Monthly Archives: September 2018

The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.

 

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Everything is Free – Gillian Welch (and, increasingly, others)

I had another post planned. I’m working on it. But I saw this the other day and it sparked some thoughts. So here’s something a bit more off the cuff.

I’m delighted by anything that gives increased exposure to Gillian Welch. God knows she deserves it. Everything is Free is one of the finest songs on Time (The Revelator) – Welch’s best record, and the album that I’d unhesitatingly pick as the best released in the first decade of the 21st century.  I can fully understand other songwriters wanting to climb inside the song and inhabit it.

But here’s the thing. Have they earned its anger at the changes in the music industry that threatened to destroy Welch’s livelihood as she was writing the song? And should the target of whatever ire these artists feel be the same as the one at whom Welch targeted her wrath nearly twenty years ago?

Welch made her first album five years before Everything Is Free was released. She came up in a very different industry to the one we have now – an industry that was predicated on the sale of physical product and in which gig and merchandise revenue were supplementary revenue streams at best. She then found that the music industry had no answer to Napster and file-sharing services, that a generation of young music fans were no longer willing to pay for her music or anyone else’s, and consequently saw her royalties from physical sales plummet.

Meanwhile a generation of digital prophets were telling her, Hey, it’s cool. Music should be free. Just get out there and gig and you’ll make your money that way. You can easily understand how galling such Pollyanna-ish nonsense was to anyone who understood the economics of live performance for any artist who isn’t U2 or the Rolling Stones.

Josh Tillman (Father John Misty), Anaïs Mitchell, Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers and the others who have recently performed Everything Is Free, either with Welch or solo, came to prominence in the post-Napster world. Tillman and Mitchell, the eldest of the crop, were both born in 1981, so were both around 19 or 20 when Everything Is Free was released, presumably in college and with access to the internet. Did neither of them ever share files, or accept CD-Rs from friends? Neither worked as professional musicians under the old receive advance–recoup advance–make profit model. And neither, to be frank, have had the experience of having a promised income whiffed away from them by changes in technology and consumer behaviour.

If I sound unsympathetic, let me assure you that I’m actually deeply sympathetic to those who work in industries that have been disrupted by the internet. I understand it first hand. I’m a copy-editor, so I work in a sector that has already seen wave after wave of editors and writers lose their jobs in the newspaper industry, and I know that what I do will probably not exist in 20 years, even for those of us that are still left at the moment; at some point, enough people with hiring and firing powers will decide that automated tools do the job well enough to make us obsolete. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, I’m angry about it. But I’ve been doing this a long time; anyone who decided to be an editor in, say, 2012 owed it to themselves to find out the way it’s all going, work out if it was actually a viable way to make a living and then make their life choices based on that knowledge.

As much sympathy as I have for Welch – and it’s a lot – I don’t feel like anyone who knowingly went into the post-Napster music industry can now make the same plaint about diminished income streams and being expected to work for free without being a least a little disingenuous. What did they think they were signing up for?

And so we come to our last point. Over the last decade, the music industry, and the media generally, has moved away from an ownership model to a subscription one. People who stopped buying physical copies of records decided that, while perhaps they’d have preferred to carry on downloading from torrent sites, £10 a month to Apple, Google or Spotify was a price they’re willing to pay for unrestricted access to their catalogues. Now, that money, billions of it (€17.4 billion of it in 2017), isn’t reaching the artists whose music keeps the whole thing rolling. But that’s a very different problem, and it’s not the problem that Everything is Free is a response to. Everything is not free now; everything is yours to stream for £9.99 a month, plus data.

All of us who prefer the convenience of a streaming service, whether a paid subscription or a free one, all of us who shared files, and burned CDRs, we can’t honestly have it both ways. We are part of the problem, along with the tech companies and the record companies who are once more getting fat off the kind of money they probably didn’t expect they’d be seeing again. If Tillman, Mitchell, Bridgers et al want a song to raise awareness of the shittiness of unpaid (or very poorly paid) labour within today’s music industry, I’ll share the hell out of it and bang the drum with them. But let’s focus our energy on the problems that exist now, not the battles that have already been fought.

That’s how you stop; Alastair Cook’s 33rd Test century

Those hardy souls who made it through the three paragraphs I devoted to the final few matches of Alastair Cook’s career as an England cricketer at the beginning of my piece on Joni Mitchell’s How Do You Stop will no doubt be delighted to know that Cook did score that final test century, scoring 147 in his last ever innings.

He finished his career with 33 Test centuries and 12,472 runs at an average of 45.35. He batted for 37,308 mins, or 621 hours, 48 minutes. He hit 1,442 fours, plus three all-run fours, 11 sixes and four fives. He faced 20,038 dot balls, scored 3803 singles, 980 twos and 281 threes.

Those 33 Test centuries and 12,472 runs put him so far ahead of every other English batsman in history that I imagine most of his records will stand for decades.

Yesterday the England crowd, many of whom would admit if they were honest that Cook was never their favourite batsman, were palpably willing him to reach 100, and the ovations that greeted him when he reached his century and when he finally got out 47 runs later lasted so long that Cook eventually had to sheepishly shush the crowd so the match could continue.

So, in an ideal world, I guess that’s how you stop.

Remain Silent – Keb’ Mo’

John Henry Creach was born in 1917 and enjoyed a journeyman’s career as a jazz violinist, occasionally scoring a big gig with Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole or Fats Waller, but more often scratching around, taking work where he could get it, including a five-year stint on an ocean liner. One night in 1967, already 50 years old but looking younger, Creach met future Jefferson Airplane drummer Joey Covington at Union Hall in San Francisco. When Covington joined the Airplane, he brought the newly rechristened Papa John Creach with him. Playing with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna brought Creach a new hippie audience, and opened him (and them) up to an even wider range of music than he’d played before. Creach got his own record deal, and when he came to record his second album in 1974, Filthy Funky, his back-up band included a young guitarist called Kevin Moore.

In the 44 years since Moore and Creach first played together (a span of time that included stints as a writer-for-hire, an arranger, a stage and screen actor and a brief interlude as a recording artist under his given name), Keb’ Mo’ has released 12 studio albums, several more live albums and a collaborative record with Taj Mahal (called, perhaps inevitably, TajMo).

He began releasing records as Keb’ Mo’ in 1994, with a self-titled set based mainly on his impressive Robert Johnson-derived slide technique on National steel, with only the distinctly 1990s production (big fat snare drum, low-octave bass guitar of the sort we discussed in relation to Joni Mitchell’s cover of How Do You Stop) giving away the fact that these songs weren’t actually recorded in the 1920s. If Moore’s adoption of Johnson-esque suit and hat was a little gimmicky, his guitar playing and writing were the real deal.

From as early as his debut’s funk-informed take on Johnson’s Come On in My Kitchen, though, his music has explored territory outside country blues, and over the years he’s shown himself to be a very accomplished pop singer-songwriter. Remain Silent, from his 2006 album, Suitcase, is the sort of song Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe or even Paul Simon could have written, its extended Miranda-rights metaphor explored from all angles and delivered with just the right amount of knowingness in the vocal. Witness Mo’s little chuckle before declaring that “The punishment will fit the crime” and following that with the promise “One thing’s for sure: we’re gonna do some time”. His slide guitar is a welcome element in the mix, but it is only an element, less important than his mixed-forward vocal and no more important than the horns of Joe Sublett and Darrell Leonard or Jon Cleary’s B3 organ.

All of which is to say that if you’ve never explored Keb’ Mo’s music because you’re not a blues fan, you’re missing out on a lot of fine songs. And once you’re in his world, the true blues material might grow on you too.

How Do You Stop – Joni Mitchell

My apologies for taking so long to post anything new. I had this almost complete last weekend, then, attempting to read the draft on my phone, I managed to overwrite it with nothing, and couldn’t work out how to revert to the saved draft. So with heavy heart I started again. Guh. There’s nothing like doing the same work twice.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of England’s current Test series against India is the form of opening batsman Alastair Cook. Now a 33-year-old veteran, Cook has been struggling for runs this year and the aura of impregnability he had at the crease seven or eight years ago is long gone.

Cook, the national side’s former captain, is the highest run scorer and leading century-maker in the history of English cricket. By really quite a long way. At his peak, he was concentration, patience and self-discipline incarnate. A back-foot player, he knew his strength lay on the leg side and so he simply left anything outside off stump alone. Frustrated by his unwillingness to take risks on the off side, bowlers who erred too much to leg in their attempts to force him to play a shot would simply find themselves cut away for four. As his technique and footwork were then sound enough that he could play forward defensively when necessary, eventually all bowlers became frustrated and bowled too straight to him. He was remorseless and indefatigable. The sheer length of his biggest innings beggars belief: it wasn’t his highest score, but in 2011, he scored 263 against Pakistan off 528 balls in 856 minutes. I’ll leave you to work out how many hours of batting that is.

Many would argue that his late-career struggles are simply a result of the sheer amount of batting he’s done for England over the last 12 years or so. That, quite simply, he’s gone to the well so many times that there’s nothing left down there. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would love to see him score just one more century before this series against India ends. He’s never been as beloved by English fans as he should have been, not being a swashbuckling sort of player, but surely that century if it came would be the most warmly received of his career – one last big success to savour before he’s gone for ever, as he surely soon will be.

Why do I mention all this?

Because I’ve been when listening to and thinking about Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, and it strikes me that the way it was received in the media and by many of her fans was somewhat similar to the way in which that notional final test hundred by Alastair Cook would be.

Joni Mitchell was by then in her fifties, and seemed to have come to some kind of accommodation with the changing of fashions and the passing of the era in which she was a mainstream figure. Her synth-heavy mid-eighties records, Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, had alienated old fans without attracting new ones, but even more so than 1991’s Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo was the sound of Mitchell simply being who she was in 1994. Most reviewers praised the album generously, glad to hear the veteran Joni Mitchell being recognisably Joni Mitchell again, and doing it rather well.

It being the 1990s and not the 1970s, there were some hurdles that simply couldn’t be gotten over. Her voice had already coarsened from smoking, leaving her unable to hit high notes without belting and neccessitating ever-deeper guitar tunings – Last Chance Lost sees her tune down to Bb, and even then there’s an unattractive hollowness to her vocal timbre in that key, a sort of paperiness that’s particularly noticeable on headphones.

Then there were the rods she made for her own back. Nobody forced her to use the sterile guitar sound that features on around half the tracks (it’s too early for it to be her Parker-Fly-plus-Roland-VG8-guitar-synth set-up, so I assume it’s just a processed, DI’d acoustic), and we have to assume she signed off on Larry Klein’s clinical bass guitar sound: active bass, tight strings, hyped EQ, loads of low B string – a “hi-fi” sound that was big in the early nineties on high-budget singer-songwriter records by people like James Taylor and Sting. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t like that sound, but urgh, I really don’t. The whole mix is soggy with reverb, too – a slightly baffling choice in 1994 when mainstream rock mixes tended to be quite dry.

Sounds are one thing, though. Songs another. And on Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell had a pretty good strike rate. Opener Sunny Sunday (decorated with Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Jim Keltner’s drums), David Crosby co-write Yvette in English, the title track, Borderline and The Magdalene Laundries are all successes, and all stand comparison to her work at her peak. Yet the song that I come back to most often, and that for me contains the biggest emotional charge, is not a Mitchell originall.

In 1986, James Brown released an album called Gravity. The previous year, Brown had had a hit with Living in America (as featured in Rocky IV), a song written for him by Dan Hartman* and Charlie Midnight. Whether because of Brown’s well-documented troubles with drugs (PCP and cocaine) in the mid-1980s or simply because Hartman and Midnight seemed to Brown’s label to have a winning formula is realms-of-conjecture stuff, but for whatever reason, Gravity was entirely composed of Hartman-and-Midnight co-writes.

Among them was a ballad called How Do You Stop. Stiff and clogged with synths, and with a vocal performance by the great man that could barely be called perfunctory, How Do You Stop was still the album’s standout song, and Mitchell evidently heard in it a diamond in the rough. She recorded her own version for Turbulent Indigo, replacing the stodgy synths with her strummed acoustic, Larry Klein’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and electric guitars by Steuart Smith and Michael Landau. Pitched in a key that suited her new range, How Do You Stop was probably the finest vocal performance from Mitchell on Turbulent Indigo, but guest singer Seal (a publically acknowledged Joni fan), did her one better. His tightly harmonised interjections in the choruses function as the song’s main hook, and his ad libs in the final chorus – a wordless falsetto cry and a descending moan of “too late” – are the single most goosebump-inducing moment on the album. At the peak of his own commercial success, he nevertheless agreed to appear in a video for the song.

Its success at least partly driven by How Do You Stop, Turbulent Indigo was received by its audience as that notional final Alastair Cook century would be. It even won a Grammy for Best Pop Album – ludicrously over-generous for an album that’s in the bottom half of its creator’s list of accomplishments, but indicative of how we love to see veterans come back and score one last big success.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

* Dan Hartman of I Can Dream About You, Instant Replay and Relight My Fire fame. Dan Hartman who was in the Edgar Winter Band and played bass guitar on Frankenstein. I like Dan Hartman.