Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where is iTunes when you Want It?

I have to confess that I have a strong bias towards "New York Counterpoint," Steve Reich's composition for eleven clarinets and bass clarinet, which may also be performed by a single clarinetist with amplification to balance a tape of the other parts. That bias owes much to my having heard Reich give an informal talk about this composition at UCLA while I was living in Los Angeles. There were a small enough number of us in the audience that we could all huddle around the twelve-system score pages while Reich played a recorded performance for us. All of this was in preparation for a performance Richard Stoltzman gave of the clarinet-plus-tape version a few days later at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That performance was an absolute hoot, all the way down to Stoltzman effectively (but not maliciously) mimicking the mannerisms of Benny Goodman.

This was one of those compositions that I absolutely had to include in my collection of recordings. How was I to know what the price would be? I am not talking about out-of-pocket expenses, just aggravation with the package that was released by RCA several years later in 1990. Basically, the recording was marketed as a "jazz product," meaning that, with the exception of "New York Counterpoint," all the tracks were performed by a combo whose personnel were listed on the back. I had some familiarity with the rhythm section, particularly bassist Eddie Gomez but also Glen Velez on percussion. The keyboard people were the unknowns for me, Bill Douglas and Jeremy Wall; but it did not take me long to realize that, when it came to an understanding of jazz, their reality was in an alternative universe immeasurably distant from my own. Then there was the decision to release the entire CD with the title New York Counterpoint, in spite of the fact the most of the other tracks had absolutely nothing to do with Reich and seemed almost calculated to try the patience of any serious Reich fan. The exceptions were an arrangement of Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes" chant, which gets marks for a good college try (unless everyone at your college was a medievalist), and passable arrangements of two songs by Charles Ives, "In the Morning" and "Serenity." However, even accounting for those tracks, none of the CD had anything to do with jazz; and it had even less to do with any composers pursuing genres similar to Reich's.

Let me repeat that all this happened in 1990. The historical significance is that the MP3 format was not approved as an ISO/IEC standard until 1991; and negotiating the Internet, such as it was, involved explicitly specifying gateways if you needed to communicate between component networks. Usenet was the most popular (and probably most viable) piece of software that actually negotiated those gateways for you. Many of us had mastered using FTP (the File Transfer Protocol) through a Unix command line interface and were beginning to play with search tools like Gopher; but I doubt that many of us ever thought that we would be transferring files of recorded music that would eventually shake the foundations of the music business as we knew it.

As a result, I am still old-fashioned enough that I tend to take a physical CD, put it on a player in my computer room, and let the whole thing run from beginning to end. I have a private library of favorites on my hard drive to cater to my needs when I am on the road; and that library is actually organized by composer (classical or jazz), rather than by CD source. Every now and then I may download a track from a source like iTunes for some very specific reason (such as it being music that I am currently learning to play); but this sort of thing happens extremely rarely.

Where "New York Counterpoint" (the Reich composition, rather than the album) is concerned, the only way I would recommend Stoltzman's performance would be by downloading that one track from the CD. Unfortunately, I cannot make that recommendation. I could find no sign of it on iTunes; and did not have a page for MP3 distribution of the content of the album, hence my choice of today's title. I still approve of packaging when it is done properly, but the New York Counterpoint CD is ultimately a great disservice to Reich and does not do much in favor of Stoltzman either. If ever there were a track to be purchased entirely on its own, this one would be a shining example!

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