Monday, December 13, 2010

A Brief History of Post-World War II Music

I am always fascinated by the seemingly incongruous worlds of music and other historical events. Isn't it a bit surreal that the last guardian of the classical tradition, Johannes Brahms, could have met the amateur violinist Albert Einstein? The latter was 18 years old when Brahms died. Richard Strauss, who was born in the year of Second Schleswig War, lived to see the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and composed arguably the last great late romanticism piece Four Last Songs three years after the bomb. Britten wrote his splendid yet shadowy Suite For Harp, "it is rather 18th century harp writing" as he put it, around the same time they put men on the moon. And Shostakovich was composing the formidable Viola Sonata when John Lydon joined the Sex Pistols. This bewitching conflict came all the way into the new millennium, when Gorillaz's single Clint Eastwood was released in 2001, the 71 years old Clint Eastwood himself had yet to make Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags Of Our Fathers, Gran Torino, and Changeling. That single could come out today and still sounds utterly fresh, by the way.

A couple of months ago, I had this idea of trying to make a playlist that reflects, and plays with this surface conflict, by choosing one popular song, and one piece of classical works from every post-WWII year. Before long I realized that it's simply impossible to pick up "best songs of the 1960s" or "most representative composition of the year", so I just let my personal taste take the lead, while sticking to some simple principles: The micro-interplay of consecutive tracks is most important. Classical tracks should be less than 10 minutes long in order to maintain the flow of the playlist, except for tracks at or towards the end. And of course I tried to embrace as many styles and genres as I could. Needless to say, the title of the post is exaggerated, but History of Post-WWII English-Language Pop Music and Western Classical Music would be just too dull.

I like the way this aerial survey begins with Bing Crosby's It's Been A Long, Long Time from 1945, is there a more appropriate title to start with? And the fact that Bruno Maderna's Notturno For Tape came out at the same time with Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven makes the former sounds more bold - classical composers were quietly experimenting electronic instruments when the pop musicians just began to realise that they could challenge the old LvB too. The slow movement of Barber's piano concerto works surprisingly well as a postlude to Tony Bennett's I Left My Heart In San Francisco. The triumphant ending of the heroic Bridge Over Troubled Water makes the violent striking of Crumb's Black Angles that "sail right behind" even more frightening. Reich's Electric Counterpoint works great as an prelude to EBTG's ode to nostalgia. Listen to the Snoop Dogg track and Peter Lieberson opera extract back to back, you probably would have a hard time figuring out which is the rapper. Both are from 1992. The interlacing of different kinds of music adds an inexplicable charm to the whole listening experience.

Here are the Spotify Playlists: 1945-1955  1956-1965  1966-1975 1976-1985  1986-1995  1996-2005

I stopped at 2005 as it's hard to find classical works from the last couple of years in recorded version. For the sake of usability I broke it down into 10-year, 20-track playlists. You can put them into a folder. Every playlist is within 2 hours, and offers much more fun when you listen to it from the beginning to the end. Pop songs are selected according to their initial release years, and classical works are according to the date of completion, not the premiere. I've double checked to make sure that all tracks are available in the UK and Sweden.

So, that's all for the Christmas Special. I may not post new playlists until 2011, and after three days I will set that Personal Appeal post sticky for the rest of the year. Don't worry about whether the books could be delivered in time for Christmas, the Chinese New Year is in February this year:) Thank you all for helping me share the music that I love. Best wishes for Christmas 2010 and the New Year to come.

I pasted the tracklists below, with Wikipedia or other useful links to each classical work:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Personal Appeal from SCP Founder Ulysses

Sorry to make you go through this again... I just cannot resist putting up Jimmy Wales' piercing eyes that might have been following you around the interenet during the last few months on my site. Look into them, you may get very sleepy, and want to donate all your money to him.

OK, joking apart, here's a personal appeal from me:

This blog, Spotify Classical Playlists, is about to celebrate its first birthday at the end of this month. I have been sharing my Spotify playlists with you for almost a year now. Spotify is such an amazing service in so many aspects, and one of its virtues especially make this site possible: it makes sharing so easy, and fun. I compiled my playlists for my personal pleasure, but with a little effort, I can also share them to music lovers all around the spotified countries, and hear feedback from you, even get recommendations that has helped to broaden my taste, to which I am truly grateful.

If you find my site useful and want to give something back, you can buy a book for me from my Amazon Wishlist (US, UK), or send an Amazon Kindle gift card to my email (spotifyclassical at I live in China and lead a slightly above average life, which means all those books are extremely expensive to me. I am fortunate to live very near to the National library, but some books are not for circulation, like Hermann Abert's Mozart, and some books really belong to the "basic issue item" list that I want to keep them at hand, like The New Bach Reader. Thank you.

Lastly, I still have 17 Spotify invites left. If you want one, drop me a line at the email address above, or on Twitter, I will send/DM you the code. Enjoy, and beware, a storm of playlists is about to begin for the Christmas season.

Update: Another note from 2011.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

New Yorker: Songs of the Years 1925-2010

This was not part of the Christmas Special plan, but when I saw this songs of the years list this morning on The New Yorker, I couldn't help to make a playlist for it. The Yankees got good taste, though it could be a bit tedious to listen through the whole thing as it's mostly American music. I will offer you a more refined one based on an more interesting idea next week. Stay tuned.

Here's the Spotify playlist: New Yorker: Songs of the Years 1925-2010 (86 tracks, 5 hours) For pre-1960 tracks like Art Tatum's Tea for Two, there might be many recorded versions, and I only chose the one from the year that matches the New Yorker list. The Digital Underground track from 1993 is not available and I replaced it with Wu-Tang Clan's C.R.E.A.M. released from the same year. And for the Beatles track I put in a cover version by Jimi Hendrix. Check out The New Yorker page for song list. I also pasted the song list below.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Amazon 100 Greatest Jazz and World Music Albums on Spotify

The Amazon editors listed 100 greatest albums of all time in a variety of categories. I use their Jazz and World Music lists to explore these genres. 98 of the Jazz albums and about 90 of the world music albums are on Spotify. I replaced the missing ones with other albums of the same artists.

Here are the Spotify playlists: Amazon: 100 Greatest Jazz Albums (1066 tracks, total time: 3 days) Amazon: 100 Greatest World Music Albums (1092 tracks, total time: 3 days) Press Ctrl (CMD on Macs) + G to browse in album view.

Check out the Amazon pages, Jazz and World Music, for album lists and reviews. The Christmas main course will be served next week. Don't worry about overeating, it will be organic food.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Guesswork On What's Going On Between Naxos And Spotify

Yesterday I read an unexpected and dreadful news that Naxos and ECM were threatening to leave Spotify. If it happens, the classical library of Spotify would be savagely damaged: both labels are specialized in their sub-genres and offer the only available recordings for many (often unfairly) obscure works.

Here are some facts: 1, Spotify is now making more money for rightsholders than Apple's iTunes Store, according to label sources, including UMG and Sony Music in Sweden. 2, Yesterday Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced that they now have 750,000 paying subscribers. The number is tripled since Naxos joined Spotify. 3, By doing a few searches in Spotify, you will see that Naxos is clearly the most popular classical label in Spotify. I guess this has something to do with the fact that Naxos use the composer names to tag their recordings. A curious layman who wants a taste of Beethoven might not be able to choose between Kleiber and Karajan, but more likely to pick up a Beethoven symphony played by "Ludvig van Beethoven".

Hence raises the question: why Naxos is unhappy then? To be more precisely: why Spotify is not making enough money for Naxos in Sweden, like they are doing for UMG and Sony?

I guess the possible reasons are: 1, Spotify never revealed the details of how they pay the labels. If I spend 80 minutes to listen to a four-movement (track) symphony on Spotify, then I listen through a 5-track math-rock EP in 20 minutes, how do Spotify split my money for these two labels? 80:20 or 4:5? This is a very crucial element for classical labels, and if Spotify is using the latter paying mode, by all means they need to change.

2, Classical music still holds an amazing 5.5% market share of the recorded music sales, if Naxos and other classical labels could get 5.5% of Spotify's whole payout to labels, I guess they would be happy. But I'm afraid even if the paying mode is adjusted correctly by listening time, they might still not be getting that share. Why? A curious listener might buy a Naxos Best Of Chopin on a whim, so he contributes to the 5.5% share, but it's also very likely that he listens to the Naxos disk through once and then plays the new Kanye West album which he bought with the Chopin, all day long. It is a hypothetical example, but it might not be far from the truth. Popular music fans are more likely to give repeated listens to the music they purchased, than casual classical fans. When this comes to Spotify, it simply means that no matter how you calculate the royalties, classical labels would get less share than they have in physical sales. Classical music's identity crisis is the result of our music education, not the fault of Spotify. And you can only make the situation worse if you choose to make your music less accessible on technically the best music service in the world.

So what should Spotify do to comfort Naxos and ECM? It's really a big question for the Spotify team. I think at least they should try to make the payment method more impartial to the labels if need be, and transparent to the users (surely Spotify are not obligated to do so, but as an inovative start-up based on a totally new business model, it might a good move to let the users know how they benifit the music makers exactly, becuase when you keep it as a secret, the immediate assumption is often "not so good"), and ask the labels to be a bit more patient. If they chose to join Spotify when they only had 250,000 paying subscribers, there's no reason for them to leave now. Actually, I think Naxos should cherish the fact that their recordings beat all those full-price major classical labels in popularity on a free platform, Spotify, where the Naxos disks' price advantage means nothing. People now love you for the quality and broad range of your music, Naxos, don't fail us, please.

BTW, here's the Spotify playlist: Alex Ross 2010: Most Memorable Recordings (131 track 14 hours). Half of his choices are available. The Nico Muhly recording is another "hidden" album that you cannot find under the composer's name on Spotify. Original New Yorker post here. Enjoy, and looking forward to hear your opinions on the Naxos crisis.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2011 Grammy Classical Nominations on Spotify

Check out the official site for a complete list of the nominated recordings.

I guess the Salieri: Overtures & Stage Music disk nominated for best orchestral performance is actually Vol.2 which was release in 2010, though it's not noted on the Grammy page. I put in Vol.1 as Vol.2 is not available. Plenty of new discoveries for me here, 20th century harp sonatas? Brazilian chamber works with guitar? One has to wonder why the Grammy pop juries seem can only appreciate teen pop and stadium rock. The new Ligeti quartets recording from Naxos is so fantastic that makes me want to dance to it. No I haven't, the wicked beat would sprain my ankle. And the 65-year-old Jessye Norman's splendid live recording Roots: My Life, My Song makes most other crossover albums sound like a crying shame, especially that Michael Bolton in disguise of a violinist;)  

Here's the Spotify playlist: 2011 Grammy Classical Nominees (319 tracks, total time: 1 day) Press Ctrl (CMD on Macs) + G to browse in album view. More Christmas Special playlists coming soon.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Deutsche Grammophon Christmas Series on Spotify

I'm gonna make this the shortest post of this site...

Here's the Spotify playlist: DG: Christmas (814 tracks, total time: 1 day) Check out DG's official page for full discography.

The real Christmas playlists feast is yet to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Navona Records on Spotify

I stumbled upon composer Kile Smith through Kenneth Woods' blog, and found out that the label which released Smith's Vespers, the Navona Records, had made a series of contemporary classical recordings, and most of them are on Spotify.

Links to the composers featured on this label: Hans Bakker, Donald Martino, Allen Brings, John Carollo, Jonathan Sacks, Lawrence Siegel, Keith Kramer,Jason Barabba, Shawn Crouch, Stephen Yip, James Romig, Tasos Stylianou, Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, Sally Reid, Marty Regan, Kile Smith, Hee Yun Kim. And ensemble Piffaro.

Here's the Spotify playlist: label:Navona (173 tracks, total time 14 hours) Press Ctrl (CMD on Macs) + G to browse in album view. Give the Vespers a try, it may reverse your view on contemporary classical music. And if you want to buy records to support this innovative indie classical label, here's a good news: the Navona CDs come with PDF study scores, session photos, and information about composers and performers as bonus enhanced CD content.