Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis — trumpet
Wayne Shorter — soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin — electric guitar
Chick Corea — electric piano
Herbie Hancock — electric piano
Joe Zawinul — organ
Dave Holland — double bass
Tony Williams — drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.

Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

dylan-blood.jpgIf you follow my writings, you’ll have noticed that Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve got all of his albums, and listen to his music a lot. In this recent article, The Music I Listen To Most, you’ll see that Dylan comes up in fourth position, behind The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach; that’s by play counts in my iTunes library.

There are lots of great Dylan albums, from Highway 61 Revisited to Blond on Blond, but the one that stands out most for me is Blood on the Tracks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) It’s not just that it has many great, memorable songs, but there’s a unity in this album that doesn’t exist in most of Dylan’s other records. Many of my most-loved Dylan songs are on other albums – Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Forever Young, Cold Irons Bound, etc. – but Blood on the Tracks is an album that you listen to in extenso, because it tells a story.

When I wrote iPod & iTunes Garage, back in 2004, I asked a number of writers and musicians what their “essential music” was. My friend Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks series of mysteries, wrote the following:

“Much as I love all kinds of instrumental and orchestral music, at the end of the day I’m a word guy, and if you’re a word guy, Dylan’s your man. We were spoiled by an embarrassment of riches until the infamous motorcycle accident in July, 1966, and after the stark surprise of 1968’s John Wesley Harding we seemed to be stranded in a wasteland of ersatz Americana. There were great songs, of course, Lay, Lady, Lay and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, for example, and Planet Waves has many fine moments, but nothing could quite match the shock and pleasure of that moment in early 1975 when I set the needle gently on Blood on the Tracks for the first time and heard Tangled Up In Blue. Even better, it wasn’t a fluke. Next came Simple Twist of Fate, You’re a Big Girl Now and Idiot Wind, his most vicious song since 1965’s Positively 4th Street. The only disappointment is an overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which never quite seemed to fit, to my mind, but that’s a minor quibble, especially as it’s followed by the incomparable melancholy of If You See Her, Say Hello and the eerily redemptive Shelter from the Storm. There may be other contenders, but Blood on the Tracks surely remains the classic adult break-up album of all time.”

Peter nails it; it is the classic break-up album, but it’s so much more. If only for Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, this would be a memorable album, but add the other tracks, and it’s a pure masterpiece. I’ve long felt that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts was the weak song on the disc, but I’m starting to change my opinion, especially after hearing the original New York recording of it. (I’ll get to that in a minute…)

9780306812316_p0_v1_s260x420.jpgBlood on the Tracks has an interesting history, which is well documented by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in the book A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Dylan first recorded the album in New York, with a group of session musicians, in September, 1974. He recorded all the songs in just four sessions over ten days, but after playing it for his brother, decided he wanted to re-record five of the songs.

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his brother booked studio time, and found a handful of excellent musicians, and did two sessions in December. The New York sessions yielded the following songs:

Simple Twist of Fate
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Meet Me in the Morning
Shelter From the Storm
Buckets of Rain

And the other five tracks come from the Minnesota sessions:

Tangled Up in Blue
You’re a Big Girl Now
Idiot Wind
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
If You See Her, Say Hello

It’s interesting to listen to the original versions of some of these songs; many of them have been released on various official Bootleg Series volumes, and Biograph also contains two songs that didn’t make it on the album, but that are also brilliant compositions: Call Letter Blues and Up to Me. (See the list below for details of all official releases.)

The original New York session test pressing is fairly easy to find as a bootleg. Listening to that original version – the one that Dylan first planned to release – makes me wonder if he should have just gone with the first recordings. In particular, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts works much better in its acoustic form than in the later Minneapolis recording. And there’s more unity in the mostly-acoustic recordings from the New York sessions.

Here are the tracks that are available on official releases, but not the final album versions. They include alternate versions from the New York sessions, as well as two tracks that weren’t on the album from the same sessions. (Links are to the iTunes Store.) If you haven’t heard these tracks, and like Blood on the Tracks, you should definitely get them.

I hope that Dylan will release another Bootleg Series with all the New York recordings, and other outtakes from this period, similar to the recent set from the period of Self Portrait.

Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Music at Different Bit Rates?

(Note: this article is written for Mac users. If you have Windows tools to recommend, please mention them in the comments.)

The bit rate debate regarding compressed music is one that will be around for a long time. Some people think that any compression of music files is anathema. Take Neil Young. He complained about the poor quality of digital music files, while greatly misunderstanding much of what is involved in compression. He claimed that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files, without specifying the bit rate used or the original sources, and without understanding that compression is more than just lopping off bits of the music. (Andy Doe, writing on the Naxos Blog last year, published an article, All About Bitrates, explaining how compression works. You should read this to understand some points that most people overlook.)

When you start ripping music, and decide what bit rate to use, you have several options. You could go for lossless, which compresses music around 40-60%. One advantage to this is that you can then re-convert the lossless files to a lower bit rate if you want, keeping the originals as archival copies. But lossless files take up much more space. While this isn’t an issue on computers – hard drives are huge these days – it is for portable devices like iPods or iPhones.

If you don’t use a lossless format, you have to decide which format to use (AAC or MP3), and what bit rate. For a long time, Apple sold music at 128 kbps at the iTunes Store. It is now 256k, which is roughly what Amazon uses in their MP3 store (their music is in VBR, or variable bit rate, so it is not exactly 256k). This is an excellent compromise between space and quality. But you might want to go even lower. What’s important is to find the point at which you cannot hear the difference between an original file and a compressed file, and stay above that bit rate.

To do this, you need to perform what is called blind ABX testing. You are presented with music and don’t know which bit rate you are hearing, and you must choose whether you think it is compressed or not. While this test takes a bit of time – you need to rip tracks at different bit rates, then test yourself, one pair of tracks at a time – the results can be interesting.

To start with, find several songs or tracks that you know very well. It’s best to use familiar music, because you will be able to hear more of the differences (if any) because of your familiarity with the melodies, arrangements, etc. I’d recommend not ripping full albums for this test, but rather individual songs or tracks from different albums.

Rip these tracks from CD in lossless format. In iTunes, go to Preferences > General, then click on Import Settings. Choose Lossless Encoder from the Import Using menu.



Next, add the tracks you have ripped in lossless format and to a playlist. Select them all and press Command-I, then enter an album name, such as Lossless Tracks. You’ll want this later to be able to find them.

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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.

Essential Music: The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack

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If you follow this blog, or read my writing on Macworld, you’ve noticed that, among my varied musical interests, one artist stands out: the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for 35 years, since I first saw the band in the Spring of 1977 at the Palladium in New York. (To be honest, I was already a fan by then, having heard a number of their albums, both live and studio.) People sometimes ask me to recommend a Grateful Dead album for them to discover, and this post answers that question.

In late 1974, the Grateful Dead decided to “retire.” At the time, it wasn’t clear if the band would continue, but the increased pressure and cost of touring with their one-of-a-kind “Wall of Sound” sound system, made them realize that they couldn’t go on. They had to tour to pay for the cost of touring, and the time it took to set up and break down the Wall of Sound make touring more complicated.

So to celebrate their retirement, the Dead played five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Introduced by Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter, these last five concerts were held from October 16-20. On the 20th, Bill Graham had the concert tickets stamped “The Last One” as a souvenir for those attending.

But while the Dead suggested that this would be a retirement, they actually had big plans for the final run. Much of the music was filmed and all of it was recorded with the idea of making a movie. Jerry Garcia was the engine for this project, and during the hiatus – the band came back to performing in April 1976 (there were four gigs in 1975) – he worked on editing the movie.

Released in 1977, the Grateful Dead movie was an attempt to translate the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to the screen. Concert movies were a recent phenomenon at the time, and this was more than just a film of the concert. There is footage of people waiting in line, interviews with Deadheads, clips of people dancing and enjoying the music, and some pretty hokey animation, notably a long animated introduction. The movie fails as both a concert movie and as a documentary, but, back in the day, it was amazing to see such great footage of the band on a big screen.

For years, the tapes of these five shows languished in the Grateful Dead vault, until a re-release of the movie on DVD in 2004, when the best parts of the five concerts were remastered and released on five CDs, for a total of about 6 1/2 hours of music. (This is a bit more than 1/3 of all the music played on those five nights.) Each of the CDs tries to represent a set of music; the songs flow together well, even on the discs where the music is from different nights. Three of the discs are essentially all from single nights, with a couple of exceptions.

One reason why the Grateful Dead was so interesting is because no two concerts were the same. Not only did they not have set lists – they’d choose what to play as they went along – they were consummate improvisers, and would segue from one song to another seamlessly. There were some songs that were often played together, and that formed units: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But in 1974, only the first (China > Rider) was immutably joined, and from one show to another, the order of songs would change. In addition to these fluid set lists, the Dead would often jam on songs for a very long time; the longest track in this set is the 31:45 Playing in the Band, which is a perfect example of the band’s transcendent improvisations.

1974 was a watershed year for the Dead. One of the founding members, Pigpen (Ron McKernan) had died in 1973, and the Dead dropped many of the songs that he made famous, such as the long R&B-inspired Turn On Your Love Light, In the Midnight Hour, and Dancing In the Streets. Pigpen was a male Janis Joplin (they were lovers for a time), and he lived the blues the way he sang them; so much so that liquor killed him.

After Pigpen’s death, the Dead took a new direction, veering away from the early R&B songs, and the later folky Americana, toward some jazzier playing. That comes out here in the long Eyes of the World, a 1973 release, the mystical Playing in the Band, and Bob Weir’s Weather Report Suite, a long ballad. The Dead still played their staples: songs like U.S. Blues, He’s Gone, and One More Saturday Night, but this set doesn’t feature any of the “cowboy” songs the band played consistently in the early 1970s, such as Jack Straw, Beat It On Down the Line, Loser, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, or the perennial Me and My Uncle. The band played these songs at the five concerts, but they weren’t selected for this box set.

So on five CDs, this set gives an excellent overview of the Dead in 1974. Free jams, tight songs, a jazzier sound than in, say, 1972, but with all the power and mastery that the band had developed since their formation in 1965. While the Complete Europe ’72 box set remains the ultimate document of the Dead on tour, these edited recordings are probably the best introduction for someone interested in discovering the wide range of music the Grateful Dead played. (If you want a sample of the Dead on tour in 1972, the recent Europe ’72 Vol. 2, culled from that complete set, and tastefully remastered, is for you.) Or better yet, get both.

Essential Music: Toru Takemitsu

Way back when, I discovered Toru Takemitsu’s music. I think the first I heard was a few pieces for guitar on an album with a number of twentieth-century guitar works, including one of my favorites, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal. Something about Takemitsu’s music prompted me to search out other records with his work (this was back in the early 80s, still the LP era), and I found a couple. Listening to his orchestral music hooked me immediately.

I like a wide variety of music, but much “modern” music leaves me cold. I like much minimalism, including Steve Reich and some early Philip Glass; I love Morton Feldman; and I like a variety of other 20th century composers, some, like Sibelius, who are still anchored in melody, and others, like Bartok, whose music is more difficult. I like much of Messiaen’s strange music, and some of the Scandinavian composers. But I’m not a big fan of serialism, or any of the other -isms that turned twentieth-century music into a mass of unlistenable works. (Sure, there are some good things, but much is not to my taste.)

While Takemitsu’s early music was firmly rooted in western avant-garde techniques, around 1977, his style shifted, and this later music is different from most 20th century music. These works are about textures, sound sculptures; when you begin listening to one of his works you enter a landscape, you start moving along a path of sound that takes you through a series of musical moments. None of his works are “big”, in the sense of symphonies, but none are small either, like miniatures. Most of Takemitsu’s best music is orchestral works that range from about ten to twenty minutes long; most have evocative names like A String Around Autumn, Spirit Garden, Tree Line, How Slow the Wind. While he composed some piano music and some chamber music, only one CD is needed to contain all of one or the other. He uses the flute and guitar in many works, and his orchestrations are uniquely subtle; while he may use an entire orchestra, he does so parsimoniously, never adding too many layers of music. He creates sonorous melanges of emotion and feeling, rather than melodic structures. His music sounds like that of no other composer. Much of Takemitsu’s music is recorded, by labels such as DG, Bis and Naxos, and many discs contain one or two of his works. The best ones, the DG and Bis recordings, are “programmed”, in the sense that they contain a full CD’s worth of music that flows from work to work. It would make no sense to issue a CD with, say, his first ten works, because nothing is numbered, there are no links among them. The most accessible discs bear names that suggest the tone of the music: I Hear the Water Dreaming, Garden Rain, How Slow the Wind, Quotation of Dream, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden… All these discs contain wonderful selections of Takemitsu’s music organized into 60-70 minute programs.

If you’re curious, take a chance on one of his albums, either on CD, or from iTunes or Amazon as download. If you’re interested in music that takes you to new places, you may like this music very much. And you may, like me, become a convert, and seek out all the albums you can find…

For more info about Takemitsu, Alex Ross’s article in the New Yorker gives a good overview of Takemitsu’s life. And the Wikipedia article about Takemitsu has a great deal of detail about his compositional career.

(A brief aside. Some twenty-odd years ago, when I was living in Paris and making a living teaching English, I met a fellow American, of Japanese origin, who was taking some teacher training classes with me. For some reason, we got onto the subject of music, and I mentioned Takemitsu. He replied, “Ah, uncle Toru!” He was, indeed, the nephew of the composer. It was in interesting coincidence.)

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.”

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.

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.

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.