alan little’s weblog archive for march 2004

good contemporary music

31st March 2004 permanent link

… does exist. According, at any rate, to Brian Micklethwait and Michael Brooke, both of whom replied to my question about great classical music, “but is there really nothing in the last forty years?”. Both, very kindly, took time to point out lots of things they think I might find interesting – Brian in a weblog posting, Michael in an email which he says he doesn’t want me to quote because he’s going to polish it a bit and then post it himself. I hope he does. It was very interesting and I’m most impressed with the time and effort he put into two thoughtful and friendly replies to some nekulturniy fool who comes along and disses first one of his favourite composers, and then an entire period of music that he’s obviously very fond of, all from a position of near-total ignorance and prejudice.

I notice both Brian and Michael speak very highly of a pianist called Pierre Laurent Aimard. I checked my local record shop and they have his Ligeti recordings, but on a full price CD and I don’t do full price CDs. I’ll give him a go if I ever see anything by him discounted or used though. And there are plenty more things for me to look out for on both Brian’s and Michael’s lists.

related entries: Music

more music musings

29th March 2004 permanent link

Hmm. Somewhat lacking in writing motivation at the moment. Or rather, motivation for writing anything short and slight enough to make for regular weblog entries. So I’ll just round off what has turned out to be a music-themed month with a couple more music links.

Following on from Brian Micklethwait’s piece on Shostakovich: I noticed last week classical music critic Normal Lebrecht has an interesting piece on The Fight for Shostakovich. Apparently some ex-Soviet musicologists now working in the States are out to besmirch Shostakovich’s reputation by claiming he was actually a loyalist Stalinist soviet citizen all along, and deny that his music was full of echoes of dissidence and protest. Lebrecht finds their postion, er, unconvincing:

Evidence of his moral courage and political disgust is so overwhelming that it is hard to imagine how even an ivory-towered musicologist could pretend otherwise. … What motivates these flat-earthers? It’s hard to say without putting them on the couch

Further discussion of Lebrecht’s piece here.

Also on the subject of Shostakovich: I was looking up the dates of some of my favourite pieces of classical music the other day, to put them in some kind of historical perspective. I noticed that the latest of them was Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet, written in 1960 – the year before I was born. (The recording to get is the Borodin Quartet live at the Edinburgh Festival 1962, on BBC Legends).

Compare and contrast another period (not chosen completely at random) of just over forty years in musical history. A very high proportion of what I would call truly great music – and I think a lot of people would agree – was written between the late 1780s and the late 1820s. This covers Mozart’s later work, the entire second half of Haydn’s published output, most of Beethoven and all of Schubert. It has to be 41 years, in order to start with Mozart’s great string quintet in C Major (1787) and finish with Schubert’s (1828).

Expecting any other period to come close to that probably never-to-be-repeated Golden Age would be a lot to ask – but is there really nothing in the last forty years? (I suppose later Shostakovich might be a good place for me to start listening)

Update: just as I had finished writing this, but before I had posted it, a perfectly timed email from Ligeti fan Michael Brooke arrived, responding to my not-wholly-positive reaction to Ligeti’s string quartets and recommending some other pieces I might like. Thanks very much Michael.

related entries: Music

don’t bugger naxos

24th March 2004 permanent link

Now here’s the right way to do business. I was looking through the usenet group (again), and people were discussing a new set of Shostakovich symphonies released by Naxos. The previous Naxos Shostakovich set was coming in for some heavy criticism. One guy said the conductor of the previous set was actually great, but they used a mediocre orchestra and the recording wasn’t too good either. Then up pops none other than Klaus Heymann, founder and chairman of Naxos, who says:

Dear Interested Parties,

I agree with Alan Watkins about Mr. Slovak being a great Shostakovich conductor. That’s why we released his cycle and it will remain available as a boxed set.

However, the orchestra at the time was not first-class, nor was the sound. The new cycle, to be shared between Mssrs. Yablousky and Kuchar will have better orchestras and surround sound! No need to bugger NAXOS!

Klaus Heymann

Link here. Interview with Klaus Heymann here, with a lot of insider information on the economics of recording classical music.

For those who don’t know: Naxos was one of the first ultra-budget classical music record labels. They started off recording famous works that were then only available in expensive CD versions, with lesser-known performers, many of them East European. In their early days they had a reputation for rather mixed quality performances and sometimes dodgy sound, although some of their stuff was good. These days there is a lot more competition, particularly with big labels releasing legendary back catalogue recordings from the 1940s and 50s at amazingly low prices. But Naxos have got better too, both in terms of better recording quality and branching out into obscure never-previously-recorded music – as well as also becoming a major player in the legendary historical recordings niche. These are marvellous times for people who want to buy recorded classical music – and brutally hard times for people who want to make it, who are competing not only with their contemporaries but also with the greats of half a century ago. But some of them are succeeding: see my previous postings on Beethoven symphonies and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

related entries: Music

das boot

24th March 2004 permanent link

We went to the Buchheim Museum a couple of weeks ago. This is a modern art museum that houses the collection of Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Buchheim is most famous as the author of Das Boot and a couple of other Second World War novels based on his actual experiences as a war correspondent. He was also an enthusiastic painter and art collector, and built up a major German Expressionist collection over his lifetime. A few years ago he built a museum on the shore of the Starnberger See near Munich to house it. (It must have cost millions. I have no idea if Buchheim had family wealth, or if it was possible to become rich by writing war novels in Germany in the 1950s one of which subsequently got filmed, or if the musueum had some other source of funding.) Here’s some information about the museum in English.

It was such a nice day that we decided in the end to go for a walk by the lake instead of looking round the museum (will do that another time). We did have a quick look in the museum shop - where, as it turned out, Herr Buchheim himself was doing a book signing. Despite being in a wheelchair and having a patch on one eye, he looks remarkably fit and energetic for a man in his late 80s. And, surprise, for my birthday this week I received a signed copy of Das Boot.

I haven’t read anything before that might in any way qualify as German Great Literature. A couple of years ago I had a spell of reading lots of novels in German as a way to improve my language skills. I rejected Great Literature immediately as just Too Difficult. The approach I eventually found that worked best was to pick relatively unstrenuous authors whose style I was already familiar with in English, and read some more of their books translated into German. So I read Harry Potter 3 & 4 in German, and some thrillers by people like Robert Harris and Tony Hillerman. I also tried reading things in German that I already knew in English, but I found that didn’t work - reading German was hard work for me at the time, and I wasn’t motivated enough to make the effort if I already knew what was going to happen. Hopefully my German has since improved enough not to have the same problem with Das Boot.

(Maria, on the other hand, has a degree in German Literature and recently spent ages on ebay trying to get a decent price on an audiobook of Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg (Magic Mountain) to listen to while pushing the pram, because she had decided she was suffering from brain atrophy as a mum at home with a small baby. I asked her if I should listen to it too and she said it was boring. Oh well, at least she knows enough about the market for it on ebay that she should be able to sell it at a profit.)

I don’t think Maria will be reading Das Boot. Her reaction to me watching the film a few weeks ago was, er, Russian.

M That’s Herbert Grönemeyer
Oh is it? [This shows how much I know about the German music scene. Herbert Grönemeyer, a working class boy from the Ruhr, was probably *the* most famous German singer of the 80s and 90s. Kind of a Springsteen-Deutsch.]

M Who are they anyway?
They’re sailors in a U-Boat in World War II.

M What are they doing?
They’re trying to sink British ships.

M So they’re fascists?
Well, probably not literally and in person in most cases, but they are fighting for the Third Reich, yes.

At which point she decided she didn’t care what happened in the film as long as they all got sunk and killed (I reassured her that they did) and went to bed.

currently listening to …

23rd March 2004 permanent link

I’m fond of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but I didn’t have a recording of it that I really liked. I decided to fix this, and once again a few minutes searching on knocked a hole in my now-rapidly-crumbling theory that all worthwhile classical music recordings were made years ago. This time, the Four Seasons recordings most often mentioned with approval are two recent Italian performances by Fabio Biondi / Europa Galante (2003) and Enrico Onofri / Il Giardino Armonico (1994).

Amazon has them both, but I decide to save on delivery charges and waiting time by having a look in a shop on the way home from work. My local classical record shop has them both too, and they’re both reasonably priced. I haven’t heard either of them, I’ve just read the opinions of a bunch of strangers on usenet. I want to get home to my family and not spend my evening messing about with headphones in the shop. Fortunately, Biondi’s record company have made what might otherwise be a tough decision very easy.

Their CD is copy-protected. So I’m looking at two versions of the same piece of music, both reputedly very good. But one of them I can’t back up in case anything happens to the disk. I can’t make a copy for the car (if I had one) or the office. It quite possibly won’t play on computer CD drives or on Maria’s mp3-capable portable disk player. I definitely won’t be able to put it on an iPod or similar, if I ever get one.

Or I can buy Il Giardino Armonico on a normal CD that will reliably let me do all those perfectly reasonable fair-use things.

Areviderci Signor Biondi.

I’m listening to Il Giardino Armonico now. It’s very good.

related entries: Music

currently listening to …

19th March 2004 permanent link

… a 1996 recording of Beethoven’s 4th and 6th (“Pastoral”) symphonies by my Bro (er, and some other people such as Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra). My brother (did I mention he’s in it?) gave me this CD as a present a few years ago; I listened to it a couple of times but it didn’t really sink in just how good it is until I came back to it recently.

Everybody should rush out and buy it, and not (unfortunately) as a way of giving money to my brother - as far as I know as a freelancer he only gets his session fee and no royalties. Not that most musicians make any money from royalties on recordings anyway. No, everybody should buy it anyway, because it’s (a) really good and (b) now available as part of an absurdly cheap complete set. I’ve written before about how good the Liverpool Phil. was in the mid-90s. It might still be, for all I know.

Don’t just take my word for how good this recording is - see what the reviewers on amazon think, or ask the guys on

According to this website (look under “discography”) there are 368 recorded versions of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. That’s different recordings, not counting reissues of the same recording. Why bother recording any more, one might – and I sometimes do – ask? Particularly when most of the recordings that are commonly cited as *the* truly great ones are forty, fifty or more years old. Well, in the case of the Eroica there are a couple of quite recent recordings that are often mentioned as being up there with the historical greats – Norrington / South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra(*) 2002 and Savall / Le Concert des Nations 1994.

There probably aren’t quite as many recordings of the Pastoral as there are of the Eroica, but the number must still be well into three figures. And yet if you look at the usenet thread I linked to above, you will see people with very large record collections saying that this 1996 version by my bro (and others) is right up there. Wheher those judgements will last only time will tell, but this does show that the existence of large numbers of great recordings already doesn’t make it impossible to produce another one – it just raises the bar for how good you have to be for anybody to sit up and take notice. Which is not a bad thing. (Whether having a small and aging group of hard core enthusiasts sit up and take notice actually equates to having a significant number of people buy your CD is another question)

(*) Hmm. An old acquaintance of mine from Manchester just started a one year contract with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra. Looks like a trip to Stuttgart might be in order some time in the next year.

related entries: Music

an interesting request

17th March 2004 permanent link

I felt very pleased and honoured by a request that landed in my inbox this morning. It was from a Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan refugee settlement near Mysore, in southern India, asking if they could use some of my pictures of their temple for their website. Expect a few days of no writing while I spend my evenings scanning pictures, followed by a photo exhibit on Tibetan temple murals.

Tibetan temple mural

I’m delighted. I’m not a Buddhist, but Buddhism is high on the list of Religious/Philosophical Traditions I Respect. I would also be very pleased to see an independent Tibet free from Chinese repression, although I don’t realistically expect to in my lifetime.

Maria points out that an alarmingly high proportion of the business of Alan’s Photo Corp consists of donating pictures to penniless good causes like yoga philosophy magazines and Tibetan monasteries. I figure it all has to be worth at least one less go round on the wheel of suffering.

related entries: Photography

more classical metadata

17th March 2004 permanent link

Brian Tiemann replies to my excessively long & detailed post on classical music metadata, and hopes that Apple may have something in the works along the lines we’ve both been thinking about. Personally I’m not at all sure if Apple, or anybody else, is likely to think there’s enough of a market to put effort into an iTunes Classical Edition, much as I personally would find it convenient.

Where there might be a market is in high end audio. I read somewhere that some audiophile gear company, I think it was Linn, is supposed to be producting an audiophile-grade digital jukebox system, using a piece of very expensive custom hardware to hold the hard disk jukebox and feed the music into a good amp and speakers. <digression>But can’t you just use a PC? No. Not just (cynical view) because Linn and others like them are in the business of selling ridiculuously expensive custom hardware to people whose perception of sound quality might just conceivably be affected by the knowledge of how much money they’ve spent. There are also actual good reasons why a PC is not good as a component of a serious music system. I don’t want my stereo to take five minutes to boot. I don’t want whining disk drives and CPU fans drowning out the music I’m trying to listen to (a problem Brian is also aware of). Apparently computers are also appallingly noisy in an electrical sense if you’re trying to get a clean high-grade audio sgnal to come out of your sound card – Apple is said to have particularly serious problems in this area at the moment. </digression>Somebody who is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a Linn digital jukebox might well also want it to come with some decent metadata  (i.e. not the crap that is in CDDB) pre-loaded rather than having to key everything in themselves from scratch.

But that takes us back to the other main issue here: CDDB is full of garbage. Having the slickest, fanciest application in the world doesn’t help you all that much if you can’t get any decent data to display in it.

related entries: Music Mac

blowhards on digital cameras

15th March 2004 permanent link

When I was in my between-weblogs period, I had a rather rude habit of writing my weblog in the form of excessively long comments on other peoples’. I haven’t been doing that so much lately, but I did today in the form of a response to some comments by Michael Blowhard on digital cameras. Here’s what I said, slightly tidied up and fact- and spell-checked.

Interesting post. Some thoughts:

MB: You know how digi-photos, no matter how dazzling, often look a little tight and flat? One of the reasons for this is that their exposure latitude is narrow.

Kinda sorta. Digital has much narrower exposure latitude than print film, but about the same as or slightly more than colour slide film which is what most pros (except wedding & portrait specialists) shot for years. So that in itself isn’t it.

Fact check the figures I found checking my bookshelf and the web for exposure latitude of film versus digital – i.e. the dynamic range of difference between light and dark in a scene that a camera can capture without having either highlights go completely white or shadows completely black – varied wildly. Around 5 or 6 f-stops was generally the quoted figure for both slide film and digital (although, as I mentioned next, highlight failure on slide film is slightly more gradual and forgiving). Colour print film has more range, maybe 8 or 9 stops. Black and white varies hugely depending on how it is exposed and processed, but figures well above 10 stops seem to be widely quoted. I also saw 10 or 11 stops quoted as the range the human eye can deal with.

More of an issue is that digital has no “shoulder” – that is, the light sensitivity is more of a straight line than an s-curve. With film, the amount of detail in blown highlights or dark shadows tails off smoothly; with digital, highlights just blow with no gentle tail-off.

There are a couple of interesting approaches to fixing this. One is software, as you mention – I’ve heard that Kodak’s new shadow retrieval stuff is excellent. Fuji have also announced a new SLR, the S3, which has sort of 6MP resolution but that consists of two 6MP grids, one of big pixels that are good for low light, one of small ones that are less likely to blow out intense highlights. They reckon that by reading the big ones, but then seeing if they can get a reading from the small ones in areas where the big ones are blown out (or something like that) they can get a dynamic range more like print film. Fuji’s digital SLRs so far have been very good indeed, so it will be interesting to see how this works out.

I’ve also read a theory that, because of the way different colour sensors are laid out on most current imaging chips, red is more likely to blow out, or has less resolution,  than other colours. This is said to produce the effect where digital images have less colour contrast and general "snap" and feeling of depth than good film images, and is again said to be not *too* hard to fix in Photoshop.

MB: The Kodak guy said that he and his colleagues think that a digiphoto would need 13-16 million pixels to match a tiptop film image.

That sounds about right for the very finest-grained 35mm films. You can see film grain clearly in images scanned at or above about 3000 dpi, so that says a piece of 35mm has an effective resolution in the region of 3000 x 4500 dpi =~ 13.5 “megagrains”. Note that there are a couple of 35mm style digital SLRs with this resolution, and there are professional studio cameras over 20 megapixels (also over $20k)

That’s for the very finest grained slow fims, shot on a tripod through a good lens – which, however, isn’t how 99.9% of photographs are taken. In particular, digital holds up much better than film for shooting at very high ISO in low light. Very fast film has huge and obvious grain and very poor colour fidelity; digital produces a lot of noise when shot at 1600 ISO or above, but that’s much easier to fix in software than blotchy grain and nasty colours. (Kodak’s digital SLRs are notoriously weak in this area, but Nikon and Canon are excellent)

A lot of people also seem to think that the absence of noise in good (SLR, low ISO) 6MP digital images more than compensates for the slightly lower absolute resolution (2000 x 3000 for 6MP versus 3000 x 4500 for 50 to 100 ISO film)

MB: He compared the current state of digi-photography to the early days of music CDs, when the sound they delivered – while brilliant and clear – was also cold and grating.

Sounds about right to me. Glenn Reynolds had an interesting piece a while back where he predicted that, as with analog gear in music and recording, the “warm look” of film will be a cult in a few years.

I’m thinking about selling my Hasselblad to buy a digital SLR, but I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to do it just yet. I will never sell my Nikon FM2.

I also completely agree with your previous post about horrible digicam ergonomics. There’s an interesting new Leica/Panasonic effort that sounds as if it addresses a lot of these issues, but it’s ridiculously expensive for a digicam ($1500 to $1800). My thoughts on that here. Ken Rockwell’s observations on digicam handling are spot on:

You have to wait for them to turn on, and then you have to wait after you press the button for something to happen. Even zipping through the annoying menus takes time; time I don't have. With these long delays you have to hope your subject doesn't loose interest or fall asleep while you're trying to get a photo.

… as are his no-bullshit general observations on what film and digital respectively are good for.

related entries: Photography

for ken

15th March 2004 permanent link

Ken of Alien Landscape, who I linked to last week, says in an email “I’ll be checking your site for more classical music pointers”. I have no idea what Ken already likes or listens to, but if he wants recommendations I shall now reveal my utterly boring and predictable immaculate taste in Classical Music Recordings I Would Not Want To Be Without.  Expect no surprises.

  1. Beethoven: Symphony no.3 "Eroica". Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 recording
  2. Beethoven: Symphony no.7. Carlos Kleiber / Vienna Philharmonic (their recording of no. 5 on the same CD is more famous but I prefer the 7th)
  3. Beethoven: complete string quartets. Hungarian Quartet 1950s mono recordings
  4. Beethoven: String Quartet no.9, Rasumovsky 3. Smetana Quartet 1960s recording
  5. Mozart piano concertos. Alfred Brendel /  Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
  6. Mozart Requiem Mass. Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
  7. Schubert String Quintet. Stern / Katim / Schneider / Casals / Tortellier
  8. Brahms Violin Concerto. Kremer / Bernstein /  Vienna Philharmonic
  9. Shostakovich String Quartets. Original Borodin Quartet recordings
  10. and, since we might as well have ten, I have the feeling there must be a recording of the Bach cello suites out there somewhere that I would really, really love but I haven’t found it yet. (*)

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forget to mention the Elgar cello concerto (du Pré / Barbirolli).

The astute reader will have noticed that I know nothing about opera and very little about Romantic music. I don’t care. Here’s an attempt at a couple of fractionally less obvious picks:

  1. Haydn Seven Last Words. Borodin Quartet
  2. Smetana String Quartet  no. 1. Juilliard Quartet
  3. Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures At An Exhibition. Fritz Reiner / Chicago Symphony Orchestra

(*) of course, a half decent classical search engine, given the first 9 on the list and the fact that I’ve listened to Casals, Fournier and Tortellier and they haven’t blown me away, would be able tell me which recording of the Bach cello suites I actually would like.

related entries: Music

a dilemma

15th March 2004 permanent link

On the train to work this morning I found myself sitting opposite a girl who looked about nine or ten (although I’m no expert at guessing these things) and appeared to be on her own. She also looked pale, tired and not very happy, and I found myself wondering if this was something I should worry about and if so, what I should do. For a man to approach a little girl he doesn’t know in public is asking for trouble – if the situation isn’t obviously a dire emergency, you could get yourself arrested just for asking “are you ok?”. Which is understandable but sad. So I wondered if I should talk to one of the women nearby, or to a policeman if one should happen to appear.

As it turned out, mum wasn’t far away – she was standing up a little way away with another child in a pram. But it certainly wasn’t obvious until they got off the train together that the little girl opposite me was with anybody.

So (a) what should a man, in fact, do if he’s concerned about what appears to be an unaccompanied child in a world where it isn’t acceptable for a man to approach an unaccompanied child? But also (b), what does it say about the world we have built, when thinking that you’re seeing an unaccompanied child on a commuter train is even remotely a cause for concern in the first place? I was walking half a mile to school every day on my own at the age of five or six, and that was quite normal then (1960s). By the time I was eleven I was at a different school two  miles away. This was a city centre school where hardly any of the pupils lived nearby. I don’t remember anybody routinely being brought to school by their parents - we all walked, cycled or came on the bus, alone or with friends. I often wonder what sort of people we are producing by raising a generation of people who aren’t allowed out on their own until puberty. But then I also wonder how on earth I will deal with the terror the first time we let our son out on his  own.

itunes and classical music

14th March 2004 permanent link

I was tidying up my iTunes music collection yesterday evening, and thinking about what an appalling useless mess the id3 tag system and the Gracenote CDDB database are for classical music. I’m not the first to think this – see this piece by Brian Tiemann, and this one by Kimbro Staken.

(Yes, tidying up my music collection in iTunes is my idea of a good time on a Saturday night. I have a ten month old baby, what else do you expect? Maria wanted to watch one of those appalling “Pop Idol” style karaoke shows; I couldn’t bear it, but didn’t have the energy to write anything.)

Brian thinks:

it'd be a matter of adding an extra field or two to hold "Work Title" (e.g. Konzert für Klarinette u. Orchester A-dur ) and maybe a movement number, and then it'd involve simply telling the software to handle organizing songs differently that have these fields set. If the "Classical" genre is selected, organize first by Composer; and then, instead of the "Album" field, show the "Work Title" field in the browser. Albums and artists (performing groups) can then become secondary meta-data, not used for organizing the tracks once they're in the database.

If only it were that simple. I’ll talk about what would be needed to really do the job properly, and how to use the fields in iTunes to approximate doing the job properly. The fields available in iTunes, and the ones Brian proposes, are:


Not straightforward. For classical orchestral music I always want the conductor and the orchestra, plus for concertos the soloist. (I never want the composer, which some idiots put in the “artist” field, unless the recording actually is the composer playing or conducting their own work). For chamber groups the name of the group is normally good enough, but not always. Take the Borodin and Juilliard string quartets – two very famous ensembles that have existed for decades (longer even than the Rolling stones) but with major changes of personnel. I believe the Juilliard Quartet now has none of its original members and the Borodin Quartet has one. In the case of the Borodin, the crucial watershed is before and after the original leader, Rostislav Dubinsky, defected to the west in 1975. The post-Dubinsky quartet is also good but it’s different; and if I’m looking for recordings by Dubinsky then I would want to see pre-1975 but not post-1975 Borodin Quartet, plus the Borodin Trio that he formed in America, plus anything he did with other chamber groups or as a soloist.

Artist name search needs to be multilingual. A search for “Vienna Philharmonic” that doesn’t return “Wiener Philharmoniker” is useless; “Furtwängler” should also match “Furtwangler” and “Furtwaengler”.

For orchestras I’m personally only interested in the name of the orchestra, not individual musicians. (My principal classical music adviser points out an important exception to this in the case of anything featuring one O. Little anywhere in the violas – the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony recordings with Charles Mackerras, for example.)


iTunes’ search is clever enough to do partial matches, so if we have anything at all in the composer field, then “Beethoven, Ludwig van” and “L v Beethoven” both match “Beethoven” without any problem. A bigger problem is the classical CDs in the gracenote database that either don’t have composer at all, or where some cretin has put composer in the “artist” field and (if you’re lucky) stuffed the artist into the “album” title.

But once again we have the not-small question of different spellings of composers’ names in different languages. A simple example: Händel (correct German spelling) = “Haendel” (alternative German spelling, acceptable for example in primitive ASCII-only computer systems) = “Handel” (normal English spelling). I would expect a search for any of these to match all of them. Another example: Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович (correct Russian spelling) = Dmitriy Shostakovich (English transliteration) = Dmitrij Schostakowitsch (German transliteration) = Dimitri Shostakovich (alternative English spelling of the first name, as used last week by Brian Micklethwait). In cases like this, where there are several possible acceptable English spellings of “Dmitriy”, I would expect a decent search system to be able to cope with near-misses rather than having to specify all the possibilities in advance.

In all these cases, there is arguably a canonically correct name – the full version most commonly used in the composer’s native language – and there is a version I personally would be mostly likely to use to search, which would normally be the most common English-language spelling of the composer’s surname. But it wouldn’t be necessary for any version of the name to have any special status in the system in order for search to work correctly, a big pile of equal-status synonyms would do just fine. (What about composers with the same surname? I would expect a search for “Bach” to turn up works by Johann Sebastian Bach. I would not want to have to specify “JS Bach” to avoid seeing things by his lesser relatives. This would be less clear-cut for “Strauss” though. But in any case, it could be easily dealt with by using some combination of rating / most recently played / most frequently played to weight search results.)

album / work title

What does the “work title” of a piece of classical music actually consist of? I’ll take as an example Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 9 in C op.59 “Rasumovsky” no.3. Let’s parse that. It contains at least six pieces of information:

People who really know about this stuff could doubtless point out lots of errors and omissions in the above. But it’s broadly correct, and hopefully enough to get the message across that an apparently simple matter of an extra field called “work title” barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s actually there.

I picked Rasumovsky Quartet no.3 as an example because it is the subject of one of my all-time favourite recordings of anything by anybody, in the form of a stunning 1960s performance by the Smetana Quartet that was originally recorded by the excellent Czech label Supraphon, and is now available as a cheap reissue on Cantus, catalogue number 500152. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Brian wants to stuff all this into one field and call it “Work Title”, rather than using “Album”. Personally I was inclined to use “Album” – it’s a matter of complete indifference to me which CD something originally happened to be on. So I tried putting standardised work titles in the Album field. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 In E-Flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”, to take one example of a work I have about half a dozen different recordings of (out of the 200 or so recordings of it that exist). Ah. Problem. iTunes now sorts all the first movements together, then all the second movements etc. Not useful. What I want, of course, is all four movements of one recording, then all four movements of the next. In order to achieve which I have to take my nice standardised work titles and append some kind of “recording id” to them, duplicating information I already have in Artist and Date. Blah.

Oh, and “Date” in the rare cases when it’s set in the gracenote database is normally the year the CD was released, about which I don’t care a fart. I want the year the recording was made, please.

I don’t usually care if I have two different versions of the same recording. The exception to this is if one of them is remastered or otherwise of noticeably better quality. Take Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1944 recording of the Eroica with the Wiener Philharmoniker, a.k.a. Furtwangler/VPO Beethoven op. 55, or any of a thousand other possible descriptions of the same thing. I originally downloaded this as an mp3 from emusic, and was so impressed I decided to buy a “proper” CD version to see if I could hear a difference. I could. (Also HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

song title

I would prefer to just have the names of movements in here. It isn’t very important for classical music anyway – I rarely want to listen to single movements of things and would almost just as soon have an entire work as one track, but I can’t be bothered to do all the clicking about to glue them together in iTunes.

track number

The track number that something was on the original CD is completely irrelevant. As Brian says, you either think “So Track 14 is really the fourth movement of the third work on the disc …”, or you go through and edit everything laboriously by hand to say this is movement 2 of 3 in so-and-so concerto, rather than track 7 of 13 on some irrelevant CD. It would be nice if iTunes provided a quick and easy way to do this, but it doesn’t.

so what do i propose to do about all this?

The information in gracenote is such complete garbage it’s almost a write-off. I just looked up a CD of Janacek’s string quartets by the Talich quartet. What I find is typical:

What I intended to write about is:

  1. Given that the gracenote data is a write-off and I’m resigned to having to input all the metadata myself if I want anything half usable, how am I actually going to use the fields available in iTunes?
  2. How would I actually do it myself in an ideal world, given that what I’m trying to achieve is some kind of super-iTunes cataloguing / sorting / jukebox system, not a research database for musicologists? This, if I ever have time to write it, will get into all sorts of interesting stuff about how to keep an ultra-simple user interface to a search system that, behind the scenes, does all kinds of smart language-independent, user-adaptive stuff.

But this is already too long and it’s getting late. Another day.

related entries: Music Mac

dimitri shostakovich

12th March 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait talks about the life and music of Dimitri Shostakovich on samizdata, revisiting some of the themes we talked about a while back in connection with Wilhelm Furtwängler and music under the Nazis.

Which reminded me of something very interesting I read a while ago - some quotations from the autobiography of Rostislav Dubinsky, the original leader of the legendary Borodin Quartet. Some fascinating stories about playing things with and for Shostakovich, and the poisonous atmosphere of suspicion and fear they were all used to surviving in. Unfortunately the book, Stormy Applause, seems to be out of print and expensive to buy second hand. Fortunately (for me though not for people who want to make or sell classical music recordings) the glutted state of the market for recorded classical music means I could buy the Borodin Quartet's stupendous original recordings of Shostakovich's quartets last year for 30 euros for the 4-CD set. I can remember less than ten years ago when they were 16 pounds (about 24 euros) each in England.

related entries: Music

more on leica digicams

11th March 2004 permanent link

A while ago I wrote about a new Leica/Panasonic digital camera announcement that looked good at first sight, but maybe not quite so great after a bit of consideration. There’s been a lot of interest in this camera. It’s now available in the shops in both Leica and Panasonic-badged versions (Panasonic several hundred dollars cheaper), and there are a couple of preminary reviews on Luminous Landscape - Panasonic version, Leica version.

They’re impressed by the ergonomics - the Panasonic guy says “the LC1 is the best handling camera I have had in terms of ergonomics, weight distribution (balance) and ease of use.” Image quality is apparently excellent. On the other hand, it’s very slow shooting uncompressed image files and the viewfinder isn’t very good. The Leica guy’s conclusion: “It’s not perfect and it is expensive but it’s very well designed, very useable and produces excellent files”

I still have no intention of buying one(*). For a nice-but-flawed camera with some serious limitations, it’s just too expensive. Or, as somebody on the Luminous Landscape discussion board put it a little more harshly:

$1800, useless finder, slow AF, 6 seconds between shots...  oh, but it’s got a badge-engineered Leica lens and it looks a bit like an M6, so its a great camera.

Come on, this is crazy.

In related news, Epson and Cosina have announced a camera with some pretensions to be a real digital Leica - their own exchangeable-lens digital camera that takes Leica lenses, called an R-D1. My first reactions: it’s ugly. Same silly SD cards as the Digilux.  Your wide angle lenses suddenly aren’t any more(**). It will be even more terrifyingly expensive than the Digilux, though that that will not deter hard core Leica fans. On the other hand: although they do have too much of a cult status, some of Leica’s rangefinder lenses are among the best lenses in the world, and all those lovely Leica 50mm lenses suddenly make very nice 75mm (equivalent) portrait lenses.

(*) Personally, I have the new Nikon D70 on pre-order. But I’m still considering whether to get a Fuji S2 instead - a bit more expensive and inferior handling in many ways, but better image quality. Or whether to hold off and not buy anything for another year or two.

(**) As with most current digital SLRs, the sensor size is smaller than a piece of 35mm film. This increases the effective focal length of lenses by about 50% and so does away with one of the prime advantages of rangefinder designs. Rangefinder wide angle lenses can be better designed than SLR wide angle lenses because the back of the lens doesn’t have to be a long way away from the film to make room for a mirror flapping about, and some of Leica’s wide angles have especially stellar reputations. But the widest Leica lenses as far as I know are about 20mm, which on the R-D1 will equate to about a 30mm lens. Just not that wide any more. There are wider rangefinder lenses by other manufacturers - but let’s face it, the main reason people will be willing to pay for this thing is because they already have a big investment in wonderful Leica lenses.

related entries: Photography

christian theology

9th March 2004 permanent link

This is brilliant.

I also passed a link to another piece by the same guy on to Brian Micklethwait. He (Brian) was impressed too.

lessons in parenting

4th March 2004 permanent link

This week’s lessons in Jack’s Reality School of how to be a parent:

(a) it is possible to catch a cold from your baby – see below

(b) after you have caught a cold from your baby, the normal method of detecting when the baby needs to be changed no longer works. Remember to have a look every few hours.

more css nonsense

4th March 2004 permanent link

More from the Alice In Wonderland world of CSS and web standards.

Notice that the previous posting had a numbered list of points, <ol> or “ordered list” in HTML, interrupted with a comment between points three and four. This looks like it should be a perfectly normal and reasonable requirement, and indeed HTML provides an easy way to do it. You just open the second part of the list with an explicit starting number: <ol start="4">. That’s nice. (<ol start="continue"> would be even nicer). However, the page where I found this also says doing it with HTML is deprecated and I should use CSS. I look up how to do it in CSS and I find this:

The deprecated START attribute suggests the starting number for the list and defaults to 1. The value of START must be an integer, but the number may be presented in a different form (for example, as a Roman numeral). While this attribute is deprecated, there is currently no substitute for it in Cascading Style Sheets.

What? I’m supposed to feel guilty of web standards impropriety for doing something perfectly sensible and obvious, in the only way it’s actually possible to do it?

Update: I’m in good company. Tim Bray isn’t impressed with CSS’s ease of use either.

related entries: Programming

seeing in black & white

4th March 2004 permanent link

There’s a discussion at the moment on Luminous Landscape about black and white photography, and whether having a “preview in black & white” function on digital camera screens would help. Luddite that I am, my first contribution was to point out that film cameras don’t have black & white preview, despite which people have been managing to take black & white photographs quite successfully for over 150 years. Others pointed out that digital camera LCDs are so small and inaccurate that they really wouldn’t be much help. So then somebody asked “So, how would you teach someone to 'see' in B&W?”. Here are my ideas on the matter. I would do well to apply some of these to myself.

  1. Take lots and lots of black and white photos.
  2. Look at them. Work out what you like about the ones you like, what you don't like about the ones you don't like.
  3. Ask yourself how your pictures are different from how you wanted them to look. (Do you *know* how you wanted them to look?)

We've already covered the important bits. You could stop here.

  1. Look at lots of other people’s black and white photos too until you find some you really like.
  2. Find out who took those. Get hold of their books, look at lots more of their pictures.
  3. Compare your new heroes’ pictures to your own and work out what's different/better about their pictures *that matters to you*.
  4. Finally, *if* you really think you already have the compositional eye of a Cartier-Bresson and the main problems with your pictures are technical (unlikely though this may be) then you might need to look at buying  a view camera or a Leica and a big pile of Plus-X, studying books on sensitometry and the Zone System, getting a better version of Photoshop, or whatever. (Hint: it is highly unlikely that this step will help)

related entries: Photography

a pleasant surprise

2nd March 2004 permanent link

My entire household has a cold at the moment. That isn’t the pleasant surprise, which I’ll get to later. I caught mine from the baby – which is interesting in itself. I sat up with him on Saturday night when he couldn’t sleep, so that Maria could get some rest before it was her turn to do the same on Sunday night so that I could go to work on Monday. Which I did, just about, but not today. Anyway, I was sitting there holding my sick son and I remember actually noticing that I wasn’t at all worried about catching the cold from him, because (a) it didn’t matter anyway, as long as he got comforted but also (b) I didn’t think mere baby germs could possibly get past my state of the art adult immune system. Ha ha.

I was right when I speculated before about how you go about looking after the baby when both parents are ill. You just cope, somehow.

On to the actual story, which is that Maria and I were in need of something completely mentally unstrenuous to watch last night after we somehow managed to get the baby into bed. Fortunately for us, there was a rundown on TV of the 50 most commercially successful films of all time in Germany, measured by audience numbers. They were a surprisingly good and interesting bunch – but we still haven’t got to the pleasant surprise.

There were plenty of films I didn’t particularly like or wouldn’t personally bother going to see, but nothing where I thought my god, what’s that piece of crap doing on the list? It took a total audience of about five or six million to make the cut – heartening to know that even Hollywood’s marketing powers can’t convince five or six million people to see complete crap.

The German films were an interesting bunch. No heavy arty stuff – no Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, no Das Boot. There were a surprising number of “sex education documentaries” from the sixties and seventies – I assume these must have been the only way you could get to see a young lady’s naked breast on the screen in those days. (Whereas now TV in Germany and all other continental countries is full of young ladies’ naked breasts all the time, to a degree that’s most surprising for British and, I assume, American visitors.) Most of the German entries that weren’t soft porn were comedies, the top one – third fourth place overall and the only German film in the top ten – being Der Schuh Des Manitu (“Shoe of the Manitou”). This, the biggest-grossing German film of all time, will I suspect probably never be released in English or if it is, about three people will go and see it. To say is a German Blazing Saddles would be unfair to both films. It is more camp than a whole lot of rows of tents and really great fun, but only in Germany would it be the most successful film of all time. The Extended Edition was one of Maria and my first dates.

There was a spaghetti western fairly high up the rankings that was puzzling because it had Charles Bronson playing Clint Eastwood. The German title Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod (“play me the song of death”) said nothing to me but they often don’t. Frantic googling in the ad break revealed it was Once Upon A Time In The West, which I suppose I would have to watch if ever wanted to get serious about my film buff education.

We discovered some DVDs we’re going to have to get for Jack in a few years – Finding Nemo, Ice Age and another one that I’ll get to in a moment.

We discovered we both had a soft spot for certain tacky comedies featuring actors we normally despise (Pretty Woman, Home Alone)

I was surprised how high the first Harry Potter film was – about fourth or fifth, I think third.

And here it is: the real pleasant surprise … the top film wasn’t Titanic. Hurrah. It wasn’t anything else I expected or imagined it could possibly be either. It was (hurrah again) Walt Disney’s Jungle Book – which is an absolute gem of a film but I had no idea it was ever that commercially successful anywhere. Well done the German public.

Here’s the complete list – in German of course.

Update: Michael Jennings comments on how counting audience numbers rather than revenue scores children’s films higher than they normally appear on this sort of list – four in the top ten in this case (Lion King #7, Aristocats #6, Harry Potter #3 and Jungle Book #1). Further thoughts: I also wonder if only one local film in the top ten would be the norm in most countries outside the US (or if there would be *any* foreign films in the US top 50). In all or most of Europe, for sure – certainly not in India or China. They appear to have counted all three Lord of the Rings films as one, and it still only made number five.

ligeti reviewed

1st March 2004 permanent link

After I wrote the previous piece I thought I’d have a quick google to see if anybody had expressed any interesting opinions online about Ligeti’s string quartets. Found lots of sites selling the CD but nothing that looked like any kind of serious review. (This is a big and increasing problem with the useulness of google’s search results. More on that in another posting one day). Then remembered that obscure classical music is one area where the customer reviews on amazon are often well-informed and interesting. Amazon didn’t let me down.

The first reviewer, who appears to know what he’s talking about, likes both the quartets but also says they are very different. Says the first one is a very early work heavily influenced by Bartok. (Ligeti is Hungarian, apparently. I thought he was Polish.) Which I actually noticed as I was listening to it thinking “this sounds like inferior Bartok”. Apparently it’s in a sense a protest, because Bartok’s music was banned by the communist regime in Hungary in the 1950s. Fair enough – that doesn’t necessarily make it good music.

I have this strange suggestibility about music reviews that I don’t generally about other things. I’ll read something like this and think “I thought I didn’t like this, but wait. This guy (about whose musical tastes I know absolutely nothing) does and he sounds pretty convincing. Maybe I should?”. Instead of correctly thinking “ok, this guy likes it and I don’t. Fair enough”. I think this time I’ll stick to not liking Number 1, but I might give Number 2 a chance before I condemn the CD to ebay oblivion.

related entries: Music


1st March 2004 permanent link

Whilst commenting on Brian Micklethwait’s comments about film music I while ago, I mentioned that

Michael Brooke … points out the huge effect Stanley Kubrick had on the fame of Gyorgy Ligeti by liking his music and using it extensively in 2001 and The Shining. (My knowledge of Ligeti is restricted to having bought a CD of his string quartets in a second hand shop a few years ago and, as far as I recall, never actually listening to it. Perhaps I should)

Well I did, and Christ it was horrible. I made it through less than ten minutes before I decided I couldn’t see any reason to subject myself to any more. Which also made me think about Brian’s subsequent idea, that much of twentieth century music and art can be interpreted as a deliberate rebellion against the concept of beauty in a situation in which a lot of unbeautiful things were happening. So I’m inclined to give Mr Ligeti’s technical competence the benefit of the doubt and assume that his music is ugly and unpleasant to listen to because he wanted it to be. I can also see how this sort of stuff could be a lot of fun to play. But I can’t see any conceivable reason why I would want to listen to it.

Coming soon to – Gyorgy Ligeti’s magnificent string quartets, a modern classic performed by the excellent Arditti Quartet. Five stars.

Lest people think I am incorrigibly bourgeois and only want to listen to easy, feel-good music: other music selected for Alan and Jack’s Sunday afternoon walk in the park included Janacek’s string quartets, which I don’t seem to like as much as I used to although listening to them still isn’t actively unpleasant, unlike the Ligeti. And Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks – a death-of-a-marriage album full of aching sadness, loss and anger. People interested in how to write a scream of rage that is still music other people might want to listen to, could do a lot worse than study Idiot Wind.

Now, the sort of people Brian was writing about might well take the view that their Existential Angst was far more Significant and Profound than the emotional tragedies of one person’s life, even if that one person happens to be the best songwriter of his generation. In which case they might like to reflect on the possibility that regarding individual human tragedies as insignificant could be a major cause of the kind of large-scale horror about which they were feeling their Existential Angst.

related entries: Music

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