Category Archive • Music miscellaneous
January 10, 2005
Early meets world

DanteTroubadours.jpgRecently I bought a very cheap, very second-hand copy of this CD. It had a slightly exotic sound about it, even slightly Indian. The singing style in particular was more Indian classical than Western classical. Early music meets world music.

This CD, which was made in 1982, would suggest that for some time now classical musicians of the early sort been learning from traditional musicians of other parts of the world how early western music might have been done. The trouble with the West, from the early music point of view, is that it is so dynamic that past traditions just get steamrollered, in art as in everything else, and if you depend on social continuity and there are no important physical relics involved, then nothing survives. With music, the only physical relics are the instruments, or pictures of them and descriptions of them. The sound of the music itself is lost.

Less dynamic parts of the world may oblige their people to remain stuck in poverty, but they do offer indirect evidence, in the form of surviving musical traditions, of how the Western music of long ago used to sound. Certainly Martin Best, the man in charge of this CD, seems to have made use of such knowledge. That, at any rate, is how it sounds to me.

And then last Saturday, on the BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show, they broadcast some medieval music from Santiago de Compostela, in north western Spain. This time, the "world" connection was made explicit, because in one of the pieces they played, a traditional Arabic orchestra (Fes Abdelkrim Rais Andalusian Orchestra) was brought in to help. I think I have that right.

I'm outside my core musical competence here, but I find this coming together of "early" and "world" musics to be most interesting.

My impression is that early music has not always been like this, despite that Martin Best CD. Early music has mostly been quiet and precious. And world music has been a world away. Yet the connection ought to be obvious.

Even more interesting is the way that early music and world music are both now converging on being less authentic (the authentic thing having now been recorded) and more entertaining. Again, that's just a casual impression.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:18 AM
November 05, 2004
Why and how do we do music?

This sounds very interesting:

… Why is music – universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions – so pervasive and important to us? Could its emergence have enhanced human survival somehow, such as by aiding courtship, as Geoffrey F. Miller of the University of New Mexico has proposed? Or did it originally help us by promoting social cohesion in groups that had grown too large for grooming, as suggested by Robin M. Dunbar of the University of Liverpool? On the other hand, to use the words of Harvard University's Steven Pinker, is music just "auditory cheesecake" – a happy accident of evolution that happens to tickle the brain's fancy?

Read the whole thing here. Thanks, as so often, to Arts & Letters Daily.

Further quote that I couldn't resist:

… After suffering a stroke in 1953, Vissarion Shebalin, a Russian composer, could no longer talk or understand speech, yet he retained the ability to write music until his death 10 years later. …

He could not understand speech, yet he could write music. Amazing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:18 PM
October 17, 2004
Be afraid

Instapundit, of all people, links to this menacing instrument:

DigitalAccordion.jpg

Although, now I come to think of it, I seem to recall him being some kind of musician himself.

Announcing the World's First Complete Digital Accordion

Roland is pleased to introduce another milestone in digital musical instrument history – the V-Accordion. Models FR-7 and FR-5 are the first instruments of their type to successfully integrate powerful digital technology such as new Physical Behavior Modeling (PBM) into a traditional accordion design, offering performance features and authentic sounds that appeal to a wide range of musical styles.

People in leather shorts and braces, but with modernistically coloured hairdos, will soon be emitting techno-folk-music.

There have long been electro-pianos capable of reproducing all sounds ever made, able to redo the Ode to Joy in the manner of a chorus of barking dogs or orgasmic actresses or foghorns. Now, this device has gone portable.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:54 PM
October 13, 2004
Late night thoughts on intellectual property etc.

The Social Affairs Unit blog is everything that Brian's Culture Blog is not, culture-wise. They have a theatre and opera critic, who goes to the theatre and to the opera. They have a guy who reads novels, a guy who goes to art galleries, a guy who goes to classical music concerts. No need for links, just go there and scroll down. It's all there. Seriously, if you are angry with me for not being cultural enough and just bombarding you with my stupid photos and my stupid opinions about old classical CDs that have been around for decades, and non-classical movies ditto, that's the place to go.

The latest posting there is by Tyler Cowen and it is really interesting, I think. It's about the lawsuits that Big Music is launching against lots of quite big downloaders. I tried picking out paragraphs that were better than the other paragraphs, but the truth is they're all good, and I recommend you read the lot.

I have already posted on this subject here, here being at the CNE Intellectual Property blog, which I actually get paid to do a weekly piece for. As Monica in Friends would say: I know!

The line that CNE takes on Intellectual Property is that it is Very Good. But the line I tend to take at that blog is that given the state of technology these days, there's at least a decent chance that a different approach to people stealing ideas will emerge, based on the fact that when they do, that might be good. I mean, take today. This guy stole something of mine, from in among this). Just copied it and stuck it up at his blog. The nerve of him. "Quote of the day" or some such palaver. But he didn't fool me. He nicked it. He couldn't be bothered to write his own posting, so he swiped a bit of mine instead. But am I bitter? Moi? No of course I'm not bitter. Why would I be? This is the age of the Internet, and when this kind of thing happens, the stealee gains as well as the stealer, to the point where we don't think of it as stealing at all.

Now you may say, he did a link to my original, and he cited me as the one who originally wrote it, and he even spelt my surname right, which doesn't happen always I can tell you. What if he hadn't done this, and had really stolen it, to the point where he had tried to pass it off as his own? My point is, even if he had tried that, and I had eventually heard about it only by some very roundabout means, I could have pointed to my original post and said, pretty convincingly I believe, that I thought of it first and aren't I wonderful? Or, other people could have done this for me, thus boosting by global grandeur without me even knowing. In the Internet age, the people who first think of something tend to get the credit and the reputation, provided only that they tell the Internet as soon as they think of it. This didn't use to be, but now it is. When you consider how many people there are in the world, and how well connected they are all getting, that has to mean income-income to those with the reputational grandeur as well as just psychic income.

Besides which, don't knock psychic income. If you have lots of that it's amazing what you can get by on, income-income-wise. And, people will swap a lot of their income-income for psychic income. Or happiness, as it used to be called.

Anyway, I'm going to bed now. Tomorrow, more digital photography!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 AM
September 29, 2004
Super-discs?

My assumption has for long been that the Next Big Thing in music, movie, etc., storage is going to be accessing it from the Internet, rather than keeping in the form of Things, at home. In fact, this already is the Big Thing.

But there may be life in smaller Things for a few decades yet. I refuse to buy CDs for twice as much, even if they are in "SACD" super-surround orgasmasound with quadropheniac nobs on. But, if the price is right, I might consider getting the entire output of Beethoven, in SACD etc., on one disc.

Well, I probably wouldn't. But future generations might.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:59 PM
September 24, 2004
James Lileks agrees with me (again) about the music for Where Eagles Dare

James Lileks writes about the music for Where Eagles Dare as if he's the only person on earth who loves it. But, Lileks, you are not alone.

He offers two snatches of it on mp3: here and here. Click and be patient.

And hullo. It seems that Lileks has been on about WED before, and that I have linked to him before about it.

RAT. Ta-ta-ta-ta TAT.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:11 AM
July 28, 2004
Is pop music bad for business?

Is modern pop music just pop music, or does it subvert decency and undermine civilised values?

Here's a reason for corporations not to like the stuff:

The market share of Mitsubishi Motors North America, the United States unit of the Japanese automaker, has been halved in just a year, to 0.8 percent last month from 1.5 percent in June 2003, according to the Autodata Corporation. In June, the company's sales dropped 45.7 percent, to 12,301.

Mitsubishi announced last week that it would lay off 1,200 employees, or about a third of its work force in Normal, Ill., site of its American plant, where it produces the Galant sedan, the Eclipse sporty coupe car and the Endeavor sport utility vehicle.

Mitsubishi has also decreased its advertising. For years it pitched the brand to young consumers with cheap financing and emotional eye-catching ads set to the music of Average White Band, Iggy Pop and Republica. That strategy created some of its trouble because it suffered a high default rate on the loans. Analysts say that Mitsubishi needs to write off about $1 billion in bad loans.

Don't get me wrong, I love pop music. Some of my favourite tunes are pop tunes. I'm not prejudiced. But the suggestion here, that pop music will attract the wrong sort of customer, suggests that there might be other reasons for the predominance of particular sorts of music – commercial reasons – besides the mere likeability of the stuff.

I can almost feel a neo-Marxist theory of musical taste coming on. The superstructure of musical taste reflects the economic infrastructure, that is to say, it is the consequence of the kind of business that businessmen need to do.

Of course, if you are touting for mere repeat business, where the trustworthiness and decorum of your customers is less of a worry and where you take their money continuously, pop music is just what you want.

But if you are selling cars or houses, stick with the classical repertoire. That way, they won't default on you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:19 AM
July 14, 2004
Broadway musical redirection

AnnieGetYourGun.jpgI did a posting today at my Education Blog about this CD, and some of its lyrics, and picture of the cover of it didn't load properly. Also, the design was ungainly. Small pictures to the right do not mix well with a song lyric. So now I'm trying it here. If there is no picture here either, that means it failed again, and you can ignore this, which you probably would have done anyway.

Well, it seems now to be working. Very odd.

Just to fill in a bit more space, does liking Bernardette Peters make you (by which I mean me) gay? I shall continue to like Bernadette Peters anyway, but would like to know what conclusions people are going to draw from this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:22 PM
June 26, 2004
Bruce the Real Photographer on how disc jockeys should say who and what it was afterwards

I recently met up with my friend Bruce the Real Photographer, and he made an interesting point about disc jockeys and their annoying habits. He said that if he ever runs for public office, he'd promise a law compelling disc jockeys to say the name of the song and the name of the artist singing the song after they've played it, instead of going straight on to the next song. The thing is, he said, people tune into the song after it's already started, and they think that's nice, but then the bastard doesn't tell them who and what it is, and they spend the next ten years listening out for it and wondering what the hell it was. Apart from the compulsion bit, good point, I think.

Picture of Bruce the Real Photographer:

Bruce1.jpg

Pictures by Bruce the Real Photographer will follow when I've sorted them out and decided how to show them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:05 PM
June 19, 2004
Porn music … and another Twin Towers sighting

Is it just me, or is the music that they attach to soft porn movies an abomination? I would love soft porn if they didn't switch on ghastly wallpaper music as soon as the sex begins.

Like now for example. The sex has just begun. So, obviously, I have switched off the sound track. But until they began it they were having a really nice conversation, and although I'm guessing they aren't now saying very much, I could be wrong, and the thought bothers me. Also, they were presumably making the occasional sound of a more real sort.

Although, I must tell you, when they don't interrupt with wallpaper music, but do keep the actual sounds that the participants are making, that can be extremely disturbing. I've just seen the latest Jack Nicholson movie, the one where he falls in love with his latest girlfrield's mother, played by the not-as-young-as-she-was but still-doing-not-half-badly Diane Keaton. And Nicholson makes extraordinary groaning and snuffling noises, like a pig. I think these were the same noises he made when he played the Devil in The Witches of Eastwick, although my memory could be playing tricks on me about that. But I've definitely heard this noise somewhere before, and I am pretty sure it was Nicholson again, and that the setting was diabolical.

Wow, this particular soft porn movie just had a really great view of the Twin Towers.

To explain the significance of this image, I have to tell you a little about the plot. Basically, Our Handsome Hero has lucked into a job as a sex therapist counsellor type person. He has already done several sessions, if you know what I mean, and I know that you do. Well, two minutes ago Our Handsome Hero just recruited his Handsome Friend to help him share his workload, if you know what I mean … reprise. And that was when they showed the Twin Towers.

I think I know what they meant.

Read through the above, I realise that Jack Nicholson is better at getting sex and at doing sex than I am. And maybe my mistake has been not making pig noises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:23 AM
April 17, 2004
Big Music worries about Africa

The boss of Universal explains how Africa and Universal are on the same side in the CD music copying argument:

"What is now happening, which is very scary, is a deterioration of morals in how the consumer views piracy. They see it as a victimless crime. They don’t feel sorry for the music industry. There has been a change in perception caused by the popularity of blank CDs. People say that if a blank costs 10p, why do recorded discs cost £12? Their answer is that we must be ripping them off. They forget the cost in recording it.

"We cannot see these misguided people simply as thieving bastards – we have to try to educate them and show them how much it’s damaging the cultural environment."

Larsen cites Africa as showing the worst that can happen if piracy is allowed to run rife. "There was a time when we and other music majors had an office in six or seven African nations," he says. "Now, there is nothing between the Mediterranean and Johannesburg. We used to record a lot of local music. Now the only way you can hear it is if you go to a bar in Nairobi. There's nothing wrong with live music, but you can't share it with the world. So you destroy that cultural diversity in music."

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
April 08, 2004
Robotic performances

I picked up the latest BBC Music Magazine today, and it has this report:

robotrumpet.jpg

It seems that the days of the musician may be numbered. Toyota has unveiled a Robot that walks, talks and plays the trumpet … The 120-centimtre-tall humanoid has a lung function, dextrous fingers and mechanical lips, and made its debut at a Tokyo hotel with an accurate, if uninspired, rendition of 'When You Wish Upon A Star'.

In a more ambitious display of android musicianship, the Tokyo Philharmonic recently chose a robot to conduct Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. The 58-centimetre-tall robot, made by Sony Corporation, appeared before 70 orchestra members and admitted, 'I'm feeling nervous.'

I'm sure that the Tokyo Philharmonic speaks for many orchestras in preferring a robot to yet another conductor, with yet another interpretation that they have to get with.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
January 29, 2004
How Classical Music lives on in the cinema

Norman Lebrecht is a desperate doom-spreading protagonist for the future of Classical Music, and in this piece from earlier this month he tries to persuade himself that it is doing okay. I, on the other hand, note Classical Music's travails, confident that nothing this huge could possibly disappear without trace or subsequent influence.

And classical music does remain enormous in its cultural presence. Says Lebrecht:

… According to three Classic FM surveys, 15m people in Britain have a liking for orchestral music. About half of them listen to classical radio ...

Lebrecht is desperate to entice some of these millions into concert halls to sit through concert performances. Why? Don't know. He just is. Doesn't want his orchestral pals to have to switch to tele-marketing, presumably. And, live music is good for you, presumably. Drums and guitars bad, like carbohydrates in the Atkins diet.

Me, I'm coming to regard the future of Classical Music not as a desperate struggle, but as an obvious fact. It may not be a fact which keeps five London Symphony orchestras is permanent business, in fact if it did I'd be amazed. And rather disgusted, because that would be bound to involve a hell of a lot of subsidies from unconsulted taxpayers and shareholders. But survive it will, in some form, and since it will survive, it is bound to have creative consequences.

Perhaps the most interesting immediate after-echo of classic Classical Music is to be found in film music. While the official classical composers disappear into their various never never lands of atonalism, and then minimalism, and now … I can't remember, but I had it written down on a scrap of paper and I'll let you know … While the official classicals are off, you know, doing their feeble feeble things, and giving their first and last performances of each other's feeble feeble pieces, the ancient voice of the symphony orchestra continues to blare forth in the background of epics like the Lord of the Rings and Matrix movies. Those moments when classical music is at its most rock and roll, so to speak, such as the Dies Irae in Verdi's Requiem (or for that matter the Dies Irae in Britten's War Requiem), or the rhythmic string patterns of the more aggressive tank warfare music in Shostakovitch's symphonies, have resulted in a whole new epic style of film music making. I hear it every time I browse through the DVDs in EMI Oxford Street. Guitars do not jangle. Drums are often quiet. No, that's an orchestra doing that. Strange creatures with funny ears say portentously platitudinous things, and fifty violinists and violists and cellists are fending off the dole in the background.

I prefer listening to Verdi's actual Requiem, Britten's actual War Requiem, and Shostakovitch's actual symphonies, to listening to all the various film scores that have been influenced by such music, so I'm probably not the best person to be discussing the nuances of the work of John Williams or … all the other guys who write rather like John Williams. I can only offer small snatches of musical recollection from among my years of movie watching.

Consider 2001: A Space Odyssey. You really don't have to be very musically well informed to know that the music Kubrick chose for that was classical. Who could forget the rocket slowly inching its way towards the huge space wheel to the sound of the Blue Danube? But by the time I heard that, I had already been transfixed by the music Kubrick had already used at the beginning, that amazing thing with the drums and organ and brass. Wow, I thought, that was really something. It turned out, of course, to be Also Sprach Zarathustra, by not-Johann Strauss, that is to say by Richard Strauss. The music for 2001, or more precisely the feeling about music that 2001 tapped into, was crucial to the future of Classical Music because what it said was: Classical Music has a future. It will go to the stars in our space ships, alongside drinks machines, video-telephones and the boredom of interplanetary travel. (In the Alien movies, they hibernate. Me, I'd stay awake for longer, and listen to the complete Haydn string quartets or the complete Bach Cantatas.)

Or consider another movie from long ago, called The Lion in Winter, the one in which Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn played Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. The music for that was done, I just happen to remember, by John Barry, who cut his cinematic musical fangs on early James Bond movies. Twang twang bang bang doo-wop doo-wop. But faced with the job of evoking the dynastic rivalries of twelfth century Anglo-France, Barry resorted to a more classical idiom. It had the rhythmic insistence of pop, but he got a chorus and an orchestra to actually play it. I am not claiming that this was any sort of musical landmark, with ripples spreading onwards and outwards I'm just saying that this is typical of what happens when cinema composers want to step beyond the pop they got started in, or the contemporary action adventures they then move to when they get too old to do pop. When they want to evoke a bigger, older, more universal, more future-proof world, they reach for the classics.

Although, I just did some Lion in Winter googling, and the film is now held in higher regard by others besides me than I realised. So maybe it was a musical influence, and not just a musical symptom. Not much is said about John Barry's music in the stuff I've seen, but I remember it as having a huge effect on the atmosphere of the film, and accordingly a huge influence on the success of the film as a whole. And if that's so, then the other musicians will definitely have noted this.

And hello (googling "John Barry" as well as just "Lion in Winter" this time), what's this? Apparently John Barry got an Oscar for it. That would definitely have been noticed by the other musicians.

Whatever. What I'm saying is that thanks to Lions in Winter, Star Wars, Matrices and the rest of them, the basic musical grammar of classical music will go on being pounded into new generations. It won't go away. Universality equals Beethoven, is the subtext of all this. And since when did people ever turn their backs on universality.

There's a lot more going on with the non-death of Classical Music than mere film music, but that will do for today.

Expect comment from Michael Jennings, who really does like his film music, but oddly, has no fondness for traditional Classical Music itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:10 PM
December 13, 2003
Drown all the French

Last Thursday night I finished watching Krzysztof Kiewslowski's Three Colours Trilogy. Here are my conclusions. I thought of polishing them and sticking them up on Samizdata, but decided not to because that would be too exhausting. So here, all crude and immediate, but delayed, they are:

Blue is a boring story, worse than boringly told. This is a terrible film. Had it been on TV it would have been off in about ten minutes max, and that would have been that, Blue, White and Redwise. To think that brainless posh bimbo Juliette Binoche actually boasts in an attached interview that she found being in Blue more "interesting" than being in Jurassic Park. She spoke proudly of this decision as being a big influence – a path chooser as it were – on her career. I'll say.

Particularly dire is the fact that one of the leading characters in Blue is a composer, and we hear some of his music. This is always a mistake. It wasn't the kind of music such a person would produce. It was the kind of music a film music composer thinks that such a person should have produced, i.e. tuneful and upliftingly cliché ridden. But this was for a classical concert organised by the European Union. Tuneless slop would be the order of the day, so tuneful and uplifting slop is completely unrealistic. The actual composer of this stuff was a guy called Preiser, who also did all the real film music for the other two films.

White is an interesting story, quite interestingly told. Although maybe after seeing Blue, anything would have seemed okay.

Red is a quite interesting story, boringly told.

The only interesting or likeable major character in the three of them is the Pole, Karol. He marries and annoying French actressy type woman, and she dumps him because he is so poor he can't perform sexually, but he goes back to Poland, gets rich, and has his revenge. All the French characters in Blue, White and Red are decorative, boring, stupid, narcissistic and pointless, and doing utterly pointless things. They have very tiny brains (although in their tiny-brained way they do not realise this), and they occupy these tiny brains entirely with making themselves miserable. Sadly from the cinema audience point of view, they do this, what with their brains being so tiny, e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y. At the final end of the story there is a ferry disaster, which all the major characters turn out to have survived. Only Karol should have. The rest should have been drowned.

By the way, it isn't just that concert in Blue - which in typical Euro style never actually seems to happen, or is at least heavily delayed – that is being paid for by the EU; this entire set of films was made with the help of EU money. This strongly suggests to me that the European Union is doomed. Who but doomed idiots would pay for things like the things in these films to be said about them?

Why are all the French characters so intolerable? I can think of two possible reasons. First, Kiewslowski hates the French and wants to present them as boring idiots, and loves only his fellow countrymen. Second, my preferred explanation, Kiewslowski is himself an idiot, and imagines that the way his French characters behave is somehow elevated and meaningful, rather than stupid.

The European Union money aspect of the situation makes more sense with this idiotic-friendly interpretation of Kiewslowski's attitude to the French, which is strongly shared by many French persons of the European Union sort, I surmise.

Kiewslowski lavishes expensive state-of-the-art camerawork on these French persons as they go about their pointless existences, and thus the effect of watching Blue and Red is of having been kidnapped and imprisoned in a photograph exhibition, where all the captions consist of boring gibberish. Except, it's far, far worse than that, because you have to trudge through the exhibition at a set speed in a set time, reading all the stupid captions, and viewing all the stupidly pretty photos in a set order and for only a set time. My mind kept wandering. If I hadn't been able to rewind to find out what, if anything, had just been said, I would have got completely lost immediately.

In a way, these films are prophecies of the contrasting fortunes of France and Poland during the years following them. France has stagnated prettily. Poland has bounded ahead, crippled only by its amazing unwillingness to accept how much better it is doing than France, and pathetic belief that it must grovel politically to France. Why? People like Kiewslowski is my guess.

I know what you're thinking. Why the hell did I subject myself to this insane ordeal? Well, I kept hoping that things might improve, and during White, after a miserable first half hour spent in France, things moved to Poland and they did. Karol the Pole had a meaningful life, and he got on with it, and what is more he got on with it at a cinematically acceptable speed, giving the stupid French film star woman he had married the comeuppance she deserved. (Why she ended up on the ferry I didn't get. She should have stayed in prison.) Maybe Red would be as much better than White as White was better than Blue. To the end I lived in hope. After all, White proved that this man could entertain (he's dead now thank God), when he was in the mood to do so. That's the first reason I kept watching.

Second, insofar as most of it was rubbish, I kept watching because I knew that, what with me being a Culture Blogger, I would soon have the pleasure of informing the world of this fact. A misery denounced is still a misery, but it's a lot less of one.

Third, I have long been prejudiced against "Foreign Language" films. "Foreign Language" films, by the way, are not just films in a foreign language. They are films which either are in a foreign language, or which might as well be in a foreign language for all the sense they make. Look in Blockbuster under "foreign language", and you'll see just what I mean. English as a foreign language is not just something you can teach to Japanese students. English as a foreign language is the language of critically acclaimed and important films, full of meaningful (a critic-speak word meaning meaningless) camerawork, which happen to have been made in English, due to a commercial oversight by the people who normally ensure that such films only get made in real foreign languages.

Anyway, as I say, I acquired a prejudice when I was a peer-group-dominated undergraduate at Cambridge University against critically acclaimed meaningfully meaningless films, attending many such films, pretending to like them and only later realising that I thought they were mostly rubbish, and I wanted to check out whether my prejudice was still justified. Recently I've been noting a tendency in myself to become grown-up in my movie tastes, and not to like bad American movies either. What was happening? Was I becoming a continental European? Luckily I'm not, but I wanted to check it out.

Also, when some idiot at a party says to me: So, you hate meaningfully meaningless foreign language films do you?, when was the last time you saw one? – I want to be able to say that I saw one this century and that it was indeed rubbish. Blue certainly fitted that scenario.

A final word on all that critical acclaim. It's my understand that this three films were indeed critically acclaimed, and at the time they were emitted in the mid-nineties, I read some of this acclaim. But I made sure I read none of it this time around, googling the thing only to find out which order to watch them in. I will now look at this acclaim, because I expect it to confirm several more prejudices I have, this time not about movies so much as about movie critics. I promise nothing, but stay tuned.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
December 11, 2003
The economics of hip

This is fascinating, from that always fascinating world newspaper, the New York Times:

MEMPHIS

ON a Tuesday night at a downtown lounge here, Ryan Flickinger, 30, was preaching the economics of hip. Specifically, he was talking about young professionals, the most mobile class in American history, who are choosing not to come to this river city despite what seem attractive amenities: cheap housing, good music, excellent barbecue and a major employer, FedEx, with 30,000 jobs in the area.

"I want to start stealing those people from the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Birmingham," he said.

His audience was about six dozen members of Mpact Memphis, a group of 900 volunteers in their 20's and 30's who joined in 2001 to try to help Memphis lure people like them. In marketing terms, their mission is to build a brand.

This brand-building is part of a new wrinkle in urban development, said Anna McQuiston, 33, a volunteer at Mpact and the marketing director for a local real estate developer. "It's turning the formula around," she said. "You create an attractive place for people to live. Then the corporations will come after them."

Memphis, which has just over a million residents and is still scarred from the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is one of several cities that have come to see hip as a bottom line issue. In his 2002 book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," the economist Richard Florida wrote that the healthy cities of the 21st century will be those that can compete not for big companies but for educated, creative young people. This "creative class," he argued, will revitalize downtowns, start new companies, attract other entrepreneurs and build solid tax bases. Mr. Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that Austin, Seattle and Portland are thriving in part because they became hip destinations for young talent – offering not just jobs, but cafes, clubs, tattoo parlors, tolerant gay neighborhoods and bike routes. "If places like Buffalo, Grand Rapids, Memphis and Louisville do not follow suit," he wrote, "they will be hard pressed to survive."

It's odd that Memphis, birthplace of rock and roll if I remember my Peter Hall correctly, should need to learn the importance of being hip. I guess all the chaos and insanity that went along with that (see Peter Hall) put them off hipness for about fifty years.

The good news is, as Hall says, they have plenty of hip history to work with.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:23 PM
November 11, 2003
The evolutionary biology of music appreciation

I enjoyed this article by Christine Kenneally, linked to today by the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily.

The concluding paragraphs tickled me especially:

No matter how the connection between language and music is parsed, what is apparent is that our sense of music, even our love for it, is as deeply rooted in our biology and in our brains as language is. This is most obvious with babies, says Sandra Trehub at the University of Toronto, who also published a paper in the Nature Neuroscience special issue.

For babies, music and speech are on a continuum. Mothers use musical speech to "regulate infants' emotional states," Trehub says. Regardless of what language they speak, the voice all mothers use with babies is the same: "something between speech and song." This kind of communication "puts the baby in a trance-like state, which may proceed to sleep or extended periods of rapture." So if the babies of the world could understand the latest research on language and music, they probably wouldn't be very surprised. The upshot, says Trehub, is that music may be even more of a necessity than we realize.

That being only the checkmate, so to speak, of a quite extended argument, involving the ways in which animals might appreciate music (the point being that it would have to be their music rather than ours), and much else besides. What I found persuasive was that several times while reading the piece, I found myself asking: but what about …?, only for that exact point to be answered in the next paragraph.

Worth reading all of it, in other words.

Of course, the piece doesn't explain music in its entirety. In particular it doesn't explain how music has changed and developed – and sometimes, I suppose, retreated and regressed – over the centuries. But it does sketch out the biological, species-specific expressive language within the limits of which the human effort to make music has necessarily expressed itself.

In particular, it explains with great finality that music will always be with us.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:52 PM
October 31, 2003
(North!) Korean xylophone prodigy

Via b3ta.com, who never cease to amuse, a link to a video of a cute three-year-old Korean girl playing the xylophone, really very well, and with a look of profound satisfaction on her face which is what makes it so ultra-cute.

UPDATE! NORTH Korean three-year-old girl! That puts the entire operation into a completely different and much more interesting/sinister light. This website deserves serious investigation.

North Korea, for those who have been immersed in Brahms piano concertos and oil paintings etc. for the last twenty years, is one of the nastiest countries on earth, currently suffering from mass starvation.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:26 PM
October 16, 2003
Digital music on the move

More on the theme of good enough sound being good enough, if there are other important benefits along with it, in this case ultra-portability:

LIKE the herds of ever-smaller personal cassette players that roamed the earth in the 1980's, droves of tiny devices that play music in digital form are peeking out from pockets, purses, briefcases and backpacks everywhere you turn these days.

Although some will argue that their audio fidelity is not as high, digital music players do have one distinct advantage over the portable cassette, disc and minidisc players competing for the public's ear: you can leave the tapes, CD's or minidiscs at home and still listen to lots of different albums or mixes. With a digital player, you can carry anywhere from two hours to four weeks of continuous music with you, ready to pour through your headphones.

Even since I read an Instapundit piece from way back when saying that the science and technology coverage in the New York Times is outstandingly good, I've been going there almost every day to check out what miracles and wonders they've got this time. (This was a recent find there.) These little music boxes aren't especially miraculous or wondrous. Most of us probably know by now that they exist. But how do they work? Which one to get? The next paragraph ends thus:

Here is an outline of what you need to know and acquire to get your music moving.

I don't care for portable music myself. But if it's your bag, and you want that bag to be extremely light …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:27 PM
September 19, 2003
James Lileks agrees with me about the music for Where Eagles Dare

And I'll repeat that with links. James Lileks agrees with me about the music for Where Eagles Dare:

Okay: red meat: "When Eagles Dare" is out on DVD! It’s notable for many reasons – Clint Eastwood appears to reduce the German army by 8 percent, for example. The fight on the cable car is still a nail-biter. Dick Burton cashes his paycheck with particular pleasure. But what I really love about this movie is the theme, which is perhaps the best 60s WW2 theme, period. I bought it for 99 cents at the downtown Fargo Woolworth in the cutout bin. Haven't heard it for years. I could sing every note.

Jawohl (sp).

However, as a wise commenter at the Barnes and Noble site linked to above reminds us, and in particular reminds anyone who is thinking of having another war against Germany, killing Germans is not actually as easy as this film makes it appear.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
September 04, 2003
Universal boldly cuts its CD prices

Capitalism can be brutal. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the fact is that people are downloading-free-from-the-internet-stroke-stealing-whichever lots of music, and Big Music has yet to invent a version of electronic barbed wire which doesn't threaten to reach out and wound the innocent, for instance by wrecking the PC of a listener whose only crime is to want to listen to a CD on it, or else simply by snooping on absolutely everyone in a way which threatens to undermine western civilisation and all that it stands for. So, Big Music is cutting its prices:

Battered by online piracy, the Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, said yesterday that it would cut prices on compact discs by as much as 30 percent in an aggressive attempt to lure consumers back into record stores.

The deep price cut — the only one to apply to new CD's since the format was introduced in the early 1980's — represents a gamble by Universal that more consumers will buy more CD's once the price dips below $13. It also reflects the profound degree to which Internet file-trading has managed to undermine the music business, Universal executives said.

"We are in the middle of a terrible situation where our music is being stolen," said Doug Morris, chairman of Universal, which includes labels like A&M and Island Def Jam and artists like Eminem, Elton John and U2. "We need to invigorate the market, and as an industry leader we felt we had to be bold and make a move."

Under the new pricing scheme, Universal would lower its wholesale price on a CD to $9.09 from $12.02. The company said it expected retail stores to lower CD prices to $12.98, from the $16.98 to $18.98 they now charge, and perhaps to as low as $10. When CD's first arrived on the market they cost $15.98, and have climbed from there.

The usual what-do-I-know? caveats apply with more than usual strength here, but I can't see this working. These lowered prices are still way high enough to keep the thieves thieving, but could do terrible damage to Big Music profits. It's one hell of a gamble. "Bold", like the man says. ("Courageous" is the Yes Minister version of that adjective, as in "stupid".)

I've also noticed another Big-Music-threatening syndrome that rattles about inside my head in circumstances like these. While DVD prices have been falling, I've caught myself saying, when confronted with a price of £7.99 down from £9.99 down from £12.99 down from £19.99: "Wait! There's more to come." A lowered price which I guess may actually only be a lowering price causes me to hold off until they make it an official fire sale.

We'll see.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:41 PM
August 18, 2003
The economics of CDs and DVDs

This Guardian has a story today about how the Internet, instead of wrecking the music industry, is reviving it, by forcing it to lower its CD prices.

But the economics of the Guardian piece is all over the place. Success is defined as total money spent, which, now that people are spending the same amounts of money on more and cheaper products, is holding up. Profits are falling, says the story, but that doesn't matter.

Oh yes it does. The record companies may be shifting their existing product at fire-sale prices, but these numbers won't encourage them to record new stuff.

For the time being, they can still make some money with their biggest selling pop artists. But the future of the music industry remains uncertain.

I've been noting the fall in classical CD prices for some time. I can't help noticing that sellers of CDs are now aware that one of my alternatives is to get hold of a copy of the CD in question by borrowing and copying it. The morals of this may be as wobbly as the Guardian's economics, but wobbly morals, unlike the grim certainties of economics, don't stop things happening. The basic, low-as-it-gets price for a quite decent but long available classical CD is just £. This compares very favourably with the bother of copying. That's what I paid, for example, for a very decent recording by Maria-Joao (sprinkle Spanish squiggles to taste) Pires, of Mozart's piano concertos 13, 14 and 23. Before ubiquitous CD burners, this would have set me back £3. at least.

It's the same with books. The price of books very exactly reflects the bother of photocopying from a legitimate copy, both in terms of how easy it is to get hold of a copy, and how easy it is to actually photocopy it. Not very, which is why remaindered books can still fetch several quid, despite their low tech nature – in fact because of it.

What's holding CD prices up, still, is that there are still plenty of listeners out there who can't be doing with this internet malarkey and still want to have an entirely separate system for music to the system they have for internet surfing or emailing or doing their homework. I'm one of these neanderthals. Soon we will all be dead. As we die, the Internet will gradually mutate into one vast, free, jukebox. For many it's that already. But not me. I like CDs. I like the idea of owning music, in the form of an object for each clutch of pieces. I feel about CDs what an earlier generation felt about LPs and what an even earlier one than that felt about 78s.

But I'm noticing that with movies my psychology is different. The knowledge that truly high definition movies for the home are yet to arrive, and the fact that a favourite movie does not immediately demand to be watched four more times (while a treasurable new CD demands exactly that), all make me less bothered about owning movies on DVD. If their purchase price resembles the cost of hiring, I'll buy. Over about twelve quid, forget it.

It doesn't help that DVDs come in ludicrously space-consuming boxes. At some point, I might seriously consider switching all the movies I do own on DVD into CD-type jewel cases. I mean, what nincompoop thought, after the electronics industry had sweated blood to get the info boiled down into a beer mat, that the way to package DVDs was to make them take up as much space as possible. I guess, what with VHS tapes, they were just addicted to big fat rectangles.

Plus, I suppose when they introduced DVDs they reckoned they'd charge forty quid for each one and that the average punter would own about twenty of them in his entire life.

But we punters are smarter than that. We know that the marginal cost of copying a movie is zero, near enough, no matter how many gazillions they may spend making the damn movies in the first place. We always knew, having watched the price of CDs drift downwards over the last two decades, that DVDs would soon move downwards too, and if they are still asking twenty quid for a favourite movie, to hell with them. We only buy a quarter as many of the damn thing. Ergo, DVD movie prices have plunged a lot more quickly than CD prices.

Soon there will be DVDs in the charity shops, just as there have long been quite decent CDs there.

The longer term future of both music making and movie making will become much more dispersed, and diverse. More will be done by people who just want to make music or make movies. Money will still be just as important, but in a different way. The typical customer of the new age will not be a passive listener or watcher, but an active creator.

A bit like blogging. We don't make money with our blogging. We are the customers – for bandwidth, for blogging software, for cameras and flash cards so we can decorate our blogs, for designers who can tart up the look of our blogs, for nicer screens, for nicer speakers to play each others' tunes.

The new age, in other words, will not be an age in which canned music and canned movies make the money. What will make the money will be the cans and the canning equipment. The instruments.

That's enough. Probably already too much. Sorry if it was all too boring and obvious.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
February 16, 2003
As Bonkers As Possible

I call myself a culture blogger, but I completely missed this, which the BBC reported on over ten days ago:

The first notes in the longest and slowest piece of music in history, designed to go on for 639 years, are being played on a German church organ on Wednesday.

The three notes, which will last for a year-and-a-half, are just the start of the piece, called As Slow As Possible.

Composed by late avant-garde composer John Cage, the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ's bellows being inflated.
The music will be played in Halberstadt, a small town renowned for its ancient organs in central Germany.

It was originally a 20-minute piece for piano, but a group of musicians and philosophers decided to take the title literally and work out how long the longest possible piece of music could last.

They settled on 639 years because the Halberstadt organ was 639 years old in the year 2000.

Peter Simple wouldn't need to change a word of that.

The phrase in the above report that gives the game away is the bit that says "and philosophers". It says something good about the music profession that on their own, and unlike their visual arts cousins, they might not have been capable of this degree of insanity. It took the addition of some philosophers to their number to push them completely over the boundary where it says "one step further and you are officially completely barking bonkers".

But that last bit can't be right. Surely if a piece of music can last for 639 years, there is no particular problem about it going on for a couple of centuries longer. What has the mere age of the Halberstadt organ in the year 2000 to do with the maximum length of a piece of music? Either the BBC has got this wrong, which is possible, or these musicians and philosophers are not only completely mad, but also, and unlike many other completely mad people, rather illogical.

But this report is rather late. Maybe this stunt has already fizzled out. Or maybe April 1st in Germany happens early in February.

My thanks to heavyweight culture watcher Dave Barry for drawing my attention to this extraordinarily silly event.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:45 AM