Friday, October 17, 2014

Who are the 20th Century’s 10 best composers?

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Glass on the eve of the world premiere of his new opera The Trial, based on Kafka’s masterpiece. Researching for the discussion I was struck by the number of critics who describe Glass as one of the most influential composers of the 20th Century. It got me thinking about who my top 10 composers of the era would be. From modernism to minimalism, the previous century yielded musical riches beyond our wildest imaginings. War, race, sex and politics shaped the soundtrack – and much of the music of 1900-2000 is as fascinating as the historical and cultural context from which it emerged.

Any such list must be an exercise in subjectivity, of course: my omissions will no doubt outrage some. What about Elgar and Sibelius, Bartók and Janáček? Vaughan Williams? Or John Williams? Ravel? Xenakis? How could I leave out the post-modern giants Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle? To say nothing of Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, Lutosławski, Steve Reich? And how about John Adams, Elliot Carter? Well, sure. All of the above composers, and so many others, have bequeathed us masterpieces that have moved us, astonished us, baffled us, made us think, made us cry, made our hearts soar. After much soul-searching, these are simply the 10 geniuses who, for me, have done so the most.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

(The Art Archive/Alamy)
(The Art Archive/Alamy)
“It would be inconceivable,” said Schoenberg, “to attack the heroes who make daring flights over the ocean or to the North Pole, for their achievement is obvious to everyone. But although experience has shown that many a pioneer trod his path [with] absolute certainty at a time when he was still held to be wandering half-demented, most people invariably turn against those who strike out into unknown regions of the spirit… New music is never beautiful on first acquaintance.” Often forced onto the defensive like this, Schoenberg plunged fearlessly – and often beautifully – into the unknown, shattering the seemingly unbreakable rules of Western tonality that had prevailed for centuries. In reimagining harmony in so-called ‘tone rows’ he altered the course of classical music forever.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
His breakthrough work was The Firebird, produced in 1900 by Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes; thirteen years later, a full-scale riot legendarily broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, his ballet of pagan sacrifice (which historian Barbara Tuchman aptly describes as "the 20th Century incarnate"). The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross masterfully captures the work’s ominous energy, it raw, spooky power and explains how this is achieved both harmonically and rhythmically. "You have these two chords slammed together," Ross explains. "These are two adjacent chords. They're dissonant. They're being jammed together. And that's a harsh sound, and he keeps insisting on it. That chord repeats and repeats and repeats, pounding away." Rhythmically, Ross says, "It seems as though at first he's just going to have this regular pulse. But then these accents start landing in unexpected places, and you can't quite get the pattern of it…It's as if you're in a boxing ring, and this sort of brilliant fighter is coming at you from all directions with these jabs."

Stravinsky’s brilliance had a seismic impact on the rest of the century – not only on classical music, but on jazz, rock, modernist literature, painting, and even movies. Without Stravinsky, as Ross points out, where would the dinosaurs of Walt Disney’s Fantasia be? Thank goodness we need never find out.

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

(enato Toppo/Getty Images)
(enato Toppo/Getty Images)
Gerschwin was jazz-age prophet whose Rhapsody in Blue (1924) destabilised aesthetic categories and gave listeners a taste of things to come, and whose controversial 1935 opera Porgy & Bess came to define an epoch. But Gershwin was caught in the cross-fire between “those who see mass culture as the most valid expression of our time, and those who see it as the end of Western civilization”, as Gershwin scholar David Schiff puts it. Many of his fellow composers, including the likes of Aaron Copland, were scathing of Gershwin’s populism. But an enthusiastic public, deaf to such finicky debate, has lovingly listened on, through booms and busts, wars and peace; to say nothing of countless shifts in taste and fashion.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

(Keystone/Getty Images)
(Keystone/Getty Images)
Ellington was the most prolific composer of the century. A spectacular innovator, he wrote music for all kinds of settings, from the ballroom to the nightclub; the comedy stage to the movie house; the concert hall to the cathedral. The essence of his genius lay in his uncanny knack of synthesizing apparently disparate elements of music, including ragtime, minstrel songs, the blues, and the sounds of everything from Tin Pan Alley to the European music tradition. Always directly expressive and deceptively simple, his blues writing exploded received notions of form, harmony, and melody; he broke our hearts with the ultimate romantic ballads; he provided vehicle after vehicle for the greatest jazz singers of the age; and, of course, he made us all swing.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Persecuted by Stalin and declared an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1936, having previously been the golden boy of the Soviet music scene, Shostakovich is a figure who has gripped the public imagination as much for political as musical reasons. Forced to keep the authorities happy with his symphonic writing – at least until Stalin’s death – it was in his smaller works, such as the fifteen astonishing string quartets, that he could really push the limits of his musical voice and conjure a complete emotional world. Alex Ross, once again, is en exemplary field guide when it comes to exploring the psychological limits” of his music. “Shostakovich is a master manipulator of mood,” he writes. “He can show panicky happiness slipping into inchoate rage, and then crumbling into lethargic despair.”

John Cage (1912-1992)

(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Cage, according to his fellow avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, was the first composer in the history of music “who raised the question by implication that maybe music could be an art form rather than a music form.” Recalling the premiere of his legendary work of ‘silence’, 4’33”, Cage said: “There’s no such thing as silence. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Cage had an inspiring and insatiable appetite for cultural adventure: he implored us to wake up to the life we are living. “Art is a sort of experimental station,” he said, “in which one tries out living.”

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Musically speaking, Britten was more conservative than many of the other titans of the century, but his influence and vision is inestimable, particularly in the field of opera. The landmark Peter Grimes (1945) radically placed an unlovable anti-hero at its centre, and is a musically breathtaking voyage to the darkest nooks of both individual and group psychology. Britten’s conviction that opera needed to reach parts of the country beyond fancy metropolitan theatres led to the emergence of chamber or ‘pocket’ opera, which continues to transform an often lumbering art form into something nimble, dynamic and thrilling to this day. His compositional philosophy, says leading tenor Ian Bostridge, was “resolutely workaday and practical, concerned with usefulness to the community”. We owe him much.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

(Evening Standard/Getty Images)
(Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Bernstein was a populist: he unapologetically and urgently wanted to share the music he loved. And as a composer, conductor, broadcaster, writer and educator, he sought to make it accessible to as wide a public as possible. He grew up hearing everything, making no distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and an utter lack of pretension is evident in his music, among which works such as West Side Story, Candide and the Chichester Psalms must rank as among the finest in the entire century. One of Bernstein’s proteges, the American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, says many of his “perfect and iconic” songs “stake out a territory that we recognize as important to our inner lives.” Speaking to the Washington Post he described Bernstein’s as “music that haunts all of us. Talk about building large structures – it’s woven into the structure of your entire life.” Lenny also created the model, says Tilson Thomas, “for the socially responsible, inclusive, generous maestro, as opposed to the remote, preoccupied, professorial... He wasn’t the kind of high-priest conductor, or professor conductor, or inspector-general conductor, or reign of terror conductor. He was like, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together; let’s explore together.’”

Pierre Boulez (born 1925)

(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
(Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
The French firebrand composer defines the idea of what music today is, how it should sound, and how it could yet be. He is in his mid-80s, still unerringly gracious and dignified in person, and shows no sign of slowing down. He can still be seen regularly conducting from the podium, he is ferocious in his commitment to educating younger artists– and he still continually pushes boundaries in his own music. A living legend.

Philip Glass (born 1937)

(Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy)
(Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy)
The most imitated composer in the world is also one of the smartest and most ominovorously curious. A supposedly ‘minimalist’ composer, his decidedly maximalist output has seen him compose something like 30 operas; 10 symphonies; chamber music; concertos for violin, piano, timpani and saxophones; and many award-winning film soundtracks including The Hours, The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show. Glass has collaborated with everyone from Paul Simon to Yo-Yo Ma, Woody Allen to David Bowie and his music appeals to listeners of all generations and backgrounds; genuinely bridging a gap between musical worlds which can often seem disconnected.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Avoid the Attack of the Google Penguin

When Google released its webspam algorithm update, Penguin, on April 24, heads spun. While it’s common for algorithms to stir debate, the Penguin update triggered an alarming amount of criticism. Webmasters and SEOs fired back at the new algorithm, claiming that it will only hurt site rankings.

Well, that’s true. But, this algorithm is aimed at sites that are cheating the search system.

The purpose of Google’s Penguin is to crack down on sites that are purposely over-optimized in order to achieve a high standing in the SERPs. Google recognizes the unfairness between sites with high quality content but low rankings, and sites with heavy optimization and low quality content that appear higher in the SERPs.

“The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content. While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics,” said Google Engineer Matt Cutts.

Google’s aim is to give each site a fair chance of ranking well in the SERPs. Sites that manipulate the search system will be penalized by Google in which they will be removed from Google’s index and become invisible to search engines.

While every site wants to be at the forefront of Google, the Penguin is keeping close guard on its organic traditions and cautiously eyeing sites to ensure no black hat techniques occur.

If you’re curious if any of the SEO practices you follow may cost you a penalty, here are a few tips to help your site avoid an attack by the Google Penguin:

-Avoid the overuse of exact-match domains
-Be cautious of your keyword density
-Write fresh and clear content on each page
-Don’t scrape content
-Create titles that are creative and don’t contain solely keywords
-Write unique anchor texts and avoid exact-match text
-Write guest blogs to link to your site
-Create high quality links
-Post useful feedback on other blogs
-Share your writing on social media sites
-Take note of your page loading time

The best method to avoid being hit by the Google Penguin is to think organic.
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Google's Penguin Update Makes Waves Through Online Marketing Industry


If there is one rule to the internet marketing industry it is the fact that the industry is in constant flux. There are constant changes that push those tracking the search engines and the way they function to keep obsessively up-to-date in order to understand the ways they function, and by extension how sites can be optimized to rank on them. Although there are several important search engines, including Yahoo and Bing, Google undeniably dominates both in the US and around the globe, except in certain markets like China where Baidu, the local alternative, has the largest market share.

As a result, the changes that occur with Google are those that are tracked to the closest degree because understanding Google's search algorithm and intern how to rank effectively on it will bring the greatest return at present. Google's changes are thus tracked very closely, and their latest large-scale revision called the Penguin Update was released two weeks ago and the industry is just now wrapping its head around the implications.

In essence, most of the changes that occur from Google are noteworthy and important, but are usually not entirely game-changing. Google's Inside Search blog posts monthly updates that highlight the changes that have been made for each month, and this is very beneficial to the industry. With the larger changes such as the Panda Update last year and now the Penguin Update, the changes are more significant. With Penguin, the search algorithm takes direct aim at those websites that are over-optimized and have engaged in questionable search engine optimization practices. Of particular note, the update penalizes sites that engage in:
  • Keyword stuffing- the practice of having too many mentions of a keyword or keyword phrase in on-page site content.
  • Illegitimate Links - links that are bought and established from low quality sites.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Google Penguin Update: 5 Types of Link Issues Harming Some Affected Websites


Are you angry and looking for answers about why your rankings vanished after Google released its Penguin update? One common factor thus far appears to be the signals of links that are pointing to your website, early analysis indicates.

The main purpose of the Penguin update is to put a deep freeze on web spam in Google's search results. By extension, a big piece of that web spam appears to be links from low-quality networks. 

Natural Links

Before we get into the new findings, first it’s important to understand a bit about Google and links.

Above all, Google considers links as editorial "votes". So, theoretically, the sites that receive the most votes should rank higher on Google because more people find them valuable.

Google analyzes the quantity, quality, and relevance of websites that link to yours. When Google looks at your link profile, they’re looking at such things as what types of websites link to yours, how quickly you acquired these links, and the anchor text (the clickable words) used by the linking website. When Google's algorithm detects such things as a large number of new links or an imbalance in the anchor text, it raises a big red flag.

As Google and many SEOs have preached for years, you’ll attract more links by creating unique, worthwhile content that others will want to link to naturally. If you want to learn more about Google, links, and link building, definitely read our posts “Why Links Matter”, "Filthy Linking Rich", and “Introduction to Google PageRank: Myths & Facts”.

Unnatural Links

For companies that have been hit by the Penguin update, one common theme appears to be a severe lack of natural links, according to a blog post by Glenn Gabe at G-Squared Interactive. He noted five common issues these sites are all facing:

Paid text links using exact match anchor text: For companies that want to rank for a certain term (such as “red widgets”) one way to accomplish this is by buying links from other websites with that exact matching anchor text. This is against Google’s guidelines, as Google would consider this a paid link that exists solely to manipulate PageRank, rather than to provide any value to visitors.

Comment spam: Two things proved problematic for websites trying to unnaturally rank for specific keywords: signatures in comments that contained exact match anchor text; and people who used a spammy user name (e.g., Best India SEO Company) as exact match text.

Guest posts on questionable sites: Although guest posts are a legitimate way to earn links to your site, sites dinged by the Penguin had links pointing to their website from sites filled with low-quality articles where the focus was on the anchor text rather than the content.

Article marketing sites: Thin content featuring links with exact match anchor text were another common factor among affected sites.

Links from dangerous sites: Do you have inbound links from sites that have been flagged for malware, numerous pop-ups, or other spammy issues? This was another factor that caused websites to lose their Google rankings, so links to and from web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” are a danger.

Ultimately, the Penguin update didn’t really change anything that Google has deemed unacceptable. Google has just evolved its algorithm to catch up to those who try to loophole their way to higher Google rankings (and, to be fair, some who simply don't know any better or fully understand SEO). If any (or all) of the above are your sole link building tactic(s), you probably aren't doing enough to rank prominently long-term on Google anymore.

For those unfamiliar, Google has a section devoted to link schemes and makes no secret that such practices “can negatively impact your site's ranking in search results.”

Penguin Recovery?

So, fix all these link issues, eliminate any instances of keyword stuffing, spun content, cloaking, and other spammy tactics and you're guaranteed a Penguin recovery, right? Not necessarily. There are never any magical guarantees for gaining or regaining top search rankings and Google is notoriously tight-lipped about the exact signals it uses to detect web spam.

Additionally, Google is constantly making tweaks to its search algorithm. So check your traffic in analytics and make sure your traffic indeed was impacted starting on or after April 24. If your traffic vanished before this date, another change might be to blame – there was also a parked domain classifier issue the week prior to Penguin's launch in addition to the latest Panda refresh on April 19.

Regardless, with the new tag team of Panda and Penguin, Google can put the smack down on websites that appear to be creating or supporting spam to increase their rankings in search engines. So even if you fix all these link signals, you still must make sure you have quality content. 

Life After Penguin

While it’s much easier to blame Google and sign a petition begging Google to kill its Penguin update, this isn't the time to give up. Now is the time to look at your website, do a proper, careful evaluation of your inbound link profile, clean up your website, and devise a smarter marketing and business strategy that doesn't rely on Google for the majority of your traffic and income so you can escape the endless loop of Google algorithm updates:

google-algo-change

This isn’t to say Google or any search engine results are perfect – though now might be a good time to check out alternatives like Google's closest competitor, Bing, or upstarts Blekko and DuckDuckGo. Google has created a Penguin feedback form for those who feel websites have been hit unfairly, but this update is algorithmic as opposed to a manual penalty (i.e., reviewed by a human), so don’t expect to see whatever rankings you’ve lost miraculously restored over night.

If you’re a small business, there are ways to Google-proof your marketing. And don't forget to look for non-Google-based link opportunities.

But above all, sometimes when these algorithmic changes roll out, one of the wisest moves is to be patient and carefully analyze any changes before you react blindly to the latest penalty – because by the time you do that, Google will release the latest Panda or its next iteration of Penguin, and you'll be trapped again in the endless loop of relying solely on a third party (Google) for your livelihood.

Monday, April 23, 2012

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