Sunday, January 29, 2012

Repost: "I Hate World Music" by David Byrne

Thanks to Laney Widener for posting this really great piece by David Byrne:

"In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life. It's a way of relegating this 'thing' into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that's why I hate the term."

Read his full essay here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Levin's Requiem

In honor of Mozart's birthday, I want to offer a few words about a very special recording of his Requiem in D Minor, a recording which also happens to pose some really interesting questions relating to artistic integrity. Here I paraphrase the liner notes from that recording:

Mozart's Requiem (K. 626) is a milestone of 18th Century choral music, and is one of the most celebrating pieces of all time. Adding to the intrigue surrounding the piece, is the fact that Mozart died before it was completed. His wife Constanze hired the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr to complete the work, and make it performable. Given the enormity of this task, Süssmayr, a minor composer, exceeded expectations, and his score remains the most performed version of the piece today. There is debate within the scholarly community about authorship, with some insisting that the sections attributed to Süssmayr far exceed his compositional ability, while others point to the fact that his sections contain minor compositional errors (parallel fifths, and things of that sort) that are simply not found in Mozart's output. Whatever Süssmayr's real contributions were, he is a major figure in the Requiem's history, and his work is an essential element of the piece's performance history.

Fast forward to the late 20th Century. Some musicologists have decided to revisit the score and correct the (albeit minor) problems that are found in it. Now this is considered to be a controversial notion. Some would ask if it is really defensible to tinker with a work that has stood the test of time, and is rightly considered a masterpiece. Furthermore, is it possible for modern ears to have any say in how this work "should sound," or are we far too removed from its original context? There have been several approaches, each with its own unique features. A layer of intrigue was added when, in 1962, a fragment of music from an Amen fugue was discovered, leading historians to believe it originally belonged as part of the Requiem, but no one is completely sure.

The musicologist Richard Maunder put forward a completion which omitted anything not thought to be written by Mozart, therefore eliminating two entire movements from the piece, but adding the Amen fugue. This seems like an extreme approach, first, because it is impossible to know exactly what was sketched out by Mozart himself, and also because it results in the exclusion of some very good music.

Duncan Druce takes an equally radical approach, but instead rewrites rather than eliminates the Süssmayr sections. Like Maunder, he adds the Amen fugue. This product, in some places, sounds quite far-removed from the original score. The Lacrimosa movement in particular is difficult to recognize in its new form. This is surely problematic. The Lacrimosa movement, even if not entirely written by Mozart is an iconic section that is strongly identified with the composer (even being used in the burial scene in the movie Amadeus, for example). Turning this movement on its head is a questionable choice.

Robert D. Levin's answer lands somewhere in the middle, using the Amen fugue like the others, but still addressing the project conservatively with the great care it deserves. He writes:

"The completion heard here seeks to respect both of the tendencies of the newer versions. On the one hand the compositional problems of the Lacrimosa and the Amen fugue, and the movements surviving only in Süssmayr's hand have not been overlooked out of blind piety before their 200-year-old origin. On the other hand, the historical and performance tradition of the Requiem demands respect. A clearly drawn line of separation, in which everything except the contents of Mozart's autograph draft was to be considered spurious per se, was explicitly rejected. Quite the contrary: the goal was to revise not as much, but as little as possible, attempting in the revisions to observe the character, texture, voice leading, continuity and structure of Mozart's music. I have retained the traditional version insofar as it agrees with idiomatic Mozartean practice."

I personally find Levin's approach the most convincing from a philosophical standpoint, but more importantly, the music itself sounds convincing. You might say it takes a certain amount of hubris to attempt to improve on a masterpiece. This is certainly true, so then I would say a little hubris can be healthy for artistic advancement. If we never tried new things or reinterpreted old things, we would not be where we are today. Part of what makes Mozart's Requiem so great is its mystery. If we could solve all the unanswered questions, perhaps we would not enjoy the work as much as we do today. Debate and discussion is half the fun.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Sounds Weird Now?

In music we currently subdivide the octave into 12 equal tones, a system known as Equal Temperament (or Equal Temperament 12 to be more precise). This system sounds natural to us because it resembles the perfect ratios we want to hear from music. For examples, a ratio of 3:2 represents a perfect fifth (a C note to a G note). A ratio of 4:3 represents a perfect fourth (a C note to an F note). These perfect ratios sound consonant to the ears. Equal Temperament 12 does not match these ratios exactly. If it did, we would not be able to easily play music in every key. A tradeoff is required, and Equal Temperament 12 is generally considered to be the best system for being able to play in all keys, while still coming close to the perfect ratios we enjoy.

It is possible to divide the octave in other ways too. Consider Equal Temperament 15. It is the same principle, the only thing that changes is the number.
Listen to this composition by Jonathan Rabson that I found on Youtube:

Of course, it sounds pretty weird. But think about what it would be like if we only heard Equal Temperament 15 our whole lives, and then someone played in Equal Temperament 12? How would that be? I actually don't know the answer to this question. On one hand, Equal Temperament 15 is further away from the perfect ratios that humans seem to enjoy. However, if we had no context for Equal Temperament 12, I'm not convinced we would necessary be naturally drawn to it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Musical Dishonesty

Is it dishonest to concoct a musical recording that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a live performance?

Ever since tape was invented, people have been using it to create new sonic textures, and many times these recordings represent sounds that cannot be heard in real life. The ability to record musical performances is, of course, one of the greatest breakthroughs in all of history. A similarly important but often overlooked breakthrough, however, is the ability to "record" sounds that never existed in the first place. Take this early example of tape music, a piece called "Etude aux chemins de fer" composed in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer. I have linked to Youtube:

Pieces like this are forgotten milestones. How would one describe these sounds? The fact of the matter is that I can't describe, but this recording is unquestionably musical all the same.

Of course, experimentation of this sort is not without its detractors. Miles Davis made innovative use of studio technology on his 1970 album "Bitches Brew." The album contains multiple edits and uses sound effects such as tape loops and delay, previously unheard of in the jazz world. Some critics found these effects to run contrary to the spirit of jazz because they did not represent the spontaneity of the group, but rather resembled something constructed in a laboratory. Which side do you fall on?

Now with digital technology, there is no limit to the number of distinct sounds that can be created. We are no longer confined to the standard instruments we have become so accustomed to. Technology is a way for music to be advanced, and it is not something that needs to be resisted.

So all of this makes one wonder if our understanding of the word "recording" is starting to blow up in our faces. Certainly making a CD of a live performance is a recording in the conventional sense. But what if the recording itself is the performance, like "Etude aux chemins de fer"? Better yet, what if you meet somewhere in the middle, like "Bitches Brew" does? Indeed one of the biggest issues artists have to grapple with in the 21st century is the blurring of these lines. With innovations such as auto-tune we can no longer be sure if what we're hearing is the "real thing," and this is frustrating for many people. While I certainly don't advocate for the use of auto-tune to correct one's poor singing, generally speaking it does not offend me if we mix the "real" sounds with the "fake" ones. What is music except the sounds the we order? Does is matter how we choose to order them?

This leads to my initial question. Is it dishonest to concoct a musical recording that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a live performance? This is, of course, a contradiction. Any recording can be replicated in a live performance. All you have to do is press play, and listen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Why the Red Hot Chili Peppers Need a New Mastering Engineer

This has been written about many times before, but I have decided I want to add my own sarcastic remarks (if only because this issue is so damn irritating!).

Mastering is the final stage in the production process. The mastering engineer is charged with several things, including adjusting the overal equalization of the mix, determining fades and spaces between tracks, and adjusting the sound levels of the mixes so that playback over the entire disc is relatively consistent. Since the 1990s, it has become the trend in the music industry to master albums in such a way that they play back as loudly as possible. This is often paired with compression, which is the process of making quiet parts relatively louder, so that there is less of a dynamic range. These are technically separate issues, but both are starting to have a deleterious effect on the quality of recorded popular music (classical and jazz do not yet seeme to have this problem, thankfully). Have you ever turned up a speaker so loud that it starts to crackle from being maxed out? Some rather treacherous mastering engineers have been applying this same principle to a significant number of commercial recordings. The difference is that instead of the playback equipment being maxed out (as in the cranked speaker example), the audio files themselves are maxed out. So no amount of turning the volume down can restore the sound to its proper fidelity.

The poster child for this phenomenom is the Red Hot Chili Peppers album "Californication." The album's high volume no doubt helped it stand out when it was heard over the radio, where sound quality was poor to begin with. Indeed, this is the only reason I can think of to make an album this loud.

Look at the waveform for "Parallel Univserse" from "Californication." It's generally not a good sign when your waveform looks like a solid blue bar. This recording lacks what is called "headroom," which is the space that exists between the top of the waves, and the threshold for maximum loudness.

If you zoom in, you can see that the sound waves are clipped at the top. Important sound information is lost because of this. The waves are not able to form in the natural way, and playback distorted.

Compare that with "Time" from the 30th Anniversary Edition of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" where there is plenty of headroom, and there are no problems with sound waves being cut off at the top.

Clearly Pink Floyd wins the battle for taste (well honestly, what else do you expect?). The Chili Peppers are clearly off the charts, and not in a good way. Ironically enough, I've seem some reviews of the the remastered "Dark Side of the Moon" complain that it is too compressed when compared to the original. I guess back then they actually cared how things sounded. What a novel idea...

There seems to be a perception from many producers and fans that louder recordings are more professional or crisp. Really, the opposite is true. Many recordings sound professional in spite of their excessive loudness, not because of it. Independent musicians may not have access to the same sorts of resources as a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but at least we don't go around saying that our music is awesome because it plays back louder than yours (which, by the way, it usually doesn't).

Maybe this year we can convince Warner Bros. Records to release a new unmastered Thirteenth Anniversary Edition and get the current piece of crap off the market. I was at a party with some of my sister's friends, and one of them talked about how he got "Californication" on vinyl, fulling acknowledging that it was a rather self-defeating exercise. "It's really not a very high-quality recording," is what I remember him saying. I enjoy his sense of humor. Of course, the recording itself is fine as far as I can tell. It's what they did after the fact that's the problem. "Californication" is not the only album that suffers from the Loudness War, but it is one of the earliest and most egregious casualties. Others examples that come to mind include Metallica's "Death Magnetic," Oasis's "What's the Story Morning Glory?," the Mars Volta's "De-Loused in the Comatorium" and pretty much every album by System of a Down. The "Death Magnetic" situation is rather funny, in an unfortunate sort of way. From Wikipedia:

Fans have noted that these sonic problems are not present in the Guitar Hero version of the album, where the tracks are present separately because of the game mechanics and the tracks were sent to the game publishers before the process was made...

...On September 15, 2008, after a reviewer for Swedish daily Sydsvenskan admitted that he preferred the Guitar Hero mixes of Death Magnetic to the official release, a scheduled interview was duly cancelled by Universal Music Sweden. Its president, Per Sundin said:

"The reviewer is referring to a BitTorrent where someone has altered the original songs. The reviewer explains exactly where one should go in order to download the file that totally infringes on a copyright. It's not only an illegal file, but an altered file. The reviewer also writes that this is how the album should have sounded. File-sharing of music is illegal. Period. There's nothing to discuss. That fact – that Sydsvenskan has a writer that has downloaded this music illegally and then makes mention of an illegal site in his review – is totally unacceptable to us."

Given that it is Metallica, after all, this reaction doesn't surprise me. But I would have liked the issue to have been addressed at least on some level. In any case, you know you have a problem when the Wikipedia entry about your album has a separate section for "Sound Quality Issues."

Of course, by singling out the aforementioned albums for their poor mastering jobs, I do not mean to imply in any way that they are musically deficient. Quite the opposite, in fact, and that is the real tragedy.