Suggestion to Improve iTunes Store Searching for Classical Music

I think the title of this post is almost a given; search tools are generally designed for the majority of products available, and the iTunes Store’s search is effective mostly for popular music. But for classical music, there is a simple improvement that Apple could make that would greatly enhance searching (and probably sales): add a Label field to the Power Search.

Many classical music fans search for recordings by composer and performer, but also by label, since many classical labels have a certain uniqueness or originality. Not only would one want to search for certain works on major labels, but I’m thinking of the “mid-sized” labels that do so much for classical music today: Bis, Hyperion and Harmonia Mundi are just three examples of dynamic labels that release music that often is less commercial and more interesting than the majors. Call them the “indies” of classical music, but don’t forget that there are hundreds of indies in the classical sector: in fact, these days most interesting recordings come out of independent labels, as the majors focus on crossover acts or repackaging older recordings for re-release.

So adding a Label field to searches would allow you to, say, browse what a given label has released, and especially see what’s new from them. Since what’s new on the iTunes Store doesn’t always correspond to what’s new on their web sites (there can be a delay before their music makes it to the iTunes Store), it could be a way of keeping up with the latest releases available digitally.

Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

The Rest is Noise
Alex Ross
640 pages. Farrar, Strauss, Girous, 2007. $30

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“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (and blogger: his web site is also called The Rest is Noise ) has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesn’t count, but Ross focuses more on the “why” than the “what”.

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that “illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change,” Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didn’t just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a bird’s-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for difference’s sake (it “begins in mystique and ends in politics”). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, “The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases,” or, “the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords.” He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; there’s no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And that’s probably the weakest part of this book: even though it’s not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Ross’s writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay. (This could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibelius’s music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th.) His analysis of music during Nazi Germany, and during the United States in the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing what’s being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, it’s not clear how much Ross actually likes the music he’s writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But it’s clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and it’s a shame that there’s not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of America’s most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to totally ignore the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While it’s only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, it’s time to go out and listen.

Note: on September 23, it was announced that Alex Ross received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Congrats!

iTunes 8 and Large Libraries: Faster, Much Faster

I’ve complained about iTunes being slow with large libraries, but I’m happy to say that with Apple’s release of iTunes 8, this problem is greatly attenuated. Tagging, ripping, even checking and unchecking items is much quicker. There’s still a tiny lag, but very short, when I check or uncheck an item. When tagging, things go really fast: whereas before, it could take 30 seconds to change tags for a single album (say adding a comment tag or changing a name in the tags), now it’s instantaneous. I tried changing tags on hundreds of files at once, and that is fast as well; you see the progress, but it’s no longer 5 seconds per file as it was before.

I’m very happy that Apple resolved this issue, as more and more people have been complaining about it. It seems that iTunes is no longer writing the library file for each change; in the past, you could see the file being rewritten, and see temp files being written as well. I suspect that they now write the changes only once after they have finished and increment them with the library file in memory. Whatever they’ve done under the hood, though it works.

One oddity with the new version of iTunes: my Album Artwork folder is more than 600 MB. This folder is used locally for iTunes to display your album art; it’s a sort of cache folder. Before, this folder was about half that size, but the way iTunes parses artwork must have changed. Looking at some of the files, it seems that they are caching files of different sizes for different uses, hence the increase in size. If you back up your home folder regularly, you could exclude this folder (or at least its Cache subfolder, which contains most of the files); iTunes will recreate this if necessary.

Should You Re-Rip Your Music?

This is not an existential question, but a very practical one. While it won’t apply to all your music, you might want to consider doing so for certain CDs.

Here’s what happened to me. I was listening to a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Robert Hill this morning, and noticed that there was a tiny hiccup between the tracks. With iTunes playing music gapless, since version 7.0, this shouldn’t have happened. But I suspected that it might have had something to do with the ripping: I had originally imported this CD under iTunes 5, a couple of years ago.

I thought the problem might have been in the original ripping, so I tried importing it again, and it plays fine. So, for some reason, even though iTunes “updated gapless playback information” for these tracks when version 7 came along, it didn’t do so correctly; or the actual rip was different back then. In any case, if you notice any problems like this, you might want to rerip the CDs that don’t sound perfect.

iTunes and Large Libraries: Still Slow, Slow, Slow

I have a lot of music: my iTunes library currently contains about 40,000 tracks. I buy a lot of CDs, buy music from the iTunes Store, listen to audiobooks, and download podcasts. This library increases in size as I rip more music, and it has gotten to the point where performance is very, very poor.

I have a Mac Pro (with four cores) that has 4 GB RAM and plenty of hard disk space, so I’m clearly near the high end of potential performance. But as iTunes has progressed, it has not improved its performance; whenever I make any changes in my library (change tags, add tracks, download podcasts), it takes about 5 seconds for the program to become responsive. I get a spinning beach-ball and the program simply pauses (though, to be fair, in most cases it continues playing music if I’m listening to something with iTunes).

I first saw performance problems when ripping CDs, a bit more than a year ago when I bought my Mac Pro. I had hoped it would be faster than my previous computer, a G5 iMac, but it was only marginally more rapid. So I bought a second optical drive: a 52x CD-only drive (the Mac Pro has a superdrive which reads CDs slower than that). This improved ripping speeds a bit, but I finally got fast rips when I created a second iTunes library just for ripping – this proves that the problem is the library size, not the program itself, my optical drive, or my Mac. I can get up to 40x rips now, at the ends of CDs, compared to a max of around 22x with the superdrive.

My iTunes Library file is large: 68 MB. My guess is that iTunes, when working with a file this size, has to write the file anew each time there is a change, and that this is what slows down the program. I see 5-second delays when I simply download a podcast (at the end of the download, when, I assume, the file’s information is written to the library file), or when I uncheck tracks from smart playlists that contain only checked tracks. Any operation that leads to changes in the library file seem to cause the program to hang for five seconds.

I don’t see any solution, other than Apple improving the performance of iTunes and its library files. As people use iTunes more, they are likely to increase the number of tracks they have, and their performance will degrade, so more users will be seeing these problems, especially with slower computers.

At each release of an iTunes update, I hope that Apple will resolve this problem. Alas, after yet another update today (7.7.1) it seems to be even worse when ripping CDs.

UPDATE: When Apple release iTunes 8, responsiveness improved greatly, but there are still lags when tagging files and when importing. It is better, but it’s still far from perfect.

Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)