Friday, January 28, 2011

The Long Surround Migration

This week I completed a long-held goal for my studio, which was to enable surround sound listening. The path to this goal was unfortunately fraught with a couple of hidden perils, compounded by my piecemeal upgrade to various home audio installations of differing manufacturers and capabilities. I document them here as a cautionary tale.

The first piece of equipment was a Sony Multi-Channel Receiver, the STR-DG910, ready for 7.1 output, nicely equipped, I thought at the time. I installed this in my new studio when we first moved here in 2006, already contemplating surround sound for audio. Then, a year later, the CD player in our living room died, approximately three days after the warranty expired. Labels like Montreal's Empreintes Digitales were starting to release DVD Audio albums, and many classical labels use Super Audio CD. As it happens, Marantz makes a universal player, the DV7001, which would handle both. So I bought one of them and transferred my existing five-CD changer to replace the dead one.

Now, we've seen competing standards over the years — beta vs. VHS for example. Here's another one: DVD Audio vs. SACD. The original SACD specs (which I understand have been modified in a later version) prohibited the digital transfer of raw audio information, which led Marantz to engineeer their player to send the audio information on analog outputs, one for each channel plus one for the subwoofer. For whatever reason, Sony expected multichannel input on the HDMI or digital coax. Although the Marantz had these outputs, to quote their manual, "All DVD-Audio and all Super Audio CD audio are output only through the analog outputs" (my emphasis). So, several hundred dollars and much gnashing of teeth and various bulletin board inquiries later, still only stereo capability. I picked up a couple of discs in each format as test cases. I was pleased to find that Empreintes Digitales puts 320kbps mp3s in data partitions on their DVD-A discs, so I listened to them on the computer and the iPod.

Life goes on. In Arizona, the summer heat withers any wood on the outside of a house, window frames for example. Our house, about ten years old when we bought it, has two windows on the west face, and no amount of stain, or later paint, would hold for more than a season, and the wooden window frames were falling apart. So we decided to replace them. One of them is in a bedroom that we use for our TV, so we decided to remodel the whole theater room, upgrade the old 27-inch tube to a flat screen LED, complete with surround sound. Earmarks are a wonderful thing, it turns out, as a Marantz SR5005 Receiver and an extra set of surround speakers found their way into the budget, targeted for my studio, while the new theater took the Sony. We got everything at Best Buy and hired the Geek Squad to install it, including attaching the TV and Blu-Ray players to the internet for streaming Netflix. So the Geek Squad installed my surround system as well. All hooked up, ready to test, toss on the DVD-A for Jóhann Jóhannsson's beautiful piece for ensemble Virthulegu Forsetar, lots of brass and electronics, easy on the ears for the uninitiated. Gorgeous! Magnifique! Glorious Surround Sound! Then Stockhausen's Stimmung on SACD. Hit a few buttons on the remote, then it works! Check! Thanks guys, very happy, bye bye! Now get out so I can put on Robert Normandeau!

And here was gotcha number two. No matter what I tried, Robert Normandeau's DVD-A Puzzles would only play in stereo, front left and right only. Despondency. Long day, try again tomorrow. The next day, I called Marantz tech support. Sorry, if it plays anything in surround sound, the problem's in the DVD. Okay, I have another ED DVD-A, Pete Stollery's Un son peut en cacher un autre. Stereo. WTF? Well, let's look at the Normandeau in the computer — and up comes a menu and the DVD Player application. Hmmm. I have a home audio system, a receiver, a SACD/DVD player, and AirTunes to play iTunes. What's missing? Video. Indeed. Confirmed with a little portable TV. Now that I could see what I was doing, it was easy to find my way to Normandeau's multichannel output. Joy in Mudville! On to the Stollery! Stereo. But the menu's different, and as it turns out, there isn't surround sound on the Stollery disc, just a higher bitrate stereo. And Empreintes Digitales does provide this information on their site, in the DVD Audio spec box on the right hand side of the album detail page. I just never paid attention before. But the upshot is, either I attach a cheap, small TV monitor, or learn the magic set of key sequences on the remote to navigate through the menus. I don't think it ever occurred to designers of DVD-A discs that there wouldn't be a video capability on the target systems.

All ends extremely well, though, largely because all of my regular CDs play through the surround speakers. This is especially good, otherwise all this expense would benefit less than a tenth of a percent of my CDs. And their share has been diminishing in the overall music collection because of all the downloads. But to hear them through the surround speakers is truly amazing, it fills the room with sound in a way I've never heard before. But barring exploration of further system settings, it's only for music from the Marantz player, which means that the quality of sound for music from my computer is greatly diminished in comparison. I look forward to hearing so many of my CDs again with the enhanced sound, and I can already see that it will change my listening pattern back to favoring the CDs, saving the digital audio for other occasions that favor portability and availability over sound quality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Capitalism ruined the Beatles

Somewhere over the holidays I saw a notable-2010 book list that included Peter Doggett's account of the Beatles after their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money. Not a bad read, but be forewarned that there is little discussion of music in the book. The solo post-Beatles albums show up as milestones in the unending legal battles that consumed the group starting in the late 1960s, while they were still releasing group albums. Even as late as 2009, with two of their members deceased and four decades after the band's demise, their label EMI and Apple Computer each paid dozens of lawyers to squabble about the percentages they would get from the remastered recordings on iTunes.

The primary reason to mention the book here is to note the stark contrast during the 1970s between the Beatles and their armies of litigators and Cornelius Cardew's hard line Marxism which he practiced during the same period. Cardew, of course, was only too aware of the conditions facing workers during the miner's strike in the mid-1970s as well as the winter of discontent later in the decade. Neither of these events fazed the Beatles, living by this time in isolated opulence. One could not find a better example of the forces against which Cardew struggled than the sad disarray, personal and professional, where the Fab Four found themselves. Doggett, who also hosts a Beatles blog, has done extensive research tracking down obscure details, dispassionately revealing a rather seamy underside to their glittery success.

Generative Kayn

At the encouragement of fellow Roland Kayn aficinado Massimo Ricci, I had another look at the liner notes for Kayn's early vinyl releases, which are posted on his site. Despite my earlier comments on the paucity of material in English, there is some English explanation in each set of liner notes. It's pretty clear from the documents that Kayn developed a generative music systen, nearly twenty years before Brian Eno popularized the term with his speech at the Imagination Conference in 1996. Consider this description of Kayn's 1977 piece Makro, selected somewhat arbitrarily from the liner notes from Kayn's discography:

The concept for realizing the composition MAKRO involved the construction of combined control circuits, in an approach to the theory of the 'black box'…. Only the inputs and outputs leading into, out of and back into the box (circular relationships) made it possible to control internal processes probabilistically by means of external intervention, and to derive standard behavior from the dependency of the input and output signal.

The functions of the aggregates operating inside the 'box', combinations for instance of frequency divider, product modulator, flipflop circuit, amplified and reverberating machine, could not be regular with regard to direct manipulation. My idea was to impinge upon and test selforganizing systems on the basis of stimulus and reaction. The specific aspect of the concept was the generation of situations which had not been pre-programmed. In terms of control technique this meant that systems had to be invented which consist of a group of transference terms with points of intersection.

Wikipedia lists four different perspectives on generative music, and Kayn's seems to fit more in the biological/emergent model, in which an "ecology will perpetually produce different variation based on the parameters and algorithms used." He sets loose a population of circuits that acts indeterministically on whatever sound he introduces, one of the external interventions he mentions in passing. We can hear romantic orchestral music sometimes straining to get through, but his sampled sounds, uncredited, reportedly ranged as widely as the Hafler Trio. Most importantly, his systems are self-organizing, with a goal to generating music that isn't pre-programmed.

Kayn used his circuit aggregates to remove his ego from the compositional process, similar to the creative forces that drove John Cage into his more well known version of chance operations. Kayn ended up in electronics, perhaps because he didn't have a sympathetic performer like David Tudor to help realize his instrumental visions composed from bizarre graphic symbols and considerable performer latitude. Rather than inspiration from Zen, however, Kayn found his muse in cybernetics, an engineering discipline with computer applications more ready to hand which gave him the electronics background for his acoustical experiments. It would be interesting to know how Kayn adapted to the digital era, whether he was able to create the same runaway pack of circuits in software, and what processes differentiate his enormous suites of electronic works. Hopefully his papers will land in some university archive, where interested parties can discover more about the origins of his otherworldly music and where he can get the credit for generative music that he deserves.

The image is from the Institute for Sonology studio at Utrecht University around 1977, when Kayn composed his Makro project there. It is taken from the liner notes for the vinyl album Makro, cited above.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drone Classics — Gaku-no-Michi

Jean-Claude Eloy's epic electronic work Gaku-no-Michi has long been on my short list for drone classics. Composed at the NHK Studio in Tokyo (like Stockhausen's Telemusik) in 1977-78, the 1979 double LP was one of my favorite electroacoustic works from my first hearing. But the four sides were only an excerpt, somewhat less than half of the total. Nevertheless, they grew in stature through its early inclusion in the Avant Garde Project (RIP) and its re-release on Creel Pone. Eloy and I had a brief email exchange several years ago where he informed me that a complete version was in the works, and it finally appeared late last year. The focus changed significantly with the restoration of the missing material, adding many more voices and concrete sounds into the greatly improved sound mix, revealing the epic dimensions of the work. In addition, Eloy made various liner notes available as PDFs in both French and English on the label's web site, including an excellent description of the piece and various technical credits.

Eloy started out with more straightforward compositional output, with works for orchestra and larger ensembles. Pierre Boulez released a recording of Eloy's 1963 piece Equivalences with his Domaine Musical Ensemble, and Eloy also studied with Stockhausen during the 1960s. In the turbulence and dissatisfaction of the late 1960s, Eloy sought inspiration outside the European avant-garde, and his first major electronic work Shanti ('Peace' in Sanskrit) uses concrete texts from Sri Aurobindo, Mao, and Eldridge Cleaver, and meditation sounds related to Indian, Tibetan, and Japanese voice forms. Shanti led to an invitation from the electronic music studio at NHK-Radio, Tokyo. Three extensive visits and 1200 studio hours later, Eloy produced the four-hour "film without images for electronic and concrete sounds," Gaku-no-Michi, with the title roughly translated as "The Ways of Music," or "The Tao of Music."

Although the piece isn't meditation music in the strict Zen or Yoga sense, the long sections of slowly evolving tones put the listener in a deep, reflective state. This was especially true for the vinyl release, which favored the contemplative second part with two of the four sides and skipped the more chaotic third part entirely. Tokyo, the opening section is represented on vinyl with what Eloy identifies in his notes as the third phase, a continuous dense and teeming mass of electronic sounds. But in the complete version, we hear what precedes as an inquiry into Japanese sound, overtly thematizing the geography much more intensely than the excerpts I've known before. Similarly, the last major section Kaiso is represented on vinyl with the long sequences of the first part. In the complete version, the sustained sounds that close side four continue to the readings from the annual Hiroshima ceremony in French, English and Japanese. This sobering sequence is the upbeat to the work's final extended lament.

The restored material provides a completely different narrative shape to the piece, way beyond the suggestions from the previously released excerpts, thereby providing a more substantial meaning for the "film without images." The vocal interludes alter the pacing completely, from long extensions to a nearly immediate comprehension. The Japanese sound inquiry from Tokyo, for example, moves from an abstract section to a slow voice intoning "what is...", but in an accent so that the possible meaning is deferred. Not until the transitional section is complete and we hear a different voice asking "what is, for you, Japanese sound?" with lots of ambient noise, as if the interrogator is taking a survey on a street corner. The answers from the crowd are drowned back into Eloy's modulated electronics, but the moment remains pivotal in a shifting perception of time. The vocal interludes provide a different modality beyond time perception and a static mode of being, interspersing an active, participatory focus through everyday, spoken language.

Despite the album's proclaimed completeness, a concert performance of Gaku-no-Michi has some unusual features that the CD release doesn't try to duplicate. To encourage a more focused listening experience, Eloy constructed an electronic prelude, interlude and postlude that play continuously before the concert, during an intermission, and after the concert, events presumably cued with lights and that discourage applause. The CDs don't artificially segue into each other, but present each major section of the work as a complete track (the opening prelude Pachinko gets its own track, but the interlude and postlude are blended with their antecedents). Even without the concert experience, the CDs stand alone very successfully and should restore Gaku-no-Michi to its leading position for electroacoustic music as well as the beginning of a long overdue retrospective for its composer. Eloy has also released the complete version of his other completely electroacoustic piece, Shanti, and has projected releases for electroacoustics and soloists. The Eloy CDs are available in the US from Mimaroglu and Erstdist; at the time of this writing, they are not available legally as a download.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Roland Kayn, 1933-2011

Another of the great pioneer electroacousticians passed away this week. Roland Kayn was a part of the early electronic improv groups, Nuova Consonanza, with Ennio Morricone, Franco Evangelisti and Aldo Clementi, but his mark came with huge electronic epics that he started composing in the mid-1960s. One part of his Cybernetics project was released on the legendary DGG Avant-Garde series of LPs, and in 1970 Kayn released a 3-LP set of a 148-minute work, Simultan. By the late 1970s most of his work was electroacoustic, all of it big: Makro (released on 3 LPs) in 1977, Infra (released on 4 LPs) in 1979-80, Tektra (released on 6 LPs and later reissued on 4 CDs) in 1980. He created his own label, where he has released 15 albums of his music, 13 of them electroacoustic, all but one as 2-CD sets, none of them reissues of the LPs. He adapted marvelously to the digital age [see update below], increasing his output dramatically, with 220 of his 287 works composed in his last decade, all of them electronic. In 2009 alone, he composed 30 electronic works for a total of over 36 hours of music.

Even as I am staggered by the quantity, everything that I've heard by him transports me to a different place, and I always look forward to his works when they appear in the iPod rotation. I suspect that his work in cybernetics led him to some kind of generative system, but most of the documents on his web site are in languages I don't read (Dutch, German, Italian, etc.). Hopefully more detailed information will become available in English about his music.

[Update, May 7, 2011] To clarify, based on an email from Ilse Kayn, the digital age may have coincided with Roland Kayn's last decade, but his music was always analog. The productivity burst was due in large part to his retirement, which gave him time, space and peace to compose.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 in review

2010 was a strange year for me and recorded music. I traveled to some major U.S. left coast cities and visited some world-class record stores, expecting to do some serious CD bingeing. The second trip involved two smaller stores, one of which I visited quite profitably in 2004. Unfortunately, both stores had shifted to fairly small CD displays, having switched largely to vinyl and used items, and the excursions ended up as a letdown. Whether or not as a direct result, I virtually stopped buying CDs for nearly six months, with only eight CDs purchased between the end of May and the end of November. Part of the rationale was that I have a lot of CDs of great music, and that I'd like to spend more time with individual pieces. I see that Richard Pinnell has pledged to listen to the same piece every day and write about the experience of getting to know the piece intimately. I cannot say how much I admire this approach. He selected Luigi Nono's only string quartet, Fragmente, Stille, and while I'd love to follow the same path, although probably not with the same piece, it seems so impractical. I look forward to seeing how Richard handles it.

My overall new music acquisitions were down by 30% from 2009 — if it weren't for emusic, where I refused to let the downloads get swept up at the end of the period, I wouldn't have hardly picked out anything new. Even so, with emusic's revised pricing schedule this year, the same amount of money spent yields only half as much music.

Moving forward with this blog, I need to face up to the reality that I cannot review every promo CD or download that arrives in my mailbox. I publish occasional reviews both here and at I have heard some wonderful music from promotional releases, which I most certainly would not have found any other way and for which it was a pleasure to write a review. All of the music I review for is promotional, but my intent for Classical-Drone was to write about music I liked, including music I already have as well as music I haven't heard yet. In addition, in 2011, I intend to review more netlabel releases. I have a release on a netlabel, and I should do more to promote their vitality. Fortunately there is no shortage of excellent ambient and drone releases, so I'm sure I will have plenty of choices. But a consequence is that I will write many fewer reviews from promotional CDs and downloads in 2011 than I did in 2010.

The unfortunate downside is that some unsolicited CDs that I've already received will go unreviewed. I've never run a label, but I'm pretty sure nobody gets reviews for all of the promos they send out. My sincere apologies if it happened here. If we've been in touch via email, your review is still in the pipeline.

As for my favorite new music of 2010, as in other years, my awareness of release dates is generally low, so I can't say exactly when these albums first appeared. Links are to my reviews, the list is ordered by acquisition date.

  • Altus, Winter Embrace III
  • Language of Landscape, Memories Fade Under A Shallow Autumn Snow
  • Lexithimie, Leontopodium
  • Slow Six, Tomorrow Becomes You
  • Keith Rowe, Live at Amplify 2008
  • Leyland Kirby, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was
  • Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony No. 6
  • Francisco Lopez, Amarok
  • Nils Frahm, Wintermusik
  • Salvatore Sciarrino, Sui poemi concentrici
  • Kyle Bobby Dunn, A Young Person’s Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn
  • Balmorhea, Constellations
  • Ben Frost, Theory of Machines
  • Pisaro & Stuart, July Mountain
  • Ludovico Einaudi, Nightbook
  • Celer, Dying Star
  • Goldmund, The Malady of Elegance
  • Michael Northam, Solar Night
  • Peter Adriaansz, Waves
  • Jean-Claude Eloy, Gaku-No-Michi (complete)
  • Scott Cortez, Twin Radiant Flux
  • Ann Southam, Simple Lines of Enquiry
  • Cornford & Rodgers, Zinc [extracts]