Essential Music: Brian Eno’s Ambient Compositions

There are some kinds of music that, when you first hear them, sound like they are music that you’ve always heard in your head, but never on a record. That’s how I felt when I first heard Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports shortly after it was first released. The self-effacing title of this 1978 album suggests that it might be a form of muzak, or taffelmusik. In fact, that was, in some ways, the goal of the work. It was designed to be played as background music, but the kind that you could focus on at any time and appreciate the qualities of the music. Eno, according to Wikipedia,

conceived this idea while being stuck at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid 70s. He had to spend several hours there and was extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.

This four-part, 48-minute work, was the first album to bear the moniker “ambient,” though it was not Eno’s first truly ambient work. While other albums featuring a similar tone were made prior to Music for Airports, this was the first one consciously designed with what would become the ambient ethos.

Eno’s Discreet Music predated Music for Airports by three years, and, featuring the eponymous 30-minute track, as well as three experimental “remixes” of Pachelbel’s Canon, was the first true ambient work, designed as a background track for Robert Fripp to play over in concert.

Eno would go on to create other album-length ambient works, such as the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (perhaps his best long work), the 58-minute Neroli (as of this writing, just 99 cents in MP3 format on Amazon) in 1993, and the 1999 I Dormienti, a 40-minute soundtrack for an installation.

Much of Eno’s music is ambient in nature, and he has recorded many other albums with the same tone, but others are more collections of shorter tracks, or collaborations, such as those with Harold Budd or Robert Fripp. But the five long ambient albums remain the most successful approaches to ambient music. While there are now thousands of people composing “ambient” music – after Eno, it became a genre of its own – Brian Eno’s albums are the pillars of this type of music. If you’re unfamiliar with this music, go for Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon first. The title track of Discreet Music is excellent (though I don’t like the remixes of Pachelbel’s Canon). And Neroli is a dark, yet moving piece as well. No matter what, you owe yourself to discover this moving, meditative music.

Marcel Proust in Audio

A la recherche du temps perdu, in audio, on 111 CDs (in French)

Buy from Amazon FR

I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust, author of A la recherche du temps perdu (or In Search of Lost Time, in English). Last year, a French publisher released a complete audio recording of this extraordinary novel, on 111 CDs, read by 6 well-known French actors. It clocks in at just over 148 hours, and I have been enjoying listening to these recordings in recent weeks. I’m not listening to it all at once, but rather one section at a time. The length and complexity of this work is part of the charm that makes this one of the pillars of French and world literature.

Since most of my readers don’t speak French, you might want to check out an English version, such as the 39-CD abridgment by Neville Jason. This is a good start, while waiting for Naxos (the publisher of this audiobook) to release a complete version in the near future.

If you’ve never read Proust, you might want to try the only part of this epic novel that is really a stand-alone section, Un Amour de Swann. In English, you could start with Swann’s Way , the first volume of the series. This is a great novel of decadence and passion, written in an inimitable style.

For some biographical information–after all, Proust’s novel was, to a large extent, about himself–you could try the excellent biography by William C. Carter, or an interesting audio biography by Neville Jason (included in the 39-CD set mentioned above). Finally, Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is an unexpected approach to this dense work, while Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is a more conventional introduction and guide book to the novel. No matter where you begin, though, Proust is the kind of author you may end up adopting for life. An excellent biography in French by Ghislain de Diesbach is available for those who read the original language.

Speech Events and E-Mail Mailing Lists

A query from a colleague led me to look back at a Master’s dissertation I wrote in 1996, back in the very early days of the Internet: Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists In this paper, I looked at the types of speech events used in this specific type of communication. From my abstract:

In this paper, I will discuss how mailing lists function, the different types of mailing lists that exist, and how the type of mailing list can influence the type of discourse that is used on the list. Then I will discuss the different types of speech events that are used on mailing lists. Finally, I will show how those speech events are realized by examining an extended thread from one mailing list.

I had a re-read of the paper this evening, something I hadn’t done in more than ten years (the last time I looked at it was when a linguistics journal asked me to provide a shorter version for publication, back in 2000). And, you know what, it’s actually kind of interesting. I wrote this paper back in a time when computer-mediated communication was new, and the general public hadn’t yet embraced the internet. In addition, I did all my research using the internet: I didn’t set foot in a single library, and found papers on the web, or contacted authors who sent me off-prints of articles they had written.

This probably won’t interest many of my readers, but some of you, who have been using the internet for a long time, may want to take a glance at it and see how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. My paper was the first on a niche subject – speech events in e-mail – and it has been quoted by many other papers. While it earned my a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, I didn’t pursue the field after that. It’s a shame, because it was quite interesting, and with the tools we now have for analyzing textual corpora, the possibilities are endless.

DVD Notes: Complete BBC Shakespeare

A few years ago, I bought this wonderful complete set of the BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Recorded between 1978 and 1985, these recordings show their age, but feature a plethora of excellent actors and actresses, such as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Anthony Hopkins and Clive Swift. No modern productions here – all of these are period pieces, and feature the BBC’s minimalist sets and design. This design can be annoying in some productions, but in most the words take precedence and one ignores the sets.

As yet, I have only watched a handful of the DVDs, but the ones I have watched (the first four Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors and King Lear) are all excellent. As I said, they show their age, but they do represent a fairly consistent approach to the works, in spite of featuring a number of different directors (notably Jonathan Miller) throughout the series.

For Shakespeare fans, this is a must-have set, especially considering its relatively friendly price (£68 at the time of this writing). Note, however, that the BBC is embarking on a new series of Shakespeare plays in the near future, with today’s actors and actresses. I don’t think that’s any reason to avoid this set, however, as it shows a type of Shakespearean interpretation that is, in a way, for the ages.

This set isn’t sold at Amazon US, but you can get several more expensive box sets of the plays, or rent them from Amazon.

Update, September, 2011: since I first posted this in 2008, I’ve watched about half of the plays; I have no desire to go through them all in a hurry. While some productions are weaker than others, overall, the set is magnificent. Notable plays are Hamlet, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, and Othello, with Bob Hoskins as Iago. Some of the productions are a bit dated, and tacky, but the acting is generally very good to excellent. At the price at which this set is sold – a couple of quid per play – this really is a steal.

For a different way of approaching Shakespeare, check out this set of audio recordings of the plays.

Some Thoughts on John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Series

gardiner.jpg

For more than five years I’ve been buying John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series recordings on his label, Soli Deo Gloria. After this extraordinary series of performances was made in 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded them all, released several volumes of the series, then pulled the funding. Gardiner, armed with tapes of the performances, wisely decided to found his own label to sell these discs, starting with subscription sales, then expanding to distribution around the world in record shops and via online dealers (such as Amazon).

I received the final two volumes of this series (four CDs) in the mail this morning, which close this musical adventure. (These are the last two volumes that SDG will release; it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series.) This has led me to consider this series and its importance.

I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio (recorded on this DVD), Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the previously-mentioned DVD discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

If you haven’t heard these recordings, check out any of them; check some out on Amazon.com, and you can listen to samples on the Soli Deo Gloria website. And, to get a taste of Bach’s sacred music, there’s a 22-CD box set of John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s passions, his B minor mass, and a number of cantatas, including the four discs worth of cantatas from the Pilgrimage that Deutsche Grammophon originally released (and which SDG did not release; so if you want the entire series, you need to get this box in addition to the SDG recordings.)

Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for your amazing tour and its recordings.

A slightly different version of this article was published on MusicWeb International.

Update: The last two volumes of the series include a printed list of the cantatas by album and number. You can get a PDF file of that listing here.

And here’s a recent interview with John Eliot Gardiner about the cantata pilgrimage.

Update, August, 2013: There will be a box set of all the cantatas, including the four DG discs, in October, 2013.

Reflections on iTunes Bloat

Is iTunes Bloated? That’s a question I asked on this site back in June. I got some answers, responded to them, but I wasn’t convinced by much of what people were saying about iTunes bloat.

I’ve written an article for TidBITs called Is iTunes Bloated?, examining some of these points, rebutting many of them, and pointing out where iTunes could be changed, and where it can’t be. I’m sure many people will disagree with me on this, because this seems to be a question where people have entrenched ideas.

I admit that I know iTunes pretty well, and am not daunted by its many features. I’ve just written about them in Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ, for those who want to learn more about using the program.

Book Review: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd
Eugene B. Bergmann
495 pages. Applause, 2004, $28.

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

When I was around 10 or 12 years old – back in the late 60s and early 70s – I discovered Jean Shepherd’s nightly radio show on WOR AM in New York. Every evening at 10:15, Shep would come on the air, following his theme music (Strauss’ Bahn Frei), and talk for 45 minutes. He would just talk – there was no script, though people who knew him have suggested that he spent hours preparing for his shows – seemingly improvising, riffing on current events, his pet peeves, and telling stories. When listening to Shep, it always sounded like he was talking to me; like there was no one else listening to the radio. It was the stories that got me hooked, especially those about him growing up in Hammond, Indiana, a small town near Chicago. Shep talked about his time in the Army, and about the events of his childhood, which occurred between the age of about 7 and 17, events that happened to him and a few of his friends, such as Flick and Schwartz.

Shep and his friends were average kids, with the usual preoccupations of kids that age – my age – and the stories were bittersweet memories of their growing up in the Depression. Some of them were funny, others poignant, but Shep brought to these oft simple stories the true art of the storyteller. He always managed to make them last up until the final theme music, weaving threads and events until his time was up. I would be held in a spell for those 45 minutes, just before I went to sleep, as I entered his world.

I was a real Jean Shepherd fan back then. Not only did I buy his books (two books of stories, In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Great Disasters), his records (LPs of him reading from the books, or more scripted versions of the stories), and I even took up the instruments that he played on the show: the kazoo and the Jew’s harp.

Shep contributed greatly to my worldview, teaching me the power of stories and how the true storyteller could take control of the listeners’ minds, but also through the seemingly simple profundity of some of his observations.

Over the years, I had forgotten about Jean Shepherd – his stories were still someplace in that mushroom soup of memories that dated back to those pre-teen years, but they didn’t surface often. But recently, thanks to the Internet and a group of fanatics, I’ve been able to rediscover the joys of listening to this great artist.

And now (to finally get to the meat of this review), a new book examines Jean Shepherd, his art, his legacy, and his philosophy: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene Bergmann. This book, written by a true Shep fan and fanatic, is a compendium of thoughts about Jean Shepherd, his work, his life, and, as the title suggests, his enigma.

Because Shep was an enigma. Having created his own radio genre, he eventually got tired of all the advertising that the radio stations tried to squeeze into his show and left, gave up, walked away from more than two decades of radio. He was a trendsetter – and, in a way, a minor cultural icon in the early days – but he hated trends, and hated following them even more. He was a unique friendly voice, but could be, at times, arrogant and opinionated.

Bergmann’s book is not a biography; instead, it is a collection of chapters that examine different periods of Shep’s life and work. There is no attempt to rationalize the complex relationships he had with his family, nor his personal life, beyond some basic anecdotes. However, this book, with its many excerpts from Shep’s radio shows, gives the best overview of what Shep was like, and what his shows were about. While the book is a bit disjointed, so was its subject.

If you’re familiar with Jean Shepherd, you’ll know why you should buy this book; if not, you may want to buy it to discover one of America’s most unique comic voices (though comic is by far too simplistic a word to describe Shep). And if you want to hear him at work, some 1,500 shows are available for download at the Jean Shepherd Archive, or, to hear a few random shows, check out the Jean Shepherd Podcast, or check out the Brass Figlagee podcast on iTunes.

Do You Think iTunes is Bloated?

One of the common tropes I see on the internet about iTunes is the fact that the program is “bloated.” A lot of people who know very little about programming or computers in general repeat this in forums and on blogs, and I’ve always wondered why people say this. Granted, iTunes has a lot of features, but if you don’t use certain features, why would they bother you? For example, Microsoft Word has lots of features, one of which is a set of reviewing features for tracking changes, comparing documents, and more. This is something I often use professionally, but most people don’t even know about it. Does this make Word bloated?

I’m planning to write an article about this, and I’m looking for input. If you’re one of those people who accuses iTunes of bloat, I’d appreciate your posting a comment here to tell me exactly what you mean. Do you mean the size of the program? (This is 2010, so it’s not about hard disk space or even the size of an installer or updater that you have to download.) Do you mean that it has features you don’t need? (Well, what about the people who do need and use those features?)

I’ve looked at this article, and I find it a bit surprising. Sure, iTunes installs QuickTime; it needs QuickTime to play back media files. It installs Bonjour for iTunes library sharing. Mobile Device Support is for, well, mobile devices. And Apple Software Update is to make updates easier. Is 200 MB really that big an issue in the days of terabyte hard disks?

I’m especially interested in hearing from anyone who understands Windows internals and any memory issues that may exist. I’ve read a lot of people who complain about memory usage on Windows, and, while I run Windows using VMware Fusion, I only use iTunes there for test purposes, and have never seen problems. I’m wondering how much any memory issues could be caused by iTunes, and how much they are simply due to people using old PCs without much memory, or old versions of Windows. (To be honest, the “iTunes bloat” meme seems to come only from Windows users…)

In any case, feel free to comment below. Pass this on to others, as I’m really trying to get to the bottom of this question. Thanks!

Some Thoughts on the Future of Newspapers

I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the second time. For those unfamiliar with the TV series, the fifth and final season features two concurrent plot threads: one has to do with the police and their investigations, and the other has to do with the press, notably the Baltimore Sun, the daily newspaper in the city where the series is set.

Throughout the season, you see the difficulties that the Sun faces; even though this was made several years ago, and the Internet is not mentioned, it is clear that times are tough for that venerable daily paper. The Sun has a storied history, counting one of America’s most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken, as one of its alumni. But in season 5 of The Wire, you see the problems faced by today’s newspapers, and how they cope.

This made me think about how newspapers have changed in my lifetime, and how they may change in the near future. At first, I found the newspaper to be a sacred object. In 6th grade – and this goes back about 40 years – I recall our English teacher showing us how to fold the New York Times to be able to read it efficiently. As with any broadsheet, the right fold is essential to be able to read the paper in the subway or on a bus.

Over the years, as an adult, I bought papers most days, and skimmed the news. At a time when I watched little television, the newspaper was my only source of information about what was going on in the world. When I moved to France 25 years ago, I started buying the International Herald Tribune, and over the years, subscribed to it from time to time. This slim broadsheet, now owned by the New York Times, was a condensed version of the world’s news, and it showed up in my mailbox six days a week. Unfortunately, French newspapers are quite expensive, which has always prevented me from buying them regularly, but with the Internet, and my RSS reader, I keep up with what goes on in the world, much more than when I was reading a paper.

But now that’s all about to change. With Apple most likely releasing a tablet computer, I’m looking forward to a shift in the way we get news. Instead of reading unrelated articles with an RSS reader, we will be able to buy “newspapers” digitally, and read them on the Apple tablet. What seems likely is that we’ll be able to subscribe to a paper – local or national – and get it daily, via iTunes, on the device. This will renew people’s interest in newspapers.

Some people think this won’t work. They think that no one will pay for news when it’s free; or they’ll just download pirated copies of newspapers for their tables. I truly think that the Apple tablet will save newspapers, for two reasons. First, why go to the trouble of rounding up the news you want to read when you can get it all in one place? There are a few trusted newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde – any of which will give you a good overview of the news. Second, why pirate these papers when they’ll cost you less than a dollar a day? It’s too much trouble to spend the time necessary to find and download the files.

Journalism has power, and we can’t afford to lose it. From Henry Mencken (I recently read a biography of him), who, coincidentally, worked at the Baltimore Sun, to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of Albert Camus, journalists have kept people honest and kept us informed for a long time. Without good journalists, we would be a much poorer society.

I think the Apple tablet will change the way we get daily, weekly and monthly news. Because it will not only delivery daily papers, but also weekly and monthly magazines. This new way of getting news will be a paradigm shift for publishing, and will have a huge effect on the availability of free content. While you’ll still be able to get some news for free, the good news – that which is sanctioned by a respected newspaper or magazine, or the analysis that depends on the best journalist – will no longer be free, but it won’t be expensive enough to make you want to seek out free.

I hope that with Apple’s (still only rumored) tablet we’ll see a resurgence of publishing, because the news is too important to lose to free. What’s happened in recent years, because of the Internet, has endangered all of us, because we need the press to serve as a check and balance for government, corporations, and our own stupidity. Let’s hope that Apple’s tablet will pave the way for a renaissance of journalism.

What is WebKitPluginHost?

I’ve noticed a process taking up a fair amount of memory on my Mac mini, running Snow Leopard: WebKitPluginHost. WebKit is Apple’s HTML rendering engine; it’s used by Safari, Mail (for HTML messages), and many other programs that display HTML pages. But I never noticed it before as a process. In addition, it’s currently taking up more that 200 MB of real memory. Does anyone know what this is?

Follow-up: interestingly, though not surprisingly, the process disappeared after quitting Safari. I think I figured out where it came from: I was uploading a file to my MobileMe iDisk when I noticed it. Perhaps that “PluginHost” is something that is needed by the special window that displays when you make an upload. I’m surprised that it used so much RAM, but I was uploading a file that was around 190 MB. Maybe it takes up RAM corresponding to the size of the upload… More testing will be needed.

Follow-up: it’s a process used when certain plugins are called by WebKit, including the Flash Player plugin.