As someone once sang, it’s late September and I really should be … writing another post. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been championing high-resolution formats such as SACD for some time now. The demise of SACD has not quite happened as predicted; it is certainly doing very well in the classical field with labels such as BIS, Pentatone and Chandos all issuing SACDs. But other changes in technology – such as universal disc players, increasing hard drive storage and increasing download speeds – mean it is now possible to find websites selling music at a higher resolution than standard CD. One that is worth investigating is HDtracks – their website is at https://www.hdtracks.com/ There is also an interesting blog on the Gramophone magazine website on this topic:
I notice from the current issue of Mojo that Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ album is about to be reissued in an extravagant multi-disc version which will include high-resolution versions. As record companies run out of out-takes / alternate mixes / live versions etc with which to garnish archive re-releases it may be that they will have to provide 5.1 mixes and high-resolution versions in order to have something new to sell.
Talking of archive releases, there is going to be a volume 2 of The Beatles at the BBC. The first volume, released about 20 years ago, is being remastered. I was surprised that there could be this many Beatles BBC versions uncollected to make a second volume.
I’m currently at work on the next songwriting book for Backbeat books. My guitar album Atlantic Canticles is selling well – check it out if you haven’t heard it.
Looking a long way ahead, I heard recently that the 2015 Lahti Sibelius Festival is going to be about six days long rather than the usual three and a bit, in honour of 2015 being the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius, Finland’s greatest symphonist. This will make it a must-attend. I’ve been twice and loved it. The music is mostly performed in Sibelius Hall which is right on the shores of a huge lake in Lahti (Lahti is about 100km north of Helsinki). To wander along in the evening and hear the music in such fantastic surroundings is always a treat (and the last time I went all 7 symphonies were performed over three nights). Here’s a link for more information:
I can’t believe how the time has flown by since I last posted. First, an update on my guitar album Atlantic Canticles. I’ve almost completed the recording. I’m going to have 21 tracks to choose from because another idea turned up a couple of days ago and that turned into a piece which is titled ‘Upon the Printless Sands’. I’m aiming to finish and make available the album by the end of the month. Whether I can do it we shall see …
News in the past few days of the death of Reg Presley of The Troggs. Their hit ‘Wild Thing’ 1966 gained additional fame when it was taken over by Jimi Hendrix (it was the last song he played in his set at Monterey in 1967). It’s quite possible that the song is now more associated with Hendrix than The Troggs. Hendrix’s version may have been more amped-up, but in the context of the chart pop in Britain in 1966 The Troggs’ version did startle by seeming so primitive. Its charming slightly-out-of-tune recorder solo was an early hint of the fey bucolics of the approaching Summer of Love (the recorder in popular music signalling the pastoral).
Another big Troggs hit was ‘Love Is All Around’. I’ve always been immune to this song, regardless of who does it. If you want to hear an infinitely more expressive use of a I-II-IV-V chord progression try R.E.M.’s ‘Fall On Me’.
On the subject of Hendrix it has been frustrating to read news reports of the imminent release of his ‘new’ studio album in March. In fact, almost all these songs have been issued before, if perhaps not in these exact mixes or takes. The 12 songs belong to the album Hendrix was working on at the time of his death which has been released before under the title First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Approach with caution …
King Richard III has been in the news too, since it was confirmed on Monday that DNA testing had demonstrated that the bones found under a Leicester car park were his. A cue for Supergrass’ Britpop hit ‘Richard III’, which has some unusual chord changes.
On the classical front I’ve been enjoying exploring previously unfamiliar music by the Finnish composer Aare Merikanto. I started last year with an Alba SACD of Symphony 1 and 3 (3 is superb and very accessible). I then got hold of two Merikanto discs on Ondine – Piano Concertos 1 & 2, and Works for Orchestra. The slow movements of the piano concertos are very lyrical. The latter disc has the attractive 4 minute ‘Andante Religoso’ which might make a great download if it’s available as such.
It seems that Chandos may have abandoned their cycle of Weinberg symphonies, which is a pity. Some of the missing ones (he wrote at least 22) are appearing on Naxos but not as SACDs. Another label Neos is six CDs into a Weinberg edition but some of those are live recordings and therefore vulnerable to hall noises, coughs, etc. Weinberg is not the most approachable of symphonists, and given the awful life experiences he endured in the USSR, it is not surprising that his music is often bleak. But it has a certain strength and endurance and a feeling that it is made to last, and I’ve enjoyed persevering with it even if the rewards are not immediate. He has been described as one of the three most important Russian-associated composers along with Shostakovich and Prokoviev. If you’ve not heard him the third symphony is a good place to start, along with the cello concerto, both on Chandos.
This is by way of a footnote to the post about John Doan and the harp guitar. There are other guitars made with more than the conventional six strings. Today I had a newsletter from the Swedish record company BIS advertising new releases. One is a disc (SACD hybrid that will play on standard players) of Christmas instrumentals played on 13-string guitar by Anders Miolin. I haven’t heard this but it seems like it would make an unusual and attractive present if you’re thinking about music gifts for friends to play at Christmas. Here are some links:
The CD info from BIS is:
Christmas Dreams on 13 Strings BIS-2026 | SACD EAN 7318599920269 TT: 72’22 Fantasies on Christmas songs, composed and performed by Anders Miolin on 13-string guitar
Stille Nacht (Fr. X. Gruber); Good King Wenceslas (trad.); Lulajže, Jezuniu (trad.); Noël nouvelet (trad.) / Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle (trad.); V lesu rodilas elochka (L. K. Beckmann) / Nu tändas tusen juleljus (E. Köhler); Es wird schon gleich dunkel (trad.) / Adeste fideles (J. Fr. Wade); Convidando está la noche (J. García de Zéspedes); Les Anges dans nos campagnes (trad.); Maria durch ein Dornwald ging (trad.) / Canzone d’l zampognari (trad.); It came upon the midnight clear (Arthur Sullivan); In dulci jubilo (trad.) / I Saw Three Ships (trad.); Baloo Lammy (trad.) / Balulalow (Peter Warlock); Azure Christmas (Anders Miolin); Stellæ nocte hibernali somniantes (Anders Miolin).
For a number of years I’ve been exploring the symphonic repetoire from about 1890 into the C20th. I think this was a golden age for the symphony, even if many of the composers are not as well known as C19th symphonists such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner et al. C20th composers who took up the symphony often did so with a new palette of harmony and melody, which enabled them to avoid repeating what the Austro-German composers had done with the form, and many of them were born outside that tradition (think of Vaughan Williams, Nielsen, Sibelius, Shostakovich). It is always exciting and satisfying to get a purchase on a new symphony which you know is going to give much pleasure for a long time.
This time it’s Symphony no.3 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg written around 1950, which I’ve listened to about half a dozen times in the past week or so (and I mean listened to, not ‘had it on in the background’). Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Poland but lived much of his life in the USSR and was a friend of Shostakovich. His music is generally tonal from what I’ve heard, and this 32-minute symphony makes a very good starting point. Part of its accessibility is its use of some folk themes. I particularly recommend the first and third movements. The third movement has a very beautiful example of changing from a major chord to its tonic minor (i.e. G to Gm), this idea being used as an important musical idea in the movement. It’s very expressive.
The recording is on the Chandos label and is a hybrid SACD – so you can play it in standard stereo, SACD stereo or SACD 5.0. Chandos have recorded several other discs of Weinberg.
In the realm of popular music a recent project has set me thinking again about the importance of various different aspects of songwriting and recording. I’ve been struck recently by the way that the musical language of popular music does change over the decades. It might be assumed to be always the same, but there are trends for using certain chord changes or progressions or certain scales for melodies. I’m not sure if anyone has ever written about these per se.
My current research has made me feel more strongly the importance of arrangement in songwriting and recording. In many cases you can line up scores of songs with the same basic progression and structure and what distinguishes them (apart from lyrics and the character of the performer) is the arrangement. Sometimes the instruments you choose make all the difference. I dealt with this subject in my boook Arranging Songs and I may have to return to it.
I hope to have news of the next book project to share with you in awhile.
Tomorrow I shall start my course for Oxford University’s Oxford Experience summer school on the Beatles, Popular Music, and 1960s Britain. It will be good to experience the uplifting energy of their music, which I haven’t listened to much probably since the last time I did the course in 2010. I have a soft spot for their early original songs (1963-65) in particular. It was a memorably spine-tingling moment a number of years back seeing the Bootleg Beatles do an immaculate version of ‘This Boy’ live. Looking back at early live footage, such as the US tour of early 1964, I’m struck always by two things: first, the overwhelming impression of some collective landslide of feeling which seems far more than what is generated at a typical successful rock gig … something beyond entertainment; second, the touching vision of the emotional bonds between the Fab Four as they sailed the good ship Beatledom through the force 10 gale of the zeitgeist. Despite all that has happened since, and despite the digital revolutions, I feel we have not yet escaped the ‘event horizon’ of the 1960s (I don’t mean that metaphor negatively).
I read recently that The Who plan a 5.1 release of Quadrophenia – that’s great news (see my earlier posts about SACD and 5.1).
Since I last wrote, the music world has lost Amy Winehouse. I was never particularly aware of her, but I will confess that ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ seems a brilliant re-creation of a 1960s torch-ballad, full of dark-blue-lit syncopations and tearful pauses, as though some lost Burt Bacharach song had turned up.
Meanwhile the BBC Proms have provided some great music as ever (including an interesting performance of Sibelius 7) and I am excited about having finally got a foothold on Valentin Silvestrov’s 5th Symphony. When I first tried this single 45-minute piece a year or so ago I couldn’t relate to what it was doing, but a few more undistracted listens on headphones (eyes shut!) have revealed some wonderful melodic sequences aside from the angrier dissonant outbreaks. Maybe they are in post-modern quotation marks … but who cares? One passage is reminiscent of John Barry … and that’s always fine by me.
In Richie Unterberger’s book Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia there is a terrible story relating to the loss of the original multi-track tapes of some of The Who’s finest music. For many decades there seems to have been an assumption in the recording industry that once a band had mixed an album from the 8-,12-,16, or 24-track to the stereo mix from which master pressings would be made there was no need to keep the multi-track. These seems to often have been left at the recording studios. With the passing of years those studios closed or were sold on and often entire tape libraries were simply chucked into a skip. This appears to have happened at Olympic in London in the early 1980s. According to Unterberger some of the multi-tracks for Who’s Next were lost in this way. As a consequence, Who’s Next cannot be released in hi-definition formats such as DVD-audio or SACD 5.1 because the source material is incomplete. What a tragedy.
A related story I stumbled across concerns tape restoration. If stored in humid conditions tape can deteriorate and go mouldy. This apparently happened to a tranche of Bob Marley recordings. You can read the horror story at fxgroup.net/tape+baking. The tapes were only 25 years old. They could only save 12 out of 27. If this happens with such a famous (and therefore money-generating) artist such as Bob Marley, what hope for the smaller groups and the one-hit wonders, etc?
I’ve been enjoying the new Fleet Foxes album ‘Helplessness Blues’ and pleased they did not seek to overhaul their sound too much. This one sits well as a follow-up to the debut album of a few years ago, with more confidence in the arrangements and the recording. Quite apart from the musical trademarks of the songs, it is interesting how reverb plays an important role in their sound, lending ethereality to the signature vocal harmonies. This is noteworthy because for some years many popular recordings have gone for a very dry and airless production. I’ve always preferred something that suggested depth and distance.
I’ve also been listening to some early Elton John. Connecting with my previous post about SACD, I’ve now heard Elton’s Honky Chateau album on SACD and again the sound is a revelation. It’s available on amazon for very little at all. (There is also a Nick Drake SACD compilation that’s unexpectedly good considering that his mixes tend to have relatively few instruments in them, so you would think that they wouldn’t lend themselves to multi-channel.)
For songwriters the thing that strikes me most listening to Elton John again is the vital role that inversions play in his songs. He makes far more use of them than most guitarist songwriters (they’re easier to play on a piano). They occur more frequently in his songs and in a greater number of types. It is surprising how much emotional charge they carry in songs like ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, ‘Your Song’, ‘Into The Old Man’s Shoes’, and ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight.’ There’s also a feeling with the songs that they have a lot of music in them – by which I mean they don’t have any of the aura of laziness which I hear in a lot of post-2000 songwriting, where one short idea is deemed enough to carry most of the song and if you’re lucky you might get an 8-bar bridge.
Also on SACD I can recommend the new Stravinsky SACD of the Rite of Spring and Petrouchka on BIS by the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredible sound that lets you experience the genius of Stravinsky’s orchestrations.
Recently I’ve been listening for the first time to 5.1 surround sound mixes as featured on SACD. As has been said, the effect is more immersive than stereo. On classical SACD recordings the two rear speakers are used to add subtle ambient sound, so if you’re sitting roughly in the central position it feels as though the sound from the front three speakers is being pulled behind you. It’s three-dimensional. On the couple of rock SACDs I’ve heard individual instruments are positioned in those rear speakers, allowing more access to the texture of the music.
It is a tragedy that SACD never became a mass-market success when it was launched about 12 years ago. It offers much better sound quality than standard CDs, let alone mp3 files (I’ve read one account which said that mp3 files contain only 10% (!) of the information contained on the equivalent CD track.) There are some blu-ray players that will also play SACDs, so that’s hopeful, and classical labels are still issuing them. Other high-resolution formats such as so-called ‘studio master’ downloads also promise better quality music reproduction.
The essay on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ I mentioned in the previous blog is now done. It turned into something of an epic. I had anticipated writing 3-4,000 words, and it is over 10,000. I’ll post details of where it will be published when I have them. For many years I thought I would write a book on Led Zeppelin but the time for that has gone now. So I’m pleased at least to share some thoughts on what makes this legendary song exert its particular magic. This year would be a fitting moment to see Led Zeppelin’s fourth album released as an SACD.
I shall end with a brief note for readers who play guitar, which is to recommend the solo guitar works of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, which I’ve re-visited over the past six months. They can be found on a single Naxos label CD (among others). His Preludes and Etudes are recognized cornerstones of the classical guitar repertoire. They are a delightful mix of rhythm, lyricism and dissonance.