http://i49.tinypic.com/1y71ck_th.jpgA good deal of what I have written here is related (sometimes only tangentially) to serious music. A few posts about interesting but not well-known musicians or composers are accompanied by live broadcast recordings, with download links in the comments. (If there is a problem with a link, or if you need to contact me for some other reason, you can email me at boomboomsky at gmail dot com. )
There are no commercial recordings on this blog.
A word of warning: Occasionally I use strong language in referring to various arrogant and incompetent assholes who managed to get on my nerves. Or simply because it gets a point across with greater directness and transparency. If you are squeamish about strong language, then stay away from this blog.

May 30, 2011

Is there a lo-fi gene in every musician's DNA?

<br/><a href="http://oi51.tinypic.com/2ziyh3d.jpg" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>

Over the years I've come to know a few professional musicians, and not one of them (including those making really good money as studio musicians in Hollywood) owned anything like a decent sound system.   In most cases their sound reproduction preferences were downright indecent.  One listened to recorded music only on his (standard) Toyota car stereo.  Another was quite happy with a boombox in a distant corner of the living room (partially obscured by heavy furniture).  Still another was fully satisfied with a tiny clock-radio-cum-CD-player in the bedroom.  And these are the better cases!  Toward the bottom of the scale there was a musician who listened to recorded music in the form of fuzzy Youtube streams, using giveaway airline headphones.  And then there was a fellow who simply never listened to music at all (recorded or otherwise) unless he was performing, rehearsing, or practicing.
      I should note that this group is well distributed across different instruments (piano, strings, woodwinds, brass), forms of employment (symphony orchestras, Hollywood studios, private and college teaching), age groups (from the late 20s to the mid-50s), and levels of musical talent (from the average to the prodigious).  Moreover, these musicians were acutely aware of sound quality when it came to their instruments.  They could go on for hours discussing the sonic characteristics of strings, bows, reeds, and valves.  And choosing the right-sounding instrument seemed to be far more torturous for them than choosing a house live in or a person to marry.
     
These observations bring me to the fundamental question which lies at the heart of every intellectual inquiry:

What the fuck is going on here?  

Alas, I have no answers, only speculations.  Here are some of them:

1.  Musicians have little interest in listening to recorded music for the same reason that gynecologists have little interest in looking at the photo spreads in Hustler magazine.  People don't like to bring their work home.

2.  For musicians the difference between lo-fi and hi-fi playback equipment is insignificant because all recorded music sounds "lo-fi" compared to actual performances.  (Celibidache is said to have compared listening to recorded music to fornicating with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot.)

3.  When listening to recorded music, musicians automatically use their refined aural memory of instrumental timbres to compensate for sonic shortcomings of any recording or playback equipment.  (Some, admittedly not many, can "listen" to music by reading scores!)

Then again, perhaps the musicians of my acquaintance were a statistically weird group.  For example, they were all men.  So I have no idea if women musicians are heavily into Krell amplifiers and Apogee electrostatic speakers.   Then there is the geographical bias, in that (with one exception) I met all these musicians while living in California.  So again, I don't know if musicians in Boston or Philadelphia routinely mortgage their Bergonzi violins and Guarneri cellos to buy the latest tube preamplifier from Audio Research.....

May 25, 2011

WEBERN: Five Pieces Op.5; Six Bagatelles Op.9; Three Little Pieces Op.11



ANTON WEBERN

Five Pieces for String Quartet, Op.5
Brian Lee, Rachel Lee (violins)
Avane Kozasa (viola), Jonathan Dormand (cello)

Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op.9
Ariel String Quartet
http://www.arielquartet.com

Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op.11

VII.11.2010 (Op.5), VII.6.2007 (Op.9)
Bennett-Gordon Hall
Ravinia Festival

VI.11.2008 (op.11)
2008 Naumburg Foundation International Violoncello Competition
Miller Recital Hall
Manhattan School of Music

256 kbs mp3 (no transcoding)

As far as commercial recordings go (which isn't very far), the LaSalle Quartet's DG recordings of Webern (along with Schoenberg and Berg) are the best I know.  Still, like all commercial recordings, what they offer is temporally organized sounds which bear no significant relation to the reality of actual music-making.  And when the notes are not illuminated by the beads of sweat glistening on the musician's forehead, my listening experience lacks an important (if subtle) emotional dimension, which makes it vaguely analogous to the Capgras syndrome: a perceptual experience accompanied by a faint yet persistent feeling that something very dear and familiar to me has been replaced by a seemingly identical fake.

Fortunately, Webern's hyper-cerebral music also can be experienced through the above excellently played, superbly recorded, live and unedited performances, in which the human element of actual music-making - a real-time, face to face communication between musicians and the audience - amplifies immeasurably the aesthetic impact of Webern's otherworldly musical imagination.  I say "immeasurably" because the silences in Webern's music are not  the fucking digital vacuum silences of commercial recordings (indistinguishable from zero-content pauses between CD tracks).  Webern's silences should have their own sound, and it is the collective holding of breath in the concert hall that produces this "sound of silence", thrillingly audible in well-engineered live recordings.

May 11, 2011

Mother Russia in a snapshot

http://oi56.tinypic.com/m9r51z.jpg

I can't think of a more concise way to capture the innermost essence of Soviet Russia than the above image: bleak, dilapidated, oppressive, yet thoroughly deluded in thinking that having lots of rusty military hardware is sufficient for being a great nation.

May 10, 2011

LIVE FROM RAVINIA FESTIVAL: Franck Violin Sonata & Schubert "Arpeggione" Sonata


C. FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A major
Tessa Lark, violin
(Artist info: http://www.gospelbluegrass.com/violinium/)
Ron Regev, piano
(Artist info: http://www.ronregev.com/)

SCHUBERT:  Sonata "Arpeggione" D.821
Yura Lee, viola
(Artist info: http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/artist-detail.cfm?id=1836 )
Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano
(Artist info: http://www.ievajokubaviciute.com )
VII.8.2007 (Franck)
VII.20.2008 (Schubert)
Bennett-Gordon Hall
Ravinia Festival

256 kbs mp3 (no transcoding)

The so-called rising stars who perform at Ravinia Festival's Steans Institute Concerts are simply excellent young musicians, many of whom will never rise to the level at which they will make secure and comfortable living from concertizing alone.  Such melancholy prospects, however, in no way detract from the quality of their music-making, which is almost always superb, and occasionally no less than stellar.  The two live and unedited performances above belong to the latter category, and so does the quality of recorded sound (astoundingly realistic and natural even by the uniformly high standards of recordings made in the gorgeous acoustics of Bennett-Gordon Hall).

Call me a philistine, but I simply cannot endure the whiny, nasal, wobbly vibrato-laden violin tone favored by "great masters" of the past.  Much as I admire the piano part of the Franck sonata in the hands of Cortot, Casadesus or Richter, the playing of Thibaud, Francescatti or Oistrakh strikes me as an aural equivalent of waterboarding.  (The fact that in the "classic" recordings the violin is almost touching the microphone only makes things worse.)  If you decide to check out the above performance, you will hear why I was so overwhelmed by Tessa Lark's playing - passionate yet beautifully controlled, with impeccable intonation, and with tone that opens up in fortes without losing any of its warmth and focus.  I was even more impressed by Ron Regev's handling of the piano part.  His playing combines a warm, golden tone with tremendous authority of phrasing and unimpeachable technical security - the effect of which I find irresistible.  (I have several other chamber music recordings with Regev in which his playing is just as impressive.)

As for the Schubert sonata, I finally got my chance to throw away Bashmet's studio recordings (RCA).  I think the world of Bashmet as a violist and musician, but his studio recordings are hideous.  The viola image is as big as a city bus, and it looms over the piano image that is as wide as a two-car garage, with both "instruments" producing disembodied sounds in the acoustic ambience as dead as interstellar vacuum.  (And Mikhail Muntyan's pianism is boringly two-dimensional to boot.)  
     In the above recording, on the other hand, Yura Lee's tone is gorgeous, her intonation is impeccable, her phrasing has all the warmth and lyricism that the music calls for - and all this comes from a single concert performance rather than from multiple "takes", separated by days (or weeks, or months) and peppered by inner edits here and there.  And when towards the very end of the sonata Schubert finally gives the piano a few bars of its own, Ieva Jokubaviciute sings like few pianists can, making those few bars alone worth the price of admission for piano buffs like myself.