In classical music, it’s never as as good as the first time

[Sergei Prokofiev - Symphony No. 1 / Lieutenant Kije Suite / Symphony No. 7]

Back in college, I put forth a theory to my friends that the whatever version of a classical or theater work you encounter first will be your canonical version.

This theory arose during a discussion about which version of the Evita soundtrack each of us preferred. One camp chose the concept album recorded before the show was staged in London. I opted for the Premiere American Recording with Patti LuPone in the title role.

So I posed the question: which did you hear first?

Sure enough, my friends heard the London recording before the American recording, and it was the reverse case for me.

It’s not a theory I’ve put to rigorous study, but there’s an intuitive logic to it.

Classical music requires a lot of work to internalize, and when I’m listening to a particular work for the first time, that recording becomes my source. I’ll have listened to it numerous times, absorbing not only the workings of the piece but also the idiosyncrasies of the recording — the sound of the hall, the articulation of the players, the tempo and expressive choices of the conductor.

If I’ve lived with one recording for long enough, another recording of the same piece needs to go through that same process of internalization. And that first listen of a new version is where the discomfort sets in.

The sound of the orchestra lacks a certain resonance. A particularly movement was taken too slow or too fast. A particular section gets muted while another gets overemphasized.

I learned this lesson with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 and Lieutenant Kije Suite.

Back in 1988, I bought a cassette of André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Symphony No. 1 and Kije took up side one. Symphony No. 7 took up side two.

I got rid of the cassette in 2002, and I thought I could replace it with any old budget recording of the same works. So I picked up one by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It didn’t feel right.

The nuances of Previn and the London Symphony had soaked so far into my subconscious that another interpretation just wouldn’t suffice. I let the Ormandy recording go and didn’t seek another one till I found a vinyl version of the Previn recording in 2013.

That sent me on a hunt for a CD version. I was disappointed to learn it was reissued in the United Kingdom but not in the United States. A number of Google searches later eventually led me to a used copy of its original reissue on CD in the States in 1986.

Hearing that specific recording transported me back to high school, when I would listen to that tape on bus rides back home.

This preference for the first-encountered recording probably explains listeners’ aversions to live recordings and covers. Could Sam Smith really live up to the distinct quiver of Tracy Chapman’s voice on “Fast Car”? And just how does one replicate the gorgeous choir of Simon Le Bons on “New Religion” in a live setting?

My collection now has numerous recordings of pieces, and I’ve learned to appreciate “non-canonical” versions on their own terms. In some rare instances, I may even prefer an alternate version.

But that first time, that first encounter — it’s home, and there’s no place like it.

Vinyl find: Duran Duran, Demo 1979

[Duran Duran - Demo 1979]

My dedication to Duran Duran is probably far above average compared to the non-Duranie population at large, but I’m friends with Duranies who make my fandom look half-assed.

So I was surprised Duran Duran’s Demo 1979 even existed when I spotted it at Jive Time Records. Of course, I imagined my Duranie friends would have known about this bootleg for decades.

Demo 1979 predates the involvement of Andy Taylor and Simon Le Bon. Steve Wickett’s off-kilter warble places these four tracks closer to the band’s punk roots. The hook for “Girls on Film” was already in place, but the song that would eventually become “Rio” had a completely different melody and went by the title “See Me Repeat Me”.

John Taylor and Roger Taylor hadn’t yet achieved their trademark rhythmic seamlessness, but at that early stage, you could hear it coming together. Nick Rhodes had far more gear to acquire before his portion of the sound could expand.

Back in 2010, Capitol reissued Duran Duran’s early catalog with a number of demos, including a vocal version of “Tel Aviv”. I thought those demos were a great insight to how the band works.

Demo 1979 goes even further. It opens up the idea of an alternate reality where Le Bon never became the band’s singer. Would they have conquered the world with anything other than Fab Five? I hesitate to imagine.

The Method to Digitizing Vinyl (It’s expensive)

[A shelf in the vinyl colleciton]

It’s been 10 years since I embarked on building a bedroom studio, and a side effect of that effort has been the acquisition of hardware and software to facilitate the digitizing of vinyl records.

Do a Google search on the topic, and you’ll see articles mentioning turntables with built-in pre-amps and USB ports. My record player dates back to 1998, and I had to buy a stereo amplifier to got with it.

So my output is a pair of plain old RCA phono jacks on the back of my amplifier labeled REC OUT. What I need, then, is some sort of analog-to-digital converter to capture that output to a file.

In 2005, that meant hooking up an RCA phono cord from my stereo to a USB audio interface, which was connected to my laptop. I fired up Sony Sound Forge, hit record, then played each side of the record. Sound Forge let me mark up the resulting capture into regions, which I could split into individual files.

In 2015, I would rather use a Y-connector to hook up my stereo to a TASCAM DR-05 digital recorder. Then I move the digitized files from the recorder to my desktop computer — via USB, of course — where I use Sony CD Architect to create a master rip. I could then burn a CD of the album, but instead, I split the master up into tracks when I convert to the lossy CODEC of my choice.

The 2015 method is so much faster.

But it ain’t cheap either.

Audacity is often cited as the software of choice for digitizing vinyl because it’s versatile and, more importantly, free. I used Audacity in the early days of my bedroom studio, but it got shut out once I invested in Sound Forge. Would I recommend Sound Forge if all you’re going to do rip vinyl for recreational playing? No.

Sound Forge does, however, come equipped with restoration tools that allow you to filter out pops and clicks and — if you’re ambitious enough — improve the sound quality of your rip. CD Architect, which also comes with Sound Forge, also provides a nice UI to throw together a CD master. The ability to save that master as a single WAV file is incredibly convenient.

A new license for Sound Forge can set you back $400. The digital recorder, by comparison, is cheaper.


My TASCAM DR-05 cost about $100. I bought it to record my rehearsals, but the ability to connect my stereo amplifier to the line in jack is an added bonus. The recorder comes with a 2GB microSD HC-I card, which is fine if you capture at a 16-bit sample rate. I, however, set mine to capture at an excessively high rate (96 kHz/24-bit), and that fills up quickly. So I upgraded my card to 32 GB.

Back when I used my USB audio interface to capture audio, I had to deal with two sets of cords — a USB cord to my computer, a phono cord to the stereo. I also had to fiddle around with levels since the input to my audio interface were unbalanced. The digital recorder does that all for me with fewer cords.

With this hands-on method, I can go from captured audio to lossy files within half an hour. A decade ago, it would have taken me twice as long.

Looking ahead: November 2015

[Enya - Dark Sky Island]

No sooner did I bemoan the lack of November releases that I found myself adding a whole bunch of November releases to my wish list.

Enya, Dark Sky Island, Nov. 20

Enya usually takes about 3 to 5 years to turn around new albums, so the 7-year gap between 2008’s And Winter Came and Dark Sky Island is her longest stretch. The announcement was pretty sudden, and I certainly wouldn’t have learned about it had I not visited her official site on a total whim.

Björk, Vulnicura Strings, Nov. 27

Vulnicura has a pretty secure spot on the year-end Favorite Edition list, but it’ll be interesting to see whether Vulnicura Strings dislodges its predecessor from that spot.


Inventions, Blanket Waves, Nov. 13

Inventions is certainly turning out to be a prolific project for Matthew Cooper and Mark Smith. This 10-inch vinyl EP is the second release from the pair this year.

Nirvana, Nirvana, Nov. 13

The 2002 self-titled compilation gets reissued on Blu-Ray audio and vinyl.


Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris, Complete Trio Collection

Early reports indicated this compilation would be released on Oct. 16, but then it fell off the release schedule with no indication of a new date.

Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry

Frank Ocean hinted at a July release for his second album, and then, he fell off the face of the planet. He canceled some scheduled appearances, and July has long passed.

20 Years of Gay: The Musical Crushes

It happens even now — an attractive guy on the cover of an album gets me to buy it. I do like those times when the music accompanying the pretty face turns me into a fan. Here are a few.

Jason Isbell

[Jason Isbell - Southeastern]

Jason Isbell isn’t my usual type — that would be Law and Order: SVU‘s Mike Doyle or, uh, Edward Snowden — but I did a double take when I first saw the cover of Southeastern. First, it’s a striking photo. Second, Isbell is a handsome guy. He’s not Channing Tatum-photogenic, but that welcoming, earnest expression can’t help but draw attention.

What clinches the crush, though, is his Twitter feed. He’s a card and an excellent writer. He uses the 140 character cap to his advantage, imbuing the pretty face with a likable personality. All that on top of being a damn fine songwriter.

Ty Herndon

[Ty Herndon - Lies I Told Myself]

I’ll admit I’ve downloaded pictures of Tim McGraw stripped to the waist, but I draw the line at listening to his music. When Ty Herndon came out of the closet, I thought I would make the same distinction.

In reality, Herndon has a voice worth playing repeatedly, and his hit singles don’t induce the kind of cringe brought on by, say, Brad Paisley. (I’ve been subjected to Paisley. It was unpleasant.)

If Herndon booked a gig somewhere in Western Washington, I would go see him.

Steve Grand

Oh, I’m pretty sure my messages to Steve Grand on Grindr would totally get ignored, were this unlikely scenario ever played out in real life. But my rock snobbery is no match to the charm he exudes.

Royal Wood

Royal Wood showed up as a suggestion I might like on a recommendation engine, and I’m sure the context for this suggestion was music. My eyes thought differently.
[Sacha Sacket]

Sacha Sacket

The Advocate mentioned Sacha Sacket briefly in its 2005 music issue, and I dug his sound. It’s one of the few instances where the music grabbed me, and the nearly naked photos are just a bonus.

Nick Lachey

Shut up. I blame Rolling Stone. He did a photo spread for them without a shirt. What’s Left of Me is a musically ridiculous album, but I couldn’t help myself.

20 Years of Gay: My Duran Duran fandom isn’t entirely about the music

[Duran Duran, 1983]

Duran Duran looms pretty large over my life.

A lot of the earliest songs I wrote attempted to rip them off, an influence I made more blatant as my songwriting improved. A good percentage of my music collection consists of recordings by the band and various spin-off projects. As of this writing, I’ve seen them in concert five times in three different states: three times in Texas and one each New York and Washington.

In the early ’90s, I helped to administer Tiger List, one of the earliest fan communities on the Internet. They were partly responsible for the launch of my career as a web developer — one of the first sites I built was a FAQ about the band.

But the underlying drive behind all this fandom was the fact I developed some pretty hard crushes on Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor in the 7th grade.

That would have been around 1984, when MTV made it a requirement for rock stars to be photogenic. Although my household didn’t subscribe to cable, a number of broadcast options made music videos accessible. One of these shows introduced me to Duran Duran.

Oddly enough, the effect of “Rio” and “New Moon on Monday” wasn’t immediately revelatory — I remember thinking they were fun, but I was more interested in Eurythmics — but they planted seeds when I later encountered “Hungry Like the Wolf” playing on a VCR display at a department store.

That was the clincher.

“The Reflex” was rocketing up the charts as well, making the song inescapable on any number of family drives with the radio blasting. When I finally attached the name “Duran Duran” too all these separate encounters, I sought them out.

Back then, music magazines would publish lyrics to hit songs, and one of them featured a centerfold of Simon Le Bon. He had on his white shirt and dark pants — his attire in the video for “The Reflex” — and held a microphone to his mouth.

He cut a striking figure, and that’s when I felt something a bit more than just admiration.

My attraction to Simon transferred to Roger after acquiring The Book of Words, a fan souvenir book containing lyrics to the band’s songs up to “The Wild Boys”. Oh, and there were plenty of pictures of the band. My copy is quite ragged from having thumbed through it an uncountable number of times.

I didn’t actually attach the word “attraction” to what I felt at the time, but I could sense it would get me in trouble if I didn’t provide cover for it. So I bought the band’s albums, dubbed them to cassette, played them repeatedly on the family boombox and studied them. Yes, my earliest lessons in how to arrange music came from picking apart how Duran Duran songs were put together.

I became an advocate for Duran Duran’s music because I lived in a time when a pre-teen boy wasn’t allowed to express physical attraction to male pop idols. When classmates attacked that choice, I stuck to the artfulness of the music, the album covers, the videos as my defense, but I knew I could talk about who was cutest with the best of the female fans.

But what started out as a cover became a defining influence. Duran Duran taught me it was OK not to learn the blues progression. They encouraged me to find other artists with a sense for adventure, and they demonstrated that art and commerce aren’t mutually exclusive.

That era had any number of pop stars that could have been the catalyst for my sexual awakening — subsequent crushes include Sting, Huey Lewis, Robert Palmer and even Bruce Springsteen — but Duran Duran was the first, and they ended up being much more.

20 Years of Gay: Soundtrack to a Journey

“How did you know you were gay?”

No one has really asked me this question, and from what I gather, I’m supposed to turn this question around and ask the (presumably heterosexual) asker, “How did you know you were straight?”

But my answer to the question would be pretty easy to track through the music I was listening to at the cusp of adolescence. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the I gravitated toward bands with handsome singers — your Simon Le Bons, your Huey Lewises, your Stings, your Bruce Springsteens.

I didn’t connect the growing fascination I had for these pop idols with the orientation my sexuality would eventually align because the curriculum of my Catholic education was clear — I was fated to develop an attraction to women because any alternative would be unacceptable.

So I used music as a cover. Yes, I dug the songs, but they weren’t the only draw.

Exhibit A: Sting, “Love is the Seventh Wave”

[Sting - Love Is the Seventh Wave] The back cover of this single had Sting posing without a shirt, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. My household toed the homophobic line because my parents were devoutly Catholic and my brother and sisters weren’t old enough to come to their conclusions. So I would sneak peeks at this image surreptitiously, not exploring why I was so powerfully drawn to it.

Technically, my brother owned that 7-inch single, and he called dibs on Sting in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. My hormones would not be denied, and I wrestled Sting from his monopoly. I dubbed his Sting albums to cassette without his permission, and I played “Russians” at my first piano recital.

The Dream of the Blue Turtles and … Nothing Like the Sun are awesome albums in their own right, but I could count on the music press to include a few pictures of Sting stripped to the waist.

Exhibit B: Midnight Oil, Blue Sky Mining

I didn’t actually like Midnight Oil when a pair of friends subjected me to Diesel and Dust in the car as we drove around town. But I eventually adjusted to Peter Garrett’s warble, and the songcraft of the album won me over.

One of the friends who introduced me to Midnight Oil would be the first person with whom I’d fall in love. I remember one night dropping him off at his house after a night out and driving back, mumbling to myself that I loved him. I can’t remember another time when I felt both solace and burden in a single thought.

Blue Sky Mining followed Diesel and Dust two years later, by which time my feelings for my friend made senior year in high school a slog. I listened to the album day in and day out because I had to escape into something that linked me to him. And I could use my growing interest in college rock as another cover.

Exhibit C: R.E.M., “Country Feedback”

My friend went to the Mainland for college, and I stayed in Honolulu. During my first semester, I would play Out of Time by R.E.M. every morning, and the track that summed up my depression was “Country Feedback”. The track is slow and quiet, but Michael Stipe tosses out the phrase “fuck off” at the midpoint of the song with conviction. I was pissed off at having a broken heart but also sad by the implications of who broke it.

Exhibit D: Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing

[Haruki Murakmi - Hear the Wind Sing] No, Hear the Wind Sing is not an album. It’s a novel. A Haruki Murakami novel, to be exact.

But it was a novel that served as the basis for an electronic song I wrote hoping to convince a guy I had a crush on to sing it. He couldn’t find the time to do it.

It had been a year since I returned from New York City, and I still wasn’t ready to accept the obvious direction of my sexual orientation. So something like writing a song hoping to get a guy I liked to sing it was just a totally rational thing for someone in my state of mind to do.

It took another 13 years before I transposed it to my own range, recorded it and sang it myself with much assistance by pitch-correction software.

Exhibit E: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball

Emmylou Harris’ label directed its press efforts for her 1995 album Wrecking Ball to colleges and independent music outlets instead of country radio because it was her “weird album”. I snagged a promo of the album and fell in love with it.

The arrival of Wrecking Ball happened at the same time I wrote articles about National Coming Out Day, which resulted in my own. The two events are indelibly entwined. But I can’t think of a better album to serve as a soundtrack for that change.

It’s a dark, brooding album but also beautiful. I was still intimidated by the process of coming out, so I can’t say I look back on it as bright and joyous. I had a lot of work to do introspectively, and Wrecking Ball reflected that.

The album pretty much transformed Harris’ career, reaching a new audience as the old one moved on. It was certainly my pivot point as well.

20 Years of Gay Prelude: The story itself

[The author, Sept. 1996]Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of my own coming out. It’s not a coincidence. In fact, I set myself up for it.

I was features editor of my college newspaper in 1995 and taking a news writing class at the same time. My professors encouraged me to publish whatever I did for class in the paper. So I assigned myself a story about National Coming Out Day.

It was something of a personal dare.

Five years previous, I fell in love with my best friend in high school, a guy who couldn’t reciprocate. I was still nursing that broken heart when I went to New York City on an exchange program from 1992 to 1993.

A gay guy who was also participating in the program noticed my behavior, particularly toward a mutual straight friend, and explained to me what I was going through. I was not ready to listen to him.

So I pretty much lived in a haze when I returned from New York City to continue my studies in Honolulu. At that point, I pretty much assumed anyone for whom I felt a crush couldn’t possibly return my feelings. I made the same assumption about a guy in the music program who resembled my high school friend.

That brings us to the weeks before Oct. 11, 1995.

I asked a fellow music student if she could reach out to people who wouldn’t mind being interviewed for my article. One of the people who replied was that guy from the music program.

After the article went to press, I met up with him and told him my story. He pointed me to the counseling services on campus, and by the end of that year, I had told select members of my immediate family.

Twenty years on and … well, my dating life has been a total wash.

But I can’t imagine the last two decades carrying the psychic baggage of remaining in the closet. Even if my lifestyle doesn’t reflect how gay (white) men live today, I like having the option to participate. (Even though I’m not white.)

So I’ll be spending this next month commemorating this anniversary by writing about the music and musicians tied to this event and the history leading up to it. At the very least, my Duran Duran fandom will finally be explained.

Looking Ahead: October 2015

[XTC - Oranges and Lemons]

The fall release schedule probably means a lot more to listeners far younger than myself, but I don’t really see much beyond these albums  — and ones previously reported — about which to get excited.

Rufus Wainwright, Prima Donna, Oct. 2

The bar for rock stars composing classical music is set low enough that exercises for first-year composition students in a conservatory become amazing acts of achievement. See Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel. Wainwright, however, really loves opera, and his songwriting already shows a strong predilection for storytelling.

Glenn Gould, Remastered: The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 9

Back in May 2015, I picked up the soundtrack to Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a movie I hadn’t seen since college.  Listening to the soundtrack made me crave to watch it again, and after getting the DVD, I’ve picked up a few Gould recordings from the used vinyl bins. I don’t think I’m enough of a fan to drop $200+ on this set, but it would be tempting.

XTC, Oranges and Lemons (Deluxe Edition), Oct. 23

Oranges and Lemons was the first XTC album I owned, although I like Skylarking and the Dukes of the Stratosphear’s Psonic Psunspot more.

Igor Stravinsky, The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 30

On the same day Duran Duran dropped that stinker of an album known as Red Carpet Massacre, I bought a 42-disc budget boxed set of Igor Stravisnky conducting his own works. This remastered collection promises another 15 discs of material. That budget set was $40 and had the barest minimum packaging it could muster. Don’t know if I can justify spending 5 times as much if I’m pretty much going to rip them anyway. But yeah … tempting …

Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris, Complete Trio Collection, TBD

Linda Ronstadt pretty much ruled out another Trio album when she revealed she had Parkinson’s disease. So this collection remasters the two Trio albums and adds a third disc of outtakes and rarities. Oct. 16 had originally been reported as the release date, but now no date has been set.


Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4, Jan. 22, 2016

Originally scheduled for Sept. 25 and then Oct. 16, Nonesuch’s recording of Górecki’s posthumous symphony has now been pushed back to January 2016.

The year in music for the graduating class of 1990

[Kronos Quartet - Black Angels]

I’m writing this entry ahead of time, but when it gets posted, I will have attended my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1990, a nice even number made all the more significant by its relative placement to a new century, let alone a new decade.

The musical identity of a decade doesn’t get established till two years into it, so until then, a lot of gambling happens among the tastemakers. Nielsen SoundScan was a year away from launching, which meant the Billboard charts in 1990 still relied on phone reports by retailers to determine its rankings.

That year, the chart-topping albums included MC Hammer’s Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Billboard created a new chart at the time to track what would eventually be known as alternative music. The songs on this chart would set the tone in the years to follow, but till then, radio spun hits by Wilson Phillips, Roxette and a newcomer named Mariah Carey.

For me, 1990 marked the year the foundation for my ensuing music collection solidified.

I stopped listening to radio two years before and relied entirely on magazines to direct my choices. In the days before streaming audio and widespread Internet access, I put a lot of faith in a writer’s ability to convince me to drop cash on something I’d never heard. Some of those gambles paid off, and some of them didn’t.

But it was the sense of discovery that provided that hit of dopamine on a malleable mind. Needless to say that kind of independence set me apart from everyone else in high school. My classmates were rallying around a shared experience. I was more concerned with finding something I could monopolize, perhaps even proselytize.

My new wave proclivities from freshman year evolved into a taste for what was called “college rock”. A friend ushered it in by playing Beelzebubba by the Dead Milkmen the summer before. Camper Van Beethoven, 10,000 Maniacs, the Replacements and Midnight Oil followed. And, of course, I remained steadfast to Duran Duran.

Kronos Quartet had introduced me to classical music, but Black Angels sent me down a path of study that would last the first half of the decade. The frightening timbres of George Crumb’s title piece and the anguish of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 tapped into the uncertainty I felt about my own identity. That taste for dissonance sharpened when the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb led to John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz.

Some of my choices that year would prove prescient, as college rock morphed into the alternative rock made popular by Nirvana. I remember my sister telling me she was watching 21 Jump Street, and a character mentioned Camper Van Beethoven and 10,000 Maniacs. She wouldn’t have recognized either of those bands had I not brought their albums home to inflict on everyone in the house.