On Album Covers, Downloads and Textual Pragmatics

Andy Doe likes to poke fun at bad album covers on his blog Proper Discord, but in an article on NewMusicBox, he gives practical advice to those responsible for designing and selecting covers for classical (and other) recordings. He says, “A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.”

What I find interesting is that this article looks at something that I postulated, back in the day when I was studying applied linguistics (I’m a Master), called textual pragmatics. In linguistics, and in particular sociolinguistics, pragmatics is “the ways in which context contributes to meaning.” (Wikipedia) My hypothesis at the time was that visual elements of any text we read – not just the font, but everything that we see, such as the type of book or magazine, the title of a publication, or the type of paper – help define our reaction to it, in particular the level of importance, status or value we assign to it.

You will most likely think more highly of an article in a national newspaper than on a blog like mine, but if an article from my blog were published in the New York Times, you would likely have more respect for the same text in the latter publication. Not because the words would be any different, but simply because its context – the place where it’s published – has higher status.

The same is the case for books (hardcover versus paperback), magazines (glossy versus amateurish newsletters), and other texts. Just look at academia and science: it’s far more important to publish your findings in a prestigious journal than some up-and-coming publication from a small university. And if I print out a text for someone to read, it will make a difference to the reader if they see a header showing a publication with prestige, rather than an unknown source.

This also applies to CDs. Andy Doe’s article discusses covers and packaging, but it’s worth considering what the textual pragmatics are that affect music downloads. Are all downloads the same? Are downloads from iTunes or Amazon “better” in some way than downloads purchased directly from an artist or label? They often are. I’ve bought music from smaller vendors that is poorly tagged or lacks album art. On the other hand, many labels offer digital booklets, that you can’t always get from iTunes or Amazon.

Are downloads considered to be a “lesser” product? Many people think so. Record labels don’t want to stop selling CDs, but since downloads are the future, they should make downloads high-status items. Since you don’t have a physical copy of a record, you’re getting less value from a download; if it’s just the same as the CD.

Downloads should be as good as CDs, or better. At a minimum they should contain everything that a CD does: that includes digital booklets and sung texts, for vocal music. The metadata should be perfect. And they can also contain bonus tracks, videos, extra texts, and, since they’re not time-limited, they can hold much more content than a single CD can hold.

As music shifts increasingly to downloads, record labels need to stop treating downloads as inferior products, and start making digital packages that include music and other content. It’s not hard to make a download a compelling product. Start with good covers, as Andy Doe suggests, then move on to the rest of the added value that is so easy to provide digitally.

Bach’s Sacred Cantatas: Recordings and Resources

One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.

Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.

A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)

John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” Since I first wrote this post, a box set has been released. Limited to 3,000 copies, it’s more affordable on Amazon UK – less than £140 – than Amazon.com, where it’s just shy of $300. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. It’s worth noting that this set contains four discs of cantata pilgrimage recordings that were not released in individual volumes by SDG, but that are in the box set. (Also available from iTunes.)

Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.

Read more

Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website, and read Steve Reich’s notes on the piece on his music publisher’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.

Music Notes: Einstein on the Beach, The 1984 Recording (Update)

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.

First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, Later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire 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.

(See also an older article, Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach.)

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.

iTunes 11 and Classical Music

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

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.

Read more

CD Review: Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

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

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

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

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

Murray Perahia’s 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.

CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Cage and Morton Feldman in Conversation, 1967




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

I: July 9 1966
On intrusions – is it reality or culture? The role of the artist – deep in thought.
Is it possible to avoid the environment around us? Being constantly interrupted? Larry Rivers, Bob Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez, Black Mountain College. On boredom and Zen, Buckminster Fuller.

II: July 1966
Governments, modern music, freedom from being known. Writing for large or small ensembles. Boulez and Stockhausen’s reactions. Writing for Christian Wolff and electric guitar. de Kooning. Lukas Foss. Cage comments on Feldman’s soft sounds. Having stamina to make an action. On working alone. Working “at home”. Being asocial and the telephone. Edgard Varese. The question of death.

III: 28 December 1966
“There is so little talk these days.” Talking in England. The ICA lectures. Kitaj. David Sylvester. English pompousness. Cardew. Compositions as “work-in-progress”. Thinking about Mozart. Webern and other possibilities for new music. Differences between Boulez and Stockhausen piano pieces. Varese and process. Space, silence, notation, scales. Finding the vertical. Grandeur of Varese. Stockhausen’s refusal. Looking into the future. Buckminster Fuller’s ideas on ending war.

IV: 16 January 1967 (Part 1)
Design in a disposable world. How our sense of time has changed. “How do we spend our time?” Conversation as enjoyment. Impermanence and music. “Do you prefer the composition, or hearing the music?” Feldman working on “In Search of an Orchestration”. Composers silent on Vietnam. Painters are not. Protests in Europe. Fuller’s views and World Resources Inventory. Global Village.

V: 16 January 1967 (Part 2)
Varese or Webern? On Boulez. On an upcoming concert in Cincinnati.
Problems, stories of performances. “Why do you continue to compose?” Creating new notation. Students making compositions. The way things are done nowadays. Things are “less narrow now”.
Children, and the Middle Ages. “If we apply ourselves to the social situation… as composition rather than criticism, we’ll get somewhere!”

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