Tag Archives: jazz

Laconic Oration – February

Laconic Oration is a blog full of interesting/inspiring images. It’s a baby created by Natalie and me.

Every month, I take a handful of my favorite images from the month and post them here. For example: January, December, November, October, and September.

Enjoy!









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Classical Music Rant: Renaissance/Baroque/Classical > Romantic/Modern -OR- “Why symphonic orchestras kind of suck”

INTRO

For this article, I will refer to European classical music by its eras: Renaissance (1400-1550), Baroque (1550-1700), Classic (1700-1800), Romantic (1800-1900), and Modern (1900-now).  These dates are very general, and these eras naturally overlap with each other.  Here are the two reasons why I believe that classical music from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classic eras is superior to music from the Romantic and Modern eras.

ENSEMBLES

Before the Romantic era, there were few standards related to ensembles and anything as large as a modern symphonic orchestra was rare or nonexistant.  Composers often wrote for the ensembles and combinations that were available to them, which might even change over time.  There was little excess; each part was written because the composer deemed it appropriate and not because he knew there was a set number of musicians he had to write for, unlike today’s composer of symphonic works.  It’s true that composers of the classic era wrote ‘symphonies’ but to this day there is no official definition of a symphony.  Some of the pieces that were called symphonies in those days would be considered something less today.  Like an album compared to an EP, for example.  Many of Bach’s pieces don’t even specify instrumentation, allowing for a large degree of interpretation and instrument assignment.

Unfortunately, the symphonic orchestra was standardized during the Romantic era.  This unfortunate monstrosity provides the main face of classical music for most people today.  Many people think of classical music as overblown, boring music, and the symphony has a lot to do with that.  Compositions of previous periods have a more intimate quality that an ensemble of 8 musicians would naturally have over a group of 70.  And it’s not like the 70 members of an orchestra are adding much depth to music – many of them are simply doubling up on parts that could just as easily be divided among a few people.

The symphonic orchestra became an institution, rising up in every major and wannabe-major city across the Western world.  Unfortunately, the only way to hear many pre-Romantic era pieces is to hear them performed by a modern orchestra, including concerti originally performed by a dozen musicians, now performed by 70 with unnecessary quintupling of parts.

INNOVATION

Before the symphonic orchestra was standardized, classical music was always at the forefront of technology.  The fact that that statement likely draws smiles and laughs is sad but deserved.  Instruments were constantly being refined or invented before the Romantic era.  The instruments used in classical music in 1850 look and sound quite different from the instruments used in 1700.  But classical music instruments used in 1850 are IDENTICAL TO THOSE USED TODAY.  There are many modern masters that proudly and idiotically play 200 year old instruments.  The standardization of the orchestra essentially FROZE the whole movement in time.  After this point it became very unusual to hear instruments from outside of the symphonic orchestra included in mainstream classical works.  In previous eras, it was not uncommon to hear instruments like lutes and mandolins incorporated but there seems to be very little room for strummed, fretted instruments today, outside of soloists.

The saxophone had the misfortune of being invented shortly after the codification, ensuring that this innovative and versatile instrument is still uncommon in classical music.  Many years earlier, instruments like the trombone and piano were introduced and quickly identified as the breakthroughs they were, incorporated widely into compositions.  Unfortunately, the piano was very much still the rage when the codification took place, and has now supplanted every other keyboard instrument, including the once-mighty harpsichord.  Even worse, due to modern inflexibilities, pieces originally written for harpsichord are more often performed on pianos today.  Listening to pianos all the time and never harpsichords is like eating vanilla and never chocolate.

If classical music still sought out innovation like it once did, synthesizer keyboards would now be widespread.  Electric guitars would have been a fad and perhaps even faded away by now.  Ensembles might include trap kit drums, theremins, Chapman sticks, whatever.  The sky would be the limit, as it once was.  It’s really a shame that classical music decided to freeze itself in time but at least rock music and jazz have picked up the slack in some respects.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, public radio in America does a great deal to reinforce the lack of innovation, emphasis on orchestras, and obsession with the past.  Most classical music played on the radio comes from the ‘common era’, which includes Romantic, Classic, and late Baroque, but ignores anything earlier or later.  This means that most of the music on public radio is bloated, conducted by egomaniacs, and lacking the true sophistication and emotion of earlier eras.

-AM- Brief history of recordz

Phonograph Cylinder

Thomas Edison created his first phonograph in 1877 but sat on it for more than a decade before finally releasing it to the public in 1888. Edison’s phonographs used cylinders to record and play back music. Consumers could even buy blank cylinders and record themselves at home! For the first several years, the cylinders were not very durable and only lasted for about 100 plays. The customers could then trade them back in for credit. Improvements were made over the years that might be compared advancements made recently in optical discs, from CD to DVD to Blu-Ray. The first cylinders could only handle TWO MINUTES. Later they went up to a whopping FOUR MINUTES. Cylinders were manufactured all the way up until 1929.

Gramophone disc – early years

The flat disc record that we’re all familiar with was introduced by Berliner in 1894. Other companies started to make disc players, as well. The various companies’ products were often incompatible across platforms. Originally, someone realized that music could be recorded on BOTH sides of the disc and suddenly the disc had a true advantage over the cylinder – it could hold twice as much music.

78rpm records

Eventually, the disc became the format of choice and companies finally settled on a uniform speed of 78 revolutions per minute. These records were 10″ or 12″ only held about 4 minutes on each side.

33rpm (12″) and 45rpm (7″)

In the 1940s, it became possible to make the grooves much smaller than ever before. This resulted in two separate approaches. First, there was the 45rpm, 7″ disc. This format was basically the same as the old 78’s but on a much smaller and more convenient disc. The other approach was the 33rpm, 12″ disc, which could hold a whopping 40 minutes of music! In the end, the 33 became the standard for full-length releases and the 45 became the standard for singles.

***

EXTRA INFORMATION

Early, Hilarious production techniques:

For the first decade or so, molding techniques for reproduction hadn’t been discovered. Instead, artists recorded the same song over and over again. 10-20 cylinders could be produced from each performance, thanks to tubes leading from the recording bell. The disc manufacturers were the first to create molding techniques for mass reproduction, giving them a temporary advantage.

The early days of recording industry were like today’s video game industry:

Each manufacturer decided who and what could appear on their machines. Various formats were not cross-compatible until the 78rpm became the standard. Will video games follow this route?

The birth of the ALBUM:

Before the birth of the 12″ 33rpm record, the max playing time of records was about 8 minutes so, as you might have guessed, EVERY record was a single. The only way around this was to release a collection of several records. The first such releases were symphonies and longer classical works, released in collections of up to 20 separate records. These collections were often sold in, or at least stored in, album books much like photo albums. Practically every 33rpm record contained as much music as the old album collections, so the term ‘album’ carried over. For the first couple of decades of 33’s, most albums were compilations of various singles and hits. Classical and jazz were the first genres to widely record long programs specifically to be released as albums. Rock and country were really slow to pick up on this concept and the non-compilation albums didn’t become widespread until the late 50s, right before the Beatles and Beach Boys came along.

 

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-AM- Greatest Hits

Well, my semester is over and I just finished moving into my new place so I have time again. Time to write about nothing. I discussed GREATEST HITS collections with Allison Paynez awhile ago and now I’d like to talk about it some more.

Allison’s position was that they’re basically useless and I probably would have shared that sentiment a year ago. TODAY, however, I definitely see their value for a variety of reasons.

1) Prior to the 1960s, the ALBUM as a fully-formed, cohesive body of work was NOT the norm. Most albums prior to the 1960s were simply greatest hits albums with some filler added in, especially in genres like rock ‘n’ roll and its close relative country. So if you’re listening to music that’s 50 years old or older, you’re pretty going to HAVE to rely on compilations.

This isn’t even really an issue of time, either. Most hip-hop and electronic recording artists of the 1970s and early 1980s ONLY recorded singles. Hip-hop pioneers the Cold Crush Brothers never released a proper album but they’re historically significant and their compilation-only status shouldn’t be held against them. Similarly, almost all of the GOOD early Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five recordings were singles-only.

2) Not all artists make great albums but some of them make a whole lot of great individual songs. Perhaps the strongest example of this, ACCORDING TO MY TASTES, is David Bowie. Between Greg Guts and Ben Baierz I’ve heard several David Bowie albums in their entirety and I have yet to hear one that I really embrace as a whole. In spite of that, there are always a few songs on each album that I really like. Bowie has been a very prolific recording artist in his career and songs that I like by him have really piled up. Given that, I would be glad to listen to a Greatest Hits album by him, even if I don’t typically want to listen to complete albums by him.

3) My final point is that gReatest hitZ albums provide a snapshot of a band or even an era. This is especially valid for those that consider themselves serious musicians or perhaps musical historians of sorts. For example, old country or jazz recordings. For an individual that is slightly interested in 1940s honky tonk recordings but not wild about them, a nice, tidy little Hank Williams (Sr.) compilation provides a snapshot of the era provided by one of the best performers of the style.

What actually got me thinking about this topic (again) wasn’t even music but actually some comics I came across as I was moving out of my apartment this week. Since I was 10, I’ve had some interest in Dick Tracy comics by Chester Gould. A few years ago I decided to buy some book collections of his strips but they were all basically ‘greatest hits’ collections so I bought them reluctantly. A couple of years ago, IDW started printing ALL of the Tracy strips in sequence and I couldn’t realy hold interest. The Tracy greatest hits books reminded me that I might as well concentrate on the best stuff an artist creates rather than discount him or her or them because some of the lesser work is not as interesting. The End.

These are some writings on the same topic from DK Presents blog:

dkpresents.wordpress.com

I don’t necessarily agree with his lists but they’re well-reasoned.

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My favorite 1970s recording artist: Mahavishnu Orchestra

BRIEF SUMMARY HEAVEN!

So there was this fella named John McLaughlin who made a name for himself playing in Miles Davis’s band in the late 1960s.  Like pretty much everyone that played for Davis during this time he struck out on his own and became famous.  He also became all goofy about India and became a disciple of one of those hilarious 1960s gurus to the stars.  He followed the same guru that Carlos Santana did and I bet they had street fights with the Maharashi that the Beatles and Beach Boys fawned over.

Anywho, McLaughlin started a band called MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA and they were awesome.  This was their lineup: guitar, violin, keyboards, bass guitar and drums.  Oh God it’s awesome!  In spite of their jazz backgrounds the music is really rock.  You know all that bullshit that people say about Led Zeppelin?  About how they were hard rock pioneers but with a distinct and innovative sound and blended unconventional instruments and music ideas into rock?  Well, all that is actually TRUE when discussing Mahavishnu.  All of their stuff was instrumental.  Much of it was quite complicated but never masturbatory.  There are never long, extended jack off solos or anything like that.  The violin is often distorted and runs through a wah which is SWEEEEEEEEEEEET.  The keyboardist uses the funny and funky synth sounds of his day.  The compositions is great, sometimes emotional, sometimes pretty rockin’, but never with any singing at all.

Then McLaughlin got a big head and fired the whole band.  He returned a couple of years later with a new lineup and attitude and with George Martin as producer.  Now there was occasionally singing and whole orchestras were occasionally recruited.  The songs became less jazzy and improvisational and more structured.  I’m not going to say I like it more than the old stuff but I think it really invites comparision to Led Zeppelin, a battle that LZ easily loses in a major way.

After 3 albums with this lineup Mahavishnu broke up again and McLaughlin started a group called Shakti, based in India.  This project was not rock at all.  The whole band is made up of Indian musicians but they’re playing primarily Western instruments a la guitar and violin.  This stuff is pretty interesting, too, and probably much more so if you like India (I hate India).

Sometime in the 80z McLaughlin probably needed a paycheck and he started a new Mahavishnu Orchestra for one album.  It sounds like lame elevator jazz and should be avoided.

-Matt, duh

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