The real value of streaming music

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been watching my mad money grow to four figures. My mad money comes from a small online consulting business. The business is sporadic, which is fine because I don’t have much time for it anyhow. I use the money to buy stuff I would normally be too cheap to buy. At least that’s the theory. In practice I don’t buy much with it except the occasional meal or some show tickets. Most of it eventually goes into a bank account. I am paid via PayPal so for a while it stays in a PayPal account. If I want I can buy stuff on impulse with my PayPal debit card.

The truth is I don’t want much that I don’t already have. So I’ve been searching hard for stuff I might want. What I am wanting is not so much physical stuff but virtual stuff. That explains my propensity to buy theater tickets with this money. Most recently, I used the money to buy a streaming music service, mostly to see what that’s all about.

Streaming content is hardly new. The main purpose of the Internet these days apparently is to watch Netflix online. This kind of ticks off the ISPs, who would much rather we use their online movie services. This is causing a few ISPs to give preference to their traffic as opposed to Netflix, Amazon or the other services out there. Apparently they aren’t brave enough to compete on price. Movies of course are gigabytes of content, all streaming over high-speed networks. Music, on the other hand, is relatively small in size. It’s small enough that so far at least my employer hasn’t noticed that I’m listening to online music much of the day. This is a technical violation of the rules but, hey, I’m only sipping content because it’s music. I doubt the network police even notice.

It’s not that I listen to music at work to avoid work. Music actually makes me more productive. My office tends to be quiet, but when it is not it also helps tune out the noise in my vicinity. I avoid listening to music with words in it, as that can be distracting. Instead, I concentrate on classical music. Without voices to distract me, listening to music becomes a mostly subliminal experience. It helps me focus, so I actually get a lot more work done.

I also listen to streaming music at home when I expect to be in front of my computer for a while. At home of course I feel freer to experiment in non-classical genres. Any type of music at home helps me be more productive. That’s because I am usually not alone. Both my wife and my daughter tend to broadcast their lives somewhat. While I love them, I don’t need a constant stream of what’s on their minds. So streaming the music lets me tune them out.

So this is a service that is actually useful to me. Google charges $10 a month for its Google Music service. (There is a free service that is more limited.) I haven’t actually paid my first bill yet, as the first thirty days are free. This is good because even though it reputedly has ten million titles to listen to, I’m new to this streaming thing, and there are a few things I don’t like about Google Play Music. On my desktop it plays inside a browser, which is not the ideal way to play music. At least on my iMac, when I ask the computer to do something else the music will often stop for a few seconds because the CPU is busy doing something else. It’s like coming across a scratch in a record, for those old enough to remember playing vinyl records. That’s distracting. So far I haven’t found a separate media-streaming player, although there are apps for mobile devices that I haven’t tested. These should provide a more seamless experience. So I might well migrate to one of the dozens of other services out there. Google at least is unlikely to go belly up, which is why I started with it.

So I am finding real value to paying for a music streaming service. It makes me more productive and it allows me to multitask. My consciousness is focused on my task at hand in front of the computer. Subliminally though I am also appreciating the music. I add both joy and productivity simultaneously. Classical music is also great when I need to write creatively. It certainly helps when I blog, but when I write fiction it is especially useful. It unleashes parts of my mind that would probably not unlock, resulting I believe in better writing.

The real value of this service though is the virtually infinite variety of music that I now have access to. Like most people, I’ve tended to listen to a lot of music that I’ve heard before. Increasingly though I am just going with random music in a genre, particularly classical music, and let it subliminally affect my brain. This is revolutionary. It used to be that we tended to buy whatever the DJ decided to put on the air. Often if we had access to a good record store we could listen to CDs using headphones the store provided. Neither are good ways to expose yourself to divergent music. We can of course go on the recommendations of friends, attend concerts and listen to performers in jazz clubs.

We know that music affects the brain, usually in a good way. It seems to make new neural connections inside our brain. Listening to new music may help us live longer. It stimulates creativity and can certainly affect how you feel. And of course a lot of music is really interesting to listen to. Some of it is brilliant. Sampling a lot of diverse music allows me to decide for myself what new music is of interest to me. It allows me to appreciate artists I would have never heard before. In short, at $10 a month, it’s quite a bargain. Add in the power of Google’s music search engine, and its recommendation engine, and I am likelier to find music that I will really like. The more I play, the more I rate content, the better the experience should become.

I’m into musicals, so it is especially valuable here. I can hear virtually every version of Les Miserables ever produced, including the original French version. I can hear obscure musicals that are rarely staged. I can compare the 1939 version of Oklahoma with the most recently staged Broadway cast recording. What’s not to like?

Even with ten million recordings, Google Music is missing some content. There are a handful of Beatles songs, but that’s it. I understand I can get the Beatles through iTunes. It’s not a deal breaker for me. I am more interested in variety right now. I want to be taken places that I have never been to before. Google Music is essentially a vast record store with aisles extending so far away they fade into the distance. Moreover, I don’t have to go anywhere; I just have to plug in.

It looks like I found a good use for my mad money after all.

She is more like me than I thought

The Thinker by Rodin

There are children that are a chip off the old block, and then there is my daughter. Physically she has many of the attributes of her father (me). She tends toward being tall, with bigger feet and the proud Roman/English nose sported by my side of the family. However, she has never seemed to take after her dear old dad. Her room and car are usually a mess. Whereas I put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters after a meal, the best I can hope for is that she washes a pan or two and her plate and silverware end up at the bottom of the sink. Whereas I spend my leisure time reading news online or various political blogs, she is reading reddit.com and LOL Cats. If she shares interests in common with a parent, they seemed to be my wife’s, who is also looking at LOL Cats. My daughter likes most of the same TV shows my wife does. That is because my wife introduced her to them.

But lately there have been some weird signs from daughter-land. The other day I heard the theme music from the TV Series The West Wing emanating from her laptop computer. “Hey Dad! Guess what? I am on Season 1 of The West Wing!” she exclaimed. “And I really like it!” This got us into a deep fan discussion. Who is her favorite character? What episode does she like the best? When she got to the famous Christmas episode in Season 1, perhaps the best show in its entire seven seasons, she was crying at the end, just like me.

All this may have something to do with the fact that she is 23 now, and on the cusp of graduating from her interminably long quest to complete a bachelor’s degree. I was hoping her degree might be in engineering, like her father, but it’s in English. However, in retrospect, maybe she takes after her father here too. My bachelor’s degree was in communications. It wasn’t until the 1990s after ten years of doing IT work that I got a masters degree in engineering like my father.

My daughter and I are both creative writers, as evidenced in me by nearly ten years of writing this blog, and evidenced by her in various stories, none of which have yet been published. But just as I had (for a brief time anyhow) a literary agent about the time I graduated, she has one already, and her agent is reviewing her novel. It may suffer the same fate as my attempts to sell fiction did, but maybe not. For one thing, she is a better writer than I am. Her dream of making a living from writing fiction just might be realized. She promises her mother and I a chalet in Switzerland when she hits the big time, like JK Rowling. Meanwhile, of course, we subsidize her modest lifestyle, which includes tuition at a state university, her rent, her car and her living expenses. She dreams of an apartment and a cat of her own. Right now she has roommates.

Her interest in The West Wing truly surprised me, but it should not have. This is because she has become a politically active creature, just like me. She has not joined the Young Democrats or anything, but she did make a point to vote this year, to the extent that she drove home from Richmond to make sure her vote was cast. She is passionate about gay marriage, health care for all, and most issues of concern to liberal Democrats like me. Of course, her mother is as well. So she gets that from both of us. But my wife will largely ignore the front pages of newspapers. She is delving into the details of current political issues, albeit via reddit.com rather than The Washington Post.

Most surprising of all is her new interest in classical music. Four years ago we took our last family vacation to New England. One night we ended up at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony. It was the first time she had been to a classical music concert. She hated it. Her eyes rolled toward the heavens and could not wait to leave. At university however she is enrolled in a music appreciation course, and has been studying composers even I have not dabbled into, like Bedrich Smetana. However, even before her music appreciation course, she had been online downloading classical music. Maybe she took up my suggestion that it facilitates studying, since there are not usually any lyrics to distract you. I find that we are getting into rather deep conversations about classical music composers and their strengths and weaknesses. I am astounded by how quickly she is mastering this genre. For example, we can contrast Beethoven’s influence on artists like Brahms and Wagner. A couple of weeks ago she even joined us for a concert by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in part because her class required going to a live performance.

For a girl who rarely got A’s in school, we were often frustrated that her natural intelligence rarely translated into high grades. I still have no idea what kind of grades she is getting, but I do see evidence that her natural intelligence is coming out. I see it in her writing, in our conversations, in her term papers, in her ability to handle complex reasoning and exercise critical thinking. In this sense she is more like her mother. She picks up knowledge more indirectly than through studying, and most of it gets filed away for later use.

Her cautious nature may have come from me. Her friendships tend to be relatively few but deep. She mostly keeps her mouth shut in crowds but expounds at length in small groups. She tends to be firm in her opinions and can justify them at length.

On the cusp (we hope) of surviving independently, I still hope that she will embrace financial prudence. So far there is little sign that she will, but I do think it is getting observed and perhaps filed away for future use. She seems to be aware that her education is not just chance, but involved a great deal of planning, mostly by me. The one course she never got, and which is not even required in either school or college, is financial literacy. Trying to engage her on the topic usually leads to rolled eyes. Soon as she tries to make her income as an English major cover her life’s expenses she will have no choice. Toward that end she will find a couple of books under the Christmas tree on financial literacy that might help her. I’m not sure whether she will take the time to read them, but I am hopeful that she will.

Overall, I find myself warming to her more as an adult than I did as a child. I have always loved her of course, but she rarely seemed a person that I could relate to. More recently I am seeing that there is far more of me in her than I suspected, and it is mostly (I hope) the good stuff. I hope it rubs off. Life is far more complicated for her generation than for mine, and she will likely need every bit of her wits and her intelligence to thrive in this resource-competitive 21st century. Maybe I am guilty of wishful thinking, but I think that she eventually will. In time, I expect that I will learn some new tricks from lessons that she will teach me.

Ode to Ode to Joy

The Thinker by Rodin

I recently watched Copying Beethoven (review to come), a fictional movie based on the late life of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. It is centered around his last and most brilliant symphony, Symphony No. 9. This symphony in four movements concludes with the amazing and powerful chorale piece, Ode to Joy. The movie reenacts the symphony’s first performance in Vienna, right down to the vibrating wood floors not quite up to adequately holding the orchestra that played on it. (Watch it here.)

Unlike perhaps any other symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has endured, and this is probably because of Ode to Joy, which frames the last movement. In fact, the entire symphony is brilliant, powerful, profoundly moving, brooding at times and a delight to listen to. The symphony is so good that I deliberately limit my exposure to it to maybe once a year, lest its brilliance somehow dim from overplaying it.

The world agrees. There is arguably no symphony played more often or that is better known than Beethoven’s Ninth. Even the common layman who never listens to classical music will probably know of the Ninth, likely because they have heard snippets of Ode to Joy off and on over the years. Most can at least hum a few bars of the tune.

Sometimes the Ninth sneaks up on you. So it did with me a few weeks ago, when this version on YouTube showed up on my wife’s LiveJournal. This version shows just the Ode to Joy. Two things make it remarkable. First is that is performed in Japan by the Japanese. Japanese appreciate classical music, of course, as does most of the first world, and a lot of the non-first world. Second is that this was not just any performance. It included a chorus of not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand people, which nearly dwarfed the audience in the huge stadium.

It turns out the Japanese are obsessed with the Ninth, particularly during the holiday season. You can find performances in pretty much any city in Japan, often in multiple venues. The Japanese just get Beethoven in a way that perhaps even Germans do not. They have adopted him, and as you can see from the video their enthusiasm is genuine and uplifting. Probably only a handful of those ten thousand singers actually understand the German they are singing. It doesn’t matter. They emote the joy in Ode to Joy, which is, to say the least, an uplifting and joyful tune, not to mention a terrific way to conclude an almost God-like symphony.

The German poet Friedrich Shiller penned the actual ode itself in 1785. It might well have become a footnote to history had not Beethoven chose to immortalize it in song. It turns out that while joy tends to be fleeting, reacquainting oneself with Ode to Joy is always a joyous experience, as well as something of a marvel, when you realize how it is at once simple, complex and powerful. Without knowing a word of German, or even knowing what it’s about, it is hard to finish the fourth movement unmoved. In fact, it’s hard not to cry. You don’t know exactly why it moves you so, but it certainly does.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy in particular has, like it or not, been adopted as the world’s unofficial greatest symphony, as witnessed by it being played virtually everywhere. This fact would please Beethoven as well as be more than ironic. The poem was written to celebrate the brotherhood and unity of all mankind, something that was in very short supply in 1785. The poem was an aspiration, and remains so. Yet the very fact that the Ode to Joy, as articulated by Beethoven, has been so wholly embraced by the entire world attests that the world aspires for universal brotherhood, even if its steps at achieving it are slow and haltering.

It has a strange and unique power and feels touched by a higher force. There is arguably more beautiful choral music out there than Ode to Joy. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which aspires to have an orchestra and chorus of a thousand (but usually falls short) is in many ways a better piece of symphonic chorale music. Yet I have yet to hear any piece of choral music more heartfelt, more joyful, more connecting and more powerful than Ode to Joy. It’s unlikely that the world ever will. With the Ninth and its Ode to Joy, it is likely that Beethoven achieved a musical zenith that simply cannot be exceeded.

And that’s a joyful thought. Here’s my little ode to it.

Update 12/19/12

If you enjoyed the above, listen to the competition: Mahler’s Symphony No.8, worth all one hour and 30 minutes of your time.

Update 8/31/16: Changed the embedded Mahler Symphony #8 video. The other one had copyright issues.

A symphonic surprise

The Thinker by Rodin

I may be a graduate of George Mason University and only live about a dozen miles from the university, but now that I have the diploma I rarely find a reason to visit my alma mater. Large performances can often be found at its Patriot Center, but major sporting events and rock concerts rarely interest me. George Mason University also has a Center for the Performing Arts, which I have frequented a few times over the years. Usually though when I feel the fine arts calling me, I head into Washington, D.C. It is hard to compete with its rich number of arts venues there, and my wife and I have repeatedly sampled most of them.

When a friend, who sings locally in the Reston Chorale, told me she was singing in a performance with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the Fairfax Chorale Society at GMU, I decided to get tickets to her event. There are lots of things I have been meaning to do in the quarter century I have lived in Northern Virginia, and one of them was to hear the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Usually, I ponied up for tickets to hear the National Symphony Orchestra instead. The NSO of course is a first rate orchestra, a true national orchestra and has a terrific venue in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. I have lost track of the performances I have seen just inside the Concert Hall, but one of the more memorable ones was a fully orchestrated version of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand”, or close to it. There were so many soloists they were taking over the box seats.

Last night (and tonight in Manassas, Virginia) our local FSO performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, perhaps better known as his Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, it is ambitious in scope requiring not only a large choir but also an exceptionally large orchestra, which is perhaps why it is not played more regularly. It seemed a daunting challenge for the FSO. The FSO is a regional orchestra, and the “Fairfax” in FSO comes from Fairfax County where I live. How good could it possibly be, with the NSO in Washington and the BSO performing regionally at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland? I assumed the FSO was probably better than average for a community orchestra, since it has been around since 1957, but I kept my expectations very modest. The performance venue at Mason’s Center for the Performing Arts was certainly swank and it has a Kennedy Center feel to it. While a community orchestra, this event came close to filling up the auditorium. Only a few hundred seats were unsold, mostly where we were up in the nosebleed section. We paid about fifty dollars each for our tickets. No point in paying for orchestra seating, I figured, for a second-class orchestra.

Okay, I was wrong. The FSO blew away my preconceptions, just as they wholly filled up the stage and the choir filled up the back of the stage. Regional orchestra? Maybe. Excellent orchestra? Absolutely yes! Under the direction of music director Christopher Zimmerman, the FSO rendered a spirited and very much in your face rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is just the way Mahler would have wanted it performed. On the 100th anniversary year of Gustav Mahler’s death, I had the feeling he was observing from on high and nodding in approval, probably with tears flowing from his eyes. This is a work that is truly immortal. The FSO, ably assisted in the latter movements by the Fairfax Chorale Society and the Reston Chorale, as well as soprano Jeanine Thames and mezzo soprano Janine Hawley, delivered what can only be described as terrific Mahler, every bit as good a performance as the glorious 8th symphony I saw more than a dozen years ago.

Mahler’s music is simply intense. It is rarely subtle, but it is complex, full of multiple themes all of which tend to grab you by the heart and hold you in its emotional grip, transfixed and transfigured for the duration. For me, it took less than thirty seconds. The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, starts off briskly and refuses to allow you to have even a moment to catch your breath. It is almost a symphony in itself, and ends with what feels like a statement of the feelings and anxieties of mortality and the search for meaning. But of course it is just the first statement on a theme that moves through five movements, ending with a violent outburst in the last movement. The only thing that is understated is the choruses, perhaps done to evoke an otherworldly feeling. Meanwhile during the performance, to accommodate the many, many musicians, orchestra members kept entering and leaving the stage. Sometimes they performed offstage, such as when a horn section required a muffled sound.

When more than ninety minutes later the symphony finally came to its glorious end, I was one of the thousands of listeners reeling and sort of stunned. It took me a while to arise from my seat and applaud; I had been wholly lost in a virtual musical world. We gave the orchestra and chorales four rounds of ovation.

Clearly there is no reason for me to go into Washington D.C. to get my classical music fix anymore. Classical music aficionados might choose to visit our region not just to hear the NSO, but also to venture out to Northern Virginia to hear the FSO, who is likely to get me as a new season subscriber. If you like classical music, and particularly if you live in Northern Virginia, you simply have to hear what you have been missing.

Surprising gifts to classical music fans from rock artists

The Thinker by Rodin

Paul McCartney is not a name one associates with classical music. In fact, simply hearing the pop star’s name associated with such a genre is likely to cause the classical music purist to recoil. “Tut tut, move along”, they are likely to tell us. “Nothing to hear there!” On the other hand, they might complain that Paul McCartney’s “classical” music amounts to a dumbing down the genre. Instead of being serious music, it is pop classical music, and thus should be avoided.

Having finished my second listen of Paul McCartney’s latest foray into classical music, Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart) this classical music aficionado feels more closely aligned to Duke Ellington who once said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Ecce Cor Meum, Sir Paul’s nine-year musical quest to pay requisite homage to his late wife and the love of his life Linda McCartney, is good. It is meticulously orchestrated and is filled with choral music that delights my middle-aged ears.

It is not only good, in my book it is classical music. To say it is not suggests that any classical music written since Vivaldi is not classical either. Classical music, like any genre of music, is bound to morph over time. If I am to dismiss Paul McCartney’s classical music, I should also dismiss Aaron Copland for brazenly inserting pedestrian Shaker hymns into his music, or diss George Gershwin for Rhapsody in Blue because of its heavy jazz influence. Heck, I should throw out my Gilbert & Sullivan collection, because of its simplicity, pervasive humor and continued popularity. It seems to some classical music purists that it cannot really be classical music unless it would make your typical pimply faced teenager immediately recoil.

One characteristic of classical music is the complexity in the variations on musical themes that unfold as one listens to it. To me this is one of the principle joys of classical music and is what truly distinguishes it from other forms of music. When I am in the classical music zone, it is much like being on a boat at sea. Each wave is a subtle but different restatement of the one you heard before, and waves of different kinds may be coming at you from different directions. Yet somehow, they interlock, like puzzle pieces. When I am in the classical music zone, even if the piece is unfamiliar, I can anticipate the next few cords, but never get it quite right. Like a detective novel, the best pieces of classical music wrap up neatly in the finale. All the tensions and variations are resolved and there is little else to do at the end other than sharply inhale and, after a live performance, applaud.

In that sense, Ecce Cor Meum may disappoint. These are subtleties of the genre that McCartney either has not fully grasped or has chosen to avoid. Nonetheless, this 57-minute work of music, broken into four parts with an interlude often surprises and delights. It suggests to me that McCartney is simply putting his stamp on classical music. It may be a bit different, but it should not be objectionable. My favorite part of Ecce Cor Meum is the second movement (Gratia) wherein Sir Paul expresses musically just how grateful he is to be the recipient of Linda’s love.

Ecce Cor Meum is both moving and profound. Linda McCartney’s death of breast cancer may have been untimely, but it had the side effect of bringing out something resembling genius from Paul McCartney. Few of us can adequately express the love we feel for our spouse, but Paul found a way through music to express his overflowing sense of love, appreciation and deep gratitude for the joy and meaning that Linda brought into his life. Essentially the work is a musical love poem for Linda. By writing it, Linda has become immortal. Moreover, the work is of sufficient quality that long after Paul has departed it will live on, to humble and delight lovers and music fans everywhere.

Ecce Cor Meum is not Sir Paul’s first work of classical music. His first foray into the genre was in 1991 when he wrote Liverpool Oratio. I became familiar with this side of Sir Paul shortly after he released Standing Stone in 1997. Standing Stone is an impressive piece of classical music too. While it is perhaps a bit more chaotic than Ecce Cor Meum it is overall an amazing work of music and well worth your time and attention. Both works suggest that Sir Paul has a fundamentally optimistic and joyful perspective on life. Both works at their core are sweet and tender. You do not often find this in music coming from my gender, thus it is noteworthy when it occurs.

Unlike George Gershwin, Paul McCartney had no training in classical music. In fact, Paul has never learned to write music! This makes all of his music, but particularly his classical music, all the more remarkable, since he has to work closely with a transcriber. It also explains why his classical music upsets more than a few in the genre. However, free of the constraints that come with classical music training, Sir Paul is able to do things with classical music that would otherwise be taboo. In that sense, he is liberating classical music, and perhaps sowing the seeds for a future revival of classical music.

Paul McCartney is not the only pop star who has made the foray into classical music. More than one rock star has borrowed, in some cases quite heavily, from classical music or have written their own classical music. Others more learned than I can point to numerous examples. Two that I am aware of include Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Keith Emerson wrote an impressive work of classical music thirty years ago when Emerson, Lake & Palmer were nearing their break up. In Works, Volume 1, Emerson records a remarkable piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 1. So that it does not get lost, I have included this link (17 MB, WMA) for your listening enjoyment. I hope that it inspires you to pick up the CD. As far as I am concerned, the rest of the CD is largely worthless, since I am neither a Greg Lake nor a Carl Palmer fan. I have looked for other classical works by Keith Emerson, but this seems to be a one-time wonder.

If you have examples of others known for rock or pop music that have turned out classical music, please leave a comment. I along with others would probably appreciate the opportunity to sample some of these odd delicacies.

Tower Records: Death by Internet

The Thinker by Rodin

Retailers come and go. So the passing of yet another retailer should not bother me at all. Yet somehow today, when I passed the Tower Record store here in Fairfax, Virginia and saw the giant “Going Out of Business” and “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows, I felt both sad and nostalgic.

Tower Records was a nationwide music retailer with a counter culture attitude and a huge selection of music. It always felt avant garde. You knew, even if you were in the classical music section of the store (which was typically walled off by high glass walls) that the clerk at the counter probably had a stud through his tongue and piercings through his ears or lips. He or she was probably dressed in clothes from Hot Topic. If there were counter culture newspapers in the area, they would be in a rack near the checkout counter. It was a “record” store with a nonconformanist attitude.

It is tempting to suggest that its name killed it. Vinyl records, except for the few who regale in being retro, went out of fashion in the 1980s. Despite being hip, Tower Records never bothered to change its name to Tower CDs and DVDs. It would be understandable if the latest generation just passed by the store. They could credibly ask, “What the heck is a record anyhow?” Today’s generation grew up on CDs, not 33 1/3 RPMs. (“What’s an RPM?”) Not surprisingly, it was this latest generation that killed Tower Records. They grew up in an Internet age. Once the Internet’s bandwidth and data speed problems were conquered, there was no need to go and buy music anymore. In fact, paying for music became old fashioned. Instead, you downloaded Napster, or Kazaa, or most recently, BitTorrent, found the music you wanted and generally did not pay a dime. This was much less expensive, and more convenient than going to a “record” store where you would shell out $15 to $20 for a compact disc just to get a song or two by the artist that you really wanted. That such fire sharing was in most cases technically illegal only made it more alluring.

It was not the “record” in Tower Records that killed it. It tried to keep up with the times by creating its own online web site, where you could choose from an Amazon.com like selection of music. No, it was the Internet that killed Tower. Try as it might, it could not adapt to this new paradigm.

I feel nostalgic about this transition. When I needed music, Tower Records was my destination of choice. I knew I would often pay $5 more for a CD than I would at a place like Best Buy. Yet I also knew that if I were looking for something eclectic, it would not be at the Best Buy anyhow.

I should have seen it coming. Over the last few years, I had been less and less in the Tower Records habit. This was mainly because I am one of a dying breed of classical music aficionados and their classical music department kept shrinking. It used to take up two aisles, and I could also find an extensive opera collection against the back wall. Also along the back wall was the compulsory copy of the Schwann Catalog of Classical Music. You could thumb it and find every recording ever made of the 1812 Overture. If you wanted some obscure 20-year-old recording, there was a good chance you could find it at Tower Records.

Tower learned that its money was not made selling classical music. What a shame. I could spend an hour or two very blissfully in its classical music aisles while some gorgeous classical music, often an aria by a famous soprano, played through the overhead speakers. Then it became one aisle. Then half an aisle. Then they stopped playing the classical music altogether because the back of the store had morphed into something else. Then the DVDs arrived and took up the front part of the store. They were followed by their eclectic but very limited selection of mostly odd books. And they were followed by the naughty but not too naughty adult videos and skin magazines.

All killed by the Internet. Today as I walked the halls of my local Tower Records, likely for the last time, a third of the stock was gone. What remained had justly been left behind. The good stuff had been quickly sold. The classical music that remained took up a single rack, and it was all mediocre stuff. What was left of the Rock Music section consisted largely of groups you have never heard about. Of those of whom you have heard, there were plenty of recordings representing them at their worst. Tower Records was dead. The clerk did not have a stud through his tongue. The music coming from overhead was still hard ass rock and roll, but the few patrons like me wandering its aisles were simply looking for bargains. In reality, there was none to be found. What music that remained was not worth spending any money on. The patrons were not the counter culture teens or young adults I remembered. They were older, harried looking adults, the type I see at garage sales, not at Tower Records.

While Tower Records is dead, retail music has not wholly disappeared. Borders Books has a fine selection of music. Arguably, for the last few years its classical collection has been the best in my area. Yes, while its selection feels voluminous, it cannot compare with Tower Records in its prime. Moreover, Borders is a soulless place. I never felt that way about Tower Records. In its prime, going to Tower Records was like going to Starbucks is for many today. It was as much a destination and a place to feel at home with your own kind (the eclectic music lover) as it was a place to shop. It had, in its own quirky way, a sort of ambience. Now, the Internet has put a stake through its heart.

I wonder if Vinton Cerf, the inventor of the Internet, is also a Tower Records fan. I wonder, as his invention of the late 1960s enters its full flowering and makes things like this blog possible, whether he is shedding a tear that his invention killed such a wonderful business and destination.

Tower Records is gone, mourned and appreciated, but should never be forgotten.

Don’t snub Alan Hovhaness

The Thinker by Rodin

No one will accuse Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) of not being a prolific composer. This 20th century American composer lists 415 opuses, including 63 symphonies to his life’s work. He was a contemporary of more famous American composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. In many ways he may have played the role of Antonio Salieri, whose works (at least according to the movie Amadeus) were overshadowed by the vastly more talented Amadeus Mozart.

That so little of his music has been recorded might suggest that much of it is mediocre. I cannot claim to be a judge on that. I have just three CD’s of his music. It is unlikely that his mediocre works would make it to plastic. I do know that after having sampled his better-known works these last few years, his music can at times be brilliant. It is also usually inventive, in way that so much modern classical music is not.

I happen to be fans of both Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Bernstein invested most of his talent in conducting music rather than writing it. Perhaps Bernstein’s works are so good because he had so much time to polish his music. His musical Candide first appeared on Broadway in 1956. In 1989, shortly before he died, he was still perfecting it with his “Final Revised Version” of Candide. Aaron Copland also created some wonderful American masterpieces including arguably the most admired work of American classical music, Appalachian Spring. I am a huge Copland fan and have most of his works. While Copland’s works were far more numerous than Bernstein’s were, many of Copland’s lesser-known works deserve their obscurity.

According to Wikipedia, both Bernstein and Copland snubbed Hovhaness. “I can’t stand this cheap ghetto music,” Bernstein reportedly said at Tanglewood upon hearing a recording of Hovhaness’s first symphony. Sitting near him, Aaron Copland talked loudly through it while a humiliated Hovhaness sat nearby. Perhaps Hovhaness’s lanky figure, chiseled features and Armenian background also contributed toward their low opinion of him.

Mysterious Mountain is perhaps Hovhaness’s best-known work of music. Yet there is much more to enjoy about his music. If nothing else, Hovhaness’s music defies easy categorization. Its breadth can be sampled by listening to both CDs in Hovhaness Collection, Volume 2. What an odd collection this is! It starts with one of his more recent works that marks an event that even I can recall, the 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens, Symphony No. 50 starts with a movement celebrating the pristine and picture perfect Spirit Lake, which straddles Mount St. Helens, before the explosion forever changed it. It then moves through the eruption itself, which through innovative drum work convincingly captures the awesome power of the eruption. It is shortly followed by another oddity, And God Created Great Whales that includes the sounds of whales mixed in with the orchestration. Following it is Mysterious Mountain, which while good is somewhat overrated. The highlight for me is a track on the second disk: Alleluia and Fugue for string orchestra, Godly music worthy of Bach himself.

I was turned onto Hovhaness one Saturday when I was driving around doing chores. I was listening to WETA-FM. This was when it was still largely a classical music station. On Saturday afternoons, the station often played music that would never get a spin during the week. What I heard was the last movement of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. For a moment, I thought I was hearing an undiscovered work of Aaron Copland. It did not take too much listening to realize that this was too thematically rich to be Aaron Copland. I remember pulling off the road into a shopping center and sitting in my car waiting for it to end before continuing my chores. It defies easy categorization and blends many themes at once, including an undercurrent of Native American chants.

While there are many Hovhaness recordings available, they can be difficult to find even in the more discerning music outlets. I had to order Symphony No. 3 off the web. Moreover, many of the recordings are by second or even third-rate orchestras. The KBS Orchestra in South Korea, for example, performs Symphony No. 3. In spite of these imperfections, it is a memorable symphony. It deserves to be recorded by a first class orchestra and conductor someday.

If you spurn Alan Hovhaness, you may regret your choice. While I have just dipped into his music, I am still intrigued. If nothing else, his music is routinely adventurous. When you sometimes do not expect it, a piece can soar into the stratosphere. I will be adding more to my Hovhaness collection in the years ahead.

The Best Work of American Classical Music

The Thinker by Rodin

There is so much wonderful classical music out there that it is hard to pick favorites. Nonetheless there seems to exist a rough consensus among the classical music aficionados that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is the best classical music that has ever been written. It has certainly withstood the test of time. Some might argue that Handel’s Messiah should have the honor. Arguably Messiah is perhaps the best work of classical music known to the masses. And it is a lot more hummable than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Ode to Joy from the fourth movement is familiar to lots of people.) About once a year or so I slip the Ninth into my CD player. Although brilliant, played anymore than that it gets hard to appreciate its brilliance. My only wish is that someday Ode to Joy would be sung in English, so we unwashed Americans could better appreciate it. But I guess that would be sacrilege to classical music purists.

Pondering great classical music, I was wondering if there is a work of American classical music that critics could agree is our best work. I suspect if pressed many scholars would pick a work by Aaron Copland, most likely his Appalachian Spring. There is no question that Aaron Copland writes quintessential American music. After you have heard a number of Copland pieces you can almost always hear something else he has written by him and say, “Yep, that’s Copland”. While there are many American classical music composers out there, only a few have any name recognition whatsoever. Some others that come immediately to mind for me include Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Alan Hovhaness. Your short list of American composers is likely different than mine.

But the best work of American classical music? That’s a tough question to answer. While I personally am drawn to the music of Aaron Copland I am often scorned for my choice. I like Appalachian Spring so much I had it played at my wedding. But while it was likely the best thing that Copland ever wrote, Copland was not an inventive composer. In fact he routinely stole snippets of American music. The main theme to Appalachian Spring, for example, is the well-known Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple.” Copland excelled at finding excellent bits of the authentic American sound and weaving them together into larger orchestral works that amplified and extended these sounds.

A “best” work though has to stand the test of time. That’s a bit of a problem for American classical music since, by European standards at least, we are still a new country. Most countries though have one composer that stands out. When you hear his music (and it’s almost always a he) you say you understand that country. For example, Jean Sibelius gives us the sound and spirit of primal Finland. Who though could carry this mantle for American classical music and also create works of music that are uniquely their own?

The answer came to me last night as I heard music drift upstairs from the TV room. My daughter Rosie was deep into TV. I don’t know what she was watching but the music was unmistakable. It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly it clicked into place. This single work is quintessentially American, wholly unique and as wonderful and amazing in its own way as Sibelius’s Finlandia is to the Finnish and Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Greensleeves is to the English. And Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most performed work of American orchestral music in American and in the rest of the world. And of course it is really, really good.

I remember fondly my first exposure to Gershwin. While I have an appreciation for jazz, it is not a genre that I have done more than sample. Sometime in the late 70s when I was finally on my own I wandered into a record store (this being in pre CD days) and found a two record collection of his best-known music. Of course it was just his works for piano and orchestra. You had to read the liner notes to realize he had a whole other career working with his brother Ira to create show tunes and popular music. He seemed an unlikely person to call a classical composer. Most people of his time saw him as a jazz composer. Perhaps Rhapsody is both jazz and classical music. But at 22 I remember thinking, “This is amazing music.” It is still true today.

George Gershwin is an odd selection for best American classical composer. Much of his music would be considered trite stuff. Fluffy musicals like Of Thee I Sing seems like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: fun to go to but empty of content or meaning. Steeped in the jazz era, and the Ragtime music that preceded it, Gershwin drew inspiration from many authentic forms of American music, including Negro spirituals. So like Aaron Copland he heard authentic American music and integrated them into his own music. Unlike Aaron Copland however they were largely inspiration for the creation of new music. In Rhapsody in Blue it all came together. The work itself is rather short. The pace moves from sedate to frantic and journeys in places in between. But there is no confusing it with stuffy classical music from Europe. It is a work that is fully of the energy of the American experience. It often feels almost giddy. And now the music is almost ubiquitous. I find it woven into television commercials for airlines.

Gershwin’s list of pure classical music is rather thin. Concerto in F and An American in Paris are his best known other works. Both are wonderful. But it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures and captures our soul. So for me, it is America’s Finlandia. I see it as not just our most recognizable piece of American music, but also as our best work of classical music.

What do you think is the best work of American classical music?

Update: 9/19/13 – It should be noted that while Gershwin is the author, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue for piano. Ferdinand Grofe actually arranged it for orchestra, so he deserves some credit for this work of art. Arguably, some of Grofe’s work could be considered as best works of American classical music. His Grand Canyon Suite comes to mind.