alan little’s weblog archive for may 2004

my new toy

30th May 2004 permanent link

In this week’s Sunday light relief, Alan describes his plan to make himself happier by putting white powder up his nose.

My new toy is a Grossan Hydro Pulse Nasal Irrigator, which I hope is going to cure me of hayfever.

I’ve suffered from hayfever, sometimes quite badly, since I was a small child. (I sincerely hope my son doesn’t, but my dad does so I suppose the odds aren’t good). Some years it makes summer a living hell, some years it’s quite mild. It’s definitely stress-related to some degree: the worst summers ever were examination years when I was a student. On the other hand, last year I had a new source of stress, and hayfever-wise it was a very mild year. It also doesn’t bother me as long as I’m actually doing things that require concentration – climbing, yoga – but hits again as soon as I stop.

I’ve tried all sorts of things for it over the years. I recall mega overdoses of antihistamines combined with beer at student parties being interesting. Attempts at desensitisation, by injections or by eating various pollen concoctions, never seemed to be particularly effective. The most effective thing so far was a corticosteroid asthma inhaler that my doctor prescribed for me one year; but shooting ’roids up my nose every summer for the rest of my life seemed somehow unappealing, so I kept looking.

When I started studying yoga I heard about an ancient yoga technique called neti kriya that cleans out the nasal passages by various means, most of which involve irrigating with salt water. There’s a substantial amount of evidence that it can help a lot with sinusitis and other nasal problems. I’ve been trying it for my hayfever for a couple of years, and have found that it helps quite considerably but is nowhere near being a complete cure.

The normal neti method is to use a thing like a small teapot to pour salt water into one nostril so that it runs out of the other. Yoga teacher David Swenson tells a hilarious story of a more radical technique, involving the adapter tube from a bicycle pump, “sterilised” between uses with Indian tap water, that Pattabhi Jois used to inflict on students in Mysore years ago. I’m happy to report that this is no longer in the Mysore curriculum.

The Hydro Pulse is inspired by traditional neti, as Dr. Grossan acknowledges in his notes, but is supposed to be more effective because the rhythmic pumping action gets the saltwater in more effectively, and is also said to stimulate the natural pumping action of the cilia in the nose and sinuses.

First impressions: the thing feels remarkably gentle even on full pressure, but nevertheless seems to shift the salt water through more effectively than a neti pot. The handbook is excellent, with lots of helpful information, and, for an American healthcare product, quite a moderate amount of lawyer-proofing aimed at Darwin Award contenders (“do not use electrical appliances in the bath”). Some bits appear at first sight to fall into the Darwin category but, on reflection, don’t:

Q. If the nose is blocked, should I increase the pressure?
A. NO!

What sort of person would try something like that? Er, on closer inspection, me. It’s exactly the sort of thing I could see myself trying in hayfever-crazed desperation. Now I know not to. And besides, full pressure isn’t that powerful anyway. (Whaddaya mean, “some people wouldn’t put a pump contraption in their nose and immediately crank it up to full power to see what happens”. Why not? What’s wrong with them?)

It’s too early yet to say anything about the results: I’ve only had it a couple of days, and peak hayfever time for me tends to be later in the season anyway. Check back around August/September. And this year isn’t a controlled experiment anyway, because I already took a course of allegedly desensitising pollen concoction in the spring. So, in fact, check back next August/September for a really conclusive result.

Note to Darwin Award Contenders: I am not a (medical) doctor, I am merely describing my personal experiences. Nothing here is intended as any kind of advice or recommendation about what you should do.

currently listening to …

30th May 2004 permanent link

… Haydn’s string quartet opus 64 number 5, “The Lark”, played by the Hungarian string quartet on a CD released by Tuxedo Music whose title is wrong.


Tuxedo Music is a Swiss label that specialises in reissuing historical recordings. Their website is remarkably hard to find, but a lot of their releases are available on emusic. I originally downloaded this Hungarian Quartet performance from there and (Music Industry take note) it was so good I listened to the mp3 a couple of times then went out and bought it on CD. The title of the CD is wrong, though - it’s entitled String Quartet no.82 and no.5, and it isn’t. The Lark isn’t Haydn’s fifth string quartet, and he didn’t write 82 of them either.

Haydn nomenclature is tricky. Haydn was amazingly prolific – he wrote over a hundred symphonies and sixty-odd string quartets, among other things. The symphonies are usually referred to by their symphony number, “Symphony Number 88” for example being one of the more popular ones. The string quartets are also sometimes referred to by their quartet numbers but not usually; it seems to be far more common to refer to them by the set they were published in, “Opus 64”, and then the number within the set, “Opus 64 number 5”. “Quartet number 5” means something else altogether (Opus 1 Number 5, in fact, and I think I read somewhere there is some doubt whether these early quartets are actually by Haydn at all). There’s also something called “Hoboken numbers” that seem to get quoted for Haydn quartets now and again. I’m not sure what these are – they look like they might have been an unsuccessful attempt to produce unique ids for Haydn’s works, similar to the "Kochel numbers” and “Deutsch numbers” that are used for works by Mozart and Schubert. The 82 in this CD title is a Hoboken number, not a quartet number. This is somewhat confusing to me, fair enough. I would hope it wouldn’t be to people who run classical record labels for a living, but clearly it is sometimes.

But what is actually supposed to be the point of writing a pedantic weblog posting about how the title of an obscure classical CD is wrong (inasmuch as there’s actually any point in writing anything in weblogs at all)? I’m glad you asked. This was actually intended as a follow up to a long response to Andy Baker about, among other things, why CD title isn’t a particularly useful or relevant thing to use in cataloging classical music. But the main piece isn’t ready, so now this is a prequel instead.

Metadata philosophy aside, the Hungarian Quartet were a damn fine string quartet. They're best known for their first complete recording of the Beethoven string quartets, which was made half a century ago and is still easily one of the best recommendations for a consistently good complete set. (Except that, almost unbelievably, it appears to be out of print. I certainly won’t be selling my copy). On this particular Haydn CD, “number 82” (Hob. 82, Opus 77 Number 2, String Quartet #67) isn’t, in my opinion, one of the most interesting pieces of music ever written; but The Lark is good, and the Hungarians’ performance of it is stunning. Recommended. Available on CD for 10 euros from my local record shop, or on mp3 from emusic for about 2 bucks.

related entries: Music

indian classical music

27th May 2004 permanent link

Indian Traditional Arts Part Three – in which Alan draws grandiose conclusions from his minuscule knowledge of Indian classical music, and contrasts them with his slightly less minuscule knowledge of western classical music.

So far I’ve talked about stone carving, where people seem to be quite happy to follow traditional styles and see no need for innovation; and yoga teaching, where I strongly suspect there was quite a lot of innovation and pioneering going on quite recently but people seem to like to pretend there wasn’t. But now we come to Indian classical music, which seems to be very much alive and thriving (in contrast to the current state of western classical music) – and also (possible causal connection here) absolutely buzzing with change and innovation that everybody seems to be quite open about.

I first started listening to Indian music through young classically trained Indian musicians playing stuff that combines traditional music with modern western dance music: Talvin Singh, Badmarsh & Shri, Blue Planet. This stuff is quite big in Britain these days and London seems to be the epicentre of it (although Blue Planet record on a German label). [I wonder what Indians in the States are up to musically, if anything? Surely not all too busy being doctors and software engineers?]

Blue PlanetBadmarsh n Shri

The fusion stuff is fun. But then when I actually went to India for the second time I started listening to the real thing, and that’s even better.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan and Rahul Sharma are the guys who have most consistently impressed me from what I’ve heard so far. I’ve seen Chaurasia live, the others I’ve unfortunately only heard on record. I start listening to this stuff and I thought: wonderful, ancient musical traditions. Then I started reading the sleeve notes of my embryonic new CD collection and looking at a few reviews (I’m finding musical nirvana pretty informative), and you discover that they all have reputations as innovators. They’re all playing modified forms of instruments that they’ve designed themselves, or using instruments or instrument combinations that haven’t traditionally been used in classical music.

Chaurasia, a bamboo flute player, is one of the most famous classical musicians in India – but apparently before he came along the flute wasn’t a particularly prominent classical instrument, and the flutes he plays are non-standard ones of his own design.

Hariprasad Chaurasia
Hariprasad Chaurasia

Rahul Sharma plays an instrument called the Santoor that was apparently unheard of as a classical instrument until his father made it famous. He himself is noted for some novel hybrid North-South instrumental combinations. (I find this is all quite reminiscent of Beethoven and his unsuccessful struggles to find or design a piano that actually worked to his satisfaction – more on this later). I have a straight classical CD by him that I really like; he has also made a mixed acoustic/electronic trance album, Zen, that I haven’t heard (I bid on it on ebay, unsuccessfully). And – now we get to the really strange-but-fun – an album of Sex Pistols covers called Never Mind the Bhangra with a group called Opium Addiction (I’m assuming this last one is the same Rahul Sharma, the name isn’t terribly unusual).

Ravi Shankar, probably the most famous living Indian classical musician, had one of his early big successes in film music for Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy. And, of course, is more famous in the west for his collaborations with the Beatles and with western classical big names like Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass, than for his “straight” Indian classical playing.

A couple of western instruments have been enthusiastically adopted. The violin, borrowed from the British but played very differently from the European way, is now a standard rhythm/accompaniment instrument in south Indian music. The Indian-sounding “mohan veena” is a slide guitar, borrowed from American folk music and made famous by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Whereas I don’t recall seeing too many veenas being used in western string quartets, or sarods in blues bands. People play North Indian music in South Indian styles and arrangements, and vice versa. Classical arrangements of film tunes and folk songs seem to be hugely popular.

All this inventing, developing and adapting instruments was in full swing in the golden age of western classical music too. In Bach’s day the violin and cello were just replacing the viola da gamba as the most prominent string instruments. A friend tells me Mozart, whose clarinet quintet is one of his best known and most popular works, was one of the first people to write anything serious for the clarinet. And Beethoven famously complained vehemently about the early pianos that were available in his day, beat the crap out of the ones he played and wrote music that pushed right to the limit of their capabilities.

Glancing through an old yoga book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by Norman Sjoman, in connection with my previous piece on yoga teaching, I find this:

In order to understand the development of the yoga tradition, the nature of tradition itself within the context of Indian arts and scholarship must be examined. The term “tradition” evokes meanings or presuppositions that are often not quite applicable to the Indian context. For example, South Indian Music in its present form is more or less assumed to be a standard form that has origins in the distant past. But forms that were distinctly different, the thaaye, which were performed less than fifty years ago have totally disappeared such that the nature of their performance is completely unknown today. However a manuscript exists in the Madras Music Academy of ninety-eight thaaye-s in full notation. The thaaye again is the source of the modern taanam. Therefore a statement that South Indian Music is fifteen hundred years old could be made and the contrary statement the South Indian Music is less than fifty years old could be made with equal justice

I haven’t finished, but I’ve written more than enough for one weblog posting (and it’s bedtime). So rather than wait until I’ve written some gargantuan Ultimate Everything Compendium, I’m going to post this now with a note that there’s more to come: some CD recommendations, and thoughts on What It All Means.

related entries: Music


27th May 2004 permanent link

Andy Baker writes nicely to me even though I called him a cretin. Nothing personal, Andy. The “cretin” reference was to people who put composer in the “Artist” field in classical music metadata – Andy points out some semi-convincing reasons why this might actually not be a bad idea given the lamentable state of most current music software.

The pointer is to an interesting-looking music metadata project called musicbrainz (more information here), which appears to have a lot of good ideas about how to do the job properly, but one conceptual flaw that I see as quite fundamental. (A lot) more on this subject when I have time.

related entries: Music

photography quotes

27th May 2004 permanent link

Stop wasting your time talking cameras, and go take pictures! … It is the eye that takes the picture.

From an excellent article on photographic gear, film and digital, by Dutch photographer Stefan Heijendael on Luminous Landscape.

related entries: Photography

stealing art

27th May 2004 permanent link

Last year I noted that I had rather major moral qualms about how some ancient Indian sculpture that I saw at an art trade show in Germany might have been obtained. Looks like I'm not the only one.

another sunday posting

16th May 2004 permanent link

Sunday Family Life Vignette posting. Maria Learns To Ride A Bike, Day Two.

Part One, In The Park: “no, I said ride round the tree, not through it!”.

Later, In The Street: “well I’m not afraid of crashing into walls any more, but I do wish people wouldn’t park their cars in the street”.

She has bought a used bicycle child seat from a colleague. I think we’ll be fitting it to my bike for the time being.

That’s probably about it for a week or so. My parents arrive on Tuesday for their grandson’s first birthday later in the week. Presumably at some point I have to stop referring to him as a baby. So: back next week as father of a toddler.

yoga with jack

14th May 2004 permanent link

For the first few months of my life as a father I had very little time and energy for yoga practice: a senior yoga teacher warned me when I was an expectant dad that children are great for teaching you to let go of any ego attachment you might have to physical “achievement” in your yoga practice. For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to get back to practicing on a regular basis– but when I get home from work and want to do my practice, Maria has already been looking after the baby all day and needs a break. So, yoga as childcare.

In ashtanga vinyasa yoga, the style I (attempt to) practice, a practice session is supposed to be one continuous meditative flow. Mine is a series of three to four minute meditative flows with pauses in between to play peekaboo, catch the ball etc. (Hey, interval training!). Anything that involves raising the arms overhead becomes a “lift the baby” game. Strengthens the shoulders. Certain things, like attempting handstands, are completely out of the question because of the risk of falling on the baby. Headstand still works ok despite the fact that, when Jack was crawling, he would come and put his fingers in my nose and pull. Babies have sharp fingernails. Now that his practice has advanced to include standing and walking, he just goes round behind and pushes. This is much better because it doesn’t hurt and he’s not strong enough push me over. Yet. Backbends are ok, you just have to come down carefully in case anyone has crawled underneath without you noticing. A ten kilo baby is not heavy enough to have much effect on my stiff right hip (old climbing injury) when used as a weight on the knee in baddha konasana.

There is a certain breed of purist/puritan yoga practitioner who disapproves of this sort of thing. I remember a course where the teacher’s six year old son, and a friend of mine’s nine year old, would come and play in the practice room while classes were going on – mostly imitating what the yoga students were doing and/or laughing at them. I thought this was great; some people really disliked it. To such people I say: babies and small children are part of life and a lot more important than whether you can get your toe up your ass, get used to it.

Last night Jack fell asleep on my lap while I was sitting in bharadvajasana, a position in which you sit with one leg folded back and the other in half lotus position. You’re then supposed to twist round, grab the lotus foot from the back with one hand and put the other under the knee. This is tricky when you have an inert baby slumped over the leg that is in lotus. As is getting out of the position without waking the baby up in order to carry him to bed.

The Bharadvajasana picture isn’t of me – I don’t have that many tattoos (in fact I don’t have any) and rarely paint my fingernails blue. The blue fingernail guy with the tattoos is, however, doing the best bharadvajasana I was able to find a picture of on the web. (The heel could perhaps be in a little more towards the navel). In general, I discovered while searching for illustrations for these comments that the web is full of really bad pictures of yoga asanas. Hmm. It might not be the world’s most pressing problem, but it’s one that I could conceivably do something about …

related entries: Yoga

Дмитрий Шостакович

14th May 2004 permanent link

As Brian Micklethwait has astutely spotted, I don’t actually know very much at all about Shostakovich. I’ve listened to some of his music, and very much like some of what I’ve listened to (such as the 8th & 15th string quartets). And that’s about it. I mentioned him in my weblog a couple of times, and started getting mail from people who actually do know a lot about him. Which is great. But I’m happy now to hand over the role of the blogosphere’s Accidental Shostakovich Expert to Brian, with his latest article and follow up discussion.

Incidentally, Brian, music experts do in fact seem to understand what we mean when we try to describe our reactions to music without knowing the technical terms. On I once described a performance of a Mozart quintet as “heavy-footed”. One of the resident experts kindly translated this into Italian for the benefit of the other resident experts:

Heavyfootedness = legato, refusal to use the diminuendos within notes and towards phrase endings typical in Mozart playing, and phrases which are not clearly "detached" and set against each other. The only aspect of their full, heavier style that bothers me a bit here might be this last; the overall line is too linear... Meaning, not articulated enough (IMO).


My evaluation criteria for pieces of music, and performances thereof, are not this sophisticated. They are “does it for me” / “does not do it for me” – I’m rarely interested in getting analytical about why.

related entries: Music


14th May 2004 permanent link

A while ago I reviewed John Siracusa’s arstechnica review of Apple’s OS X 10.3 operating system. John writes to point out that in my article – which I wrote on the train with no access to fact-checking facilities – I wrongly said he also wrote arstechnica’s technical coverage of the IBM PowerPC 970 (aka Apple “G5”) processor. The PowerPC article was by Jon (no “h”) Stokes. Apologies to John & Jon.

related entries: Mac

taping things from the radio

13th May 2004 permanent link

Having discovered the joys of Internet Radio Three yesterday, I had a look at their programme listings and found that they have lots of interesting stuff. They’re in the middle of a series of live lunchtime broadcasts of the complete Beethoven string quartets, with one or two of them played by a different group each day. (The live performances are happening in Nottingham, and if I were anywhere near that part of England I would be trying very hard to find an excuse to go. Wait. My parents live near Nottingham. Sudden urge to visit parents). Today’s is the Skampa Quartet playing opus 132. I’ve never heard the Skampa Quartet but I know they are students of the Smetana Quartet, and the Smetana Quartet were one of the undisputed greatest string quartets of the last half century – I’ve mentioned here before that their recording of Beethoven’s 9th string quartet is one of the most inspired performances I’ve ever heard of of any piece of music. And Beethoven opus 132 – well, as Brian says: peak of Western Civ. Note To Self: if caught up in Apocalypse & required to justify entire existence of mankind, mention late Beethoven string quartets.

But I won’t be at home at lunchtime today, and I’ve already established that Radio Three’s audio stream doesn’t work through the firewall in the office. Internet radio streams are intentionally difficult to record. What to do?

A quick google search on “capture RealAudio Mac” reveals that the answer is Audio Hijack. This is a piece of software that defeats attempts to prevent people from recording internet audio streams by, basically, pretending to be the part of the operating system that normally controls the Mac’s soundcard, grabbing whatever gets sent to the sound card and, er, recording it. And it’s perfectly legal because time-shifting, fair use, just like a VCR, mutter, mumble. Whatever.

A quick test shows that it works and that setting it up to record a particular audio stream on a timer is indeed, as advertised in the help file, “just like a VCR, but you’ll actually understand how to program it”. So I fondly hope to get home from work today and find Radio Three’s lunchtime concert sitting on my hard disk.

This is all quite nostalgic for me – I haven’t “taped” music from the “radio” since my student days. The results from the tests I did sounded a lot better than I ever remember getting by really taping things from the real radio. (The baseline for comparison here isn’t what somebody could theoretically have achieved in the Old Days using an audiophile-grade tuner, writing to an audiophile-grade tape deck, on expensive metal tapes, in a location carefully selected for good FM reception. It’s Alan in a student dwelling, using the cheapest available tapes on a cheap portable). On my Mac’s soundcard and a small pair of earbuds, both the BBC’s audio stream and the Audio Hijack recording of it sound perfectly acceptable. I strongly suspect they would sound less impressive burned to a CD and played on a real stereo – so, Note To Music Industry: if this performance turns out to be as good as I hope, and the Skampa Quartet ever record Beethoven, already having a recording of a live performance might well make me more likely to buy the CD not less.

Audio Hijack is made by Rogue Amoeba (“good software with a bad attitude”), who seem to be a prime example of a good small software company. They have a niche product that fills an obvious need and appears to be the clear leader in its niche. Their software, as far as I can tell from a couple of small tests, works as advertised and is easy to use. The support forums on their website are informative, the website is reasonably well designed and – just think for a moment how unusual this is – their help files actually contain useful information that helps you to use the product. Recommended.

Mac Software Tip Of The Day Number Two: assuming I have programmed Audio Hijack correctly, I will get a single one hour file containing two pieces of music plus some things like Radio Three presenters and audience noise that that I don’t want. Assuming I wanted to listen to the Beethoven more than once (even though that might be Wrong because then it isn’t just time-shifting) I will probably want to cut the big one hour file up into manageable chunks. But I don’t seem to have any software that can do that. Apple’s QuickTime Pro does it, but also does many other ”professional media authoring” things that I don’t understand and am not interested in, and $30 seems like a lot of money just for a pair of digital scissors. My also-Mac-using colleague Andreas informs me that what I need is a piece of freeware called Audacity. This also has all the editing bells & whistles that I wouldn’t know what to do with even if I wanted them, but should work perfectly well as a free pair of scissors.

Update: bollocks. Audio Hijack worked perfectly and recorded an hour of Radio 3 that, burned to a CD and played on a proper stereo, sounds much better than I expected. The only problem is: it’s the wrong hour. I forgot to allow for the time difference between Germany and the UK, so no Skampa Quartet for me. Oh well. There will be other interesting things on Radio 3 in future, and I know how to get them now.

related entries: Music Mac

currently listening to …

12th May 2004 permanent link

… and very much enjoying, Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony being played live on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

I know people who can hear it every day say Radio Three ain’t what it used to be, but I still enjoy it on my visits to England. Which aren’t that frequent these days. Right now I’m in the comfort of my living room in Germany listening to it on the Internet – my first venture into live internet radio. What a great invention.

related entries: Music

clever photo software

12th May 2004 permanent link

This has that astonishing but at the same time obvious (once somebody else has thought of it) quality that really clever ideas have. French company DO Labs has two new software products out for digital photographers. The first one, DxO Analyzer, is less obviously interesting – basically, using shots of a standard test chart made under controlled conditions, and some fancy maths, it produces a profile of the optical imperfections in a camera/lens combination. Interesting for lens makers, camera reviewers, and people who worry about equipment and technicalities rather than how to compose interesting pictures.

However, DxO Analyzer makes possible the bit that actually is somewhat interesting. The idea behind DxO Optics Pro is conceptually straightforward. DxO Analyzer gives you a profile of the optical imperfections of your lens – in other words, a set of transformations between the image that was actually in front of the lens and the one that got recorded on the digital sensor. And these transformations are presumably reversible, so you reverse them and voilà! Optically perfect images from any old cheapo garbage lens.

Of course it’s not actually 100% effective in real life, and makers of expensive high end lenses probably don’t need to start losing sleep over it just yet. But Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape is impressed:

How Good Is It?

In a word – remarkable. I know that some readers who aren’t familiar with the fact that I’m often very critical of products, and am not afraid to say so in print, will think that I’m being hyperbolic. But I’m not. This product is revolutionary. It can’t turn a bad lens into a good lens, but it can make a mediocre lens a lot better, and a good lens can be raised up to being terrific.

… I’ll leave off here by saying that what I see is a dramatic improvement in several aspects of image quality, and no visible negative affects at all. Improvements are most noticeable when using lower quality lenses. But even with very fine (and expensive) lenses improvements are readily visible.

Looking at Michael’s test images, I’m impressed too. He shows an example of a picture shot with one of Canon’s best professional lenses, and even with this lens the version processed with DxO Optics Pro is clearly significantly better than the “before” version.

The pricing is cheaper than buying really good lenses. For example, for the new Nikon D70 and a single lens, such as the perfectly ok 18-70 zoom that comes with the camera, DxO Optics Pro would come in at about $127. A significantly better lens than the 18-70 would cost at least four or five times that much.

This only works for digital cameras. It might be theoretically possible to attempt it for film, but there are so many more variables in film processing that the results would probably be meaningless. Scanned film introduces a whole new set of variables, notably film flatness and thickness, and the fact that the film scanner is a specialised digital camera in its own right. So you would have to profile for every possible lens-camera-scanner permutation, and even then the fact that your film isn’t sitting exactly the same in the camera & scanner every time would probably make the whole exercise futile anyway.

Just to reiterate the key message: I find this quite interesting in that “oh look, somebody’s done something stunningly clever that looks deceptively simple after the fact” way. But even if DxO Optics were perfect it still wouldn’t solve the only photographic problem that’s actually interesting and important: how to compose artistically interesting images. Technical limitations of cameras and lenses are not remotely close to being the main limiting factor in most people’s photography, and you can’t make a boring composition interesting by taking a technically perfect picture of it.

related entries: Photography

currently listening to …

10th May 2004 permanent link

… or rather, wondering when I will find time to listen to, seventeen CDs that I just bought in my local discount CD shop for a total of 35 euros.

So, continuing my theme from last week of how there is no correlation between the price and the quality of classical CDs, and Brian’s theme of being able to enjoy “peaks of Western Civilization” for almost nothing: ten of my seventeen new CDs are Artur Schnabel’s complete set of Beethoven piano sonata recordings from the 1930s. These are not only a peak of Western Civilization but also a landmark in the history of recorded music. Schnabel’s was the first ever complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas and is still regarded by many people as the definitive one. Schnabel himself was not only a direct link back to the nineteenth century romantic tradition – he studied with Brahms – and one of the great pianists of the last century, but also a (now obscure) avant garde composer.

I’ve only listened to two of the ten disks so far (the Moonlight and the Hammerklavier, not surprisingly), but I’m impressed. The playing is lovely and the sound, for a 1930s mono recording, is amazing. If I didn’t know it was so old I would never have guessed – unlike all the orchestral and string recordings of that era that I’ve heard, where you always have to make big allowances for the “historical” sound quality. Maybe pianos are inherently easier to record than full orchestras? Maybe Schnabel’s engineer was the greatest sound recording genius who ever lived. I don’t know. I just know this is the only pre-1950s recording I’ve ever heard where I haven’t had to switch my ears into Making Allowances mode.

The other seven CDs are:

A four-CD set of Indian classical ragas. I’m familiar with two of the players on this set. Hariprasad Chaurasia is the most famous living Indian classical flute player – I already have a couple of his CDs and I’ve heard him live once, so I know he’s brilliant. Shiv Kumar Sharma is a famous santoor player (a santoor is a string instrument) – I haven’t heard him but I know he has an excellent reputation and I have a CD by his son, Rahul Sharma, that is very good indeed. So this set should be good – I grabbed it as soon as I saw it because I know two of the players are good and because Indian classical CDs, unlike western ones, are still usually very expensive in the west. (This presumably means it must be about time to finish that draft posting on Indian classical music that has been sitting around on my hard disk since February).

And three additional disks of Beethoven Sonatas by Rudolf Serkin and Emil Gilels, both also reputedly very good piano players whose takes on Beethoven I hope might be interestingly different from Schnabel’s. If they turn out not to be, at ten euros for three CDs I haven’t lost much.

I while ago I actually set out to test my “no correlation between price and quality of classical CDs” hypothesis by jotting down a spreadsheet of CDs I had bought recently, plotting price against a one-to-five star quality rating. Unfortunately I had to suppress the results of this study because they didn’t fit my preconceived belief. There was a clear upward trend of quality against price. But, when I think about it, this is clearly a product of selection bias in the survey. Up to about 5 euros per CD I’ll buy pretty much anything that I think might conceivably be worth listening to (or, to look at it another way, at least as much fun as two beers). Around the eight to twelve euro range I’m more careful. I will generally only buy stuff where I’m familiar with the music and/or the performers, or that has been recommended by people whose opinions I trust. Above twelve euros is Full Price territory that I seldom venture into unless I already have a pretty good idea that what I’m buying is going to be brilliant.

If somebody wanted to fund me to go out and buy a couple of hundred classical CDs at random, listen to them and rate them for quality against price, I would be very glad to oblige. In the interests of science.

related entries: Music

is jetlag infectious?

9th May 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait has already read the article on Shostakovich that I mentioned somebody had pointed out to me on Friday, and also talks about some other very interesting writing on classical music.

I haven’t read the Shostakovich piece yet, and am just now wondering if jetlag is infectious. I got up fairly early this morning, although not that much earlier than my son normally wakes me up anyway, to go to the airport and pick up some friends who just got back from a holiday in Australia. Got home, had lunch, then felt extremely tired and went to bed for a couple of hours. Still feeling decidedly un-great now.

related entries: Music

yet more shostakovich

7th May 2004 permanent link

Sarah Ivry sends me, in my capacity as Accidental Shostakovich Expert, notice of an article on Dmitry Shostakovich on, reviewing the controversial new book about him that I mentioned here. Thank you Sarah.

Added to my Things To Read list, alongside the new boxed set of Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Rudolf Barshai on my Things To Listen To pile.

related entries: Music

music, meditation and 4'33"

5th May 2004 permanent link

I remember when I was growing up people I knew who were serious about music regarded John Cage’s 4’33” – four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence – as the ultimate expression of absurd modern music, on a par with the Tate Gallery’s pile of bricks as the definitive silly work of non-art. I hadn’t really thought about it for years, until recently I was surprised to find Peter Gutmann saying I’m occasionally asked, “So, what’s your favorite piece of music?” I instinctively cringe at such an impossible question, yet if really pressed for an answer my choice would be John Cage’s 4’33”.

I generally respect Peter Gutmann’s musical opinions – his excellent biographical article on Wilhelm Furtwängler, for example, introduced my to Furtwängler’s marvellous 1944 recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony. His essay on historical recordings, and what they tell us about what’s wrong with late twentieth century classical music, is fascinating too. So if I know he’s no fool, and he takes 4’33” seriously, perhaps there’s more to it than meets the, er, ear:

Although often described as a silent piece, 4’33” isn’t soundless at all. While the performer is quiet, you soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic – nervous giggling, shifting in seats, breathing, air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. This is deeply personal art, which each witness shapes to his or her own reactions to life

This reminds me of a thought, and a conversation I had with my brother, a few years ago when at around the same time I was just starting to practice yoga and to really listen to classical music, to the effect that really listening to music – especially intense, introspective chamber music – is actually quite an advanced form of meditation.

One of the clever things about yoga is that, by apparently giving you a lot of things you’re supposed to think about – where am I trying to put my arm? My leg hurts. Look up, not at her. Don’t forget to breathe. Heels down. If I could just get my knee a bit more to the side. Breathe … it actually ensures that you think about nothing else. It’s difficult to worry about office politics and at the same time be aware of what your diaphragm and your pelvic floor are doing.

Or, as one of my first yoga teachers put it much more simply: “there’s nothing like a bit of discomfort for bringing the mind into the present moment”.

All this, if you can really focus your mind on what you’re doing in your practice to the exclusion of everything else, starts to take you towards the fifth and sixth of the eight stages of meditation in classical yoga as described in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras: pratyahara, withdrawal of the mind/senses/attention from extraneous sensations and dharana, the ability to focus concentration on one thing. It’s all about learning voluntary control of the focus of the mind, as opposed to the normal state of being constantly distracted by thoughts, images, fears, worries, desires – the thin stream of semi-random noise that we call the consciousness and commonly regard as “ourself”. Patanjali’s classical sanskrit definition of yoga – yogas citta vrtti nirodaha – is commonly translated into English as yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Which is clumsy and ugly but sort of conveys the idea. If you are struggling to reach your toes and your mind is truly focused on what you are doing, you are doing yoga. If you have been sitting absolutely motionless in lotus for two hours thinking about how angry you are with your boyfriend, what you intend to cook for dinner, how cool you look sitting in lotus for two hours, or what you could write in your weblog about what an advanced understanding of yoga and meditation you have, you are not doing yoga.

Back to music: clearly getting one’s body into difficult and strenuous positions is not the only way to learn to focus the mind – it’s just one way that yogis have discovered over the centuries is accessible and effective for some people. Another one, that I personally find harder and rarely have time for, is to really, intently listen to music and lose yourself in it 100%. Most cultures throughout history have found that the most effective way to do that is by combining music with dance – as dance therapist Gabrielle Roth says, “the best way to still the mind is to move the body”. Doing it with music alone, without dancing, is much harder. Take away the music too and you might as well just go to a Zen class and be done with it.

So I still think 4’33” is pretty silly. Or, to put it another way, I sit in silence for at least five minutes at the end of my yoga practice most days anyway, so I don’t see it as anything special. I think it’s a good thing to do but I wouldn’t choose to go to a concert hall to do it. I suppose there is some possibility that a “performance” of 4’33” might introduce some people to just sitting, listening to what is happening around them and in their head, who might otherwise never consider trying anything described as “yoga” or “meditation”.

related entries: Music Yoga

about to listen to …

5th May 2004 permanent link

… Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, conducted by Gabriel Garrido. And thinking about one very noticeable thing about the market for classical music recordings these days, namely that there is no correlation whatsoever between price and quality.

This Monteverdi CD might turn out to be an example. I know nothing about Monteverdi except that I heard something by him on BBC Radio Three when I was in England a couple of weeks ago and liked it, and that composer and contemporary music critic Kyle Gann thinks he is “as great as Beethoven”. I did a bit of reading around and discovered that the 1610 Vespers seems to be one of his most famous and most recorded pieces, and then I went looking. I quickly discovered that it’s a long piece – at least two CDs – and most of the recordings in my biggest local classical record shop were firmly in the Too Expensive range – over 30 euros, for example, for John Eliot Gardiner’s recording that seems to be highly rated. So I went to the discount shop down the street where they had one conducted by Jordi Savall – another famous and highly respected early music type – for 25 euros, or one by some guy I had never heard of called Garrido for 10. I bought the Garrido, based on my general rule of thumb of never paying over 10 euros for a classical CD unless I’m sure it’s going to be absolutely wonderful. Haven’t listened to it yet, but a quick “have I done the right thing?” check on reveals that a lot of people seem to like it. This apparently knowledgeable reviewer, for example, much prefers Garrido to Savall at over twice the price.

There are lots of discount labels these days putting out new recordings, some of them excellent, at very low prices. Naxos was the first and is the biggest but there are lots of others now. Garrido is on a French label I’ve never heard of before called K617, possibly named (thanks to Google’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Mozart’s published works) after Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo in C Minor, K.617 for Glass Harmonica (or Piano), Flute, Oboe, Viola And Cello. All the major record companies are also reissuing vast amounts of excellent back catalogue – legendary performances by the greats of the 1950s and 60s. Then there is another whole sub-industry of tiny labels who specialise in remastering and reissuing even older out of copyright recordings. Dutton Labs is one such – I recently bought a CD of theirs featuring an astounding 1940s performance of Mozart’s String Quintet K.516 in G Minor by the Griller Quartet (5 euros in Germany, 5 pounds in Britain – even at these prices British CD buyers get ripped off as always)

There are also still a lot of musicians issuing new recordings at full price (the going rate in Germany is about 17 euros for a not discounted new CD). Some of them are probably very good. In fact, some of them I know are very good – I heard a superb performance on the radio the other day of Mendelssohn’s String Octet by L’Archibudelli and the Smithsonian Chamber Players. Saw it in the shop and it was 17 euros. Didn’t buy it. And I can’t see, in general, why any significant number of people ever would ever see a reason to buy these things. There can’t be very many pieces of classical music that you can’t get a really good recording of for under ten euros, or very many where a randomly-selected full price CD is likely to be much better than a randomly-selected 5 to 10 euro CD.

Bonus Link: Real Economist Tyler Cowen on The economics of classical music. Tyler’s Marginal Revolution weblog is generally an excellent read.

Update: I listened to it and wow. Ten euros well spent. They could really write music back in the early seventeenth century. I had no idea. The performance sounds wonderful too, although of course I don't have anything I can directly compare it with. I’m not about to go out and spend 25 euros on the Savall version just to make sure it isn’t as good, or 38 on Gardner just in case he might be even better.

related entries: Music

master and commander extended

3rd May 2004 permanent link

I promised in January that I wouldn’t say any more about the film Master & Commander until the DVD came out. Well, it’s out; I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film on cinema release and then eagerly waited for the (video or) DVD release, not to mention the first time I’ve ever bought a new DVD at full price. (Which was a mistake. I bought it in HMV and then saw that it was 4 quid cheaper in Safeway). Also the first time I’ve ever watched all the extra bits on an extended DVD, and found them possibly more fun than the film itself. (I sold my Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring on ebay, at a profit, without even having made it through the entire long version of the film, never mind any of the extras).

All in all, it’s a four-star DVD of a three-star film. I enjoyed seeing the film a second time but I still don’t think it’s anywhere near being a cinematic classic. The extras, though, are fascinating – some wonderful photography, great music and loads of interesting insights into how the film was made, how the effects worked and the lengths they went to for authenticity.

O’Brian’s stories, and the story of the film, are fictional but the frigate HMS Surprise really existed; to build their replica frigate they used the actual plans of the real ship, drawn up by the Admiralty dockyard when she was captured from the French in the 1790s. For the fantastic Cape Horn storm sequence, they used composites of real film of real Cape Horn storms taken from a real sailing ship – apparently pure computer-generated imagery still can’t get the look of water just right. They recorded the sound of real replica cannons, and real cannonballs crashing into real wood – and found that they sounded nothing like they expected them to. They actually fired cannons on a crowded gundeck with full guncrews standing around them. Read O’Brian: people regularly got badly hurt doing that, even in training with nobody firing back. (If you don’t trust O’Brian’s works of fiction, read The Wooden World, N.A.M. Rodger’s marvellous book on the eighteenth century navy.)

The photography includes a lot of long shots of the ship sailing that are to my eye much more beautiful than the tight, claustrophobic ship’s interiors that they continually used in the film. The soundtrack is great; I will be shopping for some Correlli in the near future.

But. As I said, I found all this almost more interesting than the film. I have a feeling they somehow put so much effort and attention into respecting O’Brian and creating complete, perfect period authenticity, that they had very little left over for actually making a really compelling work of art of their own.

Here’s Peter Weir on how different a film is from a book, and how hard it is for one to do the other justice:

O’Brian’s greatness lies in his prose and in his characters and in his bringing to life a world on board a ship, and an era, really. And the first thing you do when you pick the book up as a filmmaker: all of the words fall out on to the table and all you’re left with is the cover, the front cover and back cover and the skeleton of the plot and the ghostly shape of the characters. And you have to replace that prose with images, and it’s the most extraordinary experience to attempt to do that. And I think that’s the great challenge with O’Brian, to provide a way of telling the story visually that would equal his prose, or at least do it justice.

... and Paul Bethany on making an adventure movie that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence:

I’m not aware of any action movie that in the middle of it has two people playing the cello and the violin.

I think they did O’Brian justice in the visual re-creation, but didn’t really manage to pull it off with the storytelling.

I have a nagging feeling that it’s better to engage in creative activities of one’s own than to watch other people’s and then criticise them. I could, for example, have spent time at the weekend continuing my intermittent essay on yoga teaching, about which I still have more I want to say. Or scanning & editing pictures of Tibetan temple murals, which I still haven’t got round to. The problem is that those things are Hard Work, whereas enjoying a good DVD and then jotting down a few notes about what I thought of it isn’t. So. At least I did my yoga practice.

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