8 Ways to Improve the iPod (and could be done with a firmware update)

The iPod is supposed to be “iTunes to go” but as the little music player has advanced over the years, it still lags behind in some relatively basic features, features that have been a part of the desktop program for some time. iTunes’ capabilities seem to be constantly improved and refined; its portable counterpart’s behavior has remained relative unchanged, even as it has gained photo and video support.

Forget touchscreens and Bluetooth, FLAC and DivX; here, I present a list of the iPod’s more troublesome foibles, all of which could be overcome with a firmware update, making it an even better music player.

Toggle display of the Composer tag

This is something I’ve wanted since Apple added the Composer field to iTunes five years ago: A display of the composer when listening to classical music. The 5G iPods have more than enough screen real estate to accommodate an extra line of text. It makes no sense that after all this time and after adding a way to browse and select by composer, Apple still doesn’t allow a way to view it while playing. Classical music aficionados have to either do without or devise elaborate tagging systems to see who the composer of a piece is.

Of course, not everyone has need for composer display. There certainly are people who don’t appreciate Prokofiev. Also, the field is often populated with junk from Gracenote/CBBD. A simple toggle in the iPod settings would fix that. Those of us who want to see the composer can turn it on and those who don’t can leave it off.

no composer visible
At a glance, there’s no telling who the composer is. One hack, though, would be to embed the composer name in the album artwork.

Support for the Album Artist field

iTunes 7 introduced a new data field to the song info dialogue box: Album Artist. Apple says it’s for assigning a primary artist to an album with multiple artists. It signifies a way to separate the artists producing the work from the artists performing it.

It’s a great idea for classical works that have a featured soloist in addition to the orchestra or when one artist is a featured guest on someone else’s song, eg, William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins. In this case, William Shatner is the primary artist and would be to sole “Album Artist” while “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins” are the performing artists.

The tag works well in iTunes, keeping song listing nicely and tidily organized. The iPod, however, still separates “William Shatner” from “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins,” leading to a cluttered interface that is difficult to use. Most of my music listening is done via iPod, so Album Artist remains under-utilized.

Album Artist would be a very useful tag. It would even solve my dilemma for tagging remix/dj albums. But without iPod support, the tag is DOA.

two shatners
Despite having the same Album Artist, these listings are still displayed by regular Artist.

Full Support for Sort fields. (accomplished)

UPDATE 3/19/08: Firmware version 1.3 for the Fifth Generation iPod adds support adds support for Sort Album and Sort Composer.

Other options recently introduced into iTunes but not into the iPod are customizable Sort Fields, which let you control how iTunes alphabetizes your artist and album listings.

By default, the iPod is smart enough to ignore “A,” “An” and “The” at the beginning of artist names. The Chemical Brothers are sorted with the C’s, for example. Starting with iTunes 7.1, you can customize the Sort name for Artists, Albums, Songs, Album Artists, Composers and TV Shows.

If you want Fiona Apple to appear with the A’s rather than the F’s, just set the Sort Artist to “Apple, Fiona” and you’ll soon see Fiona next to Aphex Twin.

It’s pretty cool, but…… on the iPod, it only works with Artists. You can customize all the albums and composers in your library and Gustav Mahler will still be chillin’ with the G’s and The Colour and The Shape will still be sorted with the T’s.

the thes
The “thes” like to hang out together in album view.

Browsable playlists

Music libraries get larger every day it seems. And the iPod’s hard drive does its best to keep up. At 80 GB, the device can hold a month or so of continuous music. For myself and others with large libraries, it’s effortless to create Smart Playlists that contain hundreds or thousands of songs based on specific criteria. Navigating those playlists can be nearly impossible as they show naught but a long list of song titles.

In my library, creating a Smart Playlist of Ambient music from between 1990 to 2000 returns 305 songs from 44 albums by 11 artists. Viewing the playlist on my iPod is a jumble of songs. I would love the option to sort and browse the artists and albums in a playlist.

Perhaps, when you select a playlist, the iPod displays an entry at the top of the song list: “Browse this playlist.”

Full-screen album art

When in full screen mode, I want the iPod to display album art as large as it can, no margins, no scaling. Just like when browsing photos, I want the image to take up the entire screen. This, the iPod can already sort of do…… if you plug it into an iPod HiFi, Apple’s own speaker system. I would like it to be standard. For more, read this recent rant.

Bonus Wishlist

I’m not annoyed by these missing features, but if they were real, I’d find them useful:

iPod Party Shuffle

A more limited version of iTunes’ Party Shuffle. When you’re shuffling, this would let you see a handful of upcoming songs. You could skip ones you don’t want to hear.


My listening preferences are different depending on whether I’m at work, in the car, at the gym, or moseying around the house. At the gym, I like to shuffle by song while at work I like to shuffle by album. When listening to ear buds, I like to use the bass booster EQ, but the bass response in my car is a little heavy, so I like to turn on the bass reducer.

It would be convenient to save different settings configurations for easy switching.

Grouping behavior that makes sense

“Grouping” is the red-headed stepchild of ID3 fields. No one *really* knows what it’s for or how to use it. Ostensibly, it’s for creating “groups” or subsets of related songs within an album. But it wasn’t until iTunes 7 that you could do anything with it (you can shuffle by Grouping).

It seems to me that an effective behavior for songs with the same Grouping to be “always keep these songs together.” For example, Mouse on Mars’ Varcharz has one song, One Day Not Today, that is broken into 12 tracks. Give all 12 tracks the same Grouping, “One Day Not Today” and the iPod would know to start at the first track and play through all of them sequentially, even when shuffling.


Hopefully, one day, these wishes will come true. I still love my iPod, but I’m looking for reasons to love it more.

Clean up your Composer tags already!

Update: The revised sorting feature/problem in iTunes 7.3 and later renders portions of this advice useless. Some of it still applies for Smart Playlist building, but the segregated sorting no longer works. If you’re using a version prior to 7.3, go nuts. If you’re using 7.3 or later, be warned.

In striving for zen-like simplicity while maintaining and extending the usability of iTunes, please follow me as I introduce you to the technique I use to keep my Composer tags orderly and navigable particularly when using an iPod. The idea is to streamline the presentation of the tags while adding meaning to them.

In my library there are three types of songs that require use of the composer tag:

  1. Classical and other so-called “serious music”
    Principally includes all works by traditionally-recognized composers and performed by orchestras, quartets, etc. Also includes film and television recordings that are not the originals, such as when the Royal Philharmonic plays Star Trek or Trotter Trio’s jazz CD Sketches on Star Wars.
  2. Cover songs
    Whether live or in studio, remakes or performances of songs that were originally recorded and released by another artist or group.
  3. Remix Albums
    Collections of remixes of other artists’ songs released under the marquee of the remixer. For example: Fila Brazillia’s Brazilification.

If a song in my library doesn’t belong to one of those categories, the composer tag is left empty, completely blank. There’s no need to use the tag in the pop/rock idiom; all the relevant info is contained in the song-artist-album structure.

The same goes for movie scores and other “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.” It’s redundant to put “John Williams” in both the artist and composer when it’s his recording of the original release of the album that you’re tagging.

Some people are tempted to put the songwriter in the Composer space and CDDB/Gracenote often includes it when retrieving a CD.

Well, don’t. And if you already have, delete it.

How likely are you to go to the Composer field and select “Cobain, Kurt” when you want to hear Heart-shaped Box? Not very, I’m sure. You are much more likely to select “Nirvana” from the Artist field. If you must obsessively keep that info, put it in the Comments field. That way you can still find it in your Encyclopedia iTunica if you need it, but it won’t get in the way of using your iPod.

So how do we keep these styles from intermingling, so that you don’t end up with Guns n’ Roses next to Gustav Mahler?

It’s rather easy; just add leading character to the beginning of your composer text based on the type of file it is, particularly if a song does not fall into the Classical category.

In my scheme, classical music takes priority, as it is the format that best benefits from using the field. In these cases, the composer is, well, the composer. Syntax is up to you: Mahler; Gustav Mahler; Mahler, Gustav; however you see fit to do it.

Likewise for film and tv music that’s not from the original release. I treat those recordings the same as classical. The Artist tag goes to the ensemble performing the work while the original composer gets credit in the Composer tag.

ipod plays composer tags with brackets for cover tunes

Cover Tunes

With cover tunes, the original performer’s name is surrounded by brackets [ ]. So when The Cardigans play a Black Sabbath song Iron Man, the Composer tag looks like this [Black Sabbath]. Now all the cover songs are sorted alphabetically together on the iPod. Plus, I can create a Smart Playlist with condition Composer starts with [ and have all of them gathered in a single spot. If new cover tunes get added in the future, they’re automatically included in the Smart Playlist.

Cover tunes smart playlist. Click to see larger version.

Finally, there’s remix albums. There’s a long discussion to be had about how to treat those with iTunes.

Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful and will assist in taking full advantage of iTunes’/iPod’s power.

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.

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 Last.fm, 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:


on attention span and epic works

tunequest in review: for the week ending may 27, 2006.

stats: 226 songs played over 16 hours. a further 11 were removed and 1 was added, for a net progress of 236 songs, which is a nearly 50% decline from last week's performance.

well, it figures that this week's would be lackluster compared to last; i'm nothing if not inconsistent. it's not surprising though. i knew there would be a drop this week. for one thing, i was out of commission for most of friday. the office closed early and then i spent far too much time at ikea (neat furniture. bad service, but the restaurant serves free coffee until 10am). furthermore, i apparently developed a severe case of space brain at work, resulting in much un-listened-to music. hell, hours would go by before i would even remember that i had an ipod with me. this week's workload wasn't that heavy. i really have no other explanation, save for adult-onset ADD.

and that brings me to an interesting phenomenon. i'll be the first to admit that my attention span is about as reliable as a kitten's (damn you television!) and there are times that without serious effort, i can become easily distractable. which is why it's ironic that i'm drawn to music projects of record length. (and books too for that matter).

mo' longer mo' better is my general rule.

an 80 minute symphony (such as mahler's 9th)? bring it on i say. john barry's complete james bond scores? why not? my 3 hour/3 disc kit-bash of orbital's in sides or a 2.5 hour pearl jam concert? turn it up!

the natural result of these 2 forces is a cycle of initiation, abandon and renewal until i either 1) devote the proper effort and attention to the project 2) keep muddling through it without fully appreciating or comprehending its scale, or 3) give it up completely (that last one almost never happens. i always think i'll get around to it). case in point: i've had both bernstein's complete mahler cycle and hughes' complete holmboe cycle for nearly 2 years and there are still several works that i've never listened to.

but that's partly why i've undertaken the tunequest, to give those under-appreciated masterpieces the chance to shine. and it is working, to a point. i have already found or re-discovered much great music and i'm only 1/3 of the way through the project.

but there is a downside. in order to reach my goal of listening to every song in my library by the end of the year i basically have to "speed listen" to everything, rushing through as many songs as possible. each song gets a single listen, then i'm onto the next. there's no time for me to dwell on any of these new discoveries of mine and give them serious critical thought. it's not so bad with pop and rock music, those songs being generally less complex. but for classical, jazz and film scores, one listen is certainly not enough to develop a full appreciation for the art.

i guess that's what tunequest 2007 will be for…

anyway, this week's complete album list is in the Continue reading

tunequest week in review

for the week ending may 20, 2006.

stats: a superlative week here at tunequest. 394 songs played over 25 hours and 40 minutes. a further 5 songs were removed from the library for a net progress of 399, a new record. frankly, i'm surprised by the results. an afternoon braves game and a couple of extented meetings cut into my normal office listening time and i didn't really expect saturday's listening to be able to compensate. not that i'm complaining about it. i'm thrilled.

highlights for the week include sharing the chicago symphony's performance of mahler's no 6 with the neighborhood, revisiting some  grunge and post-grunge rock from nirvana's bleach and soundgarden's down on the upside, appreciating the smooth grooves of the well-pollished idm of to rococo rot's hotel morgen, getting funky with morton steven's very compelling tv score to hawaii five-o (best tv theme song ever!), and finally finally finally finally getting through all those babylon 5 scores* (it took 7 weeks, but i did it), as well as enjoying a host of other really great music.

also mixed in this week were a couple of james bond scores (john barry's diamonds are forever and david arnold's die another day. both excellent) and william shatner's has been. now don't laugh at this, but that shatner album is some powerful stuff. he's got a very engaging spoken-word delivery as well as some respectable collaborators. the result is 11 songs that pack more heartfelt sentiment than all the songs on top 40 radio in the past 10 years combined. i mean that.

it was also apparently "records that time forgot week" here at tunequest. i only covered 7 albums in that short-lived series, and 3 of them managed to pop up this week: can's ege bamyasi, louis and bebe barron's score to forbidden planet and martin denny's space-exotica extravaganza exotic moog. as soon as i track down that file, i'll post it.

see this week's complete list of albums in the extended entry.

*technically, i have one album left, a compilation called 'the best of babylon 5.' it's currently not eligible for play because the tunequest-ipod is into the I's and it's not smart enough to ignore the "the" at the beginning of album names. artists yes, albums no.

Continue reading

soundtrack for a car wash and oil change

At times, i really resent owning a car. Yeah they’re convenient necessary for getting around, but with the fueling and maintenance and cleaning and well, effort that goes into having one, there are times when I’d just as soon not have one. (Oh, for a more vibrant public transportation system in metro Atlanta.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a ’99 saturn sc2 (aka "the cherry bomb"–it’s red) and I love it; I’ll probably hang on to it until the day it stops working. To that end, I try to treat it right. Thanks to car-pooling, it’s taken me five and a half months to put not-quite-3000 miles on my vehicle, so it was definitely time for an oil change and quarterly car wash.

Normally, when there’s music to be heard wafting through the neighborhood’s air, it’s some kind of bass-thumping or mexican oompah. On a couple occasions there’s even been some adult contemporary. But today was my turn to be the obnoxious boombox on the block.

And I’m sure the stuff I was playing is not the kind of stuff it’s used to hearing. To start things, I cranked Can’s Ege Bamyasi. This is one of the records that changed my perspective on music and I discovered it in a roundabout way.

For a number of years in the late 90s I maintained a website devoted to helping me keep track of all the various b-sides, covers, and unreleased ecetera from my favorite artists at the time. When you’re a collector, those types of things are important and I figured that others could benefit from my work as well as offer me updates.

One of the more challenging artists in the project was Beck, whose catalog was, even then, extensive and diverse, parts of which are pretty obscure. At one point, I read that he had covered a song called I’m So Green by a group called Can. I hadn’t heard of it and couldn’t locate a copy of it, so I just filed it away on the list and carried on. to this day, I’ve only been able to track down a 1-minute excerpt from it.

ege bamyasi by can

Cut to a couple years later, when in the summer of 2000, I was researching my-new-and-to-this-day-favorite-band Mouse on Mars, who cited Can as one of their musical influences. Inspired by this coincidence, I found a copy of I’m So Green and the album it appears on. I was instantly hooked and Ege Bamyasi quickly became one of my top albums (Six of its seven tracks are rated 5 stars).

That thing that amazed me though and changed my musical perspective was that the record was released in 1972, a number of years before I was born. While I considered a lot of music from before my lifetime to be "respectable" I had never really accepted that it could be good. This album convinced me otherwise and the timespan represented in my library has extended much.


On to the oil change. This was my first unassisted oil change in quite sometime, so I had to re-teach myself how to do it. The theory is simple enough; the practice… well that takes practice. It took a little bit longer than expected, but I got to serenade the neighbors with Mahler’s Symphony No 6 "Tragic" performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while I figured it out.

To say that I like this symphony would be a dramatic understatement. I own nine different recordings of it (the Philharmonia’s is my favored and the Berlin Philharmonic’s is exceptional, as is this CSO performance under Abbado). At nearly 90 minutes in length, it is a symphony that takes dedication and perseverance to get through, but it is an edge-of-the-seat roller-coaster of raw power and emotion that sucks you in from the first measure and never lets go.

Originally published may 2001.

Experimental rock band Can was always several steps ahead of its contemporary music scene, exploring frontiers of rock music that wouldn’t become popular for another 10 to 20 years. Formed in Cologne, Germany, in 1968, Can (bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, guitarist Michael Karoli, and drummer Jaki Liebzeit) was dedicated to tinkering with song construction methods and unorthodox arrangements, often incorporating noise, analog synthesizers, and experimental recording techniques. By the early 70s, Can had emerged into an experimental music community that included such pioneers as Neu!, Faust and Tangerine Dream.

Though rooted in the German rock scene, Can gravitated more toward minimalism (and even ambience), abstaining from the industrial bent that marked many of the group’s contemporaries, most notably Kraftwerk, preferring a musical formula that was closer to, but still divergent from, traditional rock. Despite its relative obscurity in America, Can has been cited by a wide range of artists as an influence, including Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Tortoise, and Mouse On Mars, as well as mainstream rockers Beck and Radiohead and scores of electronic musicians.

Recorded at the height of the “Suzuki Era” (so-named for then-singer Damo Suzuki, an expatriated Japanese street poet, who betrays not a hint of ethnicity), “Ege Bamyasi” shows Can at its most avant-conventional, delivering an amazing set that still holds its own against many of today’s more technologically sophisticated artists.

The pneumatic “Pinch” opens the record, trading slide whistle expressions with Suzuki’s ambiguous vocalizing over what amounts to a free jazz-inspired funky nine-minute rhythm section solo. Pinch fades into “Sing Swan Song,” a melancholic pseudo-waltz that effortlessly floats from the speaker. “One More Night” resumes the pace, driven by a simple, but mesmerizing head-bobbing groove, while Suzuki ponders the delusions of being alive for “one more Saturday night.”

Time feels as though it’s running out on “Vitamin C” as Leibzeit’s militaristic drums combine with a spring-wound tick-tock bass to deliver Suzuki’s ominous message: “You’re losing your Vitamin C; You’re losing your mind.” Czukay’s muted bass takes center stage on “Soup,” contributing to one of Can’s trademark rhythm explorations, before dissolving into sporadic and independent expressions of noise from each of the band members. Contrasting the proceeding cacophony, “I’m So Green” provides Ege Bamyasi with its most accessible song. Powered by an infectious proto-techno beat, it is easily the highlight of the record. Closing the album is “Spoon,” an other-worldly bossa-nova that seemlessly marries psychedelia with exotic composition.

Despite the passage of nearly 30 years, Ege Bamyasi is as fresh a record as it was when it was released and remains a great starting point for those curious about Can or experimental German rock in general, as it is as listenable as it is groundbreaking.

Dennis McCarthy – Deep Space Nine: Emissary: An Unexpected Treat

In the pantheon of composers who have worked on Star Trek, none are more prolific than Dennis McCarthy, who has been working with the franchise since the debut episode of The Next Generation to the final episode of Enterprise. Of course, whether you think that's a good thing or bad depends on your opinion of his music.

With the rather large caveat that Mr. McCarthy's composing abilities were limited by the franchise’s producers and production capabilities, who placed less emphasis on bold thematic music in favor of reusable "mood" and "atmospheric" cues, I must admit that, on the whole, I've not been impressed. I know it's not the composer's fault, and that I'm probably unfairly comparing his work to the more grandiose Star Trek film scores, but it's hard to wrap my head around the largely ambient, mood-setting scoring. a similar complaint I have regarding the bulk of Christopher Franke's Babylon 5 music. Maybe it's just a general limitation of writing music for television.

However, I recently listened to McCarthy's score for the premiere episode of Deep Space Nine (Emissary) and was quite surprised at its musical complexity. Though I've never been a big fan of the lumbering syncopation of the show's main title, I can’t help but get caught up in its a magnificent crescendo. It’s a perfect segue into each episode.

While McCarthy's music for the Borg Battle at Wolf 359 is not nearly as menacing or action-packed as Ron Jones' from The Best of Both Worlds, it too ends on a dramatic note that works, both by itself and on screen as we see Sisko's escape pod leave the Saratoga just before its destruction.

The score, from there, delves into the backdrop zone until the track Cucumbers in Space, an oddly-named piece of futuristic head-bopping source music. The score reaches a highlight on Into the Wormhole which evokes Jerry Goldsmith's exquisite V'Ger flyover music from the first motion picture. Later, during Reconciliation there's a cue that's reminiscent of one of my favorite passages from the third movement of Mahler's sixth symphony.

All in all, I found the score to Emissary to be an unexpected treat.

The first tunequest post

Highlights: John Williams score for A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a breathtakingly moving film score, particularly The Mecha World suite. The man was on the mark with that one.

In a similar vein, I also enjoyed movements I. and II. from Mahler’s 6th Symphony performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra as well as some groovin’ Les Baxter.

I removed a dull number by Hooverphonic and a non-song by An April March.