candles to light our way instead of blinking neon signs. The album moves beautifully through the centuries and across a range of textures, highlighting the essence of a season dedicated, at its core, to embracing both the darkness in the world and the brightness of the creative and emotional mind. “It leans,” says Rae, “towards dark and somber beauty without the jarring and scary elements.”

Rae and his team achieve this blend, moving deftly among Tchaikovsky’s seasonal Classics, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, Arvo Part, and even Krzystof Penderecki. “I can hear the sounds and pick the century of music I want to use to achieve that sound and flow,” says Rae. “I think the severity of the stylistic differences placed side by side, flowing into one another, made this haunting and effective. It won’t always work, but when it does, it’s magnificent.”

A Twist of Christmas is a follow-up to the well-received Naxos release Music for the Zombie Apocalypse, a beautiful and haunting collection born of Rae’s deep and lasting love of horror films and Zombies that started when his father took him and his siblings to a midnight showing of The Night of the Living Dead in the 1970’s.

As with A Twist of Christmas, the Zombie-inspired disc shifts across the centuries; with tone, feeling, and character all nicely blended and shifted to create an engaging and interesting listening experience. This matching of sounds is necessary for Rae’s vision, as “It needed to flow from the stark beauty of Faure, Mozart, and Rutti to the fierce and darker works or Coates, Penderecki, and Schnittke. I’ve seen people purchase this who would have never bought a recording by, say, Gloria Coates, or Penderecki, or even Faure. I find this very, very encouraging.”

Exposure to new kinds of music is important to Rae, who spent several decades in the record business building a love of a wide range of musics. Included in his lists of influences are (mostly European) soundtrack music from the 60’s and 70’s, electronic music, noise, jazz, punk, post-punk, and all those old cartoons. “I’m hoping that not only lovers of deep and more obscure pieces will gravitate towards this, but also those who were into the zombie album. It’s for people who are truly tired of the same old Christmas collection, and in my mind it’s great music for a get-together, or even Christmas dinner.”

The SPCO Helps Nico Muhly to Learn From Himself

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Tonight, composer Nico Muhly will debut a new piece, Luminous Body, with Cantus and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

Yesterday, Muhly wrote an essay on his website about the frustrations of composing for orchestras. His contention centers around the problems associated with obtaining a recording of a piece from the orchestra. Often, when rehearsals or concerts are recorded by orchestras, those recordings are severely restricted in their distribution, which means that even the composer, whose music was featured by the ensemble, cannot hear what was played. As Muhly illustrates, these restrictions are not only frustrating, but are damaging to a composer’s ability to grow and learn from his or her experience of composing for an orchestra.

As a contrast to the severe restrictions imposed by most professional orchestras, Muhly cites his experience working this week with the SPCO on Luminous Body, and how he “walked into the St Paul Chamber Orchestra just now and immediately signed a waiver saying that [he] can get a high-quality CD of the piece as long as [he doesn’t] put it online!”

This attitude displayed by the SPCO towards cooperative rights with composers and media partners is one of the shining examples in the orchestra world. MPR has a relationship with the SPCO that goes back to our first recording of a concert in 1967. We are currently working with the SPCO to digitize all of the old reels we keep in our archive, and will hopefully be able make them publicly available to everyone, a project that has no precedent in the orchestral or radio world.

To see what a difference it makes to work with a group like the SPCO, check out the Classical MPR Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra page on the Classical MPR website. There, you can stream a huge number of concerts, each recorded and broadcast in partnership with MPR.

To hear Luminous Body, tune in to Classical MPR on Saturday, September 10th at 8pm CT for a live broadcast of the concert, hosted by MPR’s Alison Young.

WARNING: Nico Muhly uses a few words of strong language in his essay.

Spotify: Aesthetics and Accesibility

On Wednesday we talked about what Spotify is, and then yesterday we outlined some of the financial issues that Spotify raises for Classical composers.

Today we will explore some of the more abstract issues surrounding Spotify.

“SPIRITUAL” LOSS or MUSICAL GAIN?

Pipedreams host and executive producer Michael Barone said in a meeting the other day that “there’s no such thing as too much good music.” But, is that true? Spotify has resurrected exactly that conversation amongst some classical music composers and bloggers recently.

On one side you have the argument that this emphasis on access devalues the music, making it harder to listen to anything at all. Turning music into wallpaper and taking away the incentive to value it through a transaction is, according to some, surrounding us with more music that we can use – I once knew a man who had collected so many chairs in his house that you couldn’t find a place to sit.

Gabriel Kahane, son of virtuoso pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane and hugely talented musician in his own right, illustrated this point of view earlier this week on his Tumblr blog.

The next day, a blogger with the handle ulyssestone posted a response from the other side, saying that the world has changed, and that no one benefits from bemoaning the loss of the old ways. Ultimately, he seems to conclude, we should embrace the shake-up that the access to music that Spotify presents.

Kirk McElhearn, another blogger, also weighed in on the subject, engaging Gabriel Kahane in a back-and-forth where his main original point, taking issue with Gabriel Kahane bemoaning the degradation of “serious” listening, caused Mr. Kahane to amend his post to remove the word.

TRUE ACCESSIBILITY

The question still remains, though, about how accessible the music really is on Spotify. Sure, there might be a lot of classical music on Spotify for us to listen to, but another complaint about Spotify echoes an old complaint about most digital music services – how on Earth do you find what you’re looking for?

The particular problems of classical music taxonomy are unique in music, and have yet to be adequately addressed by everyone from Google to Apple to Spotify. We here at MPR deal with this problem every day, as classical music requires far more variables than most music software can handle, thereby making it difficult to adapt tools for use with the music.

The problem stems from the relationships between the many parts of a classical piece of music. In every other type of music besides classical, there are only 4 major considerations for organizing a song:

Song

Album

Artist

Writer

Nearly all digital music management software is set up along these lines – just look at iTunes – and it works great. The problem is when you try to fit into those categories most classical music, which uses 6 related, but ultimately different organizational elements:

Piece

Movement

Composer

Conductor

Ensemble

Soloist

You see this problem constantly when labels are forced to merge “Piece” and “Movement” into the slot for “Song”. And, of course, there is the perennial problem of who belongs in the “Artist” category – the composer, conductor, soloist, or ensemble? Different labels tackle that question in different ways, with some even putting all four into that one field.

It is this difference of structure, combined with a lack of standards amongst labels, that can make searching for a particular recording a difficult and sometimes frustrating activity.

Steven Smith, critic from the New York Times, fills us in on how Spotify stacks up on this issue.

OTHER ISSUES

There are, of course, other issues that have been raised about Spotify by classical musicians, composers, and audience members over the last two months, but they live in the technical realm, and will probably be addressed in subsequent updates to the service.

1. Playback is not gapless (there is an ever-so-brief pause between each track), which is not how many Classical tracks are designed to be consumed.

2. Sound quality is an issue for some audiophilic Classical fans, as free accounts can only stream at a maximum of 160kbps (a CD is around 320kbps.) This is not as much of an issue if you want to put up $9.99 per month for the Premium service that allows you to stream at the coveted 320kbps, except that reports are that only about 30% of available music is offered at that higher quality.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, streaming services like Spotify have come, in the last few years, to signify a new dominance in music distribution. While it may not mean the end of the physical musical object, or of the composer, or of the audience, it feels to many like the musical landscape is shifting, and will continue to shift as we intuit our way forward. As with previous models for distribution, the unsustainable portions will hopefully be identified and addressed with an attention that comes from exactly this conversation.

A new way of consuming music, and of having your music consumed, may ultimately affect the music itself. This is a necessary adaptation that is the natural byproduct of any intersection of technology and art. How we address that issue, when it starts to become apparent to us, will shape a new generation of musicians, and will hopefully give us all a new way to listen.

Spotify: The Money Problems

Yesterday, we outlined what Spotify is, and why it’s pretty cool. There have been, however, some classical music composers, players, bloggers, and audience members who aren’t so thrilled.

Any new technology has its naysayers. The written word was heralded as The End, as was the printed word. Sheet music was seen as an encroachment, and recorded music in each of its many and varied delivery systems over the years has been criticized as being the death of an art form.

And it’s true that with every technology there is a give-and-take that occurs with the old paradigm. With Spotify, the argument of its detractors is that the take is a lot more than the give.

As with most things, it all comes back to money. One of the largest and most vocal criticism of Spotify since it landed in July has been the compensation model that it uses for artists.

Here’s how that model works:

Every time anyone plays enough of a track to be considered a “play”, Spotify pays that record label (reportedly) one-third of one cent. That record label then pays the composer and the artist their share from that one-third of that one cent.

It seems like a pretty straightforward they-pay-as-you-play model, but when you look closer you see that the formula heavily (some would say cripplingly) favors major pop labels at the sacrifice of the rest of musicdom.

To elaborate —

Major Labels:

It’s a simple issue of scale.

In its first week of sales in early May, the new Lady Gaga album, “Born This Way,” sold 1.1 million units. Contrast that with the statistic that only around 25 classical records (not including crossover) have ever, in the history of recorded music, topped a million in total sales over the entire lifetime of the album.

With such a small per-play rate, you need to have millions of listens in order to make any meaningful amount of money. Small, and even mid-sized independent labels, who don’t get those mega pop star numbers, are looking at paltry returns on their investment.

Additionally, as some those smaller labels would argue, each of those plays on Spotify for which they get so little represents one CD – the current “model of sustainability” with it’s $9 price point – that they weren’t able to sell.


Pop Labels:

Think about this – classical tracks can run 30 minutes, for which the label gets $0.0033 for every play. A pop tune lasts 2-4 minutes, for which the label gets $0.0033 for every play. Therefore, if you were to play a full Beethoven symphony (4 tracks) on Spotify, the label would get $0.0133 (or, more dramatically – one and one-third cents) for your listen. If you were, however, to play that full Lady Gaga album with 14 tracks, the label would get $0.0462 (or just about four-and-a-half cents).

Further Reading:

Brian Brandt from Mode Records outlines his frustration with the Spotify model and why he doesn’t want his label to be a part of it.

A breakdown of what an artist earns through various sales media.

TOMORROW: How well does Spotify actually work? And are we better listeners for having this much access to music?

Spotify: An Introduction

Spotify is something you may have heard about. For some, it is a long-awaited music streaming service. For others, it’s just something else they don’t use that might or might not (and who really cares?) be like Pandora, Rdio, iCloud, Jango, Slacker, Maestro, Grooveshark, last.fm, MOG, or Turntable.

But whether you are excited about it or ambivalent towards it, Spotify is here, and Spotify is changing music distribution.

That change has been met, as all changes are, with skepticism, anger, elation, and all of the other reactions produced by the friction of that change. The rub from Spotify has been keenly felt, and discussed, in the classical music community recently, causing conversations and even arguments in the Twitter and Blog-spheres for months.

So, for those of us who aren’t following the exact conversation, what exactly is Spotify, and why is it causing all of this hubbub?

For the next three days, Classical MPR will explore those questions and hopefully give some clarity about what Spotify is, why people are upset, and why others think it’s great.

So, let’s start with a little context.

First, what is Spotify?

In short, Spotify is an online music library that you can access, completely free of charge. Think of it as an iTunes account that has been pre-populated for your use by several major record labels (including Universal, Sony, EMI, and Warner Music Group) with their music catalogues. Imagine, if you would, waking up tomorrow to find that overnight your iTunes library had been expanded to include a large portion of all recorded music. Well, imagine no longer, because that is the reality of Spotify.

Once you sign up, which you can do with a free, but limited, account, you can search out and immediately stream (to your computer) any song or piece of music that has had rights cleared to be in the database. That database is currently over 15 million songs, and is growing every day.

There is a social element to Spotify as well, which can link to your Facebook and Twitter accounts to share playlists with friends. Through Facebook you can even “send” songs to friends, highlighting for them something you’ve just discovered, or an old favorite you love. You can also collaborate on playlists, allowing multiple people to add songs to the same playlist.

So, Spotify is a huge collection of recorded music that I can listen to at any time for free? That sounds pretty cool.

TOMORROW: So, why are people so upset about Spotify?

Minnesota Varsity Student Wins Miss Brainerd Lakes

Rebecca Yeh.jpg

This past June, Rebecca Yeh was crowned Miss Brainerd Lakes as a part of the Miss Minnesota Education Foundation, the official preliminary to the Miss America Pageant.

You might remember Rebecca for her stunning performance of the Adagio from J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 as a Featured Round performer for Minnesota Varsity this past spring. A wonderful musical talent, Rebecca left this past weekend for her freshman year at Ohio Northern University as a pharmacy major.

Before she left, I had a chance to talk with Rebecca about the competition, her plans, and her music.

Classical MPR: Have you done any pageant competitions before?

Rebecca Yeh: The Miss Brainerd Lakes pageant was the first pageant I competed in. I attended the pageant in 2010 and thought that I would have a great shot at it this year. Coming from a musical background and with my accomplishments as a violinist, I felt that I would have a lot to offer to the title of Miss Brainerd Lakes.

The Miss Brainerd Lakes Pageant is a part of the Miss America Organization that requires a talent and a personal platform, which really gives more depth to the program aside from being judged like a typical “beauty pageant”.

MPR: What repertoire did you play in the competition?

RY. For my talent performance, I played Vieuxtemp’s Souvenir D’Amerique Yankee Doodle Variations. The piece starts out with a very serious, almost uninviting opening, which eventually sneaks into the theme of Yankee Doodle. The reaction from the audience is always enjoyable, as they are surprised recognize the tune.

MPR: What will you be doing as Miss Brainerd Lakes for the coming year?

RY. So far, I have been able to travel to other local pageants as visiting royalty. I have also been part of parades in the Brainerd Lakes Area, as well as community events throughout the summer. In addition, I have had the opportunity to speak at service organizations such as the local rotaries.

At the local level of pageant competition, the main goal is to promote my platform, and prepare for the Miss Minnesota Pageant next June. During my breaks at home, I will have the opportunity to visit my community and participate in as many events as possible. My platform is named, “A Voice for Autism”, inspired by my 20-yr-old brother, Philip, who has pervasive developmental disorder under the spectrum of autism. Being crowned June 25th, I am in the process of developing my platform so that I am able to make real, tangible changes, not only in my brother’s life, but in the lives of other people with autism. My hopes are that I can integrate my music with my experience with autism, to create programs and bring awareness to autism spectrum disorders. I have had the opportunity to visit summer programs for autistic students and perform familiar pieces for them, while telling them about myself and taking questions. It has been amazing to see the effects even the simplest music can have on the relaxation and calmness of some students. I am hoping that by the time Miss MN comes around, I will have had opportunities to reach out and use the honor of being Miss Brainerd Lakes to help these people.

MPR: How did it feel to win?

RY: Winning the pageant was such an honor. I had put a lot of work into my preparation for that day. What many people don’t realize is that the pageant itself is a small peek at the journey of growth each of the contestant’s experiences. The interview portion of the pageant occurs off-stage, before the night of the pageant. Through months of mock interviewing and staying aware of my current events, I began to develop and communicate my viewpoints in society, culture and politics. In addition, the judging of the pageant looks at all areas of the contestant: physical fitness, public speaking, academics, and talent. Winning all categories of competition (swimsuit, evening gown, talent, and interview), I was honored and elated that my preparation had been well worth it.

Top Score: Live Performance of a Journey song (no, not THAT Journey)

The orchestra who plays the Video Games Live concerts in Los Angeles, the Golden State Pops, recently teamed up with ‘cellist Tina Guo to showcase a brand new piece of music from the upcoming game Journey (not the band Journey,) the highly anticipated follow-up game to the huge indie success Flower, both by the innovators at thatgamecompany.

Austin Wintory, who is doing the music for Journey, will be our guest on Top Score in the upcoming season. We’ll be talking with him about the luscious music for Journey that we’ve been getting previews of, and talk to him about how sound works in the game at influencing play.

See the video of the performance and read Austin Wintory’s interview with Gamespot here.

Meet Bob Milne, Musical Genius

Our friends at Radiolab posted an amazing story last week about Bob Milne, a pianist from Michigan who has amazing musical powers. Bob, a renowned ragtime player, can carry on a full conversation while performing, something that neurologists say shouldn’t be possible. The story gets really spectacular when the neurologists decide to test Bob’s abilities clinically, pitting his skills against a famous conductor.

The story is very well produced, putting you into Bob’s head in a way that makes you rethink how you listen to music. Definitely worth a listen.

I'll Take the Taiwanese Blend, Please

With their ears all over the world, our listeners are forever turning us on to all sorts of great things to savor, delight, and astonish.

One such listener from South Carolina recently sent us information about Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, the first and only independent professional Chinese orchestra not run by the government in Taiwan, which she stumbled upon by accident.

These beautiful pieces are familiar in scope and form with western roots and orchestral setup, but because of the instrumentation they shimmer with a wash of sounds, colors, and expressions that form a remarkably palatable and interesting blend of East and West.

The term “blend of East and West” is often employed by musical groups who are in fact struggling to smash two traditions together, and not always gracefully. But the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, with it’s Western setup and (mostly) Eastern instrumentation, executes the intent of the cliché so gracefully that it feels truly like the skeleton of a larger musical idea, no more possible to remove or overtly obvious than the bones that structure the body. This “modern Chinese music orchestra” as they call themselves, “perform Chinese music as [they] think it should be performed. Normal si-zhu orchestras are restricted to traditional si-zhu forms, but the idea of [their] programme is to exploit different environments and opportunities in order to demonstrate the full range of possibilities of the beauty of Chinese music.”

Such beauty, indeed.