People who know me know that I complain a lot about the computer programs that we use these days to find, buy, catalog, and play recorded music. It used to be simple: you’d read about a recording that you might like and then dutifully trudge to the local record store to try and buy it. But, unless the local record store was in NYC, SF, Boston, or some other major city, chances are you would not find it there. This was especially true for recordings from lesser known artists, recordings in less popular genres, or some combination of both. You would then trudge home, wondering what you were missing out on.
These days it’s different. Almost everything that was ever recorded and managed to survive in the culture is now encoded somewhere on the Internet and available to listen to for either a small nominal fee, or also usually for free if you don’t mind ads. It’s crazy. Describe this world to any music dork in the 80s and they would think you were talking about heaven on Earth.
But, it’s not all great. Records are now just so much digital data, “software” if you will (although I hate that term for it, because it’s just data). As such you have to use other software to access it, and as we all know the software that you have to use sometimes seems designed to actually prevent you from finding the thing that you know is there. This aspect of the new world has always been puzzling but with enough experience it becomes clear why it has to be that way.
So, story time.
I Could Not Find CHRVCHES
One of the things that is allegedly dead in the stark new musical landscape of faceless server in the sky streaming (almost) all the music ever recorded by man directly to the Internet connected device in your pocket and then to your earholes is the idea of spontaneous and serendipitous discovery.
The notion is that when we used to have to interact with the world in order to obtain recorded music we would often be confronted with random and strange items that we would not have otherwise sought out on our own, thus expanding our horizons in useful and educational ways.
While I love and miss the act of browsing in a record store as much as the next record nerd I would also say that the modern soulless mechanized music consumption experience is not completely without natural (not machine generated, sort of) serendipity.
Around ten years ago I was complaining on some online chat system that modern pop music seemed to have lost the capability to make a record with something as simple as a well recorded female singing voice on it. I griped for a while about over-processed and probably auto-tuned vocals that sound more like a machine than a person and someone told me I should look up the band … and I thought I read it right in the chat … “Churches.”
So I dutifully went to whatever music search engine I had available to me in 2014 and typed in “Churches”. I got no records by a band by this name, obviously, because I should have typed in “Chvrches”. To this day I still haven’t gotten around to finding out about Chvrches. But! Instead a record caught my eye by an artist called Aby Wolf. Probably this one:
Following some links around youtube, I next found that Aby Wolf appeared to often work with another artist named Dessa. Maybe it was this next video, maybe not, I don’t remember for sure:
In any case I eventually ended up on this “Tiny Desk Concert” video:
After seeing/hearing this I went out and bought everything Dessa had ever done. And I have continued to do so for the last ten years. And you should too.
This was serendipity unmediated by automatic music delivery “algorithms” as we know them today. Not even the idiotic Youtube Play Next queue. Just a bit of Internet search.
Oh, this video about Dessa’s then new record (Parts of Speech), which is now ten years old, was also fun:
Here is a similar story to the one above, but it is about what happens when you can’t figure out what you just heard.
Around the beginning of 2019 when we were all feeling care free and full of youthful energy, I went to see a saxophone trio at a venue in Pittsburgh and they played an encore that I knew I knew. It was one of those like late 50s/early 60s classic Charlie Parker/Thelonious Monk-like bebop refactors of a pop song of the time. Or so I thought. But, I could not remember the name of the tune off the top of my head. This happens to me a lot, especially with classical encores. I hate it.
Being an idiot I was sure I’d be able to place it later using my vast library of classic jazz recordings. So I went home and played every Charlie Parker recording that I had, or that was in Apple Music. No dice. This drove me nuts for a week and I finally gave up.
At some point I finally figured out that it was this tune by Monk called Rhythm-a-ning:
Then I went on a Rhythm-a-ning jag, and found lots of other versions. I was having a great time until I heard this:
At first this seems like a straightforward fast boppy run through of the tune. But wait. What’s that thing they play in the recap after the bridge? It’s supposed to be the A in the AABA, but that’s not the original tune! That is clearly some other generic Monk-ish or Charlie Parker riff. I was right back in the same hole.
For weeks I tried to find it and could not. I even posted on an Internet forum full of old men who listen to Jazz and got no answer. Then finally one night tonight I was reading some category theory tutorial and absent mindedly listening to an Art Pepper record that I had picked up … and I hear this:
I probably originally heard it on this album, which I have on vinyl but not iTunes:
You all should go buy all these records now.
The above stories illustrate a big part of how I interact with music in my life. I think I see music not just as a thing to consume and appreciate as art. I also have a side interest in collecting it. Or at least collecting other information about it. It can be like a fun intellectual puzzle.
Before all the music was stored in data centers collecting records was not quite such a weird idea. The main way to hear the music you wanted to hear was to buy the record. Sure you could sit next to your radio and wait for the next time your favorite single of the time came up in the station’s rotation. But that is tedious and time consuming, so once you had the resources to do better you go buy stuff. There were catalogs, and magazines, and the local gurus at the record store to tell you what you might like, and the best instances of those things. It was a whole ecosystem of material outside of the music itself that provided more context and insight into the material.
This is important, because as someone with limited resources you could not buy all of it. You had to know which were the most important things to get. Which recordings were the “best.” Which you should buy first. Which could wait. For me this was especially true with recordings of Classical music.
What I will never understand about Classical music recordings is why there are so many of them. But, given that there are, it’s not enough to know you want to listen to a recording of, say, Bruckner’s Third symphony. You have to narrow it down. There are four or five different editions of the work that were published at various times. Different conductors and orchestras make different choices about which one to play and how they play it. Here is a list of (maybe) every known recording of this piece, organized by edition:
My best guess, based on trying to parse the HTML of that page, is that there are around 256 performances listed, each with multiple released recordings.
In this context what is important to the listener is being able to find the specific performance out of this huge pool that is the one that some trusted reference has declared as being worth your time, and more importantly your money. When you walk into the cathedral-like Tower records in Boston or NYC you want to be able to scan the racks and find exactly the thing you wanted. Jochum, say, from 1976, but not 1967.
From the 50s until around the 2010s this was how Classical music buyers (and also anyone interested in historic jazz, blues, or even many old pop records) were conditioned to interact with the music and music information systems available to them. The knowledge of specific recordings made at specific times by specific people is very important. I have come to realize that this discographical mode of interaction is particularly prevalent among those who used to have any interest at all in collecting records as opposed to just listening to music.
This scene from that classic movie about record collecting, High Fidelity, where the main character talks about reorganizing his record collection in autobiographical order sums up this point of view in 75 short seconds:
Now, it might be that obsession on this level is not all that healthy. It’s certainly the case that a lot of people, maybe most people, don’t interact with music in this multi-leveled way anymore. It’s definitely the case that the music services don’t think they do. The music services are oriented around just playing the songs, or if you are lucky, the albums, or if you are really lucky some specific performances. But, it is very hard to extract any other context from the service itself, because that context is not encoded in the data models and user interfaces of the service in the same way that they used to be in the record catalogs, magazines and liner notes. You can’t organize the world, or at least your music collection, the way you want. It can only be the way the service has already put it together for you. If you want proof open up Apple Music or Spotify or whatever and go try to find any specific recording of the Bruckner third and then verify that you found the right one from the right year. It will make you want to pull your own eyes out.
This is frustrating for those who miss the old ways even if the old ways weren’t really that much better. This is why grumpy old men are always screaming at clouds and choking out the words “meta-data” from their parched throats. The side data is as important as the music itself. And the perception is that it has been taken away. This is not really true. Much of the raw data is there. It’s just not organized in a way that makes it easy to find.
The one oasis in this desert of context free recorded music is the grand and noble project called Discogs.com. Here is a place on the Internet where those who are obsessed with meta-data can again congregate and collect all of their obscure nuggets of information. And as a happy synergy they also finance the whole thing by mediating the exchange of used LPs and CDs for money over the Internet. The perfect crime!
Now all we need is for the music services to realize that this site is important. Finance its further development into a comprehensive discography of everything ever recorded (it has obvious holes, especially in the Classical areas, and some Jazz too), and then add UI to their music players to automatically look up the “liner notes” on the site so you can know who was playing flute on that one Freddie Hubbard quintet date that you were just listening to.
Of course, if this happened some asshole VC would buy it up and then lay everyone off. Because that’s how the music business works. But we can dream.
Here are some recordings of the Bruckner 3rd to try out. The 1889 edition is the most played, followed by the 1877. The 1873 is a bit of a draft and an interesting niche product. I kinda like it.
1873 edition: Simone Young
1877 edition: Haitink, Barenboim
1889 edition: Jochum, 1977, Bohm on Decca