Essential Music: The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack

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If you follow this blog, or read my writing on Macworld, you’ve noticed that, among my varied musical interests, one artist stands out: the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for 35 years, since I first saw the band in the Spring of 1977 at the Palladium in New York. (To be honest, I was already a fan by then, having heard a number of their albums, both live and studio.) People sometimes ask me to recommend a Grateful Dead album for them to discover, and this post answers that question.

In late 1974, the Grateful Dead decided to “retire.” At the time, it wasn’t clear if the band would continue, but the increased pressure and cost of touring with their one-of-a-kind “Wall of Sound” sound system, made them realize that they couldn’t go on. They had to tour to pay for the cost of touring, and the time it took to set up and break down the Wall of Sound make touring more complicated.

So to celebrate their retirement, the Dead played five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Introduced by Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter, these last five concerts were held from October 16-20. On the 20th, Bill Graham had the concert tickets stamped “The Last One” as a souvenir for those attending.

But while the Dead suggested that this would be a retirement, they actually had big plans for the final run. Much of the music was filmed and all of it was recorded with the idea of making a movie. Jerry Garcia was the engine for this project, and during the hiatus – the band came back to performing in April 1976 (there were four gigs in 1975) – he worked on editing the movie.

Released in 1977, the Grateful Dead movie was an attempt to translate the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to the screen. Concert movies were a recent phenomenon at the time, and this was more than just a film of the concert. There is footage of people waiting in line, interviews with Deadheads, clips of people dancing and enjoying the music, and some pretty hokey animation, notably a long animated introduction. The movie fails as both a concert movie and as a documentary, but, back in the day, it was amazing to see such great footage of the band on a big screen.

For years, the tapes of these five shows languished in the Grateful Dead vault, until a re-release of the movie on DVD in 2004, when the best parts of the five concerts were remastered and released on five CDs, for a total of about 6 1/2 hours of music. (This is a bit more than 1/3 of all the music played on those five nights.) Each of the CDs tries to represent a set of music; the songs flow together well, even on the discs where the music is from different nights. Three of the discs are essentially all from single nights, with a couple of exceptions.

One reason why the Grateful Dead was so interesting is because no two concerts were the same. Not only did they not have set lists – they’d choose what to play as they went along – they were consummate improvisers, and would segue from one song to another seamlessly. There were some songs that were often played together, and that formed units: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But in 1974, only the first (China > Rider) was immutably joined, and from one show to another, the order of songs would change. In addition to these fluid set lists, the Dead would often jam on songs for a very long time; the longest track in this set is the 31:45 Playing in the Band, which is a perfect example of the band’s transcendent improvisations.

1974 was a watershed year for the Dead. One of the founding members, Pigpen (Ron McKernan) had died in 1973, and the Dead dropped many of the songs that he made famous, such as the long R&B-inspired Turn On Your Love Light, In the Midnight Hour, and Dancing In the Streets. Pigpen was a male Janis Joplin (they were lovers for a time), and he lived the blues the way he sang them; so much so that liquor killed him.

After Pigpen’s death, the Dead took a new direction, veering away from the early R&B songs, and the later folky Americana, toward some jazzier playing. That comes out here in the long Eyes of the World, a 1973 release, the mystical Playing in the Band, and Bob Weir’s Weather Report Suite, a long ballad. The Dead still played their staples: songs like U.S. Blues, He’s Gone, and One More Saturday Night, but this set doesn’t feature any of the “cowboy” songs the band played consistently in the early 1970s, such as Jack Straw, Beat It On Down the Line, Loser, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, or the perennial Me and My Uncle. The band played these songs at the five concerts, but they weren’t selected for this box set.

So on five CDs, this set gives an excellent overview of the Dead in 1974. Free jams, tight songs, a jazzier sound than in, say, 1972, but with all the power and mastery that the band had developed since their formation in 1965. While the Complete Europe ’72 box set remains the ultimate document of the Dead on tour, these edited recordings are probably the best introduction for someone interested in discovering the wide range of music the Grateful Dead played. (If you want a sample of the Dead on tour in 1972, the recent Europe ’72 Vol. 2, culled from that complete set, and tastefully remastered, is for you.) Or better yet, get both.

On Instrument Positioning in Live Recordings

All recordings of concerts are artificial. But once you’ve gotten that out of the way – you simply accept that you can never reproduce the actual sound of a live performance – you have to approach the question of how these recordings should be mixed. Not only are there questions of the volume of individual voices, instruments or groups of instruments, but also where they should be in the soundscape.

In the simplest type of live recording, you have one performer playing a solo instrument; say, a guitar. That instrument is centered in the soundstage, and there are no problems. Add a singer to the guitar, and it’s still simple to position.

But move to a slightly more complex instrument, such as a piano. There are two ways to record a piano, using microphones or a pickup. With the former, you can position microphones around the piano – most often, this is just two microphones placed facing the open lid – or you can use a pickup, which is transducers placed on the soundboard inside the piano. (There are many ways you can combine these devices, or use multiple microphones, both inside and outside the piano.) But a recording engineer faces a dilemma: do they place the piano in the center of the soundscape, or do they try to position it so the different keys are heard in different locations? I’ve heard recordings which are made to sound as though the listener is sitting in front of the keyboard; the lower notes are to the left, and the higher notes to the right. This is essentially false, because no one other than the performer hears a piano in this way. However, it does give the piano a bit more “life,” and makes the sound less static.

When there are multiple performers, the questions become much different. Generally, you want to have the performers sound as though they are in their appropriate position on stage. So a string quartet will have two instruments more on the left channel, and the other two on the right (generally the two violins are on the left and the viola and cello on the right). But I’ve heard string quartet recordings where the two instruments on the left are almost entirely on the left channel, and the same for the instruments on the right. This approximates what it would sound like to be in the middle of the string quartet, but no one ever sits there.

A jazz piano trio is an interesting group. Generally, the piano is on the left, the bass in the middle, and the drums on the right. This leads to many recordings trying to replicate this positioning. For example, listen to Brad Mehldau’s The Art Of The Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard . (You can listen to samples of the recordings I cite by following the Amazon links.) The piano is far to the left, the drums to the right, and the bass in the middle, as they are on stage. However, you would only hear a performance like this if you were sitting in the first row, dead center. This gives a certain artificiality to these recordings, which is compounded if you listen on headphones. In fact, I find this approach very annoying on headphones, and generally don’t listen to recordings like this except on speakers. (Though even with speakers, the positioning is very obvious.)

Take the same artist when he’s in the studio. On Songs: The Art Of The Trio, Volume Three, recorded in the studio, the piano is centered, and the drums are quite creatively spread across the soundstage, while the bass is also centered. Musically, this is much more interesting than if the instruments were positioned laterally.

This positioning is even more obvious in the recent Grateful Dead releases from the band’s Europe 72 tour. You can hear this clearly on the Europe ’72 Vol. 2 release, notably on Dark Star. When the Grateful Dead performed, Jerry Garcia was stage left, Bob Weir in the center, and Phil Lesh stage right. Garcia’s guitar, in these new mixes, is far to the left, but Weir’s guitar is on the right channel. Lesh’s bass is in the center; I agree that the bass should be centered no matter what, but the positioning of the guitars is simply odd. No one would have heard the music like that, unless they were in the first few rows, and even then, the resonance of the halls would attenuate that positioning greatly. Add to that the fact that the vocals are centered. This is logical, but having Jerry’s guitar far to the left and his voice in the center is a bit jarring.

The Grateful Dead’s recent release of some music from their Spring 1990 tour follows this approach. But the drums are more spread out than in the Europe 72 mixes (probably because the multi-tracking used in 1990 allowed for this giving more tracks to the drums), and the keyboards are also far to the right (keyboardist Brent Mydland did sit on the right, as did keyboardist Keith Godchaux, in 1972). But on these recordings, Bob Weir’s guitar is in the center, which is more logical.

No matter what, an engineer has to establish a soundspace. All I’m saying here is that sometimes this soundspace is too artificial; in attempting to reproduce some of a band’s positioning, it creates music that doesn’t sound realistic. You certainly don’t want all the instruments in the center, but putting them far to either side can sound strange. Could it be that these recordings are mixed for people who keep their speakers very close together? I don’t; I have speakers on my desk that are a couple of feet to either side of my head, and my living room stereo’s speakers are fairly far apart. This speaker positioning makes sense for most recordings – especially those of an orchestra – but for some recent recordings, it just sounds weird.

iPad mini vs. Kindle Paperwhite

I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.

Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.

A Year with iTunes Match

Apple introduced iTunes Match one year ago today. To mark the anniversary, I’ve written an article for Macworld, iTunes Match: One year in, where I discuss some of the problems with Apple’s cloud service, and offer some suggestions for improvement.

I also joined Macworld’s Chris Breen and Dan Moren on this week’s Macworld podcast, to discuss iTunes Match, iTunes and the iTunes Store.

So if you’re interested in iTunes Match, check out the article and podcast.

Why Record Labels Don’t Provide More Digital Booklets on the iTunes Store

A few months ago, I pondered why there are so few albums with digital booklets on the iTunes Store. I had discovered at the time that Apple imposes their own page format, which is not that of CD booklets, adding an extra step in the production process for record labels.

Well I found out something else recently: why record labels don’t add digital booklets to older releases. The answer is interesting; it’s because they can’t. Apple won’t let them. If a label has uploaded an album to the iTunes Store and wants to add a digital booklet later, the only way they can do this is to delete the original, and create a new album listing with a new SKU. And if they do this, then purchasers will no longer be able to re-download music listed under the old SKU.

It’s kind of foolish; it should be drop-dead simple to add something to an album on the iTunes Store, but Apple’s system is so rigid that it’s impossible. So if you wonder why your favorite label hasn’t added digital booklets to older releases, you now know why.

CD Review: Yo-Yo Ma: 30 Years Outside the Box

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I wasn’t very familiar with Yo-Yo Ma’s work before getting this set, other than having heard his recording of Bach’s cello suites. But I took advantage of a “lightning sale” at Amazon FR to grab this set a few weeks ago at the very low price of €140 (about $190), or less than half the current price on Amazon US (I not that some third-party sellers have it for around $300, but the Amazon US price at the time of this writing is $472). To be honest, the list price for this box is well above what one expects to pay for that many CDs in the big classical box sets we’ve been seeing recently, and this is probably why Amazon FR got a bunch of the sets to put them on sale. It’s worth noting that this is a limited edition, and even though it was released in October, 2009, it has not sold 7,500 copies. (A certificate in the box tells me I have # 6464/7500.)

Like Sony’s other recent big box sets – such as the Murray Periah set and the Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition, the set contains CDs in wallets with original artwork and the backs of original LPs in tiny fonts. There is a hardcover book, very attractive, on glossy paper, over 300 pages, with essays, photos and album notes. Sony has this down pat; while the three sets I mention are all different, with different numbers of discs, and different sized books (to fit in the appropriate boxes), the presentation of all these sets is excellent.

As for the music, Ma covers a wide range of the classical and non-classical repertoire. From chamber music to orchestral music, he gives an overview of the entire range of cello music, but also veers off in other directions, with a disc of Japanese Melodies, a Claude Bolling disc, and his “crossover” recordings, such as Appalachia Waltz, his Silk Road recordings, and some movie soundtracks, such as for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Seven Years in Tibet.

Ma is an excellent cellist, and he is never boring, though many of these works can be found in versions that are better. For example, his Schubert String Quintet lacks the pathos of better versions, and his first Bach cello suite recording is somewhat bland. (His second recording is much better.) Nevertheless, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by so much of this music as I have been listening to the set, and have discovered many works I’m not familiar with.

I wouldn’t recommend paying the full price, unless you’re an unconditional fan of Yo-Yo Ma (in which case you probably already have the set), but if you can get it at a price similar to what I paid, I’d say it’s well worth the investment.

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CD Review: Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years

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It’s been a good year for big classical box sets. Whether you’re a fan of Arthur Rubenstein or Glenn Gould, whether you’re interested in old Mercury Living Presence recordings or Karajan’s recordings from the 1960s, on Toscanini’s complete RCA recordings, you’ll find something to fill your shelves and your ears.

I’ve gotten three such sets recently: the 90-CD Yo-Yo Ma: 30 years Outside the Box set; the 42-disc Glenn Gould Complete Bach Collection, and, now, the Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years set. Interestingly, all three of these are from Sony, who is making a big effort lately to re-release back catalog in big boxes at bargain prices. (The Yo-Yo Ma was released in 2009, but the Gould and Perahia are new; in fact, they’re out in Europe at the time of this writing, but not yet in the US.)

All of these boxes are produced in a similar manner. The CDs are in slim wallet sleeves, with original artwork on them, and either the original backs from LPs in miniature or the flip side, or, for those discs originally released on CD, a track list that you can actually read. (The miniature LP notes require a microscope to read.) They’re snuggly fit inside the box, and each of these sets has a hardcover book. The Murray Perahia book is the largest of all, in part because the 5 DVDs in the set are in an actual DVD-sized digipack; in the Glenn Gould set, the 6 DVDs are in the same kind of sleeves as the CDs.

In all of these cases, the books are attractive and informative. They contain essays, photos and information about the discs. The Perahia book, being the largest, has the most notes about the discs, reproducing the original liner notes from each release.

Murray Perahia’s rĂ©pertoire is fairly standard: There’s a lot of Mozart (all the piano concertos), Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach. There’s a bit of Bartok, Brahms and Mendolssohn,, a disc of Handel and Scarlatti, but that’s about it. Perahia was never an adventurous musician in his recordings, he didn’t stray from well-worn paths. I’m mostly familiar with his work in the Mozart piano concertos, which are wonderful, but when I actually discovered his pianism was when he released a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2000. This followed a period when he had a serious problem with one of his hands, which caused him to stop playing for several years. During this time, he studied Bach closely, and even played the harpsichord (which requires a bit less hand strength), and his Goldberg Variations, played on piano, have a unique sound, no doubt influenced by that period of harpsichord playing. Following this period, he recorded a number of works by Bach – notably the English Suites and Partitas – for the first time.

There’s a lot of music in this set, all of it familiar, but I’m looking forward to discovering this pianist whose approach is never dull and often interesting. One nice bonus is the 5 DVDs included, one of which features Perahia accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Winterreise, from 1990.

It’s true that this big box sets can be overwhelming, and they take a long time to listen to. But at about $2-3 per disc, they are rich with discoveries, and when the performer is of this quality, there is rarely a dull disc. I’ve been delighted with the Yo-Yo Ma box set. While many of his recordings are far from being the best versions of their works, his repertoire is broad, and his playing is always skilled and interesting. As for Glenn Gould, I have known all of his Bach recordings for a long time, and this new set offers a number of un-released recordings, along with several DVDs. I’m looking forward to box sets of two of my favorite performers: pianist Alfred Brendel, who retired from the stage in 2008, and the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this year. While I have many recordings by each of them, these comprehensive box sets allow one to fill in the gaps and discover the less well-known recordings that one may have missed.

CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

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While Glenn Gould was a pianist who performed the works of many composers, his name is inextricably linked to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. More than any other composer, Bach was Gould’s speciality. From his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 to his final recording, again of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, Gould recorded nearly all of Bach’s keyboard music.

This set groups all of Gould’s Bach recordings for around $115; not only those released on LP and CD, but also a number of previously unreleased recordings: outtakes from the 1955 Goldbergs recording session; a stereo mix of the 1955 Goldbergs; some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, from 1952 and 1954; and two live recordings, from 1957 and 1959, of the Goldbergs (Salzburg Festival, August, 1959) and the Sinfonias (Moscow, May, 1957). There are two discs of interviews with Gould – one with Tim Page, and another with John McClure – and a disc of Gould speaking about Bach in German. There are a total of 38 CDs.

This set also includes DVDs; 6 of them. Three of these are directed by Bruno Monsaigneon, featuring the Goldbergs on one, and two others with a variety of works. And three others are from the CBC, from 1957 to 1970, featuring Gould (and others) playing a variety of Bach’s works. Many Gould fans are familiar with the Monsaigneon films, as they have been widely circulated – especially the Goldberg Variations video, which was my first introduction to seeing Glenn Gould perform. The CBC videos are less common, though they have been released in a 10-DVD set Glenn Gould on Television. What we have in the Bach set is, naturally, the Bach performances taken from that set. If you’re a die-hard Gould fan, you’ll want to get the full DVD set as well.

Together with all these discs is a 192-page hardcover book, with some introductory essays, and with notes for each disc. Unfortunately, the notes are very succinct, and while the disc covers reproduce original LPs, the notes on them are too small to read without a microscope. (Is it that hard to include a CD or DVD with PDFs of these things?)

If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, you may already have the Complete Original Jacket Collection, on 80 CDs, which contains most of what’s in this set, but you won’t have the outtakes, live recordings and DVDs. This set, at a not-quite-bargain price, is worth getting for these extras alone, if you appreciate Gould. Especially since Bach is what Gould did best.

Nice packaging, a fair price, and a bunch of previously unreleased material makes this a good purchase for any fan of Glenn Gould. If you’re not familiar with his admittedly idiosyncratic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, this would be a good chance to discover one of the most original of performers. You may love Gould or hate him, but you can’t deny that, when he played Bach, he was channelling something transcendent.

John Cage and Morton Feldman in Conversation, 1967




Listening to a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage today (on this new recording of his Works for violin and piano, I searched on the web for some information about Feldman and Cage, and found these very fascinating recordings of the two of them in conversation, recorded for WBAI in 1967, and available from Archive.org.

Interestingly, I started listening while playing Feldman’s For John Cage in the background, and this was strangely satisfying.

Here is a summary of the three conversations:

Part 1 (39:25):
This first of a three part conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York between October 18-25, 1967. The segment begins with Cage and Feldman discussing the various ways people perceive intrusion in their lives. The composers then spend some time on the occupation of the artist as “being deep in thought,” and what the goals or purposes of “being deep in thought” might be. A brief analysis of Black Mountain College follows before Cage and Feldman return to the idea of being in thought, and the role of boredom in life. The conversation ends with Cage explaining his hesitation towards taking on students.

Part 2 (49:41):
The second part of their conversation was recorded at WBAI in New York on October 24, 1967. Like the first installment, much of this conversation centers on intrusions in the life of an artist. Cage and Feldman look at how everyday tasks such as correspondence are affected by the artist’s desire to not disappoint the public once the public has recognized the artist. Cage and Feldman engage in a fairly philosophical discussion regarding the telephone, and recount some anecdotes about using the phone book. They also return to the topic of “thought” and whether there is a point in life where a person has thought enough. There is also some discussion of composing pieces with very particular challenges (e.g. a one-finger guitar piece).

Part 3 (43:48):
The third and final conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York in October 1967. Cage and Feldman’s discussion begins with Cage reading part of an article by the architect Kaufman on disposability. Cage seems fascinated by the idea that the large and small scale is becoming ever more prominent in society, while the importance of the mid-scale is dwindling. Some serious debate ensues when Cage expresses the opinion that we already have quality in the world, and what we are truly seeking is quantity. The two also touch on the role of artists in reaction to the Vietnam War, and how musicians seem frequently absent from the political dialogue. The conversation ends with Cage hypothesizing that the printing press changed the course of life activity toward material gain.

Perceval, or The Story of the Grail

Introduction

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is one of the greatest literary works of all time. Written in the second half of the twelfth century, this poem tells the story of Perceval, a teenager raised in a forest by his mother, who encounters some knights, then sees, by chance, a grail in a castle. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. He then wanders in the hopes of finding it again.

The story is both that of Perceval’s coming of age and his quest. The first part shows how this teenager, after being raised in a forest by his mother, discovers the ways of the world – he discovers knights, and kings, tastes the pleasures of love and the pain of combat. Naïve at first, he slowly adapts to his world, yet never really fits in. After he sees the grail in a castle that he came upon by chance, he then starts learning more about who he is and what the significance of this event might have been. He goes in search of the grail, yet, the text being unfinished, the reader can only speculate on the result of this quest.

My interest in the Grail legend has been going on for some time. In 1990, I was working in a French bookstore, and discovered the different texts of the grail legend. At that time, there was an increased interest in such legends in France, and many publishers have since released their own editions of either this text, or collections of Arthurian legends.

While there are many versions of the story, the one by Chrétien de Troyes, the first one written, is psychologically the most powerful and is one of the great myths of the western world. There are several translations available of the Conte du Graal, probably read mostly by college students studying medieval literature. Yet I believe that this story deserves its rightful place as one of the classics of literature, and one of the most powerful myths in the West.

My goal in this translation is not to make a philological translation (although it is based on the authoritative edition of the Old French text and is as faithful as possible). There are scholars who have done so, but their translations often read like scholarly translations: boring, heavy, and stylistically flawed. I am trying to make a translation that can be read with the same lightness that I experienced when I read a modern French translation. This is not a boring story; far from it. But the translations that exist are not made for the average reader looking for a spiritual classic. My translation will also be, in part, a Jungian reading of the text. The symbolism of the Grail legend is extraordinary, and, as Jung and von Franz have shown, this legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation. I would like that to come through, and I would hope that the readers would be reading this text in part for its symbolic richness.

Individuation can be seen as the realization of self. It is the coming to terms with our inner world, and its unification with our conscious self. And it is the realization that as individuals we are different from the world around us, and that we can become unique. The Grail quest is a search for that indescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, the Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same. Many people have an idea that something exists deep within them, but few can follow the path and seek it. Even fewer actually find it.

My Translations

The Story of the Grail, or the Romance of Perceval, by Chrétien de Troyes

The following are links to PDFs of my translations, together with the original Old French.

1 – Prologue

2 – Such Bright and Magnificent Angels…

3 – The Maiden in the Tent

4 – The Red Knight

This is all I’ve translated for now. Other installments may follow.

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