Happy 30th Anniversary, Compact Disc?

•August 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It seems as though the anniversaries in music just keep on coming. So much so that I have lost count. Perhaps one of the most important ones this has to be for the Compact Disc (CD). History has shown that it was created in 1982 by Sony of Japan and Phillips of the Netherlands as a means of producing recorded music through laser-encoded technology. By harnessing the power of digital sound, CDs replaced the analog sound of the supposedly huge and clunky vinyl records (at least, until MP3s became more popular in the 2000s).

While 2012 does mark the 30th anniversary of the CD, I recently discovered some new information that forced me to rethink the commonly accepted scenario above. Last year, I created a presentation of the benefits and problems of social media with regards to music. For this project, I borrowed a copy of Steve Knopper’s poignant book, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (2009). Why do I mention this book? Because it features new information about the CD: specifically, who created it first and when. The more I read it, the more shocke I became… but, in a good way.

It turns out that there was one other person involved with creating the CD: James T. Russel. In fact, he created it as early as 1965!!! That’s almost two decades before its supposed “creation.” I automatically thought of that scene in TRON: Legacy where Kevin Flynn tells his son, Sam, that he came up with Wi-Fi in the 1980s… only to have his ideas stolen by someone else. Like Kevein Flynn, Russel didn’t receive much credit or recognition for his ground-breaking work until now. Why? Because he ran out of patent money in the 1970s and had no choice but to sell his idea to Phillips.

So, as you can see, the compact disc is actually older than one might think (47, not 30). Granted, there is more to this true story that I probably left out. If any of you in the blogoshpere are wondering where Appetite for Self-Destruction talks about Russesl and his plight, it is in the first chapter. The book in itself is an amazing read. I highly recommend it.

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Another Beatles Anniversary: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

•August 9, 2012 • 1 Comment

After writing about the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour a few days, I listened to “I Am the Walrus,” again, The thing that struck  me about the song was how it made a reference to another album: the Grammy-winning Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (also from 1967).

This particular album also celebrates 45 years of greatness. Sgt. Pepper was the start of the “concept album:” where every song was connected in some way. After conducting a bit of research, I found that this album actually came out in June of 1967:  before Magical Mystery Tour. They both use a variety of musical genres In the case of Sgt. Pepper, it includes Vaudeville, Classical and Indian Raga music in addition to Rock. The best part, though, is its use of sound effects. In essence, it feels like a live performance because it incorporates audience applause and screams.

Here are some other great concept albums I love, which might not have been possible if it weren’t for this monumental Beatles album:

Viva La Vida —Coldplay (2008)– 2009 Grammy-winner for “Best Rock Album.” This also uses Indian Raga music. Just listen to the song “Yes.”

The Suburbs— Arcade Fire (2010) 2011 Grammy-winner for “Album of the Year.” Say what you will about the Indie band from Montreal. This is a very poignant album, which explores the excess of modernity from a Dystopian perspective. I love the song, “Modern Man” because the supposedly offbeat drumming pattern,

Any album by Gorillaz– Yes, I know this band is a concept in itself created by the lead singer of Blur. But, each song in their albums are connected by certain thematic material, as in the  freakishly wonderful Plastic Beach (2010)

 


Goodbye, Marvin Hamlish.

•August 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It is with great sadness that I write this post tonight. The acclaimed, songwriter and film score composer, Marvin Hamlish, has died at the age of 68. I learned of this grim truth as I was sitting down to Dinner. For those who do not believe me, here is a link to his obituary:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/arts/music/marvin-hamlisch-composer-dies-at-68.html

Hamlish was best known for his award-winning music to films such as The Way We Were, A Chorus Line and The Sting (which led to a revival and rediscovery of Scott Joplin’s Rag music during the 1970s). One of his last film score was for the quirky Steven Soderbergh comedy The Informant! (2009), starring Matt Damon.

Back in January of this year, I had the pleasure of seeing Hamlish at a concert and lecture at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. In the all-too-short span of two hours, he played transcriptions of his music from memory, sometime accompanying a tenor vocalist. Between the performances, Hamlish would talk about his musical background at Juliard, to how he worked for singer Barbra Streisand during the 1960s, to his compositional process and sources for inspiration.

To prove his point, he asked a member of the audience to come up with a song title, when he then created and played on the spot (The song in question ended up being about “Graduation Day:” fitting for the university setting.). At that same concert, it just so happened to be someone’s birthday. Hamlish then played three improvisations on “Happy Birthday to You” in the style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven… at times mimicking the composers’ mannerisms (especially Beethoven’s rather grouchy nature).

The news of Marvin Hamlish’s passing comes as a tremendous shock to me, especially since I saw him merely months ago. Although songwriters usually have not gotten credit for their work in the past, Hamlish’s songs will live on in history for their beautifully rich textures and melodies. You will be missed. To quote one of his songs from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), “Nobody Does it Better.”

Happy 45th Anniversary Beatles Magical Mystery Tour

•August 7, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Long ago, I had written about my perception of vinyl records and analog sound. As I was rummaging through my collection of albums (a combination of music my parents grew up listening to and recently acquired records), I noticed that I had a copy of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (1967). I will admit that I had listened to it before via a CD remastering of the album, which I borrowed from the local library awhile  back. Personally, I think the  originalvinyl version is better because it more tangible and the analog quality captures more nuances.

Why do I bring this album up? Well, if my Gravatar hadn’t given it away already, I love Beatles music. The songs of the Fab Four from Liverpool, England are so revolutionary and monumental in scope. 2012 also marks the 45th anniversary of Magical Mystery Tour. It features a handful of memorable songs. I absolutely love this studio album because it combines various genres (Rock, Jazz, Classical, and Indian music”), yet is still focused. Here are some of my favorite tunes from the album:

“Fool on the Hill”— The instrumentation blends really well. I especially like the piano and woodwind parts, which add to the musical depiction of the rather strange individual in question.

“Blue Jay Way”— Wile I am fully aware that this song was inspired by an acid trip, that’s not why I like it. It’s because of the fusion of British Pop and traditional Indian music. This song also uses a Flang technique in electronic music to give it that  airy,”mystical” quality.

“I Am the Walrus”— Yes, I know this song is rather weird, but that’s the beuty of it.  To me, this song is like Lewis Carrol’s poem “Jaberwocki.” The lyrics make no sense, but everything blends together. I especially like how this song uses electronics and random voices (as in the laughing crowd in the third verse), The end result is a blurry, surreal landscape.

All Need is Love”— I really like the use of musical quotation (from the French national anthem, to a Bach Invention, “In the Mood,” “Greensleves,and an early Beatles tume: “Se Loves You.”) The use of changing meter and rhythm also throws me off guard, but in a good way.

Actually, Magical Mystery Tour is more of a soundtrack to the movie of the same name. Although I was familiar with several Beatles films (I love the animated feature, Yellow Submarine.), I was not familiar with this one at all. That was untill I found it on YouTube. If I remember correctly, I think that it is on the Beatles channel.

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

•June 7, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I know I normally reserve this blog for posts about music. I must make an exception tonight, however. You see, the world of Science Fiction will never be the same, now that American author Ray Bradbury (one of my favorite authors) has died. I found this really hard to fathom until I read his obituary in the New York Times this morning, For those of you who haven’t read it yet, here it is:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/books/ray-bradbury-popularizer-of-science-fiction-dies-at-91.html?_r=2

Bradbury’s short stories novels weren’t just pointless ventures into futuristic worlds. They all had a purpose because they served as commentaries on Post-World War II America.  In many cases, Bradbury’s works foreshadowed society as it is today: a boarder line hyperactive world mostly dependent on technology.

I have read only two of Bradbury’s novels: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and The Martian Chronicles (1949-50). Yet, these two books are some of his most important in contemporary literature.  I love  Fahrenheit 451 because it focuses on a society so insane, yet believable. People burn books instead of reading them, and the local firemen are put in charge of starting fires instead of extinguishing them! This novel deals mainly with excessive censorship in the press, yet there is also another point to this Dystopian tale,  A society  that is carelessly fully dependent on technology eventually destroys itself from within. The only way to resolve this, according to Bradbury (and me) is by acquiring knowledge through books

The Martian Chronicles, although mostly ridiculous by today’s standards (It predicted space colonization in the year 2000.) also presents a somewhat cautionary view of the future. It is a collection of short stories about man’s attempts to explore and and eventually conquer the red planet… only to be wiped out in the year 2026. One of the most passages from this novel is the penultimate chapter, “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” which describes a robot performing its functions in a house that has been destroyed by fire. 

From the Composer’s Perspective

•June 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday, June 2, 2012, was a day that I will remember forever. I had traveled to Charleston, SC with my family for the annual Spoleto Festival USA. The festival, founded by the late  Italian-American Neoclassical composer, Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007), has brought artistic excellence to the city for the past thirty-five years through music, dance, plays, and art exhibitions.

I first attended Spoleto Festival USA  in the summer 2o11, partly because I wanted to attend the musical celebration commemorating the centennial of Menotti’s birth. The year 2012 marks another special occasion in the world of modern Classical music: the 75th birthday of Minimalist composer, Philip Glass (b. 1937). When I saw online that he would be part of the 2012 Spoleto Festival USA,  I was utterly ecstatic; to me, this felt akin to meeting Beethoven. As  a composer, I wanted to find out more about his overall process to writing modern music.

On June 2, I attended a conversation with Glass as part of the Music in Time series. He spoke about his musical approach  and his current projects and premieres. For those unfamiliar with Glass’s music, he utilizes the technique of phasing: taking short themes or motives and repeating them over and over. Since the 1960s he has written an abundance of  piano and chamber pieces, operas, symphonies, and scores for movies such as The Truman Show (1998), The Hours (2001), Secret Window (2004) and The Illusionist (2006).

During the conversation, Glass also talked about the importance of his operas, specifically their structure. He perceives these works, from Einstein on the Beach (1975) to Kepler (2009) as “portraits” which can arranged or viewed  in any order, yet still form a whole. He  also spoke of how he enjoys the collaborative process in music composition because composers can work with others in different artistic background instead of working by themselves.

What I enjoyed most about this discussion was that it included  one particular instance which the audience was unprepared. Two movements from Glasworks (1981) were performed, as listed on the program. Towards the end though,  the discussion shifted to the topic of his late friend, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).  Glass mentioned composed his Hydrogen Jukebox  (a musical collaboration with Ginsberg using his poetry) back in 1990. Whenever the two were unable  to perform, Glass mentioned that he would perform with with an audio tape of Ginsberg’s voice. This is precisely what occurred during the lecture, albeit  an MP3 file was used, Glass himself performed a section of Hydrogen Jukebox  one hour of in advance of the discussion.

This discussion is one particular event in my life which I will never forget. I am tremendously thankful for having taken the opportunity to  hear such  an illustrious composer describe his own works and play some of them the audience for one brief and mesmerizing hour.

 

On Franz Liszt

•May 31, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The year 2011 marked the bicentennial of birth of Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). This past semester, as part of my Master’s degree, I took a Music History course devoted entirely to the life and music of Liszt. I will admit that, before taking this class, I had not known much about Liszt save for his daunting piano pieces. Throughout the class I was required to read an expansive three-volume biography of Franz Liszt by British musicologist, Alan Walker. I normally dislike writing book reviews on this blog, However, I found Walker’s biography of Liszt intriguing and must address it in greater deatail

Alan Walker’s Liszt biography covers the major turning points in Liszt’s career: The Virtuoso Years (1811-1847), The Weimar Years (1848-1861) and The Final Years (1861-1886). These books feature an abundance of authoritative historical documents (letters from Liszt and those closest to him, facsimilies of autographed scores, and such) which serve to dispel many previously held notions of Franz Liszt (i.e., that he was an egotistical womanizer during his time as a concert pianist). Walker’s writing also suggests that he is very passionate about Liszt‘s life and staggering body of work.

This is not to say, however, that Walker’s biography of Franz Liszt is free of errors. Although the books attempt to be as accurate as possible, the information presented is rather archaic by contemporary standards (Walker published  this biography from 1989 to 1996.) Additionally, Walker’s books tend to display nepotism towards Liszt. As a consequence, Walkers demonizes several people associated with the Hungarian. Liszt’s first mistress, Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805-1876) and German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) suffer the wrath of Walker’s pen by being depicted as “enemies” and threats to Liszt’s musical career.

At several points in this biography, I encountered similar problems. First, the books contain many absolute statements about Liszt’s music that ignore  the achievements of other composers of the 20th century. When he discusses the importance of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor in Volume 2, for instance,Walker neglects to consider the fact that Russian pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) also composed a monumental single-movement piano sonata (five of them, actually, beginning in 1903)! Secondly, even though Walker cites the sources that he consulted, the citations appear in odd areas. This seems rather confusing because it seems like he is forcing readers to accept many his statements as true. Thirdly, whenever Walker mentions a particular Liszt score, he does not label the musical examples that he is talking about.

In summation, the Franz Liszt biographies by Alan Walker provide authoritative information. However, his somewhat one-sided view of the topic, coupled with the context in which he wrote the set, prevent his books frrom being truly accurate. Regardless, I applaud Walker for his decades of research and dedication to the history of Liszt. Interestingly enough, Walker released another book about Liszt in 2005 called, Reflections on Lisztin which he reexamined several questionable aspects of Liszt’s life.