Book Review: The Quotable Thoreau

The Quotable Thoreau
Collected and edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
552 pages. Princeton University Press, 2011. $20

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Jeffrey Cramer, notable Thoreau scholar and head of the Thoreau Institute, has been publishing some wonderful books for fans of Henry’s writing in recent years. In 2004 he published Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition, in 2007, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, and in 2009, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. All of these books take Thoreau’s texts and add annotations and explanations to help the reader better understand the little details.

Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.

Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)

While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.

Headphone Review: Sennheiser PX 100 II-i

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For the past few years, my headphone of choice for listening to music on my iPods was the Sennheiser PX 100, a lightweight, inexpensive headphone with surprisingly good sound for the money. A month ago, however, the cable just before the jack broke, and it was time to replace them. The PX 100 has had excellent reviews for years, and was well appreciated by users and journalists alike, but is no longer made. I turned to the PX 100 II-i, a third iteration of the model, which is the most recent version of the headphones, released last year.

Like the original PX 100, the PX 100 II-i is a folding headphone, with a small on-ear earcup. It’s light, there’s no pressure on the ears, and they are fully open: you can hear everything around you. This headphone is excellent for listening when you’re outdoors, where it is important to hear sounds, especially if you’re walking in the city. They do not, of course, limit any sounds, so if you want headphones that do this, you will need to look elsewhere. (I’ll be posting a review of a recently purchased noise-canceling headphone soon.)

The sound quality of this headphone is, as I’ve mentioned, excellent for its size and price. New with this model is an inline remote control that works with iPods and other iOS devices (as well as Macs, and, perhaps, other computers). You can change the volume, and pause what you’re listening to, and, with a double-press, skip to the next track. This remote is also a mic, if you have an iPhone (which I don’t).

However, a valid question is whether it is worth some $25 more just for this remote. (The Sennheiser PX 100-II is currently selling for $65 at Amazon; it is the same as the PX 100 II-i, but without the remote. The PX 100 II-i sells for $90.) I find the remote useful when I’m listening to music both outdoors and even when I listen to my iPod in bed. My iPod touch has an external volume control, but my iPod classic does not. In addition, the controls are positioned about 8 inches from the headphones, so they are easily accessible. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a premium to pay just for a couple of buttons. (Though it’s certainly more useful if you have an iPhone.)

My only gripe is that the cord itself is rather flimsy, and I’ve already gotten it snagged on doorknobs a few times. It comes out of just the left side of the headphones, unlike the PX 100, which had a double cord that met in the center. That is a bit odd, as all my other headphones have a central cord; that may explain, in part, why I’ve been clumsy with it.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with the PX 100 II-i. I use it often – either when listening to my iPod outdoors, on my daily walk, or, at times, when watching a DVD on my laptop. The sound is clean and crisp, though the bass is weak, which is to be expected from such a small headphone. (I don’t listen to a lot of bass-heavy music.) If you want good sound in a light, folding headphone, the Sennheiser’s PX series is great choice. Either the PX 100 II-i with the inline remote, or the PX 100-II without it, will provide you with great sound and comfort.

Note: no review unit was provided; I paid for these out of pocket. For the record, I have another Sennheiser headphone – HD 580 – and I’ve only once been disappointed by Sennheiser’s products.

Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”

Album Notes: Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac

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I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years now, and own all of his releases (as main performer, not as sideman). I think he’s an extremely innovative pianist, and I especially like his work with his trio. This new album, recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, in 2006, features a solo performance, one of only two live solo releases he has made (the other is the 2004 Live in Tokyo).

This is an attractive album, with energetic performances, and flattering sound. (I felt that the Live in Tokyo album had somewhat brittle, harsh sound.) In solo performances, Melhdau tends to wander a bit more than when he has a rhythm section backing him, and this album is a bit less attractive than his live recordings with his trio (such as the 2008 Live at the Village Vanguard). But it’s a fine example of his work, and any fan of jazz piano should definitely get this. Not only does it have two CDs, but also a DVD, with all but one of the songs. (I haven’t watched the DVD yet.)

However, there’s one thing I need to point out. I ordered this set directly from the label, Nonesuch, which provides MP3s by download as soon as the album is released, so you can listen to the music before you get the discs. There are some oddities on some of the tracks: a couple of them end with loud applause that doesn’t fade out; it just cuts off as the next track starts. For example, Lilac Wine has very loud applause at the end (and it deserves it; it’s a beautiful song), then cuts off immediately as Martha My Dear begins. But at the end of Martha My Dear, the same thing happens; it cuts from applause to My Favorite Things.

It is not normal that a professionally edited album would have this abrupt cut between tracks, and, now that I have the CDs, I can see that it’s the MP3s files that were truncated. In fact, in the MP3 files, four of the songs on the second disc – the ones that have the abrupt edits – are missing a total of over 2 minutes. From the amount of applause, it seems like Lithium was the last track in the set, and the rest were encores. Nonesuch’s MP3s are therefore just hacked off at the ends, and there’s no reason for this. So do buy the CDs; don’t buy any MP3s from Nonesuch. I note that Amazon is not selling this in MP3 format, but the timings on iTunes are the same as the bad MP3s I got from Nonesuch, so if you want this album, get it on plastic. While you don’t miss any of the music, the abrupt cut from applause to music is jarring and annoying.

UPDATE: I heard back from Nonesuch, who replied, “We have looked into this issue, and have learned that the original MP3s were indeed mistakenly truncated. We have corrected the files.” So apparently the files will be fixed on their site and on iTunes, but if you do have the truncated files, do get in touch with whoever you purchased them from to get new copies.

Is This the Biggest Music Download Ever?

Over at Macworld, I look at a 99-CD box set of music by Franz List (this one) which Hyperion Records is now offering for download. Is this the biggest music download to date? I can’t find anything bigger, though there are plenty of classical box sets that contain more music. One day, even the big box sets from Brilliant Classics will be available by download…

iTunes and 24-Bit Music Files?

A report from CNN suggests that Apple is moving iTunes toward 24-bit music files. What this means is that, instead of using 16-bit CD-quality files (AIFF or WAV files) to convert to the AAC format that iTunes sells, they would use masters which are recorded at 24 bits. But this makes little sense, if Apple were to simply continue to sell files in compressed AAC format.

24-bit files offer only one major improvement over 16-bit files: an increase in dynamic range, or the difference between the softest and loudest parts of music. This difference would, however, be lost if the files were compressed. So the only way that Apple could offer improved quality in the music files they sell is if there were to provide them in Apple Lossless format.

Apple Lossless format does support 24-bit audio, but given the quality of digital-analog converters (DACs) in most computers – Macs included – listeners would not notice much of a difference. While many audiophiles swear by lossless formats, the only possibility to hear a difference between them and lossy formats at decent bit rates is with very expensive audio equipment. (And even then, the placebo effect certainly comes into play.) Users who have an external DAC that supports 24-bit files might see a small improvement, at least as far as the dynamic range is concerned, but other than that, there aren’t many advantages to selling this format for use on computers and iPods. (Some may find this forum post and thread interesting for a heated discussion of the differences between 16- and 24-bit audio.)

The differences between 16-bit and 24-bit files can be somewhat complex, and 24-bit files can take up as much as three times as much disk space as 16-bit files. While Apple may want to get into the “studio master” market – a number of classical labels sell files in 24-bit / 96 khz format – it is likely that only a very small percentage of users would buy such files. The audiophile market is a niche market to start with, and files in this type of format won’t attract many listeners.

This said, if Apple were to offer files in Apple Lossless format as on option, this could attract a group of listeners who refuse to buy compressed music. With file sizes (at 16 bits) of a bit less than twice the size of Apple’s current 256 kbps files, they don’t represent a huge leap in bandwidth and storage space requirements. When burned to CD – if anyone still does that – they reproduce the exact data that was on the original CD. And, since they require more space, it’s possible that users would buy larger capacity iPods.

The trend in music downloads, at least for classical music, is toward lossless files (generally in FLAC format). Apple is a laggard in this respect, despite the fact that they offer their own lossless format. It’s obvious that Apple will make this step one day, but going to 24-bit would be only for a limited number of tracks, and most likely only for those tracks that would attract audiophiles. Lady Gaga in 24 bits still sounds the same.

One more thing: the Apple Lossless format supports 5.1 audio tracks. I’d be far more interested in surround sound than 24-bit audio. While I could only play it on my living room stereo, assuming that it could be correctly streamed through my Apple TV, this would be something that might be more popular. Though not many albums are available in 5.1 mixes yet.

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)

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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 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.