As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.
But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.
The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.
I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.
Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.
With the arrival of iTunes 11, classical music fans – and anyone with a large music library – have lamented the removal of certain features and views that help organize large amounts of music. I touched on some of these in my extensive review of iTunes 11 for Macworld, and in my discussion of iTunes 11 on the Macworld podcast. But I would like to summarize here the problems that iTunes 11 has brought specifically to classical music listeners.
First, there is no Composers view. In the iTunes window, you can view your music by Songs, Albums, Artists Genres and Playlists, but Composers has been forgotten.
Next, the Column Browser has been removed. This was a very practical way of viewing your library by drilling down from, say, Genre to Composer to Album. Previously, the Column Browser was available either on the top of a window or on the left side, allowing for two different ways of viewing music. It’s still available, but only in one view: Songs. The Songs view is sterile and hard to use, because there is no artwork displayed, and because there is no visible separation between albums.
Album List view was also removed. This allowed users to display a list of their music with album art, and the artwork delimited each album, making it easy to spot an album at a glance. Also, this list view would display whichever columns a user wanted to see, and users could sort by any column, such as Date Added, Composer, Artist, Album, etc. The new Albums view only shows track names, ratings and times, and sort options are limited.
In the iTunes Store, there is no longer a Composer column when you view an album. So if you see a recording with several works of the same name, but by different composers, there’s no way of knowing which is which, if you want to buy one or several tracks of work by a specific composer.
And in the iTunes Store, the Power Search feature was removed. You could use this to search for items by multiple criteria, including composer. If you were looking for an album with a work by a specific composer, played by a specific artist, this was a practical way to find it.
iTunes is clearly targeted at those listeners who consume songs, not those who collect classical music, or who have large libraries. But what chagrins me is that it would have been simple to keep the above features; they don’t specifically clash with the overall interface. Their removal makes iTunes much harder to use with classical music, and with large libraries. I can only hope that Apple makes some changes so those users who need these features can feel comfortable with the program.
Update: I’ve reposted this article because with the release of iTunes 11, the Gapless Album tag is no longer available in the program. However, many people don’t understand this, and think that the removal of this tag means that iTunes no longer plays music without gaps. This is incorrect. Read on and understand what this tag was for.
Following a comment from a Twitter friend, asking how to find which of a number of albums require gapless playback, I pointed him to an old article on this website. (I won’t link to it, as it was written in 2006, and addressed the problem of gapless playback on the iPod.) I realized that many people don’t understand what that Gapless Album tag is, so here’s a brief explanation.
If you select a number of tracks in iTunes, then choose Get Info, and click on the Options tab, you see this:
And if you choose a single track, you see this:
That tag at the bottom of the first screenshot, Gapless Album, or at the bottom of the second, Part of a Gapless Album (thanks for being consistent, Apple), has one, and only one usage. This tag only matters if you have Crossfade Song turned on in iTunes (Preferences > Playback), and it only affects playback from iTunes. All gapless albums are automatically detected and played as such on iPods and other iOS devices. You may even see iTunes “Determining Gapless Playback Information” when you add new files to your iTunes library; this is simply to find whether the music ends at the end of the file or not. (Not actually at the end, in fact; there’s a brief bit of silence no matter what, but it’s a set length, so if the silence is that length, iTunes knows to ignore it.)
So, unless you use Crossfade Songs, you never need to worry about this tag.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 répertoire 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.