Marcel Proust in Audio

A la recherche du temps perdu, in audio, on 111 CDs (in French)

Buy from Amazon FR

I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust, author of A la recherche du temps perdu (or In Search of Lost Time, in English). Last year, a French publisher released a complete audio recording of this extraordinary novel, on 111 CDs, read by 6 well-known French actors. It clocks in at just over 148 hours, and I have been enjoying listening to these recordings in recent weeks. I’m not listening to it all at once, but rather one section at a time. The length and complexity of this work is part of the charm that makes this one of the pillars of French and world literature.

Since most of my readers don’t speak French, you might want to check out an English version, such as the 39-CD abridgment by Neville Jason. This is a good start, while waiting for Naxos (the publisher of this audiobook) to release a complete version in the near future.

If you’ve never read Proust, you might want to try the only part of this epic novel that is really a stand-alone section, Un Amour de Swann. In English, you could start with Swann’s Way , the first volume of the series. This is a great novel of decadence and passion, written in an inimitable style.

For some biographical information–after all, Proust’s novel was, to a large extent, about himself–you could try the excellent biography by William C. Carter, or an interesting audio biography by Neville Jason (included in the 39-CD set mentioned above). Finally, Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is an unexpected approach to this dense work, while Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is a more conventional introduction and guide book to the novel. No matter where you begin, though, Proust is the kind of author you may end up adopting for life. An excellent biography in French by Ghislain de Diesbach is available for those who read the original language.

Speech Events and E-Mail Mailing Lists

A query from a colleague led me to look back at a Master’s dissertation I wrote in 1996, back in the very early days of the Internet: Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists In this paper, I looked at the types of speech events used in this specific type of communication. From my abstract:

In this paper, I will discuss how mailing lists function, the different types of mailing lists that exist, and how the type of mailing list can influence the type of discourse that is used on the list. Then I will discuss the different types of speech events that are used on mailing lists. Finally, I will show how those speech events are realized by examining an extended thread from one mailing list.

I had a re-read of the paper this evening, something I hadn’t done in more than ten years (the last time I looked at it was when a linguistics journal asked me to provide a shorter version for publication, back in 2000). And, you know what, it’s actually kind of interesting. I wrote this paper back in a time when computer-mediated communication was new, and the general public hadn’t yet embraced the internet. In addition, I did all my research using the internet: I didn’t set foot in a single library, and found papers on the web, or contacted authors who sent me off-prints of articles they had written.

This probably won’t interest many of my readers, but some of you, who have been using the internet for a long time, may want to take a glance at it and see how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. My paper was the first on a niche subject – speech events in e-mail – and it has been quoted by many other papers. While it earned my a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics, I didn’t pursue the field after that. It’s a shame, because it was quite interesting, and with the tools we now have for analyzing textual corpora, the possibilities are endless.

DVD Notes: Complete BBC Shakespeare

A few years ago, I bought this wonderful complete set of the BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Recorded between 1978 and 1985, these recordings show their age, but feature a plethora of excellent actors and actresses, such as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Anthony Hopkins and Clive Swift. No modern productions here – all of these are period pieces, and feature the BBC’s minimalist sets and design. This design can be annoying in some productions, but in most the words take precedence and one ignores the sets.

As yet, I have only watched a handful of the DVDs, but the ones I have watched (the first four Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors and King Lear) are all excellent. As I said, they show their age, but they do represent a fairly consistent approach to the works, in spite of featuring a number of different directors (notably Jonathan Miller) throughout the series.

For Shakespeare fans, this is a must-have set, especially considering its relatively friendly price (£68 at the time of this writing). Note, however, that the BBC is embarking on a new series of Shakespeare plays in the near future, with today’s actors and actresses. I don’t think that’s any reason to avoid this set, however, as it shows a type of Shakespearean interpretation that is, in a way, for the ages.

This set isn’t sold at Amazon US, but you can get several more expensive box sets of the plays, or rent them from Amazon.

Update, September, 2011: since I first posted this in 2008, I’ve watched about half of the plays; I have no desire to go through them all in a hurry. While some productions are weaker than others, overall, the set is magnificent. Notable plays are Hamlet, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, and Othello, with Bob Hoskins as Iago. Some of the productions are a bit dated, and tacky, but the acting is generally very good to excellent. At the price at which this set is sold – a couple of quid per play – this really is a steal.

For a different way of approaching Shakespeare, check out this set of audio recordings of the plays.

The Crapification of iTunes’ Classical Music Store

In recent months, the quality of content that Apple highlights in the classical music section of the iTunes Store has taken a serious plunge. It now looks like what I guess Wal-Mart’s classical music section does (if they have one). I’ve been increasingly surprised by this, and today I decided to take a closer look.

Looking at the top-selling classical albums on iTunes, you see a number of cheap, “best of” albums: Bach: 100 Supreme Classical Masterpieces; 100 Must-Have Classical Songs A-Z; The 50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music; 100 Piano Classics; and so on. These are cheap sets, licensed from different classical labels, some featuring top-notch performers (the Bach set seems to contain only tracks from Bis, a Swedish label, with excellent performers), and others featuring unknowns (the 100 Must-Have Classical Songs has what seem to be mostly eastern European performers that I’ve never heard of). 12 of the 20 best-selling albums today are this type of compilation. Another best-seller is Invincible, by Two Steps from Hell, a compilation of movie trailer soundtracks. And there’s something called “Rock Symphonies,” which is anything but classical.

Looking beyond the top 20, there’s an album by George Winter (new age), some Andrea Bocelli (Italian pop songs), a recording by Ludovici Einaudi (ambient/new age), and a number of other non-classical recordings. Once you get past the first 25, you get “real” classical music, but there are also plenty more of those best-of albums.

But it goes beyond the best-sellers. Look at the first five “New and Notable” recordings:

And the first five “Recent Releases”:

And “Major Releases”:

The majority of the albums that the iTunes Store is highlighting are, quite simply, crap.

You can go further in the Recent Releases and Major Releases by clicking See All. For the former, I get a total of 64 albums, few of which are truly recent (released, say, in the past month). Some date back to early 2010, and others are even older. If I wanted to see what new recordings are available, there’s no way for me to do so. As for the Major Releases, clicking See All takes me to a list of 56 albums, about half of which are crap, and some as old as October 2009.

Then there’s the bricks in the center of the page. There are three “Essential” bricks, one for orchestral music, one for solo piano music, and a third for opera. Each one leads to a mere ten albums, seemingly chosen at random. They’re generally good performances, but what makes them “essential?” There are hundreds of albums that could be highlighted in those sections if there were some true editorial work done for classical music.

Now, I follow classical music, and I even review some classical CDs, so I’m pretty much aware that there are a large number of excellent albums released in the past few months. In the iTunes Store, however, I don’t see any of these. Okay, they do highlight a few “real” classical albums in the rotating graphics at the top of the page: there’s one by Hélène Grimaud, a performance of John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and a new Hilary Hahn album. But not all of these recordings are recent: the Hilary Hahn album is from last September. Looking at this section of the iTunes Store, I get the feeling that there are no more than a half-dozen “good” classical recordings, that most of what they are selling is classical music for people who don’t listen to classical music.

Things have changed. In the early years of the iTunes Music Store, some unofficial figures were bandied about suggesting that some 10% of the store’s sales were classical. There used to be bricks (those clickable graphics in the center of the pages) leading to lists of new releases by some of the more interesting classical labels, such as Bis, Hyperion and Naxos. But now, all that is gone. Apple has clearly caved in to Wal-Mart style classical music sales.

This is a shame, because the iTunes Store is a good way for people to buy classical music from labels that may not have distribution in a lot of countries. Sure, you can still find the music, if you know what you’re searching for, but the interest of any kind of store is to discover music you didn’t know about. Over the past few months, I’ve found that I’ve been ignoring the iTunes Store for classical music, and going to web sites that specialize in classical music. Perhaps this is what Apple wants; to drive away the classical music fans, and focus on music that makes bucks more quickly.

Essential Music: Ultravox!

Okay, I’m in a 70s music mood these days. Recent posts have been about Genesis and Fela Kuti, both of whom I discovered in the mid to late 70s, as well as Jerry Garcia, whose music has been with me since around 1976 and who, together with The Grateful Dead, is one of the staples of my iTunes library.

Today’s listen is Ultravox!, a sui generis group that flourished in the 70s, before changing drastically after founding singer-songwriter John Foxx left the band. The band’s first album, Ultravox!, was released in 1977. It was a combination of pre-punk, glam rock, and pre-new wave. (Ultravox would later become a popular new wave band, but I’ll get to that.) The quality of John Foxx’s songwriting, and singing, make it easy to put this album side-by-side with early Roxy Music and David Bowie, one of their influences, but the music is not at all derivative. Foxx is very sincere: In I Want to Be a Machine, Foxx sings like he really means it. The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned is a powerful rock ballad. And My Sex, with its combination of 70s Euro-drab-chic and Pink Floyd-esque sounds. Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, this album is a snapshot of a transitional period between early 70s rock and the nascent punk rock.

Released later the same year, the band’s second album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, takes the same moody music but pumps up the energy. From the punky Rockwrok and Fear in the Western World to the Euro-gray Hiroshima Mon Amour, through the introspective The Man Who Dies Every Day, Ultravox honed their sound, with catchy songs that nevertheless depict the monochromic urban world of 1970s England.

For their third album, released in 1978, Systems of Romance, Foxx is at his peak in songwriting, and Quiet Men would become his signature song, even after he left the band. The music becomes smoother and grayer, using synthesizers, and suggests what would soon be heard from Joy Division and other groups. Produced by Conny Plank, the producer of Kraftwerk, the influences of krautrock are clear. But this would be the last of the group’s albums with John Foxx, leaving this trilogy of excellent songs that depict the heart of a decade.

After Foxx left, Midge Ure came in as singer, and the group changed to a more new wave sound. In fact, listening to their 1980 Vienna, one would be hard pressed to find much of a link between the two periods. I saw Ultravox! live in a small club in New York in 1980, and they performed a combination of older songs along with those from Vienna (there were several hit singles from that album), and I recall the band all wearing those early-80s new wave coats while performing. (If you ever see any old new wave music videos, you’ll know what I mean.) It was a good performance, but I regret never seeing John Foxx perform live.

Foxx released Metamatic in 1980, which could be seen as the first real electro-pop album of the new wave era. Hugely influential, it was followed in 1981 by The Garden, and Foxx set out on a career of electronic and ambient music, and has been an important composer in this area.

But when I listen to those three early Ultravox! albums, I’m reminded of a wonderful period of music before MTV, on the cusp of punk, and before New Wave would bring a lot of bland, formatted music to the airwaves.

Essential Music: Genesis, Seconds Out

Back in the 1970s, as a teenager in New York City, I had amazing opportunities to see concerts by the world’s most popular bands. In the mid-70s, I became a fan of Genesis, the group formed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks back in 1967. Around 1976, I discovered their music through their album Trick of the Tail, the first album after Gabriel left the band. This led me to get their older albums – those with Gabriel – and their follow-up, Wind & Wuthering. These two mid-70s albums were excellent, but the music was different from the Gabriel era.

From the touring for these two albums, Genesis compiled a double-album called Seconds Out. It includes one of the great Peter Gabriel songs, Supper’s Ready, which is over 24 minutes in this live recording, along with many other songs from the 76-77 albums, and a few older songs (The Musical Box, Cinema Show, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).

But as a live album, Seconds Out is one of the highlights of the late 70s. It is consistent, well recorded, and well performed. Yes, it was the period after Gabriel left the band, and his unique voice and performance style were missing. But it wasn’t the descent into cloying pop music that would follow after 1980. Collins is a strong singer and drummer, and the album, in fact, has a strong presence of drums, with both Collins and Chester Thompson, who played with the band when touring, being central to the sound (especially in the closing Dance on a Volcano > Los Endos, two very drum-heavy songs).

I was able to see Genesis live just once, at Madison Square Garden, on July 29, 1978. This was a special performance, as there was an unannounced guest for an encore: Peter Gabriel came out and sang I Know What I Like with Phil Collins to close the show.

Genesis was a powerful performing band, with what was, for the time, an adventurous light show and excellent sound. I listen to Seconds Out from time to time and feel a bit younger. If you’re not familiar with Genesis back before they became a staple of MTV, this is a good place to start.