Monday, December 30, 2013

Goodreads for music?

This week, Goodreads sent me a list of all the books I read this year. As I contemplated why the number was so low (mostly, I forgot to record the dates read), I wondered how many albums I listened to this year. I realize that it doesn't take as long to listen to an album as read a book, but I've probably listened to 30 or 40, at least. I'm sure I would listen to more, had I the time and money.

Maybe I would know if there was a Goodreads for music—an online forum where you could keep track of your own listening experiences and then share those experiences with your friends. In an ideal system, many people could easily share and find sound recording reviews and ratings, maybe with recommendations based on previous reviews and ratings (some monetization is necessary for survival, of course).

There is one site that comes close to this: While Discogs has much of the functionality of Goodreads, with star ratings and reviews, its focus is different. Discogs is mostly for audiophiles who are trying to buy and sell vinyl. It isn't really people-centered. The "community" activity is really negligible (electronica/techno may be an exception for this), and people aren't really there as themselves to share their musical opinions with their friends. Also, a large percentage of resources is spent to describe the variants of a single "master" recording—something that is only slightly important in Goodreads.

Of course, Goodreads would need to be altered for use with sound recordings. There are a few issues that make this  medium different. Genre is a problem, as there are more possible genres and sound recordings have a harder time fitting into genres than books. I think, however, that an online forum and crowdsourcing (letting users describe the album's genres themselves) would actually help solve this problem. Another problem is that many more people are involved in the creation of a sound recording than a book. One solution might be a IMDB-style person tool, so that a user could find everything produced by a particular person (Discogs is pretty bad about personnel information, too).

Would something like Goodreads really work? I don't know. Music apps like the ones developed by MySpace and Twitter have failed to gain traction, but those failures could be based on technical problems more than anything else. The shear volume of metadata needed for each recording makes a sound recording system much more complicated and time intensive than it would be for a book system. At the moment, the best system for musicevangelism is still word of mouth (or word of Facebook).

Would you use a service like the one I described? Any Discogs users out there?

Vocab: vinyl, audiophiles, metadata

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I don't like "O Holy Night"

"O Holy Night" (a.k.a "Cantique de Noel") is ubiquitous during the Christmas season. I know it is a very popular Christmas song, but I really don't like it. I may be taking away from the Christmas-Eve spirit, but here are my reasons:
  • It's sooo long, even when it is cut. There are technically three verses and choruses, but just one verse and chorus takes about two minutes. Most popular versions just slap on a chorus repeat after that and call it good. Another option is to string several verses together before making to the chorus. Still, even the most cut versions take a long time at the slow, plodding tempo.
  • It's very hard to arrange, mostly because the arpeggiated accompaniment is such a vital part of the song. The lack of creative arranging is made worse because so many professional artists perform the song, and so there are a lot of versions that sound mostly the same. Mariah Carey's version attempts to change this accompaniment up, and somewhat succeeds, though I'm not so sure about the added backbeat:
  • It's very technically demanding vocally, but unfortunately that doesn't keep many amateurs from trying to perform it. This translates into a lot of cringe-worthy performances, like this one. Okay, that performance was hilariously bad on purpose, but this singer does a great job of making fun of how badly this song can by performed. But even with a competent singer, the song has musical problems.
  • Besides length and slowness, I think the main musical problem in "O Holy Night" is how the music takes precedence over the lyrical content, especially in the chorus. The vocal acrobatics really steal the show and put the emphasis on the performer. You can see this in the Mariah Carey music video above, where Carey seems to be the object of worship in the chapel instead of the Christ child. Relatedly, the music climaxes seem manipulative. Each chorus phrase demands that you pay attention, and the successive phrases keep ratcheting up the tension with each phrase, leaving me exhausted and annoyed by the end.
On a positive note, here's a Mariah Carey performance that I think is really awesome:

What do you think of "O Holy Night"? Anyone want to defend it?

Vocab: arpeggiated, accompaniment, chorus, climax, backbeat

Monday, December 16, 2013

Music Libraries…of the Future!

This past week, I wrote a reflection paper for a class on my predictions about music libraries of the future, and I'd thought I'd share some of my thoughts here. I think parts delve more into a wishlist than prediction, but I tried to base my speculation on current trends. I'm sure it will be amusing to read in 10 years and realize how wrong I was, but it's still fun to think about the future.

I believe that in 10-15 years, there will be two main trends in music libraries, especially academic music libraries: First, collections that are increasingly 1) electronic, 2) searchable AND browsable online, and 3) aggregators for third-party content. Second, management that focuses on greater outreach, more specialization, and a shrinking (or at least not growing) number of professional positions.

Trend 1: Streaming music, browsable sound collections

As more and more musical resources are put online, music libraries will offer more streaming services, even starting to offer popular music streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora. Of course, the streaming services now existent (Alexander Street Press, Naxos, and DRAM) will continue to add content and also increase their prices. Because of this expansion in electronic sound recording content, music libraries will find their budget for physical sound recordings dwindle, and will have to rely more finding rare music that is hard to find electronically on third-party markets. Although libraries will develop the tools to lend MP3s, legal problems will prevent the execution of this program. Subscription video streaming services will continue in the same way, becoming a greater percentage of music library’s budget as more and more music content becomes available online and fewer and fewer resources are published in a physical form. As physical sound recording budgets shrink and CDs become less of a theft risk, music librarians will figure out new ways to increase their physical circulation or risk their material having almost no use at all, perhaps finding a cheaper method of moving from closed stacks to open stacks or making their physical collections virtually browsable online.

Trend 2: E-books and e-scores

Music libraries will begin to catch up with other libraries on the purchase of e-books, as more music e-books become available and demand for them increases. Better tools will be developed to display textbook and academic e-books, making theme more popular, because the market will call for it, and because these tools as so bad now, they can only get better. In addition to e-books, some scores will start to be leased through aggregate publisher databases for use on tablets. These program will allow musicians to mark their own copies, and perhaps keep those markings for the next time they will lease the music, solving one of the big problems of non-physical copies. In the next few years, however, the score leasing model will only apply to old public domain material and new music from active composers who are willing to try the new model. In order for patron to use this new music leasing, the library will have to start lending the technology to use such music, such as tablet computers. In addition to tablets, the library will need to rent other multimedia technology that will continue to be too expensive for students, such as video equipment, microphones, and video and sound editing software.

Trend 3: More (and cheaper) e-journals, with content aggregators

While legal action will not convince courts to allow the lending of MP3s, lawsuits against big academic publishers will finally make electronic academic journal access cheaper rise only as fast as inflation. More journals will be open access, but in the next few years these open access journals will still not have figured out how to keep their academic standards high in the new model, such as working peer review process. Large, publisher-driven journals from academic presses will still continue to function and carry the most credibility, even with decreased revenue and court settlements. While the number of journals will continue to increase, more and more periodicals and books will be published as e-only. The library will become the aggregator of these resources for their patrons. With the continuing increase of e-content, someone will have to develop a tool so that these items electronic items are readily browsable, instead of just searchable. New books and journal issues will be funneled into something like Feedly or even Facebook, a reader that posts new content that is available in the library, such as the table of contents of patron’s favorite journals or a type of new books, so that patrons can quickly see what’s new. While browsing capabilities will continue to increase, music databases will become better at pinpointing material patrons need based on their search queries and search query history, a direction that we are moving already.  

Trend 4: Public domain expansion

While American copyright probably will not change much in the next 10-15 years, I will continue to hope that the restrictions to public domain material will slacken. There is currently an international movement to pull back the life-plus-seventy copyright stipulation back to a more reasonable life-plus-fifty. As demand and availability of out-of-copyright sources increases, libraries will become more involved in the location of online public domain resources and the production of out-of-copyright resources for these online platforms. Fair use will continue to be nebulous, but libraries will become more important in informing the public how to navigate these laws.

Trend 5: Less product, more service outreach

In addition all the changing collections (or perhaps because of it), music libraries will function differently, especially in terms of public service and personnel. Because of the de-emphasis in physical resources and large increase in online providing, music librarians will be doing more time with laptops having “office hours” in music schools, marketing themselves as a provider of resources instead of a repository of resources. While other academic libraries, such as large graduate and undergraduate libraries, will continue to gain in study and technology space, music libraries will be forced into smaller and smaller spaces, another reason why music librarians will need to concentrate on outreach.

As part of this outreach, music librarians will continue to do advertising exhibits; if anything, these exhibits will get bigger and more complicated and will be connected to social media (maybe a series of exhibits on a similar theme throughout the year, pushed heavily on university websites and Facebook and Twitter). Advertising of resources will become even more important, as will education about the increasingly complicated and varied music tools available.

In order to do this outreach, librarians will increasingly rely on paraprofessional and part-time workers. I think as budgets continue to flatline, the trend will continue to have fewer top people with library degrees and more full-time paraprofessional positions. However, the top positions will continue to require MLS degrees because of the continuing importance of technical education. MLS programs will be changing, however, to reflect the need of greater technical expertise. Because of the peculiarities of musical resources and overabundance of trained musicians versus jobs, though, musical expertise will continue to be desired for these top-level music librarian positions.

What do you think is in the future of music libraries?

Vocab: streaming, MP3, paraprofessional

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bach's "Echo Aria" from the Christmas Oratorio

This week, I performed half of Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the North Carolina Symphony. Bach's Christmas Oratorio is basically just six cantatas that tell the Christmas story (we sang parts 4-6, for those counting at home). A cantata, if you are wondering, is basically a church sermon set to music. Bach wrote literally hundreds of them, often the same week he would rehearse and perform them. Usually, a cantata features scripture passages, commentary on the scripture, and related chorales. Each cantata has from 7 to 14 parts. Some parts are sung by soloists or groups of soloists, and some are sung by the choir. Sometimes the audience would join in to sing the chorales, and sometimes just the choir would sing a more complex version of the chorales.

In comparison with Handel's music, which I sang last week, Bach's choral and vocal music is more intricate and has more exciting, carefully-structured part-reading, but is less flashy and memorable. For example, I don't have Bach stuck in my head for weeks after I sing it, which is what usually happens with Messiah. However, there was one aria, or solo number, from part 4 of the Christmas Oratorio that left an impression on me. It's named "Flößt, mien Heliand, flößt dein Namen," but is often just known as the "Echo Aria." Why, you ask? Well, the aria is basically a duet between the oboe player and the soprano, and both of them has a backstage pair that sometimes echoes the notes they sing.

Here, watch and listen:

I don't think this echoing is just a gimmick. Not only is the echo worked seamlessly into the music, but it fits with the text of the song. The main soprano singer is basically asking questions of the Lord, and the Lord is answering the questions in the echo, in the first part no, in the second part yes. Perhaps "Ask and ye shall find."

It is also really interesting how Bach foreshadows the echo with his music. In the solo oboe's introduction, it repeats a motive, the first time loud, the second time soft, as if Bach wants us to get used to that concept. When the echo from the upstage oboe happens, at first we aren't sure if the echo just might be the solo oboe. Then, the solo oboe starts echoing the voice. Finally, we are surprised by the upstage voice, though we've already been subtly prepared for it. That's some good foreshadowing. And neither the oboe's nor the soprano's echoes are ever quite the same—sometimes one echo, sometimes two, and in different orders—so the surprise continues. The balance of two echoing pairs is also a nice touch.

What do you think of the "Echo Aria"? Anyone have any other favorite Bach cantata numbers?

Vocab: cantata, chorale, aria, oratorio, motive

Monday, December 2, 2013

What music are you enjoying right now? Want to share?

It’s officially Christmas season. I don’t know when you all started listening to Christmas music, but I started while I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It’s interesting that this “genre” of music keeps coming back seasonally, and it's really a whole mishmash of genres.

It’s also officially end-of-term project and finals season, so I thought I’d throw this one out to you, my readers. Here's the question: what music are you digging right now, and why do you like it?

I’ll start. I just finished a performance run of Handel’s Messiah, and even though I tried to pick something else as I wrote about Messiah last year, it's what's on my mind. Specifically, I've had "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" stuck in my head. It has two parts, one fast and one slow. The slow part has a catchy melody, but the fast part is the kicker—not only is the vocal part flashy, but also the string parts sizzle with quick bowing, evoking fire (at least in my mind). Here's a video, and I hope you like countertenors:

Now it's your turn, and it doesn’t have to be Christmas music, and it doesn't have to be long.

Vocab: bowing, countertenor