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UNSW/NICTA Robotic ClarinetMusical instruments that play themselves are far from new. The barrel organ dates back to the 9th century; a 16th century example is still in use today. Mozart and Haydn composed music especially for the Viennese flute-clock, a mechanized organ favored from about 1720. The music box is a relative latecomer; it dates from the very last years of the 18th century.

What is unusual, though, is machinery that plays an existing instrument. One of the rare examples is the Vorsetzer, developed in the early 20th century. It was a piano player, rather than a player piano. It recorded not the sound of the piano, but rather the movements of the keys and pedals when a virtuoso played the instrument. The reproducing apparatus (the Vorsetzer; literally, "sitter-before") was rolled up to a piano, and it reproduced the actions of the pianist. Assuming a playback piano more or less equivalent to the recording instrument, the result was a performance that (in theory at least) sounded as if the virtuoso were playing for you in your own living room.

While one could certainly argue whether any machine can adequately reproduce the touch of a human pianist, a wind or string instrument is yet another matter.

You might say that musician and instrument are closely coupled. The wind player’s body is literally part of the instrument, the mouth and windpipe acting as a resonating cavity. The shape of the mouth and lips interacts with a flute’s lip plate or embouchure hole, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, or the reed of a clarinet, oboe, or bassoon. In a way, playing a wind instrument has a lot in common with singing — it involves the entire performer, body and mind.

Here we have a machine that holds and plays a clarinet.

But it does not sing.

Understand, I’m not dismissing this accomplishment. Any student who has struggled with a clarinet embouchure will tell you that machinery able to coax a more or less stable tone from a clarinet, be it carbon-based or silicon-based, is a long way from trivial. Even with modern computer control, the device demonstrated below is no mean feat.

Remarkable as it may be, it has a long way to go before the results can be called musical. Over 100 years later, this gadget doesn’t approach the Vorsetzer’s ability to preserve the performer’s interpretive skill and musicanship — at least not yet. Although my left brain is impressed with the technology, my right brain thinks it would rather hear a beginning student play Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

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Aaron Copland never called Rodeo ‘Ro-DAY-oh’, as nearly all Classical announcers do (including Yours Truly). He simply called it ‘ROH-dee-oh’, just like the people who go to them. None of this nose-in-the-air as you go strutting down the famous shopping drive in L.A., but plain folks enjoying some distinctly Western-American Cowboy culture.

Why is it that sometimes when Classical music announcers and even aficionados grab hold of something that is down-to-earth like Rodeo from Aaron Copland, do they have to try to raise it from the rest of society, as though now only certain people are allowed to enjoy it? Hmmm.

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Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Most recently sat down with WKSU’s David Roden to discuss the upcoming Blossom season and next weekend’s Severance Hall production of Dvorak’s opera, Rusalka. Look for more on Blossom later – in the meantime, here is Roden’s interview on Rusalka in 6 parts.

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Ries Roller CoasterI’ve had symphonies leave me just about breathless, but this is the first one that’s threatened to make me dizzy.

Ferdinand Ries was one of Beethoven’s students. Though he’s not too well known in the States, he’s a minor favorite in some of the German-speaking nations. An ad agency, Euro RSCG Zürich, produced this as a promotional piece for the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, using the music and the score from Ries’s second symphony in a surprising and creative way. (Hint: watch the note values as they go by.)

Zurich Chamber Orchestra Rides the Rails

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Ever try to catch the title of a piece of music you enjoy hearing on WKSU, and miss it entirely? That’s why WKSU publishes its music lists on this website, and has for many years. We’re also available via phone or email to provide real human help.

Yet some of our listeners still say they have trouble finding the CDs we play.

The problem is that what we play isn’t always readily available. We’ve been collecting CDs at WKSU since the CD was introduced in 1984, and we now have somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 in the library. I’d guess that a good half to three-quarters of them are out of print. But there’s fine music on those CDs, so we’re not about to stop playing them!

Some of these orphan recordings have been reissued under new catalog numbers, but there’s no published cross-reference which links old CD catalog numbers with new ones. Other recordings have simply vanished from the catalog altogether, sometimes lost forever but for the efforts of used and cutout recording dealers.

Even when we’re able to identify the CD and find a current manufacturer, that may not help if the listener can’t find a place to buy it. Mall CD shops seldom stock anything beyond the most popular recordings of the most basic repertoire — if indeed they have any classical music. Increasingly, I’ve steered listeners seeking CDs toward the Internet retailers, which are often better able to special-order classical CDs than local stores.

One of the handful I consistently recommend is Arkivmusic.

Understand, they’re far from perfect.

  • Their website is fairly easy to comprehend, but it’s missing something I consider absolutely basic — a search function. You have to locate everything in a tedious drilldown.
  • Unlike most online vendors, they seldom let you listen before buying. Only recently have Arkivmusic finally started providing sample audio clips, and they still don’t have them for every track.
  • Their prices are far from the lowest.

But a couple of positives have kept Arkivmusic in the running, at least for me.

For one thing, it’s actually run by classical people. With some of the large online CD vendors, classical music seems almost an afterthought — even though classical CD sales remain surprisingly strong while pop CD sales are in a steep decline. One other major Internet vendor’s classical search barely works, for example.

I also don’t know of another major vendor which actually brings back out of print classical recordings. A couple years ago, Arkivmusic began licensing major-label recordings that had been deleted from the catalog. They offer them on CD-Rs — in plain English, burned CDs. The company produces them on demand, meaning that when you order one, they make one for you and mail it. The artwork varies from nothing more than a card with the movement titles to, in some cases, duplicates of the originals. They now reissue about 100 late and lamented CDs per week, and have a total of over 5,000 such rescued titles listed on their website.

Eric and Jon Feidner founded Arkivmusic in 2002, entirely with private financing. This allowed them to remain independent and follow their own musical instincts. But pop music distribution is increasingly handled through Internet downloads, and the Feidners expect classical music to eventually go that way too. How could they finance the costs of developing such a system?

This week, the answer arrived. Arkivmusic has been bought out. Not by Amazon, though you might have expected that; but by Steinway and Sons, the piano manufacturer. Steinway made an inital US$3 million payment, and will invest a further US$1.5 million over the next 3 years.

The radical difference in their businesses — Steinway and Arkivmusic pretty much intersect only on the words "classical music" — means it’s unlikely that there will be any merging of operations. However, perhaps we’ll soon see a growing catalog of reissued piano recordings on the Arkivmusic website — featuring Steinway artists, of course. We’ll have to see whether that new priority will slow down their reissues of recordings by the likes of Antal Dorati and Les Arts Florissants.

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