A trio of computing innovations (and tumbling prices for these innovations) has assembled, ladies and gentlemen, and desktops and laptops are poised to become a primary music source for discriminating listeners.

First, much more space for storage at much lower cost is now available on hard disks that run faster and quieter.

Second, that information can now be drawn into computer chips that: gobble up bigger chunks of audio information at higher speeds; get their directions from increasingly sophisticated, user-friendly software; and run in rigs that draw off considerable electronic heat without making a racket.

Third, affordable external “DACs” (digital-to-analogue converters), that can be plugged into computers without fiddling about and tearing of hair, are now available. This means victory over the electrical impulses and vibrations which take place within computer cases and create a poor environment to go about the task of converting discrete digital signals of 1 or 0 into analogue electrical waves that produce analogue physical waves for the human ear.

Let’s start with the storage challenge, which has been handily met. For under $150, we can now get a quiet 1 Tb external hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm, and cools itself without recourse to a noisy fan.

That’s what I paid after walking around the corner to a good local computer shop; choosing a fanless Vantec external hard drive case that had a fast Firewire 800 connection for my Mac, and an even faster eSata connection for my Windows machine. I then got whatever high quality drive was on sale that week, and popped the case open to insert the drive.

That 1 Tb capacity translates into roughly 1400 CDs in full fidelity sound contained in a gadget that’s smaller than the average hard cover book!  Make that 2800 albums if the files are stored in a format like Apple Lossless or FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) that uses computational techniques to cut file size in half without sacrificing one bit of sound.  (For comparison, you could get more than 10,000 albums on that same hard disk if all you want is anti-hifi, highly compressed and sonically impoverished MP3s.)

But move over, iPod.  We’re in another world here. Who needs 10,000 MP3s? Even with “only” 2,800 albums on the drive, if you got a full-time job to listen to them all, 8 hours a day for seven days a week, and no vacation to boot, it would take you a year to get through all this music.  And by that time your employer would hand you a new hard disk with double the capacity for the same price, and tell you to report back in two years!

So what’s the value of having so much music to listen to, or a single hard disk that holds more music that most people can afford to buy in a lifetime?  One example that comes to mind is an aspiring opera singer, or a serious listener preparing to attend a live opera performance. One can invoke software options creating a playlist of the top recordings of a given aria, rather than finding and then loading and unloading ten CDs. Or one can rapidly compare how a Mozart concerto sounds when played on the pianos available to the composer in the later eighteenth century, vs. the sound of the metal-framed behemoths that were created during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.

The possibilities and pleasures are legion.

Since few people have the means to buy all the recordings that can fit on ever-larger hard disks, the eventual solution will probably be subscription services that put recordings on subscribers’ hard disks, but render the files unplayable if the subscription is dropped.

A final note on hard disk music libraries: for times out of the office, I also selected a smaller fanless hard drive case that uses 2.5” notebook drives as opposed to the 3.5’ drives used in desktops.  This time I used mail order to get an especially robust case from Other World Computing.

Moving now to the second dimension, decoding, there are ads in every weekend’s papers offering computers yielding ever more clout for fewer bucks. The threshhold for decoding full-fidelity audio files without splutters was reached a while ago. Now the challenge is playing HD video and high definition audio minus burps. That currently requires discrete graphics and audio cards, with their own chips and memory, to take over intensive AV work from the computer’s main chip.

The third dimension of audiophile computing, affordably converting digital signals to analogue electrical waves outside the computer case, has gained critical mass during the past two years. Headroom’s “Total Bithead,” one of the best bargains, period, in quality audio, is a solution that I’ve  tested over the last six months.  Roughly $200 gets you a combined external DAC and headphone amplifier.  When the Total Bithead is plugged into the USB port of a computer, it’s powered by the computer as well as bypassing the computer’s sound card to draw direct digital information  If you plug an iPod or other player into the Bithead, it runs on battery power. As you can see from the photo of the Total Bithead juxtaposed with the cover of the Virgin Classics DVD of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, the combination DAC/AMP is just about the same size as an iPod Classic.

I plugged a pair of Grado SR125 headphones into the Bithead. They cost about the same as the DAC/AMP. For equivalent quality sound from standard amps and speakers, you’d have to spend at least five times as much to get the same accurate, uncoloured sound suitable for reviewing CDs.  Plus the Total Bithead and SR125’s weigh in together at under one pound, and fit comfortably into a laptop case.

DAC processing seems, at first, to be a straightforward affair:  engineers move processing outside the computer’s electrically and mechanically noisy innards to an external box.

In fact, doing this right is the opposite of easy, especially if one is trying to come up with a product that mere mortals can afford.  You have hundreds of thousands of rapidly flowing on-and-off electrical signals that have to be decoded into continuous electrical waves.  On the receiving side, decoding must be tightly coordination with the signal source.

If that coordination is just slightly off kilter, you get, literally, the jitters: microscopic gaps in timing between source playback and DAC translation that are leveraged into larger disjuncts that muck up sound quality.

The Total Bithead does the basic digital translation amd signal coordination job very well indeed. It stays within standard “Redbook” parameters: 16 bits of sound information sampled at 44 Khz per second.  More advanced DACs impute greater depth (more bits in samples) or higher sampling rates to smooth out the sounds, or work directly with newer high definition recordings.

The Total Bithead, combined with quality headphones, has more than sufficient capacity to give a sonically accurate, transparent and pleasurable reading of standard CDs and DVDs.  I literally don’t leave home without it.

Opera has pushed hi-tech envelopes from the birth of this modern art form in 1600.  Seventeenth century Italian opera utilized all the early capitalist technology it could lay its hands on to create a multimedia experience.  It was a total art form two centuries before Wagner bragged about inventing the practice.

The marriage of opera and hi-tech marches ahead in our own time, and the Metropolitan Opera leads the parade, and has been doing so for over a century.  In 1901, the Met pulled off the first recordings of live opera performances via the new medium of wax cylinders. In 1931, its live Saturday afternoon international radio broadcasts kicked off and became a staple for music lovers across the globe.  The Met became the pioneer in live stereo radio broadcasting in 1973.

On the visual front, the Met organized its first live TV broadcasts in 1948 and then moved to the 1952 precursor of today’s HD satellite transmissions, a live cine-cast to 27 theatres. The live HD broadcasts kicked off in the autumn of 2006, and now reach 900 packed movie theatres across the globe.

The Met’s newest hi-tech venture is streaming high definition video and audio over the Internet.  Its Met Player subscription service will ultimately include all the HD Live performances within several months of playing in theatres; all the Met performances that appeared on PBS television since 1977; and the radio broadcasts from 1937 onwards.


The $64,000 question is whether today’s relatively high speed cable and DSL lines are fast enough. There’s little question they will, in the not too distant future. But, with respect to the operability of the Met Player now...? After test runs of the Met Player in HD mode, I’m very pleased to report that we are — provided one has a newer computer with capabilities that would have cost a bundle not too long ago, but are modestly priced today.

The price for the Met Player subscription itself is certainly right, and the service is available in Canada, or anywhere else in the world where government policy or private monopolies don’t interfere: US $14.99 per month, or $149.99 yearly (and you thought it wasn’t possible to buy anything from New York for $15).

With New York street prices for Blu-Ray opera disks ranging from US $21 to $38, and higher yet in Canada, it doesn’t take many viewings to make the Met subscription pay for itself.  One can also rent access to HD broadcasts for $4.99, or standard broadcasts for $3.99 (must be accessed within 30 days, with a 6 hours maximum viewing time). A monthly subscription is clearly a better deal, and a free 7-day trial, offered at www.metopera.org. A potential glitch, not the Met’s doing,  in this happy pricing situation: greedy Internet service providers tacking on extra charges, and not small charges at that, when the combined volume of monthly downloading and uploading files exceeds an imposed threshold. Check your provider’s policy in order to avoid a nasty surprise at the end of the month. And look for another provider if your present supplier is countering the logic of information technology via price gouging.

The audiovisual riches arrive via the Move Media Player plugin for one of three browsers: recent versions of Internet Explorer, the open source Firefox, or Apple’s Safari. For maximal performance of the Met Player, I recommend Safari with Windows or Mac. In civilian life, I use Firefox because the hundreds of software plugins written for it make it the Swiss Army Knife of browsers.  But when it’s a question of streaming video, I switch to Safari: it’s faster.

62 cenerentola screen shot 1Accessing the Met videos in HD performance requires a relatively new and sprightly computer.  That means Intel Dual Core chip,  minimum speed of 2 Ghz, and running on updated versions of Windows XP, or Vista, or Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5. Most new desktop or notebook computers sold these days, even at modest prices, fit the bill.

Second, the computer needs a graphics processor  that uses at least 128 Mb of memory.  Preferably this should be a “discrete” stand-alone graphics card with its own memory chip, not a graphics chip on the mother board. In Windows this means desktops starting around $800 and laptops around $1200.  For Macs, you’re talking about an iMac or Macbook Pro, starting about $600 higher than minimal  Windows configurations, but worth the money if audiovisual performance is the name of the game.

I tested the Met Player in HD mode using a Macbook Pro, with sound fed through HeadRoom’s modestly priced Total Bithead combination DAC  (digital-to-analog converter ) and headphone amplifier ($CA 175).   I listened via Grado SR125 headphones, an audiophile bargain running less than $CA 200.

The HD video flowed with barely the odd, brief splutter --- and that’s at the end of a rural DSL line that’s more than four miles away from the relay station.

Net result? I had to tear myself away to write the piece! Sign me up!

A renewed interest in the history and preservation of silent film has yielded such celebrations as the second annual Toronto Silent Film Festival, taking place in various venues from March 30-April 7. Historically, screenings of silent films have invariably featured live musical accompaniment, a tradition this festival keeps alive.

52_o__mearaAmong the featured musicians this year will be William O’Meara, one of Toronto’s preeminent organists, who has to date accompanied over 200 silent films around the world!

What is it about silent film that speaks to O’Meara?

“I studied improvisation just as thoroughly as composed music and was lucky to have a teacher, William Wright at U. of T., whose instruction methods in improvisation class required disciplined application of form, structure and counterpoint to improvisations. I’ll never forget the thrill of being able to improvise a decent four-part fugue, keeping all the parts, structure, counterpoint and harmonic progressions organized in my head a few bars ahead of my fingers. After that, free-style improvisation was a breeze! The marriage of my improvisation skills and silent films came about through two events: a request from the ROM in the late 1980’s to accompany some Eastern European silent films as part of the Precious Legacies exhibit and subsequently, the encouragement of a filmmaker/musician friend who suggested I apply my improvisation skills for silent film accompanying. Not seeing any opportunities though, I produced a few silent film screenings here in Toronto and Calgary, thoroughly enjoyed the experience, received positive feedback, and the rest as they say is history. Silent film accompanying has been a rewarding and fascinating part of my career as a musician for over 20 years.”

How does O’Meara prepare for these gigs?

“Preparation is two-fold. The first is ongoing and long-term preparation. Just like a soloist who practises his/her repertoire daily, whether there is a concert engagement in a week or two months, I likewise practise my improvisation skills regularly. Harmonic tricks, chord progressions, melodic patterns – the list is endless and limited only by imagination. The second form of preparation is more immediate: preview the film as many times as possible and work out some musical themes or motifs relating to characters or situations in the film. These motifs will provide the musical structure, giving form to my improvisations and linking them together. The most challenging and rewarding films to accompany are, for lack of a better word, “serious” films by such masters as Lubitsch, Ozu, Dreyer, Lang and others. The universality and timelessness of the subject matter is like a porthole to musical imagination.”

O’Meara’s advice:

“To be artistic, the accompaniment to a silent film must always play second fiddle to the film. Regardless of its musical style, the improvisation or a composed score should play off of the rhythm, pacing and structure of the film. Otherwise, the music becomes the show, not the film.”

The WholeNote ETCeteras cover announcements, lectures, masterclasses, screenings and more! Send items of interest by the15th of the preceding month to etc@thewholenote.com.

Edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney

• John Weinzweig, “The Dean of Canadian Composers” and stalwart champion of the arts, died in 2006 at the age of 93. Last year it was my privilege to be part of a distinguished team working on the latest addition to the annals of Canadian musicology, “Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music” edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). You will find a full review in these pages in an upcoming issue, but I wanted to say a few words about the launch of this important volume which took place at a lavish event in the foyer of Koerner Hall on January 13.

With both editors and most of the more than a dozen contributors present, and soprano Mary Lou Fallis presiding over the festivities, the event was charged with emotion. We heard testimonials from Weinzweig’s sons Paul (who in a witty reminiscence modestly claimed his father’s infatuation with dissonance was a result of an excruciating piano performance he gave in the presence of his father’s peers as a youngster) and Daniel, who has been a moving force in keeping his father’s legacy in the public eye (including a new centenary initiative – contact weinzweig100@gmail.com for details).

The highlight of the event was the audition of several Weinzweig compositions: selections from the 1989 piano cycle Micromotions performed by Cheryl Duvall, a 2010 graduate of the master’s program at the U of T Faculty of Music; and Divertimento No. 2 with Hugo Lee, an outstanding young oboist from Unionville High School for the Arts ably accompanied by the school’s string ensemble under the direction of editor Beckwith’s son Larry. The performances culminated with the mistress of ceremonies, Canada’s darling “Diva on a Moose” accompanied by Peter Tiefenbach, treating us to an updated staging of “Hello Rico” from Private Collection.

John Weinzweig was a vocal activist whose main concern was making the music of our time and place available without compromise. It bodes well for the future that a new generation is being exposed to, and embracing, this music of our recent past.

—David Olds

Launching a book, CD, initiative, campaign, etc? Send items of interest to etc@thewholenote.com.

Lunchtime Chamber Music, September 12, 2017 at Yorkminster Park Norman Reintamm (piano); Alik Volkov (cello)Tracing musical continuity in a music series is often a challenge, because of changes in personnel, location and assumptions. All the more reason therefore in 2017/18 to celebrate the 25th anniversary season of classical concerts presented by the Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation (NSAF) and its artistic director, Toronto composer, conductor and organist Eric Robertson.

Now named Lunchtime Chamber Music, the series currently takes place at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church (on Yonge St. north of St. Clair Ave.). Sometimes performers are advanced students, through formal linkages with the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and the Royal Conservatory Glenn Gould School; at other times they are musicians from Toronto and elsewhere, reaching out to new audiences. The admission-free, donations-welcome concerts take place Tuesdays between 12:10 and 1pm, September to June.

A personal note: I first learned of these events from a longtime attendee, my mother. Mary Knox’s own musical involvement began in the late 1930s accompanying the North Toronto Collegiate choir, where for three years, young composer Godfrey Ridout came in as musical director for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Rehearsal duties were shared by Mary and singer/arranger/pianist Denny Vaughan, who later flourished during the early days of television in England and Hollywood. My mother’s younger sister Alice was a violinist who once played with North Toronto Collegiate fellow student, composer and pianist Harry Somers.

A decade ago mom conveyed to me her enthusiasm about a series of organ recitals at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor St., coordinated by organist-choirmaster Eric Robertson. In 2009 when Eric and the NSAF came to Christ Church Deer Park, they organized Lunchtime Chamber Music (and I promptly joined the church choir). Eric and NSAF moved to Yorkminster Park in 2014 where they present these chamber music recitals under the auspices of the Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation and Yorkminster’s Open Doors Ministry.

That this latest move was right across the street was no accident. North of Bloor St., a transition begins between Toronto’s concert-rich downtown and a more understated classical “musical ecology.” Classical music lovers sometimes overlook church concerts. Yorkminster Park is one of a number of “churches on the hill” in the area; Calvin Presbyterian is a popular venue for presenters and ensembles. Christ Church Deer Park, and further west, Grace Church on-the-Hill and Timothy Eaton United, collaborate regularly on choral concerts, present series of their own, and make their premises available. Seniors, local residents, and others further afield attend the Lunchtime Chamber Music series at Yorkminster Park. Many older people find the noon-hour neighbourhood option more attractive than night time downtown.

The Lunchtime Chamber Music series reaches out widely for its performers as well as its audiences: the Glenn Gould School actively organizes students’ community performances, while at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, students are encouraged to perform off-site several times a year. LCM’s “Rising Stars Recitals” help fill a real need, offering advanced students from the University and Glenn Gould School the opportunity to do trial runs of graduation recitals or other major performances. Yorkminster Park supports the program by providing free use of a space with superb acoustics and a Steinway piano. As Nine Sparrows president Colleen Burns recalls, “There was a time when I was a vocal student that I needed opportunities to perform, but didn’t always have the means to rent a hall.”

Key to the series’ ongoing appeal is its diversity. Among performers and programs I have heard in past seasons have been: violinist Sonia Sokolay, a master’s student at New England Conservatory, who has appeared several times and is planning to bring her string quartet from Boston to play; The Hogtown Brass whose concert appearance was followed soon after by a CD reviewed in The WholeNote; and flutist Alan Pulker, The WholeNote’s founding publisher, in intriguing unaccompanied works by C.P.E. Bach and Telemann.

The 2017/18 anniversary series is off to a flying start. It began September 12 with a concert featuring Norman Reintamm, piano, and father-and-son cellists Oleg and Alik Volkov, in a program of the four movements of Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op.1 interlaced with three cello and piano works. A pianist, organist, conductor and mentor, Reintamm says the seldom-programmed Brahms “was a personal challenge” and for this listener he rose to that challenge. Of Lunchtime Chamber Music, he comments: “I think it’s what young professionals need, non-pressure-cooker music making. Eric and Colleen give a warm welcome that puts people at ease. For Alik (Volkov), performing with an older professional lets him gain from the other’s experience. With Oleg, you get to learn from someone who was a student of Rostropovich, who played in the Bolshoi and other orchestras.”

The elder Volkov, Oleg, contributed an elegant Tchaikovsky Nocturne to the concert, and Grade 10 high school student Alik’s secure technique and classical style showed to advantage in Locatelli’s Sonata in D Major. Nor was he fazed by passages of harmonics, double stops and high register acrobatics, or by treacherous cadenzas in Tchaikovsky’s concert piece Pezzo Capriccioso. Says Alik: “Having performed frequently elsewhere I like how this feels personal, like I’m at home. Also, I have played with Norman many times, and we are planning a tour of Barbados in August, 2018.”

Robertson adds, “It’s important to mix young performers with older audiences; that was one of the reasons for starting the series, so that their musical education is not all divided up according to age group.” As an audience member at the series, I personally relish the easygoing conversation after the music has ended. Audience members have stories and experiences to share with the young musicians and new contacts are made.

All over the city it is the presence of education, performances, connections in the community and links over the generations that provide the continuity and momentum that eventually make the outstanding performances and recordings highlighted in The WholeNote possible.

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