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.

A Grand Celestial Music

Quite the musical week here at tunequest. A little more than usual.

First the Ratatat show, now a symphony performance. The Atlanta Symphony put in a wonderful performance of Holst’s Planets. From the raw power of Mars to the ethereal ambiance of Nepture, the orchestra dispatched all seven symphonic poems with passion and exuberance. "Wow", I say "Wow."

Parts of Mercury felt a little bit off, but it could have just been the acoustic of the hall (which honestly aren’t that good; let’s hope the new hall gets built soon). It didn’t matter though; by the end of Mars, I was willing to forgive just about any mis-step. The full force of the orchestra performing only a few feet away literally gave me chills. Man, it was good.

I’m stoked for this ASO season.

iPod Evolution

iPod Evolution escapePod Pinwheel Herman Gustav

So the tunequest is now powered by a new 5.5th generation iPod (80GB). His name is "Gustav" (after Mahler and Holst); let’s all give him a warm welcome.

At long last, I can fit all my remaining tracks in my pocket, none of that "2000 songs sorted alphabetically by album" crap. That’s pretty awesome. However, I’m slightly dismayed that I still can’t take my entire library with me on the road. Due to the usual hard disk conventions, that 80GB HD actually holds 74.44GB of space. My library currently measures at 75.36GB.

C’est la vie (say the old folks). It’s just as well I suppose. That’s honestly too much music to have to deal with at one time (but it is great for shuffling). Plus, I do plan on making full use of its video functions, which will certainly require much space.

In that photo above, you’ll see my iPod evolution. On the left is a 5GB 1st generation, from back when they were Mac-only and had a mechanical scroll wheel. It still works, mostly. Its HD got a little bit flaky, so, after a year and a half, it was replaced by a 15GB 3rd generation, the all-touch-panel model. It also still works, but its battery lasts only about an hour and, after nearly 3 years, it is feature sparse compared to the current offering (larger display, video, photos, adjustable audiobook playback, etc).

So it was time to upgrade. I told myself I would resist the urge to get a new pod until the capacity was 80GB or greater, so TA DA. There it is. It’s going to be fun.

Joel McNeely – Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

shadows of the empire

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire at itunes Shadows of the empire at amazon enhanced cd

In 1996, LucasFilm embarked on a multi-channel marketing project in an effort to make more money off the aging Star Wars franchise. The result was Shadows of the Empire, a venture that involved all the machinations of a movie marketing and tie-in campaign, without the production of an actual movie. In total, the endeavor included a novel, comic books, video games, trading cards, toys (of course) and, most relevant to this site, a soundtrack.

Not surprisingly, John Williams was approached to compose the score, but he declined, instead recommending Joel McNeely for the job.

McNeeley’s results are quite surprising and offer a unique look at Star Wars music. In contrast to Goldsmith’s approach with SG-1, McNeely almost completely abandons the established music for the franchise. Beyond the opening titles, there’s scantly a mention of any Star Wars motif or cue. No location cues for places featured in the films, and no character motifs save for a short mention of Leia’s theme. There’s a single quote of the "rebel fleet" cue from the end of The Empire Strikes Back and brief blast of the force theme. The Imperial March makes two brief appearance. Beyond that, the music is wholly original.

Listening to the soundtrack this past week, I couldn’t help but hear this music as I would some romantic-era "program music." Indeed, that’s what Shadows of the Empire essentially is. As a soundtrack without a film, each track works as a symphonic poem that exists to convey the ideas, settings and emotions of the story, without being tied literally to the images on a screen, leaving sonic imprints of peoples, places and events that can only be imagined.

Easily highlighting the score is track seven: The Seduction of Princess Leia, which is built around a fabulous freakin’ waltz, a first for Star Wars. The rest of the album is equally intriguing, invoking fantastic settings in a way reminiscent of the late romantics. Imagine Debussy or Holst writing music for Star Wars; the results would probably be similar to this.

On Classical Music Tagging (ID3 tags) for iTunes and iPod

When it comes to organizing for iTunes and iPod, classical music is an entirely different animal than the “pop” formula the program is primarily designed for. Why tie yourself to an inefficient and illogical "album" model when classical works were never meant to be treated that way? iTunes allows you to appreciate individual works as they were conceived and executed: as individual, stand-alone works.


Example of my tagging structure (click to see full size).

I recently ran across Musicbrainz’s classical music tagging structure. Musicbrainz provides a database from which to retrieve the proper ID3 tags for artists, album, song title, etc. It’s like the CDDB (gracenote), but rather than using the CD song data, Musicbrainz-compatible programs generate an ‘audio footprint’ to compare against. This helps ensure that the tag result you are given is specifically matched to a particular song.

The system works pretty well and is useful when CDDB gives you a load of garbage. It is also useful for making sure your song tags are consistent with those of other people. Sites like, which tracks your listening habits and connects you to similar fans and artists, are made possible only when everyone is submitting the same data.

That works great for pop/rock/jazz, where the music was created by and for one particular artist. The system becomes more difficult when dealing with classical music. I’m not the first person to discuss how to shoehorn the vastly different nature of classical tags into a scheme that is very much designed for popular music (as evidenced by many many discussion threads and, of course, the existence of the Musicbrainz guidelines itself). But, I take issue with the Musicbrainz solution because it is unfriendly to iPod users.

Classical music tags have to keep track of a more diverse set of data for music that has been created by and for many people. Whereas a Pearl Jam record contains songs written, performed and released by Pearl Jam, a recording of The Planets might contain music written by Holst, performed by the Montreal Symphony and conducted by Charles Dutoit. This recording, or portions of it, might be released on any number of albums or bundled with works of another composer (usually elgar). Indeed, the concept of an album was unknown to the vast majority to classical music composers. Each composition they created was intended to be a stand-alone work.

Classical music is an entirely different beast.

In addition to the standard artist, album and song name tags, iTunes’ composer, genre and comments tags are of equal importance to classical music tagging.

The Composer Tag

Let’s take a look at the Musicbrainz Classical Music Style Guide

  • Artist:

    • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Album title:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra feat. conductor: Herbert von Karajan)

    Track titles:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: I. Allegro ma non troppo

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: II. Molto vivace

Immediately, I see a problem for iPod users. Musicbrainz advocates that the composer be listed under the artist tag. That might work fine if you’re only a casual classical listener and you’ve only got one Beethoven CD mixed in with your Beck records. To that type of listener, the fact the music might be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic is secondary to the fact that it has Ode To Joy on it.

But for the devotee, who may have several recordings of the same piece by different orchestras or performers, that’s not going to cut it. Besides, after receiving complaints and requests, Apple deliberately added the composer tag to iTunes specifically to hold the composer info. Thus, it makes sense to put the composer in the composer field, leaving the artist field open for other, more appropriate, uses.

With the composer listed in the correct field, it’s a simple matter of browsing by composer on my iPod to find a particular composer’s work. Likewise, in iTunes, I can easily create a Smart Playlist with all of Mahler’s music by setting the conditions to:

Composer contains Mahler

Or if I want all my classical music on a single playlist:

Composer is not "blank"

It’s simple and it works. Unfortunately, Musicbrainz does not support the composer tag, so there’s no way to reconcile that aspect of the two schemes.

The Artist Tag

With the composer assigned, what goes in the Artist field? The two likely choices are the conductor and the performer (soloist or ensemble) of the work. I prefer to list the performer as the artist, with orchestras listed by their organizational names, omitting the conductor or featured soloists. the reason I prefer it this way is simplicity of display.

The iPod’s screen only displays so many lines of listings and only so many characters per line. If I were to customize each performing ensemble with the conductor and/or soloist (as in the Musicbrainz album model), not only would my artist tags be overly long, but I’d run the potential of my iPod displaying:

Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...

And I wouldn’t have a clue which listing refers to which specific combination of orchestra, conductor or soloist. Plus those multiple listings would just clutter up everything else in the artist list. I certainly don’t want to have to scroll past six different "Berlin Philharmon…"s and five different "Chicago Symphony…"s while browsing my iPod.

So, the Artist tag in my scheme becomes simply Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Besides, when navigating my iPod, I rarely search for classical music by performer; if I want to hear Holmboe’s 9th, I’ll browse the composer listing first.

so, composer = composer.
artist = performer (simplified).

The Album Tag

What of the Album tag, then? It makes no sense to maintain the compact disc paradigm when dealing with the flexibility of the iTunes model and the nature of classical music. Just because Deutsche Grammophon decides to put both Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Symphony No 5 on the same disc doesn’t mean I should maintain that structure. As I mentioned above, classical works were created distinctly and separately. Thus, I keep my classical music separated by work title.

Thanks to the instant availability of any song in the iTunes/iPod equation, I don’t need to load the physical disc of Atlanta Symphony’s Rainbow Body in order to listen to Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I can just browse for

Music > Composer > Copland > Appalachian Spring [ASO:Spano]

Ta da! Instant music.

This method works quite well, but I’ve discovered that for this scheme to function properly, I have to use a specific syntax for album names/work titles.

Back when my classical collection was small enough that I only had a single recording of a piece, my album tag for Mahler’s 6th Symphony would look like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic"

If I browse

Composer > Mahler >

I’ll see a list of works

Symphony No 1...
Symphony No 3...
Symphony No 6...

I discovered a problem with this method when Mahler’s No 6 became one of my favorite orchestral pieces and I obtained a second recording of it. Using the same album tag for both the Philharmonia’s version and the Berlin Philharmonic’s version made iTunes/iPod confuse them for the same album. My solution was to add an abbreviation of the performer at the end of the title.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s entry looks like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [BPO]

While the Philharmonia’s is this

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO]

Now I have separate entries for each performance. Hooray! Problem solved… Unless I have more than one recording of the same piece by the same ensemble but with a different conductor. Once again, this problem popped up with Mahler’s 6th. I have 2 recordings of it by the Chicago Symphony, one conducted by Abbado and another conducted by Solti. The solution, however, is quite simple: add the conductor after the ensemble name.

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO: Zander]

Now each performance has a unique identifier that iTunes displays separately and is easy to navigate via iPod.

Drawbacks (3rd-generation iPods and earlier)

This system works, but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, the specific details at the end of work titles gets cut off on older iPod screens, resulting in:

Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...

In addition to a screen size that shows more characters of a selection, 4th-generation iPods (iPod photo) and later scroll long file names when they are highlighted, eliminating this problem. However, iPhones and iPod Touch do not scroll long names when viewing by Artist or Composer.

Categories, Styles and Genres

Ok, we’ve covered composer, work title, performer and conductor. What’s left? Categories. Organizing classical music is no easy task. There are numerous types of works of various eras and styles and opinions vary what counts as what. How ever you choose to organize you classical music is a matter of individual preference. I’m not too particular, choosing to keep things relatively simple. Generally, I take information from AllMusic’s classical music database to create the Genre tag using the era and format of the music.

Romantic Symphony
Modern Ballet
Contemporary Suite for Orchestra

I do this primarily to take advantage of iTunes’ smart playlists. If I feel like listening to some Romantic-era concertos, all I have to have to do is set up a playlist with these conditions:

Genre contains romantic
Genre contains concerto

Likewise, if I’m in a symphonic mood but not in a particularly romantic mood, I can set it as follows:

Genre contains symphony
Genre does not contain romantic

Track Titles, Comments and Year

Track titles are straightforward enough. Unlike the Musicbrainz model that would create yet another list of seemlingly identical track names, I simply put the movement number and title. I also put the movement number in the track number.

I use the comments field to include notes about the performance, including a featured soloist if necessary.

And lastly, I use the year tag for the year of the performance, not the year the piece was first published or composed. This helps me keep the context of the recording in mind when selecting and listening to a piece. I’ve found ArkivMusic’s catalog to be quite useful for tracking down dates.


That tagging structure again (click to see full size).

Well, there’s my take on it. If you made it this far, then I hope this was helpful. My goal here is to keep track of essential data, while leaving my library simple enough to find and navigate efficiently in an iTunes/iPod environment. I think I’ve succeeded in that regard. It certainly works for me. However, if you’d like some other perspectives, try these links:

April 6-9 : 82 songs played. 23 added. 19 removed.

out with the old, in with the new. tunequest is now powered by one of those new-fangled intel-powered imacs. getting it set up and customized took a good portion of my weekend, but my first impressions are quite positive. the thing is remarkably fast. it’s not perfect, but is a large improvement over the previous g4. for one thing, iTunes isn’t nearly as sluggish, and that can mean only good things for the tunequest.

despite the new hardware, not all is well in tunequest world. i’ve got two months of tunequesting under my belt and the numbers aren’t looking good for achieving my goal. in short, i need to be listening to more music. when i started, i had to listen to 44 songs per day; i haven’t been meetings that goal, so it’s now 46. likewise, i’ve got to listen to 318 songs per week, a number i’ve only achieved once in the eight weeks i’ve been doing this.

so i must redouble my efforts. it’s no easy task, since i want to actually listen to each song, not just play them.

onward to lackluster tunequest:

  • radiohead [high and dry] single
  • the cardigans [gran turismo]
  • the dandy warhols [dandy’s rule ok]
  • charlie hayden & pat metheny [beyond the missouri sky]
  • morcheeba [big calm]
  • soul coughing live in new your city 1992
  • jamiroquai [cosmic girl]single
  • the verve [bittersweet symphony] single
  • klaus doldinger [das boot]
  • gustav holst’s suite no.2 in f (performer unknown)

companion to holst’s suite no.1 is suite no.2, which is also quite brilliant, particularly the second movement: ‘song without words.’ go listen to it. go now.

today’s powerhouse album however is das boot. klaus doldinger puts out some epic, pulsing, tension-building music. this was the first time i actually seriously paid attention to the score in the 4 years i’ve owned it and must say i regret not listening to it sooner. it’s too bad i won’t be able to listen to it again for a while because of tunequest’s ‘no repeat’ rule. •

the big loser this tunequest is the charlie hayden & pat metheny album. i kind of feel bad about it, because it was given to me by a friend who has since passed away from cancer, but i’ve never been able to get into it. i respect the album, but just have never been able to listen to it. it’s jazzy, but for the most part slow and has a hard time holding my attention. so i ended up removing most of it from my library. •

April 4-5 – 93 songs played. 3 removed.

if you’re into pictures and charts (and who isn’t?), i’ve posted some graphs of my progress.

  • r.e.m. [automatic for the people]
  • gustav holst’s suite no.1 in e-flat (performer unknown)
  • christopher franke [babylon 5: z’ha’dum]
  • berlin philharmonic performing dvorak’s concerto for cello and orchestra
  • mercury rev [deserter’s songs]
  • roni size [brown paper bag]single
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop]
  • john barry [dances with wolves]
  • camera obscura [biggest bluest hi-fi]
  • the faint [blank-wave arcade]
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop: music for freelance remixes]

switching gears now, i first heard of the faint when a friend convinced me to go to a show in fort walton beach, fl in the summer of 2001. tucked into the corner of a otherwise-empty, impossible-to-find hole-in-the-wall bar with about 20 other kids, the faint’s brand of synth-rock-with-so-much-pop-flavor-you-must-dance completely blew my mind. the group’s performance was amazing, with apocalyptic smoke and lights which gave an edge most sinister to a group whose make-up was pale and dress was black.

after the show, i briefly talked with the frontman. i forget what we spoke about, idle chit chat probably, but i found the experience a bit surreal. he was still all dolled up in his goth-stylings, but he was just sitting there, chatting it up,  arms folded, like a regualr-joe from omaha. i bought blank-wave arcade from him. •

quick notes:
holst’s suite no.1 is a good work, especially the third movement. but as i’ve mentioned before, i’m a sucker for a good march. mercury rev’s deserter’s songs is majestic and symphonic; it is the group’s finest recording. my youthful devotion to r.e.m. disappeared rather rapidly around the time new adventures hi-fi came out, but i still consider automatic for the people a classic.