Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”

While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.

The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.

Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.

Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.

Book Review: Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition

Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry David Thoreau; Annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer
370 pages. Yale University Press, 2004. $30

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The time has come for another annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden, to replace the aging edition prepared by Thoreau scholar Walter G. Harding. Jeffery S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, has taken on this task, and after many years of work has published this densely annotated text of Walden.

Annotations cover all the areas one would expect: definitions of foreign words, references to people and places mentioned in the text, sources of quotes, even the date of a gentle rain mentioned in one part of the chapter entitled Solitude. Cramer occasionally compares passages in the text with Thoreau’s journal entries and other writings, offering insight into how Thoreau reworked some of his ideas. He is a voluble annotator – the book contains thousands of notes, with 427 for the first (and longest) chapter, Economy, alone. There are some pages where there is no body text at all, to allow for the multiple annotations, yet it is surprising at times to come across pages where he finds nothing to say.While I cannot judge the scholarly value of Cramer’s notes, they are certainly voluminous. If they do not cover all the details, I doubt that another edition with more notes will come along for some time. However, some of the notes make me question the usefulness of the way the notes are presented. For example, on page 81, Thoreau says, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a form or the county jail.” Cramer’s note says: “Thoreau was committed to the county jail in July 1846 for nonpayment of taxes.” Really? Do tell… Alas, there is no more about this (famous) incident in Thoreau’s life. Off to the index to see… When I look up jail, it does not refer me to page 81 (suggesting that the index is not quite up to par), but to pages 166 and 308. On the former, I find a better explanation of this incident. It would have been much more useful to find, on page 81, a reference to this note on page 166. Adding notes or references to other notes makes the overall text a bit more cumbrous, but oh so much more complete!

What is perhaps the most important aspect of this book for any die-hard Walden aficionado is its layout. Leaving aside the apocryphal illustrations that appear beneath each chapter title (animals, leaves and berries, even a steam locomotive), what counts most in a book like this is its readability. And the readability depends on the book’s layout. I must say that this is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The canonical text (Thoreau’s text) takes up just over half the total page width. It is presented in slim columns with a thin rule in the form of a box surrounding the text on both sides of a double-page spread. The font is attractive and very readable. At the margins of the canonical text is the annotations, in a smaller, sans serif font, which contrasts well with the main text and is equally readable.

Yet the layout is insufficient for one wishing to read Walden alone, and not focus on the annotations. In an ideal annotated edition of any text, the notes should be in the background enough so the reader can ignore them easily. Here, since the notes cover so much space, this is not possible. With the body text being as slim as it is, the notes look as though the cover half the page. And, with the gutter (the space between the text and the binding at the inside of the pages) being too small, you have to push the book flat to read it comfortably. If you simply let it sit flat on a desk on in your lap, it is difficult to read the words at the center of the book.

It is clearly the density of the annotations that led to this layout. But the publisher had a chance to make a book that was both useful (the annotations) and attractive (the layout); unfortunately, they chose the former. This edition, while fine for reading the notes, is not conducive to a casual, fire-side read of Walden. It is an excellent addition to the library of any Thoreauvian – I’d even say it is an essential book for anyone wishing to better understand Thoreau and Walden – but it is not the edition I would pick up to simply read a chapter or two of the work. (The recent edition by Shambhala, with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, or the paperback or hardcover Library of America editions, are perhaps best for casual reading.) Nevertheless, this is an invaluable work for a better understanding of this, one of the greatest texts of American literature.


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Buy in French from Amazon.fr: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

[Note: I wrote this review back in 2000, and just stumbled on it. I haven’t edited it, other than correcting a few infelicities in the writing. I read this book in French, and the review discusses the book’s content, not its translation.]

I was expecting to read a real biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, but it turned out to be a long book of little more than intellectual masturbation.

I find some of the pre-publication comments on the Amazon.com site quite perplexing– “critically acclaimed, best-seller in France…” Critically acclaimed, for this sort of book, means only that the author’s friends, and his publisher’s hirelings, wrote excellent reviews of the book–in France, it is all too common to see reviews written by writers who publish or act as “series editors” for the same publisher as the book they are reviewing. Unlike in the US, where reviewers are independent, at least in some periodicals, these reviews are nothing more than advertisements. And best-selling, well, that is of course relative. Having worked in a French bookstore for several years, and being involved in publishing in this country, I know that this means only that the book sold better than expected. When you read the term “best-seller” in English, you tend to think of such books as Tom Clancy or John Grisham, and I can imagine that this biography sold nowhere near one tenth, even perhaps one one-hundredth of what those books sell in France.But I wonder exactly what the critics acclaimed in this book? Was it the overlong lists of people Proust knew, the thousands of footnotes, the never-ending quotes with which the author peppered his text? This is a fine example of a biography that was written for scholars and is, as is often the case, poorly written; it inspired, as I read it, nothing more than a desire to get to the end. The author writes like a scholar, which is fine if you like that style (although I feel sorry for the translator who has to put this work into English). But this is a minor problem compared to the total lack of character that he develops.

For me, the benchmark for literary biographies is the Richard Ellman biography of James Joyce . Not only does Ellman examine the author’s life and work, but ties the two of them together. At the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that he or she “knows” Joyce, that he understands his personality. In this book, the personal aspect is totally missing–if I hadn’t read other biographies of Proust before, I would undoubtedly not understand his life. While Tadié mentions often enough Proust’s illnesses and anxiety, and mentions his homosexuality more than enough, the reader learns very little about Proust other than the people he met and added to his novel. For while La Recherche is a roman a clé, and it is useful to know who the characters represent, it is also a highly introspective novel where a better knowledge of the author is far more valuable to its understanding.

One example: those who know about Proust know about his cork-lined room at the end of his life, but Tadié mentions this only in passing. I would think that this part of Proust, the anxious, obsessive part, is far more important than the number of times he ate dinner at the Ritz.

Reading this book was a real chore. Hardly a paragraph goes by without one or several quotes from Proust’s correspondence, from works written by others about him, or texts by the many people he met. This cuts the text up, giving the author no room to stake out a voice for himself. And when he does try and use his own voice, it is in the excessively pedantic, and overly “precious” style of French pseudo-academic writing.

The author is clearly writing to defend his own approach, one that has not been unanimously accepted. Roger Shattuck’s review of the latest Pléiade edition in French, published in the New York Review of Books, points out how Tadié has taken the work and turned it into a huge mass of sketches and drafts. [Unfortunately, this review is no longer available on the web, unless one has a subscription to the New York Review of Books.]

Tadié, in this biography, often refers to these drafts rather than to the actual work, in order to show not only what Proust thought about the people he met, but also to remind the reader just how important he thinks these drafts are. I would rather he refer to the text of the work that we know and read, rather than attempt to defend his approach in this manner. But he is the author, and this biography, published by Gallimard, the publisher of the Pléiade edition, obviously sees the value in trying to hype their over-priced and over-thick version.

It can be difficult to take a person like Proust and make him more human, to make readers understand who he was. Growing up in a bourgeois family, independently wealthy, at least until the First World War, Proust is not the kind of person that I feel great sympathy for, at least not when reading this biography that sounds like the very long society page of a newspaper. Yet, when reading La Recherche , I feel such incredible affinity with this lonely man whose life was full of suffering. It is a shame that there is such a difference between the Proust of his work and the Proust of this biography.

In the end, I gave up and skipped over the last few hundred pages, out of lassitude. I found little in this book that was interesting. For a biography that better depicts Proust as the person he was, and gives insight into his life and feelings, the book written by William Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life , is far more interesting. The Tadié book is useful perhaps if you want to look up who was the source for a given character, but other than that, read Proust’s work–you will learn far more about his life in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Read more about Marcel Proust in this article.

Essential Music: Morton Feldman

Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.

Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)

And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…

There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.

Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.

Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

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About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Crapware for Mac: A New iTunes Plug-In

So this company called TuneUp Media announced today the availability of a plug-in for iTunes for Mac that is supposed to make tagging and adding cover art easier. I downloaded the demo, installed it, and went to try and figure out what to do. There’s an application that opens, but doesn’t have any commands in its menus (other than a File menu that lets you quit it), and there’s supposed to be something that integrates with iTunes. No documentation, so I went to the website to look for help. Nothing telling me what to do, how to get started. I eventually found that it’s supposed to add something to the right side of my iTunes window; nothing there.

I figured it was time to uninstall it. Well, no help on that either. It turns out you need to remove the application (in /Applications) and then a plug-in in /Library/iTunes/iTunes Plug-ins. (If you don’t uninstall the latter, you’ll get an AppleScript dialog looking for the application each time you launch iTunes. It toook a while for me to find it, because there’s nothing on the web site explaining how to remove the crapware.

What can I say? Another Windows company releasing a lame port of their software for Mac, that can’t even be bothered to include documentation (or even a link to the Help page on their website), and, especially, not even an uninstaller? Geez, what a bunch of losers…

Follow-up: Read the comments for more on uninstalling this crapware. An intrepid reader found that there’s more to remove, and that there’s a hidden uninstaller. I guess I really should use my copy of AppZapper more often. I always forget about it, but it makes sense, because it’ll find the tiny files that litter up my Mac.

Follow-up follow-up: So out of curiosity, I re-downloaded the crapware, then reinstalled it to see what AppZapper could do. It only removed a few files. I suspect that TuneUp doesn’t install a proper receipt file that ApplZapper can use for its uninstallation…

Suggestion to Improve iTunes Store Searching for Classical Music

I think the title of this post is almost a given; search tools are generally designed for the majority of products available, and the iTunes Store’s search is effective mostly for popular music. But for classical music, there is a simple improvement that Apple could make that would greatly enhance searching (and probably sales): add a Label field to the Power Search.

Many classical music fans search for recordings by composer and performer, but also by label, since many classical labels have a certain uniqueness or originality. Not only would one want to search for certain works on major labels, but I’m thinking of the “mid-sized” labels that do so much for classical music today: Bis, Hyperion and Harmonia Mundi are just three examples of dynamic labels that release music that often is less commercial and more interesting than the majors. Call them the “indies” of classical music, but don’t forget that there are hundreds of indies in the classical sector: in fact, these days most interesting recordings come out of independent labels, as the majors focus on crossover acts or repackaging older recordings for re-release.

So adding a Label field to searches would allow you to, say, browse what a given label has released, and especially see what’s new from them. Since what’s new on the iTunes Store doesn’t always correspond to what’s new on their web sites (there can be a delay before their music makes it to the iTunes Store), it could be a way of keeping up with the latest releases available digitally.

Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

The Rest is Noise
Alex Ross
640 pages. Farrar, Strauss, Girous, 2007. $30

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“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (and blogger: his web site is also called The Rest is Noise ) has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesn’t count, but Ross focuses more on the “why” than the “what”.

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that “illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change,” Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didn’t just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a bird’s-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for difference’s sake (it “begins in mystique and ends in politics”). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, “The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases,” or, “the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords.” He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; there’s no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And that’s probably the weakest part of this book: even though it’s not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Ross’s writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay. (This could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibelius’s music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th.) His analysis of music during Nazi Germany, and during the United States in the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing what’s being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, it’s not clear how much Ross actually likes the music he’s writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But it’s clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and it’s a shame that there’s not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of America’s most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to totally ignore the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While it’s only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, it’s time to go out and listen.

Note: on September 23, it was announced that Alex Ross received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Congrats!

iTunes 8 and Large Libraries: Faster, Much Faster

I’ve complained about iTunes being slow with large libraries, but I’m happy to say that with Apple’s release of iTunes 8, this problem is greatly attenuated. Tagging, ripping, even checking and unchecking items is much quicker. There’s still a tiny lag, but very short, when I check or uncheck an item. When tagging, things go really fast: whereas before, it could take 30 seconds to change tags for a single album (say adding a comment tag or changing a name in the tags), now it’s instantaneous. I tried changing tags on hundreds of files at once, and that is fast as well; you see the progress, but it’s no longer 5 seconds per file as it was before.

I’m very happy that Apple resolved this issue, as more and more people have been complaining about it. It seems that iTunes is no longer writing the library file for each change; in the past, you could see the file being rewritten, and see temp files being written as well. I suspect that they now write the changes only once after they have finished and increment them with the library file in memory. Whatever they’ve done under the hood, though it works.

One oddity with the new version of iTunes: my Album Artwork folder is more than 600 MB. This folder is used locally for iTunes to display your album art; it’s a sort of cache folder. Before, this folder was about half that size, but the way iTunes parses artwork must have changed. Looking at some of the files, it seems that they are caching files of different sizes for different uses, hence the increase in size. If you back up your home folder regularly, you could exclude this folder (or at least its Cache subfolder, which contains most of the files); iTunes will recreate this if necessary.

Should You Re-Rip Your Music?

This is not an existential question, but a very practical one. While it won’t apply to all your music, you might want to consider doing so for certain CDs.

Here’s what happened to me. I was listening to a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Robert Hill this morning, and noticed that there was a tiny hiccup between the tracks. With iTunes playing music gapless, since version 7.0, this shouldn’t have happened. But I suspected that it might have had something to do with the ripping: I had originally imported this CD under iTunes 5, a couple of years ago.

I thought the problem might have been in the original ripping, so I tried importing it again, and it plays fine. So, for some reason, even though iTunes “updated gapless playback information” for these tracks when version 7 came along, it didn’t do so correctly; or the actual rip was different back then. In any case, if you notice any problems like this, you might want to rerip the CDs that don’t sound perfect.