Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013: The year I discovered Bandcamp

2013 is the year I discovered the joys of being a fan on Bandcamp. 

Back in 2009 I signed up to my Spotify account and was flabbergasted. I was listening for months upon end. Music I hadn't heard in ages, all the holes in my record/CD-collection (some 1500 items), rare recordings that I never had the chance to acquire and so on. At that time I was still buying quite a lot of CDs and occationally files on iTunes (and, I admit, did some illegal downloading as well) but that gradually came to an end. I realized that often I bought a CD, put it in my shelf, and started listening to the album on Spotify instead. A bit later Wimp came along and complemented the few shortages in the Spotify catalogue (mostly obscure Norwegian contemporary music for my case), and then I completely stopped buying music. I happily pay the subscription fee to both companies. Even though I've been ranting quite a bit about the low payouts to artists, I see streaming as mostly a positive thing and I guess this is how music is gonna be in the foreseeable future. When we moved to Austria last year I decided to go all digital and leave my record collection and stereo in Norway.

Gradually I have realized that there are huge differences in my listening habits following what platform I am using. When I use Spotify/Wimp I rarely discover new music, and when I occationally do it is usually highly promoted commercial music. 90 % of the time I'm listening to albums, works or artists I already know. Sometimes I'm making an effort to go outside the box and try to find something new, but somehow the mechanisms of the services lead me back to my own musical past. I tend to get back to music I listened to when I was a teenager, which for me is a bit odd since my music taste constantly evolved during my 20s and early 30s.

For me the main problem with with the streaming services (in addition to the unfair payout models) is that you don't really engage with the artist. The people you really interact with are the streaming companies themselves and the labels. It's like a 1990s megastore: soulless and a bit dull. In addition you don't have the physical objects linking you to the artist. You might see a little picture of the cover, but there is no full screen ability, no linking to artist websites, Facebook site, no liner notes or anything. It's just the music, but the music is just a part of the experience. Sometimes the services provide artist-listener engaging events (heads up to Wimp for really trying to get these things flying!), like radio-like online concerts, special interview editions of the albums and so on. But most of the time streaming services take away an extremely important aspect of music: the one-to-one relationship with the artist you feel when you interact with their product.

Earlier this year I was introduced to Bandcamp by a friend who's selling his music on the site.
My friend's band Keldian put out what's
probably the best metal album of 2013.
Get it here:
 I  immediately got extremely enthusiastic. Finally I found a service that puts me directly in contact with new and emerging artists. Almost over night I changed my listening habits. From listening to artists in their 40s and 50s I found myself following new artists in their 20s. Finding Bandcamp was like finding an obscure but high quality record store in a back alley just next to your house. I love it. (Another analogy: Bandcamp is like a Myspace that actually works!).

After having been depressed for a few years on the state of new music, I realize that there are interesting things going on in the world. I see much more tasteful cover art than what's being promoted on the streaming services. I hear music which feels much more in line with the zeitgeist, than the dull and often over produced stuff the big labels promote. I engage with music which is clearly made by people, not services or labels.

It feels good to buy an album on Bandcamp, even if it is just a file download. You send your money directly to the artist, so I know that they will notice that I bought it. When I buy something, or put something in my wish list, I also tend to look up the web site of the artist, follow her on Facebook, look for upcoming shows in my area (too few come to Austria, sadly) and so on. I prefer to buy the physical copy if there is one, even though I currently don't have a record or CD player at home. Since you have to name your price when you pay, I usually tend to put in an euro or two extra, just because I'm so happy that there still are young and creative people out there making good music.

I really urge all who reads this to go to Bandcamp and support new music by new artists! It's a lot of good stuff in there! You can see what I've bought so far in my "collection" I also have a wish list there if anybody feels like buying me anything for christmas.

Some of my good finds

Dom la Nena, charming french inspired pop, cello and voice. An artist I'll see live if I get the chanche. 

Freschard: more french pop. Just incredibly charming. I'm waiting for the orange vinyl. 

Satanic Royalty. Haunting images of a Blade Runnerish future or past. Here I'm waiting for the 7".

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being present at a meeting via Skype? Yes it is possible

This fall I've been following a course in digital history at the University of Umeå, learning about text mining, interactive maps, Gephi, 3D models and all sorts of fancy-pancy stuff. I've written about this before here and here. I was supposed to go to Sweden this week to attend the final meeting of the course, but family business forced me to cancel the trip. But I'm still present - via Skype.

If you study this picture closely, you'll see me on the wall there to the left, next to Helena, another participant skyping in from Rome. And while you're at it, also marvel at the hi-tech stuff we're learning about.

I even held a talk, presenting my course project so far (Intellectual property and rights management for the digital historian). It was rather odd to present not being able to see the audience (my screen was all taken up by the presentation slides), but it wen't all right.

I don't know how many that fell asleep during my talk (pretty dry stuff), but this tweet gave me some sort of feedback while I was talking:

So then, it is proved. It is possible to attend meetings, and even present via the Internet. Of course it's not the same as being there in person. Even if I saw all the talks and presentations, I didn't get to participate on the social stuff where the most interesting discussions usually take place. And it is a bit odd and "un-tactile" to stare into the computer the whole day. But it is much better than missing out on the action.

Tapping into the #UMEDH course, Skype window and course Twitter feed via Tweetdeck

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lecture notes on Fan Funding

The Internet has always held lots of promises for musicians. In theory they can communicate directly with the fans, using social media sites like MySpace (a failure), Bandcamp (more successful) or Facebook. The problem though, has been turning likes into bucks. For a long time prescence on the Net was almost synonymous with putting up your music for free, getting virtually nothing back. But now things are changing.

In a lecture for my music history students today, I spent some time talking about so-called fan funding, or crowdfunding for music, and this post is a summary of some of the points from this lecture.

Crowdfunding, a paralell to the crowdsourcing that has given us for instance Wikipedia, has been around for some years, but has mainly had its impact in software development and technology. The arts are slowly coming to grips with the potentials. A great success story which often is told is about Amanda Palmer, one of my favorite artists, who in a campaign to finance her new album Theatre is Evil asked for $100 000, but got $1,2 million (!!).

Palmer also had huge success with other campaigns.

In Norway the campaign to fund the follow up to the famous computer game Dreamfall is well known.  By the way - this is both a story of a successful funding campaign and the story of a failed product. The two aren'n necessarily the same.

Success rates

This kind of success stories are frequent on the net. What is not so frequent are overviews over actual success rates for these kinds of projects. If we are to believe Kickstraters own stats, the success-rate is rather high, but I've not seen any proper overviews on this matter. Thoughts and perspectives will be highly appreciated!

To compare: In the old days of record business, various sources tell about success rates around 10% (i.e. Frith 2001). This means that 90% of all musical projects were financial failures. The music business survived only because of incredible profit from the top 10%. Today the success rate is even lower. An article I read yesterday claimed that only 1500 songs out of 8 million published generated 40% of the turnover in the American music business. That's incredibly low! Some analysts claim that the relationsip isn't any more 90:10 but rather 90:1.

Our case: Keldian

In the lecture I had invited Chris from the power metal band Keldian to talk about their experience with the fan funding of their third album (to be released in two days!). Keldian might not be a particularly innovative band, but it is firmly placed in the melodic metal tradition. The music is well played, well sung, well produced and any potential criticism for lack of novelty is countered with memorable melodies, good arrangements and lots of energy.

Keldian released their first two album in "the normal way" putting out CDs on an international label (Perris Records) targeting the heavy metal audience. With these albums, especially Journey of Souls from 2008, they built up a fan base and gained recognition in the heavy metal community.

A Keldian pumpkin made by a fan in Illinois, anticipating the release of Outbound on Halloween.

After some years of silence they wanted to put out a third album, Outbound, but by this time the marked had changed. Even among heavy metallers fewer people bought CDs, and it got harder to cover the costs for recording a high quality album. Keldian felt this strongly since they're not a touring band, and thus could not counter the lessened income from recordings with higher concert prices.

In early 2013 the band got introduced to, another crowdfunding site, and started out a campaign for their third album. They had put up a modest goal ($4200 - in order to cover drum recording and mastering) but were surprised to see that not only did they reach their goal; they surpassed it, earning a total of $6808 on the campaign (minus the 4% fee to indiegogo). These are not astronomical figures but enough to keep a modest metal band from Norway up and running.

Chris told the students about how he got the idea for this funding scheme from seeing it work in the movie business. He also talked about the importance of putting up realistic goals, and trying to keep the project simple. A key element in crowdfunding are so-called perks, little extra things that the more generous funders will get. Chris made a point out of  Keldian using few perks; the main one being a signed special edition CD at $39. Amazingly all of the 150 available sold out quickly. Palmer's list is a bit more adventurous, but keeping it simple in the beginning seems wise.

The last point, which might be the most important, is that for crowdfunding to work you need to already have a following. Keldian's facebook-page had 1000 dedicated followers, but the success in translating likes into bucks only worked because the band had a close relationship with their fans.

Keldian's story correlates well with Mark Thorley's analysis of Artistshare users - a study that I put on the course syllabus. In his article, Thorley notices that most artists on this platform are limited to a rather distinct musical segment (in this case: jazz), and that they already have several previous releases behind them and a regular group of followers that can be mobilized.

Thus the final lession must be: no fan funding without fans.

The future

It will be interesting to see the development of fan funding in the future. Will this become a well-established way to work around the shortcomings of the current net based echonomy? Or is it just a fad that will pass? Any thoughts, experiences or perspectives concerning this will be highly appreciated. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Last words to Lou Reed

One of the most significant voices in the history of popular music died today. Lou Reed proved again and again that music is not about technical brilliance, but about timing and control. Lou Reed's musicality was as present in the silences between the notes as in the notes he sang. His matter of fact, speech like presentation provoked the most enormous emotion. His simple melodies contained the most intense beauty. Rest in peace, Lou Reed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of Lera Auerbach - The Blind

A review I've written about Lera Auerbach's opera The Blind (based on Maurice Maeterlink's play) was published today at, a Norwegian website for performing arts and culture politics. In the review I conclude that Auerbach's work is closer to the music theatre than the opera, especially in this perticular staging of the work where the spectators are blindfolded throughout the performance. This makes the story of the drama explicit, but some times maybe also overshadowing the experience of the music. The review is in Norwegian, and the English translation of the title is "A Sensory Experience"

"A Sensory Experience" - My review of Lera Auerbach and John La Bouchardière's The Blind, Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, September 14th 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

A brief history of popular music #4 (1980s and 90s)

The futuristic 1980s and 90s

A decade of flashy colors, yuppies, bad hairstyle and gated snare drums. The 1980s is also the era of the catchiest of pop tunes. And of course - it is the decade of the music video. The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star is from 1979, but no song says "welcome to the futuristic 1980s" better. The singer Trevor Horn is also one of the star producers of the decade, being the hand between super hits like Frankie Goes to Hollywoods Relax (1983), Yes' Owner of a Lonley Heart (1984) and Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm (1985).

During the first years of the decade, synth pop dominated charts with their melodic danceable futuristic electronic pathos filled beat based music. One among many possible examples: Depche Mode - Shake the Disease from 1985. 

The 1980s is also the decade where the band gradually disappears from the charts, and was replaced by machines. We see it in the Depeche Mode video (3 guys with synthesizers, one finger each, one of the might not be playing anything at all). The uttermost consequence is the total disappearance of the artist. Then there is only music left. In 1982 the Haciencda opened in Manchester. It started out as a concert venue, but gradually became the cradle of rave and DJ culture. This 2 hour "concert" from 1989 doesn't contain a single performer - only DJs playing and mixing records, and people dancing non stop for hours.

Hip hop comes out big apporximately at the same time. Here is an Ice T classic from 1988.

In Detroit the dance floor rocks to techno from 1985 on.

But bands didn't die. One of the unlikely mega stars of the 1980s were the down to earth (though with a big drum kit), folky and country-inspired Dire Straits. They thrived on new media. Money for Nothing enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, and the album Brothers in Arms from 1985 was one of the first big selling CDs.

Heavy Metal got cartoonish in the 1980s. Here are the cartoon masters - Iron Maiden with Can I Play With Madness from 1988. I grew up listening to this.

In 1990 rap turned pop and white with Vanilla Ice's Ice Ice Baby

In 1991 Nirvana killed hair metal and launch grunge. They even made the cover of Metal Hammer.

In 1992 the girl group sees its rebirth with En Vogue's rockish Free Your Mind (one year before Spice Girls). This time the boobs are almost falling out.

There are off course more things to talk about from the 80s and 90s, but I'm running out of time, and we are so close anyway to the present day, that there are no need to play examples in order to discuss the deeper issues.

Update: No popular music history course is complete without a discussion of Milli Vanilli.

A brief history of popular muisc #3 (1970s)

1970s: From arena rock to disco

By the end of 1970 the hippie era is definitely over. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both dies in 1970 only 27 years old, and are followed by Jim Morrison (at the same age!) in 1971. The 1970s are characterized by really big money entering the music business, stadion concerts, flashy costumes, glam, prog, disco, punk, synthesizers and the album as the primary aesthetical unit.

The ultimate album? Pink Floyds The Dark Side of the Moon

It might be a bit stupid to post a youtube-video with an excerpt from an album to use as an example of the album as an aesthetical unit, but there you go - it's the Internet. LPs of between 35 and 45 minutes become the symphony of rock and pop in the 1970s. On an album a band or a singer can demonstrate a more or less coherent unit of songs and musical ideas, as the composers of the 18th and 19th century did in the symphony. It is no coincidence that the length of a symphony and an album is approximately the same. 45 minutes is the maximum limit of what an ordinary listener can tackle in one sitting. The album is also great for dividing the career of a band or musician into coherent and comprehensible chapters, and has thus often been the focus point in popular music histories.

Stadion rock 

Some of the 1960s acts, like Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, turn into stadion rockers. The stadium concert was a sort of follow up to the music festivals of the late 1960s, and got popular with the big event loving Americans.


20 minute songs, classical music-like arrangement, theatrics, and lyrics rich on mythology and allegory. Love it or hate it, but prog rock were a strong force in rock during the early 1970s. This is one of my favourites - Genesis' 23 minutes Suppers Ready, recorded live in 1974. Prog got severely bashed by punk a bit later in the decade.

1976 - Punk anarchy

Talk about a breath of fresh air - here's the Sex Pistols: 

1977 - Disco revolution

Hated by proggers and punk rockers alike - Disco ruled the charts and dance floors in the late 1970s. The film Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta is as iconic as Bee Gees' classic disco music.


Synthesizers started emerging already in the 1960, but the minimalistic sound of Kraftwerk and other synth groups redefined music as something that could be programmed bottom up. Strangly enough it made the dance floors rock, and the futuristic sound Kraftwerk pointed into the plastic 1980s. This is a "live performance" from 1978.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A brief history of popular music #2 (1950s and 1960s)

1940s continued: Frank Sinatra is the first pop idol

Stardom and idols are cruical to pop muisc, and Frank Sinatra was the first. Here he is, young and damn handsome in 1944.

1950s: Rock changes the face of music

Rock'n roll is the first true youth music, and even if there were music rebellions before - street fights and youthful recklessness became integrated in the rock'n roll aesthetic.

The first rock recording is supposedly Jackie Brenston's rockin and for its time sexually explicit Rocket 88 from 1951 (one year before the first recording of Rock Around the Clock!).

In 1955 there were street riots between reckless youths and police in Oslo in front of the ticket office for a Louis Armstrong concert. The same year the film Blackboard Jungle (featuring the now famous Rock Around the Clock) had its premiere in the US, and Armstrong wasn't so much to riot about any more. Next time Norwegian media reported about youth riots were at the Norwegian premiere of the film. Since then rock'n roll and its offshoots has been the music of youth.

Other highlights from the 1950s:

  • 1953: How Much is That Doggie in the Window reaches #1, and the number of members in the American kennel club increases with 8%. 
  • 1953: First Elvis single
  • 1956: Elvis performing Hound Dog on American TV, and becomes Elvis the Pelvis: 

  • 1958: First Phil Spector Wall of Sound in Teddy Bears' To Know Him is to Love Him

  • 1959: Buddy Holly dies, and rock has its first great dead icon. The rock heroes were the new bohemians and as with their turn of the century colleagoues they should die young, so they'll never suffer the disgrace of getting old. But unlike the bohemians suicide you shouldn't kill yourself. Rock stars should die of either excess from the hard life on the road (booze or drugs) or in a car or helicopter accident. 

1960s: Beatles, soul, flower power and birth of heavy metal

Beatles (1960-70)

Beatles were formed in 1960, and one could describe the whole 1960s with examples from their ten year career. Beatles encompass most styles, from beat, pop, rock and blues to psychedelia, soul and orchestrated jazz. 

First Beatles single - Love me Do (1962). Very innocent

Long haired rock'n roll - Help (1965)

Psychedelic overdose - I am the Walrus (1967)

Pokin' fun at the maoist (1968)

And just to put it in - Beatles were always competing with the Rolling Stones. This 1964 TV concert is a gem!


Nothing says 1960s more than Motown. The first single from the Detroit label to hit #1 was The Marvelettes' Please mr. Postman from 1961. With Motown it doesn't really matter who sings - it is the sound that is iconic.

Bob Dylan plugs in his Fender Stratocaster in 1965

Dylan showing his finger to the dogmas of music at the Newport festival in 1965 is on of the iconic moments in rock history. This marvelous performance is from the following year at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Even here someone in the audience is yelling "Judas!"

Led Zeppelin is formed and heavy metal is born (1968)

Robert Plant is 20 years old in this video!!

A brief history of popular music #1

In a lecture next week I will give a brief introduction to the history of popular music. I'm considering using the Guardian's "Timeline of modern music - ALL GENRES" as a starting point. In 45 minutes I have no chance what so ever to cover anything else than the very basics, so giving the students this infograph will hopefully inspire them to look further into the layers of history. The Guardian is proving again and again that they are very good on music history.

The Guardian's timeline of modern music. A testimony to that "modern music" means different things for different people. 

In a series of posts I will present the examples that I will discuss in my lecture. 

1910s: Varieté artists as recording stars

The first gramophone star of Norway - Adolf Østbye - made his first recordings in 1904.

Some of the recordings were popular songs, other were jokes or stories that Østbye performed on his variety shows. This marvelous video shows one of Østby's 7'' gramophone records being played on a period record player. 

And of course - I'm going to mention Caruso, the first million seller.

1910s: First jazz and blues recordings

The Original Dixieland Jazzband is normally attributed with the first jazz-recording in 1917.

The first known blues recording is Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues.

1920s: The jazz age

After introducing the microphone in recording, sound quality improves dramatically. Records can be used for dancing, Louis Armstrong is making his first recordings and Hot Jazz is everywhere. This is also the era where many of the jazz standards start emerging.

1930s/40s: Swingin' time 

Swing is dominating the dance floors all over, even in Germany during the dark 1930s and 40s (though in secret). This is an example of orchestrated swing jazz - Duke Ellington playing the awesome It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing in 1943. 

And yes, I almost forgot - the electric guitar emerges in the 1930s. And in 1935 Robert Johnson sells his soul to the devil.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Some videos of Nordheim for solo instruments


Nordheim's "Flashing" is well established in the modern accordion repertory, and virtuoso Ksenija Sidorova's rendering of the piece is just amazing.


Clamavi - Nordheim's marvellous work for solo cello, played by Brian Carter.


There are no versions of the Hunting or the Return of the Snark out in the videosphere, except for this  jazz quartet version of the Hunting of the Snark by the group NYNDK:

Cello, Trombone and MIDI piano

The work Vevnad combines much of Nordheim's ideas for trombone, cello and the piano, and reveals what is probably a fascination for Colon Nancarrow.


Partita for Paul (1985) in a great version, which also displays Nordheim's often used 15 seconds delay technique the last movement. Emma Steele on violin.

The last movement of Partita for Paul, "Individualisierte Höhenmessung der lagen," played by Peter Herresthal:

Tre voci

This video of the chamber cantata Tre voci also highlights some of Nordheim's writing style, especially the percussion parts.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Arne Nordheim's ballets

Arne Nordheim loved working with dance, and between 1962 and 1979 as many as eight ballets were performed to his music. I say "performed to the music of" because he didn't write all of the pieces specifically for the ballet format. The ballets are:
  • Ivo Cramér: Katharsis, 1962
  • Ivo Cramér: Favola, 1965 
  • Robert Cohan: Stages, 1971, to the music of Coloraizone og Warzawa
  • Glen Tetley: Beaches (Strender), 1974, to the music of Response and Solitaire
  • Jiři Kylián: Stool Game, 1974, to the music of Solitaire
  • Jiři Kylián: Ariadne, 1977. A concert adaptation of the ballet is known as Tempora Nocits (1979)
  • Glen Tetley: Greening, 1975, to the music of the 1973 orchestral work with the same name
  • Glen Tetley: The Tempest, 1979

Cramér's Favola from 1965 is a funny piece. It is a TV-ballet, commissioned by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (the first large scale TV commission that Nordheim got), also featuring voice and electronics. The work is made in the best 1960s experimental style, trying to blend dance, music, scenography, poetry and song into one coherent aesthetical entity fitting the TV format. The funny part is that the singers actually never get screen time, while the dancers are pretending that they are singing. The work is rather experimental, and must have proved difficult to digest for most Norwegian 1965 TV viewers. An excerpt of Favola can be seen on the current Nordheim exhibition at Henie-Onstad Kunstsetner.

Legg til bildetekst
The most famous of Nordheim's ballets is the Tempest from 1979. The ballet has been performed more than 100 times all over the world, first by the Rambert Ballet, and later by the Norwegian Opera Ballet. It has toured the US, has been staged at La Scala, and so on and so on. Only in 1979 the ballet sold out more than 20 shows in Norway, which is quite extraordinary in this small country. An adaptation of the ballet will be performed at Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in November this year:

Kylián's ballet Stool Game to the music of Solitaire is also still being performed. Here are some stunning videos from a staging of the work in 2011 in the Netherlands. The dancers are Rafal Pierzynski and Martyna Lorenc.

Personally I find Katharsis and Favola as being among Nordheim's most exciting works, and it is a pity that they have never been released on CD or DVD. From my perspective Katharsis is particularly interesting, not just because it is a great piece of music, but also because it was the first time Nordheim brought electronic music up to the concert stage. I've heard excerpts, and can testify to that this is a forgotten Nordheim gem. 

I'm a huge fan of music for ballet. To my ears, composers tend to be freer when working with music for the stage rather than the concert hall. In concert works I often get the nagging feeling that the composer desperately tries to prove something. In stage works, s/he just has to write music. It might also be that the composer benefit from working with directors and choreographers. Getting external input on your work is never a bad thing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battle of the killer B´s

The letter b has always meant something special in music history. You've heard about the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Or was it Berlioz? I prefer Brahms, so I stick with him. We can also add be-bop, booze and... bass guitar. Well, you get it. But who is best of the Bs? This has been the great debate among music historians for decades - even centuries.

I recently got introduced to a service called Topsy, named after the elephant who never forgets. Topsy harvests social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and tumbldr and indexes them. You can then search for any term, and the site gives you beautiful statistics and graphs. For trend analysts it must be marvelous. Drink of choice? Coca Cola: 25 million tweets. Coffee: 125 million tweets, barely more popular than tea at 103 million. Water: 185 million tweets. I go for water. 

So I asked Topsy who was the greatest composer, and this is what I got:
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - the killer Bs
The winner is - Bach!

I was rather surprised to see that with 4 million tweets, Bach is more popular than Beethoven. The difference is not great, just a million tweets, give or take, but still not what I expected. I thought Beethoven to be the top star, the emperor of orchestral music, while Bach is just for church goers and connoisseurs. But Twitter proved me wrong, and I accept it. The real shock is poor Brahms. Only 387 K? What happened? The 4th symphony is one of the greatest orchestral works ever written. He's the best melodist on this side of Schubert. Give the man some credit! 

Well, well. Bach won. Join in on the celebration with this stunning video - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Maybe the best classical performance to ever hit Youtube.

But, wait! There are more B's, aren't there? What if we throw in another one? We have the early 18th century B (Bach), the late 18th/early 19th century B (Beethoven) and the mid 19th century B (Brahms). But what about the 20th century? Who can we choose? Berg? Babbit? Berio? Brecht? Bernstein? Oh, ok. Let's put in the Beatles. They're as classic 20th century as you get. What happens?

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms & Beatles
Again, I accept it. I even admit it. I listen more to Beatles than the three other Bs put together. So it was to be expected, wastn't it?

Should we continue? What about the 21st century. Who is our B? Oh, no...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Post 1980 canon #9: Sound art

Sound art traces its history back to Dadaism, Kurt Scwhitters' Ursonate and the craziest of John Cage's ideas. But as a major art genre, it's a child of the 1980s and 1990s when first tape and then computer technology got so affordable that it could more easily be incorporated in an art work.

Wikipedia teaches us the following:
The earliest documented use of the term in the U.S. is from a catalogue for a show called "Sound/Art" at The Sculpture Center in New York City, created by William Hellerman in 1983.

The distinction between music and sound art has been the topic of many fruitless debates over the years. As a general rule of thumb, sound art is site specific - it is conceived for a specific place at a specific time, while music in its nature seeks to transcend time and place. A work of music seeks to exist outside place and time.

No sound examples this time, but I will use Arne Nordheim's Gilde på Gløshaugen (2000) as illustration in the lecture. The lecture will be site specific. It can only be experienced if you're there :)

Post 1980 canon #8: Noise. Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug

The conservatives just won the Norwegian elections, so what's better soundtrack for this mardi bleu than Noise? I have chosen Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug as examples.

Of all the technology driven new music forms of the 1990s, noise is one of the most difficult to frame.  Socio-historical context, musical form and technology shares many similarities with ambient, but where ambient is floating an subtle, noise is in your face, load and brutal. Noise is sort of the black metal of electronica, but played in an art gallery. Noise embodies the ideas from the now 100 year old futurist manifesto L'arte dei Rumori in its most extreme form.

Even if this is a kind of anti-aesthetic anti-hero music, the genre has its pioneers and stars. The biggest star and one of the founders of the genre is Merzbow from Japan. In noise music the "work" is more in the performance than in the composition. This is partly the reason for the enormous output from some of the noise musicians. Merzbow alone is credited on some 350 records (!). But then few stand out as more important or "better" than others. This video sums up many of the charateristics of noise: elitism, extremity, DIY, lo-fi and dedication to the art.

Noise is closely related to the art scene, and thus much of noise music has gotten a status very close to that of contemporary music. We have seen several examples of musicians crossing between the genres/spheres. In Norway Maja Ratkje, one of the noise pioneers, are now safely planted in the music establishment, and is also working as a more traditional composer. Lasse Marhaug, one of the huge names internationally, is today music director of Henie-Onstad art centre in Oslo.

The following video shows Marhaug in action, and can serve as example of a typical noise concert. Performers are often one single guy (few women here, with some notable exceptions) with a laptop or some home made electronics on a table, and an insane sound level. The music is often improvised, or following some loosely conceived plan.

In order to really experience this music you need to be present in person and feel the physicality of the sound. It's quite an experience.

Post 1980 canon #7: Acousmatic and soundscape - Smalley and Westerkamp

Following the tradition from musique concréte og Elektronishce Musik, the respectively French and German flavor of electronic music of the 1950s, purely loudspeaker based electronic music reemerged in the 1980s. A second generation of composers, many having studied with pioneers like Schaeffer or Stockhausen (but rarely both) redefined the genre. Where the original electronic music came out of the broadcasting studios, the new wave of electronic art music gained a foothold in the universities and academic institutions. And - for the first time this music gained a strong foothold in the UK. Trevor Wishart and Denis Smalley are among the great names of this second generation of what they now called acousmatic music, soundbased music for loudspeakers.

Personally I don't like the term "acousmatic" - it feels sort of exclusive (what does it mean?? Do I have to get into the whole Pythagoras/Schaeffer-thing?). I much more prefer "ear candy music." It is the ultimate high fidelity experience, especially when you hear it in a concert hall with good loudspeakers. Every time I hear this kind of music I'm puzzled that it is not more popular with the audio geeks. This should be the perfect music for an expensive multichannel HI-FI.

The music is closely related to ambient in technology and sonic character, but more worked through compositionally wise and demanding full attention. Where ambient is atmosphere, ear-candy-music is landscape. As an example of the genre I will present Denis Smalley's Wind Chimes, which he made in the GRM studio in Paris in 1987. As with many of Smalley's works it is a true classic in the genre.

As a sub genre of the acousmatic music, I must also mention soundscape, earcology or acoustic ecology. This is a form of acousmatic music which focuses on environmental sounds and sounds of nature. While acousmatic music often tend to manipulate their sound material beyond recognition, soundscape artists tend to keep their sound material untreated, or highly recognizable. The music is often linked with a strong identity of ecology, while the acousmatic is more focused on technology. While the icon of the acousmatic is the music studio, the icon of soundscape is nature - particularly water and forests. A brilliant example is Hildegard Westerkamp's Beneath the Forest Floor from 1991.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle: John Adam's Nixon in China

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle - John Adam's opera Nixon in China (1987)

In the post WWII years most composers stopped writing operas, and the additions to the repertoire were few. For some reason this suddenly changed in the late 1980s. According to Paul Griffiths, the Metropolitan didn't premier a single new opera between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, but then suddenly they started commisioning new works on a regular basis. A similar history can be found in Houston Grand Opera, where Nixon in China was premiered. According to Wikipedia, the house opened in 1954 but didn't start premiering works before 1974. Until 1987 only 5 operas were premiered. But then suddenly the house start premiering one or two new operas every year! Texas were obviously a hot seat for opera in the 80s and 90s, staging the world premiere of Nixon in China in 1987, Phillips Glass' Planet 8 the following year, Meredith Monk's amazing Atlas in 1991 and several highlights from what can be called the new wave of grad opera. The productions were big and spectacular, but huge successes justified the costs. Themes were often based in contemporary politics or concerns, and here Nixon in China is a case in point, being based on Nixon's controversial 1972 visit to China. Nixon in China is also a brilliant example of the sustained influence of American minimalism.

The opening of the new Oslo opera house in 2008, with all its spectacular and gradiouse productions can be interpreted as a continuity of this trend. 

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata.

Ambient doesn't start with Biosphere, of course. The really canonic work in this genre is Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports from 1978, but as a genre ambient was detracted by synth pop and EDM throughout the 1980s. In the 1990s ambient reemerged, and mysteriously Norway was one of the major actors. This is why I have chosen "Silence" from Biosphere's Substrata as example work. The album was released in 1997, and this coincides pretty well with my own discovery of ambient.

Ambient is interesting because it grew out of electronic pop music, but sees itself sort of as a prolongation of the tradition from the electroacoustic music of the 1950s and 1960s. It also draws heavily on John Cages writings on silence and environmental sounds and Steve Reich's process pieces like Drumming or Music for 18 Musicians. Biosphere's "Silence" can be interpreted as a direct allusion to Cage's influential book.

Ambient is also a very technology driven music. It emerged out of young kids playing around with early samplers and digital recording equipment, establishing what was in fact a completely new aesthetic. Long surfaces, ear candy sounds, slow movements. Atmosphere music. Very nice to listen to in a dark room alone.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Post 1980 canon #4: Postmodern zapping: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails

Post 1980 canon #4: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails (1988)

No one were more eclectic and embodying postmodernism than John Zorn, and no "classical" work were more postmodern than Zorn's string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails, written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988. Hearing the piece is like zapping on the TV, jumping from one thing to the other with no apparent connection between the parts. The piece is full of katzenjammer, jokes, film music snippets, cliches, contemporary music cliches, eerie beauty and poking fun. But the cat in the title is no fun at all - it's a nine tailed whip. So '90s! But mainly this piece is all about having fun with music.

Post 1980 canon #3: Kitsch and new age: The Piano

Post 1980 canon, part 3: Michael Nyman's music from The Piano

Kitsch is expressivity's worst enemy. In the music from the movie The Piano Michael Nyman crosses the border over to the dark side, but the piece is still canonic. This is one of the few "contemporary" piano pieces that has worked its way into the amateur repertoire.  You'll find youtube videos of this piece with several hundred thousand views. I heard tons of young girls stumbling their way through this music in the 1990s. But is this an example of minimalism gone bad, musical new age, new romanticism, or just pretty music?

Michael Nyman de la pelicula EL PIANO from Cortos Chèveres 2 on Vimeo.

Post 1980 canon #2: Irony, simplicity, eclecticism: Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart

Example number two of the post 1980 canon: Louis Andiressen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart (1991).

This piece is a part of Peter Greenaway's really really odd movie Not Mozart, commissioned to the 200 year anniversary for Mozart's death in 1991 (is that really something to celebrate?). The movie yells "so 90's!!" but music, choreography and scenography has qualities that transcend the somehow disturbing video effects.

Not Mozart by Peter Greenaway. See it!

This piece is a great example of the postmodern 1990s eclectic treatment of historical subjects, 1990s irony, simplicity and minimalism. The piece has a mixed identity: it is classical music (scored for brass, double bass and piano), and it is not classical music (because of the jazz singer and the lack of string section). It is funny and witty, but still serious. It is both grotesque and beautiful. And it is a very cool piece of music. The dancing (and the dancers) are great too.


Post 1980 canon #1: The composer-performer. Meredtih Monk and Laurie Anderson

Welcome to the first post of my attempt to establish a post 1980 contemporary music canon.

Meredith Monk (1942-)

One of the things that have been characterizing the last three decades of contemporary music is the composers-performers. There have off course been composer-performers before (from Chopin to John Cage), but traditionally the compositions these people have made were published with a general audience in mind. The music of for instance Meredith Monk is so linked to her own personal style that it is impossible to separate composition from performance. I am not saying that Monk invented this, but I think she can serve as a good example of this trend.

Monk also serves as example of the crossover artist, who exists very close to the popular-music-art-music divide. She has been releasing her music on ECM, but still keeps herself on the art-music-side.

As example work I have chosen Dolmen Music - one of the awesomest pieces of music to be conceived in the 20th century. I'm aware that the piece was composed in 1979, so technically it shouldn't get into my post-1980-canon. But since it wasn't released, and thus didn't make it's impact, before 1981, I will make an exception. Because this is just to great to let go.

Laurie Anderson (1946 -)

Laurie Anderson is placed just on the other side of the "popular-music-art-music-divide." In my head I imagine Laurie and Meredith waving at each other from a quite close distance. They're both women, both American, both inspired by minimalism and technology, and both performers redefining what you can do with the voice.

As example work, I have chosen O Superman (for Massenet) from her United States performance, who as a single actually reached #2 on the UK charts in 1982.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A contemporary music canon post 1980

Love it or hate it - most general music histories are centered on canonic works. As a music history teacher I need these canonic works for my survey courses. Of course I know that this imaginary museum of example works has made lots of damage on the musical repertoire. It has reduced history of music to a string of master works, overshadowing the complexities and wealth of music history. But we still need canons. They provide a common ground. They make it possible to discuss culture and provide the starting point for making comprehensive reflections on the past

For my music students at NTNU I want to discuss how we can construct a canon for the post 1980 era. Most general histories of music end their storytelling some 50, 70 or even 100 years ago. This year sees the centenary of Stravinskij's Rite of Spring, one of the last works to get into the permanent collection of the musical museum. But what about our recent past? What to include? What to exemplify? What has happened in music the last 33 years? 


First we need to put up some criteria.  When discussing canonization, I think (and I know I might be wrong) we have to consider the following: 

  1. The work has to be a part of the art music sphere - loosely encompassing labels like "contemporary" "experimental" or "avant-garde"
  2. The work has to be ground breaking in some sense (whatever that means)
  3. The work needs to have had a certain amount of cultural presence; been played a lot, sold a lot of records or have made some other kind of cultural impact
  4. The work must illustrate something larger than itself. It needs to fulfill a role as example of something
  5. It needs to bee good. There is no point in having a canonic work if it's not worth listening to
That's the five main criteria. In addition: 

  • it shouldn't be jazz
  • it shouldn't be heavy metal 
  • it shouldn't be rock or pop music (no Radiohead, sorry)
  • but certain forms of crossover is ok
In a series of blog posts following this one, I will in ho particular order present the following
  • Meredith Monk or Laurie Anderson, as examples of crossover artists, and composer-performers 
  • Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music & Mozart as example of 1990s postmodern irony, eclecticism and new simplicity
  • Michael Newman's The Sacrifice as example of 1990s kitsch, new age and minimalism 
  • Biosphere's Substrata as example of ambient  
  • Kim Hiortøy's Hei as example of 1990s naivism
  • Lasse Marhaug or Merzbow as example of noise 
  • Maja Ratkje's Voice as example of electronic improvisation
  • Natasha Barret, Dennis Smalley or Trevor Wishart as examples of acousmatic music
  • John Adam's Nixon in China as example of 1980s opera and "new spectacle" big productions
  • Hildegard Westerkampf as example of soundscape
  • Arne Nordheim's Dråpen as example of sound installations and sound art

The list is by no means comprehensive. The Norwegian focus is of course prominent. And more importantly - it is heavily biased by my personal taste. That's how it is, and it will be my starting point for discussing canonization. I'd be very happy if you disagree. I'd also be very happy for suggestions, corrections, additions or general comments. I'll be watching the following hashtag on Twitter: #post1980canon 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Some thoughts on Digital Humanities

Do we see a similar type of shift in the humanities as what happened in engineering and science in the 1960s?

We've been living in the digital world for a while. Computers have been around for more than 60 years, and they've been rather present in our everyday surroundings for the last 30. Even the Internet as we know it dates back 20 years. Still we talk about new digital tools and new media. We aslo still find people that are intimidated by digital technology. Personally I find this odd. Computers are neither something new, nor much to be afraid of.

As I´ve been talking about before, the introduction of computers in science and engineering was one of the major shifts of the 20th century. It wasn´t just a quantitative shift (more calculations and faster number processing), it was a quatitaive leap. It made possible new types of questions and new ways of thinking. It paved the way for entirely new fields and new ways of doing engineering and science. It defined a new era. The finite element method revoultionized construction. Logging and analyzing huge chunks of data revolutionized science. And so on and so on, ad. lib. All the bigger Norwegian research institutions had access to computer centres by 1965. (By the way: the "Oracle service" - the NTNU computer service just turned 50 years).

We humanists have been a bit more reserved. We waited until the computer got personal in the early 1980s, embraced the word processor, but basically kept it at that. Digital tools were never the same game changer as it was for science and engineering. Until recently.

The #UMEDH crowd, by @finnarne

I might be digital historian.

I´d never heard the label digital historian before I decided to take this course on digital humanities at the University of Umeå HUMlab. Yet it makes sense. I might even be a digital historian. I use digital tools (online archives, libraries, etc.). I do music analyses using tools like Acousmographe and iZotope RX. I use digital presentation techniques. I organize my workflow with useful tools like Mendeley, Evernote and Dropbox. I maintain an online prescence. I've been in and out (or maybe "more out than in"?) of the blogosphere since 2006. I sort of breathe the digital lifestyle. But it´s not just about that.

There are certain toys, tools and approaches around now that, as far as I understand, are representing something qualitatively new in the humanities. Things like big data analysis, textometry (so new a concept that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry!), and various forms of graphical representation. What am I talking about? Let's get into the "course note section" of this blog posts.

Big data analysis, textometry and visualizations

Big data analysis and text mining must be pretty awesome for contemporary history. There are numbers of methods to get data out of services like Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. An example of how it can be used: The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation made a touching web-exhibit of tweets made during the terror of 22nd of July 2010 in Norway. This type of research makes it possible to ask entirely new forms of questions on how people react minute by minute to certain events. It preserves the confusion, fear and immediacy of the events as they unfold like no other historical source can.

Simon Lindgren demonstrated a way to do textometric analysis on texts, using methods adapted from biliometry and linguistics (a rather odd tutorial video makes the point: Lindgren was also talking about distant reading as opposed to the close reading we often do in the humanities. He also tales about textometrics a method oscillating between a qualitative and a quantitative approach.

We've also been looking a lot at visualization of data and research. This post from Stanford gives an introduction to some of the wondrous things you can do with maps and representation of spatial history. This map of travel conditions in ancient Rome is also just totally awesome. How fast to get from Rome to Constantinople on a heavy loaded mule? 22,7 days, if you're lucky and you get the boat from Heracleum to Ichtys. But this isn't just about presentation, it also influences the questions you can ask.


The big question

The big question then is of course: How do these tools shape the kind of history that we write? Do they make us do new types of research, better types of research, or just more expensive types of reserach? Do they make good history? The short answer is, of course: Not automatically.

I think one of the great things with the digital tools is that you can utilize data that previously haven been used (from tweets to positions in ship logs). But I guess it also is like with everything new - it could also serve as something flashy trying to mask bad research questions. But in general I'm positive.

The best, as it looks like for me, is that Digital Humanities seems to foster interdisciplinary work and team work. It's difficult to start an big digital history endeavor on your own, it's just too time consuming. There are way to little collaborative projects in the humanities. This might be something we really could benefit from.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Conference report: EMS13, Lisbon

Ah. Lisbon. What a beautiful city! And a tile makers heaven, right Mike?

Honestly, it felt a bit odd to go this historic and pittoresqe place to discuss recent research in electroacoustic music studies inside the ultrabrutalist concrete and glass walls of the Culturgest. But I guess that's the charm of studying something so closely linked with modernist aesthetics.

Culturgest, Lisbon. These architects were not kidding! Photo nicked from

The EMS conference this year was more about networking and getting updated on what's happening in the field than coming to great new theoretical insights. But I learned a lot - especially that there are many people out there thinking many of the same thoughts as me, and that's both reassuring and disturbing. Damn, I thought I was more original! Luckily there were other saying the same.

As mentioned in the symposium report from Leicester a couple of year back, there are lots of things going on with regards to tools and methods for analysis of electroacoustic music. OREMA is getting stronger slowly, and I renewed my promise of contribution to Gatt. So, there I said it officially. Now I just have to do it! Michael Clarke's TAAILS also looks interesting. Will give a report when the beta is out. 

The great thing about being an ice cream: I feel welcome. 

I like the EMS network a lot. It seems very nicely balanced. Not too many artist presentations (some are nice, but a lot of them gets boring) not too much NIME (same). Maybe a finch too little philosophy/theory to lift the discussions. But socially speaking it was awesome. It is so great to be able to go completely nerdy about things that people in my everyday surroundings never have heard about. I probably should apologize to some people for sharing a bit too much of my knowledge about Nordheim, but I guess that's just an (un?)healthy side effect of doing a PhD. 


A thought that I got from the conference was that we might need a new perspective on how the periphery is understood in electroacoustic music. Maybe it could be interesting to use the insights form STEP - a network studying the practice of science and technology in the European periphery - on some of our cases.

I quote from the STEP website:

In particular, the centre-periphery divide plays an important role in the choice of the geographical settings which are selected as objects of study within our discipline. The historiographical canon of science, technology and medicine is still shaped by a central focus on French, British, German, and increasingly US national narratives (“the big four”). The shift to local studies experienced in the last decades in our discipline has not weakened this selective prioritizing of contexts. As a result, the canon is still biased toward French, British, German, and increasingly American actors.
 STEP seeks to revise this bias by expanding the spectrum of geographical and cultural contexts of research and proposing new questions, themes and tools of analysis. 
Particularly I find the following paragraphs important
This project is not about adding for the sake of adding. Neither does it seek to repair a historical ‘injustice’.
We truly believe that this aggrandisement will improve our historical understanding of the role of science, technology, and medicine in the emergence of modern techno-scientific societies.

Historical accounts of electroacoustic music tend to focus on the centers of development, in our case Paris, Cologne/Darmstadt, Princeton etc. This focus some times overshadow the fact that  the aesthetic ideas travelled both to and  the most unlikely places. Pedro Rebelo's perspectives on Portugeese electroacoustic music, Tatiana Catanzaro's talk on the Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes (who in the best French neologism tradition composed music he named technomorphologic), Elena Hidalgo's talk about the spanish composer Eduardo Polonio, or my work on Nordheim all underline this argument.

My point is that aesthetic is always local in some sense or other. Even if electroacoustic music has been more international in its aesthetic than many other forms of music, being Parisian is also being local (but then, being local in one of the most vibrant artistic places in the world). It is then interesting to see how ideas travel, not only from the centre to the periphery, but also from the periphery to the centre. Often one finds surprising things. This is, extremely simplified of course, the core of the STEP-idea.

Maybe we should dedicate some time to try to see all these seemingly unconnected cases from Spain, Portugal, Brasil, Argentina - and Norway - in the perspective of each other? There are similarities here that at least I find intriguing.

A quick thought about electroacoustic music and audiophilia

During the conference concers I was thinking - why isn't this music more popular with the audiophiles?  "Everyone," at least in oil rich Norway, has 5:1 system these days. Why aren't these systems more used for this music, which from its core is elaborately spatially designed and mixed with the highest ear candy quality in mind? For me, it would be a dream to listen to Isabel Pires' Pulsars or Joao Pedro Oliveria's Mahakala Sadhana at home. But alas, I only have my headset and a pair of small Genelecs, so it will have to wait. 

Other highligts

  1. "John Cage was wrong," with Coulter & Bergsland
  2. "We are all epileptic," with Coulter
  3. The real meaning of a "dome," with Coulter, Chittum & Vermulen
  4. FPV to play at next years conference, with Coulter, Chittum & Vermulen
  5. The REAL Fado experience, with Bergsland and Rudi