Monday, December 7, 2015

Albums I didn't buy in 2015, plus some I still might

I took a good look back at my posts this past year, and after noting I had failed in my new year’s resolution to have and do more guest posts, I also noted that I had done only one album review this entire year. This is not a review blog, but just one review seems too few. I found this particularly strange because I tried out Apple’s streaming service for 3 months, so I was listening to more new music than I usually do. This year, as in the past several years, I also listened regularly to NPR’s Sound Opinions and All Songs Considered programs to get a handle on new music, so you might think that I would have responded to some of that music here on the blog, also.

In the end, though, I guess I didn’t have much to say about a lot of music that came out this year. I do try and set the bar high for myself, meaning that if I have something to say, I better say it well. Also, with some styles of music (such as hip-hop), I don’t feel like I have the expertise to really comment on it well.

In this post, I want to make some amends, and a mention is probably better than nothing. Instead of doing a top 10 albums or my biggest disappointments (like the Sounds Opinions annual Turkey Shoot), I’m just going to list some albums I listened to this year, divided into two groups: 1) albums I’m thinking about buying because I mostly enjoyed them, but didn’t have a lot to say about them (and obviously weren't so strong that I bought them right away) and 2) albums I’m not thinking about buying, meaning I seriously considered buying them, but ended up taking them off my wishlist after I listened to them. For the second group, I don’t think any of them are bad necessarily, but I didn’t think they were worth buying, either.

Albums I’m still thinking about buying:

  • Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and And Sometimes I Just Sit
  • Wilco: Star Wars (note: this was free, and I don’t regret downloading it)
  • Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
  • Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Albums I’m not buying:
  • Churches: Every Open Eye - I loved their first album; I was excited by the first single for this album, too, but it was mostly a letdown. I may still buy that single.
  • The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World - I mean, it was okay, but none of the tracks really grabbed me.
  • Watkins Family Hour - I got excited about this when I saw their tiny desk concert (link), but the songs they did for that turned out to to be the only one good tracks on the album.
  • Joanna Newsom: Divers - I probably needed more time to get into it, but am not willing to put in that time.
  • Björk: Vulnicura - ditto.
  • Passion Pit: Kindred
  • Glen Hansard: Didn’t He Ramble
  • Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn - My one #TweetReview for the year, which was not a positive one.
  • Joy Williams: VENUS - Definitely some good tracks, but not as strong as her Civil Wars records.
The best I album I discovered this year was actually Sarah Jarosz’s Build Me Up From Bones, which came out in 2013. It was actually an album that Amazon had repeatedly suggested to me until I gave up and listened to it and loved it.

What albums did you buy this year, or were thinking of buying but changed your mind later? Should I rethink any of my album decisions?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

G.F. Handel, the German who wrote Italian opera and English oratorio

I sing with the Oahu Choral Society, and we are performing an all-Handel concert this Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:30pm at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu. I volunteered to write the program notes and decided to post them here on the blog, too.

One of the first life-sized marble statues of a living person who wasn't a noble or a military leader, you can learn more about this sculpture of Handel at the V&A website.

When modern concertgoers hear the name George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), chances are they think of his Messiah, the English-language oratorio that has become a staple of holiday celebrations not only in the United Kingdom and the United States, but across the world. Fewer people, however, know that Handel was born in Germany and even fewer that he rose to international prominence writing Italian opera in Italy. In the early 18th century, Italian opera—a term that indicates style as well as language—was like today’s Broadway musicals: it was theater exported and performed in its original language in many different countries, regardless of those countries’ main spoken languages. In Handel’s day, however, musicians could rarely work without a regular sponsor (often royalty or the church), so despite finding fame in Italy, he soon became connected to the prince-elector Hanover and was appointed court Kapellmeister (that’s connected to both church and royalty, for those who are counting) at the age of 25.

Almost immediately after his appointment, Handel used the Hanover family connections to travel to England and write Italian opera there; Rinaldo, the first Italian opera to premier in London, opened in 1711. Handel was obviously enchanted by London, and he continued to travel frequently to England. He was actually under Queen Anne of England’s pay when she died in 1714 and the German prince-elector of Hanover became George I, King of England, thanks to a 1701 act which forbade Catholics to sit on the throne combined with the fact that most of Queen Anne’s relatives were Catholic.

While Handel was not officially connected with King George I’s court anymore (in fact, as a German, Handel could not hold an official royal appointment), the king did hold a substantial stake in the Royal Academy of Music, which was not a school but an Italian opera company cofounded by Handel in 1719. Handel continued to write Italian opera for the London stage, as well as occasional contributions to the royal court, for the next twenty years. Following Serse (1738), however, Handel’s Italian opera company lost its financial backing and he turned to the oratorio, a form of music often described as partially staged opera without costumes and sets.

Why oratorio? Well, the English—and the Hanover monarchy—liked it. They enjoyed the English-language texts, the complex choruses (Italian opera was dominated by soloists), and the religious subjects. Oratorio was also easier to finance. While Serse was not Handel’s last opera, nor Messiah (1741) his first oratorio, Messiah’s success in public concerts in Dublin shifted Handel’s focus and led to a deluge of oratorios including Semele (1744), Judas Maccabaeus (1746), and Solomon (1748).

Besides Messiah, Handel’s most enduring success is probably Zadok the Priest, the first of four anthems composed for the coronation of George II in October 1727. Handel had known George II since the prince was a child, so the commission probably came as no surprise; coincidentally, however, Handel had become a naturalized British subject earlier that year, and it may have seemed as if the commission was a way to prove his new nationality. Prove it he did—Zadok has been performed at every British coronation since. But there is more to the coronation anthems than Zadok; the other anthems, based on a hodgepodge of royalty-themed biblical texts used for previous coronations, were a taste of what British audiences would come to love about Handel’s oratorios: full, religious, dramatic, and exciting choral music.

This Saturday's program showcases selections from the operas and oratorios mentioned above, bringing together the coronation anthems, three iconic arias, a famous chorus from Judas Maccabaeus, and an instrumental excerpt from Solomon. If you come, we hope you enjoy the many different sides of Handel: Italian opera and English oratorio, vocal showcase and instrumental entr’acte, complex chorus and virtuosic aria.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Costumes Mandatory, Fear Optional: A Halloween Playlist 2015

From paper artist Melina Hermsen on Flickr, used under a creative commons license.

I made a Halloween playlist. Before I could come up with my playlist, however, I needed to decide what the Halloween holiday is all about. Here’s what I decided: Halloween is about pretending to be something we’re not or being in a situation that seems unreal. Fear (often fear of the supernatural) is also a big contributor, but it is optional.

Why is music a big part of Halloween? Well, music can help convey emotions. Because music is abstract, it is actually very easy to come up with sounds that are scary or other-worldly—the music just needs to be indecipherable or grating or surprising. Music can also help tell a story, and Halloween storytelling is a big part of unreal situations or being something we are not. Music can add to the story by providing emotional suggestion, moving the plot along, or giving extra information not found in the lyrics.

This playlist is more about storytelling than facilitating horror, though; each selection has a little Halloween-themed vignette. I also decided to leave out obvious songs and artists like Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the Addam’s Family theme song, or “Ghostbusters” (if you want those types of playlists, they are easy enough to find).

Here's my playlist, with some notes on each:

  1. Creepy Doll, by Jonathan Coulton - Classic horror story. There comes a point when the tropes (musical and literary) start adding up, though, that we start laughing at the horror. Which is kind of point of Coulton's song. But are we laughing in fear...?
  2. Something the Boy Said, by Sting - A great story about how fear can creep up on you.
  3. Happy Phantom, by Tori Amos - She's putting on a ghost costume to see what it would feel like. Fear is definitely optional here.
  4. A Rose for Emily, by the Zombies - A song by the Zombies! Of course it counts! But seriously, this song is reported based on a creepy short story by William Faulkner which involves (spoiler alert!) a suspected murder and a decomposing corpse.
  5. Turn Around, by They Might Be Giants - The ultimate Halloween song. I'm not sure how this doesn't end up on all the big lists. The turns of phrase are just masterful, as is the ghost train music in the third verse. Always good to be reminded of your impending death.
  6. They Are Night Zombies!! by Sufjan Stevens - From the Illinois album, this song is about ghost towns.
  7. Heads Will Roll, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Besides "Thriller," this should be the dance track for your Halloween party.
  8. House Carpenter, performed by Nickel Creek - This well-known folk song is a chilling tale. In many versions, the woman notices the sailor has cloven hooves for feet. Too late.
  9. The Maid on the Shore, performed by Solas - Continuing the folk song theme, this song is also about disguises, deceptions, and supernatural singing, and a reminder to be careful what you wish for.
  10. Fashion Monster, by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - There are places in Tokyo where you become your costume. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is from one of those places. You can read my in-depth analysis of this song here.
  11. When You Play the Violin, by the Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields) - inspired by Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events #5, The Austere Academy. I mean, what's scarier than a badly-played violin? My favorite line: "Sculleries, skulls, and skulduggery, sir." 
  12. Trogdor, by Stongbad - The Burninator himself; fear his burnination. The best version is from the CD Strongbad Sings and Other Type Hits, which features "wicked dueling guitar solos."
  13. Psycho Killer, by Talking Heads - Actually, I take back what I said about violin playing. A crazy person speaking French is scarier.
  14. Ghost Chickens in the Sky, performed by Moosebutter - A warning to all you poultry farmers out there—your time is numbered.
  15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge) by the Decemberists - This is a song late in the concept/story album The Hazards of Love. Earlier in the story, a rakish father kills his kids so he doesn't have to deal with them. During this song, the ghosts of children come back to get their revenge. The whole album could be included in this playlist, really. Actually, maybe everything by the Decemberists...
  16. Faster, by Janelle Monáe - From The ArchAndriod, also a concept/story album. The narrator knows she should run from a freaky relationship, but is caught up in the gravity of her lover.
  17. Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush - Another in the genre of songs based on creepy stories, the song is told from the point of view of a ghost trying to talk her way back into a house to seek forgiveness from her lover.
For those of you on Spotify, I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that has all but three of the selections.

Having presented this Halloween playlist, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest Halloween live music experience I’ve ever had: the Utah band MonkeyGrinder. This band pretty much only perform on Halloween night at Provo’s Velour Music Gallery. They are variable in size, but the main characters are usually Colin Botts, the main songwriter, a percussionist playing found objects and who always dressed as a pirate because he has an actually peg leg, an accordionist, a trumpet player, and a clarinetist.
All of their songs are Halloween-esque, mostly about death and circuses. I think they came out with an album and every once in a while, I kick myself for never having bought it. You can listen to a few of their songs on Colins Botts's SoundCloud page, though it just doesn't match the live experience. The highlight of the show I saw was the song “Welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion,” a heavy metal song, which in my memory featured no less than 7 accordions on stage.

If you live in the Utah, though, it turns out you are in luck. MonkeyGrinder is performing at Velour for the first time in five years on October 31. Don't think: Go! And have a wonderful Halloween!

Monday, September 28, 2015

A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? It's no joke

Yeah, that guy
Recently, I have felt guilty that I'm not doing more album reviews. After all, I have been doing a free Apple Music trial that will end in a few days and so I have had access to full albums that I probably wouldn’t otherwise hear until well after their releases. And I have listened to a lot of new albums, including Watkins Family Hour, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion, Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens, and Venus by Joy Williams, to name a few. But I haven’t felt I had anything that needed to be added to the conversation—for example, I didn’t want to jump onto the Ryan Adam’s 1989 bandwagon and I feel like other people reviewed Chvrches’ new album as well as I could.

One thing that did jump out at me this week is Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it is a hip-hop musical based on the biography of US founding father Alexander Hamilton (of the $10 bill fame) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton. No, this is not a joke. Although this musical has been in the works for six years, under production and workshop since last February, and on Broadway for about two months, I just started hearing about it last week when the entirety of the cast album was streaming on NPR Music’s First Listen series. It might still be there this week, as the album doesn’t go to stores until October 16. I would suggest at least listening to at least 15–30 minutes to get the idea. The first act, by all accounts, is the better one.

In case you can’t listen to the full thing, you can catch a few samples from this short podcast from NPR about why this hip-hop musical actually works. If you can’t listen to the podcast, you can certainly read about it; there’s no shortage of opinions. Besides the New York Times review, there’s a long, pretty involved New Yorker article from when the musical opened for workshop off-Broadway, or an NPR review for when the musical opened on Broadway. Finally, a short article on why presidential candidates should see the musical, also from the New Yorker.

For my part, I listened to the first half of the musical yesterday, and I can say I was generally taken in. I was impressed at how General Washington (“a modern major general”) translates into hip-hop bravado and the context of war and at the same time it comments on today's politics and invites us to learn more about what happened 240 years ago. If you dig into the music, there’s lots of references to classical hip hop music and musicals. As the NPR podcast suggests, it is not all hip-hop, but a bonafide mix of musical and hip-hop and other styles. But it all works.

Try it out. There’s a good chance your children may be putting it on as their high school play in 5 years.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How you clap at concerts is wrong

From Flickr, under a creative commons license.

One important part of live music is how concert-goers show appreciation for the music they’ve just heard. Strangely, this is different for different types of music and concert venues. Most involve some form of clapping (a form of applause). And much of the time, the way clapping is used just doesn’t make sense. Here’s what I mean:

1. Classical

For some reason, in classical music concerts in America, we give a standing ovation at the end of pretty much every concert. This doesn’t make sense. I am of the school that a standing ovation should mean something special, but also that musicians shouldn’t feel bad when they don’t get one. Also, there should be a middle ground between sitting and standing. European audiences have this solved: if they really like the concert, they will start clapping in sync with each other, which has the added effect of being way more interesting for an audience member than just continuing to clap asynchronously.

These Classical concert standing ovations often last for a long time, too, while the conductor or soloists come out and bow 3–4 times. I think hardly anyone (performers or audience) actually likes this. I think that classical music should take a cue from the theater and have one highly-staged bowing event (where the performers take turns bowing, with the soloists bowing last, and then one final group bow or two), and then they are done. If after this bowing event, the audience really doesn’t want to stop clapping after a few minutes, that’s the time to encore.

Also, at classical music concerts, there is the constant fear that someone will clap in between movements. I’m not sure what to do about that, partially because (believe it or not) during the early 1800s, people often clapped after every movement. In fact, sometimes they clapped hard enough to encore a single movement. Part of me thinks this makes more sense than the current system, but on the other hand, a lot of music in the late 19th and 20th centuries were written without the expectation of clapping between movements.

2. Popular

In most larger-venue popular concerts, we’ve gotten to the point that the audience expects the performers to do about three more songs as an encore. This annoying practice is so widespread that a few years ago I heard a performer say: “We’re getting close to that time in the concert where I leave the stage and then come back on and play a few more songs.” Let’s have encores be real encores.

3. Jazz

I know you are “supposed” to clap to for individual solos, but often we end up covering over the next’s person’s solo or other music. Couldn’t we just wait until the music stops and then clap? Instead, how about some whoops or hollers that don’t interrupt the music as much, but still give the soloist some energy?

No, I don’t have some unified theory of clapping for music appreciation, though generally I think there should be less of it. In fact, the more I think about the act of clapping (banging hands together to show appreciation for some artistic performance) the weirder it gets.

The highest form of showing appreciation, of course? Paying the musicians. Something that is for the most part happening less.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Changing up TV theme songs

Theme songs are important for TV—they signal the start of the show and brand it. The theme song can also channel the emotion of the show, both conveying the show designers’ emotion and releasing the viewers’ stored emotion (if the viewers have formed an emotional attachment to the show). If an American TV show has an opening theme, it is usually the same for all seasons, though in later seasons it may get a rewrite or two. The closing credits are also similar or the same to the opening theme, though not always.

Many recent Japanese Anime, however, operate differently, with a new theme song for every season. Being used to American TV, it was somewhat jarring to get to a second season of a show and hear completely new songs for both the opening and the closing credits. I can see the advantages—one theme song over multiple seasons can get boring, especially if you are watching the shows in a short period of time. Also, new theme songs can shape a different feeling for different seasons, which could be great for a storytelling arc. New materials also lets the show show progression, which is important for TV, where presenting a story over a long time can be a strength.

There are some problems, though. What if the new theme songs just weren’t as good as the first ones? This was certainly the case with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a great anime series that I just finished (and would recommend). The first theme songs (with the opening and closing credits) were very good, catchy, and really fit the character of the show. I quickly became attached to these songs, not just because they were well-written, but because I associated them with the new, exciting show. Because they are the first things people associate with a show, the first theme songs are really the most important ones, and when a show chooses to pick a new one, it runs the risk of letting some people down. And I was let down by the second season’s theme songs—not because they were necessarily bad, but because that for me, they didn’t work as well as the first season’s songs.

I can understand why the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood decided to change the themes every season—it allowed them to create new opening and closing animation sequences that matched more closely what was happening in the show that season. It also allowed them to promote other artists’ music, and this practice may be one reason for the still-profitable music industry in Japan.

Once I got used to the idea of new theme songs for each season, I wondered if this idea could be used even better. One could imagine taking this practice to the extreme and having different opening music for every show, but it would be costly and difficult to animate new opening and closes sequences every episode, and you would lose the branding abilities of the music (though the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood did animate new sequences to the same music to great effect on several occasions). So it seems that a song every season can be a good compromise. One strategy the show’s creators employed only once, but could have been used a lot more, is bringing back older themes when the story might call for it. It would be a great way to bring back emotions from earlier in the series, or create needed tension, or foreshadow events. Do you know of any TV shows that have done this?

Since your are probably curious, and even if you aren’t, here is my ranking of the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood theme songs, with some notes:

  1. 1st season, end credits ("Uso," by Sid) - An expansive melody that starts with an innocent-sounding pentatonic melody, not unlike the simple attitudes of the brothers. As the theme progresses, thought, it adds a driving rhythm. Also, the best credit images, with a completely different animation style. Seriously, I've had this song stuck in my head for a month.
  2. 4th season, end credits ("Shunkan Sentimental" by Scandal) - The initial electric guitar melody tied best into the ends of episodes, add adding an excitement to the end that leaves the viewer believe that the next episode will continue the story in a great way.
  3. 1st season, opening credits  ("Again," by Yui) - Also has a simple beginning with a child-like voice that breaks into richer and more powerful guitar chords. The quick delivery of the lyrics adds interest and urgency.
  4. 2nd season, opening credits ("Hologram" by Nico Touches the Walls) - This is the one piece that was effectively reused in the penultimate episode of the show.
  5. 3th season, opening credits - ("Golden Time Lover," by Sukima Switch) - Second-best constructed animated sequence credits, that had the normal snapshots of the season's animation and characters, but also told a story in itself.
  6. 4th season, opening credits ("Period," by Chemistry)
  7. The other four songs
Would you have picked a different ranking order? Why?

Vocab: pentatonic, rhythm

Monday, September 7, 2015

When is music borrowing against the law? The case against “Stairway to Heaven”

Has the copyright case against “Blurred Lines” opened a floodgate of bands wanting monetary rewards for supposedly borrowed work? Take for example the case of the band Spirit suing Led Zeppelin over “Stairway to Heaven.” Read about it on NPR.

To summarize the NPR article, it takes a lot to prove that one song is stealing from another song. For example, they have to prove that the accused had access to the original song and probably listened to it (this is true in the "Stairway" case). In the end, though, song copyright infringement is really a theoretical question. What are the vital part of a song that makes it unique? Certainly melody, harmony, and rhythm. Yet, while rhythm and melody can be more distinct, many songs have similar harmonies. Also, similar types of melodies (such as arpeggiation) or rhythms are used over and over again. Yet despite the technical nature of the question (and the blurred lines between similar and a copy), it is interesting that expert witnesses or judges often don't make the final decisions, but juries.

But what about fair use? Parts of a copyrighted work can be included in a new work as long as the new work is transformative,
meaning that it adds something new, with a different character, expression, meaning or message, or function. Artists recombine little bits of older material all the time. After listening to Spirit’s “Taurus,” I can only pick out one little guitar lick that is really similar—only part of a phrase. There is a striking similarity, yes, and there is an argument that this phrase has a similar aesthetic function, but the portion is so small and the surrounding music so different that I think there is very strong fair use case here.

My favorite part in the article was the last paragraph by Spirit’s lawyer:

"This lawsuit, it's in large part about having to re-educate the public that there was an individual called Randy California, and he was a phenomenal guitarist," Malofiy says. "And part of this is about re-educating the public [about] this relatively unknown song called 'Taurus.'"
First, why is this lawsuit about the public at all? The public doesn't argue the case, but lawyers, judges, juries, and musical experts. I don't think "juries" and "public" are the same thing. Also, now that I’ve been re-educated about “Taurus,” I’m pretty sure that they don’t have a case and that this lawsuit is a shameless money-grab.

Actually, “Stairway to Heaven” is so much more engaging than “Taurus,” I’m just going to put it right here. Notice that by minute 3, when most pop songs are ending (including “Taurus”), “Stairway" is just getting started—and still leaving you wanting to hear more.

If this does turn into a flood of lawsuits, perhaps the saddest thing is that Marvin Gaye’s estate didn’t sue Thicke and Williams—it was the other way around. Thicke and Williams issued a pre-emptive lawsuit, which already sounds guilty. Gaye’s estate would have probably done nothing by themselves. But we already knew from watching the video that these guys are creeps. At least they inspired one of Weird Al’s best songs. Let’s hope a failed “Stairway” suit will dam the possible flow.

Update 6/23/2016
Reason prevails and the jury clears "Stairway to Heaven" of plagiarism:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Noteworthy Instruments: the theremin

I've been wanting to do a noteworthy instruments on the theremin for a while, but this week Felicia Day beat me to it. I'll just let her explain. If you want to skip ahead, the theremin lesson starts at about the 4 minute mark.

Here's another type of theremin, in arguably the most famous use of it (though I'm not convinced that this audio actually goes with this video). Enjoy!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Post on MMM: Alternative Sacrament Hymns

For all you Mormons who read this blog, this week I posted on the Modern Mormon Men blog about thinking outside the box for the sacrament hymn, the second song in the LDS Sunday service. You might catch some of my other pet peeves about choosing the music for this religious meeting. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Running a symphony orchestra like a museum

Last week, I wrote about how modern art music is hard to practice and perform, and that in order to get symphony orchestras to program more of it, they would need to rethink their performance model. My solution for this is to have symphony orchestras act more like museums—in other words, the organization’s goal should be to present the art in an educational way, with curated, themed collections and exhibitions mixed with bits of history, context, and interpretation. And as with art, museums don’t have to just program past, as Alex Ross’s article indicated in last week’s post. Pretending that a concert is akin to a religious ceremony, as most symphonies do, is unproductive for having audiences understand avant-garde musical art and possibly even older music, too. However, orchestras don’t want to say that they are presenting relics for fear of being labeled relics themselves.

I don’t think, however, that symphony orchestras should shy away from being museums, which have a prominent place and social function in our society. Why do people go to museums? To see famous things that change the world, or to promote thought, or to learn about expressing emotion. They probably don’t do it be soothed or simply entertained, for the most part. Symphony orchestras should promote themselves similarly.

Much of the symphony orchestra’s music is not from this time period, meaning that today we don’t have the context to understand what is going on—the past is a foreign country (not to mention much of its repertoire is from a foreign country) and even if the music is contemporary, it may not be understandable to today's average concert-goers, especially a the absent young crowd. Why not, along with the music, tell people how audiences reacted to this music when it was presented and give permission for them to do it? How about letting people encore a movement of a Beethoven Sonata, letting them clap between movements, putting girls behind a soloist playing Liszt, or letting people play cards during a Mozart opera? Sometimes the new music, as with modern art, can only be understood with connection to older music, too, so why not play both older and newer? Does art just get displayed in modern art museum? No, the audience is given context or the author’s intent.

Another strategy that symphony orchestra’s can adopt is curated, themed collections and special exhibitions of one artist or a particular topic. By collection, I don’t just mean one concert, but a concert series. How about a  series of musical concerts themed with logical arguments or progression on the same theme? How about a series not just about “the baroque,” or “the 3 Bs,” but built around a theme that matters to modern—global warming, or crimes of passion, or slavery, or prejudice? Symphonies can still keep playing their old workhorses they know, their “permanent collection”, but what if they used Beethoven’s 3rd as the centerpiece of a concert series about deafness, or about overcoming obstacles, or about Europe during the time of Napoleon? And the symphony orchestra could get other smaller musical ensembles or soloists involved, either from the group itself or from the community, like an opera company or chamber music ensemble. And why not have modern ensembles like modern museums of art, that specialize in new music and history?

We need more long-term curation in classical music. This would require a lot more planning, which may not be possible with the current system of hot-shot artistic director/conductors that spend little time in one town. But planning is less expensive than rehearsal time and could have some great results—a musical establishment that has more of a social function than simply to entertain people in suits and ties, but to educate about history, to place art in context, and to be a forum of social issues.

Maybe if my local symphony orchestra did a series like this, I would be more interested in going.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Response to Ross's “Why do we hate modern classical music?”—well, it's hard

Not everyone wants to do this with their grand piano. From Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

One of my Facebook friends recently shared an old Alex Ross article from November 2010 called “Why do we hate modern classical music?” I hadn’t read it before, and I think it is still a question that many people are asking. So, I’d like to respond to it here. If you haven't read it, you can find it here.

Ross’s basic argument is that while other avant-garde arts (painting, literature, theater, architecture) from the previous 100 years has become famous and valuable, most classical concert goers would rather hear music from at least 100 years ago. He brings up several theories about why people don’t like avant-garde art music, and then discounts them. Instead, Ross blames the institutions that promote classical music—unlike art museums, orchestras are not willing to be champions of the new. If everyone were exposed to the new stuff more often so they acquire the taste, he argues, it would be different. He uses himself as an example of someone who used to love the music of 100 years ago, but now likes the new stuff, too. Further, audiences need someone to 1) explain the new music and 2) banish the idea that all music is meant to be soothing.

Modern classical music is hard

While I think that Ross undermines his argument by picking specific examples instead of giving a big picture, he is probably right—avant-garde art music from the last 100 years isn’t well understood because it isn’t played enough.

I think Ross fails to mention a major reason about why art music is not performed more, though—not just because musical institutions and critics worship the past, but because new music is much harder. Not only is it harder to listen to and understand, but it is harder to practice and put on, taking more work and more coordination. While avant-garde art, literature, and architecture are also difficult to make, they are pretty much ready to consume after they are made. People can peruse them as much as they like and get used to them. It is easier for non-music art to be seen and become part of the art landscape. The hurdle is higher for new avant-garde art music because you have to practice, produce, and perform it, instead of just exhibit or read it, and practicing, producing, and performing new avant-garde art music is way more difficult than with older art music.

What about recorded music, though? It is consumed as easily as literature and art, right? Well, it still takes time to sit and listen to the music, which is especially hard when there is so much well-known, easily graspable music out there. Also, releasing recording music into the void takes away the control of the tastemakers, and as Ross insinuates, as with visual art, unless the musical institutions program it, people will just listen to something easier, because listening to new music is hard. While it takes time to sit through a book, also, music is inherently more abstract than literature, especially when the music doesn’t have words. When the music has been made less abstract—with a lecture, or added words, or added pictures (as in the case of the movies)—people have something more they can hold on to as they try to make sense of the abstractness. All of these extra needed layers means that the acceptance of the musical avant-garde comes around later the acceptance of the other arts. New music was also hard to put on 100 years ago, for those people—even more so, without recordings—so this explains why people 100 years ago also preferred music of the past.

So, we shouldn’t tell musical institutions simply to preform more new music, because it doesn’t acknowledge a very real challenge in musical programming. Instead, we should take from a different approach—that audiences need to hear new music because it is important, not just new music for new music’s sake.

Because it’s just easier to put on Messiah and Carmina Burana again—everyone knows the parts already and people will come and hum bits to themselves when they leave (see?).

Next week, I’ll propose a way for music institutions to do just that—show new music as part of something bigger and an important part of a whole. Sneak peak: it involves musical institutions like symphony orchestras acting more like museums.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Music news round up #2

This week, here are some more music articles that I found interesting to read:

1. An article about a scientific study looking for the universalities in music across disparate cultures. The result? Small scales, arching or descending melodies, rhythms based two or four beats, and men singing. Of course, there are many outliers, and this article is dumbed down from the actual research. And I wonder if the focus on men might be a bias by the people who put together the body of work they analyzed, the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, though probably not.

2. An article about the lack of transparency in the music industry about where the money goes. "Anywhere from 20-50 percent of music payments don't make it to their rightful owners." You can hear a somewhat related story in a recent Planet Money podcast about manufacturing the song of the summer (rebroadcast from 2011) and how much money the industry gambles on making a hit.
3. An article about rape and abuse of teenagers by people in Rock & Roll. If you weren't aware already, an industry focused on sex can have some really bad side effects. Eye-opening and horrifying, perhaps, but not surprising. (P.S. unlike the other two, this article doesn't have a picture of Taylor Swift).

Happy reading and/or listening!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The ethics of field recording

Ethnomusicology has changed as the world has become more egalitarian. Instead of the white man showing up in a small village, setting up a wax cylinder or microphone, recording some volunteers, and then selling the recording for their own scholarship or profit with little or no attribution, native performers are now getting more credit and monetary rewards for being recorded.

But how do we correct the wrongs that have been done in the past? Well, museums are giving back pieces of art work and historical objects that had been stolen. Sometimes, this is called repatriation (though the Elgin marbles are not going back to Greece anytime soon). Can we do that with recorded music, too?

Well, NPR did a story recently about someone trying this approach, going to a village to give back music recorded 65 years before:

Besides a delightful vignette of villagers singing their version of Jimmie Rodgers the man-eater, this story touches on a limit of this approach of musical repatriation: who has CD players? Not these villagers.

In librarian terms, this is a recording preservation issue—in order to preserve and play back a recording, you need a specific machine, and those machines aren’t as prevalent as the recordings. Case in point: they don’t even make VHS players anymore (in fact, I would bet that there are more 33 1/3 players than VHS players nowadays). CD players will probably die out faster than CDs do (I’m giving them another 30 years). But there, I guess, is a root of the field recorder’s problem—when the recordings were made originally, these villagers were not ready to keep and maintain the recording machine or preserve the recordings; and it looks like they still don’t really have a preservation plan. Does everyone making a field recording need to also teach that culture how to maintain a playback machine and store the recording? It seems a tall, perhaps impossible order in some cases. But even if the culture could keep and preserve the "original" recording, music recordings are inherently a copy, so we can’t really return the object as is the case with physical art.

So, while music repatriation is an interesting idea, and could certainly work in some cases, I think we’ll have to use other approaches to paying people back for music exploitation most of the time. Or at least, when an ethnomusicologist finds a new music-making populace and before they start to record, they should think for a while about ethics and how a recording could best benefit that particular population.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Signifying Sound and Fury's Apple Music review: discovery limits and metadata woes

It's all shiny and colorful now...but what's on the inside?

This week saw the release of the long-awaited Apple Music, a music streaming service. Although I’ve never tried a streaming service before (besides Pandora Radio, which is a very different model), I decided to try out the free trial period, and I’ve been playing around with it this week.

Although the New York Times’ initial reaction stated that the Apple music’s design was strong, I would argue that there’s some big problems with discovery and metadata (which is a big part of discovery), among other small issues.


The first thing a person encounters when signing up for the service is a bunch of bubbles with artist names. I thought these bubbles were weird—setting aside the limited genres, even when I kept hitting the “more artists” button, I was surprised at how few artists were featured. Also, once you’ve selected some artists as your favorites, liked bubbles stick around on the screen while the new artists come in, limiting the number you can pick. Why did I need to pick favorites among such few artists? Pandora’s system, with thumbs up and thumbs down when you here the song, makes much more sense. Supposedly, the new heart system (you can heart both songs or albums), similar to Pandora’s system, also leads to more personalized “For You” results, despite me adding lots of hearts, I haven’t really seen any change in my “For You” recommendation tabs. Also, even when I have gone back and un-liked on artist I initially had liked, the recommendations did not change. And why can’t we heart by artist, as well?

While you can always search for artists or albums (though this was difficult to find, too), the other main problem is the limited ways to browse to discover music. There are only two ways I can see to browse music: the “For You” tab (a list of playlists and albums created by your preferences and supposedly your “hearts”), and the “New” tab (a curated list of new music). Why aren’t there any other ways to browse music? It’s pretty easy to browse by genre in the iTunes store; why can’t this functionality be used for streaming music? And if I browse music genres in the iTunes Store, iTunes doesn't make it easy to stream that music; you have to go back and search in Apple Music (which involves a couple of other clicks). Also, why not, like Spotify, allow Apple Music users to see playlists from friends (note: you can share playlists, but it is limited and hard to do) or search user-created shared playlists? (Apple Music also has lot of “radio stations” that I haven’t explored yet, but those again are curated lists).


But a larger issue here is metadata. Pandora is meticulous about their metadata, creating an entire genome of metadata about a song. As I already know from the data I normally get when I download an album, Apple’s metadata is limited to say the least. I frequently change genres and have my own list of genres that I use because my own collection is so big, I need to discover it again myself. Some of my albums I’ve even recently bought don’t have album covers uploaded, to say nothing of the beaten-up albums I bought used at library sales (which form a large part of my collection). I don’t know how well Apple can coordinate good radio stations or playlists when their metadata and genre distinction is so bad. One of the worst offenders: iTunes thinks that “Artist1 (feat. Artist2)” does not mean that "Artist1" is the artist of a song; sometimes iTunes even creates a different album for these qualified statements of responsibility.

Apple Music albums seem to have even less metadata than the iTunes store version of the album, such as the day the album is released, the popularity of tracks on the albums (which I find very useful), or reviews. Wouldn’t it be easy to just transfer that information over? But of course, neither platform includes musicians on the record or composition credits or liner notes.

Other problems

Besides the main problems of browsing and metadata, there are some other problems:
1. I was forced to sync my music with iCloud, which I have resisted until now. This sync took a very long time because I have a lot of music, and was not very effective; Apple is very bad at matching your songs to the versions they hold in the cloud, probably because of the bad metadata.

2. I signed up for the family account, but it was not intuitive at all how to add other people to account. In fact, I discovered that other family users have to be Apple users to share the account; so this option won’t work for people with iTunes on their PCs (iTunes homesharing was removed, too).

3. One creepy thing: Apple Music Connect figured out which music artists I’m already following on Twitter. On the other hand, if they are going to be that creepy, why couldn’t they use that information to tell which artists I already like to add to the "For You" recommendations?

4. Unlike many people, I’m not connected to the internet all the time, so streaming doesn’t work the best for me on the road. Apple Music, however, does allow users to download songs for listening later, which would be awesome except that my iPod touch is too old to have the latest OS or iTunes app.


My take-away for Apple Music: like other streaming services, you can find a lot of music, but it is hard to use, doesn’t allow for music discovery beyond their narrow scope, and does not use metadata at all well, even metadata that is already available to them. Right now, I’m planning on enjoying many albums I haven’t yet had the chance to hear (from lists I’ve curated myself from friend recommendations and new music podcasts), but at the moment, I don’t plan to renew once my free trial is up. On the other hand, maybe even the bad service is worth $10 a month—though I’m not optimistic that much of this money will trickle down to the artists making the music.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Politics appriopriating music: Trump vs. Young

Some of you might have seen Donald Trump's announcement of his presidential campaign. Among the many strange things that happened during the event was Trump's use of Neil Young's song "Rockin’ in the Free World." One of the first people to protest was Neil Young himself, who does not support Trump. While Trump's campaign claims they bought the rights to use the song, there turns out to be something extra needed when the song is used in a political context—seeking the permission of the songwriter. This misappropriation of songs for campaigns is not a new story; as this NPR story explains, there is a long list of songs that have been used in political campaigns that have received cease-and-desist requests.

But something stranger than use without permission is going on here—the lyrics of "Rockin’ in the Free World" (and many of the other songs misused by political campaigns) directly contradict the politics of the candidate using the song. It turns out that the music of this rock song (or at least the chorus) is powerful enough to be appropriated out of context and in spite of the lyrics (which are difficult to understand sometimes, anyway). If you want to read a theory explaining how this appropriation works, check out this excellent piece by Liam Viney of the Conversation, who does a great job of using music vocabulary to construct his argument. And thanks to Will Owen, who brought Viney's column to my attention.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pop music as genre fiction

Musical genre.

We use musical genre labels all the time for important reasons: to try to make sense of the overwhelming selection available, to signal the generational influence of this music to older music, and to sell recordings (the main reason why genres were developed by record companies).

Sometimes, though, I ask myself: why are so many pop songs about love and sex, when there are so many other emotional things to write about? Why do so many groups use the same instrumentation? Why are songs within a genre of similar length? If you ask these questions to artists or record producers, I imagine the answer might be “well, that is how pop music is done” or “if we do it that way, it will probably sell,” or “that’s the way I learned to do it.” But I want to dig a little deeper.

To try and make more sense of how musical genres operate, I’ve recently started thinking about music genre (pop music genres especially) in terms of literary genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery novels. People enjoy having variations on their favorite theme in popular literature, and the same is true in popular music. I myself read the science fiction/fantasy genres almost exclusively. Here are some ways that pop music genres are similar to genre fiction (or course, as with any generalizations, there are exceptions).

Songs in the same popular music genre usually share:

1. Similar vocabularies, both musically and lyrically
Literary genres have themes and similar protagonists, and this happens in popular genres, too. You wouldn’t have a punk song that is gushingly romantic because it would seem out of place, musically and culturally.

2. Similar structures
Like the hero’s journey in novels (especially fantasy), pop music has developed a length and structure (ABABCB), though some popular genres will stretch the length of this form or have their own common structure. Of course, the popular form changes over time, just like romance novels have evolved over time—for example, for a long time the favorite popular American music structure was AABA, which in turn evolved from an extra long chorus.

3. Similar themes
For much of pop music, that theme is love and sex, but we know that country music or death metal have their own conventions.

4. Subgenres
Each genre has divisions, with different people carving out their own favorite repeated themes, or narrative structure.

5. Similar ways of distribution
For SciFi/Fantasy, it’s a book trilogy; for music genres, it would be an album with a certain number of tracks or a length. Pop musicians have to put out an album, even if everyone knows there is only going to be three good songs on it.

So why would analyzing popular music
this way be useful? It has certainly proven useful for literature—genre theory is a big field among literary academics, but it isn't quite so developed in music. I think this type of genre classification could be helpful for composers/songwriters, too, because once genre conventions have been identified, it is easier to break barriers and mix things up; it is exciting to have someone take a well-known genre convention and either use the themes, structures, and vocabularies better or differently than the rest of their genre, or bend the genre expertly enough that the old genre is apparent in the new piece of art.

I’m sure there is much more to say about this, but I’ll stop for now. Is comparing music genres with genre fiction helpful for you at all? Or is it unhelpful?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Streaming round-up

This week, NPR produced a whole slew of articles about streaming music, and with Apple announcing its own streaming service today, it picked a good week. The articles, including the one I wrote about last week, cover a lot of ground. There a lot of interesting points in there, so I recommend that you read all of them. In case you want to be choosey, I'll just list the articles in no particular order with a few points I found interesting in each.

1. Why can't streaming services get classical music right?
I love that this article is about metadata and that it reads like an exposé. And you know what, it is not just classical metadata that streaming services get wrong, as I've written about before. But even Naxos, the hero of this article, could improve on its classical music metadata. Here's another true statement: "If classical recordings can't be found and heard, they functionally cease to exist." Because classical music recordings are such a small chunk of the American music industry, though, no one cares enough to fix it.

2. Streaming utopia: imagining digital music's perfect world 
This article interviews people about their ideal streaming music platform, but mostly focuses on figuring out how musicians can actually make money from streaming. I think that the most interesting idea from this article is from Bjork: why can't the audio streaming world be like video, with a lag between an album's release and the album being added to a streaming service? Sounds good to me.

3. How streaming services are remaking the pop charts
While YouTube, Vevo, and Spotify enter into the billboard rankings, Pandora (the most popular streaming service in America) does not. The article also has some interesting could-have-beens. 

Online streaming music is unstable—we can’t own it or preserve it. And it is not just the music that disappears, it is the context around the music: "When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids." There's also a lot of variety on how trustworthy the metadata is: ""Official" archives — those within public libraries, museums, or universities — are better organized, but have been slow to digitize. Spotify has complete albums, but no commentary. YouTube seems to have everything, but because anyone can contribute to it, it can't be trusted as a source." While the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), the hero in this article, is putting forth a major effort preserve sound, funding can be hard to find for anyone. 

As I used to consider my musical tastes my defining characteristic, this article struck a chord with me. Streaming services are good for discovery, but actually pretty bad for keeping tabs on your favorites. Spotify seems to be much better suited to collecting songs for different musical contexts than personal playlists. On the other hand, playlists are now the mixtapes of the future.

Looking for some out-of-the-way music? This article might be for you. "Beyond these well-traveled areas lies a vast and generally unmapped terrain governed by collectors, hobbyists, fan clubs, and artists themselves, sharing gold that once could only be found through hours of prospecting in library reading rooms or at record fairs."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Streaming music: ownership and beyond

I've talked about music and streaming in the past on this blog, but I haven't come close to talking about all the important issues. Today, NPR posted the first article in a series about how streaming music is changing music today, both in the way we listen to music and the music industries themselves. I'm looking forward to reading more about their insights.

One of the big points of today's article is ownership:
"For a large part of the recording industry, the move to embrace streaming actually solves a long-time paradox: one of ownership...Streaming, at least the label-sanctioned version, puts the genie back in the bottle. Every time you click play on a streaming service, from Pandora to YouTube to Spotify, you're licensing the right to listen to the song in that particular moment, whether you pay a subscription or sit through an ad. Ownership is never even an option."
The idea of ownership is important to libraries, which were founded on the idea that because they buy media, they in turn can loan it out. Streaming is a problem for libraries, because even if libraries are allowed to subscribe to streaming services (which is unusual), they still don't own and so can't preserve the media; and we know from experience that media producers aren't very good at preserving their own collections. It is also more expensive for libraries to subscribe to big streaming databases year after year (though they may be given access to a wider selection). The move toward more streaming will cause, and indeed has already caused, some big problems in terms of preservation and access now and in the future.

I also liked the following list of questions from the article, questions that still need to be answered about people's behavior in the face of music streaming:
“Do we listen differently when we have unlimited options? Does the rise of the streaming service eliminate the very need for a library of one's own, or does it just change how we acquire and interact with that library? Do your musical preferences belong to you? What role do listeners play in ensuring the life of music and the livelihood of musicians?”
These are all questions that would warrant at least a blog post, if not a book. Perhaps we'll learn more about these later in NPR's series.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Can a song change your life?

Continuing last week's theme of why humans developed music, this week I want to highlight a recent post from NPR Music's feature The Good Listener, where Stephan Thompson answers the question: "Can a song really save your life?" Here's the original column.

While many of the comments and responses submitted were about people literally being saved by music, many others were about people allowing music to change their lives. NPR Music's All Songs Considered did a follow-up podcast on The Good Listener post and much of the discussion was about these life changes. Here is the follow-up podcast (9 minutes).

I think my favorite part of the podcast is this quote by Stephen Thompson: "Songs are windows into the perspectives of other people...they're windows into other ways of thinking and that can have a very positive impact on your judgement." In other words, because music allows strong emotions to be attached to words, all packaged in patterns made to be attractive to ears and memorable to brains, songs can really get our attention and cause us to think deeply about concepts. As songs are often written from a first-person perspective, these concepts can easily be directly related to ourselves, allowing introspection that may change our behaviors. If we let them, songs can change our perspective, perhaps more easily than other forms of communication.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why do humans make music? Some theories.

There’s a new theory for why humans make music, at least from the point of view of evolution. In this article, physics and cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky discusses how he thinks that music helps humans smooth out cognitive dissonance. Two studies are given as examples: in one, children are asked to not play with their second favorite toy and researchers found that the children devalued the toy; however, when the same experiment was performed with music playing, “the toy retained its original value” (having not read the study, I’m not sure how they determined this). The second study asked 15-year-olds to take a multiple choice test and then rate the questions by difficulty; the researchers found that the students took longer on the harder questions (and therefore answered more correctly) when Mozart was playing than with no music.

Now, I think that coming to such a broad conclusion from these two small studies is premature. Neither of these studies has even generalized its own findings. Does the “retaining value” work with other things besides toys? What about other ages? Do student still do better on the hard questions if rock music is being played instead of Mozart? I don’t think humans developed Mozart’s music to do better on hard tests. What if the teenagers were just distracted enough by the music that it was less painful to work on questions, instead of helping them work out hard problems, and music is just a good universal distraction instead of “unifying the world into a whole” as Perlovsky hyperbolizes?

No, this article really should have headlined neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who is only mentioned briefly at the end. Levitin did a “meta-analyses of more than 400 neurochemical studies and found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people's anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs…and had a profound effect on social cohesion.” Those sound like some generalizable results. The calming influence and becoming part of a group seem like important reasons why human would develop
music. I’m certainly open to more good reasons, but I don’t think Perlovsky really makes his grand case here with only two small studies. 

If you want to read more about music and the brain, take a look at Levintin’s book This is Your Brain on Music (2006).

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Krugman, Benjamin, and the live performance of music

How much do performers earn from this, anyways? From Flikr.

Someone a little unexpected showed up at the South by Southwest music festival a few weeks ago: economist Paul Krugman. He took part in a panel about celebrity economy in music. You can read a recap here.

The part that stuck out to me was this quote by Krugman: “Things have changed a lot less for the musicians, for the artists, than you might think…[Even in the peak of CD sales in the ’90s] artists earned about 7 times as much from live performance…It’s always been really about the live performances as far as the artist is concerned. There is really no reason to think that’s going to change.”

This statistic, that even in peak CD-sales times, artists still earned many times more in live performance than from recordings, might be an eye-opener. For many people, the recording is the final product. Many people judge musicians and music from the recording. The music industry spends a lot of time tracking and advertising the top-selling recordings. For the much of the industry (be it streaming services or recording labels) selling records or access to the records is how they make money. But outside of a few exceptional artists, the recording only serves mostly as an advertisement for the musicians, at least
in regard to making money

Krugman’s statistic goes hand in hand with Walter Benjamin’s essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Basically, Benjamin’s argument is that as cheap reproductions of art flourish, what becomes valuable is the original or the authentic. In the case of music, where the original is often considered to be the cheaply-reproducible recording, live performance by the musicians becomes the sought-after authentic substitute. So while the music industry struggles to profit from the artists in this new age of even cheaper and more-widely available mechanical reproduction, the sad lot of the artist hasn’t really changed much. 

The moral of the story is…if you are going to form a band nowadays, make sure you can play live and you don’t mind performing and touring all of the time. Which really isn’t new.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Music news round up

This week, I just want to feature a couple of interesting articles about music that I came across recently:

1. This article by Linda Holmes about collegiate a cappella and her visit to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in New York. I went to three universities that had big A Cappella scenes and I often wonder why that music has not made it more mainstream; perhaps the genre only works inside the university context.

2. This article by Kat Chow which starts as a review of a new Nickelodeon show called Make It Pop but soon turns to the South Korean government subsidizing the popular music industry. The article also links to a K-pop music video that could have been the sonic model for "Gangnam Style" and also unironically celebrates exactly the type of lifestyle that "Gangnam" mocks.

3. This article about British folk singer and socialist Ewan McColl and his Radio Ballads that were recorded by the BBC in the 50s.  The article also features a sound clip from a show, with MacColl singing  and Peggy Seeger (his wife) on banjo (You may recall I mentioned McColl in a previous post about a Sting song). P.S. Ewan MacColl was not his real name.

I hope you find something here you might also be interested in, too.