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Why Is So Much Contemporary Classical Music Boring?

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I’ve recently enjoyed playing random albums in iTunes, finding albums I haven’t listened to in a long time to bring more variety to my listening. I don’t accept every suggestion, but I have listened to many of the albums that have come up that would fit in the “contemporary classical music” category, in part because I never think of listening to them.

And that made me wonder: why don’t I listen to many of these albums? It’s because many of them are simply boring.

This afternoon, one of the albums that popped up was a set of works by Paul Moravec, which includes his Pulitzer prize winning Tempest Fantasy. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is certainly an interesting work, with lots of nice bits, but, in the end, it’s eminently forgettable. Granted, this is better than twelve-tone music, which is mostly just annoying, but in this work, as in many other contemporary classical works, there’s nothing to hold on to, there’s nothing to remember.

For me, music can be visceral, digging deep into my soul, and the best music carves a place in my memories, and listening to great music can be a powerful experience. But so much contemporary music sounds like it’s written by recipe that it’s lost all of that power. Yes, this isn’t the same recipe that the serialists used, but it’s still just a collection of gimmicks that don’t add up to much.

This feeling isn’t new; I wrote something similar back in 2010 when reviewing two albums by Nico Muhly for MusicWeb International. At the time I said, focusing on particular on the type of choral music featured on the two discs:

Recently, a number of discs of choral music by living composers have had a certain popularity. This may be related to the faux spirituality that people hear in this music; that a choir is something people think of in connection with a church. I’m not especially moved by this type of bland choral music, and would much rather listen to the originals, be they Bach or plainchant. One thing that I miss in the works on this disc is any sound of joy. The music is played at plodding tempi – because that sounds more “spiritual”? – and, while the sound of the choir is delicious, it becomes, in the end, little more than an attractive background. Each piece sounds similar, and Muhly’s approach consists, for the most part, of repeating the same types of harmonies and melodic fragments. A bit of raucous organ playing in A Good Understanding provides some spice, but when the choir comes in, they sound just the way they do on all the other pieces.

I concluded the review saying:

I’m very interested in the direction that young composers like Muhly are taking. I can understand that they can incite a certain level of enthusiasm among those who see this “new music” as being something that is divorced from the classical canon, but that also rejects the long-dominant atonal contemporary classical music that, for many listeners, is a source of headaches.

This is classical music for those who don’t listen to classical music, and in a way that is admirable. If these 21st century composers – those like Muhly, Timothy Andres, David Lang or Paul Moravec – can attract new listeners to the broader classical genre, then this is a good thing. If they can revitalize a genre that has, for decades, been dominated by atonality, that is perhaps even better. But these discs by Muhly, while interesting, just don’t grab me. I may be wrong, as many others seem to think that this is wonderful. But I don’t find much here to come back to, and I already feel that I’ve listened to these discs more than enough.

I don’t mean to single out Mr. Muhly particularly, nor Mr. Moravec; they are certainly successful enough that it doesn’t matter what I say. And I’m not criticizing Mr. Andres: I have returned to his Home Stretch many times; I’m not at all bored by his music. But so much of this contemporary classical music is just uninteresting, like the violin concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen that Apple has promoted. A lot of it sounds like filler written by contemporary composers for other contemporary composers. Most of these composers are also academics, and there is a certain blandness that comes across in academic works that may be at the root of this type of music.

Many of these recordings sound good the first time, but don’t have much staying power. The fact that I forget I even own many of them is telling. It could be that my musical taste just doesn’t fit with this type of music, but I think it’s a lot more than that. My music library is full of a broad range of music, and in the classical area, that ranges from the middle ages to last year. I’m always open to new styles of music, and I’m actively curious about new music. But there’s simply little that sticks.

You, dear reader, may disagree; there may be lots of recent recordings that you return to. Feel free to express your disagreement in the comments, and point out any recordings of this type of music you have that really, truly remain memorable after a few listens.

Streaming Music Revenue Makes Big Increase, CD Sales Fall Again

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Nielsen SoundScan has released its mid-year report of digital music sales, and music streaming has made a huge leap in the past 12 months. In the middle of 2014, streaming has nearly doubled over last year, though there is a different way of calculating streaming.

The music industry uses “stream equivalent albums” (SEAs) when making calculations. An SEA was the equivalent of 2,000 streams last year, and this was based on the number of streams needed to equal the average wholesale price of an album, $7.50. Last year’s blended per-stream rate was approximately $0.00375, and this year it is around $0.005, so it takes only 1,500 streams to make up an SEA.

So, in the first half of 2014, there were 46.9 million SEAs, compared to 24.8 million last year; but that represents a 41% increase in the number of tracks streamed, not the nearly 100% increase in SEAs. Nevertheless, that’s a huge increase, showing that streaming music is gaining a foothold in the US music market.

Total album sales were down at 227 million, compared with 235 million in the previous year; not a huge decline (about 3.5%); this includes whole albums, track equivalent albums (ten tracks count as an album), and SEAs. Digital album sales, however (including track equivalent albums; which counts ten songs as an album), are down sharply, at 113.2 million, compared to 129.1 million last year.

So overall, in spite of a sharp rise in streaming, digital music sales are down. As music becomes more ubiquitous, the music industry is still struggling to keep they coffers full, and streaming hasn’t yet compensated for the loss in sales. However, at this rate, it could do so soon, especially if streaming music rates were to increase again.

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Good Listens: The Leonard Lopate Show Podcast

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mza_7074018866017961747.170x170-75.jpgI don’t have time to listen to a lot of podcasts, but one of the ones I’ve been listening to for ages is the Leonard Lopate Show, a radio show that is broadcast on WNYC in New York City. Mr. Lopate is a fascinating interviewer, and his show features guests in an eclectic range of subjects: books, movies, theater, science, health, language and much more.

Recent segments that have interested me include:

  • Just Because It’s on the Internet Doesn’t Mean It’s True
  • How Bad English Became Good English
  • Online Tracking Is Getting Creepier
  • How to Get Better Health Care from Your Doctor
  • House of Cards Author: Politics Isn’t a Place for Angels
  • Please Explain: Pain
  • Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise in America: 1848-1877
  • Genes, Race, and Human History
  • Glenn Greenwald on Edward Snowden and the ‘Inept and Menacing’ NSA
  • Words Wrought by Writers
  • The Secret Partnership Between Silicon Valley and the NSA

There are several segments a day, and, while I don’t listen to all of them, at least one a day interests me. One of the regular segments is Please Explain, where one or more experts explains a subject, such as pain, allergies, spiders, weeds, jellyfish and others.

There’s plenty of variety on this podcast, but Leonard Lopate does feature many well-known people. And he’s a wonderful interviewer, and seems to know a lot about each subject he covers (or does very good homework).

Subscribe to The Leonard Lopate Show on iTunes.

What Kind of Music Listener Are You?

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Neilsen, the rating company, has created a set of categories to define specific types of music listeners. Since this type of company needs to separate people into groups, it’s clearly part of their mandate to try and come up with something other than ages, social demographics, etc.

Here’s what they found:

  1. Music Loving Personalizers are passionate music listeners who are mainly seeking an emotional benefit by listening. They prefer free services and often play music in the background.
  2. Discriminating Audiophiles are highly engaged consumers who listen to and prefer a wide variety of audio, and are willing to pay for specific content.
  3. Convenience Seeking Traditionalists prefer broadcast radio, listening to their favorite stations and hosts; and they routinely listen in the car.
  4. Information Seeking Loyalists are heavy broadcast listeners who usually listen to their favorite talk programs for news, education and to stay informed of current events.
  5. Background Driving Defaulters are less engaged and typically have the radio on in the car for background entertainment or occasionally news and information.
  6. Techie Audio Enthusiasts are avid consumers of many types of audio. These listeners are early adopters of new platforms to satisfy their audio needs.

I find this sort of gobbledygook annoying. Trying to fit people into this type of category is fruitless. In fact, I don’t know what category I fit in. I seek an emotional benefit from listening to music (1); I’m a discriminating consumer (2), but not an audiophile; and I guess I am, in some ways, a techie audio enthusiast (6). But I also listen to some podcasts to keep up with the news (4).

I would propose a different split:

  • Purchasers of music (physical and digital)
  • Streamers (and YouTube, or MTV-like music video watchers)
  • Radio listeners
  • Accidental listeners (people who only listen to music played by others)

Then I’d categorize people by the amount of music they own: you could count CDs and digital downloads, but, for those who digitize their music, the size of their iTunes (or other music management app) library is a good example of how much music they listen to.

But the Nielsen categories have the advantage of sounding like total bullshit, so I’m sure they’ll go over very well in the music industry.

Music Industry Shoots Self in Foot, Again, with High-Resolution Music Labeling

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High-resolution music is a marketing ploy, but marketing only works when it’s done well. The music industry seems to not have learned from its past errors, and, in its new attempt to market high-resolution music, has created an alphabet soup that will confuse all but the most die-hard consumers.

Andrew Everard reports, on his blog, that the music industry has developed a new labeling system to describe high-resolution music. To begin with, it’s important to note that the “high-res” moniker tossed around willy-nilly covers a wide range of audio formats. It’s generally considered to be anything at a resolution higher than CD; in other words, at a bit depth or sample rate higher than the Redbook standard for CD of 16 bits, 44.1 kHz sample rate. So, a 16/48 recording is high-res; so is a 24/192 recording. And a DSD – Direct Stream Digital – is also high-res. But looking at the numbers, you can see that there’s a big difference. 24/96 is higher res than, say, 16/48, and DSD (2.8224 MHz) trumps them all. (But then there are even higher-res DSD formats…)

Remember the early days of CDs, when we had AAD, ADD and DDD recordings? This was somewhat easy to understand; in order, it was the recording, mastering and pressing formats. All CDs had the third D, but only some were recorded and/or mastered in digital, at least for a while.

Now, with high-res audio, you’ll have MQ-C, MQ-P, MQ-A and MQ-D. Huh? These follow the adoption of HRA (High-Resolution Audio), which consumers simply don’t use.

What do they mean?

  • MQ-C: From a CD master source (44.1 kHz/16 bit content). In other words, lossless CD-quality audio.
  • MQ-P: From a PCM master source 48 kHz/20 bit or higher; (typically 96/24 or 192/24 content).
  • MQ-A: From an analogue master source.
  • MQ-D: From a DSD/DSF master source (typically 2.8 or 5.6 MHz content)

But, as Everard points out:

OK, so at least the new labels will make clear the source of the recording – sort of –, provided the consumer is savvy enough to know the difference between PCM and DSD, for example, or between 48kHz/20-bit and 96kHz/24-bit. However, what the new system looks set to do is legitimise releases upsampled from CD quality to ‘HRA’ as genuine high-resolution: after all MQ-C is still going to be labelled as Master Quality.

In the end, this will further marginalize high-resolution audio, which is already something that only the geekiest audiophiles purchase. Which is probably as it should be.

Why Apple Won’t Be Selling High-Resolution Music Files Any Time Soon

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I’ve written about high-resolution music here several times, notably pointing out that it’s a marketing ploy to get you to spend more on music. Not everyone agrees, and I’m fine with that. One bastion of high-resolution apologetics is the Computer Audiophile website.[1] Chris Connaker, who founded the site, wrote an interesting article yesterday, explaining why he thinks High Resolution Audio Isn’t Coming Soon From Apple.

Chris makes the following points:

One. Wireless Carriers Don’t Want High Resolution Downloads (Or Lossless CD Quality Streaming)

Two. Record Labels Want Control And Revenue Again

Three. Beats

Four. Apple Has The High Resolution Content Only Because It Can

Five. Apple Isn’t A Specs Company

Six. Not Enough Apple Customers Care

Seven. iTunes Doesn’t Support Native Automatic Sample Rate Switching

I agree with much of his argument, though I think he’s mistaken about some of the points. I’m not convinced that wireless carriers have a problem with this. First, I can’t see a lot of people streaming high-resolution audio; any supposed gain in quality requires expensive equipment, and the ambient noise surrounding listeners when they’re mobile would eliminate any such quality. On the contrary, mobile carriers would love to sell users phone plans with higher data, at a price. Lower-priced plans have limited data, and to get unlimited data, you need to pay a pretty penny. (There are some exceptions, but all signs point to mobile carriers eliminating unlimited data plans.)

The iTunes issue is moot; Apple could add such a feature if they wanted to. And the point about Apple having high-resolution content is merely for their back end; they have this content to create Mastered for iTunes files, but they only have a very small amount of high-resolution content. They’ve only been requesting high-resolution files for a couple of years, and there are decades worth of music where high-resolution masters don’t even exist.

One point Chris misses is the fact that Apple announced a new audio library at the WWDC, which can use an iOS device’s Lightning connector to output music at 48 kHz; that’s not the high resolution audiophiles want; they want at least 96 kHz. If Apple’s developed the software and hardware to meet the specs of 48 kHz – that’s the sample rate for DVDs and Blu-Ray discs – they’re not going to suddenly increase that; they clearly thought about that limit.

But the biggest point is number six: Not enough Apple customers care. I’d go further: not enough music listeners care. High-resolution music looks good on paper, but any potential gains in quality are imperceptible, or require very expensive stereo systems. So it’s pretty much a non-starter to expect Apple to go this route.

On the other hand, I can see Apple selling music in lossless formats in the foreseeable future, as I recently discussed. Even though most users can’t tell the difference between 256 kbps AAC files and lossless, there’s a perception of having something inferior among enough listeners that it might make sense for Apple to sell lossless files as a premium product.

But all that is moot for now. Following Apple’s acquisition of Beats, I think the next place to look is streaming. Apple will surely be focusing their music efforts in that area as soon as the Beats deal is signed.


  1. I mean no disrespect; I think Computer Audiophile is an excellent website, and I recommend it highly.

Essential Music: Franz Schubert’s Complete Songs

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Music Review: Franz Schubert Complete Songs
Hyperion Records
40 CDs plus book containing song texts, 2005. List price £150.

Buy from: Amazon.com, Amazon UK. Buy directly from Hyperion Records, on CD or by download.

In 1987, Hyperion Records began a colossal project: the recording of all of Franz Schubert’s songs (or lieder), a total of 729 songs performed by over 60 soloists. Some of these songs are for male voice, others for female voice, and others for several singers together. (In comparison, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s landmark recording of all the lieder for solo male voice includes 463 songs on 21 CDs; now available at a bargain price.) Originally released on 37 CDs, over a period of 18 years (the amount of time it took Schubert to compose all these songs, before his early death), and grouped by theme or year, this new set presents the songs in chronological order. It is hard to understate the monumental scope of this set. Never before have all of these songs been available together, and never before have listeners been able to appreciate the broad range of Schubert’s compositions.

Beginning with an idea by accompanist Graham Johnson, and continued as a labor of love (and a relative commercial success), Hyperion Records managed to bring together many of the great lieder singers of the time, even providing showcases for young singers who would go on to become essential performers in this genre. From “classic” singers such as Ann Murray, Janet Baker and Peter Schreier, to new finds like Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, this set is full of great voices. Even the grandfather of Schubert lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, makes a cameo appearance, reading some poems that are part of the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, by Wilhelm Müller, which Schubert did not set to music.

Added to this set (and released separately in 2006) are three discs of songs by Schubert’s friends and contemporaries, including Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and others, giving the listener an overview of the type of lieder that influenced him. But it is the 37 discs of Schubert’s songs that are important here; the “extras” are interesting to become familiar with what other composers were writing at the time, and to compare styles with Schubert.

Listening to this set in chronological order is enlightening, as one can grasp the evolution in the subtlety and depth of Schubert’s compositions. Starting with his earliest songs, written in his teens, and progressing through his final year, when he was 31, the journey is long, yet rewarding. Schubert’s music is the most accomplished of the genre, and the excellent choice of soloists – along with the brilliant accompaniment by Graham Johnson – imbues a great deal of variety and a rich palette of vocal colors. Unlike the Fischer-Dieskau set (which, I must confess, is one of my absolute favorite sets of classical music), where one listens to the range and expanse of a single, masterful voice, the Hyperion set gives the listener a chance to discover the music in more variety. For those who do not like Fischer-Dieskau, this set can be an eye-opener. However, it will never, for me, replace the Fischer-Dieskau set…

While I do not like all the singers on this set, most of them are excellent. Many of the singers lack the immersion that Fischer-Dieskau had in this music, but others are revelations. The recordings by Brigitte Faessbender are excellent, as are those by Stephen Varcoe, a singer I was not familiar with before. Thomas Hampson’s recordings here show him in his youth, and many of the other male singers – such as Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson – rise to the occasion, providing many delightful performances. (You’ll notice my preference for male voices for this music, but this doesn’t mean that there are not many excellent female voices in this set; Edith Mathis’ performance of An die Musik is one of the highlights of the set, and Arleen Auger is excellent.)

One of the revelations in this set, for me, is the many songs for several singers, including those with chorus. These songs are a little-known and rarely recorded facet of Schubert’s work, and this set allows listeners to discover just how many such songs there are, and the general tone of joviality they express.

In addition to the 40 CDs in this set, Hyperion includes a book (258,096 words, as Hyperion specifies on the box) containing an introduction by Graham Johnson and the complete texts of all the songs. While this is laudable, there are a few negatives to this book. The type is relatively small (fine for teenaged eyes, perhaps, but that is clearly not the target audience for this set), and the English translations of the songs, in a column next to the German originals, are in italics, making them even harder to read. (For a different take, and easier readability, John Reed’s Schubert Song Companion is a good investment.) Broken down by year, with an introduction for each year talking about Schubert’s activities, the texts appear chronologically, as they do on the discs. The back of the book contains an index by title and by poet, composer or translator, but, alas, not by singer.

Purchasers of the original CDs in this series will be familiar with the copious notes by Graham Johnson that accompanies these discs; unfortunately, these notes are not included in the set. For in-depth information about the songs, Graham Johnson has expanded these liner notes to the original releases into a 3-volume, 3,000 page set which is being published in the summer of 2014.

All in all, this set is essential for any serious fan of Schubert’s lieder, or lieder in general. It’s also a relative bargain; congratulations are in order to Hyperion for having released the set at such an affordable price. While other recordings of Schubert’s lieder will be made, this set will clearly remain the benchmark for his music; with the exception, of course, of the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recordings. If you like this music, you should own this set.

Some Thoughts on Streaming Music

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Streaming music encourages detachment from the music; ownership encourages investment. When you flit around from one album, one song to another, you experience the music as mere entertainment. But when you own music, you’ve invested money in your purchase, which causes you to invest time in it as well. Instead of seeing the music is ephemeral, it enters your life, and you listen to it to see how it can change your life.

You may not like the music you’ve bought enough for it to become important to you; you may never listen to it more than a couple of times. But you may like it well enough that you listen to it frequently, and it may become a touchstone in your life. You can refer back to it easily: either by flipping through your shelves of CDs, or LPs, or by scrolling through your iTunes library, looking at what you listen to most, or what you’ve listened to recently, or just looking at what’s there, allowing each album, each artist’s name, each album cover, to elicit memories. With streaming, you don’t have that history of what you listened to, what you’ve invested your time in. So an album you listen to today may be forgotten in a year’s time.

In the end, it all comes down to how important music is to your life. If music, for you, it’s just a soundtrack, just background music, then streaming music will provide you the variety that you might want. But if music is important to you, if it contains an essential life essence for you, then you need to own the music you listen to in order to get to its marrow.