Orchestrating songs, or singing orchestral tracks?

Pop Goes ClassicalClassic FM is shortly going to release a new album, Pop Goes Classical. They have already played tracks from it on the station. It features the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra playing versions of famous pop songs.

The track that they keep playing on the station is a version of the 1991 song (Everything I Do) I Do It for You. (Now, why is it always written with the first three words in brackets?) This was originally sung by Bryan Adams, and famously accompanied the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, spending a record 16 weeks at the top of the UK singles chart.

Credit for writing the song is usually given to Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen, and Robert Lange. Michael Kamen wrote the score for the movie, but I seem to remember reading that he didn’t think there should be a song to go with the film. Adams and Lange therefore took Kamen’s music and turned it into the song. Classic FM have been crediting the track as being “by” Bryan Adams. I thought this was rather inaccurate as neither his lyrics nor his singing is included. The tune was clearly by Michael Kamen. I therefore dropped a quick note to presenter Bill Turnbull, who had played the track. Earlier this week, I heard him play it for a third time, and to my surprise, this time he credited it to Michael Kamen. I’d like to think that’s because I, and perhaps others, pointed out the omission.

The fact remains that there was already an orchestral version of the song, and it pre-dates the song itself. Anyone who wants to hear Michael Kamen’s own version of it should listen to the track Maid Marian from the soundtrack album. It does seem slightly bizarre to orchestrate a song that started life as an orchestral piece, particularly when, it has to be said, the original was far superior.

This is not the first time Classic FM have released such an album. In 2008, they released Songs Without Words, a very similar CD played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. As I write, this is still available from Amazon for the princely sum of £16.04, or for 15p second-hand. This CD features that other famous movie song, My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic. As with Everything I Do, James Horner’s orchestral score for Titanic already includes many versions of the same tune, including one for Irish bagpipes. The song is credited to Horner and lyricist Will Jennings (and it was sung by another Canadian singer, Celine Dion). But the version on Songs Without Words is turned into a slightly jaunty waltz. That’s clearly from the special edition of the film where the ship doesn’t sink.

Orchestral versions of pop songs are a nice idea, but is it just a coincidence that the most popular are pieces that started out as orchestral works in the first place? Perhaps we should just listen to the originals, rather than arrangements of pop songs derived from them – the latter simply not being as good!

Garden Bridge has fallen down

At last a piece of good news. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has finally withdrawn support for the proposed Garden Bridge across the River Thames, effectively killing the project. After a report by a committee of MPs earlier this month said the bridge should be scrapped, any other decision on the part of the mayor would have been just the latest in a series of scandalous decisions wasting yet more public money on this vanity project.

I have been among those opposed to the bridge from early on. Anyone who knows the South Bank will know that it is already usually packed with people, given that it is home to many attractions such as the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the London Eye and the Aquarium, not to mention numerous restaurants. The last thing this area needs is another tourist attraction, and tourist attraction is exactly what this so-called bridge was. It wasn’t to be built in an area that needed a new bridge: there are two bridges nearby, and the northern end would land at Temple which is a quiet area where law firms are based, not so popular with visitors. The bridge would be privately owned, cycling would not be permitted, it would be closed at night, and could be closed in the daytime for private functions. Many people were also upset that it would block views across the river to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Trees with blue and white lights on the South Bank. Photo by Marco Marini on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Trees with blue and white lights on the South Bank. Photo by Marco Marini on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

My main objection was to the damage it would do to the South Bank. If you walk east from the Royal Festival Hall, you soon come to an area where the riverside walk widens out. This is a welcome breather from where it is rammed full of tourists closer to the London Eye, and offers an opportunity to enjoy strolling along the river for a short distance with slightly more space. This part of the path is lined on both sides by mature trees which are strung with blue and white lights, making it equally appealing at night. This is just the area where the southern end of the bridge would have “landed”. Indeed, the so-called Garden Bridge would have resulted in the felling of many mature trees, and in their place would have been a concrete building housing 350 square metres of commercial space.

The bridge would have spoilt one of the most pleasant stretches of the South Bank. I’m glad it will no longer go ahead. What needs to happen now is that the people who have allowed £40 million of public money to be spent on this project before any construction had even started need to be investigated, starting with former mayor Boris Johnson.

It’s not that a garden bridge is a bad idea in itself. This was simply the wrong place, and the way the design was chosen was verging on the corrupt. (Anyone who just knows Thomas Heatherwick for his work on the 2012 Olympic cauldron might do well to consider his contribution to the 2002 Commonwealth Games.) Why not construct a garden bridge somewhere that actually needs a bridge, and could do with the extra footfall a new attraction will bring?

Happily, it was the Garden Bridge that fell and not the South Bank’s trees. Hopefully a few egos will fall with it.

Links

Zhou Youguang (1906–2017)

Zhou Youguang at home in Beijing in 2012. Photo by Charlie Fong, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceZhou Youguang, who died today, the day after his 111th birthday, was known as the “Father of Hanyu Pinyin” due to his role in designing the Romanization system widely used for representing Mandarin Chinese. Today, Pinyin is the official Romanization system for Mandarin in China and many other countries, is used in millions of people’s passports, determines the spelling of names of well known Chinese people and places in foreign media and publications, and is an ISO standard. However, it was initially designed as a tool to help increase literacy levels in China.

Zhou Youguang started out not as a linguist, but as an economist. As a young man, he worked in New York as a banker. During his time in the United States, he apparently counted Albert Einstein among his acquaintances. However, after the Communist revolution in China in 1949, Zhou decided to return to his homeland. Quickly realising that the services of an economist might not be appreciated, he reinvented himself by turning to his hobby of linguistics, and was appointed head of a committee tasked with designing a phonetic system to represent Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese characters as written contain a wealth of information about ideas and words, but no indication of the pronunciation. This made teaching the reading and writing of Chinese difficult, with the result that the majority of people in China were illiterate. The Communist government wanted a new system to represent the sounds of the characters, with the ultimate goal of improving literacy rates. The committee was tasked with looking at the options for such a system, but the type of system was not specified. Any sort of alphabet or symbols could have been devised. Zhou, however, having lived and worked in America, was convinced that the Roman alphabet was the best solution, and was eventually successful in persuading the authorities to go along with it. The details of the Pinyin system then took three years to devise.

While Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles had been developed before, they tended to be foreign in origin and required marks such as apostrophes and hyphens in order to work. Pinyin makes particularly efficient use of the alphabet, and also gives words and names in Mandarin the dignity of not having their syl-la-bles divided up, or random CaPiTal letters inserted. While some people may complain that the use of letters such as q and x in Pinyin seems illogical, that misses the point that it is a system of Romanisation, not Anglicization. Spanish or French speakers, for example, use these letters in a quite different way from English speakers, and the same is true of Pinyin. Once someone is familiar with Pinyin, it is a consistent, phonetic system of spelling, so they are then able to pronounce any Mandarin word. This is real boon for anyone learning Mandarin as a foreign language. It has also changed the way that the language is taught in schools in China, where children learn the alphabet before they learn to write Chinese characters, although precisely how much of the improvement in literacy can be attributed to Pinyin is hard to gauge.

Despite being behind the Romanization system for Chinese, Zhou Youguang had no wish for it to replace Chinese characters. He has said he was glad to be on the committee for producing a phonetic system, and not the parallel committee tasked with simplifying the Chinese characters themselves (another aspect of the reforms under Mao Zedong). He also said it was “impossible” for Pinyin to replace Chinese characters, even if one wished to do such a thing.

For a while, Zhou Youguang’s involvement with Pinyin earned him a relatively comfortable life in Communist China. Although not a member of the Communist Party, his position entitled him to eat at government canteens at a time when there were food shortages. He would recall how he and his wife would eat their meals sitting next to Puyi, the man who had been the last Emperor of China. In the ’60s, though, like many academics, he was sent to the countryside for “re-education”. He attributed his survival during that difficult period to his positive thinking. (Puyi wasn’t so lucky: born a month after Zhou, his treatment during that period saw him die aged just 61.)

Zhou went on to work on the Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In his later years, he lived in an apartment in Beijing with unpainted walls, to save him from the disruption of having them decorated. Although he didn’t use computers, he wrote daily using an electric typewriter, which naturally used his own Pinyin system to input characters. His son, Zhou Xiaoping, an atmospheric physicist, died in 2015.

It was only on becoming a centenarian that Zhou became a fierce critic of the Communist regime. He joked, “What are they going to do, come and take me away?” Books he wrote were banned, and internet posts praising him censored. He had wished to live long enough to see China admit the violent clampdown on protestors in Tian’anmen Square had been a mistake – a mistake he said ruined the reputation of Deng Xiaoping, who up until that point Zhou had considered an outstanding politician, with his policies of opening up China. Zhou said people in China no longer believed in the Communist system, and that most intellectuals believed in democracy.

Zhou Youguang was probably the world’s oldest democracy and human rights campaigner. While he may not have had his wish to see such significant change in China granted during his lifetime, surely one of the important principles behind democracy is that people are well informed, and literacy is the tool through which that is achieved. Zhou’s Pinyin system has given the Chinese people literacy, and given the rest of the world an easier way to learn Chinese, with which comes a better understanding of Chinese people and culture. Zhou’s legacy will include a contribution to democracy and peace in China.

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Classic FM HD stream

For the latest post in my occasional series about digital radio, I was intrigued to receive an e-mail from Classic FM this week advertising “HD audio” in their mobile app. There are versions of the app for Apple and Android devices, and they allow users to listen to live broadcasts, as well as to a library of on-demand programmes from the last week. I have never used the app, so was unaware of what bitrate it offered to start off with. I decided to examine it to discover what this “HD sound” actually is.

The Classic FM app

The Classic FM app

When it first launches, with “HD off”, the app streams the low bitrate, 48kb/s AAC stream from the usual “musicradio” Icecast server. The details of those streams are unchanged since that article was written in 2012, except that the 48kb/s MP3 stream no longer exists. Most people wanting a low-bitrate stream are better off using the higher quality AAC anyway.

Switching to HD requires logging in with a Classic FM account. However, rather than using the old 128kb/s MP3 stream, the app fetches a new, 192kb/s AAC stream at the URL /ClassicFMHD. Unfortunately, this stream can not simply be used from within a PC’s media player or internet radio. It requires some sort of authentication so that only the official mobile app can make use of it. This follows the trend set by the BBC, where – officially at least – only website or mobile app users can receive the highest quality broadcasts for listening through their cheap ear buds, whereas people with high-end hi-fi equipment are supposed to be satisfied with 128kb/s DAB broadcasts. As with the BBC’s streams, it is possible to reverse engineer the Classic FM app and find a way to access the streams, although it isn’t straightforward to listen that way as it involves generating a URL that’s only valid for a short period. Given that it required reverse engineering, I am not going to publish details here, but anyone who is interested is welcome to contact me for more information.

As an aside, I should mention that I sometimes found when restarting the app that it streamed in HD mode from startup even though it said “HD off”. It required a toggle on and off to stream at a lower bitrate, a bug that could quickly eat up mobile users’ data allowances.

Is it actually worth the trouble of using the HD stream outside of the app? A look at the frequency spectrum of a typical broadcast (the end of Alfred Hill’s piano concerto – I hadn’t heard of him either!) immediately shows one disappointment. The frequency cut-off is still 15kHz. With 192kb/s AAC to play with, I would have thought that could be extended to 18kHz at least. This is probably more to do with the processing chain at Classic FM than a deliberate attempt to restrict the quality, but it’s as if they want to retain some features of FM broadcasts even when most people are no longer listening to analogue radio!

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

There are some subtle differences in the spectrum compared to the 128kb/s MP3 stream, but nothing compared to the difference between those and the low-bitrate AAC stream, which has plenty of holes and a much rougher appearance. That is only to be expected. To the ear, I do think the HD stream has the edge, with a slightly richer bass and more detail at high frequencies, although annoyingly it shows up the dynamic range compression of the advertisements far more. I hope they will further improve the stream in the future by adjusting the 15kHz low-pass filter. In the meantime, I’d reassure Classic FM listeners around the world that the MP3 stream is still one of the best ways to listen. Internet streaming is the clear winner when it comes to sound quality.

Renaming honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)Former footballer Howard Gayle made headlines for a second time this week for declining an MBE, this time suggesting that the name of the honour should be changed to remove the reference to the British Empire.

It is important to remember that the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is an order of chivalry, so named because it was instituted during the time of the British Empire by King George V. The name is not supposed to imply that it is an honour awarded by the British Empire, any more than the Order of the Bath implies that its members are the ones who assist the Queen in bathing.

Having said that, it’s hard not to have sympathy with Mr Gayle’s view, and he is not the only one to object to an honour on the grounds of its name. Back in 2004, a committee of MPs looked into the honours system, and recommended changing the name to the “Order of British Exellence”. They reasoned that it needed to retain the same abbreviations, MBE, OBE, etc. as everyone was familiar with these, and that otherwise existing recipients would feel their honour was outdated and worth less than newer ones. One commentator at the time remarked that it sounded more like an award from a trade organisation. Quite apart from the suggested name sounding ridiculous, orders of chivalry can not just have their names changed like that. They could institute a new order, and if desired stop appointing people to the old one, but our history should not be messed around with, and I would have expected members of parliament to be better informed.

Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have stopped appointing to the Order of the British Empire and instituted new, alternative orders. Existing recipients retained their old honours and postnominals such as OBE, and it seems there was no confusion or feeling that older awards were devalued. Rather than mess about with historic orders, why not create a new one? As we now have the longest-serving monarch in history, what better name than the Royal Elizabethan Order, taking the Royal Victorian Order as its precedent? It could have the same ranks as the Order of the British Empire, and postnominals ending either “EO” or “RE”. The former would match the Victorian Order, but MRE, ORE, etc. would look more similar to MBE, OBE, which would perhaps go some way towards placating people such as the MPs on that committee.

The Queen has said that she doesn’t want to see any changes to her grandfather’s Order during her reign. What better way to commemorate the Queen’s reign, whenever in the future it finally comes to an end, than by instituting a new order of chivalry in her name?


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