So, farewell then, 80s icons

Some sad news from earlier this month.

Magenta Devine, presenter of Network 7 and Rough Guide, dies aged 61
In addition to her TV work she was appointed as a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 1998, heading a campaign for women’s equality and reproductive rights. In the 1990s she was treated for a heroin addiction and declared bankruptcy in 2003. In a 1996 interview with the Guardian, Devine was asked how she would like to be remembered, replying: “Brilliant, witty, clever, beautiful, generous, sexy, wise. Well, that’s what I’d like …”

Magenta Devine: an 80s TV icon of effortless style and substance
Certainly, the moral effect her shades had on her was impressive. Unlike later yoof TV presenters such as Amanda De Cadenet she was never exposed as poorly briefed, gormless or self-absorbed. I was interviewed by her myself while working for Melody Maker (for an item about George Michael) and was impressed by her methodical calmness and discreet, unflappable intelligence. This could have been Joan Bakewell. Whether reporting from the frontline of an acid house event, or presenting an informative item on Dublin in her Rough Guide series or calmly putting a typically blustery, snarky John Lydon in his place, she was the appropriate frontperson for a style of TV which, initially at least, sprang from a good countercultural place, genuinely wishing to inform rather than patronise young people.

Later, of course, Yoof TV mutated into the dismal The Word, a braying freakshow for the Friday night back-from-the-pub crowd. But Devine had largely disappeared from our screens by then. She was very much of the 80s, stylish, attractive but never an object of the sort of boorish, sexist attention of the laddish 90s. She was forgotten; now that she has gone, however, she should be remembered as a representative of a lost era of TV idealism, when style and substance went hand in glove.

I’d forgotten all about Network 7 and just how much I loved it.

Magenta Devine, TV presenter, dies aged 61
According to Guha, Devine was representative of the “yoof” TV genre, “a new kind of television that had attitude, irreverence and a commitment to telling it like it is”. “I knew she was ill, but her death is a body blow,” he went on. “I have lost a soul mate and a partner in adventure.”

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And news of another iconic sunglasses wearer from the 80s.

Mark Hollis, lead singer of Talk Talk, dies at age 64, reports say
Hollis’ influence has often been referenced by musicians, including Elbow’s Guy Garvey. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability,” he told Mojo. “To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me.”

Talk Talk – Life’s What You Make It

What a song, so deceptively simple. Here, writer and musician Tom Maxwell gets to grips with Mark’s later work.

Remembering Mark Hollis of Talk Talk
Songwriter and Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis died in late February. He was 64. I would love to say that I knew the man’s work beyond the 1984 synth-laden hit “It’s My Life,” but like many people, that was not the case. Knowing how much extraordinary music is available to audiophiles, as yet unheard, can be a concern as much as a comfort. It’s wonderful when a new star appears in your musical horizon, but how many are yet to be seen? Anyway, it’s doubly sad when an artist’s death is what leads you to marvelous art.

Making (a lot of) music

Kind of like a two-person one-man band?

Twenty instruments reconstructed to play through the keys of a vintage piano
We’ve all tinkered around on a keyboard that, when a button is pushed or settings tweaked, gives us a chance to play the sound of a flute or drum. When the Ukrainian band Brunettes Shoot Blondes purchased a vintage, albeit broken, grand piano they decided to recreate this concept in analog form. The group secured twenty instruments to the inside of the piano and its sides so they could effectively play each as they pressed certain keys.

Brunettes Shoot Blondes – Houston

I liked how they operated the cello and violins, and the flourish on the chimes was a nice touch. An earlier video of theirs is equally ingenious.

Brunettes Shoot Blondes – Knock Knock

Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.” […]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!

Listening with your whole body

A fascinating report on the new wearable technology allowing deaf concert goers to experience music in a brand new way.

New wearable tech lets users listen to live music through their skin
Back in September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience. […]

People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while wearing the kit.

Reading that reminded me of an incident when I was a university Deputy Registrar, helping to run the graduation ceremonies at York Minster, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. Before the ceremony was due to start, I was outlining the proceedings to one of our deaf students and her supporter — showing her the stage and the route across the nave and so on — when she suddenly turned to me with a look of extreme anxiety and confusion.

The organ had started to play. She couldn’t hear it, but she could certainly feel it. It was like an earthquake, she said.

It’s currently being refurbished, so this year’s ceremonies had to make do with a digital organ.

The once-a-century refurbishment
York Minster’s Grand Organ is currently undergoing a major, £2m refurbishment, the first on this scale since 1903.

The instrument, which dates back to the early 1830s, is being removed – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and will be taken to Durham for repair and refurbishment by organ specialists Harrison and Harrison.

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Over three weeks, a team of eight people from organ specialists Harrison and Harrison dismantled the instrument – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and transported it to their workshop in Durham for cleaning and repair works to be carried out. The pipes range in length from the size of a pencil to 10m long and the instrument overall is one of the largest in the country, weighing approximately 20,000kg.

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet – don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

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Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Mark Knopfler (possibly).

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

Strange moves

A couple of music videos that have caught my eye recently.

Little Big – Skibidi

No idea. Psy meets Begbie?

Loyle Carner – Ottolenghi

Here’s some more on the making of that.

Oscar Hudson reveals (some) of the secrets behind his video for Loyle Carner
Set on a train, which looks like a classic (unreliable) Southern or South Eastern network model from the seat pattern, Ottolenghi switches from VHS footage filmed by Ben (Loyle Carner) on a real train before switching to a set built in a studio. The beginnings of the video developed from a “super simple” idea of Ben’s: he would fall asleep on a real train journey, and then “start to dream a train journey,” Oscar explains. “I wanted to do something that ‘woozed’ back and forth between dream and reality where details from real life get amplified and warped in the dream.”

Sonic art in Taiwan

What can one do with a 10 metre high brutalist concrete speaker on a Taiwanese island that was used to blare out propaganda across the sea to China? Use it as the venue for “Sonic Territories”, of course.

Beishan Broadcast Wall: Taiwan’s eerie sonic weapon
It is the Beishan Broadcast Wall on one of Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, just 2km (1.2 miles) away from China’s Xiamen city. Built in 1967, the broadcast wall used to be a strategic military stronghold that played a key role in sonic warfare across the straits, blasting out anti-communist propaganda. Nearly three decades after the tower stopped functioning, a group of artists based in Berlin and Taiwan are turning the forgotten historical site into an experimental art stage that investigates the idea of ‘territories’ beyond the conventional definition.

Such a strange place. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like to live there during that time.

The interaction with the local people during the performance, however, can only faintly bridge the gap between young Taiwanese and history. “To me Kinmen is an insane place. We visit the islands as if they were a history museum or a cabinet of curiosity. People there still live in another era, and young Taiwanese cannot imagine how they felt living under the terror of dictatorship,” Chang says.

ArtAsiaPacific: Sonic Territories Performance Recap
Berlin-based French artist Augustin Maurs’ segment reflected on the opposition between sound and silence in relation to trauma. His sound piece, played via the wall of speakers, comprised incantations of statements about that duality—sound and silence—including a translated, Mandarin version of a gut-wrenching speech made in opposition to gun violence by 16-year-old Emma Gonzalez in the wake of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year. In explaining his work, Maurs told ArtAsiaPacific: “It is about silence and the act of choosing when to speak, even when one does not necessarily wish to do so.”

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Aural exhibition inspired by Kinmen’s Beishan Broadcast Wall bound for Berlin
Yang said instead of focusing on the pain caused by war, the exhibition emphasizes blessings, peace and the need to cloak the former battlefield with a sense of spiritual calm. It is also an attempt to heighten international awareness of Kinmen’s complicated history and the development of democracy in Taiwan, she added. […]

According to Yang, recordings of Kinmen residents detailing life on the island, as well as the sounds of the waves, wind and other signature aspects of the local soundscape, will take center stage at the Berlin leg of the exhibition. These are to be complemented by an atmospheric video capturing the visual contrast between Beishan and the nearby shoreline.

You can see that shoreline with Google Maps, as well as get a sense of the distances these broadcasts were originally travelling, across to China.

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Bei Shan Precipices

Or take a trip there to see for yourself.

Beishan Broadcasting Wall: Classic Kinmen Travel
Situated on the cliff on Beishan, the Broadcasting Wall was built to protect speakers in the broadcasting station, and has a square shape formed with 48 speakers. From the exterior, it looks like a hive, and the sound can travel as far as 25 kilometers… And is the only tourist site all over the country where visitors can announce and spread propaganda mimicking a psychological warfare.

Waiting for Tosca

We’re off to see Opera North’s Tosca in a few weeks. Can’t wait, it’s been getting some great reviews.

Tosca, Grand Theatre, Leeds, review: Drama to hit you in the gut – chiming with the demands of Puccini’s music
Post-Weinstein, and following revelations of world-wide corruption in the Catholic church, recent history has played into the hands of any director who wants to give Puccini’s Tosca topicality. Edward Dick and his team have eagerly grabbed this opportunity: their production for Opera North is both viscerally shocking in its violence, and queasily recognisable in its portrayal of the deal which power likes to make for sex.

Tosca review, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds: a brutal, thumping success
The closest opera has yet come to the world-view of the action movie, Tosca hits hard, below the belt.There is no subtlety to mine here (though I toy with a fancy that Tosca might secretly be quite excited by Scarpia’s sexual offer) and no time to waste: from the violent opening explosion to the heroine’s final defiant death leap, Puccini has no higher aim than that of gripping an audience by its vitals.

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Tosca review – contemporary take on Puccini is compelling and creepy
Edward Dick’s provocative, if quirky new production of Tosca for Opera North relocates Puccini’s political thriller from Rome during the Napoleonic wars to an unnamed present-day country in which church and state collude as forces of reaction. Dick is acutely aware that the opera maps on to the concerns of our own times – the printed programme contains photographs of a Five Star Movement rally in Rome and Donald Trump standing, head bowed, in front of a wooden cross. The staging alludes, too, both to the emergence of the new far right and the abusive sexuality that has resulted in #MeToo.

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Tosca, Opera North review – exciting update, strong on sonic thrills
Puccini’s Tosca isn’t a subtle work, and this, Opera North’s fourth production since the company’s founding in 1978, is occasionally too loud and crude. But it’s undeniably powerful. Edward Dick’s 2017 Hansel and Gretel left me a little nonplussed, but this Tosca is miles better, a colourful update which manages to juggle plenty of schlock with sound artistic nous. He’s helped by conductor Antony Hermus, making his Opera North debut and securing some terrific, full-throated orchestral playing, much of it at the upper end of the dynamic scale.

In preparation, I’ve been listening to this Callas recording — it’s all pretty thunderous stuff!

Puccini – Tosca (Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi – recording of the Century : Victor De Sabata)

The Opera North version is directed by Edward Dick, the guy behind the amazing Hansel and Gretel we saw last year.

Hansel and Gretel review – screen-savvy kids summon a Blair Witch fairytale
Bold video projections evoke an online forest where two youngsters find danger, in Opera North’s imaginative Engelbert Humperdinck revival.

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Bossy Bernstein

What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.

Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.

The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Gould/Bernstein – Bernstein’s Speech included

Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:

The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”

So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.

And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.

Glenn Gould’s U.S. Television Debut: Bernstein Conducting Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor

Brainy music

Music can affect us in different ways, but here are two I hadn’t considered before.

First, an article about Brain.fm and how it’s using AI to create music (or is it just sound?) designed to help you focus.

The science behind the ‘beats to study to’ craze
According to Woods, good focus music has no vocals, no strong melodies, ‘dark’ spectrum, dense texture, minimal salient events, heavy spatialization, a steady pulse, sub-30-200Hz modulation and above 10-20Hz modulation.

This is compared to an example of a more traditional approach to music that can help you work — the “lofi hip hop radio” playlist from YouTuber ChilledCow, described as “the type of tune you’d put on at a backyard barbecue: mellow beats with an analog flair.” When discussing Brain.fm, its ‘composer’ admits that:

All of his parameters for good focus music are understandably clinical. “These acoustic features I’ve been talking about, they’re things about sound, not things about music,” he admitted. “The world that musicians live in has key signatures, time signatures, major and minor keys. I haven’t been talking about that at all, but what this ‘lo-fi’ [channel] shows is those things can be enormously important.”

I think I know which I prefer, but it’s an interesting project nonetheless.

And for a completely different take on how music affects the brain, take a look at the artwork of Melissa McCracken. She has synesthesia and paints what she sees when she listens to music.

The artist who paints music
Basically, my brain is cross-wired. I experience the “wrong” sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful “brain malfunction” of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.

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It’s all absolutely gorgeous, and the video Kottke links to really gets across her passion and talent.

The Artist Who Paints What She Hears

Looks who’s back

Or maybe isn’t.

Yet more mysterious Aphex Twin-related artwork has popped up
Aphex often emerges briefly only to disappear back into the acid-lashed shadows, a ginger mystery, leaving little behind except a string of deeply weird, often brilliant records. We think he might be about to drop another one. Possibly. Maybe.

Now that’s what I used to call music

I was 11 in 1983. I’m now 46. A milestone has been reached.

Now That’s What I Call Music! just turned 100
Phil Collins’ cover of the The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the first song on the very first Now That’s What I Call Music!—or “Now,” as it’s popularly known—released in the UK in 1983. Yesterday (July 20), the 100th UK volume of the series was released; its first song is Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s electronic dance hit “One Kiss.” Listen to both tracks and you’ll see that we’ve come a very long way, baby.

As ever, the It’s Nice That team has a great take on it.

Now That’s What I Call an oddly important document of British visual culture: Now releases its 100th CD
As objects, and as ideas, the Nows that litter charity shops and the glove compartments of seen-better-days people carriers up and down the country are primarily functional. End-of and mid-year money savers, they are cheap and cheerful. And they look it, too.

The series is an interesting record of the shifting musical tastes of our young people (including me, once upon a time), but it’s visually important too.

You’ll notice that after rather anodyne first and second editions, the team decided to inject a bit of personality into proceedings. Which, for Now’s three, four, and five they did with a pig. In sunglasses. This, for reasons that are probably best left kept in the matte black confines of a mid-80s record label HQ, was the big idea. This was how they were going to sell yet another chart compilation to the nation. With a pig in sunglasses.

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I’d forgotten all about that pig! Needless to say, it didn’t stick around, and before long the cover we all know and love appeared. And stayed.

Like the Little Chef logo or the Nike swoosh, the solid sameness of Now provides a moment of calm in an epoch marked by hysterical atomisation. You’ll probably never buy another Now compilation again — because why would you —but that isn’t the point. Like cockroaches at Armageddon, Now will always sit there on supermarket shelves.

I, for one, am glad of that. Buying and listening to music these days is getting far too complicated.

How spammers, superstars, and tech giants gamed music
On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist.

Abstract expressionist music for your walls

I’ve always had a soft spot for it, but it could be said that listening to ambient music is like watching paint dry, so perhaps Brian Eno’s latest collaboration fits quite well.

Graham & Brown launches wallpaper collection with Brian Eno
British wallpaper manufacturer Graham & Brown enlisted one of the most iconic figures in music to lend his creative magic to a collection of wallpaper that recently launched in the US. Brian Eno, a ridiculously prolific founding member of Roxy Music and frequent collaborator of artists like David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and more, has always dabbled in other mediums so it’s really no surprise he’s landed in the wallpaper arena.

[…]

“I think of wallpaper as ambient painting – an area of interior design that changes the atmosphere in a room. I really responded to classic floral designs and also those with West African roots from Graham & Brown’s archive, resulting in a dynamic layering of pattern to create the collection – a kind of music to be played on walls.”

Let the violins sing

Research, which I don’t pretend to fully understand, has been undertaken on why the violins made by the Italian masters are so good.

Acoustic evolution of old Italian violins from Amati to Stradivari
The unique formant properties displayed by Stradivari violins may represent the acoustic correlate of their distinctive brilliance perceived by musicians. Our data demonstrate that the pioneering designs of Cremonese violins exhibit voice-like qualities in their acoustic output.

Thankfully, a few websites picked this story up and explained it for the rest of us.

Scientists find secret behind sweet sound of Stradivarius violins
The instruments achieve their sweetness and brilliance by mimicking aspects of the human voice, study says.

The world’s best violins sing like humans
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that not only do great violins sing like humans, those built by different makers may remind us of different types of human voices.

[…]

“Although we did not perform any psychological experiments in this study, I speculate that the similarity between violins and voices can explain why violins are so popular,” Tai concludes. In other words, we may not yet understand quite how these instruments do what they do. But maybe we like them because when they do it, they sound like us.

It’s not the first time science has tried to understand what makes these instruments so special.

The brilliance of a Stradivari violin might rest within its wood
Why nobody has been able to replicate that sound remains one of the most enduring mysteries of instrument building. A new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that answers may lie in the wood: Mineral treatments, followed by centuries of aging and transformation from playing, might give these instruments unique tonal qualities.

Violin-fiddling boffins learn that ‘f-holes’ are secret to Stradivarius’ superior sound
Although each violin maker inarguably possessed a good ear – in order to recognise and replicate the violins that sounded best – whether or not they recognised the particular design elements that contribute to a more powerful sound is still up for debate. In other words, the violinmakers knew what was a better instrument to replicate but they didn’t necessarily know that its slender holes were what made the sound it produced tonally pleasing.

Too many organ donors

Atlas Obscura takes us to Windham County, Vermont, to a local history museum with an unusual stock problem.

The Vermont town that has way too many organs
In its heyday, the Estey Organ Company factory was the beating, bleating heart of Brattleboro, Vermont. It produced more than half a million organs in total and, at its peak, employed more than 500 people. On a fateful day in 1960, however, the assembly lines shut down and workers departed. After nearly a century in operation, the organ factory had gone silent.

And then, like the most improbable boomerangs, the organs started coming back.

Keen to preserve some of the town’s heritage, people started donating their unwanted organs back to Brattleboro, to the town’s historical society. Soon they had enough to open a dedicated organ museum, based in the old factory, but still the organs kept coming.

“In a way, it’s my fault that we have all these organs,” says George. She was generous with the old factory space, which at first provided ample room. But after years of accepting any and all organ donations, many of the buildings began to fill up. It was a unique predicament for any local society. What do you do with hundreds of antique, mostly unplayable organs?

Organs are such strange instruments. You wouldn’t describe a violin as a machine, as such, but that term seems to fit some of these examples.

too-many-organ-donors-2

They came in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and uses, from children’s toys, to living-room centerpieces, to the crown jewels of community churches and theaters. Some of the organs were designed to fold up into little suitcases and could be taken anywhere. The historical society has photos of chaplains playing portable Estey reed organs in World War II, and the society boasts that their organs have pumped out tunes on six of the world’s continents (poor Antarctica).

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

[…]

It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

Very different approaches to movie music

I mentioned the upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic earlier. Whilst his Broadway musical, West Side Story, was quickly turned into a film, I don’t really think of him as a movie composer.

Here are a couple of articles about composing music for the movies.

How the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey came to be
When he was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production. He would watch the rushes and listen to music. In fact, one of the key catalysts was, when the MGM [head] brass flew in from LA and from New York, Tony Frewin [Kubrick’s assistant on the film], who was 19 years old, the week before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, “Tony, get petty cash. Get this much money and go buy all the classical music you can find downtown.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a reflection on how the composer hears the world
This sort of spontaneous fluidity is what has driven most of the composer’s work throughout his decades-long career. In the film, we see his restless creative energy at work, as he edits and adds to tracks while sitting on an exercise ball in his home studio. He improvises on a track playing in the background by running a violin bow across a hi-hat cymbal to unnerving effect. He listens to his environment with a playful curiosity, endlessly experimenting with whatever he can find

Leonard Bernstein at the movies

There’s going to be a film made about the incredible Leonard Bernstein.

Cannes: Jake Gyllenhaal to Play Leonard Bernstein in ‘The American’
“Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through ‘West Side Story’ when I was a kid,” said Gyllenhaal. “But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure—full of genius and contradiction—and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story with a talent and friend like Cary.”

This article from Film School Rejects places this news in the context of other biopics, and thinks the announced intention of telling the story in five parts, like movements of a symphony, will be help the film stand out.

Jake Gyllenhaal to star in a Leonard Bernstein biopic with a twist
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is far from an expected period drama about a controversial historical figure. Instead, it unabashedly mashes up the past and present in a cheekily vibrant portrait of a young woman. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just “the Facebook movie,” it is an unsettling case study that’s far more concerned about building up the enigma of Mark Zuckerberg than breaking him down into bite-size pieces for easy consumption. The fact that Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted animated feature film is a stunning achievement, literally combining the medium of film with Vincent van Gogh’s own legacy as a painter to stellar results.

And it ends with this intriguing paragraph.

In the tradition of dueling biopics, this news recalls theories that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake is in fact itself an unconventional biopic about Bernstein — deduced from the fact that Spielberg also held a table reading for a Bernstein biopic at the same time he’s searching for his West Side Story cast. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich has mentioned the idea on the Fighting in the War Room podcast, while Collider’s Matt Goldberg surmised that the filmmaker may just do a Bernstein film first or instead of the musical. Either way, we’re getting an extra dose of the famed composer’s work.

We can only hope the film contains half as much energy as in this performance of one of his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Gustavo Dudamel – West Side Story – Mambo – Bernstein

And here’s another favourite of mine, Candide, this recording from 1960.

Bernstein Conducts Overture to Candide, New York Philharmonic

Philip Glass on giving up the day job

Jason Kottke found some great articles on how Philip Glass supported his early career, including this one from The Guardian.

When less means more
Throughout this period, Glass supported himself as a New York cabbie and as a plumber, occupations that often led to unusual encounters. “I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo,” he says. “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

That reminded me of this post, about how it pays to be pragmatic sometimes.

A different kind of classical music #2

The extraordinary physical and mental demands of performing Sichuan opera
With origins deep in southern China’s folk storytelling and music customs, Sichuan opera is characterised by traditional instrumentation, a distinctive singing style, elaborate, colourful costumes, changing masks that reflect characters’ emotional states, and daring stunts including martial arts, acrobatics and fire-breathing.

Another video from Noah Sheldon, who made that documentary about the styrofoam collector from Shanghai. Other people’s lives can be extraordinary, can’t they?

See also this post about Indian classical music.