Observations 02-2009

For the first time in 2009, I had a look at the statistics for this (rather lifeless) site and, alas, I have more readers than ever before. My Google page rank even increased (go figure). I guess it’s the “curse” of any site that was once updated more or less regularly to get all comfy and cushy on Google and to reel in more and more unsuspecting readers, meaning readers who never hit the front page or more recent posts to find out that the site is basically left to drift in the high and low tides that are the ever-changing world of the Internet.

Well, time to add something here, just because I feel like it again.

Maybe, if the feeling stays, I will add this type of “Observations” post in a more timely fashion.

“They Are Killing Music in Sweden …”: Even If They Lose

For all of you who have no idea what “The Pirate Bay” is: “The Pirate Bay is a Swedish website that indexes and tracks BitTorrent files.” (Wikipedia). To me though, it is the digital era’s Rosetta Stone that the music business has tried to unsuccessfully decipher for ages. I have often written about the stupidity, ignorance and general inability that permeates the higher echelons of most globally-active music labels, but it never seizes to amaze me how incessantly that industry wants to reaffirm that status.

Mind you, I’m generally opposed to downloading and ripping musicians and labels off, simply because I see the danger of reissues and new releases drying up once the industry decides to simply tell us collectors and music nutcases that it has had enough. Sure, there are a myriad of indie labels and independent musicians ready to take over, but what about access to the millions of jazz (classical, pop, classic rock, …) sessions that are slumbering (and in some cases: rotting away) in some remote vaults? Unless indie labels have a key to those vaults (and the master tapes) and unless Spanish off-shore and rip-off labels plus all the other scam artists have access to the original material, reissuing programs will have to resort to LP needle drops and the “remastering” of third-generation rip-offs of rip-offs. Not something to look forward to.

Still, the Pirate Bay trial demonstrates in all clarity the inability of the music (and film) industry to cope with a changed environment, a fundamentally different group of potential customers, with young people who grew up with the (incorrect) notion that everything must be available for free.

The music industry’s answer (which has been changed in tone but has remained fundamentally the same over these past many years):
Scare off.
Kill.
Clobber.
Eradicate.
Shoot.
Bury.
Bleed dry.

Besides the fact that every single “normal” human being knows that something so demonstratively declared illegal attracts even more people to the activity, it is absolutely astonishing that the music industry has been unable to devise a suitable and actually consumer-friendly way of coping with the problem of digital diversification of the material it owns (I’m being careful with the word “owns” here as I often have more than serious doubts about the ownership of material that the music industry has often gotten into its hands by unfair contracts, by tricking its artists and by exploiting them in the most indecent manner). That a few thousand highly-paid (over-paid) managers are unable to complete a relatively simple task is completely beyond me.

My experience tells me that there are literally millions of people out there willing to shell out for a decent product, but that product is not forthcoming. Digital files were ruined by digital rights management systems that not even their creators understood (since then mostly withdrawn … after a decade or so), CDs were artificially kept in a price range that even people with a decent income couldn’t cope with, releases were too often limited to a repetitive program which – again and again – ignored the uncountable number of sessions yet (forever?) unreleased, remastering technologies often managed to ruin those releases that did become available, … the list of errors and misjudgments is endless.

In short, we have an industry catering to the lowest common denominator, the iPod carrying ignorant who, after a while of severely limited attention span, simply deletes the crappy files he managed to either buy or steal.

Music as fast food.

The people willing to invest into a well-devised product were short-changed again and again until they consciously either joined the iPod carrying imbeciles … or withdrew from legality altogether. The latter group you can find all over the web, trading high-quality material, lossless rips and homegrown mastering jobs. Yes, most of them were pushed into illegality, out of frustration and the perceived ignorance of the industry. Believe me, I know many of them. And, to make matters worse, those were the ones who supported the industry without fail … for decades on end.

The music industry told its most valuable customers to take a flying leap at the moon, and things aren’t about to change (although exceptions prove the rule).

The ‘Pirate Bay Trial’ (a spectacle, really) is the universally publicized case in point. The industry puts on trial a handful of guys providing a search engine for illegal files (hell, try Google and find the same material any bleedin’ time) and has put on display all its clout to clobber those guys (and the Swedish government) into submission. Politically speaking, I believe it might well be suicide for the Swedish authorities NOT to sentence those poor individuals and in the long run I believe we will see a worldwide recurrence of those destructive tactics: Throw at a government and a few individuals (plus Internet providers) the might of the (err, currently disheveled) US industry in toto, the US government, media moguls and every single lawyer that wasn’t smart enough to dig himself a deep hole to hide in, and what you have is civil rights hitting the pavement with a big fat “SPLAT!”

The music industry is fighting fire with a massive flame thrower and it makes me really sad. I think that’s the best way to describe my feelings. It makes me sad because if I’m not wrong, and I do hope I am, the music industry is committing suicide in a global spectacle … and on a global scale.

And that would mean the end of traditional music collecting, of experiencing the haptic enjoyment of holding a well-produced, illustrated. mastered and annotated music release of some 50s session in your hands.

Actually, they are killing music.
Even if the Pirate Bay keepers are let off the hook.

“Ludwig Beck”: Munich, Germany

I don’t know how many times I traveled to Munich to escape the insanity and general mayhem that is the German carnival. In order not to have to put up with plastered 12-year old kids, their puking parents and an endless line of babbling idiots, I usually hit Munich for 4 or 5 days while my home state declines into a virtual zombie nation.

In Munich, I have previously walked by the “Kaufhaus Ludwig Beck” a million times, giving it a passing glance because its shop windows yell “Exlusive! Fashion!” even at the remotest glance.

This time around, in another shop about 500 meters down the road, I stumbled across a new CD series covering German jazz history (a Bear Family release in connection with the German “Büchergilde”, a book club of sorts) and was frustrated because volume 3 of 4 was missing. Upon yapping to a sales person in that department, I was told (quietly whispered): “Try ‘Ludwig Beck’ just down the road.”

I was confused. After all, buying a pair of pink Versace leggings at $300 did not seem to be an adequate replacement for a Bear Family CD project.

A day later, standing in front of said shop, I was still feeling unsure about the recommendation but decided to venture into that temple of useless luxury.

Then I hit the top floor.
And I stayed there for an entire afternoon.
And I returned for another visit the next day.

Ladies and gentleman: The CD section at Ludwig Beck‘s is the best thing I have seen in this age of disappearing music shops, music chains, well-stocked music sections and knowledgeable sales persons’ advice. Jesus. They had it all. Stuff I had searched the Internet thin for, reissues (often even better: original releases) of material one usually cannot find anymore, … and, most astonishingly, not a single obscure release I spontaneously tested the section for that they didn’t have. The jazz selection was fantastic, the classical one was unbelievable. I don’t know how many hundreds of square meters of “only the best” or “the most obscure” I, the customer, was presented with, but I was in heaven.

Pure bliss was reached when the sales people I did talk to blossomed when I tried to trick them with some questions. Every single answer they fired off was exhaustive and correct. And my elitism was caught on too quickly and they proceeded to educate me on matters I didn’t have the faintest idea about.

Case in point:

“Ahmad Jamal”: Discovered

Mea culpa. In a collection of many thousands of CDs I had one Jamal collection … which, I think, I never listened to. Bought, shelved, forgotten. Somehow I had him pigeonholed as “modern” (hence: freaky, dissonant, eclectic, noisy).

While browsing the endless meters of rare Teddy Wilson reissues, Blue Note LPs, Jazz in Paris (yes, people, they still had them!) boxes, Verve special collector’s editions and an almost all-encompassing offer of German jazz from 1898 up to 2009, I kept on being interrupted by music that sounded like Oscar Peterson minus the flourishes and technical fireworks. Astonishingly lyrical, extremely rhythmical and highly intelligent, the music attracted my attention to such a degree that I was unable to continue reading liner notes of whatever CDs I was looking at.

Then I talked to a sales person who almost ran over to the shop stereo system, withdrew the CD and proceeded to lavish praise on a pianist that so many others have cited as a major, if not their most important, influence.

I was also told that the 50s up to the middle 60s phase was perhaps the phase I myself would like best.
And right he was.

And then he told me about Paul Bley.

I felt extremely stupid.

And I thought I would not have to spend any more money on music until I went on pension.
:/

I walked away with “Ahmad Jamal Trio. Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961. Chess Jazz/Universal 1998″ (which includes most/all? of his famous Pershing Lounge 1958 recordings!) and “Ahmad Jamal. Chamber Music of the New Jazz. Argo/Verve 1955/2004″.

Did I mention that the shop is equipped with high-quality CD players and downright audiophile headphones, accessible without any interference my irritating sales people?

The catalogs?
The books?

Very highly recommended.

Dave Brubeck: Gone with the Wind” (1956)

I usually don’t give a hoot about critics, and I still don’t, but I do believe that most people got it wrong in this case, simply because they were too reluctant to heap on the praise openly. “Gone with the Wind” is not merely a pretty good Brubeck recording, it’s one of the best. If you have been weened on the sounds of the Brubeck quartet like I have, you’ve soaked up every nuance these guys were capable of producing. You know the sound, the feel and sensitivity and it is on superb display on this recording. These past weeks I have been wondering if this 1959 session isn’t the one to show off to interested people once asked to present the Dave Brubeck quartet in a nutshell. After having ingested this recording over and over again, it is no surprise to me that you have to shell out some serious money for a CD copy today (I refer you to my observations re the stupidity of the music industry above).

AllMusicGuide, not exactly the most reliable of review sites, gives this recording three stars … which is surprising when you read the actual review which states that “[…] The album as a whole is filled with wonderful surprises and contains some of the best that the cool jazz style has to offer. […] This recording is masterful in scope and very stimulating in style and detail. […] ‘Gone With the Wind’ is strongly recommended not only for the seasoned jazz fan, but also for first-time listeners who wish to be thoroughly captivated.”

Sounds like 4 stars minimum to me, but I guess they compared it to their five best recordings of the millennium … or had too much to drink when they hit the JAVA slider to hand out stars.

If you at all subscribe to “cool” or “West Coast” jazz, this recording is a must. The interplay between all members, especially between Brubeck and that genius of a drummer, Joe Morello, is just superb. The rhythmic ability of all involved is especially astonishing, including every little flourish and surprise thrown at an often unsuspecting listener.

This is a fabulous recording which was immediately added to my “Play Until I Drop Dead” shelf.
Yes, it’s that good.

“Paul Lewis Shines”: A Beethoven quickie

I could hum the “Adagio Cantabile” of Beethoven’s 8th piano sonata before I tried to utter the first syllable of any comprehensible word. My mother, a concert pianist, infused my early years with Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Liszt, Mussorgysky … and everyone inbetween.

Despite the fact that I usually write about pop and jazz music around here, I’d like to quickly recommend Paul Lewis’ recently completed recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. I have the Brendel, the Gould, the Gulda, the Argerich … I think I have every major recording of Beethoven’s sonatas ever committed to a volatile groove or digital zeros or ones. Paul Lewis‘ recordings rank right up there with the very best and are available in almost perfect sound, courtesy of Harmonia Mundi.

The aforementioned “Adagio Cantabile” is my acid test for any recording that wants to weasel its way into my collection and Lewis’ recording just delivers. I know that many Beethoven experts would pick other movements, but … different strokes for different folks, and all of that.

If you want, need and will have one complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle in excellent sound quality, get this one. Although I think that prizes are largely useless marketing instruments, I do want to add that one of the 4 CD collections (Volume 4) won “Grammophone’s” instrumental recording of the year award last year.
And he won “Record of the Year” as well.

Rightly so.

If you want a second one to go with it, get the Friedrich Gulda one, which is being sold for peanuts around the globe right now (below 20 Euro over here).

That’s all you’ll ever need.

Closing Remarks

While the idea to pick up posting here again was simmering nicely, I spent some time updating the back end of this site, cleaning up the database, reading around the Web to see what WordPress and its theme designers were up to … and was depressed to see that Justin Tadlock has buried the theme that livingwithmusic.com is built upon. To his credit, the original still works as well as it did when I installed and tweaked it, I just hope that another WordPress update won’t kill it. If that happens, I’ll again turn to Justin and the wonderful effort he’s putting into getting us users to experience the best of WordPress.

That’s it for today.

See ya, faithful readers.
I’ll be around.
Add me to your feed readers again.
🙂

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Two short comments.

    Ludwig Beck has had a fantastic CD department for years, and before that a great LP section. In my vinyl days I got several fabulous Japanese LP pressings of jazz recordings from them and after I had switched to CD, numerous jazz CDs from Japan. Unfortunately, several years ago they decided to stop mailing CDs abroad; I don’t know if they still ship within Germany.

    A huge Ahmad Jamal set is planned by Mosaic. It will probably be 9 or 10 CDs and include Jamal’s 1950s piano/bass/drums trio sessions for Argo/Chess with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier. Release was originally scheduled for March 2009, but unfortunately, due to the fire at Universal (they own Argo/Chess) which caused several tapes to be mislaid, the set will probably not be released until some time in 2010. More news here: http://www.organissimo.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=47470&hl=

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  2. I’ve heard some of Paul Lewis’ Beethoven piano sonatas interpretations and I must say that I’m quite underwhelmed. He’s technically impeccable as are so many pianists these days, but to my ears the interpretations lack tension or feeling, if you will. I prefer recordings by pianists of “yesterday”, such as Sviatloslav Richter, Solomon, Wilhelm Kempff (especially his mono recordings from the 1950s), Emil Gilels and Alfred Brendel, even though his playing is sometimes mannered.

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  3. P.S. Oops, the name is Sviatoslav Richter, of course. My apologies for the typo.

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  4. Hans,

    great to see you here once again. Thanks for being this site’s most faithful – and most thoughtful (!) – reader and commenter.

    Of course, I have to agree with your “Ludwig Beck” sentiments. We’re on the same plane there. I have no idea what their shipment policies are, but inside of that shop I almost got a heart attack … and I mean that in a positive way. 🙂

    I completely disagree with you on the Paul Lewis recordings. Yes, they might be lacking here or there (minutely) when compared to Richter and Kempf (sorry, but I do not have any Solomon recordings), but I personally think that he has actually managed to nail exactly what you are missing in these recordings: tension and feeling.

    I’ve heard so many interpretations, the Gulda and Brendel recordings being my favorites (yes, I know that Brendel is mannered, but at least he did NOT manage to spoil his student, Lewis), but do not forget that I was influenced by a mother who spent a lifetime ingesting Beethoven. The other day we had a long talk about Elly Ney, shady a personality as she was, and her immersion in Beethoven to the extent that she had her hairdo shaped accordingly.

    My feelings for what Beethoven “should sound like” were, for better or for worse, shaped by my mother’s intimate knowledge of Beetoven’s oevre.

    I am taken in by Lewis’s interpretation (yes, interpretation) and I stick by my recommendation. It’s fabulous stuff, the technical expertise not withstanding, which might often distract from the emotions pouring from a recording.

    Hans, I have always valued your opinion and continue to do so, almost unquestioned, escpecially because it makes me rethink my take on what I’m hearing.

    Let’s just agree …
    that we disagree on this one.

    Additionally, I have soaked up every snippet you posted on Organissimo re the Jamal set (I HATE it when things I WANT are delayed), but your information is very much appreciated (consider the “Very” doubly underlined!), which I looked for once Jamal showed up on my radar. To be quite honest, your information was the only worthwhile and useful information I found. Kudos!

    Let me add one thing: Chopin is another composer my heart bleeds for. It took me ages to find one single cycle my heart agrees with: It turned out to be the one Rubinstein recorded before I was even a figment of imagination. Today it can be had dirt-cheap.

    Will we disagree on that one as well?

    🙂

    My best to you, Holland, and the northern hemisphere.

    Let’s meet and listen to some good (or: controversial) interpretations of … music?

    Reply

  5. Volkher,

    Thanks for the kind words, they’re appreciated.

    Perhaps I should listen to the Paul Lewis interpretations again, but the – to my ears – lacking tension etc. annoyed me so much that I will have to overcome some considerable aversion first… By the way, it’s good to disagree on things like this, it makes discussions more interesting.

    Having said that, I must admit that my favourite Chopin recordings are… Rubinstein’s, especially his 1950s/1960s interpretations. They’re indeed very cheap, as long as you’re looking for the “Chopin Collection” CDs that came out in the 1980s. I’d avoid the later and more expensive remasters, they don’t sound very good to my ears, too harsh and processed.

    Other favourite Chopin interpreters of mine are Dinu Lipatti and Yuri Egorov, who both died way too young, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Maria João Pires, but Artur Rubinstein comes first, technical flaws and all. His playing oozes Chopin, so to speak.

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  6. Overcoming some aversion is what makes our collective musical experience interesting. 😉

    Man, I had to fight several gag reflexes to appreciate a lot of the Glenn Gould “Original Jacket Collection” reissues, especially the Schoenberg recordings … but then … bliss.

    We agree on the Rubinstein (thank God!) 😉 The more expensive remasters SUCK.
    We agree on that as well.

    We agree on Maria João Pires, whose Schumann interpretations (“Kinderszenen. Waldszenen. Bunte Blätter”) is simply one of the most sensitive AND sensible recordings available.

    And it’s cheap.:)

    Let me exaggerate here a tiny little bit: I have a million recordings of “Von fremden Menschen und Ländern” (the epitome of my own life in a single composition), and Pires nailed it.

    Perfect tempo.
    Perfect intonation
    Perfect …

    Love it.

    Cheers!

    🙂

    Reply

  7. Glenn Gould was certainly a phenomenon, but I never got used to his eccentric playing. He didn’t make me gag, though 😉

    I’ve never heard Maria João Pires’ Schumann interpretations. I do have her Schubert set with the Impromptus and a few other bits and pieces, some with Augustin Dumay. Excellent stuff.

    A pianist I like in Schumann is Murray Perahia. He’s a pianist who typically excels in Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, but whose playing is a tad too light for Beethoven’s sonatas – at least to my ears. His Beethoven piano concertos with Bernard Haitink, on the other hand, are great. An exception to the rule, I’d say 🙂 Other Schubert interpreters I like are Radu Lupu, Alfred Brendel and Imogen Cooper.

    As with jazz pianists I can go on and on and on…

    You mentioned Elly Ney earlier. I know her name, but I’ve never heard anything by her on record/CD. She certainly was a shady personality, especially during the Nazi years.

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  8. Do check out Maria João Pires’ Schumann interpretations, they’re equally great.

    I have absolutely nothing by Murray Perahia, I think. Sounds like I have to check him out. Will do so.

    Elly Ney is probably the weirdest pianist I’ve ever encountered. Maybe I’ll put a post together on her one day. I just don’t know if I’m up-to-date on all my psychoanalysis to even get a grip on her. 😉 Shady, yes, to the max, but also apparently someone who immersed herself so much in Beethoven that she even began to look like him.

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  9. Perahia’s interpretations of the Mozart piano concerti are wonderful. They were collected in a box that’s pretty cheap nowadays. Highly recommended!

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  10. Well, if it’s “pretty cheap”, I guess I have to check it out, me being a cheapskate and all of that.
    🙂

    Reply

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