The 33⅓ series revolutionized the music book. If you’re not familiar with the format, it’s a pocket-sized book series (usually just a little bigger than a CD case), that gives an author free rein to crystallize their favourite albums’ spot in the canon and cut to the quick of what fans want to know: How the album was made, what the principals thought, what the producers contributed, how fans reacted, what else happened while it was made.
In a world where analysis of any kind seems increasingly scarce — but especially music analysis — it’s no surprise that fans of vinyl records and physical media are so drawn to the deep wells of scrutiny and ideas made available by 33⅓. These are basically longer-form liner notes that we spend hours obsessing over. After reading every available volume in 2014, Slate’s Stephanie Burt said of the series, “I’ve learned more than I thought I could learn, and sometimes more than I wanted to learn, about acts I loved and acts I learned to enjoy, acts I discovered and acts I still loathe (sorry, Ween fans).”
No note is left unturned in the quest to discover the intent, feeling, and meaning of each track and how that divine alliance of songs forms the album. Getting beyond the headline act, 33⅓ books often give you a closer look, giving credit to collaborators (there are always many, even when it appears otherwise) who otherwise escape the spotlight, especially studio engineers.
The series was founded in 2003 by editor David Barker and published by Continuum. At the time, Continuum was focusing on philosophers. Barker, a music obsessive, thought the concept would be great applied to albums. As the series started to saunter from its academic roots and adopt more creative interpretations, the future wasn’t looking so bright. Bloomsbury, buoyed by the huge success of Harry Potter, acquired Continuum in 2010 and took it from there.
The series has stuck with its academic ethos. As with most music writing these days, it’s a passion pursuit rather than an economic one. While in the early days the going rate for a 33⅓ volume was $2,000 per book, as author Daphne Carr — who wrote the volume on Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine — put it, “the standard rate is zero dollars, all of which is paid immediately.” In a turn of art imitating art, authors are compensated with royalties, which might not be much, unless it’s picked up by a professor for coursework.
Being anything but strict and prescriptive in the rules for the series, 33⅓ takes the opposite approach, allowing the books to be as creative, experimental, and groundbreaking as their subject matter. It’s allowed music writing to evolve in a way that it couldn’t have otherwise. Some volumes are straight musical analysis; OK Computer’s volume is written by a musicologist at Oxford University and takes quite an academic slant, while the dissection of REM’s Murmur offers linguistic analysis.
Others take heavy strains of personal narrative. Sign O’ The Times takes you on a journey through the author’s personal relationship with the album. Even more tangential is Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. The much talked-about meta-study delves into the status of musical judgement, the history of kitsch, “bad taste,” and the history of Quebec to boot.
Some of the more interesting takes on the 33⅓ imprint put a fictional character or narrator between themselves and the subject. The volume on Band’s Music In The Big Pink from John Niven has been dubbed a “factional novella.” It retells the story of how the album came together through the eyes of the fictional Greg Keltner. Other fictionalized takes include PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me: A Story, which is a series of short stories by Kate Schatz. Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, a former psychiatric nurse, employs therapy notes to retell a character’s love of Ozzy Osbourne in his 33⅓ volume on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.
Their 135-book (and growing) catalog is diverse, starting with Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis and covering albums from Sly And The Family Stone, A Tribe Called Quest, Tori Amos, and The Magnetic Fields, to name a few. While more mainstream and already celebrated albums do get a look in, it’s as much about celebrating the underground and giving a voice to the subcultures that don’t necessarily generate the same kind of online traffic as Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. 33⅓ gives us deeper access to the unsung heroes of modern and alternative landscapes, like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem, J Dilla, and Ween.
While many fear that as the pervasiveness of the album declines, a book series like 33⅓ is also under threat. The volume on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music by Jonathan Letham was slated to be the last volume back in 2012, but series editors Ally-Jane Grossan and Barker continue to rally for it. “Just imagine trying to explain Sleater-Kinney to a room full of British publishers who have just concluded a discussion of the potential market for a linguistics monograph on the semiotics of Che Guevara.” Well, I know which I’d rather read.
If anything, the book series is more important than ever in an attention-deficit world, forcing the reader to slow down and think about the album as a whole — the nuances in each song and the work that goes into producing art (both album and book). For a younger generation who perhaps has less appreciation for the album as a cohesive format or understanding of why it should be embraced, it’s a key education piece, and way to communicate with future generations.
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Donald Macleod explores “the poet of the piano”, Fryderyk Chopin.
Donald starts this week’s episode with a look at how Chopin’s Polish heritage shaped his music. Although he left the country at the age of 20, dance forms like the polonaise and mazurka left a strong mark on his writing. Next, we catch fleeting glimpses of the composer through his letters, and his relationship with his instrument, the piano. Chopin’s reticence to perform made his rare appearances extremely lucrative, but he much preferred the more intimate and sociable surroundings of the salon, where his trademark light touch could be appreciated to the full. We hear about Chopin through the eyes of his most illustrious contemporaries – his lover George Sand, and fellow composers Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. To end, stories of the composer’s ever-feeble health – Berlioz is supposed to have said Chopin was “dying all his life” – which makes the scale of his achievement all the more heroic.
‘Życzenie’ (The maiden’s wish), Op 74 No 1
Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (3rd mvt, Allegro vivace)
4 Mazurkas, Op 17
Polonaise No 5 in C minor, Op 40 No 2
Polonaise No 6 in A flat, Op 53 (‘Heroic’)
Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op 52
2 Mazurkas (Mazurka in G; Mazurka in B flat)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11 (2nd mvt, Romance—Larghetto)
Preludes, Op 28
3 Mazurkas, Op 50 (No 1 in G; No 2 in A flat; No 3 in C sharp minor)
2 Nocturnes, Op 55 (No 1 in F minor; No 2 in E flat)
Etude in A flat, Op 25 No 1 (‘Aeolian Harp’)
‘Krakowiak’: Grand Concert Rondo in F, Op 14
Mazurka in B minor, Op 33 No 4
Andante spianato, Op 22 No 1
Impromptu No 3 in G flat, Op 51
Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op 48 No 2
Barcarolle, Op 60
Etude in C, Op 10 No 1
Ballade No 2 in F, Op 38
Variations in B flat major on ‘La ci darem la mano’, from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Op 2
Scherzo No 4 in E, Op 54
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op 65 (2nd and 3rd movements)
Mazurka in G minor, Op 67 No 2
2 Nocturnes, Op 27 (No 1 in C sharp minor, Larghetto; No 2 in D flat, Lento sostento)
Scherzo No 3 in C sharp minor, Op 39
Ballade No 3 in A flat, Op 47
Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58 (3rd movement, Largo)
Waltz in E flat, Op 18 (‘Grande valse brillante’)
Berceuse, Op 57
Presented by Donald Macleod
Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales
For full tracklistings, including artist and recording details, and to listen to the pieces featured in full (for 30 days after broadcast) head to the series page for Fryderyk Chopin https://ift.tt/2RFfDxj
And you can delve into the A-Z of all the composers we’ve featured on Composer of the Week here: https://ift.tt/2vwHS8q
In our Crate Minds series, we highlight the people behind the Discogs accounts. This time we would like to introduce you to Jürgen Vonbank of djshop.de. Currently based in the stunning Bavarian village of Vachendorf, djshop.de is the perfect shop for adventurous diggers and electronic music enthusiasts alike. But we’ll let Jürgen do the talking. We guarantee you his shop will become an instant favorite.
What is your role, can you give us a bit of background on yourself?
I have been working as a buyer for djshop.de since 2012, and I’m handling our vinyl distribution service. One needs to know, that besides djshop.de there are also other services under the roof of our mother company Dance All Day. That means I take care of other stuff, which is not directly related to djshop.de, as well, such as project and label management for our digital distribution service Feiyr.
Please tell us a bit about djshop.de and its history!
Our CEO Armin started selling vinyl straight from the DJ booth back in the early ’90s. Djshop.de was officially launched in 1995 and we moved offices several times, where now located in the idyllic Bavarian village of Vachendorf. As most record shops we went through a rough time especially during the rise of MP3 and piracy, when the vinyl industry almost collapsed within a few months with a lot of distributors and labels filing for bankruptcy. Somehow, we managed to keep the business running, which also results from the strong personal and emotional relationship to this medium of our staff.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
As a buyer you need to keep track of recent developments in the scene. I really enjoy to dig into those developments and it’s just very satisfying to discover new good music because there is lot out there!
djshop.de sells only new (mint) releases, mostly electronic. How do you select which releases to stock?
We do indeed have a strong background in the electronic scene, this is where we come from. But if you browse our catalogue, you will find records of almost all kinds of genres. When you reach a certain size it is important that you keep a versatile catalogue, so it’s always a balancing act between pleasing your core customers, reaching new audiences and of course stock what you think is great music. Discogs definitely helped us to reach new audiences in this regard. I personally do listen to each record before I order it. I rather rely on my intuition than just on artist and label names.
If we were digging through your personal collection, what would we find?
Most of it would be techno, electro, ambient and experimental electronica but also a good stack of house music, world music and a little bit of jazz. Some classical music, audio books and fairy tales, basically purchased to sample. And a nice little collection of rock 45s from my father. Although, I’m constantly buying records I try to keep the collection compact. So I also get rid of stuff from time to time.
Which is your favourite record shop to visit and why?
There are so many beautiful stores… Besides my work for djshop.de, I opened Minerva Records together with my girlfriend in 2016. This record shop is located in the Austrian city of Salzburg, just a 30 minute drive away from djshop.de (which only sells online these days). As we put a lot of time and energy into this project, I would definitely say that this is my favorite record shop because we were able to design it the way we wanted to have it.
How do you see the future for record selling?
It’s gonna be a difficult business but it always has been. Sales will probably not reach the peaks of the last years again but will level out at a reasonable extent. The cultural value of physical goods in a digital age will probably even further increase.
What would be your number one tip for buyers and/or sellers on Discogs?
Buyers: If you’re interested in a certain record, take some time to browse the catalogue of the seller as you might find some other gems to add to your purchase, which also keeps relative shipping costs low.
Sellers: Know your customers, keep track of the market and its various scenes and pack your shipments well!
1959 was a good year for fans of Miles, Trane, Ornette et al, and also a notable one for Slovenia. Its capital Ljubljana inaugurated a jazz festival that has steadily grown in stature. Hence this 60th anniversary is suitably marked by some grandstand appearances. Topping the bill is John Zorn, who presented his Bagatelles Marathon in which 14 artists (pictured below), including Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, Ikue Mori, Kris Davis, Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicholas, and the composer-alto saxophonist himself leading Masada, appeared in 15 minute slots to play 50 of his pieces.
The extravaganza was spread over four hours, and though the performance took place the day before my arrival at the multi-purpose Cankarjev Dom, with its concert hall, small club and park area, the venue was still buzzing from the experience; the general consensus being that the scale of ambition of the project had been matched by the wealth of talent assembled to fulfill it. Having said that, there was plenty to enjoy during the rest of the five-day festival to temper the disappointment, nothing more so than an evening of two hard-hitting bands that give a thrilling overview of contemporary improvised music that has an incendiary energy to complement its creativity. Made To Break is a quartet led by respected Chicago multi-reedist Ken Vandermark that is one of the best of the many groups he has led in his lengthy career. The combination of Jasper Stadhouders’ crash and burn guitar – its molten chords and fragmented runs very much a second coming of Marc Ducret – and Christof Kurzmann’s scratchy electronics is seamlessly integrated into the choppy waters of the music, while drummer Tim Daisy frames the dizzying, flow-not-flow with impressive agility and aggression. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a group that leaps between improv, noise and post-rock without losing its balance on the rollers. Another band that also has a quite fearsome momentum is Portugal’s The Rite Of Trio, a small group with a big sound that is largely defined by Andre Silva’s versatile guitar work that moves with real stealth from crunchy clusters to wiry single notes atop a dynamic rhythmic whirlpool stirred up by drums-double bass combo Pedro Alves and Filipe Louro.
The group is the latest in a long line of artists signed to the fearless Clean Feed label whose head honcho Pedro Costa has enjoyed a long collaboration with the festival. And it is one of the musicians who debuted on the imprint several years ago who also produces a very strong set that straddles the worlds of music and literature – Slovenian pianist-composer Kaja Draksler (pictured above). Her adaptation of the poetry of Robert Frost is done with attention to detail and imagination in equal measure as she uses the full resources of a fine international octet that has outstanding soloists in saxophonist-clarinetists Ab Baars [Holland] and Ada Rave [Argentina], though the operatic, double vocal frontline of Björk Nielsdottir [Iceland] and Laura Polence [Latvia] is also highly effective. Draksler’s melodies capture the intimacy and deep melancholy of Frost’s texts and the performance is decisively enhanced by the movement of the players through the crowd, whereby the break-up of the ensemble into smaller units, mirrors some of the more episodic moments of the storytelling.
In any case further proof of the strength of Slovenian bandleaders arrives in the shape of gifted saxophonist Igor Lumpert, whose Chromatic Vortex, another multi-nationality affair featuring two A-list Americans, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Chad Taylor and Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, is a compelling advert for new improvised music that treads a fine line between yearning themes and intricately mapped grooves, often with a stinging percussive drive well to the fore. Yet for all its championing of experimental sounds Ljubljana has always found space for all kinds of traditions, and two memorable gigs come from exponents of acoustic and electric music with vastly different line-ups.
On the small side is the trio comprising Slovenian pianist Marko Črnčec, Dutch double bassist Joris Teepe and American drum legend Billy Hart. Their reading of standards, from Monk to Kern to Porter, is done with enormous finesse, whereby hard swing alternates with gracious romanticism, charming a crowd on a wonderfully balmy evening in the park area at the back of the Cankarjev Dom. On the large side is 10-piece Snarky Puppy (pictured top) whose fusion, funk and synth grooves go down a storm in the midst of a biblical downpour in the Krizanke outdoor theatre. Yet 2,000 fans (pictured above) stay and dance in the rain, and are heartily rewarded by no fewer than three encores, two more than most might expect in fair weather. So ends a birthday, wet and warm.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Ales Rosa and Nada Zgank