Sunday, 14 March 2010


I must admit I'd forgotten all about it, but today I received an invitation to join the free version of Spotify, which may perhaps best be described as an on-demand online radio service. The idea (if you choose the free version) is that you can listen to anything you want, instantly, in full, and free of charge, for the price of the occasional advert. No worse than Radio Caroline, really, even in its "Loving Awareness" days (what was that all about?). However, you do have to apply for an invitation to join the free service, and then wait...*

I've just spent a happy couple of hours trying to probe the outer limits of what is and isn't available, and I'm impressed. Pop and rock, of course, are as thoroughly covered as you'd expect. I tried a few tests. For example, an old friend has recently started a blog, and he mentions a song as being a little hard to find these days: "Desperadoes Waiting For A Train" by Guy Clark. On Spotify there are versions of the song by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Mallard, The Highwaymen, and even Topi Sorskakoski & Reijo Taipalo (no, really).

But, I'm thinking, what about non-pop? I looked for the song by John Dowland "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" (or "In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell" if you prefer, which I do). It turns out there are multiple versions, including stunning renditions by countertenor Andreas Scholl and a Renaissance music ensemble named Virelai. OK, so what about contemporary music? Say, the "Three Studies After Couperin" by Thomas Ades I heard on Radio 3 the other day? No problem. So, what about jazz? I keep meaning to explore John Surman's past recordings. Looks like I won't need to put that off any longer. "The Road to Saint Ives" starts here. If nothing else, Spotify could save me a lot of money.

But, I'm pleased to say it did fail the ultimate test. If you've ever watched the film Nosferatu, directed by Werner Herzog, you will have heard a particularly haunting, astringent piece of choral music. Once heard, never forgotten. As I first saw this film in pre-digital days, I spent years trying to track it down. I followed false trails to the group Popol Vuh, and to Fauré's Requiem; tantalizingly, I even heard it sampled, unacknowledged, on a track by Kate Bush.

Eventually, I identified it as the Georgian folksong "Tsintskaro", recorded by the Vocal Ensemble Gordela on an old Soviet-era Melodiya recording. As far as I can tell it is now unobtainable, though other recordings of the same piece by other groups are available (see here for a detailed account of another person's identical quest). If you've never heard Georgian or Bulgarian polyphonic choral singing, you should: you have a spine-tingling treat in store for you. Start where everyone starts, with the album Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 1.

* Reminds me of that old joke about how to go about buying a Lockheed Starfighter in Germany -- buy an acre of ground, and wait (they used to crash a lot, inexplicably). There's an album "Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters" put together by the Hawkwind crowd which is a rare example of a concept album that (a) has a concept and (b) works. It includes the immortal line (uttered by a member of the maintenance crew, discovering a loose bit from a Starfighter engine), "Well, I found it in me trouser turn-ups".


Martin H. said...

I've been singing the praises of Spotify for months now. Glad you've decided to get acquainted....and that you're not disappointed.

Mike C. said...


I'm waiting for someone to tell me the catch. I feel guilty about my extensive use of Amazon, knowing as I do that the service is run by indentured cave-dwelling trolls, forbidden ever to leave the mega-warehouse at Milton Keynes. Also, our friendly Maltese postman is weighed down to the ground by Amazon book parcels (mostly ours) posted as "packets"...

Two things strike me:

1. The financial model is baffling -- unlike Google, Spotify is paying for content!

2. "Partial album syndrome" -- some albums are not fully listed e.g. some Bill Frisell albums I looked at. Not sure why this would be, or how frustrating it might become.

Unlike e-books, though, the gaps are not enormous, and unlikely to drive my listening into channels determined by availability. Even Michael Hurley, our favourite obscure singer-songwriter, is represented by several albums!


Mike C. said...

Oops, me and my big mouth...

Now I am informed that Warner Music Group announced last month that they are intending to withdraw from licensing their "product" to free music streaming services.

Label-wise, that's a BIG list. See it here:

Oh well, I thought it was too good to be true.


wayhip said...

A lovely version of this track appears as "Ts'ints'qaro," the first track on the currently available CD "World Voices I." See it here on Amazon...

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that, wayhip -- even better, it's on Spotify!