Book Review: Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

wheretheheartbeats-2.jpgJohn Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.

The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.

Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.

Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.

I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

His first major work using the I Ching was Music of Changes (, Amazon UK), a four-part work for piano where Cage used chance operations to determine the score.

They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.

Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.

It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.

I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a charlatan. In writing, for example, 4’33″, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was just a joke. Cage defends it, likening it to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, but those – just like Richard Stella’s later black paintings – say nothing. Cage made an interesting statement with 4’33″, but it was an empty statement. To me, his work stagnated once he settled into his aleatoric process.

1333127842-ln1uth25edxiht5n-1.jpegI met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.

Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.

HexagrammesHe explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:

This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)

But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later in a gallery in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.

Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.

You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.

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Why Do Classical Record Labels Overprice their Wares on the iTunes Store?

There’s one thing I don’t get about classical record labels and digital sales. Here’s an example: The Belcea Quartet’s complete Beethoven string quartets, on Zig-Zag Territoires, a French label.

On the iTunes Store:


And on


What’s the logic behind that? This is just one example of many. To be fair, this is less common with single discs, but the prices of most box sets are much lower on plastic.

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Some Forthcoming Classical Box Sets

I’ve been browsing the online music vendors again, and have found a handful of soon-to-be-released box sets that are on my wish list (or already ordered).

51R0I028GNL._SY450_.jpgThe first is The Leonard Bernstein Collection Volume One, from DG, due out on March 24. (, Amazon UK) This is a 60-disc set of Lenny’s recordings on DG, after he left Columbia. Many of the Columbia recordings are available in the wonderful Leonard Bernstein Symphony Edition box set. (, Amazon UK) I hope Sony will release a follow-up to that set, with recordings that are not symphonies.

51XxWlbX08L._SX450_.jpgSviatoslav Richter’s solo recordings are collected in a recently released box set on Decca. (, Amazon UK) This extraordinary pianist’s collected recordings from Philips, DG and Decca on 33 discs. There is plenty of great music in this set.

81wpNn89SFL._SL1500_.jpgSir Colin Davis is the object of a box set on RCA: Sir Colin Davis: The Complete RCA Legacy. (, Amazon UK) On 51 discs, this great conductor’s recordings with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the London Symphony Orchestra. I especially like the recordings of Sibelius symphonies he did with the LSO in the early 2000s; there are seven discs of that cycle in this set. The box costs less than what I paid for those individual discs…

91FDWQKpiML._SL1500_.jpgI’m not a fan of Luciano Pavarotti, but it’s the 50th anniversary of his first recording. As such, Decca is releasing a 28-disc set, Luciano Pavarotti Edition 1 : The First Decade. (, Amazon UK) This is selling for more than what the Colin Davis set costs, and Decca is clearly going to try and make some profit on this one, with separate boxes for each decade. Good stuff if you like that kind of music, but it’s not what gets me excited musically.

81fNj9MpBvL._SL1410_.jpgThe 36-disc Bernard Haitink The Symphony Edition (, Amazon UK) is a retrospective of this great conductor’s work, which includes his 25-year tenure as leader of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. It contains music by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, originally recorded for Philips, all played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Here are a few more. David Zinman’s Great Symphonies: The Zurich Years 1995-2014 (, Amazon UK) on Sony; Philippe Entremont: The Complete Piano Concerto Recordings (, Amazon UK), also on Sony, on 19 discs; Fritz Reiner Conducts Richard Strauss – The Complete RCA and Columbia Recordings, 11 discs on Sony (, Amazon UK); Istvan Kertez, The London Years, 12 discs on Decca (, Amazon UK); 10 discs of Haydn string quartets, by the excellent period ensemble the Quatuor Mosaïques, on Naïve (, Amazon UK). That should keep you busy for a while!

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Essential Music: Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2

Charles Ives was one of America’s most singular composers, and arguably the first truly American voice in classical music. However, his music was hardly known beyond a small circle of outsiders until the early 1950s. By then, Ives had long since stopped composing, having created a body of work that includes four symphonies, two piano sonatas, three string quartets, 114 songs, and a number of other works.

Ives studied music at Yale, following a musical education with his father, who was a band leader for the Union Army in the Civil War. After graduating from Yale, he took a job with an insurance company, and eventually made millions from the insurance industry, composing in his spare time.

Much of Ives’ music is dissonant and polyrhythmic – he famously witnessed an experiment by his father, where two marching bands, playing different tunes, converging in cacophony in a town square. His Concord Sonata – his second piano sonata – is a gnarly programmatic piece about four American thinkers, full of dissonance and chromaticism. Some of his music was performed during his lifetime; he wasn’t unknown, but he was only known among the musical avant-garde, composers such as Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Carl Ruggles and Aaron Copland.

Ives’ second symphony is one of his most accessible works. While his first symphony, a student work composed at Yale, is fairly standard for the time, the second symphony shows Ives using many of the motifs that figure in the rest of his work. He notably weaves American popular songs into the symphony, such as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Camptown Races, Long, Long Ago, and America the Beautiful, as well as riffs on Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. But the result is one of the most charmingly American symphonic works, and one that gives me a frisson every time I get to the finale.

51EGZRXZX1L._SX300_.jpgWhen the symphony was premiered in 1951, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic – who would later champion Ives’ music – the composer heard it on a radio, and wasn’t impressed. He had long since turned the page on composing, stopping in 1927, when he told his wife, “nothing sounds right.” But Bernstein’s premiere was a triumph, bringing Ives into the pantheon of great composers. Bernstein recorded the work in 1958 (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), and again in 1990 (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). The latter recording has wonderful sound, and is coupled with some other great, shorter works, such as Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question.

513PFa12cML._SY300_.jpgThere was a fair amount of controversy around Bernstein’s approach to Ives, having taken liberties with the score, notably in the final chord, a “raspberry,” that Bernstein extended (to much great effect). But Bernstein made this work come alive, and I find that his interpretation of this work is the benchmark. A new, corrected edition of the score was made in 2000, and Kenneth Schemmerhorn recorded this with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. (, Amazon UK) His reading lacks the punch of Bernstein’s, but is certainly closer to Ives’ intentions.

71Oxlj2XELL._SY300_.jpgOther conductors have recorded this work, including Michael Tilson Thomas (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), today’s most prominent supporter of Ives’ music. Tilson-Thomas’s recording dates from 1991, and I would love to hear an updated version, with the San Francisco Symphony that he directs.

Ives’ second symphony is one of the great American works of classical music. It was way ahead of its time when composed, and, while parts of it sound a bit standard, other parts, such as the final movement, remain unique. It’s a great introduction to the work of this composer who followed no school and trod his own path.

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Best Classical Music Download Sites

A reader recently asked if I could recommend good classical music download sites. Here’s a list of the best ones I know of; feel free to add any others in the comments. There are many other small labels and ensembles that sell music directly; I haven’t mentioned them here.

iTunes: You can’t make a list of classical music download sites without starting with the iTunes Store. Its classical music section has content from thousands of record labels. The iTunes Store is easy to use and ubiquitous, and focuses on new releases, though judicious searching will turn up some obscure back catalog titles. iTunes sells music in AAC format, 256 Kbps.


Amazon: Amazon is the second largest digital music retailer. Its classical music section has lots of music, including a huge number of bargains; those “111 track” albums aren’t all bad. It also discounts many albums, so if you visit regularly, you can save money on what you get there. Amazon sells music in MP3 format, generally 256 kbps, and their AutoRip feature, available on certain albums, provides you with instant downloads when you buy CDs.

Classics Online: This site sells music from Naxos and labels that the company distributes. As of this writing, they have over 73,000 albums, from a couple hundred labels. Classics Online sells music in MP3 320 Kbps, and some albums are available in FLAC. (Disclaimer: I have done some paid work for Naxos.)

Hyperion Records: Hyperion has a great download site, selling their own music, as well as a few other labels, including Gimmell. Their prices are competitive, and they offer discounts if you buy more than a certain amount. Hyperion sells music in MP3 VBR (variable bit rate), Apple Lossless and FLAC formats, and also sells high-resolution files. They also have a free monthly sampler with tracks from their latest releases. (Disclaimer: I have done some paid work for Hyperion.)


eClassical: Run by Bis Records, eClassical features Bis’s recordings, as well as recordings from several hundred other labels. The unique characteristic of eClassical is that they charge by the second, so you pay less for shorter albums. They often have “bundles” where they sell downloads of a group of albums at a low price. eClassical sells music in MP3 320 Kbps, FLAC, and have some albums in high-resolution format.

Gimmell Records: While I mentioned above that you can buy Gimmell’s recordings on the Hyperion web site, Gimmell has an interesting approach. They only sell music performed by The Tallis Scholars, but they sell it in a dozen formats. You can buy 320 Kbps MP3s, FLAC or Apple Lossless files, but also Windows Media Lossless, surround sound 5.1 FLACs, and a number of high-resolution formats. It can be a bit confusing, because there are so many options, but once you know what you want, it’s easy to use.


Linn Records: This site sells recordings by Linn itself, as well as several dozen other labels, including majors such as Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, ECM and others. Linn is trying to become a specialist in high-resolution files, but also sells MP3 320 Kbps, FLAC and Apple Lossless files.

Qobuz: This French site sells music from many different labels in all genres. But they have a particularly good classical selection, and include digital booklets with many of their releases. Qobuz sells music in MP3 320 Kbps, FLAC, and also sells many high-resolution files. They also have a high-quality streaming offer. I’m not sure if they sell to all countries around the world; and, they haven’t bothered to use translators to localize their site, but use Google Translate, which results in some very clunky texts.

Pristine Classical: This site sells historic recordings; old recordings that have been cleaned up and remastered by four different engineers. The quality of the work they do is astounding: some of the recordings sound like they were made today. Pristine Classical sells music in MP3 and FLAC formats. They also offer a streaming subscription, and sell entire collections of their music on hard disk, and they have a “streaming radio” page where you can listen to excerpts of many of their recordings.


HD Tracks: This site sells only music in high resolution. It has selected recordings from dozens of labels, many of them classical. They sell music in FLAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV formats, at a variety of bit depths and sample rates. (And if you don’t know what that means, this site probably isn’t for you.)

The Classical Shop: This site, run by Chandos Records, features recordings from Chandos and a number of other labels. They sell music in MP3 320 Kbps, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and sell some albums in high-resolution and surround sound.

Channel Classics: This Dutch label sells its own recordings, in MP3 and FLAC formats, as well as high-resolution files. But Channel Classics is trying to spearhead the download of DSD (Direct Stream Digital) files, which are the same quality as SACDs. These are very large downloads, but if you have the bandwidth, check them out.

Da Capo: The Danish label, Da Capo, has a good download site, dedicated to their own recordings. While their catalog is limited, I’ve found some great music there. They sell their music in MP3 320 Kbps, FLAC and WMA formats, and sell some albums in high-resolution.

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Classical Music Is Dying. No It’s Not. Yes It Is. No It Isn’t.

There have been articles proclaiming the death of classical music for decades; some even back in the 19th century. A recent article in Slate – Requiem: Classical music in America is dead – brings back that evergreen trope.

It’s partly right, partly wrong.

One of the main takeaways from that article was the fact that classical record sales in the US have dropped to 2.8% of total sales.[1] Back in the 1990s, classical music sold more than 10% of records, but that may be skewed: Ii’s likely that a lot of classical listeners were replacing LPs with CDs, and that period has passed.[2]

However, that 2.8% figure is a rise from the 2012 figure of 2.4%, which, itself, saw a 21% drop from the previous year. It also represents a 4.9% increase in unit sales.

But this is all moot.

There are long-term indicators that suggest that the decline is real. There are fewer classical radio stations; fewer people attend classical concerts; and the average age of those attending is increasing. However, I wonder if “new music” is being ignored. Are contemporary classical releases and concerts counted as “classical?” Everywhere you read about how the young are attending these concerts; but is it enough?

From my point of view, as one who buys (a lot of) classical records, it is a golden age. Many record labels are now selling their recordings directly, making them easier to buy in both physical and digital formats. I can download a new album in minutes from labels in many countries. There is also a plethora of bargain-priced box sets, from both specialist labels[3] and major labels. I can buy boxes of 50 CDs from a major label for less than $100, and often closer to $60 or so. I’m able to fill in gaps in my collection, discover new works, and listen to a broader variety of music for much less than I used to. In some cases, a box set – say 20 to 30 discs – costs less than I paid for a single three-disc opera recording a decade ago.

Of course, this means that, if I spend the same amount of money on records each year, there is less to spread around per disc. Many of these box sets have been amortized ages ago, but there’s not a lot of income from these sets to finance new recordings.

Also, look at what counts as classical music. In this week’s Billboard charts, only three of the top 25 recordings are really classical. Several are by the classical equivalents of boys bands, by watered-down classical performers like Andre Rieu, or by borderline-pop singers such as Andrea Bocelli.

It’s interesting to compare with Slate’s 2007 article, Is classical music making a comeback?. In 2006, classical sales increased by 22.5%; but much of these sales were “the success of three artists whom highbrow fans often view with disdain: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo.”

Classical music has had its ups and downs over the years, and this past year’s dip may be offset by next year’s increase.

Update: Read Andy Doe’s rebuttal to the Slate article on the Proper Discord blog.

  1. PDF here Nielsen can’t even get the genre’s name right: they call it “classic” in the section on page two showing the total share of album sales.  ↩

  2. And the music industry certainly misses this golden age where they got people to replace much of their music collection.  ↩

  3. Such as Brilliant Classics, which licenses content from other labels, and repackages it, selling it at very low per-disc prices.  ↩

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Is the Classical “New Year’s Concert” Dead?

886444223270.170x170-75.jpgIt’s become an institution: the classical New Year’s Concert from Vienna. Played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, this concert is broadcast live on TV around the world, and released on CD and DVD shortly after. First performed in 1939, the concert now features a different conductor each year – since 1986 -, to try to sell an event that has become as exciting as an award ceremony.

It’s quite predictable. There are waltzes. Films of ballet dancers in some schloss somewhere. Shots of the well-heeled Viennese sitting in their seats. And shots of the almost-entirely male Vienna Philharmonic. (To be fair, there are a few women in the orchestra; in past years, nary a female was to be seen playing an instrument.)

Norman Lebrecht has pointed out that this year’s concert has only sold 611 copies in the US in the first 12 days of 2014. To be fair, the disc only went on sale on January 7, so that’s less than a week, but it’s still a dud.

The iTunes Store heavily promoted this album before its release, with banners for pre-orders, but if you look at the classical section of the iTunes Store, it’s nowhere to be seen. (You have to search for it to find it.) And among the best-selling albums in the iTunes Store’s classical genre, it is, as of this writing, number 121. I have no idea how many sales that represents, but it’s not much; look at some of the albums ahead of it. And there’s not a single review or rating.

But is this a surprise? How many different New Year’s concert recordings does anyone need? The music is essentially the same from year to year, the program simple and limited, and, unless you really, really like waltzes, it’s a 90-minute drag.

It could be that sales have dropped because of streaming; or because you can watch the concert on YouTube. Or that people simple don’t care any more.

Note: it is also possible that problems with the discs have limited physical sales. On, the disc is no longer sold. Amazon says:

While this item is available from other marketplace sellers on this page, it is not currently offered by because customers have told us there may be something wrong with our inventory of the item, the way we are shipping it, or the way it’s described here.

According to reviewers, the two discs in the package are the same.

However, this doesn’t explain the paltry digital sales.

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Music Of the Year 2013

I’ve bought a lot of music this year, and I thought I’d briefly highlight some of my favorite purchases. It was a very good year, with some truly wonderful releases.

Sunshine day dream bluray 1200 exclusiveOne of the best releases was the Grateful Dead’s Sunshine Daydream (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), a three-disc and one DVD set of the epic 8/27/72 concert in the scorching sun at Veneta, Oregon. Long a staple of tape traders, this concert has great sound, and some of the wonderful footage filmed during the concert – including the complete Dark Star – make this an essential Grateful Dead release.

The first recording of Dennis Johnson’s astounding minimalist work for piano, November, is one of the revelations of the year. This 1959 work had never been released on disc, and is a unique piece of slow, gradual, Feldmanesque minimal piano music.

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series continued with the release of volume 10, Another Self Portrait, dedicated to the period around the albums Self Portrait, Nashville Skyline and New Morning. While this wasn’t Dylan’s best period, this album shows that the songs of that time weren’t so bad after all.

This was followed up by Bob Dylan’s Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1. What can I say? A box set of all of Dylan’s albums? It’s a no-brainer.

I very much like Bach’s sacred cantatas, and one of my favorite series is that by John Eliot Gardiner, recorded during his “Bach cantata pilgrimage” of 2000. These recordings have finally been released in a box set, but it’s a limited edition, so if you want it, hurry up.

My son’s a big fan of electronic music, and he turned me on to two great bands this year. The first was Dawn of Midi, whose Dysnomia (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), is surprising, because it’s not electronic at all. It’s the work of a jazz piano quartet, and it sounds like electro-minimalism. The second new band is Darkside, whose Psychic (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) has been spinning a lot here. My son is obsessed with this band, which is a mixture of Pink Floyd-ish guitar and electro-dance, yet without the too-fast beat that much electronic music has. One of my faves of the year.

51jtWkeNZAL._AA160_.jpgHilary Hahn’s In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores(, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is a wonderful collection of short works that Hahn commissioned from contemporary composers. She plays these as encores, and the album gives an interesting overview of the many composers writing music today. The iTunes Store version has an extra track.

The Clash’s Sound System (, Amazon UK) is the ultimate collection of music by this seminal punk/post-punk band. The Clash was part of my soundtrack in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and these new remasters are just great.

And don’t forget an overview of classical box sets for this holiday season.

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