Saturday, March 31, 2007

The CD Is Dead! Long Live the CD!

The CD Is Dead!
Long live the CD!
By Daniel Gross
Posted Tuesday, March 27, 2007, at 4:01 PM ET

Mozart wrote only one Requiem, but in recent years, music journalists have written about 80 requiems for the compact disc, mostly in the key of boo-hoo major. Data from the Recording Industry Association of America show that between 2000 and 2005, the number of CDs shipped fell 25 percent to 705.4 million, while their value slipped 20 percent, from $13.2 billion to $10.5 billion. During the first six months of 2006, CD sales dropped 14 percent more. And as Ethan Smith wrote in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) last week, CD sales are down another 20 percent in the first quarter of 2007. On Monday, Jeff Leeds, writing in the New York Times, penned an obituary for the CD, which has been driven into oblivion by consumers' preference for digital singles over albums. Last year, hundreds of music stores closed, among them the 89 outlets of the greatly missed (subscription required) Tower Records.

Conclusion: The CD is dead!

Except, it's not. Last Sunday, Paul de Barros of the Seattle Times chronicled the growth of Silver Platters, a local chain of CD stores that just took over an old Tower Records space. Meanwhile, savvy new-era businesses are jumping into the CD business. The same day Smith's piece appeared in the Journal, Starbucks announced its record label would issue its first CD this summer, from Paul McCartney. Earlier this month, Amazon launched a classical music retail outlet, capitalizing on the genre's impressive 2006 comeback, which was driven by massive CD sales from the unholy trinity of cheesy, nonclassical classical artists: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo.

Clearly, it's trickier than ever to make, market, and sell CDs. It's an industry in crisis. But CDs are still a significant business. All the kids, and many adults, have iPods. But plenty of baby boomers still buy the shiny discs; CDs account for three-quarters of all music sold.

What we are witnessing is not so much the imminent death of CDs but the death of the old methods of selling CDs. It's still possible to make money in the CD business—any business with more than $7 billion in retail sales should allow someone, somewhere, to make a profit. The incumbents are getting killed, but upstarts are thriving, using different methods.

Legacy music retailers and manufacturers now face many of the same difficulties as American auto companies. They built a business infrastructure—national chains, huge outlets in high-profile locations, layers of management—predicated on selling massive and growing quantities of CDs for $15.99 and up. Like the American automakers, they found that new competition—from iTunes, file-sharing, and online retailers—severely cut into their margins, their market share, and their pricing power. In such an environment, companies with significant capital invested in stores and substantial overhead costs get destroyed. And as they fail, they do so loudly, inspiring widespread pessimism.

Yet the new rules open opportunities for upstarts who approach the business of making and marketing CDs in a fundamentally different way. Unlike fallen chains such as Tower, boutiques such as Silver Platters and Rasputin in San Francisco don't spend on expensive national advertising. They're more like art-house theaters. Since they cater more to music aficionados than to the masses who used to flood into HMV for the latest Mariah Carey CD, the demise of the blockbuster CD doesn't put a crimp in their sales.

In the age of file-sharing and iTunes, people simply aren't willing to pay $16 for a collection of songs they may not want. That proved to be fatal for Tower Records. But for, such price pressure doesn't really matter. The company has built up a commercial infrastructure that enables it to sell and deliver all sorts of cheap objects, from books to toys. Blogger Barry Ritholtz noted in January that the most of the top-selling CDs at sell for less than $10. For Amazon, which already has huge investments in warehouses, software, and its Web site, carving out some extra space for classical CDs doesn't require a huge incremental investment. What's more, since its inception, the store has been designed to run on very low margins.

In the case of Starbucks, the economics of selling CDs are even more compelling. With its 14,000-odd outlets, the company already has a massive, highly profitable retail channel that generates immense foot traffic daily. Each store is conveniently outfitted with counters, which are ideal for stocking a variety of noncoffee products that have mass appeal: chocolates, books, and CDs. Both Barnes & Noble and Borders may be having a difficult time making money selling wide selections of books in huge retail spaces. But when Starbucks decides to stock a single book, say Mitch Albom's For One More Day or Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, it can easily turn a profit on every sale. Starbucks found the same sort of success with the Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company in 2004. Starbucks has also invested in building its Hear Music concept, where customers can buy coffee, buy CDs, or download music, into a small chain.

Is the CD dying as a commercial product? Sure. But it's got a lot of dying left to do. And in the meantime, there's still money to be made selling discs loaded with the music of Josh Groban, Alban Berg, and Rod Stewart.
Daniel Gross ( writes Slate's "Moneybox" column. You can e-mail him at

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Does Context Affect Music Reception?

March 18, 2007
Can What You Know Affect What You Hear?

THE soprano Joan Sutherland has never been convinced that much can be accomplished in a “so-called master class,” as she explained in a 1998 interview. What can a visiting master say in just a half-hour or so of working with a young musician?

Still, that year, at the behest of the foundation run by her friend and colleague Marilyn Horne, Ms. Sutherland offered a master class to several young singers at the Juilliard Theater.

Naturally, before hearing each vocalist, she wanted to learn something of their backgrounds and training. Only with that personal and professional context could she know how to evaluate their work.

So Ms. Sutherland was miffed when she asked the age of an Asian soprano who was up next, and the young woman demurred, laughing nervously and explaining that she preferred not to reveal it.

“But you know my age,” Ms. Sutherland replied. She muttered that this was quite strange but allowed the soprano to sing.

Ms. Sutherland was right. Fledgling sopranos typically keep acquiring technique and making vocal adjustments right through their 20s. Whether this student was 21 or 27 was significant information.

I would add that whether a young soprano was trained in Tokyo or Boston, whether she studied singing throughout her childhood or discovered her voice in a college choir, whether she is big-bodied or petite, loose-limbed or stiff: all of these factors are crucial to assessing an individual’s gifts and needs.

In other words, whether you are a master teacher, an opera buff, a concertgoer or a critic, knowing something of the background of the artist you are hearing will inevitably affect your perceptions.

The question of context surfaced recently in the scandalous story of Joyce Hatto, an English pianist who was born in 1928 and enjoyed a modestly successful career until a cancer diagnosis in 1970 forced her to retire from the concert stage. She died last year.

As has been widely reported, a series of recordings identified as Ms. Hatto’s were released by a small CD label run by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, starting in 1989. There were an astonishing 120 releases in all, including complete cycles of the Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev sonatas. But last month her husband, caught in an act of fraud, confessed that these CDs were stolen goods, performances he took from recordings by other pianists and marketed as Ms. Hatto’s.

Critics who were fooled by this plagiarism have come in for ridicule, which is not entirely fair. (For the record, I had never, to my knowledge, heard of or reviewed Ms. Hatto before this news broke.) The recorded performances fobbed off as Ms. Hatto’s, whether by little-known artists or major pianists, were of high quality.

The critics and piano buffs who prized them were sold a false context: They thought they were hearing an overlooked and ailing artist who was enjoying a miraculous rebirth in the safety of the recording studio. Of course more skeptical sorts would argue that the trumped-up story seemed too good to be true.

In any event context should theoretically not matter, especially in instrumental music. A singer’s voice is unique to that singer’s body. But for all the strikingly different characteristics of various pianists, there is arguably a smaller number of variables involved, at least in certain repertory. Schumann’s C major Fantasy is open to myriad interpretive approaches, but Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto tends to go a certain way and requires a more specific kind of virtuosity and flair.

Obviously the context of a performance can completely surprise you. A recording of a Schubert piano sonata that shows a mature sensitivity to high Viennese Classical style might be coming from a master like Artur Schnabel, a leading artist of the new generation like Leif Ove Andsnes or a student at the University of Wisconsin. The actual playing should be what matters. There is an appealing purity about this argument.

Still, the personal context and the particular circumstances of a performance can profoundly affect the performance itself. This point was well put last month in an op-ed article in The New York Times by Denis Dutton, who teaches aesthetics at the University of Cambridge, analyzing the Hatto affair. “Music isn’t just about sound; it is about achievement in a larger human sense,” Mr. Dutton wrote.

I recently heard the young Chinese virtuoso Yundi Li play Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Li played with white-hot energy, sizzling passagework and rhapsodic expressivity. But there was a little too much youthful abandon and wild impetuosity in his playing. He let tempos shift into overdrive and sometimes could not contain his enthusiasm.

Knowing that he was only 24, hugely gifted and aiming to please, I found it easy to overlook these lapses. Mr. Li should mature in time. I would like to think that if I had heard only a recording of this performance without knowing the pianist, I would have pegged it as the playing of a young hot-shot. Maybe not. Still, I think that knowing who Mr. Li was and how much this occasion meant to him helped me and his many enthusiastic listeners at Carnegie Hall appreciate what was special about his work. I would argue that we heard it better. We excused the occasional hormonal excess of the playing and concentrated on its incisiveness and vigor.

Long ago orchestra audition committees started the practice of hearing instrumentalists from behind a screen. A worthy goal is at stake here: to eliminate prejudice and ensure that the committee’s judgment is not influenced by a musician’s age, sex or ethnicity.

But this policy has a down side. An orchestra is hiring a person as well as a player. Does that person suit the job? Most orchestras take the screen away at least for the final round. Savvy music directors get personally involved at this stage and sit down with the finalists to find out who they are as musicians and people, and how they think. The enthusiasm that a dynamic young violinist would bring to the job or the maturity that would come with a veteran professional should matter just as much as objectively measurable factors like a candidate’s technique and tone quality.

For all music lovers the danger of letting context affect your perception of an artist is that it is terribly easy to pigeonhole people. Artists are always capable of transcending themselves and surprising us, something critics in particular must remember.

I sometimes envy the freshness a classical music neophyte experiences when hearing something for the first time. My first exposure to Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” came at the Metropolitan Opera, with Ms. Sutherland in the title role. For a teenager who hardly knew the work, this was quite an introduction.

Some critics maintain that overpreparing for a review assignment will lessen the freshness of their reactions, especially for a new piece. This tabula-rasa approach is perfectly valid. For me, if I have access to a score before hearing the premiere of a new work, I find it valuable to read through the music at the piano. And anything I can learn about the creative artist may enrich my perception.

But the lies that were perpetrated about Ms. Hatto were criminal acts. There is a big difference between taking someone’s background and context into account and falling for a hoax.

Slavery's Legacy in Africa: A Slow Emancipation

NYT Magazine
March 18, 2007
The Way We Live Now
A Slow Emancipation

Once, when I was a child in Kumasi, Ghana, I asked my father, in a room full of people, if one of the women there was really my aunt. She lived in one of the family houses, and I’d always called her auntie. In memory, I see her lowering her eyes as my father brushed the question aside, angrily. Later, when we were alone, he told me that one must never inquire after people’s ancestry in public. There are many Ashanti proverbs about this. One says simply, Too much revealing of origins spoils a town. And here’s why my father changed the subject: my “auntie” was, as everyone else in the room would have known, the descendant of a family slave.

My father was trying to avoid embarrassing her, although I don’t think he regarded her ancestry as an embarrassment himself. Unlike her ancestors, she could not be sold; she could not be separated against her will from her children; she was free to work wherever she could. Yet in the eyes of the community — and in her own eyes — she was of lower status than the rest of us. If she could not find a husband to provide for her (and a prosperous husband was unlikely to marry a woman of her status), the safest place for her was with the family to which her ancestors had belonged. So she stayed.

Beginning around 1700, Kumasi was the capital of the Ashanti empire as it rose and fell. At some point in my education, I was taught that the empire had been the center of a great trading system, with roads radiating from Kumasi in every direction, connecting us with the Atlantic trading system along the coast and with the trans-Saharan trade to the north. Gold, everyone knew, was one of the commodities we exported: the empire of Ashanti covered most of what was once called the Gold Coast.

What I don’t remember hearing much about was the role of the slave trade in the growth of Ashanti. More than a million slaves were sent to the Americas through the British, Danish and Dutch forts along the Gold Coast, mostly in the course of the 18th century. Next Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the British Parliament’s vote to ban the empire’s North Atlantic slave trade. Following that vote, the Ashanti had to rethink the whole basis of their economy. But while the export of slaves had helped Ashanti consolidate power, it was arguably the importation of slaves from farther east — sold to the Gold Coast states by the Portuguese, starting in the 15th century — that made the empire possible in the first place. The rise of settled states in West Africa, as in much of the New World, seems often to have depended on the rise of plantation agriculture, and plantation agriculture depended on involuntary labor. Just as in the New World, moreover, the legacy of slavery has proved curiously durable. Indeed, to understand the nature of that legacy here, it helps to look at the experience of slavery on the African side of the middle passage.

When I was growing up, people used to visit us regularly from a village called Nyaduom, in the forest to the south of Kumasi. The village had belonged, I was told, to my father’s family, and he inherited responsibility for it when he became the head of the family. He had the right to appoint chiefs and queen mothers for the village, and had some vague dominion over its land. A couple of hundred years ago, it turns out, an ancestor of my father’s, an illustrious Ashanti general named Akroma-Ampim, had, with the permission of the king, settled the area with war captives and set up a plantation. In the slaving empire of Ashanti, as the Ghanaian historian Akosua Perbi tells us, there were different designations for different kinds of forced laborers — war captives (who could, if they were lucky, be redeemed by the payment of ransom), people held as security for their families’ debts, people bought at the slave markets elsewhere and family servants with a status akin to feudal serfs — and each had a distinct status. Not all slaves were created equal. Still, to use our generalizing term, the inhabitants of Nyaduom had been slaves for generations.

And these days? Slavery hasn’t been legal in Ashanti for roughly a century. (The final rules for abolition were made in 1908: they allowed slaves to be redeemed for a fixed fee, required men to emancipate female slaves with whom they had children, made cruelty a basis for emancipation and declared that children born to slaves after a certain date would no longer be slaves themselves.) The people of Nyaduom are now “ethnically” Ashanti if they are anything. Their ancestors were not, however, and their status as the descendants of captives was one of hereditary inferiority to free Ashanti. For the villagers, these customs outweighed anything on the statute books. They regularly brought us fruits and coffee that they had grown, as well as the occasional chicken, turkey or sheep. And they acted as if my father had duties that gave him authority over them.

That wasn’t exactly his view. Though he met and talked to them, he always tried to persuade them that they had to settle their disputes for themselves. He was willing to help, he told them, but they no longer belonged to him. They shrugged off his protests. They were the descendants of Chief Akroma-Ampim’s captives; my father was the descendant of Chief Akroma-Ampim. What could change that?

They weren’t the only ones to see themselves that way. Whenever I visit Kumasi, I get to chat with a man who worked for my father’s predecessor as head of the family and who’d had, as a result, many dealings with Nyaduom. Last year, I asked him about Nyaduom and he answered me only after reminding me that it was not his hometown. Only recently has it occurred to me why he has always been so emphatic about this point: his family, unlike most of those in the village, never belonged to anyone. Generations after slavery has gone, the lowly status of these slave ancestors still matters. It matters that he is not one of them.

When I think about how the world of the Ashanti remains etched and scored by slavery, an odd question arises: What is it about slavery that makes it morally objectionable? European and American abolitionists in the 19th century tended to focus, reasonably enough, on its cruelty: on the horrors that began with capture and separation from one’s family, continued in the cramped and putrid quarters below the decks of the middle passage and went on in plantations ruled by the lash. William Wilberforce, the evangelist and Tory member of Parliament who was as responsible as anyone for the passage of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, was not an enthusiast for democracy when it came to expanding the franchise, and he railed against the “mad-headed professors of liberty and equality.” It was the torments of slavery’s victims that moved him so. (He was also a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) Once freed slaves had been properly Christianized, he believed, “they will sustain with patience the sufferings of their actual lot.” In the United States, abolitionists mainly shared his perspective, naturally emphasizing the abundant horrors of plantation slavery.

Slavery’s more sophisticated defenders had a response. They agreed that cruelty was wrong, but, they maintained, these horrors were abuses of the slavery system, not inherent features of it.

What if their paternalist fantasies had come true, and a world of kindly slave masters had developed? Would slavery be acceptable? Of course not. Even a well-treated slave is diminished by his status. As a social or legal institution, slavery has built into it a denial of the social basis of self-respect: it defines the slave as lower in status by denying that she could have personal aims worthy of consideration and rejecting the enslaved person’s right to manage his or her own affairs. When you’re a slave, someone else is in charge of your life. What keeps the wound from healing is that this subordination is something you inherited from your parents and will pass along to your children.

And to their children, and their children’s children. Although the sale of slaves is now illegal, and demands for unpaid work are officially unenforceable, there are still slave descendants who work in the households of prosperous Ashanti without remuneration. (There are also some people who are sent by families that cannot afford to feed them, people who are properly servants, though their compensation is not monetary, and the families to which they go tend to treat them like the poor relation in a Victorian novel.) The status of these home workers, it seems to me, is like that of children. They are in the care of the families they work for, which have obligations to maintain and support them, but their labor and their lives are pretty much governed by the people in whose households they live. In principle, they are free to leave whenever they choose. In practice, they often have nowhere to go. Never having been paid, they have no savings. Often they have a very basic education, so their only skill is domestic work, a market in which there is a great deal of competition. Even without the legal apparatus of Jim Crow, liberated slaves can find themselves effectively recaptured.

None of this is peculiar to Africa, of course. The etymology of the English word “slave” reflects the large-scale forced servitude of Slavs into the Middle Ages; in modern Arabic, the word “abd,” a classical designation for a slave, is used to refer to dark-skinned people. Because people almost always think of slaves as belonging to a kind — a race, a tribe, a class, a family — that is suited to enslavement, the slave status tends to survive the abandonment of the formal institutions of slavery.

This isn’t to diminish the achievements of abolition. The bicentennial of the Slave Trade Act is eminently worth celebrating, and it’s reassuring to know that slavery is officially forbidden in every country on the planet. (The word may yet prove father to the deed.) The United States National Slavery Museum is scheduled to open in Fredericksburg, Va., next year, while in Ghana, the remaining coastal slaving forts do a brisk trade in moralized tourism. Meanwhile, human rights campaigners have taken aim at nonchattel forms of slavery, like the millions of bonded laborers in South Asia whose employers force them to work in order to pay off a debt, or “peshgi.” Groups like Christian Solidarity International continue to support slave-redemption programs in Sudan. The International Labor Organization of the United Nations monitors trafficking networks that bring an estimated 1.2 million children into forced servitude, from the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast to the brothels of Thailand. Various intergovernmental groups have helped secure the release of some of them.

But the politics of abolition and redemption, now as then, go only so far. You can legislate against the peshgi system, pass laws regulating working conditions and, in a dozen ways, deny legal recognition to the slaveholder’s claim to manage the lives of his slaves. You cannot thereby command respect for them or grant them self-respect, because these things are not within the power of the market or a legislature. Nor can you guarantee that someone who has experienced only slavery will be prepared to manage a life alone, even if he had the money to do so. There’s no neat toggle switch between slave and free.

The woman I asked my father about is not a slave. But she carries on something crucial to the enslavement of her ancestors. Beyond the possibility of being sold away and the impossibility of making your own decisions, slavery meant that certain people were hereditarily inferior. You can abandon the slave markets and demand that all who work are paid for their labor and free to leave it, but even if you succeed, the stigma and the status won’t give way so easily. That’s why I haven’t told you her name. Emancipation is only the beginning of freedom.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, is the editor, with Martin Bunzl, of “Buying Freedom: The Ethics and Economics of Slave Redemption,” coming this fall. His last article for the magazine was a cover essay on cosmopolitanism.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Music of WWII victims finds new life

Music of WWII victims finds new life

By ARIEL DAVID, Associated Press Writer 14 minutes ago

A waltz. A tango. A piece of jazz. But they weren't composed in Vienna, Buenos Aires or New Orleans. Scribbled on diaries, loose pages or even toilet paper, these are the notes left behind by people who lived and died in the prisons and concentration camps of World War II.

Italian researchers hope thousands of nearly forgotten works will find new life as they assemble a library of music composed or played in those dark places between 1933 and 1945.

"We are trying to right a great wrong: These musicians were hoping for a musical life for themselves, and they would have had it if their destiny had been different," said Italian musician Francesco Lotoro.

He has been collecting originals, copies and recordings of everything from operas composed in the depth of the Nazi death machine to jazz pieces written in Japanese POW camps in Asian jungles.

The library, set to open in September at Rome's Third University, will offer scholars a repertoire of 4,000 papers and 13,000 microfiches including music sheets, letters, drawings and photos.

For more than 15 years, working largely alone, Lotoro has been crisscrossing the globe, usually at his own expense, hunting down musical works from museums, archives and antique shops, as well as from survivors or their families.

Lotoro, a pianist, is also rearranging and recording many of the pieces to produce a collection of 32 CDs, five of which have already been published. Musicians and singers who live in or around his southern Italian town of Barletta, and who share his passion, often spend their Sundays working with him in the recording studio.

Experts who are aware of Lotoro's work say it's the first time such a vast effort has been made to assemble and revive in one place a musical treasure trove scattered around the world.

"I don't know of any institution gathering only musical documentation," said Bret Werb, the musicologist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "It's an important project that will become an important resource for musicians globally."

In an interview, Lotoro said he is constantly discovering new works, "and this is not a good sign; it's a sign that history hasn't done its job."

Lotoro, 42, says his ancestors were Jews forced to convert to Christianity centuries ago. Attracted to Judaism in his teens, he converted in 2002.

He first looked into music written during the Holocaust on a 1991 trip to Prague — and quickly got a sense of the task ahead.

"I left for two weeks with a small bag hoping to bring back a dozen works, but in the end I had to buy a bigger suitcase to carry home hundreds of manuscripts and photocopies," he recalled.

Finding a long-sought piece is only the beginning, since it may well be fragmentary and written clandestinely or in haste, Lotoro said.

Among the key works he has labored on for the last decade are those of Rudolf Karel, a Czech composer arrested by the Nazis for taking part in the resistance in Prague.

Locked up in a military prison and plagued by dysentery, Karel used mostly toilet paper to compose a vast repertoire, including a five-act opera and a nonet, a composition for nine instruments.

The last of his music sheets found by Lotoro is an upbeat "Prisoners' March" dated four days before his death in March 1945.

Many of Lotoro's finds are works written in Theresienstadt, a Czech town used by the Nazis from 1941 as a ghetto and transit camp to which Jewish leaders and prominent artists were deported from all over Europe.

Theresienstadt — Terezin in Czech — was used by the Germans as a propaganda tool to hide their extermination plans from international organizations, and inmates were able to stage operas, concerts and cabaret shows with several orchestras, including one called the "Ghetto Swingers."

All the same, of the 140,000 Jews sent there, 33,000 died and nearly 90,000 were deported to death camps.

The Rome library will include works by Gypsies imprisoned by the Nazis; chorus songs by Dutch women interned by the Japanese in Indonesia, and the music of Edmund Lilly, a U.S. colonel from North Carolina who wrote songs and poems as he went through various Japanese camps from surrender in the Philippines in 1942 to liberation in Manchuria more than three years later.

Also in the library are the works of Berto Boccosi, an Italian captain who started writing an opera while held by the Allies in an Algerian camp. And Lotoro says he is looking into music written by German officers imprisoned in Soviet camps.

"Music is a universal language, so the music written by the German officer and by the Jewish prisoner have the same historical value," Lotoro said.

He said he hopes the library will give scholars greater understanding of "the explosion of creativity" that gave birth to a tango in Buchenwald or a waltz in the Italian camp of Alberobello.

"You can always feel the tragedy in the background, but in his creative effort a musician is capable of escaping reality," he said.

But the music could also contain the seed of defiance, as in the "March of Terezin," which was played after cabaret shows in Theresienstadt and begins with the opening notes of "Hatikva" — the future Israeli national anthem.

If nothing else, music was a way for prisoners to stay sane.

"Composing for an author is a question of mental survival," said David Meghnagi, a psychology professor at the Third University who is spearheading the creation of the library. "In this way he keeps his humanity intact and allows his mind to imagine a different future."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Composer Alvin Curran: Music 24/7

New York Times Select
March 11, 2007, 10:05 pm
Music 24/7

By Alvin Curran

The human animal is eminently musical, a creature that consciously builds its own instruments and organizes and projects repeatable sound structures in time, heard in selected spaces on occasions of special purpose. Human music is a vehicle for personal and collective enjoyment and expression, and a means to transcend time and place. Its widespread presence and diversity suggests an underlining socio-physiological necessity. Apparently there are no people on this planet during the last 30,000 years who did not and do not make their own music. So it is no surprise to wake up in the year 2007 and find music everywhere all the time.


Until the advent of consumer music publishing in the 19th century, and particularly until the beginnings of sound reproduction – piano rolls, wire and disc – in the early 20th century, what we now call “art music” (the highbrow stuff as distinguished from working-class pop music) was live music made by various artisans and artists for the elite classes of their time – music composed, published, and often performed by living composers for the enjoyment and cultivation of their noble, religious, or bourgeois patrons. The European masters of the last 500 years are clear examples of this proposition: Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi, Mahler – even Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky in the early 20th century – were the most in-demand composers of their respective times and places.
CurranAlvin Curran playing two keyboards at a concert at RAI studio in Rome, October 2006. (Photo: Roberto Agostini)

The rapid rise of duplicated, recorded, and broadcast music changed this forever, offering such quantity and diversity to listeners as to challenge the fast turnover of newly commissioned compositions and even the longstanding tradition of live concerts, and in the second half of the 20th century the increasingly globalized music business, with its growing production, media and distribution technologies, made the music of anyone from any time potentially available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to anyone else anywhere on our planet – a state of affairs that is unique in the history of human music.

With this unprecedented universal availability and vast consumer potential, a new parity between the musics of living composers and dead ones, and those of any other nation and time, has come to be a permanent fact of life. The “music of our time” has become the “music of all time,” period.

One factor in this new picture, bigger than Beethoven, is the powerful influence and ubiquitous aura of Afro-American musics now evident in practically every musical culture on the planet; this poses a formidable counterweight to a once exclusive, essentially white European cultural monopoly and at the same time offers a mesmeric source of alternative musical energy – witnessed particularly by my own generation in its successive attraction to blues, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, rock, free jazz, post-free, hip-hop – and leaving its stamp on art music from Debussy to David Lang.

To complete this story, we must consider that the events of “our time” take place nearly a century from the time Arnold Schoenberg caused a massive rift in Western compositional practice by conferring equality on all 12 equal-tempered tones. Schoenberg’s historically natural proposition has on the one hand liberated composers from the imposing weight of Europe’s musical past, encouraging them to experiment endlessly with new musical syntax. On the other hand its unnerving dissonance has contributed to the consolidation of reactionary tendencies, among these the almost religious preservation, restoration, and performance of all previous Western music. Schoenberg’s revolution is even responsible, in the end, for today’s trendy escape from his democratized 12 notes into exotic tunings ranging from Balinese microtonality to cool scientific French spectralism.


As a composer of art music I find this new ballgame disorienting, perfectly natural (because it all happened in my own lifetime), and marvelous in its anarchic essence and unknowable consequences. To quote an apt phase in John Cage’s Norton Lectures “I-VI,” “This is the new confusion…” – and indeed it is in this new confusion that I suspect we may find both the seeds and the genesis of a New Common Practice – the very practice of endless possibility and confusion we now inhabit.

Nowadays, composers must cope not only with an infinite world of recombinant sonic potential – the placing and joining of any imaginable sound with any other sound, often disregarding their original meanings and contexts – but also with putting these sounds in untried containers and spaces not always within walking distance – as in Internet music and sound installations: the new big buzz.

One group of composers (the majority) sensibly consolidates its contemporary experience within acceptable and reasonable limits dictated by prevailing academic, economic and cultural trends. The other group focuses on unfettered creativity and experiment even if at the expense of career or general acceptance — Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Anthony Braxton, Glenn Branca, Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Frederic Rzewski, LaMonte Young, John Zorn, to name just a few — and seem to be constantly stirring up trouble, not knowing or even caring whether we are unleashing deadly germs or finding new cures.

As today’s composers are left with a compass pointing in all directions at once, much of the general public is like so many derelict ships, adrift on endless seas of musical offerings, searching for some life-saving detritus. In megashops they anxiously seek new thrills by diving in the Vivaldi bins, the doo-wop bins or in the bins of Baroque, ska, metal, bluegrass, Gregorian, Kraut, space, house, goth, Mannheim, grunge, gypsy, salsa, Tuvan, free, Bulgarian, Elizabethan, Indian, dub, bebop, scratch, noise, chamber… all of them “music for the end of time,” mute rivers of immaterial sonic memory cleverly recorded on cheap materials with guaranteed short life-spans.

The offer never stops, the shops never close, new products never cease to appear. The inventory contains every imaginable recorded sound in the universe, and the dispensaries are everywhere. Who needs them? The whole shebang is now downloadable — in an Internet mall the size of Jupiter and Mars combined. But like those photos we see of wretchedly poor people combing mountains of garbage to extract anything life-sustaining, there’s always somebody somewhere searching in these endless bins for a new musical experience.

And the same people will listen to the stuff while they sleep, eat, meditate, work, shop, travel, procreate, and run. Contemporary humans have become pathological music junkies reduced to searching obsessively for the ultimate “Ode to Joy” cell-phone ring.

The contradiction is clear: Business has never been better, despite the territorial clash between composers of art music (presently the underdogs) and pop music (the undisputed top dogs) as both struggle in a contest for cultural and economic space with each other and with all the musics ever made: Feldmanesque string-quartets are pitted against feel-good muzak, 5.1 home-symphonic blowouts against unmediated sub-woofer rumble, songs of endangered peoples and animals against dub, art-ensemble free-soup against concerti for viola da gamba, concerts of ship horns against sonic meditations, sunspot flurries controlling Max Patches against mobs of detuned mandolins, gangsta against Zydeco cocktails against amplified gastric juice installations, Klangforum Germanic perfection against Turkish rap stars against experimental Internet improvs with strangers who you cannot see, touch, smell, or even hear very well.


Among the new critical theorizing – Stochastic, Phat, and Fractal – and in this sonic pandemonium of apocalyptic consumerism, everyday normality, and the post-post modern substitution hypothesis (i.e., any audible music or noise is as good as any other), certain questions float to the surface: Where’s the art music? Where’s its beloved ritual? Its new direction? Its discerning listeners?
Audio Excerpt from a live performance of Alvin Curran’s “Weft Warp and Purl,” for sampler. First performed at the Knitting Factory in New York in Jan, 2000, it uses sound from past concerts at that venue as its raw material. (mp3)

And, of special personal interest, Where are its composers? The honest answer is: here we are – a small curious obdurate and often threadbare band who for unknown reasons cannot do otherwise. Us and a few imaginative producers and caring patrons – the same ones Mozart begged work from, and Beethoven wrote pleading letters to. This is what I tell my befuddled students when they ask me how to make a living from this perplexing “confusion.” Yet, the bottom line in bucks tells us there simply is not enough demand for music which insists on simply engaged and focused listening attention – and which, without aid of visuals and without shaking your booty, asks you take this as “the” music of our time, as if it were made by the village shaman next door. In a world where most music is made by corporate harmonists, kick-ass tunesmiths, and turntable fakirs we, the artisans and curators of the traditional cultured musical forms, are a tribe of job hunters out on the prowl.

Admittedly between the memory museum and the maelstrom there’s a lot of stuff going down, and the new music thing is far from over. A struggling but very lively and resistant new musical culture continues to appear like weeds in the cracks of the sidewalks everywhere … in clubs, labels, festivals, in university music departments, in organizations like Meet the Composer, The American Music Center, and the A.A.C.M. and its many spinoffs, through sumptuous foundations, grants prizes and residencies, commissioning programs for symphonic, choral, chamber, live-electronic and band; in the new jazz, the long-overdue prominence of women composers, a phenomenal burgeoning of new forms of electronica, DJ, multimedia-opera, radiophonic sound-art, urban and Internet sound installation. In this vast field of cross pollination and morphing-genres, musical creativity is booming, producing numerous evolving forms that are being cultivated – on the American scene, in Europe, in South America and now Asia and Africa – with increasing audience and respect – always pleading for more money but, like it or not, always there.

This is the world I have been working in for 50 years and on reflection lucky to have been a part of. Neither my mentor and teacher Elliott Carter nor I could have known that I would go off and write successful string quartets and works for fog horns, 6-hour piano concerts and radio soundscapes of insects and moving air. The sheer openness and wackiness of our times demand constant migration and survivalist invention; they promise everything but guarantee absolutely nothing.

John Cage was penniless but immovable in purpose; by the end of his life he could hardly satisfy the demand for new pieces. Some of my colleagues have gone on to make laudably successful careers. I continue, as do so many musicians today, to produce original music for the sheer pleasure of composing –material and existential consequences notwithstanding – and amazingly I actually live off it. Even if all these efforts only wind up as grand compost for some future musical species, they will at least have served the practitioners of this ancient craft well in our magical and sometimes enviable activity of making sound for a living.

P.S.: As the recent YouTube concert given by a kitten-on-the-keys improvising feline pianist is in my opinion some of the best music of the year, maybe the “new confusion” is beginning to bear fruit.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is this the age of the online avatar?

Christian Science Monitor
from the March 16, 2007 edition -
Is this the age of the online avatar?
As Internet communities grow, virtual alter-egos are becoming mainstream.
By Clayton Collins | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


Eloise from Britain suggests that I slip into a new skin, something more refined, so I won't look like "such a newbie." But around the corner a bearded German clearly takes me to be a walking Rough Guide, asking where he can teleport to watch soccer.

I must have gained some credibility since my straight-out-of-Wonderland exchange on Orientation Island. That's where blob-bodied Chatmaster Phrett told me to invoke the word "hexahedron" and placate the volcano goddess.

It's just another day online in Second Life, the widely discussed virtual social world that's been called "MySpace meets 'The Matrix.' " More than 4.5 million people worldwide have registered to create avatars, electronic alter egos that range from idealized humanoids to the winged and way (way) out.

As fantastic as they are, avatars keep taking steps toward the kind of virtual reality experts have promised for decades. On March 7, Linden Labs, the California firm whose massive servers have hosted Second Life for three years, announced the beta testing of an integrated voice function that could substitute, as desired, for typed exchanges that appear on screen.

"We know where other [avatars] are in your audible range," says Joe Miller, a Linden vice president. New software mimics the human ear so that voices come from "wherever they are."

That move and others go toward creating what Mr. Miller calls a "persistent space." He predicts a near future in which far-flung family members circle a virtual campfire, in photo-realistic avatar form, on a regular basis.

So is this the dawning of the Age of the Avatar?

Some experts in online communities see technologies and behaviors converging fast – the all-ages online-social-networking boom meets advanced desktop systems that play like life for the potent-PC set. Others doubt that avatars will become Web users' regular representatives online – tools as ubiquitous as AIM – despite advances on that front by firms such as, which already offers avatar-to-avatar chat.

But most agree that avatars have gone mainstream.

"I did hundreds of talks in the '90s about avatars," says Bruce Damer, the renowned avatar guru from northern California and CEO of, an Internet-content firm that creates 3D imaging for its clients. "There were all kinds of projects then," Mr. Damer says, including Worlds Chat and AlphaWorld. "But it's just [now] reached some kind of tipping point."

A dozen years ago, avatars were best known to avid readers of Wired and cultish young players of "massively multiplayer" online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Now Second Life 30-somethings look for cyber jobs selling intellectual property for Linden dollars.

It's not just people with too much time on their first-life hands (and $10 a month for a premium membership). Businesses both real and virtual thrive in-world. Reuters recently established a Second Life news bureau. Presidential candidates have built campaign headquarters. Major League Baseball has a presence. Some 70 colleges and universities, including Harvard, now teach classes inside Second Life.

It's far from perfect. Graphics aren't always fluid, though Linden continues to hone them (it has no plans yet to add a tactile component, Miller says). A fair amount of Second Life discourse evokes the base banter of early AOL chat rooms; cybersex and gambling are very popular here.

Damer, who bought the rights to an advanced multi-user, real-time Web-chat platform called Traveler in 2001, points to the enormous time investment required of users to learn the ropes. Despite costume options that he says remind him of the performance-art festival Burning Man, Damer is put off by the emphasis on dance moves – writhing avatars pack virtual clubs – and by the relative uniformity of body type among its avatars.

"It becomes a kind of vanity fair," he says. "And I think it's pulling not just from a social-network thing but also from a primping network."

Technological issues exist too. Assuming the arrival of a superfunded player like Google, Damer says, and a standard could emerge.

"[But] I'm not sure that any 3-D platform, no matter how richly endowed and how open, has the capacity to become a broadly based open 'metaverse' that satisfies most people's needs and is around for 25 or 30 years," he says.

Another hurdle to broad participation in avatar worlds: Fantasy playgrounds actually don't work particularly well as social networks, says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley and fellow at USC's Annenberg Center who was dubbed the "high priestess of Internet friendship" last year by the Financial Times.

"[Successful] social-network sites like MySpace ... are primarily places where you actually model your social network on the people you see all day long," in simple representations closely tied to offline identities, Ms. Boyd says.

"We want our site to be real," says Jerry Kaplan, who runs, where "mainly older women" meet and network. Some exchange photos, he writes in an e-mail. "[But this isn't about fantasy lives, avatars, or other masks."

Immersive 3-D fantasy games require immobility and a major investment in screen time. "More time at the computer," Boyd says, "is not what most people are seeking out."

Still, immersion has its whole-hearted backers. Sarah Robbins, an English instructor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., sees Second Life and its avatars as both tools and object of study.

"We talk about how to 'unpack' certain types of messages," says Ms. Robbins, who teaches as Intelligirl, an extreme version of herself.

"The students read avatars as you would read a text," says Robbins. "We see it as a form of composition."

And marketers now study what some see as an interesting inside-out effect: Real-world firms that model designs and products and gauge how avatars interact with them, drawing lessons for real-world applications.

"Aloft, the hotel chain, was doing exactly that [last fall]," says Mike Cucka, an analyst with Group 1066, a marketing consultancy in New York.

Ultimately, individual avatars are about trying on masks. Second Life lets adults engage in the kind of social experimentation that used to be the province of teens, says Robbins.

"You get to continue to play with identity, take on new forms, new lifestyles, social skills, and there are no repercussions," she says. "You're not going lose your livelihood if you lose your Second Life job."

Full HTML version of this story which may include photos, graphics, and related links

Environmentally Friendly Concert Tours

March 15, 2007
Have Guitar, Will Recycle

THE typical high E string on an electric guitar is a stainless steel filament 32 inches long and one-hundredth of an inch thick. It weighs perhaps as much as a few paper clips — not a lot of raw material, but enough for the Barenaked Ladies to concern themselves with on their recent North American tour, which concluded last month.

Working with a Maine-based environmental organization called Reverb, which also helps to “green” the tours of artists like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Barenaked Ladies invited “greening coordinators” to gather up broken and used strings from the stage after gigs to be recycled by a New Hampshire company into jewelry.

And that was hardly the only green gesture on the quirky Canadian rock quintet’s tour. The band ate locally grown organic food off plates and forks made of biodegradable potato starch. Its members drank from reusable canteens instead of plastic bottles. They traveled in a four-bus caravan fueled with biodiesel. And a portion of the proceeds from shows, along with donations, were used to purchase renewable energy credits to offset electricity consumed by the tour, down to the amps and spotlights.

The band also played a slideshow on global warming as a sort of opening act before each gig, which was fine for the planet, the singer Steven Page conceded, but at times distracted the crowd from its primary mission — namely, to rock.

“Sometimes,” Mr. Page said, “it could take a few songs to remind them that they’re there to have a good time.”

Like few other enterprises short of a military invasion, the rock tour is designed to convert copious amounts of material and energy into spectacle — and produces equivalent amounts of waste. But in the “Inconvenient Truth” era, when even the oil and automobile industries are painting themselves green, it should come as little surprise that rock — never shy about making grand, self-congratulatory gestures — is working hard to catch up.

Lately, it is doing so with the help of organizations like Reverb, a nonprofit group devoted primarily to the green rock tour.

Bonnie Raitt, whose philanthropic foundation works with Reverb, said the goal is not only to make tours eco-friendly, but also to connect fans to the environmental movement. “A change is coming,” Ms. Raitt said in an e-mail message. “Green power is the way out of this mess.”

In fact, momentum for greener rock tours has been building. Artists like Ms. Raitt, Dave Matthews and Willie Nelson have been vocal about their decision to travel in buses fueled by biodiesel, made of vegetable oils and producing less carbon dioxide. Bands like Coldplay have made news with plans to offset the energy consumed by their tours and CD manufacturing with tree-planting in third world countries.

But the green rock tour as a concept is now moving on to a second act — and that is where Reverb comes in. The organization, based in Portland, Me., was founded in 2004 by Adam Gardner, a guitarist for the indie rock band Guster, and his wife, Lauren Sullivan, who worked for the Rainforest Action Network. Reverb charges acts a fee for its consulting services and is also sponsored by green companies and other fund-raisers.

A prominent for-profit organization in the field is MusicMatters, a marketing company in Minneapolis. It works with environment-minded clients, produces events and consults with artists like the Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson on a wide range of green touring practices, down to the use of nonpetroleum-based cosmetics onstage.

“We like to consider ourselves an eco-SWAT team,” said Mr. Gardner, 33, explaining Reverb’s approach. Indeed, under its stern eye, promoters are shamed into ditching Styrofoam coffee cups from catering spreads backstage, and crew members are instructed to collect partially spent nine-volt batteries from musicians’ distortion boxes and wireless microphones.

“You go through 50 a week, but they’re only half-used,” said Mr. Gardner, explaining that musicians who run a battery too far into its charge risk finding their guitars go silent. The batteries, high-mindedly, are saved for later use. Unfortunately, Mr. Gardner said, they have yet to determine how, so he and Ms. Sullivan, also 33, have large boxes of them in their apartment. “We’re trying to figure who to donate them to,” he said.

Even environmentalists have a hard time determining how much the greening efforts are feel-good public relations gestures and how much pay real ecological dividends.

Regarding carbon-offset programs, for example, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, explained, “In general, these offsets do some good, in the sense they usually help fund projects that are beneficial.”

But, he added, their benefits are hypothetical, intended to defer future emissions, while the actual tours produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases now. “Half of that carbon dioxide will still be in the atmosphere for 100 years,” he said, “and none of these offsets will change that.”

Skeptics might also suggest that a greener-than-thou rock ’n’ roll band is a highly relative concept. A true ecological troubadour would simply swear off the strobe lights and JumboTrons and stay home strumming acoustic guitar ditties for neighbors in the dark.

The same goes for rock fans, even those responsible enough to carpool in their Subaru to the show: they will have to stare down the contradictions between planetary patriotism and the desire for a rocking good time — at least until someone invents a biomass-fueled cigarette lighter to thrust aloft during encores.

Craig Marks, the editor in chief of Blender magazine, observed that many of the green acts already have a base of liberal-leaning fans “who are probably one step away from phoning into the PBS pledge drive for a free tote bag.”

”They probably feel better knowing that the $300 they’re spending is somehow supporting something besides guitar solos and marijuana intake,” Mr. Marks said.

But while rock purists may debate how the fundamental environmentalist impulses toward sacrifice, deferred gratification and guilt fit within an art form built around abandon and excess, those working the front lines to build the greener rock tour believe their moment has arrived.

Michael Martin, the president of MusicMatters, which has been working on the issue for years, said that as recently as the late ’90s the concept of carbon offsets was generally unknown, and biodiesel was “as hard to find as moonshine.” So “greening” a tour meant making even smaller gestures, like inflating bus tires to specifications to achieve maximum fuel efficiency.

But now, for example, Reverb-coordinated tours feature Eco-Villages — interactive informational tents intended to teach fans about ecological issues. And, for most tours, Ms. Sullivan said, the organization deputizes volunteers to haul home bags of trash from backstage and sort out recyclables on their own time. (“Hey, I went to a rock concert and came back with a bag of garbage — great!” she said.)

On most Reverb-advised tours, the performers funnel a percentage of ticket sales, or pay directly, to purchase renewable energy credits from a Vermont company called NativeEnergy — enough for construction of wind, solar and biomass electricity generators to offset the amount of carbon produced by each tour.

And to be sure, rock tours produce tremendous amounts of waste — from 500 to 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide from a single stadium show, not including fan transportation.

But perhaps the greatest challenge will be to spread the green message beyond those likely to turn up on the donor rolls of the Sierra Club — say, to heavy metal bands, with their columns of fire spewing onstage, or hip-hop bands, for whom moneyed hyper-consumption is a theology as much as a song topic.

Mr. Gardner, who is having a “green” guitar made for him by a Boston luthier from sustainably harvested wood, nontoxic stains and finishes and reclaimed hardware, admitted as much, recounting a conversation about alternative fuels with from the Black Eyed Peas backstage at a Randalls Island show.

“He said, ‘Huh, biodiesel, that’s cool,’ ” Mr. Gardner recalled. “ ‘Is that something I can run in my Hummer?’ ”

That was in 2005.’s publicist said he is now driving a Tesla electric sports car.

Disney Introduces its First Black Princess

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- The Walt Disney Co. has started production on an animated musical fairy tale called "The Frog Princess," which will be set in New Orleans and feature the Walt Disney Studio's first black princess.

The company unveiled the plans at its annual shareholders' meeting in New Orleans.

John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Disney and the Disney-owned unit Pixar Animation Studios, said the movie would return to the classic hand-drawn animation process, instead of using computer animation that has become the industry standard. He called the film "an American fairy tale."

"The film's New Orleans setting and strong princess character give the film lots of excitement and texture," Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook said.

The movie will be scored by Randy Newman, who also wrote the music for Disney's "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and "Cars."

Newman performed a song from the score for the shareholders.

John Musker and Ron Clements, who co-directed "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Hercules" will co-direct the movie. The pair also wrote the story for the film.

Disney said its new animated princess -- Maddy -- will be added to its collection of animated princesses used at the company's theme parks and on consumer products.

The film is set for release in 2009.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How We Watched Movies as Kids in South Africa

By Khayav, whose YouTube homepage is here:

It's clever, sad, and sweet all at the same time:

Brazilian Government Invests in Culture of Hip-Hop

March 14, 2007
Brazilian Government Invests in Culture of Hip-Hop

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In a classroom at a community center near a slum here, a street-smart teacher offers a dozen young students tips on how to improve their graffiti techniques. One floor below, in a small soundproof studio, another instructor is teaching a youthful group of would-be rappers how to operate digital recording and video equipment.

This is one of Brazil’s Culture Points, fruit of an official government program that is helping to spread hip-hop culture across a vast nation of 185 million people. With small grants of $60,000 or so to scores of community groups on the outskirts of Brazil’s cities, the Ministry of Culture hopes to channel what it sees as the latent creativity of the country’s poor into new forms of expression.

The program, conceived in 2003, is an initiative of Brazil’s minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, who will be speaking on digital culture and related topics on Wednesday at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Tex. Though today one of the country’s most revered pop stars, Mr. Gil, 64, was often ostracized at the start of his own career and so feels a certain affinity with the hip-hop culture emerging here.

“These phenomena cannot be regarded negatively, because they encompass huge contingents of the population for whom they are the only connection to the larger world,” he said in a February interview. “A government that can’t perceive this won’t have the capacity to formulate policies that are sufficiently inclusive to keep young people from being diverted to criminality or consigned to social isolation.”

As a result of the Culture Points and similar programs, Mr. Gil said, “you’ve now got young people who are becoming designers, who are making it into media and being used more and more by television and samba schools and revitalizing degraded neighborhoods.” He added, “It’s a different vision of the role of government, a new role.”

As the ministry sees it, hip-hop culture consists of four elements: M.C.’s (rappers), D.J.’s, break dancers and graffiti artists. At the Projeto Casulo, a community center here on a narrow, winding street at the foot of a favela, or squatter slum, all four art forms are being taught to dozens of young residents.

“This program has really democratized culture,” Guiné Silva, a 32-year-old rapper who is the director of the center, said during a tour of its simple concrete building. “We’ve become a multimedia laboratory. Getting that seed money and that studio equipment has enabled us to become a kind of hip-hop factory.”

Though links to music run strong and deep in Brazilian culture, the notion of using taxpayers’ money to encourage rap and graffiti art is not universally accepted. But because Mr. Gil’s musical judgment is widely respected, the level of skepticism and resistance is lower than might be expected.

“Gil still has to fight against other parts of the government in favor of things that everyone else there thinks are alienating junk, but he’s willing to do that, whether it’s on behalf of rap or funk or brega,” another style of music considered vulgar and lower class, said Hermano Vianna, a writer and anthropologist who works in digital culture programs. “He looks at that sort of thing not with prejudice, but rather as a business opportunity.”

On the other hand, some important exponents of hip-hop culture in Brazil, like the rapper Manu Brown and the writer Ferréz, remain skeptical and have chosen to keep their distance from the government program. Others are participating but complain of the bureaucracy involved.

“The idea is great because it has brought about a level of recognition we didn’t have before,” said the rapper Aliado G., president of an entity called Hip Hop Nation Brazil. “But people get frustrated when a project of theirs is approved, and they can’t get the money because they don’t know how to do all the paperwork.”

Brazilian rap, at least as it has developed in poor neighborhoods here in the country’s largest city, tends to be highly politicized and scornful of lyrics that boast about wealth or sexual conquests. In contrast, the funk movement in Brazil, also imported from the United States but centered in Rio de Janeiro, is unabashedly about celebrating sex, bling and violence.

“When U.S. rap groups come here and try to be ostentatious or do the gangster thing, they get booed off the stage,” Mr. Silva said. “We feel a kinship with Chuck D and Public Enemy” — known for their political commentary — “but we don’t have any respect for people like Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy.”

Since established commercial radio stations and publishing houses have shown minimal interest in the music and poetry that new hip-hop artists are producing, or want to impose contract terms that are too stringent, rappers have developed their own channels to distribute their work. These range from selling their discs and books themselves on the streets and at shows to having the works played on a network of low-power but linked community radio stations.

“There is an entire industry being built in the informal sector,” Mr. Vianna said. “If you were to apply all the laws in place today, no producer can release a record from a favela. So you have to create a new model, and Gil is willing to do that.”

At the Projeto Casulo, the Culture Points program has produced a pair of documentaries about housing problems, complete with a rap accompaniment, that were broadcast on commercial television. The center has also generated a radionovela, a fanzine and a community newspaper and plans next to set up an online radio station to broadcast the rap songs that its musicians and those at similar community centers here have composed and recorded.

In addition, a Culture Ministry grant enabled Hip Hop Nation Brazil to publish a book called “Hip Hop in Pencil,” a collection of rap lyrics. After a first edition of 2,000 copies quickly sold out in 2005 and was nominated for a literary prize, a conventional publishing house was interested enough to negotiate a deal to publish subsequent editions.

“We had never before seen our story told in a book, and at first the publishing houses didn’t take us seriously,” said Toni C, one of the editors and authors of the collection. “Books had always been used as a weapon against us, and people didn’t know that such a thing as hip-hop literature existed. Now they do.”

Brazilian law also offers tax breaks to companies that contribute to cultural endeavors like films, ballet and art exhibitions. Rap music has now been granted similar standing, and as a result, some of the country’s largest corporations have begun underwriting hip-hop records and shows.

At a recent event in Campinas, a city of one million an hour’s drive from here, the sponsors included a power company, a bank, a construction business and an industrial conglomerate. As a troupe of break dancers strutted their most flashy moves, D.J.’s and M.C.’s railed against social, economic and racial inequality with lyrics like “Reality is always hard/for those who have dark skin/if you don’t watch out/you’ll end up in the paddy wagon.”

“It took a while for companies to wake up to the potential this offers,” said Augusto Rodrigues, an executive of the power company and the director of the cultural center where the show was held. “But there’s a hunger for cultural programs like this, in which for the first time in 20 years, the ideology of the periphery can express itself.”

Colorado debates the "high" in John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High"

March 14, 2007
Colorado Has Song in Its Heart, and Not Drugs on Its Mind

DENVER, March 13 — The Colorado General Assembly wants to be quite clear on this point: When the singer-songwriter John Denver praised the joys of Colorado and sang about “friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high,” in 1972, he was not referring to illicit drugs. Definitely not. Don’t even think it. The high in question, lawmakers say, is really about nature and the great outdoors — the tingly feeling you get after a nice hike, perhaps.

“A high is medically the releasing of endorphins in the brain — yes, drugs cause it, but so do lots of other things,” said State Senator Bob Hagedorn, a Democrat from the suburbs of Denver who successfully led the drive on Monday to make Mr. Denver’s anthem “Rocky Mountain High” Colorado’s second state song. The tune will have joint status with “Where the Columbines Grow,” which pretty much everyone agrees is about flowers.

“We could be talking about guys who’ve been fishing all day, or kids pigging out on s’mores, with the chocolate,” Senator Hagedorn said, referring to other endorphin-producing activities. “If I thought there was anything in that song about the use of drugs or encouraging the use of drugs, I would never have run the resolution.”

What the designation of Mr. Denver’s song as “official” might actually mean — for the song or the state — remains unclear. The history of official state objects around the country is quite mixed.

Maryland lawmakers, for example, voted in 2003 to make walking the official “state exercise,” but the measure walked only as far as the governor’s desk, where it was vetoed. And many people probably sing “Yankee Doodle” without getting a sudden urge to visit Connecticut, even though it’s the official state song there. But politicians still keep trying. The governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, signed a measure into law just this week making the bolo, or string tie, the state’s official neckware.

In any case, John Denver lovers and state tourism promoters say that “Rocky Mountain High” is different. The song has Colorado prominently in the chorus and it sold millions of copies. And there seems little doubt that Mr. Denver genuinely loved Colorado, too.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., the singer originally considered calling himself John Sommerville, according to his official Web site,, before settling on Colorado’s capital city for his stage name and Aspen in the central Rockies as his home.

Mr. Denver died in October 1997 at age 53 in a plane crash, and Senator Hagedorn said the approaching 10th anniversary of the accident was part of the impetus for his resolution — to create a kind of memorial to an adopted favorite son — and also why he thinks it passed by large majorities in the House and Senate. The resolution takes effect without going to the desk of Gov. Bill Ritter.

“A lot of people probably think it’s already the state song,” said Richard Grant, a spokesman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau is already planning how to use “Rocky Mountain High” in promotional materials, Mr. Grant said, adding that he also hears no drug references in the lyrics.

“It’s certainly going to appeal to a lot of young people,” Mr. Grant said. “It’s just a cool thing to take a rock song and make it the official song.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Music as Torture/Music as Weapon

Link to "Music as Torture/Music as Weapon" 2006 paper by Suzanne G. Cusick, posted in Revista Transcultural de Música - Transcultural Music Review [click on title]

Cocaine and Rap Music

The New Yorker
Pop Music
Coke Is It
Rap’s drug obsession.
by Sasha Frere-Jones December 25, 2006

In September, the magazine W announced that cocaine is again a fashionable vice. In pop music, cocaine never went away. Even if some people cluck disapprovingly, most accept the tendency of pop stars to use drugs—to fuel creativity, calm nerves, and liquidate record-company advances. When Keith Richards fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji last April and injured his head, the incident was greeted by jokes about whether there was much left inside his skull to harm. TV shows like VH1’s “Behind the Music” thrive on stories of musicians on drug binges, snorting lines off recording-studio consoles. This fall, Eric Clapton, who has been sober for years, decided to reinstate “Cocaine,” the louche hit song from his 1977 album “Slowhand,” in his live set.

What is a life-style choice in pop is a livelihood in hip-hop. Almost every m.c. raps about selling cocaine, whether he’s a veteran like Jay-Z, who likes to invoke his stint as a teen-age dealer, or a newcomer like Rick Ross, who built his 2006 début album, “Port of Miami,” around the conceit of being the biggest coke dealer in town. Two hip-hop acts, Clipse and Young Jeezy, rap about dealing more than about anything else, and their music has prompted critics to christen a new subgenre: cocaine rap. Clipse is Gene (Malice) and Terrence (Pusha T) Thornton, a pair of brothers from Virginia, whose brilliantly terse and abrasive second album, “Hell Hath No Fury,” came out last month; Young Jeezy is a twenty-eight-year-old from Atlanta, whose woozy and uneven second album, “The Inspiration,” was released last week. These m.c.s boast of their skill as salesmen, not of their lives as partygoers.

In the early nineties, rappers tried to placate moralists by trotting out set pieces about pitiable crackheads, a gesture about as effective as hanging a “No Smoking” sign outside an office building. Clipse and Young Jeezy don’t bother with cautionary tales, though the Thornton brothers do apologize for their lawlessness on a skipping track called “Momma, I’m So Sorry.” The song is punctuated by whimsical puffs of a chord organ and a reference to the drug-busting detectives from “Miami Vice”: “Momma, I’m so sorry I’m so obnoxious. I don’t fear Tubbs and Crockett.”

Drug dealing is a cryptic presence in cocaine rap, alluded to by dozens of synonyms and euphemisms but rarely by name. Many listeners will grasp the meaning of “snow.” (Young Jeezy’s nickname is the Snowman. When his logo, three stacked spheres, began appearing on high schoolers’ T-shirts last year, anti-drug groups complained and school districts banned the shirts.) But what about “keys” (kilos of cocaine); “trap house” (a place where cocaine is cooked into crack); “fishscale” (uncut cocaine); “triple beam” (a scale used to weigh the drug); “work,” “weight,” and “birds” (terms for parcels of cocaine)? In these songs, bricks, squares, pies, stones, and yams are coke, and the cooking, mixing, and weighing required to prepare the drug for clients becomes the inspiration for often inscrutable wordplay. As the Thorntons rap on a track called “Wamp Wamp,” “Mildewish, I heat it, it turns gluish. It cools to a tight wad; the Pyrex is Jewish. I get paper, it seems I get foolish. Take it to Jacob and play, ‘Which hue’s the bluest?’ ”

Hip-hop has always been driven by an imperative to employ the most vibrant words possible; cocaine rap takes this command to an inventive extreme. Young Jeezy and Clipse want to boast about flouting the law and at the same time protect themselves from potential prosecution. (“Take it out the wrap; then I put it on the scale, but keep that on the low, ’cause I ain’t tryin’ to go to jail,” Young Jeezy raps on the track “Keep It Gangsta.”) The result is complex poetry: songs that simultaneously broadcast and hide their meaning.

Young Jeezy became popular in 2005, eventually selling 1.7 million copies of his major-label début album, “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101,” according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Go Crazy,” a song with verses about “cooking them o’s”—ounces—was the album’s first single. If you were teaching a high-school English class and looking for examples of metaphor and simile, “Go Crazy” would do nicely. The act of processing uncut cocaine inspires a riff on O-shaped objects: “Like Krispy Kremes, I was cookin’ them o’s. Like horseshoes, I was tossin’ them o’s.” In the chorus, Jeezy sings about making the “dope boys go crazy”; he could be boasting about his music’s effect on his fans, describing competitiveness among drug venders, or resurrecting the eighties meaning of “dope” as slang for “good.”

On “The Inspiration,” Jeezy raps over thick, simple music generated by synthesizers. It’s heavy on strings, and much of it suggests the score of a melodramatic shoot-’em-up in the style of Michael Mann. The songs quote music from the eighties—the title track samples Diana Ross’s “Muscles” (swapping out a consonant to become “hustles,” naturally)—and the album generally reproduces the decade’s aesthetic of grandeur on the cheap.

Establishing criminal bona fides is virtually a required move for a rapper, but the relentlessness of Young Jeezy’s boasts is wearying, and ultimately makes him sound insecure. “I’m the motherfucking realest; they liars, they phonies, they fakes; these niggas ain’t ever touched the weight,” he chants in “The Realest.” His hoarse voice is his most appealing asset. He sings with a charismatic swagger but conveys the impression of being slightly lost and worn out. He stretches words out across several beats, turning light interjections, like “yeah” and “that’s right,” into ominous announcements. The more Jeezy croaks, the more it sounds as though nothing will ever be right in his world.

The Thornton brothers concentrate more on writing arresting couplets than on finding new ways of delivering them. (Pusha T recently told, a rap Web site, “This rap [today] is very cheap. It’s all about charisma more so than lyricism.”) The brothers’ first hit single, “Grindin’ ” (2002), established them as grave and exacting artists. Technically, the music—which is provided by the Neptunes, an influential pair of pop-music producers—isn’t always music. The harsh drumbeat is punctuated by the sound of what might be a car trunk being slammed, and the only hint of melody is a pinging noise that could be somebody playing a very fast game of Pong. The Thornton brothers rap in forceful monotones, delivering careful, clever lines.

On “Hell Hath No Fury,” there is barely a gratuitous word or noise. The album is only forty-nine minutes long—many rap CDs are seventy minutes—and, like a slap of rubbing alcohol, it is invigorating and impossible to ignore. “Ride Around Shining,” one of the album’s most bracing songs, features a small drum pattern that could have been lifted from an early-eighties rap record, and what sounds like an object being dragged across the exposed strings of a grand piano—as if John Cage had wandered into the studio. “While I’m shoveling the snow, man, call me Frosty,” Pusha T raps.

“Dirty Money” is as close to a summation of cocaine rap as we have. The lyrics, apparently about a drug dealer whose girlfriend is giving him a hard time about his occupation, defends his ill-gotten gain: “Long as I’m nice with the flame and the flask, I don’t mind keeping you up on the must-haves. Peep-toe pumps, Gucci slouch bag—now tell me, is that dirty money really that bad?” It’s not much of a defense, but the lyrics are so playful and unexpected that it hardly matters. The drug dealer in the song is trying not just to reassure his girlfriend but to cook crack and count money, too: “3-D faces on them crisp new billies got Benjy looking all googly-eyed and silly.” We may never know what the Thorntons really think about cocaine’s effect on the world, but we can hear what it does to their words. ♦

Live "Reperforming" of Glenn Gould's 1955 Performance

March 12, 2007
Is It Live ... or Yamaha? Channeling Glenn Gould

Was that relief I felt as the piano was playing? A feeling that some worry had been alleviated or a fear quieted? Why then was it also mixed with disappointment, as if some deep yearning had been thwarted? Not yet, not yet, not yet: relief and frustration intertwined.

For months I had deliberately avoided listening. A technologically oriented, musically sophisticated company, Zenph Studios (, claimed that it could bring the voices of the musical dead back to life. It could achieve, that is, what technology has long dreamt of: It would make light of the material world and all its restrictions.

Zenph claimed it could take a 50-year-old mono recording and distill from its hiss-laden, squished sound all of the musical information that originally went into it. It wouldn’t “process” the recording to get rid of noise; it wouldn’t pretend to turn mono into stereo; it wouldn’t try to correct things that were sonically “wrong.” Instead the claim was that it would, using its proprietary software, learn from recorded sound precisely how an instrument — a piano, for starters — was played, with what force a key was struck, how far down the sustain pedal was pressed, when each finger moved, how each note was weighted in a complex chord and what sort of timbre was actually produced.

Then it would effectively recreate the instrument. A digital file encoded with this information would be read by Yamaha’s advanced Disklavier Pro — a computerized player piano — and transformed into music. A recorded piano becomes a played piano. This would be sonic teleportation, monochromatic forms reincarnated as three-dimensional sound — not colorization but re-creation.

Zenph also announced it had accomplished this feat of technological legerdemain with one of the most remarkable recordings of the last century: Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono rendition of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. Gould, who retreated from performance into the private realm of the recording studio where he could splice and fiddle with sound and phrase, would be posthumously pulled back into the realm of public performance.

Gould believed technology liberated performer and listener. Here this pianist, who died in 1982, would be freed from the ultimate constraint.

And indeed, last September in Toronto, Zenph gave a public “reperformance” of Gould’s “Goldbergs” on a specially prepared Yamaha Disklavier. Zenph’s “Goldbergs” inspired a standing ovation from the audience members, many of whom knew Gould and some of whom had heard him play live. The press reports glowed.

Then one day last week Zenph — which took its name from “senf,” the German word for mustard — brought a press demonstration of its “Goldbergs” to Yamaha’s New York piano studios, playing portions of the work both on the Disklavier and from its recording, due to be released at the end of May on Sony BMG Masterworks.

Before the demonstration I returned to the 1955 recording, which I had not heard for several years. I was swept away again. This is not spiritual playing, plumbing the profundity of Bach’s meditations; it is ecstatic, uncanny in its intoxication. The recording is skittish, illuminating, thrilling and extraordinarily physical: the playing seeps into muscles as well as ears; every phrase exerts the pressure and play of dance.

John Q. Walker, Zenph’s president, knows this as well. He is a brilliant software engineer (who did important work in computer networking) and a musician who speaks of his enterprise with impassioned fervor. Last week, when he started the Yamaha instrument playing his encodings of Gould, something thrilling really did take place. The piano produced sounds that were indisputably human and unmistakably Gouldian. The playing could not have come from any other pianist.

But wait. ... Gould’s recorded piano sound is dry, as if each note were squeezed free of moisture. The phrases quiver; connections between notes are tensile, as if they were being held together by sinews. But at the demonstration the sound was often plump, rotund, even bell-like. That is partly the character of Yamaha pianos. And isn’t that a problem? Any great pianist will adjust a performance to the instrument, treating one with a “wet sound” differently from one with more sharply etched qualities, phrasing differently, even adjusting tempo. This difference in instruments limits Zenph’s claims; it also seemed to slacken the music’s sinews.

Presumably though the recording — done on another Yamaha that the piano technician, Marc Wienert, voiced to resemble Gould’s old Steinway — would have a better effect. Yet it leaves a similar impression. Is this some psychoacoustic phenomenon then, some disorientation caused by close familiarity with the old mono sound? When recordings were first becoming widely available at the turn of the 20th century, there were demonstrations in concert halls in which singers would begin a song, and a hidden gramophone with its amplifying horn would complete it. One London newspaper reported: “The most sensitive ear could not detect the slightest difference between the tone of the singer and the tone of the mechanical device.”

Bizarre. But am I experiencing something in reverse, treating sonic antiquity with reverence and not recognizing musical similarities? We all learn languages of listening, ways of interpreting reproductions, imagining full-size orchestras emerging from clock radios, ignoring hisses or distortions, compensating for flaws.

Does the new instrumentation seem less convincing because it disrupts the old familiar language of listening? I don’t think so. In Zenph’s recording, the music’s tensile line really is loosened. I admire what I hear and might not even realize what was missing without comparing, but I am not intoxicated with Gould’s exuberance or infected with his ecstatic amazement. The music is the same, yet not the same.

Of course one might say, “How could it be otherwise?” Think of the kinds of processing and analysis that had to be done: filtering out Gould’s hums or groans, isolating the sound of the piano with all its intricate overtones, taking into account the way sound was compressed or altered by every microphone, processor or wire it passed through.

Then there’s another step: “reverse engineering” the sound, as if reconstructing the instrument that created it. Then another: producing the music from yet another instrument, Yamaha’s Disklavier. And another: recording the music yet again.

The process is mind-bogglingly complex. And at every moment there are also human decisions — adjustments of the piano, musical alterations. Perhaps over time both human practice and technological possibilities will evolve further, leaving fewer distinctions. A recording by Art Tatum is due next from Zenph, along with other recordings from Sony BMG Masterworks’ rich archives.

But why all this effort? (Five man-months for a “reperformance,” as Mr. Walker explained.) Partly perhaps because contemporary sound is considered preferable and marketable. Partly because, as Zenph’s Web site points out, the great recordings of the past are passing into the public domain. The European Union allows just 50 years of protection — and this is a way of maintaining proprietary control.

But is the result really musically superior? It could only be that if there were absolutely nothing lost and every difference were an improvement; neither is the case. This is a disappointment then, though one that is exhilarating in its enterprise and promise.

The disappointment is also a relief. For had Zenph succeeded, there would have been a severe price. Had that really been Gould’s sound coming from the piano, it would have dealt a severe blow indeed to an ancient prejudice: that music, in all its complexity, is beyond the reach of the merely technical, and that it belongs, in creation and interpretation, to humanity’s ever-shrinking domain. Relief: no Gouldian robotics. Yet.

Connections, a critic’s perspective on arts and ideas, appears every other Monday.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman

March 11, 2007
Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman

This article was adapted from “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World,” by Randall Stross, a contributor to The New York Times. The book, to be published on Tuesday by Crown Publishers, examines the reality and the myths surrounding the Edison legacy.

THOMAS ALVA EDISON is the patron saint of electric light, electric power and music-on-demand, the grandfather of the Wired World, great-grandfather of iPod Nation. He was the person who flipped the switch. Before Edison, darkness. After Edison, media-saturated modernity.

Well, not exactly. The heroic biography we were fed as schoolchildren does have its limitations, beginning with the omission of other inventors who played critical roles — not just Edison’s gifted assistants, but also his accomplished competitors. What’s most interesting about the standard Edison biography that we grew up with is not that it is heroic but that it is outsized, a projected image quite distinct from the man who stood 5-foot-9.

Edison is famously associated with the beginnings of movies, which is where the modern business of celebrity begins. But he deserves to be credited with another, no less important, discovery related to celebrity that he made early in his own public life, accidentally: the application of celebrity to business.

No one of the time would have predicted that it would be an inventor, of all occupations, who would become the cynosure of the age. In retrospect, fame may appear to be a justly earned reward for the inventor of practical electric light in 1879 — yet Edison’s fame came before light. It was conferred two years earlier, for the invention of the phonograph. Who would have guessed that the announcement of the phonograph’s invention was sufficient to propel him in a matter of a few days from obscurity into the firmament above?

After “Edison” became a household name, he would pretend that nothing had changed, that he was as indifferent as ever. But this stance is unconvincing. He did care, at least most of the time. When he tried to burnish his public image with exaggerated claims of progress in his laboratory, for example, he demonstrated a hunger for credit unknown in his earliest tinkering. The mature Edison, post-fame, is most appealing whenever he returned to acting spontaneously, without weighing what action would serve to enhance his public image.

One occasion when Edison cast off the expectations of others in his middle age was when he met Henry Stanley, of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame, and Stanley’s wife, who had come to visit him at his laboratory in West Orange, N.J. Edison provided a demonstration of the phonograph, which Stanley had never heard before. Stanley asked, in a low voice and slow cadence, “Mr. Edison, if it were possible for you to hear the voice of any man whose name is known in the history of the world, whose voice would you prefer to hear?”

“Napoleon’s,” replied Edison without hesitation.

“No, no,” Stanley said piously, “I should like to hear the voice of our Savior.”

“Well,” explained Edison, “You know, I like a hustler.”

Edison had retained the patent rights and business stakes in the phonograph, so when the business came into its own, he approved the construction of expanded manufacturing facilities adjacent to his laboratory to handle the orders that poured in. This was followed by still more growth, and more building: an entire block adjacent to the laboratory was filled with five-story hulks. By 1907, as the company erected its 16th building, Edison boasted of “the largest talking machine factory in the world.”

An advertisement for Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1899 was geared toward the upper class. But other Edison ads were intended to draw in the middle class. [photo Library of Congress]

Edison and his copywriters courted the urban middle class with advertising that made prospective customers feel as entitled to enjoy the pleasures of recorded music as anyone. “When the king of England wants to see a show, they bring the show to the castle and he hears it alone in his private theater.” So said an advertisement in 1906 for the Edison phonograph. It continued: “If you are a king, why don’t you exercise your kingly privilege and have a show of your own in your own house.”

Other advertisements developed the theme of the phonograph as the great leveler. In 1908, a man in formal wear and his slender wife stood on one side of a table, upon which sat a phonograph; on the other side stood four servants, wearing smiles and expressions of curiosity. The caption said the Edison phonograph had brought the same entertainment enjoyed by the rich within the range of all. The credit for making the phonograph “the great popular entertainer” was to be bestowed upon Thomas Edison. “He made it desirable by making it good; he made it popular by making it inexpensive.” Another advertisement promised that the phonograph would “amuse the most unresponsive,” adding reverently, “It is irresistible because Edison made it.”

IN truth, the Edison phonograph fell short of being irresistible; nor did it lead the industry in technical innovation. It was the Victor Talking Machine Company that made discs a practical medium. The disc’s flat dimensions offered a more convenient means of storing many songs than the three-dimensional Edison cylinder. It was Victor that came up with a disc that offered four minutes of capacity when Edison’s cylinder’s had only two minutes. And it was Victor that introduced the Victrola, which hid the horn of the phonograph within a wood cabinet, transforming it into a piece of fine furniture — and a very profitable item for its manufacturer.

Edison’s offerings may have lagged, but such was the demand for kingly entertainment enjoyed at home that the Edison Phonograph Works prospered along with Victor and Columbia, the companies that with Edison comprised the dominant three in the industry. Edison’s cylinder, which cost about 7 cents to manufacture, sold for 50 cents, providing a nice gross margin that covered all manner of strategic missteps. One of those was Edison’s conviction that there was no need to switch to discs. When he finally gave in and brought out discs, he could not bring himself to relinquish cylinders, so resources had to be spread across two incompatible formats. Nor would he permit his standards for sound quality to be compromised. He insisted that his discs be twice the thickness of those produced by the competition and much heavier, which provided for better sound but made them far more cumbersome.

Edison was adamant that Edison recordings would be played only on Edison phonographs. His competitors, Victor and Columbia, shared the same playback technique, etching a laterally cut groove that sent the needle moving horizontally as the record played. Their recordings could be played on one another’s machines. Edison, however, adopted his own design, a groove that varied vertically, called at the time a “hill and dale” cut. An adapter permitted Victor records to be played on an Edison Disc Phonograph, but Edison forbade the sale of an attachment that permitted his records to be played on competitors’ machines.

Edison had never shown a talent for strategy, and he did not give the subject close study. He spent most of his time working on problems related to industrial chemistry, principally those related to batteries, and, secondarily, those related to mass production of cylinders and discs. Yet he did take time to make decisions about music, personally approving — and, more often, disapproving — the suggestions of underlings about which performers should be recorded. His dislike of various musical genres and artists was strong and encompassed almost everything. Popular music — “these miserable dance and ragtime selections” — had no chance of receiving his blessing. Jazz was for “the nuts;” one performance reminded him of “the dying moan of dead animals.” But he was no elitist. He also dismissed the members of the Metropolitan Opera House as lacking tune. Sergei Rachmaninoff was just “a pounder.”

In 1911, Edison wrote a correspondent that he had had to take on the responsibilities of musical director for his company because the incumbent had made what Edison deemed to be awful decisions, permitting players to play out of tune and, most egregiously, tolerating a defective flute that “on high notes gives a piercing abnormal sound like machinery that wants oiling.”

To Edison, the technical problems posed in recording sound by purely mechanical means, prior to the development of the microphone, were far more absorbing than business issues. He allocated his time accordingly. He spent a year and a half overseeing research on how to record and clearly reproduce the word “sugar” perfectly. Two more months were needed to master “scissors.” He wrote, “After that the phonograph would record and reproduce anything.” This was not wholly true. Recording an orchestra with pre-electric acoustic technology presented insoluble problems. He did his best, ordering the construction of the world’s largest brass recording horn, 128 feet long, 5 feet in diameter at the end that received sound, tapering down to 5/8 of an inch at the other. Its construction required 30,000 rivets alone, each carefully smoothed on the interior surface. It was a marvel of metalwork, but as an instrument for recording sound, it never worked very well. (It did serve its country well, however, being sent off for service in World War II in a scrap drive.)

Edison’s partial loss of hearing prevented him from listening to music in the same way as those with unimpaired hearing. A little item that appeared in a Schenectady newspaper in 1913 related the story that Edison supposedly told a friend about how he usually listened to recordings by placing one ear directly against the phonograph’s cabinet. But if he detected a sound too faint to hear in this fashion, Edison said, “I bite my teeth in the wood good and hard and then I get it good and strong.” The story would be confirmed decades later in his daughter Madeleine’s recollections of growing up. One day she came into the sitting room in which someone was playing the piano and a guest, Maria Montessori, was in tears, watching Edison listen the only way that he could, teeth biting the piano. “She thought it was pathetic,” Madeleine said. “I guess it was.”

EDISON, though, was undaunted by the limitations of his hearing, which would make for an inspirational tale, were it not for the fact that he was the self-appointed musical director of a profit-seeking record business, whose artistic decisions directly affected the employees of the Edison Phonograph Works. His judgments and whims met no obstruction.

Workers spread word daily about Edison’s mood. “The Old Man is feelin’ fine today” was welcome news. But if the word was “the Old Man’s on the rampage,” employees dove for cover, “as in a cyclone cellar, until the tempest was over.”

Not just his employees but also the general public angered Edison. He was exasperated by a public that clamored, he said, “for louder and still louder records.” He believed that “anyone who really had a musical ear wanted soft music.” And it was those customers, the “lovers of good music,” whom Edison in 1911 said would be “the only constant and continuous buyers of records.” This was wishful thinking. What was plainly evident to everyone else was that the only constant in the music business was inconstancy, the fickle nature of popular fads. The half-life of a commercially successful song was brief. By the time Edison’s factory shipped the first records three weeks after recording, the flighty public had already moved on.

Even then, in the founding years of the recorded-music business, the economics of the industry was based upon hits, the few songs that enjoyed an unpredictably large success and subsidized the losses incurred by the other releases. On rare occasions, Edison grudgingly granted this. Then he would concede that the popular music he disdained was in most demand, and he took what comfort he could in the thought that the “trash” his company reluctantly released did help to sell phonographs and indirectly help him to provide “music of the class that is enjoyed by real lovers of music.”

This business was not so easily mastered, however, and the contempt with which Edison regarded popular music did not help him understand his customers. They would purchase the records of particular performers whom they had heard of but shied away from the unknown artists. Decades later, economists who studied the workings of the entertainment industry would identify the winner-take-all phenomenon that benefited a handful of performers. The famous become more famous, and the more famous, the richer. Everyone else faces starvation. This was the case at the turn of the 20th century, too.

The management of the Victor Talking Machine Company understood these basic market principles long before Edison absorbed them. Shortly after the company’s founding in 1901, Victor signed Enrico Caruso to an exclusive contract, paying him a royalty that was rumored to be 25 percent of the $2 retail price of a Caruso record. His estimated annual earnings from royalties in 1912 was $90,000, at a time when the second most popular singer earned only $25,000.

At the same time Victor was writing checks for the leading talents of the day, Edison brought out his checkbook reluctantly and rarely. One exception was when, in 1910, he signed the woman who way back on a wintry night in 1879 had visited his Menlo Park laboratory: Sarah Bernhardt.

In the Edison Phonograph Monthly, the company’s internal trade organ, much was made of the difficulties that had had to be overcome in order to land an artist such as Bernhardt. She had had to be persuaded to discard her “professional aversion to exploiting her talent in this manner.” The monetary terms supposedly were not an issue. The sticking point was her concern that crude recording technology would leave posterity with a sound inferior to her voice. According to the company’s publicists, a demonstration of the phonograph persuaded her that Edison would produce “perfect records.” The company urged dealers to write their local newspapers and reap free publicity: “No paper will refuse to publish the news, as everything that the immortal Bernhardt does is eagerly seized upon by the press.”

We do not know whether Bernhardt ruled out commercial considerations. (She did endorsements for commercial products like a dentifrice for a fee, but she did draw the line when P. T. Barnum offered her $10,000 for the rights to display a medical curiosity: her amputated leg.) We do know that Edison hated the negotiations with recording stars, which entailed monetary demands far in excess of what Edison considered reasonable. He complained that despite their talk about their love for their art, “it is money, and money only, that counts.” Even the large sums paid to the most famous failed to secure their loyalty. He grumbled that artists would bolt “for a little more money offered by companies whose strongest advertising point is a list of names.”

EDISON convinced himself — without consulting others, in typical fashion — that he could simply opt out of competition for stars. He tried a small-budget alternative, scouting undiscovered voices among local choirs in Orange, N.J., and Newark. He wrote a correspondent in 1911, “I believe if you record church choir singers and musical club, glee club, etc., singers, that we shall be able to discover a lot of talent just suitable for the phonograph.” He was pleased to have found locally two tenors who “can beat any opera tenor except Caruso.” Over time, Edison did add Anna Case, Sergei (“the Pounder”) Rachmaninoff and a few others. But he permitted competitors to snatch up other performers like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fannie Brice and Al Jolson. The first record to sell one million copies was Vernon Dalhart’s hillbilly ditty “The Prisoner’s Song.” Not surprisingly, it was a Victor recording, not an Edison.

The fame of the performers whom Victor Talking Machines astutely signed did more than bolster record sales; it also added great luster to Victor’s brand. A “Victrola” soon replaced “phonograph” as the generic term, a development that caused Edison considerable distress.

Edison dealers grumbled among themselves, too. The Topeka, Kan., agency, for example, complained in early 1915 to the one in Des Moines, “We have no artists of any note on the Edison.” It fell to Edison’s salespeople to explain their absence on the Edison label. A sales manual from this time laid out the company’s defense, which directed the public’s attention to “the great Wizard” who personally tested voice samples using techniques of his own devising and selected “those voices which are most worthy of re-creation by his new art.” Only the voice, not the reputation, mattered to the Wizard.

So determined was Edison to strip artists of their vanity and unreasonable demands that he refused to print the name of the recording artist on the record label. When his dealer in Topeka asked him to reconsider, Edison let loose a torrent of pent-up opinion:

“I am sure you will give me the credit of having put a tremendous amount of thought into the phonograph business after the many years that I have been engaged on it. Not alone to the technical side of the business have I given an immense amount of thought but also to the commercial side, and I want to say to you that I have most excellent reasons for not printing the name of the artist on the record. Your business has probably not brought you into intimate contact with musicians, but mine has. There is a great deal of ‘faking’ and press agent work in the musical profession, and I feel that for the present at least I would rather quit the business than be a party to the boasting up of undeserved reputations.”

Edison wrote this in 1913, when he was 66 years old. His confidence in his business acumen had, if anything, grown over time. And in taking this stand, he reveals a nature that could not see the inconsistency: Here his own companies used his fame as the Wizard to market his inventions, prominently displaying his name and driving off anyone who threatened to infringe the trademark. But he could not abide others — in this case, his own recording artists — using fame, even though much more modest, for their own commercial interests.