Reading - September 2020

How To Build A Universe by Prof. Brian Cox & Robin Ince (2017)
Released off the back of the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, this has what I guess is a similar discussion-style format that probably works better on the printed page than it did on my Kobo. On the e-book, I found the typesetting made it hard to read and eventually ran out of steam before the end. There's loads of interesting information but, honestly, a straightforward pop-science book would be easier for me to digest than this, which is irritatingly bitty and full of distracting comedic asides.
Small Change by Dan Ariely & Jeff Kreisler (2018)
Similarly to Ariely's earlier book Predictably Irrational, except at the smaller scale of how we, as individuals think about money. It made interesting reading to learn about all the ways in which we can be fooled, and fool ourselves, in our dealings with money, whether it's by not saving enough for the future, or over-valuing things we own. I'm feeling slightly smug that I believe I don't fall into most of the identified pitfalls ... which probably means I am, of course.
Guitar Magazine (Oct 2020 / Issue 385)
I've been wondering whether to continue subscribing and this month's issue hasn't really helped. There's nothing grabbing me; there's the usual two or three boutique guitars that I have no interest in owning, interviews with artists I've only vaguely heard of, if that (Soccer Mommy anyone?), and a few pedals that basically are updates of old pedals. Not very inspiring.
Playing The Part by Kimberley van Meter (2014)
This is from the Harlequin (Silhouette/M&B) "Super Romance" series, which are slightly longer and have more "emotional punch" (i.e. some plot that doesn't just involve the two main characters falling in love). Here, the additional story lines feels a little bit tacked on, but that said I found them moving nonetheless. The usual level of implausibility abounds and the happy ending feels a bit abrupt, but enjoyable enough to keep me reading.
Me by Elton John (2019)
Unlike the Andrew Ridgeley book I read last month, this sounds completely written in the subject's voice, despite very probably also being mostly written by someone else (I suspect in this case it was Alexis Petrides, who is credited in the book's dedication). This immediately makes it a more engaging read, but Elton John's life is so extraordinary that I think my attention would have been grabbed anyway. He's very frank about his downs as well as ups: the drug use, his sexuality, his hair loss, and more. We'll blame the drugs for that fact that his most prolific period, during the mid-70s, is dispatched in a few pages. It's a shame, as I would love to have learned more about the recording of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but there's little about making music overall. Maybe it's because Elton prefers to make music quickly, or perhaps because he doesn't remember. The book also jumps around the years a lot, which sometimes makes it hard to follow. But follow it I did, because it's very readable and an amazing story.
Bluff Your Way In Music by Peter Gammond (1985)
I bought a bunch of Bluffer's Guides in the late 80s and early 90s, as they were cheap, often very funny and surprisingly educational. This is the handiest primer on the subject of music (note that we're talking about "proper" music here, not pop or rock) that I have, and I thought it was worth refreshing my memory on a few things now I have started my VAW project.
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (2006)
I struggled with this and eventually ran out of time on my (electronic) loan, which makes it the second book this month I haven't finished, so maybe I shouldn't include it. The reason I didn't finish it was because I was constantly finding things I felt more like reading - which I guess says a lot about how interesting I found this, despite the very promising subject. But the first half of the book, which is mainly describing music (pitch, tone etc) was just boring. Maybe I will try it again another day.

Watching - September 2020

True Lies (1994)
C & I watched this to death back in the days of VHS, and despite not having seen it for easily a decade (possibly two), we remember it all. Some great scenes, funny moments and plenty of action. It's a bit dated in places; you probably wouldn't have Jamie Lee Curtis doing a (fairly gratuitous) strip-n-dance scene these days, and Art Malik's generic cigarette smoking middle-Eastern baddie would maybe be a bit more nuanced. But overall it's great fun. Introduced the boys to it too.
Total Recall (1990)
I hadn't intended to have an Arnie-fest, but this came up on Now TV and grabbed my fancy, since I hadn't seen it for ages. It's a lot more violent than I remembered, albeit just as cheesey, but once you take out all the shooting and action scenes, it's fairly insubstantial, really. It's been a long time since I read the original short story (Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) but I'm fairly certain it was more interesting than this. I'm kind-of, half-tempted to watch the 2012 remake to see if it's any better.
Total Recall (2012)
... and so I did. Better? Well, it doesn't look as hopelessly dated, but I daresay it will in twenty years. There's too many plot holes, Kate Beckinsale is fairly unbelievable as a badass villain who keeps improbably turning up again and again (but she's still gorgeous), but actually I enjoyed it slightly more - maybe because I hadn't seen it before. There's a hint of Philip K. Dick's trademark "what is real?" at the end, as a Rekall advert plays in the background (apparently in the director's cut, this is expanded to cast further doubt over whether it's all fantasy or not), which I like. Anyway, watchable action.


Joseph Haydn - Die Jahreszeiten

Chorus & Academy of St Martin-In-The-Fields

Conducted by Neville Mariner

Philips - 6769 068, 1981

This is my first Vinyl Album of the Week™ and I probably could have picked something easier to start with. What I know about classical music is whatever is in Bluff Your Way In Music, minus the bits I've forgotten. What I know about classical music that features singing is even less, because having been immersed in pop and rock for so long, I find operatic-style voices overly mannered and fake.

So this three disc set of Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) - a secular oratorio (it says here) - was always going to be a bit of a slog for me. But actually, it hasn't been at all. For some reason - maybe the novelty of the music, or that of having a shiny new turntable to play with - I've really enjoyed putting this on most mornings. Something about the grand, sweeping orchestration and the rich, resonant voices seems to suit my breakfast and morning cup of tea very well. I don't know, maybe it subliminally reminds me of mornings with my Dad, who would usually have Radio 3 on over breakfast.

Figuring out what part is actually playing at any given moment is a little tricky, as there is no track listing apart from on the record labels themselves, which, inconveniently, are spinning round and round at the exact moment I want to know what I am listening to. There is a very nice, twenty page booklet the same size as the box (i.e. 12") which has all the words and (if you look carefully) a note about what side each "song" (?) is on. So actually, my reference has been Discogs.

So, I can tell you that I like the Overture at the very beginning: very grand and stirring; and the combined might of the orchestra and chorus at the end of Freudenlied ("Joy Song", part of "Summer", end of side 2) has a magnificent power to it. However, it's a lot of music to listen to and I'm still taking it in, so I couldn't name any more moments yet. No melodies stand out; perhaps this is a lack of familiarity with the genre as much as anything else (Haydn doesn't seem to go for verse/chorus structures much ...) and while much of the music is very well done, it seems perhaps a touch "generic classical". That said, it was first performed in 1801 so maybe it started here, I dunno.

Obviously I can't comment on the performance itself, except to say that it seems very good. Given that it's available on Spotify, it probably says something about it. The vinyl I have is spotless; I wonder how much it was even played?


Vinyl Album of the Week Project

New project! I have decided to listen to one album a week from my collection of vinyl.

This is quite a large project, as I have a lot of records (I realise this is relative; it's "only" 4-500, which some people would no doubt consider pretty restrained). They're mostly classical and mostly inherited from my grandparents, from both sides of my family. It's all been sitting in boxes and then cupboards since I got them, which is now several years ago.

I have this collection because no-one else seemed to want all these records, and it seemed a shame to just ditch it all. My grandparents were keen listeners to music. My dad's parents went to the Proms every year and in later years were stewards at the Barbican, enabling them to hear music and be paid for it! They also had a decent collection of records and had been members of a music appreciation society, where they would go around to each other's houses and listen to albums. In this era of music on demand, that seems archaic, but it's easy to forget that one album cost the same as a month's Spotify subscription. I know less about what my mother's parents enjoyed but since they had a larger collection, it seems only reasonable to assume it was also something they counted as a hobby. So all these records were presumably valuable to them and were listened to.

Anyway, as a result, I have what might charitably be called an eclectic collection, ranging from the fifties to the mid-eighties, covering all sorts of classical music, but also a little easy listening, American-songbook type albums and the occasional pop record (I did notice an original 1967 copy of Sgt. Pepper in there - excellent condition but not worth much because, of course, it sold millions!). 

They all now sit comfortably in a custom-built cupboard (not built for me, it was in the study when we bought the house), nestling alongside the vinyl I bought as a teenager, before I moved to CDs in about 1988.

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but it was made slightly more difficult by the lack of a record player. Actually I did have one for a while, another inheritance from a grandparent, but it didn't work very well. It was a Technics, so potentially a decent turntable, but I think this one was actually just part of a whole system so probably at the cheaper end of the market - in about 1985. Anyway, each time I tried to use it, the sound cut out, so eventually I gave up and got rid of it.

However, a couple of weeks ago, prompted by a reorganisation of the study and the consolidation of all the vinyl into one cupboard, I decided to finally buy a proper turntable - the first I have ever bought, in fact. I didn't want anything fancy but did want something of a similar sort of quality as the rest of my hi-fi system. (Actually, most of my system is "starter" grade by the standards of serious aficionados ... but oh well. It sounds pretty decent to me.) I eventually plumped for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC, which gets good reviews and comes with an upgraded Ortofon 2M Red cartridge (bought from Richer Sounds, superb service from them, by the way).

I've had it for a couple of weeks now, and I've been enjoying spinning the occasional disc. It's such a different experience from how I normally play music now, and it's fun to be reminded that this is how I listened to music for much of my formative years. But it's such a faff! I'm definitely not one who finds the ceremony of carefully extracting the record from its sleeve, placing it on the platter, cleaning it, locating the needle precisely, and finally lowering it, enhances the experience in any way. It's just tedious.

Nor do I think the music sounds better for the all-analogue signal path. I've A/B'd couple of albums now and while I can hear differences, I think it's much more to do with the mastering that the playback technology.

For example, ABBA's Arrival definitely sounds more "open" on vinyl than CD (actually, ripped to FLAC, fwiw), but the audio on CD sounds to me like it's been compressed to make it louder - which was a very 90s thing. On the other hand, I compared a recording of Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten on vinyl and via Spotify, and the streamed audio was slightly more detailed, although not by much. Indeed, one of the surprises to me was generally how good the vinyl sounds. I don't quite know why I was surprised by this, but I was.

But I am still going to do this, despite it being a faff, and despite there being no real difference in sound quality, and even despite finding that quite a few of the recordings are available on Spotify. It's not really the point. These albums belonged to my grandparents. They are literally irreplaceable. It's a way of connecting to them, and discovering a whole genre of music that I'm not very familiar with at the same time.

I don't have any structured way of selecting albums, since I don't actually know what I've got yet! I'm slowly adding to my collection on Discogs, and I will select each week from those I've already added to it. I'm giving each recording a week, because I know from experience that I have to live with unfamiliar music for a while so that it can sink in - and this applies double or triple to a genre like classical, which I don't really know at all.

The albums

  1. Joseph Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)
    • Chorus & Academy of St Martin-In-The-Fields, conducted by Neville Mariner (Philips, 1981)
  2. Franz Schubert: Rosamunde
    • Netherlands Radio Chorus, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, conducted by Bernard Haitink (Philips, 1965)
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Trio In E Flat Major (K.498); Quintet In A Major (K.581)
    • Gervase de Peyer with members of the Melos Ensemble (His Master's Voice, 1964)
  4. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 64); Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 26)
    • Ruggiero Ricci With The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierino Gamba (Decca, 1958)
  5. Russian Rarities: Glière, Stravinsky, Cui, Gretchaninov
    • The London Symphony Orchestra and Osian Ellis (harp), Joan Sutherland (soprano), conducted by Richard Bonynge (Decca, year unknown)
  6. Cherubini: Requiem
    • New Philharmonia Orchestra with The Ambrosian Singers (directed by John McCarthy), conducted by Riccardo Muti (His Masters Voice, 1975)
  7. Stravinsky: Petrouchka / The Firebird
    • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (His Master's Voice, 1970)
  8. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor (Op. 37)
    •  Scottish National Orchestra and John Lill (piano), conducted by Alexander Gibson (Classics For Pleasure, 1977)
  9. Haydn: Symphonies No. 99 & 100 (Military)
    • London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1974)
  10. Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden)
    • Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1969)
  11. Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
    • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon, 1981)
  12. The Best of Nat King Cole (Capitol Records, c1968)
  13. Beethoven: Piano Music Volume 1
    • Alfred Brendel (piano) (Turnabout)