Background music playlist-making frustrations

From time to time I decide that I want to listen to music while working. It’s not that often because my calendar is usually filled with meetings, so the best I often can do is to listen to music at the beginning of the day.

But today I had a big block without meetings so I decided to go for it and build new playlists of things to listen to. And that, for me means classical music. So I went to Spotify and did some research on what to listen to. When I don’t have an actual idea in mind, I often open their “new releases” playlist and then select a couple of albums from there to listen to.

Maybe let me step back and explain something that annoys me deeply about some (many) classical music playlists, especially the ones that are created by algorithms: they usually don’t include whole pieces, but just a movement of a piece, and then another movement of a different piece. That’s now how I listen to classical music, and I think that’s not how anybody should listen to classical music.

So back to my method: I’ll then go to each song that seem interesting and open the album to get the whole piece (and sometimes the whole album). So far so good, right? Well, not really. Thank you Spotify! Here are some examples:

I select an entry from the playlist…
I get a single?
Another example…

I had a lot of examples I could place here. I don’t know who it to blame for this, but some process is setting up tracks from actual albums as singles, so even if I wanted to listen to the whole piece I can’t!

I was frustrated about things like this (and auto-generated playlists) before and did try some classical music-focused services in the past and I’m not sure I was excited enough about those to stick with them. They were more expensive and considering that I don’t listen that often to them and they don’t offer as many integrations as Spotify (and Amazon Music), I ended up giving up on it.

So, well, today I’m ending my day still frustrated.

Enjoying the moment

Normally on Tuesdays I have voice lesson. However, yesterday it ended up being cancelled because my teacher had an urgent matter to deal with. Well, so I decided to use the evening to instead of just working late (which is not that I don’t have to do, as I still have a ton of performance reviews to write) to go to a concert: Eighth Blackbird. It was quite great! Nothing like come contemporary classical music to make your day more interesting!

The concert itself was reasonably short. About 1h 30min with a 15 minute intermission. They played 6 different pieces:

  1. Derek Bermel’s Tied Shifts (2004)
  2. Philip Glass’s Knee Play 2 from Einstein on the Beach (1975)
  3. Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets (1982)
  4. Gyögy Ligeti’s Études for solo piano, arranged for sextet (1985-94, arranged 2012)
  5. Andy Akiho’s erase (2011)
  6. Steve Reich’s Double sextet (2007)

As you can see, they are all pretty recent (almost all of them composed when I was already alive, which is quite unusual for classical music). The weirdest one was probably Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets. Unfortunately I can’t find any recordings for you to look at, but basically it’s for two musicians that just move around the stage counting (like “1”, “2”, “3”…). Just fascinating!

Anyway, they are nominated again for a Grammy. They already have two! I can’t necessarily claim that I understand the correlation between quality and being nominated to a Grammy, or even winning one in classical music, but at least it means that they have some following and some people that are investing money on them to get them into the Grammy’s. And I think it’s well invested!

Privacy-supported music?

I was reading this article today about a new record label, DigSin, that will be offering their music for free on their website.

Why Record Label DigSin is Giving Away its Music – from TheNextWeb

How are they paying for their music? By getting more information about who is listening to it! It’s interesting how quite quickly people are realizing the cost of privacy, and the economic benefit that you can get if you are able to break that privacy barrier.

Today, as far as I know, Spotify and iTunes provide analytics to the record label about how many people purchased/listened to their music, and from where (I think that Spotify also provides time information). But owning your own analytics is always better if your business is around user analytics (analytics for this blog is great to have, but as I don’t get any money from it, whatever the platform, Squarespace, provides is better than what I would have time and knowledge to generate myself). Also, they will probably request email addresses for those users, which is much more powerful than anything that larger services can provide.

Where is this trend taking us? A lot of more people knowing things about us. Is this a good thing? For people that believe that relevant ads are good for you, yes! For me: it depends on how and when it’s used. If I can then go to their website and say: “Hey, I’m looking for something to do next month. What is something I’d be interested in?” and they would be able to provide me with artists that will be having concerts around here that I’ll like based on my past downloads, I’ll gladly provide them with my information (assuming that they have their security in place and I won’t start getting spam in a few months because somebody accessed their database).

Anyway, I could go a long time writing about this topic. I’ve had the opportunity in my past to work on a few “personalization” projects and had to think about my “limits” of what I think is good for people and when we cross that line. Privacy is good. But recommendations (algorithm or human-based) are what allow us to choose in this world full of choices.

Goodbye R.E.M.

I guess I can’t really let this news pass without writing it on my blog. Today (well, technically yesterday, Wednesday, September 21, 2011), R.E.M. announced in their blog that they decided to split the band up.

R.E.M. probably still is my favorite band. It doesn’t mean that I still listen to their music all the time, but every time I do, I remind myself why they were so good.

Anyway, eventually people move on, even the best of them.

Spotify and Classical Music

There are lots of discussions going on for some time about whether a streaming music service like Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody, Grooveshark, etc. The discussions go around whether it’s possible to support the music industry paying fees like $0.30 per track listened, or even much less (source).

Things become a little bit more complicated when you get to classical music. On popular music, tracks are much more comparable: an album with 12 tracks usually takes 12 times more work to produce than a single with one track. So paying by the track is not too bad. However, when you get to classical music, it’s hard to compare the cost to produce a single track for something like Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet that has one single “movement” that is 65-77 minutes long (depending on the rendition). On the other hand, you get things like operas that have tracks that are just a 30-second recitative between movements, or, if you want to go to the extreme, I have to mention John Cage’s 4’33” (and yes, there are recordings of it).

So maybe you can claim that on average is good, but is average enough? Will this just create incentives for music to all be based on many short tracks and it will become less than it is today? Will we have similar quality reduction than the one generated by the famous “loudness war” that happened with CDs? Spotify doesn’t think so, according to their blog post:

Why Classical Music Needs Spotify

But I guess it’s their job to believe that music streaming services are here to actually save the music industry from the doom that digital music is causing it.

My opinion is actually that music cannot be ever treated as a “one solution fits all” for how you consume it, how you interact with it, and how you pay for it. The more the simplifying effect of mass marketing of technologies reaches all our experiences, the less quality we will end up getting from our diverse experience.

Whatever happens, no artistic expression will ever disappear. And I believe in technology. I think that we will probably go through a period that there will be a drop of quality to what we get exposed to, but I think that’s just necessary to get the technology to stabilize and people to understand the actual economy of it. Then there should be another expansion, which will bring back quality and diversity with the right price.

It’s just like when music recording started. You first had just live performance. And the sound quality was great! Then came the first recordings and everything was convenient, but terrible sound quality. Slowly then sound quality was improved with new technologies to a point, at the peak of vinyl, for you to get amazing depth of sound if you wanted to pay for the equipment.

Then we started a new wave of quality reduction in the name of convenience. We’ll have to ride this wave, and on the other side of it I believe we will find a world where we can enjoy more of the things we like.

More music – Bluestreet Jazz Voices and SJC’s concerts

Last weekend was quite vocal. Vocal in the sense of being full of vocal music. On Saturday Amy and I went to watch the end-of-season concert for the Bluestreet Jazz Voices (BJV for short, because I’m lazy) at The Triple Door (T3D). It’s the first time I go to T3D, and second time I listen to BJV. I’ll split my review in two parts: the group and the location:

The group: Before I talk about BJV I have to admit that I’m not a very experienced Jazz listener. I’ve heard some things here and there, and I’ve even played some Jazz on the clarinet with a friend of mine in Stillwater, but that’s all I know. So when I go to a jazz concert, I’m always a little overwhelmed by the amount of “inside jokes” that exist and I really don’t get. My perception is that a good part of jazz is to play around with known tunes, both in the basic jazz book, or the ones that were popular throughout the life of the composer. So, if you don’t really know the tunes, it isn’t as exciting.

So, in the side of knowing the tunes, I was still partly at a loss at this concert. Their theme was “childhood” or “growing up” (or something like that), which meant that they started the concert with a lot of themes from a “normal” American childhood: Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, and others. Unfortunately, the tunes that they were singing were not things that seemed to be part of my memories of those shows, as during my childhood they were dubbed to Portuguese.

Putting the theme recognition aside, came the actual music being done: all of excellent quality. They are a group of 20 singers, most in soloist level (and many of them did actual solos), so there isn’t much they need to hide there. Also they had a quartet of musicians with them, drums, bass, saxophone and piano, which were also quite good. No virtuosity as I’ve seen in some jazz players, but I guess it was mostly because the focus was on the choir and not on the musicians.

In summary, I would highly recommend people to go and see them next season. Even if you don’t know much of jazz like me, you can still enjoy great musicianship.

The place: T3D is a very interesting place for watching concerts. It has the feeling of that dinner-concert place you’d see in movies, where all tables face the stage and you can order food and drinks while you watch. The sound quality was good, but because of the ambient noise of people eating, it required amplification. Choirs with amplification never sound as “deep”, unfortunately, but it was quite good for the space. During the music itself the lights are quite dim, so it’s hard to actually eat, but not impossible.

I would certainly consider going again to see other concerts. Maybe next time I’ll either plan to eat before or eat there. This time we only had some appetizers and then went for dinner afterwards. The food is a little overpriced, but seeing everybody eating when you are hungry doesn’t help with the experience.

So now it’s time to talk about the Seattle Jewish Chorale Season Finale concert at Town Hall on Sunday. It will be a brief review of it, because being on the singing side of it you don’t get to have the full experience of the concert.

In any way, if you missed it, I’m quite sorry for you. It was a great concert. All pieces sounded much better than they did on any other occasions, including rehearsals. Even my solo (well, it was a duet with another singer) actually sounded good, which kind of shocked me. Town Hall was quite close to full, which is also a great sign, even with the fact that only two people that I’ve directly invited actually came.

So now the season is over and we get back together in September-ish to prepare for the next one. What will be interesting is to see how much the conductor will be excited about the results of this season and decide to “kick it up a notch” on challenges for the next one.

The symphony

Today was my last Seattle Symphony concert of the season. If you have followed my few posts in the past about going to the symphony you will see that I have been quite conflicted about it. There are some days that at the end of the concert I’m much happier, elated by the music. At the same time, there are some days that I leave feeling like I was just not mentally able to connect to the music, as my brain was either too tired, or still thinking of work things.

Today was one of the latter cases. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m working in a quite complicated project that has been taking a lot of my mental abilities. It saddens me that it can ruin the experience of such a good concert: a set of pieces by French composers conducted by Gerard Schwarz, in his last season as the conductor for the Seattle Symphony (although he will be conducting the symphony in the future, and a lot during the next season, officially his contract is over at the end of this season).

The concert started with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune from Claude Debussy. Very nice and poetic piece. Then came Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, with Simon Trpčeski playing the piano. Brilliant pianist! Made this very complex piece seem so easy! It was the public’s favorite piece by far.

The second half of the concert started with Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel, my favorite piece of the evening. It was also mostly due to it being the piece I was able to focus the most on the music and think less about work. The concert ended with Ernest Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat major, Op. 20. A very slow symphony by a less known composer, which I enjoyed as being the only piece I don’t think I have heard before.

I think the most significant think about the concert is that I decided that I was not going to renew my season tickets next year, and focus on trying new things with Amy. Possibly going to the opera more, a ballet, and some plays. Then, after I’ve tried it all, then I can make a decision of whether really my time at the symphony is what I really like. Goodbye AA-8. It was a great central seat!

The only other interesting thing to talk about today is that it took me almost 2 hours to get back home, because the symphony was out at the same time as the Sounders game, and the game was “upstream” in the bus line from me, which meant that I had to wait for 3 buses until I was able to get into the bus. Yes, you might be thinking that I’m Brazilian, so I should have just clung to the outside of the bus, or ridden on top of it, like my fellow countrymen, but I guess I decided just to wait.