Tuesday, March 31, 2009


As I sat in my office finishing up my workday this afternoon and enjoying the quiet, Chelsea walked down the hall with the vacuum and said, "Sorry if this is a little loud." I responded, "That's OK, I'll just turn up the silence."

Don't we all sometimes wish that was possible? When a day has been filled with conversations, music, and sounds, I often find silence is the most beautiful sound of all.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Recommended live recordings

Following up on my previous post, here are a few examples from my personal library of live albums from musicians that sound as good, if not better, live as they do on record.

Mark O'Connor: Thirty-year Retrospective

(This is a truly incredible recording from some of the best acoustic musicians on the scene today. With only 3 days of rehearsals this all-live recording is one of the best acoustic instrumental albums I have ever heard. Definitely a desert-island album!)

Michael Card: Scribbling in the Sand

Alison Krauss & Union Station Live

Live performance vs. recordings

One of the marks of a truly gifted musician is that he or she can closely reproduce the quality of the performances on a recording in a live setting. In an age of digital recording, mastering, and effects, anybody with the slightest amount of musical inclination can sell millions of records. Such artists are usually aided by significant editing, especially vocal, for pitch correction and vocal effects. Often dozens of takes will be required of the performer to obtain a recording of one verse that can even be edited to the point of sounding decent. Usually such a musician's or group's lack of raw talent or training is evidenced live in concert where they simply cannot accurately reproduce the music on the album. Sometimes performers overcome this difficulty by simply lip-syncing to previously recorded vocal tracks. I am personally amazed at the success of some such musicians. A prominent one that comes to mind is the country smash-hit Taylor Swift. Although she is an accomplished and talented song-writer, it requires a very cursory overview of some of her most popular recordings and their live counterparts to discover a huge disparity between her vocal talents when aided by the technologies of a recording studio and when all that is stripped away in a live setting. Yet (driven in part by a very smart marketing strategy) she has sold millions upon millions of records to unsuspecting fans who for the most part refuse to acknowledge that their star is not actually gifted at singing to start with.

Now, I don't write this to pick on any musician in particular. In fact, you'll find a few Taylor Swift tracks in the Country section of my iTunes library. To me, the issue at hand is the integrity of music and performance. I believe God has gifted everyone with certain gifts, to different degrees, some more than others. The concept that "you can be whatever you want to be" is not a Christian teaching, in my view. God calls us to explore and pursue the talents and gifts He has granted to us and I believe that it is at best unwise to ignore those areas of our life which God has given us special gifts and pursue those areas where he has not gifted us. (There is much that could be said on the issue of talent, gifts, and calling and this isn't the sum of my thoughts and beliefs on the subject!)

When I hear a musician on a record and am impressed, then hear a live recording and am met with a poor reproduction of the music on the album, I feel deceived. I am forced to question the integrity of those who record and market music as something that it is not. I realize this raises a lot of questions about what is "real" music and what is not "real" music in an age of digitalism and I don't claim to have the answers to those questions. Also, as a musician myself I absolutely do not want to discount the pressure and difficulty of performing in a live setting. As beautiful as a piece may sound in my home studio, only by the grace of God can I reproduce that under the pressure of playing in front of others. I also am not discounting the value that technology can add to our musical recordings and performances. What I am questioning if the use of technology to take what is not beautiful or skilled and make it sound like it is.

As Christians pursue the goal of taking dominion over the gift of music and redeeming it for the glory of God we should keep issues like this in mind. So what do you think? Does digital editing have a bearing on the integrity of music and performance?


An instrument that has fascinated me for some time is the "bodhran" (pronounced bow-ron), a popular Celtic hand-held drum that is used in many types of traditional acoustic music. Last week I watched an incredible video of John Joe Kelly, a very talented bodhran player, performing a percussion solo at an Irish music festival. It's a few minutes long but is worth the time. Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled on the video so I have to link to it rather than posting it directly. To get an idea of how a bodhran can be employed in a group setting, watch this fantastic video by incredible talented neo-Celtic group Flook performing on the BBC Blackstaff Sessions in 2006. (John Joe Kelly is the bodhran-ist for Flook.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pandora Radio

I employ various means of discovering new music, including browsing iTunes, Amazon.com, referrals from friends or blogs, and Pandora Radio. Pandora is a free internet radio service that allows users to create "channels" by entering a favorite artist. Using information from the Music Genome Project, Pandora identifies other artists or composers that are similar to your original selection and plays randomly chosen complete songs. The system is remarkably accurate, relying on 400 different musical attributes to identify the music most similar to your artist choice. Users can "train" the system about their preferences by giving each song a thumbs up or thumbs down rating. Channels are saved for future listening and there is no limit on how many channels you can create. All the music is free when streamed from the web but if you like a particular song or group you discover, you can bookmark them or buy music directly from iTunes or Amazon.com with a handy link. The service can be accessed through Pandora's website or you can download a small client that installs to your desktop. Apple iPhone users can access Pandora on their phones. Although I use Pandora mostly for discovering new music, it is simply a great way to expand your musical "library" even if you have no intention of purchasing any of the music you hear. Even without knowing exactly what you're looking for, I can guarantee you that you'll find something you like.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

George Grant on singing hymns

Singing...hymns lifts the heart, shortens the way, and advertises a man's reputation. It is an admirable thing. A man who so sings--loudly, clearly, and well--proves, more often than not, to be of good character. He is master of himself. He is strict and well managed. He is prompt, alert, swift, and to the point. He is unafraid and jolly. He is disciplined and congenial with a clear conscience before both God and men. There is method in him. All these things may be in a man who does not sing, of course. But singing makes them apparent.

Vance Perry: one-man barbershop quartet

A friend of mine made me aware of Vance Perry, a talented Christian musician who is able to sing all four parts of a barbershop quartet. He performs and records barbershop-quartet-style arrangements of hymns, converts them into HD videos, and posts them on his Youtube channel. The fact that he can sing all the parts of a barbershop quartet is impressive enough, but he actually sounds really, really good. I'd be in the market for a CD if he released one. Here's his latest video, "And Can It Be", an arrangement by Vocal Spectrum...

Michael Card recommendations

Over the years I've been blessed by the music of Michael Card, a gifted and godly Christian musician who has been writing and performing solid Christian music for almost 30 years. He has impressed me with his deep and sincere faith that shines through clearly in his music. With few exceptions, the lyrics he writes are solid, instructive, theologically sound, encouraging, and thought-provoking. The tunes, while contemporary, are beautiful, powerful, creative, and memorable - never cheap or run-of-the-mill. There is, I believe, a reason Michael Card has set himself apart from the mainstream Christian Contemporary Music industry, and in turn you won't find many popular Christian radio stations playing his music.

My ear lacks appreciation for the synth-driven sound of most music produced in the 80s so I've largely stayed away from his earlier albums although there are some great tracks from some of those CDs. The albums I recommend most highly are:



Soul Anchor

A Fragile Stone

(WARNING: Some tracks on this album contain "strong saxaphone" so listener discretion is advised...)

A great introduction to Mr. Card's music is the anthology Joy in the Journey which includes some of his best songs from 1981-1994.

From the story of Creation, the wonder of God's handiwork in the stars, to the life of Peter, to the book of Hebrews, to the daily struggles of life and relationships that face us in this life, Michael Card's music encourages, edifies, and exhorts to faithful living in Christ. Recommended stuff. Buy a CD or two today!

Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro, a virtuoso ukelele-ist from Hawaii, performs "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by George Harrison:

While I've never heard the original, Jake's interpretation is fascinating and very impressive considering the instrument. He has recorded a number of commercial records, and this track can be found on "Gently Weeps" among other virtuoso covers and original compositions.

Bach Fugues

Johann Sebastian Bach is universally acknowledged as the master of counterpoint, which, generally speaking, is the musical practice of writing different yet complimentary lines of melody that, when played together, interact in harmony. Counterpoint places a strong emphasis on individual lines of melody and less on chords and simultaneous harmony. Bach elevated this art to a level that no other composer has attained. Bach's mastery of contrapuntal principles is best exemplified in his "fugues". Eric Wen explains the fugue:

In a typical fugue there is one principal theme, known as the subject, which is played on its own at the outset. This musical idea is subsequently stated by all the other voices in succession, and, as the subject's many further possibilities are then explored, a highly developed web of repetitions evolves. These sometimes follow in close succession, a process known as 'stretto', and are often varied in transitional passages known as episodes. Occasionally, the subject itself can be altered during teh course of the fugue: presented with its original melodic intervals going in the opposite direction (inversion), with lengthened or shortened note values (augmentation or diminution), or even backwards (retrograde).
Bach wrote many fugues for different types of instruments, particularly the keyboard (harpsichord in his time) and the organ. The complex nature of fugues is stimulating to the brain not to mention very enjoyable to listen to. You certainly don't need to understand the principals of counterpoint and fugue-writing to appreciate Bach's work! From my music library, two fantastic recordings stand out as great introductions to Bach's fugues.

Bach: Fugues

This CD is a recording of the fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, written for the keyboard, but transcribed by Mozart and Forster in the 18th century for string quartet. The fugues in the WTC are written for 4 or 5 voices, perfect for performance by a string quartet. Since each instrument in the string quartet takes a single voice, the interaction and development of the musical ideas between voices is easier for the ear to follow then when the same music is performed on a keyboard instrument. Interestingly, this CD is the world-premiere recording of these WTC transcriptions for string quartet. I think this recording is a masterful performance of these pieces and a great introduction to Bach's fugues.

If you like the above recording, you will no doubt be interested in this more advanced fugal work by Bach.

Bach: The Art of Fugue

Bach's magnificent work "The Art of Fugue" is an incomplete work that was begun less than 10 years before the composer's death. In many ways the work is a mystery: a compilation of increasingly complex fugues written for 2, 3 and 4 voices, the instrumentation of the voices is not specified, nor is the order in which the fugues should be performed. Thus, there are many different recordings available performed on many different instruments and ensembles. What is believed to be the final fugue, dramatically breaks off mid-measure - many scholars believe that Bach was unable to finish the work due to his deteriorating eyesight at the time of this death, or his unsteady hand. Others have suggested that he deliberately left off completion of the composition to encourage individual composition by musicians. Many Bach scholars and musicians have attempted to complete the fugue. In this recording by the Emerson Quartet, the final fugue stops abruptly where Bach did. The recording concludes with Bach's "Here Before Thy Throne I Stand", a revision of chorale he had written earlier in his life. Dictated while on his deathbed, this piece is believed to be Bach's last contribution to music before he left this world to be with his Maker. A fitting conclusion to an incredible musical experience!

Both recordings are widely available. You can purchase them from Amazon.com by clicking on the titles of each recording above. Personally, I recommend the Amazon Marketplace for finding great deals on used or discount new CDs. Never pay full price again!

Bach on the Mandolin

Ever since I discovered the acoustic folk/bluegrass/pop/newgrass group Nickel Creek, I have been a great admirer of mandolinist Chris Thile's virtuosity and musicianship. Of all his albums, my favorite is the one he hasn't recorded yet. You see, he is a master of playing Bach on the mandolin. Yet despite the demand of his fans, he has not recorded a Bach album yet. You can get a bit of a taste for Bach on the mandolin by watching this short clip from The Bach Project, a documentary in progress.

Here is a full-fledged performance of the second movement of Bach's 3rd Brandenburg Concerto (written as a piece for small orchestra), performed by Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, his current recording and touring group of acoustic musicians.

Who would ever think that "bluegrass" Bach could sound so good?

For more incredible "bluegrass" Bach, check out Bela Fleck's CD Perpetual Motion. This would be a desert island CD for me. HIGHLY recommended.

Finally, the Oregon Symphony has just announced their 09/10 season concerts. The first concert of the season will likely be one of the best. Chris Thile (mandolin), Edgar Meyer (bass), Bela Fleck (banjo), and the Oregon Symphony performing, among other pieces, the West Coast debut of Thile's Mandolin Concerto - co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony and the Colorado Symphony. The concert will be followed by a 1-hour improv jam session on stage. Wow! Tickets go on sale in August. You can get the rest of the details on the concert here.