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Gustav Mahler 1860-1911

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MA047.jpgThis day 100 years ago, on May 18th, 1911, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler died at age 50 of heart disease.

During his lifetime, Mahler was both famous and infamous as one of the most meticulous and demanding conductors of his time; when he received the prestigious post as musical director of the Vienna Opera house in 1897, he set about to turn it into one of the leading opera houses in the world; in fact, much of the reputation it has today still goes back to Mahler. His performances of Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven's Fidelio were considered revolutionary at the time. When an anti-Semitic press campaign (Mahler was born a Jew, but converted to Catholicism early on) led to his resignation in 1907, Mahler took on posts at the Met and with the New York Philharmonic.

As a composer, Mahler continued the symphonic tradition of Brahms and Bruckner, paving the way for the musical modernism of Shostakovich, Webern, or Schönberg. However, during his lifetime his symphonies were met with little acclaim, and after his death they all but disappeared from the repertoire, until their grandeur was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today, his symphonies are considered milestones of early 20th century music.

Something of an interesting sidenote, which I noticed some time back, is that Mahler's symphonic music also seems to have had quite an influence on film scores. Take for example the opening to his first symphony, which seems rather close to the original "Star Trek" theme. Or the beginning of the sixth symphony, which appears to have been an inspiration to the "Star Wars" Darth Vader theme. And there's this section, also from the sixth, which a friend of mine noticed was uncannily similar to the "Indiana Jones" theme.

Whether the influence is actually true or merely imagined, there is no doubt that Mahler's expansive soundscapes with their intense emotionality have inspired countless composers and listeners since his death and that he remains one of the most important composers of the 20th century.

Recommended listening:

Song clusters

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A team of scientists tried to figure out if the perception that certain countries vote for each other at the Eurovision Song Contest is actually true. They fed all available voting data into a computer, and it turned out that there are indeed six clusters of countries with similar musical tastes or other kinds of allegiances.

The results also proved once and for all what we always kind of suspected: that Austria is really located in the Balkans.

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Full circle

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gramophone-phone.jpgI couldn't help but notice that in the history of recorded sound, we seem to have come full circle.

About 100 years ago, there was the gramophone, which was revolutionary in that it could reproduce sound, but which wasn't fully convincing in terms of sound quality. Thanks to advances in technology, electricity and electronic amplification, the technology evolved towards high fidelity sound, a reproduction as close to the original performance as possible.

Then, briefly after the turn of the century, digital sound formats and compression were used to fit the music on portable players. Hi-fi enthusiasts complained about the poorer sound quality, while most people, as studies have shown, actually prefer the poorer sound of MP3 to a more natural sound, apparently because it requires less processing power in the listener's brain.

The rise of YouTube and other online streaming platforms on the Internet as young people's preferred source for music, despite the fact that their sound quality is significantly poorer than MP3s, seems to indicate that sound quality indeed does not matter to most listeners.

However, the step down from hi-fi to MP3 to heavily compressed streaming audio is a small one considering how most youngsters seem to prefer to listen to this kind of music: over the external speaker of their mobile phone. The sound coming from these tiny speakers is remarkably similar to the squeaky noise that came out of gramophones 100 years ago. It seems that we're back where we started, at the minimum requirements for recorded sound.

Blödes Orchester

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Using over 200 electric kitchen appliances, the German artist and composer Michael Petermann has built a symphonic orchestra of sorts (the name means "stupid orchestra" due to the "musicians'" limited abilities), which is currently on display at the MKG Hamburg.

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The orchestra consists largely of design classics built between 1912 and 1975, including the Braun Aromaster, a coal-fuelled Miele washing machine from 1955, Sixtant razors from three decades and Goertz's famous Starmix mixers, all of which Petermann bought at flea markets and through ebay. For the exhibition, Petermann composed a 30-minute piece, which is relayed to the appliances through a midi interface. The result is a unique and very humourous  sonic experience, a 3-minute excerpt of which can be seen here:


Here's an interview with the composer (in German):


On display at the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe until 30 April 2011.

Further information on the artist's website.

Duet with Udo

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Last night I dreamed that I sang a duet with Udo Jürgens, of all people. It was like in those 1960s movies, when two actors walk around in the countryside, singing songs. We sang an anti-Capitalist fight song that I had written. The melody was so incredibly catchy that it was still stuck in my head for hours after I woke up. At one point, I was briefly angry at Udo because as we sang along, he suddenly changed a line of text into something that seemed incredibly clichéd to me. It was one of the weirdest dreams that I ever had.

Journey to Obscurity

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363315.jpgEven though almost everyone has probably heard him play at some point, Emil Richards is still one of the more obscure musicians in jazz history. In fact, Richards contributed to some of the best-known TV soundtracks. The xylophone in The Simpsons theme, the finger snaps in the Addams Family theme, the bongos on the original Mission Impossible theme -- all of them were played by Richards, who, incidentally, is also the person who played the bells on Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair". Despite his extensive involvement in over 2000 movie and TV soundtracks, Richards' career as a jazz musicians never really took off. After a stint in Don Ellis' Hindustani Jazz Sextet, Ed Michel, then both a record producer and A&R man at Impulse! Records signed Richards for a 2-record deal. Both albums flopped.

481832.jpgThe story goes that massive amounts of marijuana were consumed at Impulse! sessions at the time, both by the musicians and the staff, and that the surprisingly large number of psychedelic jazz records released by the label and signing of obscure artists in the late 1960s is largely due to everybody's drug intake. That would, however, be an unfair judgement.

Even though Richards was one of these obscure artists, his catalogue of recorded work qualified him well enough as a session leader, and even though side B of Journey to Bliss, his first Impulse! release, is full of weird sounds and esoteric chanting, side A is bona fide marimba madness in the best jazz tradition.

His second album for Impulse!, Spirit of 1976 (released in 1969) is a recording of a live performance consisting of original compositions as well as jazz standards, and there is nothing remotely psychedelic or esoteric about them. Quite on the contrary, it's a record full of infectious music with an incredible groove. A version of Miles Davis' "All Blues" also shows remarkable atmospheric density.

Emil Richards recorded with Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, The Beach Boys, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Marvin Gaye, George Harrison and many others and owns a collection of more than 770 percussion instruments.

Richards' two Impulse! albums were never reissued on CD.

A madman singing Indonesian versions of William Blake

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Arrington de Dionyso is an American multi-instrumentalist who plays the guitar and the bass clarinet, does Tuvan throat singing and generally sings with the intensity of a madman. On his latest album Malaikat dan singa his singing sounds particularly demented because for some obscure reason he chose to sing in Indonesian; the lyrics are adapted and translated lines from poems by William Blake. Not that you would understand a single one of them unless you are Indonesian.

Accompanied by the brute drumming of Karl Blau, de Dionyso churns out 11 songs that may be among the rawest and meatiest music released this year. The combination of distorted guitar, bass clarinet and throat singing does have an impact that goes well beyond the obvious novel factor; not only is it direct, intense and full of urgency, some of the songs have surprisingly addictive grooves. Even if you don't know what he's singing (or perhaps precisely because you don't know), you get the impression of a possessed man spewing out the fundamentals of human existence. The last track, 13 minutes in a more meditative mood, comes as something of a relief. This album is quite something.

Random album covers

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Last week, I came across a meme that I found instantly compelling. It's called something like "Random album covers", and the concept is simple enough:

1 - Go to Wikipedia. Hit "random" or click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Random The first random Wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2 - Go to Quotations Page and select "random quotations" or click http://www.quotationspage.com/random.php3 The last four or five words of the very last quote on the page is the title of your first album.

3 - Go to Flickr and click on "explore the last seven days" or click http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/7days Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4 - Use Photoshop or similar to put it all together.

That way, I created seven album covers during the past week.

I am now going to take this concept one step further:

Universal is pissing off neatness freaks

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In the huge world of corporate decisions, there are things that I understand and things that I don't understand. For example, I do understand that when Universal took over the Concord Music Group, they were looking for new ways to re-market their jazz catalogue, which, as the result of numerous mergers, comprised numerous important jazz labels such as Prestige, New Jazz, Riverside, Jazzland, Milestone, Contemporary and Galaxy. Seeing that Blue Note was hugely successful with its "Rudy Van Gelder Edition", they asked Rudy Van Gelder to do a similar thing for them too and started a "Rudy Van Gelder Remasters" series.

What I don't understand is why they are unnecessarily pissing off neatness freaks like myself.

Musiker im Eigenverlag

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Summary for English readers: In response to a blog post by Anke Gröner, I point out that numerous bands and musicians are already forfeiting traditional distribution methods and are using the Internet to market their music themselves. Kristin Hersh, for example, has been doing so for over five years and has even set up a non-profit label that offers digital downloads based entirely on the basis of voluntary donations.

Anke Gröner schreibt über Musik und das Urheberrecht in Zeiten sich rasch wandelnder Medien und Vertriebswege (via netbib):

Jeder Künstler kann sich heute eine Webseite bauen und dort seine Musik direkt zum Download anbieten. Radiohead haben es erfolgreich vorgemacht - warum machen das nicht mehr Bands? Ich ... glaube, dass es für Künstler genauso lohnenswert sein kann, seine Musik selbst anzubieten als wenn es über einen Musikverlag geht. Vielleicht sogar noch lohnenswerter, weil der ganze Wasserkopf wegfällt.

Tun sie ja, tun sie ja, das Problem ist nur, dass die Entwicklung erst langsam einsetzt, weil sich momentan in erster Linie kleine Bands, die nicht so bekannt sind, dieser Vertriebswege bedienen. Die wollen nämlich nicht gleich unbedingt riesige Gewinne machen, sondern einfach einmal bekannter werden und halbwegs kostendeckend arbeiten (für das große Cash braucht es -- momentan -- schon noch die Werbemaschinerie größerer Labels). Da es momentan also die Kleinen, die Mutigen und die Verzweifelten sind und alles sehr dezentral läuft, wird nicht so leicht publik, was sich da abseits der Plattenindustrie alles abspielt.

Aber man nehme zum Beispiel Kristin Hersh, die Sängerin von Throwing Muses und 50 Foot Wave, die seit 2004 (also schon lange vor Radiohead!) ein Web-Projekt betreibt, auf dem sie ihre Musik nur gegen freiwillige Spenden zum Download anbietet, und dabei offensichtlich noch immer nicht bankrott gegangen ist, obwohl ihre Fangemeinde doch deutlich kleiner sein dürfte als jene von Radiohead.

Vor einiger Zeit hat sie gemeinsam mit anderen Musikern ein Non-Profit-Projekt namens CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and StakeHolders) aufgebaut, wo Musik ebenfalls rein über freiwillige Spenden angeboten wird. Hier wird also noch ein wesentlich radikalerer Weg eingeschlagen als das bei einem Eigenverlag der Fall wäre.

Ich denke, da wird auf die Musikindustrie wohl noch einige zukommen.