Exhibition of Stadivari violin played by EMI classical artist Yehudi Menuhin

This summer (13 June – 11 August)  the Ashmolian Museum in Oxford  has a exceptional exhibition celebrating the work of the seventeenth century master crafter of string instruments; Antonio Stadivari.  The rarely seen pieces will include a 1721 Stradivarius violin played by the famous EMI classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin before its auction at Sotheby’s 1971

Stadivari violins are considered the finest in the world, played only by the best professional musicians and held in private collections amoungst royalty.

Yehudi Menuhin photographed by Angus McBean. Copyright: EMI Music Ltd

Yehudi Menuhin photographed by Angus McBean. Copyright: EMI Music Ltd

Menuhin was an EMI recording artist for almost 70 years. He made his first recording in November 1929, aged just 13 and his last recording in 1999 aged 83. As a violinst and a conductor he recorded over 300 pieces for EMI.

Tracks Of My Tears

by Wayne Shevlin

Some grooves make you shake your bootie. A stadium anthem can get you swaying with lighters in the air. And some music brings tears to your eyes.

Image: Ludwig Van Beethoven by Neil Shevlin - All rights reserved

Image: Ludwig Van Beethoven by Neil Shevlin – All rights reserved

There are certain pieces of music that make me cry.  Consistently.  Spontaneously. Involuntarily.  It requires conscious effort to shut the tears off.  The tears differ in kind, are evoked for different reasons.  I am intrigued by music’s ability to manipulate my emotions. I am perplexed as to why, from time to time, I deliberately subject myself to stimuli which I know will result in making me cry.  I can only guess at how unsettling it must be for B to see me standing there, headphones encasing my head, tears rolling down my cheeks.  She must wonder why too.

Sometimes, it is that a piece of music has an association with a specific event in my life. Regardless of its musical or lyrical content, it triggers an emotional response in the same way a smell can take you back to nursery school (something that happens to me when passing by the Swiss Cottage McDonalds – only that branch does it) .  Effective – but this is a superficial evocation.  It isn’t the music per se, but an external relationship between the music and my life which the composer and performer had no knowledge of or control over.   For me, the song Let Her Cry by Paul Bollenback performed by Hootie & the Blowfish is the best example.  It’s not a brilliant song.  It is brutally sad in its own right, but what gives it the power to make me cry uncontrollably is that it was playing on the radio constantly as I drove back and forth to the hospital in LA during the week in which my mother died.   I also found the lyrics strangely relevant -as though Hootie knew the situation and was singing for me.

Thus, Let Her Cry, unintentionally, became the official soundtrack to that short but traumatic period of my life.  I cannot listen to it without that week materialising in my mind as though it were yesterday.  It is painful to remember.  And yet, from time to time, I deliberately put it on knowing full well what the result will be.  Though it rekindles the sadness, it also brings back the memory of my mother more powerfully and tangibly than anything else.  I just wish I had a happy song that had the same effect.

More interesting to me is music that makes me cry not because it is acting simply as a cheap emotional trigger, but that the music embodies emotion within itself and communicates that to me directly.  It becomes part of my internal emotive mechanisms and drives them without my conscious participation.  There are two pieces of instrumental music which make me cry – and for completely opposite reasons: one because it sounds so sad and the other because it sounds so beautiful.

Classical music has many examples of exquisitely sad pieces – Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor and Barber’s Adagio for strings are obvious and well worn examples – but the one that does it for me every time is the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and specifically as performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter.  I discovered this piece in a strange way when I was a teenager.  A solo piano arrangement of it was used as the background music in a Peanuts cartoon – the one with Charlie Brown – to evoke Charlie’s sad-sack, dumped on existence.   The music grabbed me immediately and it took some good deal of investigation to discover what it was.

The 2nd of the 7th has been a guaranteed tear-jerker for me ever since.  I don’t know why, but that piece just makes me cry.  What can I say?  Beethoven clearly has his finger on my musical sad-button with that one.  It covers all levels of sadness, running the gamut from a sombre whimper to Burghers of Calais torment – the way the wailing theme is handed back and forth between the upper and lower registers.  Very finely crafted and very, very minor.  By the way, I’ve tried many other versions: Von Karajan, Rattle, Toscanini and many other conductors.  In my opinion, no one gets Ludwig Van like Bruno.

On the other side of the spectrum is an instrumental electric guitar piece by Joe Satriani called Friends from his album The Extremist.  It’s a crunch chords and wheedley-woo number, but unlike most power-rock played by pyrotechnic Strat abusers, it is incredibly melodic and any fretboard acrobatics are all in the service of the music, not the other way around.  Undoubtedly there is a component of admiration involved because I know how much is involved in playing it from a technical perspective.  Perhaps I’m crying because I know I’ll never play that well.  Not really – I just think it’s gorgeous.  The lines soar and lift my heart with them.

Finally, there are songs that make me cry primarily because of the lyrics.  Lyrics are lyrics because they are meant to be set to music.  The two must support and reinforce each other.  It is frequently the case that great lyrics make lousy poems.  There are a number of songs with evocative, emotive lyrics that move me to tears: The Cruel War performed by Peter Paul & Mary,  Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns performed by Judy Collins – but the song that really does me in every time is Comfortably Numb by Roger Waters & David Gilmour performed by Pink Floyd.  Each time I think: “no, not this time”, but as it works its way through the second verse I lose it:  “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/ Out of the corner of my eye/ I turned to look but it was gone / I cannot put my finger on it now/ The Child has grown, the dream is gone/ I have become comfortably numb“.

These words, set to the backdrop of the sombre, resigned melancholy of the music – written, I believe, by Gilmour and beautifully arranged – are imbued with such a powerful sense of loss and hopelessness that I feel my entire existence vanish into the darkness. My child’s dream is gone. This is then followed by what is, in my opinion, Gilmour’s most powerful and exquisite guitar solo which cries too, along with me.

So why do I do it?  Perhaps you are worried about me – what’s this guy doing to himself? I am happy to say that in daily life I have few legitimate reasons to cry – so maybe this is a way to empty out the few tears that accumulate over time and have no other outlet.   But I’m not the only person who allows music to move them to tears.   And if it’s not music, then perhaps it’s some other art form such as movies.  Plenty of people (who shall remain nameless) are happy to subject themselves to romantic weepies and blubber away.  Clearly, many of us use art as catharsis.  In some way we need it – this strange enjoyment we get from self inflicted sadness.   Sometimes, for some reason, we need to cry for the sake of it – whether in sorrow or in joy.  Somehow, it makes us feel better.  But by using art we are in control.  We can turn it off or walk away.  The emotional release is in there, but only if we allow it.

Beethoven was not a good “melodist” and he was bad at harmony,”  Leonard Bernstein

Go to 5.18 as Bernstein discusses with Maximilian Schell  Beethoven Symphony No. 7

Century of Spinning Plastic Discs

By Wayne Shevlin

Opening salvo of the 21st century: announcing the end of the copy economy – sunset on the century of spinning plastic discs.
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Viktor Vasnetsov – Grave-digger (1848 modified by WS) – Public Domain   

The Byrds once advised aspiring rock n’ roll stars: “Sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic-ware”.  The goal was crystal clear: multi-platinum.  “The name of the game, boy – we call it riding the gravy train”. That meant millions of copies. Copies of plastic discs.  Plastic discs that must be pressed, be warehoused, be shipped, unpacked & racked, sold and be played.  Millions upon millions of plastic discs – they formed the basis of my personal existence and shaped the culture of my generation for many decades.  They were also the foundation of an entire industry.  An industry based on the unquestioned premise that copies had value.  And now they don’t.

Running a record section in late 1970s New York City we knew all these plastic discs by their catalogue numbers – it was a matter of pride:  Billy Joel’s The Stranger, the first Boston album, Frampton Comes Alive and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.  You may wrinkle your nose, but these were monsters.  They arrived by the truckload.  The boxes lined the walls and filled every available corner of the shop.  We ran out of room.  I threw my back out lifting them all.  Records had weight, let me tell you.  When an album hit it big, you knew about it – physically.   Queues stretched out the door and around the block.  In the surreal rush of a hot new release we were the shamans. We had the mojo everyone was desperate for.  We had gravitas and impact because we were the source – the only source – of the plastic discs.

You could see the sense of awe in peoples’ faces as they held the latest big album in their hands for the first time.  We felt real pride in getting the hot new music to the people.  My father queued up at midnight for the release of The Beatles White Album.  And now, strange as it seems, these once ubiquitous plastic discs are now nothing more than the artefacts of a bygone culture – mine.  They are now relegated to curios that might be dug up by an archaeologist.  Once upon a time, in a place far away, these things really mattered.  How sweet.  How sad.

Once, a serious music collection made a design statement: ceiling high spines of vinyl LP album sleeves replacing the need for wallpaper.  Alan P’s entire flat was wall to wall coloured cardboard in milk crates.  Nowadays, this personal statement of his intense commitment to music would fit in his shirt pocket.  Kind of loses its impact.  Hard to point at it with pride and impress your date by saying “that’s mine”.  (Probably didn’t impress your date back then either, but we always hoped for the best.)  A thousand vinyl albums against a wall had gravitas.   Sharing your space with them proved that you really cared.  It said something about you personally.

Vinyl was superseded by the CD – the new, modern plastic disc.  The CD heralded a new age and an extraordinary renaissance where, for over a decade,  music spanning the entire 20th century was dusted off and given a new lease on life.  New music continued to be created and thrive while, simultaneously, three older generations re-purchased the music of their youth.  I kept an eagle-eye out for über niche artists, waiting for them to make their way to the top of the re-issue schedule: Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, Passport’s Cross Collateral, Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House, and hundreds of others equally obscure. And they all appeared eventually. And then, when the concept of re-mastering became the rage, we waited and bought many of them all again.  How many industries can convince their customers to buy the same thing three times in this way?  The 90s music industry wallowed in sheer mania of it all.  Boy – that was a gravy train.  And now it’s over.  And it won’t happen again.

It won’t happen again because the CD was not just another kind of plastic disc like the 78, the 45 and the LP before it.  The CD was – as it turned out – a Trojan horse.  The CD had – hidden within its friendly, familiar plastic disc persona – the razor sharp teeth of digital bits.  Shiny and round, it masked the truth about itself.  It was not just a copy.  It was a clone. What it contained could be set free from the plastic, every bit as good as the bits that originally made it – the music was not bound to the media. The CD put a digital production-master of its content into the hands of anyone who held it.  Ironically, its very power made it valueless.  The media was no longer the message.  The media was superfluous and the copy had no value.  If CD began the process, then the online digital file completed it: from media is the message to media superfluous to media non-existent.  MP3 killed the value of the copy and signalled the death of the artefact.

Are artefacts important at all to this new generation?  For these digital natives, is there any value in stuff – or does mere access to content trump ownership?  Music is now just bits in the ether.  A 60GB MP3 player may contain the same content, but it is not the equivalent of Alan P’s ceiling high wall of vinyl.  How do we now show our intense, personal commitment to music?  Do we have one?   Somewhere we lost the gravitas.  We lost the mojo.  We lost the love of the artefacts.

Spinning plastic discs: they’re so 20th century, really.

A Whisper That Roars

By Wayne Shevlin

I’d like to celebrate the microphone and the revolutionary impact it has had on music.

A-Collection-of-Twelve-American-Modernist-Microphones-ca.-1925-1946-est.-25000-35000[1]

As technology, the microphone is a marvel: converting into electricity the invisible, minute air pressure waves – what we in our mind’s ear perceive as sound – so that the very essence of sound can be captured and AMPLIFIED.   Yet, however fascinating the technology, history and development of the microphone; however crucial its role in the very existence of audio recording, these are not the aspects I want to explore here.  What I am interested in is the fundamental way in which the microphone has changed music in artistry, aesthetics and style.

In the beginning, the microphone was used merely as an extension of the ear.  It was placed where an ear would normally be, essentially hearing on the ear’s behalf.  But soon, microphones became pioneers, exploring sonic landscapes – going where ears could not go, capturing sound from unusual perspectives and contexts.  From these unique vantage points the microphone creates new sounds and new ways of hearing sound.  It allows unnatural sonic relationships to exist.  With a microphone, the most delicately quiet sound can be highlighted, isolated and elevated to soar above the loudest cacophony.   The microphone allows a whisper to roar.

Without the microphone, naturally quiet sounds require turning down the volume of the surrounding soundscape to be heard.  This directly affected the way music was composed prior to its invention.  In a Mozart flute concerto, the orchestra must lower its volume when the flute plays lest the flute be drowned out.  Mozart deliberately arranges the instruments so that the flute will be heard.  Perhaps the brass cease playing and the violins go pizzicato – maybe it’s a good time for a harpsichord accompaniment.  Flute themes in classical music are seldom set against a thunderous accompaniment because the physics are simply against it.

Even on one leg, Ian Anderson suffers no such impediment because he plays his flute through a microphone.  His lone flute can soar above the bludgeoning onslaught of 120 decibels of electric guitars and drums (which are also amplified using microphones with a resulting change in musical impact) .  With a microphone, Ian Anderson can write music for flute, not as a sweet sound set against light accompaniment, but as a screaming banshee wailing through a maelstrom.  The microphone gives his flute a new character, elevates its sonic relationship with the rest of the band and he writes a different style of music as a result.

Singing has been even more profoundly impacted by the microphone.  In the past, when the fat lady sang, she was attempting to reach the upper stalls of the opera house on the strength of her natural vocal power alone.  This requires a style of singing that, by necessity, must have a high degree of concern for projection.  That’s why opera singers sing that way: larynx wide open, deep from the diaphragm.  They need to reach the gallery.  Power, volume, projection: to be heard above the orchestra (which, must still tone down) – these are the key qualities for opera singing.  And the operatic style reflects this.  It is instantly recognisable. Nuance and delicacy are, to a great extent, sacrificed for power and volume.

And before a clutch of opera buffs huff and puff that, “damn it, opera is full of nuance and delicacy”, please consider the singing style of Billie Holiday.  That’s the kind of delicacy I’m talking about:  a whisper – a vocal teardrop – a sigh that shimmers above the hot brass.   The microphone allows the most intimate vocal style – normally only appropriate for the smallest of spaces – to fill the grandest hall.

When a mother sings a whispered lullaby in her baby’s ear, it has a particular sonic impact.  The relationship between the sound and the baby – the distance between mother’s mouth and baby’s ear – is natural and appropriate.  Filling Wembley Arena with exactly the same sound, but at the volume of a jet engine, changes the sonic impact on the listener and the meaning of the lullaby. The medium is the message.  A whisper heard as a roar acquires new meaning – and becomes a new kind of music.

The microphone creates an unnatural relationship between the listener and the original source of sound. If the microphone is considered an extension of the listener’s ear then it is worth noting that the microphone may be less than an inch from the singer’s mouth and captures the nuance of the voice in that aural space.  Sound is air pressure waves in motion and the sound emanating immediately from a singer’s mouth is high pressure indeed.  Other than babies listening to their mothers’ lullabies, we do not typically listen to singers at such a close proximity.

Singers are aware of the unnatural relationship between their voices and the listener and have developed specific techniques to avoid – and take advantage of – the sonic peculiarities resulting from, effectively, placing the listener’s ear directly in front of their mouths.  Good singers play their microphones like an instrument.  They take advantage of the increased bass when the microphone is close but avoid sibilance (ssssssss’s). They use the detail the microphone captures for dramatic effect.  They vary the distance of the microphone from their mouth to achieve consistency in volume – so that belting out the chorus and humming the softest verse are equally loud.  The microphone has created a new style of singing that is as demanding and specific as that of the opera singer, but completely different in perspective and technique.

A sonic impossibility that we have all come to take for granted is the sound of the drum set.  Today, drums are routinely amplified by placing microphones directly against cymbals and inside the drums.  Though these are mixed to create a holistic drum set, nonetheless the actual sound is completely artificial.  We do not normally listen to drums by simultaneously sticking our heads directly next to the crash cymbal and inside the bass drum.  However, nowadays, this is what we expect drums to sound like.  A drum set mic-ed as we would normally listen with ears – at least 10 feet in front – would sound empty and hollow.  Without the artificial mic-ing technique, heavy metal would simply not have the requisite weight to satisfy the righteous head banger.

Music has always been a reflection of and an adaptation to the available sound producing technology of the time.  The evolution of musical instruments from hollow logs to brass tubes to digital synthesisers has, on the one hand, been a response to the needs of musicians and yet, on the other, has set the limitations on the sounds they could create.  This, in turn, defines the style of music created.  This is a quality not generally associated with the microphone; that it is not merely a passive receiver, but creates sound as much as does a saxophone; that it has changed the course and style of music.  That it is an instrument in its own right.

BBC Radio-90 Years Old- 5.33pm Nov 14 2012

Today Wednesday 14 November the BBC marks the 90th anniversary of its first broadcast by playing a specially commissioned composition by Damon Albarn to radio listeners around the world at 1733 GMT.

More than 55 BBC radio stations will come together for Radio Reunited – the first attempt at a simultaneous broadcast since what was then the British Broadcasting Company was formed in 1922. Each BBC station will play the composition, entitled 2LO Calling – a combination of specially written music, iconic sounds from radio’s past and present, and messages to the future from listeners around the world.

You can download the piece and find out more about the 90th anniversary by going to www.bbc.co.uk/reunited

Mojo at Abbey Road – Electronic Music

Mojo ask Daniel Miller, Andy McCluskey, Martyn Ware, Mark Jones, Trevor Jackson, Matthew Herbert and Bill Brewster their thoughts on electronic music.

Electrospective-The Remix Album (2CD) release date 27 August 2012-  EMI Gold

shop.electrospective.com

Daphne Oram’s 1960’s Optical Synthesizer Oramics Machine – Electronic Music Pioneer

In the early ’60s, pioneering British composer Daphne Oram set out to create a synthesizer unlike any other, she called it the Oramics machine

Commissioned by The Science Museum, London. Directed, Produced, Filmed and Edited by Nick Street and Jen Fearnley.

Science Museum Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music  Until Saturday 01 December 12  oramics.aspx

The New Sound Of Music 1979

The New Sound of Music is a fascinating BBC historical documentary from the year 1979. It charts the development of recorded music from the first barrel organs, pianolas, the phonograph, the magnetic tape recorder and onto the concepts of musique concrete and electronic music development with voltage-controlled oscillators making up the analogue synthesizers of the day.

 

Electronic Music Studios (EMS) EMS Synthesizers and equipment are a heavily featured technology resource in this film, with the show’s host, Michael Rodd, demonstrating the EMS VCS3 synthesizer and it’s waveform output. Other EMS products include the incredible Synthi 100 modular console system, the EMS AKS, the Poly Synthi and the EMS Vocoder. Most of the location shots are filmed within the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop studios as they were in 1979.