Tunequest Year in Review 2008

This year’s end summary is going to be a little shorter than in the past, for two principle reasons: 1) 2008 was a lot busier for me than recent years, so my opportunities to explore and listen to new music were more limited, and B) I spent a lot of the free time I did have listening to audiobooks and podcasts rather than music. Indeed, 2008 saw only 510 new songs added to my library (with 103 of them largely unlistened because they were added in the last two weeks), compared with 2051 new additions in 2007.

And looking back over the numbers and trends, it is clear that my musical year for the most part ended toward the end of summer, since that’s when the new additions and activity begin tapering off.

Let’s not mistake quantity for quality though. 2008 was not without its highlights. Here’s a look back at the best music I discovered in the past year:

Kelley Polar: Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens (2005); I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling (2008)

love songs of the hanging gardens

In December 2007, I heard my first Kelley Polar song. In January 2008, the album that song appeared on (Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens) rocked my world. I wrote on tunequest:

it pulls at you with pulsing with heady rhythms, ass-shaking grooves and a surprisingly high level of singability. The aspect that strikes me the most however, is how the music simultaneously seems to sound sparsely populated yet vast and teeming with activity. A bit like the seeming emptiness the heavens above, which when looked at closely is full of magnificent detail.

i need you to hold on while the sky is falling

Following shortly on my discovery of Love Songs, Polar’s second album, I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling, was released on March. While I was less ecstatic about it than I was toward Love Songs–it’s darker tone and more intimate feeling weren’t quite as compelling–I still found the album quite enjoyable. It’s even grown on me a bit since the original review.

Together, the albums made a significant mark on my musical year.

Ratatat – LP3 (2008)

ratatat lp3

It should be of no surprise to long-time readers that Ratatat’s third LP made a big splash around here. Released in early July, LP3 rocked up my charts, becoming the most played artist, album and songs of the year.

With its simultaneous expansion of both guitar and keyboard sounds, the album pretty much ruled my summer.

The Breeders – Mountain Battles (2008)

mountain battles

After six years since their last album, The Breeders typified the idea of pent-up demand. The band has consistently ranked near the top of my favorites, which makes it frustrating that it spends long hiatuses between releases.

It’s made all the more frustrating by the album’s short length, approx. 36 minutes. But those 36 minutes are pure gold. As I said in my original review, the band’s “low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.” The buzz and good feeling I got from this record’s release was capped off by finally, after 14 years, catching the Breeders in concert in June.

Stereolab – Chemical Chords (2008)

Stereolab is another perennial favorite around tunequest and a new album is sure to be listened to with much delight. Chemical Chords was no exception. The groop took a slightly different approach to this album, consciously creating shorter, simpler, more poppy songs than in the past. The result is a refreshing buoyant, dare I say happy, feeling from a band that has traditionally been cool and detached. Happy looks good on them, as I noticed when the band swung through town in September.

Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (2006)

Before picking up So This Is Goodbye, Junior Boys had long been on my radar. It was the opening band at a show I went to four years ago and they piqued my interest then. But it wasn’t until I happened across the record on eMusic that I finally checked the band out.

I was not disappointed. So This Is Goodbye is fantastic album. Expertly produced and crafted, the smooth electronic tones have an intimate, downtempo feel that borders on melancholic. It’s almost a rainy day album, except that it’s got too much shine behind it.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Music for 18 Musicians (2007)

This album arrived late in the year, just before Thanksgiving, but it packed quite a wallop.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is a notoriously hard piece to perform. So it is something of a shock to see this, and pardon the bluntness, “no name” orchestra release what is probably to best rendition of it ever recorded. Written in 1974-1976 and focused largely on Reich’s fascination with harmonics, Music for 18 Musicians creates cyclical, trance-inducing soundscapes that mesmerize and fascinate the ears and mind. Grand Valley State’s recording is the first made in surround sound and it is a thing of sublime beauty that is quite an accomplishment.

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There you have: tunequest highlights from 2008. There’s always great music out there and although 2009 is shaping up to be just as busy as last year, here’s hoping I have to to discover some of it.

Ethan Winer, one-man Cello section: 37 parts to a song played by one man

Ethan Winer plays all 37 separate parts on A Cello Rondo, including the percussion, on his cello. He also composed the song. The music is about 6 minutes long and the end of the video shows his digital music editing and some of his film setup. Not only is the production quite smooth, showcasing the power of modern technology to allow a single person to (relatively) easily create complex and intricate music, the song is a really good pop tune.

And I thought it was impressive when Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters record all by himself.

A Cello Rondo at Ethan Winer’s homepage. Multiple links to sites hosting the video as well as a free mp3 download of the song. There’s also as much background information on the project as you could want and some downloadable sheet music if you want to give it your own try.

Susumu Yokota – Symbol: Classical Mashups

Ah, it’s been a while since we actually talked about music here at tunequest, so let’s pick up where we left off: Susumu Yokota. I recently posted about my discovery of his music via an Amazon recommendation for his 2001 exploration of ambient minimalism, Grinning Cat (perhaps a reference to Alice in Wonderland?). Having piqued my interest to the extreme, I started researching the man and his work.

His style is as varied as he is prolific. Indeed, one recurring thread in my reading was that Yokota cannot claim a definitive fan following because, despite his obvious talents and aptitudes, he never sticks around in any particular musical form long enough to create an authoritative body of work, becoming more an admired dabbler than a respected icon.

Yet, from everything I’ve heard, Yokota’s abilities transcend form, appealing to a more fundamental level of music appreciation. No matter what he’s doing, there’s a layer of genius to it that overrides the superficiality of style. It doesn’t matter that each record varies stylistically because the underlying music is simply wonderful. Of course, I say that having listened to only two of his records, but it is an opinion that will inform my reactions as I delve further into his repertoire.

Having previously covered Grinning Cat, I turn my attention to Yokota’s 2005 record, Symbol. Of all the choices in Yokota’s catalogue, I was drawn to this one solely by its album cover: a tightly cropped portion of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, which happens to be a favorite painting in my house.

I can’t help but wonder how the myth of Hylas relates to these recordings. Perhaps the closely cropped image is itself a symbol. Like the nymphs of lore, these songs are lush, alluring, temptuous; and if one is not careful, one could easily become lost with them. I’ll buy that; this album is nearly bliss.

Artwork aside, like Grinning Cat, this record could hardly get more beautiful, but where the previous record exists to slowly percolate its sound, Symbol fills the air with atmosphere and a subtle aura of exuberance. Each of the thirteen songs on the album is teeming with compositional splendor.

That splendor is due in no small part to Yokota’s generous sampling of classical music, which forms an orchestral underpinning of the entire experience. It is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever heard. Classical music tends to be in its own world, distinct from the “lowly” place of popular music, so it’s fascinating to hear what are essentially classical music mash ups.

Off the top of my head, there’s Boccherini’s Celebrated Minuet, Debussy’s Clair de Lune (multiple times), Holst’s Jupiter (from The Planets), Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and several brief samples of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Even though I do appreciate the crashing of the classical gate, I also find it interesting that Yokota chose relatively popular works from which to sample. I suppose that with a concept such as this, recognizable pieces lower the barrier of entry for the casual listener, one who’s probably not very familiar with all that classical has to offer. At least there’s no Ode to Joy or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In the end, Symbol is masterpiece and it excites me even further as I look forward to my next Susumu Yokota record.

For your listening pleasure, the third song from Symbol, Traveller In The Wonderland:

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Bonus points to anyone who can identify all the classical pieces used in it. I’ll get you started: the song opens with Celebrated Minuet.

Paramount Pictures closes Stage M

Paramount Pictures closed its legendary Stage M this past August.

The stage opened in 1932 and since then, many famous and notable film scores have been recorded on it, including The Ten Commandments, Out of Africa, as well as a great portion of Star Trek’s music. More recently, Danny Elfman’s score for Nacho Libre was laid down there. try this Google search to see some more examples of music that was recorded on the stage.

Paramount attributed the closing to the company’s financial redevelopment, but said nothing specific. From the article:

A Par spokeswoman attributed the closing to part of the studio’s ongoing efforts to “use the stage the best way we can, as we transform our business here on the lot.” What will happen to the space is anybody’s guess: “that has not yet been determined,” said the spokeswoman.

This is the type of story that, to me, brings home the idea that actual people create all this music I enjoy, that it’s not just academics and abstract relationships. In a world where the months of writing that goes into a symphony and weeks spent recording a rock opus are reduced to but a few minutes of play time, a handful of megabytes on a disk and a couple of lines in a database, that notion can be easily lost. It can all seem like a collector’s game when switching from Beethoven to the Bee Gees requires little more than a thought and a click.

Of course, I know that music is made by people. However, that’s completely intellectual knowledge. Before reading that story, I’d never heard of Stage M. Yet, based on its credits, it was a place that has brought me much listening pleasure in my life. But just as revelations grant power over the ephemeral, my discovery of the that specific recording studio’s existence suddenly makes much of the film music in my library feel more visceral, more real.

And while I can bemoan the passing of the stage, I can partially look at it positively, because if it had never closed, I probably would have never come to know it at all.

L.A. Independent has more on the closing and the history of Stage M.

KickAssClassical.com

Staff and Bar

I can assure you that you know every single piece of music featured at KickAssClassical.com, but you’d probably strain a muscle trying to figure out when and where you’ve heard them. Hopefully it won’t come to that, because Mike Nelson no, not of mst3k fame has compiled 100 of the most popular pieces in the “serious music,” aka classical music repertoire, pieces made famous by their use (or perhaps over-use) in film, television, cartoons and commercials.

Divided by composer (52 of them), each entry gives a brief bio and pronunciation guide for all the non-anglo names and lists where each piece has been used in modern culture.

The site also includes mp3 snippets of each composition, featuring the most well-known measures of music. I promise you’ll probably be able to hum along to every one. The real trick will be if you know what comes next. I found that on a handful of them, I was at a loss to continue the song after the sample had stopped, even though I completely recognized tune.

Still, you’ll be surprised by where a lot of familiar songs come from. Myself, I nearly had a fit when I heard the sample of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King:

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Because about five years ago I decided to use one of my Mac’s speech voices to record my cell phone voicemail message. After playing with all the various options, I settled on one of the “singing” voices, a voice that sounded a lot like the speech from Stephen Hawking’s talking computer, but to a melody.

That was with OS 9 and I’ve since lost the sound file. Mac OS X maintains that melody but has changed the tone with the speech voice “Cellos,” which I used to recreate part of the message i don’t remember all the lyrics.

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Trust me, it was funny. But since then, I’ve always been curious about what piece of music it was based on, because I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. As you can hear, it’s clearly In the Hall of the Mountain King. Now that I’m armed with that information, I think I’ll have to track down a good recording of it.

“Cellos” isn’t the only Mac voice to take its inspiration from a classical tune however. “Good News” is modeled on Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, a piece known to graduates world-wide, while “Bad News” is Chopin’s “Funeral March” aka Piano Sonata No. 2 In B Flat Minor.

Speaking of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” KickAssClassical makes the observation that John Williams’ Imperial March “sounds like an amped-up version” of it.” He might be onto something there, especially it you take that march, speed up the tempo, and overlay it with The Ride Of The Valkyries.. Then you might have a case.

Anyway, go check out KickAssClassical.com.

h/t Centripetal Notion


ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

A Specialized Nutcracker Suite

specialized nutcracker

Specialized bike parts has released an intriguing holiday card for the 2006 season. It’s an excerpt of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite, a perennial Christmas time favorite.

The catch is that the piece is played entirely on bicycle parts. From createdigitalmusic.com:

Glockenspiel & Clarinet melody = spokes.
Cello & Violin pizzicatos = plucked derailleur cables.
Triangle = disc brake hit.
Percussion = shifting, coasting, finger over turning spokes, chain pulls, braking, clipping into pedals, back-spinning, air out of tires.

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Tortoise, Star Trek, and Orbital (with more Star Trek): Song of the Day Triple Feature

I spent a good seven+plus hours burning through some iTunes today to make up for yesterday’s somewhat disappointing performance a shortened day at the office will do that. With about 100 songs to choose from, I had a very hard time narrowing down the song of the day, so lucky you, here’s three songs to choose from. Choose wisely.

Orbital: Time Becomes

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Constructed from a single line spoken by Worf from the 2nd season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Time Squared which I happened to see just the other day—it’s almost unwatchably bad, this song is more of an experiment in recording technique than actual music. But it’s fun to have your own personal Moebius.

Time Squared of course, is not to be confused with the 5th season episode Cause and Effect, where the Enterprise is destroyed every 11 minutes or so.

Tortoise: Swung From The Gutters

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From TNT, this song is just great; not quite as good as The Equator, but still one of my faves from the band.
tortoise at iTunes.

Boston Pops conducted by John Williams performing the theme to Star Trek

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A very unusual and extended take on the classic and well-known theme to the original Star Trek television program, performed live in concert by the Boston Pops.

WBFO is here to entertain you

I’m usually opposed to orchestras attempting to play pop/rock music. Those things just never seems to turn out as well as one would expect. But this performace of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit by Western Branch Freshmen Orchestra is quite nice. As both an orchestra fan and Nirvana fan, I give it great kudos.

The orchestra is based at Western Branch High School (home of the Western Branch Bruins) in Chesapeake, VA.

This video has been making its way around the net pretty quickly, with good cause. It’s remarkable, particularly that string section playing the vocal melody during the verses.