CHICAGO, December 24th, 2014 – As the holidays draw ever closer, you may be finding yourself in a bind regarding what to get for that special musician on your gift list. Just in the Saint Nick of time, we at the Communities Arts & Entertainment section give you a last-minute selection of new items and tried and true classics sure to impress your dearest musical friends.
Hearing on a new level
A huge listening fad this year has been expressed in the near omnipresence of Apple’s “Beats” headphones, supposedly designed by Dr. Dre (as if he had an engineering degree) and – going between 160 and 350 dollars – certainly priced well above the underwhelming results they provide.
By contrast, there are a number of studio quality headphones that pack superior results with a far lower pricetag. (Fads do come with a price, after all.)
We reviewed Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X’s, whose solid but comfortable build, good sound isolation, and excellent sound quality make them an incredible bargain, while affording your musician friend the opportunity to joyfully lecture his friends about what “real” headphones should sound like. The headphones proved to be very light on ear-fatigue, while providing a well-balanced sound with a very tight lower register. If the regular going internet price of about 160.00 is still out of your price range, the previous generation comparable M50’s can readily be found under 120.00. Sounds great to us!
Recordings to consider
If your music fan has a taste for older masterworks, then the recently released “Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception” may be a very welcome addition to their collection. The simply beautiful recording contains a selection of luminous Dominican chants from various Marian feasts. Produced by Dominicana records and sung by the ambitious friars of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., this moody yet deeply reverent album provides an authentic sampling of sacred music as it should be done.
If your musician is a real audiophile, then they will certainly joy in the all male choir’s sparkling renditions of plainchant in the atmospheric confines of Washington’s “Fransiscan Monastery of the Holy Land”; one is truly transported into the warmth of this lovely acoustic space. For director Fr. James Moore, this is a successful follow-up effort to his schola’s recent recording “In Medio Ecclesiae,” which we gave a rave review earlier in the year. Both albums are available at Dominicanablog.
Yet if your musician prefers something new, we can only echo our recent praises for “Excelsior” by Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. This astounding debut effort percolates with energy and verve, and may be the new music recording of the year.
Of all the films this reviewer has seen this year, the somewhat recent “Sounds and Silence” from ECM records brought a particular satisfaction. This understated and somewhat minimalist effort nevertheless packs a huge aesthetic punch, as it follows famed ECM producer Manfred Eicher around the world to his various diverse recording projects. To those seeking insider production information or an engineering master class, the film may disappoint.
Yet the movie certainly succeeds in unflinchingly capturing those pure human moments of aesthetic transcendence which can occur during the attempt to capture effervescent sound onto fixed media. Whether it is that humorous moment where Eicher and Arvo Part find themselves dancing arm in arm, or the synergetic confluence where cellist Anja Lechner settles into a perfect groove with her collaborating partner, the film is pure condensed inspiration. (Available as DVD or Blu-Ray)
A musical literary classic
Music is a remarkably tough field in which to find stability – let alone success – and the struggle can be considerably amplified by a tough economy. How encouraging to read, then, that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was savaged by critics, Mozart endured royal reprimand for “writing too many notes,” and the now revered “Prelude from Tristan and Isolde” was compared by one contemporary critic to the act of disembowelment. Such critical misfires, along with a large collection of personal stories and quaint historical facts, are on display in the classic “The Book of Musical Anecdotes” by Norman Lebrecht.
Band in a box, or synth revival?
Over the past few years, everyone from bright kids to intrepid engineers have been having a blast creating various electronic inventions using the magnetic kits from littleBits. More recently, Korg collaborated with littleBits to create a : “Synth Kit” which is our “present of the year” for 2014.
For true lovers of sound and audio geeks, this toy is almost too good to be true.
The synth kit includes 12 modules, whose “idiot proof” method is based on reusable magnetic connectors which only allow things to be connected in a working order. Beginning with the power from a single 9 volt battery and ending in a small speaker with a headphone jack option, musicians can combine various classic synth controllers to create and modify sound out of one of two oscillators.
The result is an almost endlessly configurable instrument which is as educational as it is fun to play with. In terms of giftability, this kit may have that special “how did I never hear of this incredible toy?” value to it which is sure to impress. Currently on sale for 159.00 from the littleBits website, we simply cannot recommend this item more.
From all of us at the Communities Arts and Entertainment section, we wish you a Happy Holidays. And may your New Year be filled with the discovery and pursuit of beauty!