Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Arbiter musicae

Gaius Petronius, supposedly the author of the Satyricon, one of the first novels, was titled elegantiae arbiter, "judge of elegance" in Nero's court. According to Tacitus he was regarded as the absolute authority on matters of taste. We apparently have the modern equivalent, lurking in obscure offices in Silicon Valley, the people who decide what we will listen to--at least if we subscribe to a music streaming service. Buzzfeed has the story: Inside the Playlist Factory.
When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?
So how does this work?
Try any of the major music streaming services today and you’ll find variations on a common theme: thousands of ready-made playlists (“Rich Girl Pop,” “Inspired by Jeff Buckley,” “Songs to Sing in the Shower”) for every conceivable genre, activity, or mood. In the two years since the Beats acquisition, three of the largest services, including Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music (and smaller ones like Tidal and Rhapsody, too), have increasingly relied on these playlists to accomplish two important goals at once: 1) helping users inundated by a catalog of more than 30 million songs more easily find the ones they actually want, and 2) creating difference in a market where everyone has more or less the same goods.
Ok, well, none of those precisely fit what I want to listen to... What I need is something like "Music to accompany a furtive meditation on humility" or "Something with a lot of hemiola" or "Dyspeptic music while reading the news about the latest jihadist attack in Europe" or "Something with just a touch of transcendence plus some rhythmic verve." Surely in 30 million songs this should be easy? No? Is it because most of those 30 million songs display a dreary backbeaten sameness? Oh, right.

The thing is, I know fairly well how to find good music, and avoiding streaming services is probably a good place to start. Hey, I think I qualify as a "veteran music nerd" (how these professionals are described), but I am probably the last person to be hired to help choose playlists. This is what I might come up with for my last category: "Something with just a touch of transcendence plus some rhythmic verve:"

  • Mozart, Symphony No. 41, last movement
  • Bach, Dona nobis pacem from the Mass in B minor
  • Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians
  • Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5
  • Giovanni Gabrieli - Canzon XVI for 12 Parts
Hey, let's have a listen to that last one for our envoi:


12 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

You want to be arbiter musicae, I think. :-)

I'll defend the machine-made playlist (every Monday morning!) in that it brings to my attention new or new-to-me music or composers (Honegger's Pacific 231, Franz Berwald's Symphony no 3, Ruperto Chapi's String Quartet no 1), or else pieces I've listened to only once or rarely (e.g. Dvorak's The Wild Dove, or Leoncavallo's Zazà)-- granted, perhaps I had my reasons not to have listened more often but.... Will freely confess that there are usually one or two or three tracks the point of which I don't see; one wonders, how the hell did the computers come up with that? but, after all, one taps the button and, pft, they're gone, which tapping works equally well to delete the usual four or five tracks that are familiar pieces or movements, yet another Chopinist's performance of a couple of the Préludes, or another recording of the first movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm glad to hear that there are benefits to the classical playlists. I could probably stand to give one a listen from time to time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, and thanks for correcting my Latin!

Marc Puckett said...

This having come up, I went to look at the classical playlists, which I did perhaps in 2012 but not since. There are four main categories-- Popular, New Releases, Featured Composers, 'In Rotation' (which latter is tagged 'explore legendary recordings', probably meaning everything not in any of the other categories, ha).

Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt are included among the 'featured composers', but so are Ennio Morricone, James Rhodes, James Horner, and Nico Muhly-- in other words, I don't think that this category's selections can be influenced at all by my listening choices i.e. these are probably made by one of the WeHo gym rats or one of his confreres (am thinking of someone who freelances in DC for NPR's classical music programs occasionally)-- but who knows. If one goes to Steve Reich and taps play, onnoe hears the five or ten most popular tracks (currently Music for 18 Musicians is number three, the third movement of Mallet Quartet is number one). This is what happens whenever you search for any composer or musician and are content simply to hit play.

Oh, I see that Einojuhani Rautavaara has died; requiescat in pace. 87.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that I am too much a control freak to want to listen to either someone else's selections or to a random offering. A huge part of listening to me is choosing exactly what I want to hear!!

Marc Puckett said...

I do understand, I think. But for some of us lesser mortals who are scarcely more than 'adult students', as it were, of the classical music tradition, other people's suggestions can be useful, sometimes.

(And if I didn't look at the lists once in a while I'd never know that such songs as DonaldTrumpMakesMeWannaSmokeCrack or Motherf.er Got F.ed Up or I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix) [20+ million monthly listeners to that composer] exist. :-)

Am going to give Rautavaara [almost 13,000 monthly listeners] a listen again. I don't recall being all that compelled but who knows.

Marc Puckett said...

Your playlist amounts to two hours and three minutes of very interesting listening: thanks very much! :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

I put up Rautavaara's Symphony No. 7 up in the miscellanea today. It is quite a nice piece.

Your quotes of song titles reminds me that I expend a certain amount of time and energy each day in AVOIDING having to listen to anything even remotely like that!

You are very welcome!

Jives said...

I'm a total control freak too, but I've learned about a ton of great music from my satellite radio classical station, especially lesser-known Baroque composers like Biber, Uccellini, Stradella. Nice to give someone else the reins occasionally.

Bryan Townsend said...

I hear ya! I know Biber and I have performed Stradella, but who the heck is Uccellini? Have to check that one out!

Jives said...

I fell in love with this piece of Uccellini's. Aria sopra la bergamasca

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYZ79HjPh2M&list=PLG22KVkD-3rZzI6-YCp0R0nCEwzA7kK10&index=5

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, I'll give it a listen.