Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | iTunes

About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Crapware for Mac: A New iTunes Plug-In

So this company called TuneUp Media announced today the availability of a plug-in for iTunes for Mac that is supposed to make tagging and adding cover art easier. I downloaded the demo, installed it, and went to try and figure out what to do. There’s an application that opens, but doesn’t have any commands in its menus (other than a File menu that lets you quit it), and there’s supposed to be something that integrates with iTunes. No documentation, so I went to the website to look for help. Nothing telling me what to do, how to get started. I eventually found that it’s supposed to add something to the right side of my iTunes window; nothing there.

I figured it was time to uninstall it. Well, no help on that either. It turns out you need to remove the application (in /Applications) and then a plug-in in /Library/iTunes/iTunes Plug-ins. (If you don’t uninstall the latter, you’ll get an AppleScript dialog looking for the application each time you launch iTunes. It toook a while for me to find it, because there’s nothing on the web site explaining how to remove the crapware.

What can I say? Another Windows company releasing a lame port of their software for Mac, that can’t even be bothered to include documentation (or even a link to the Help page on their website), and, especially, not even an uninstaller? Geez, what a bunch of losers…

Follow-up: Read the comments for more on uninstalling this crapware. An intrepid reader found that there’s more to remove, and that there’s a hidden uninstaller. I guess I really should use my copy of AppZapper more often. I always forget about it, but it makes sense, because it’ll find the tiny files that litter up my Mac.

Follow-up follow-up: So out of curiosity, I re-downloaded the crapware, then reinstalled it to see what AppZapper could do. It only removed a few files. I suspect that TuneUp doesn’t install a proper receipt file that ApplZapper can use for its uninstallation…

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

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

“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.