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There’s a popular theory that video game soundtracks make great background music when you need to work or study. The idea is that the music is designed to motivate you without being distracting, but that’s not always the case. A lot of video game soundtracks can be over the top, obnoxious, or just plain bad—then there’s Celeste.

Celeste is a new platformer video game (imagine a 2D Mario side-scroller, but starring a red-headed woman who struggles with depression while attempting to climb a mystical mountain in Canada). It’s a beautiful game with amazing art and an incredible soundtrack that perfectly matches the rest of the experience.

The music, created by electronic artist and video game composer Lena Raine, is great enough to stand on its own as an album. But because it’s a video game soundtrack with no lyrics and building climaxes designed to push the player through difficult sections, it’s also perfect background noise for getting work done.

I’ve been listening to the Celeste soundtrack pretty much non-stop for the past few days. When I’m not actually playing the game I put it on in the background to write. I even listened to it last night while riding the subway into Manhattan to meet some friends.

Celeste’s music is a mix of electronic sounds and piano, with some other instruments like guitar and a theremin-style synth slipped in occasionally. Many of the tracks start with a slow simple melody, adding layer after layer until they reach an incredible high designed to push you through some of the game’s toughest moments.

“Resurrections,” the song embedded above, is one of my favorites, and in an interview, Raine describe the nearly 10-minute track as “almost like a full suite of music by itself.” I also love “Reach for the Summit,” one of the soundtrack’s later songs with a frantic, exuberant beat to match the game’s final moments. “Scattered and Lost” is beautiful and fast-paced with a spacey feel to it, while “Check In” slows down the action but maintains a steady beat to keep you focused.

You can pick and choose the songs you want to hear, but you’re better off just letting the entire Celeste soundtrack (available on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp) play through. You won’t regret it, just don’t blame me if you end up addicted to the game as well.

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Yo-Yo Ma China music camp

Posted: September 18, 2017 in Music Fashion
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Nervous and excited, 65 young musicians gather in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra Rehearsal Hall for their first day of a nine-day music camp. Aged 18 to 35, most are from China, with a few from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the United States and France.

They all wear sweatshirts bearing the letters YMCG, which stand for “Youth Music Culture Guangdong”. Amid the sea of black shirts it is difficult to spot the music camp’s artistic director, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, until he stands up on the conductor’s podium.

The aim of the music camp is “deep learning”, Ma says, in which the students make connections with the people they meet, but also discovering what links classical music composers such as Beethoven and the improvisational Silk Road Ensemble that Ma founded in 1998.

It is the second such annual musical camp hosted by Ma in the southern Chinese metropolis. Participation is free for those who pass video auditions, as is food and accommodation. Students’ only expense is the cost of their travel to Guangzhou.

Once on board, they are asked to reflect on what it means to be a musician today and how they respond to events as artists. Ma wants them to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, the “Eroica”, because 2020 will see the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth and because his works are reflections of events both personal and political.

The students do a run-through of the symphony – and Ma sits in the back of the cello section. For Australian Chinese cellist Rachel Siu, 20, it is a thrill having him sitting two seats behind her as they play the first movement. It will be the first of many such interactions during the camp.

“You’d think someone as famous as Yo-Yo would not have the time and energy to speak to all these students who admire him, but he’s always checking in on us, making sure we’re happy. He is so full of life and has so much to say about music,” she says.

Ma’s infectious enthusiasm convinces Siu that she has chosen the right career path. Before she was even five years old, Siu wanted to learn to play the biggest instrument she had seen – the cello. Her father, a classical music enthusiast, played a recording of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and she was drawn to the instrument.

“When I was around 15, my parents started pressuring me to focus on my academic studies because they were worried that music wouldn’t be able to provide for me. I complied for quite a while, studying a lot more, but at one point it made me really upset that I couldn’t play music as much as I used to,” she says.

Her parents agreed she could continue playing the cello if was accepted by The Juilliard School in New York and earned a scholarship. With only weeks until the application deadline, she met both criteria and is now in her third year at the prestigious music school.

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Remember loyalty? Spotify doesn’t. The company’s previously announced update to its Spotify Connect platform unfortunately terminates the streaming service’s functionality on a variety of speakers ostensibly advertised as Spotify-connected devices. Some of them (from companies like Onkyo and Denon) very expensive Spotify-connected devices. What does that mean for you? Well, if you own a speaker not scheduled to receive any updates fixing the disconnect, according to the Verge, you’ll have to find a new way to get audio out of it. Instead of shopping around for a new streaming service that will ultimately disappoint you, why not cut out the middleman and start using a music library you actually own? Advantages like uninterrupted music, increased portability, and increased longevity of the hardware you actually use make it worth the cost of a few albums.

Your Music Library Doesn’t Care About Licensing

Want to listen to Jay-Z’s latest album, 4:44? Got a hankerin’ for some Lemonade? Well you’re out of luck if you’re subscribed to any streaming service besides Tidal. Fans of Taylor Swift might remember when the wearer of beautiful gowns removed her own discography from Spotify.

Avoiding Closed Services Prevents Headaches

While the majority of those speakers affected by the Spotify update do indeed have auxiliary inputs that you can use to connect your phone or a Google Cast device to, that’s probably not why you bought it. If you spent the suggested $5,000 on the now Spotify-free B&O BeoSound 5, a deciding factor was probably its ability to both stream music and do it without your smartphone.

You Can Take Your Music Offline

One of the more annoying drawbacks of streaming music is the actual streaming portion, which is useless if your commute involves Internet-free stretches of subway tunnel. That has led to more than one song ending mid-refrain, or silence filling my earbuds when I was expecting the dulcet tones of Jaden Smith. Instead, storing music locally means no interruptions, no matter your reception. Spotify and other music services do have offline functionality, and will download songs to your smartphone, but only when explicitly instructed.

Or You Can Put Them Online

If you still want an easy way to stream your music to devices that don’t support the streaming of local files, or you’ve to attach a few Cast-friendly dongles to your hobbled speakers, you can sign up for a music streaming service that caters to those with their own libraries. Google Play Music allows you to upload up to 50,000 songs to your personal music library, letting you listen to your songs using Google Play Music and stream them to Google Cast devices. You’ll have access to an entire streaming library in addition to the songs you pirated purchased. If you’re an Apple fan, you can use Apple’s AirPlay functionality to stream your local music (or Apple Music service) from iTunes or your iOS device to AirPlay-compatible speakers, or an AirPlay receiver.

You Don’t Have to Do It All At Once

By all means, keep your streaming music service for now. After all, there’s a lot of new music available, and you don’t necessarily want to to shell out cash for every single track you decide to listen to from the comfort of your home. But you sure can save a few bucks by opting for a free, ad-supported version and putting that cash toward the purchase of new music. It won’t be cheap, and that $10 per month you’d be paying for a streaming service adds up to basically an album per month, but it’s worth it in the long run, especially when you know you’ll never need to replace your speaker costing thousands of dollars because some developer decided to kill its functionality via software update.

60th Annual GRAMMY Awards - ShowThe Time’s Up movement came to the Grammy Awards on Jan. 28. Taking the stage on music’s biggest night, Janelle Monae proclaimed that women “come in peace, but we mean business.” In response to criticism of the male-dominated awards show — Alessia Cara was the only woman to win a major category during the broadcast — Recording Academy president Neil Portnow claimed that women need to “step up” if they want more recognition. Facing criticism from many — including Grammy winner Pink — Portnow walked back on the comments on Jan. 30, saying he used words that “do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make.” Since then, various women in the music industry have signed a letter calling on Portnow to step aside.

On Thursday, 38 male executives spoke out in solidarity with their female colleagues. In a letter signed by talent agents, managers, and lawyers within the music industry, a group of men have called on Portnow to take “more significant and robust action” to answer the call to end gender disparity. Among the signees were Randy Jackson, producer and former American Idol judge, and Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.

The collective statement cites a study from USC Annenberg in noting, “From 2013 to 2018, of almost 900 Grammy nominations, 90 percent were male and less than 10 percent were female.” Out of the 84 categories included at the Grammy Awards, the study in question, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?“, examined only the Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Producer of the Year, and Best New Artist Grammy categories from 2013-18. Of those, 90.7 percent of the honorees were male, though the 899 total nominees researched comprised the individuals and band members recognized for the award and not the entire engineer or production teams behind them. Even then, the study confirmed a stark contrast between the number of men and women recognized at the Grammys.

The letter further called for the Recording Academy to dedicate itself “to transforming its member base to truly mirror the rich gender and cultural diversity of our community. NARAS should reveal the diversity (and/or the lack thereof) of its voting members and make necessary changes to the population of the Academy to better reflect the diverse music business voices the organization is meant to serve.”

justin-tranterWith music-focused tech platforms increasingly recognizing songwriters as a key component of the music community, YouTube staged its first ever songwriter music night on Wednesday (Feb. 7). The event featured hitmaker Justin Tranter, who in addition to cowriting Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Julia Michaels’ “Issues” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” is also an advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Tranter says he was excited for the opportunity to partner with YouTube and showcase the people behind the songs.

“I thought that it not only would be fun to do but for all of the songwriter super-fans and music geeks out there like I was when I was a kid,” Tranter tells Variety.

The event, held at YouTube Space LA in Playa Vista, Calif., represents the digital platform’s efforts to shine a spotlight on songwriters and create more creative opportunities for them. Lindsay Rothschild, YouTube’s songwriter and publisher relations lead in North America, says she pitched the idea of a songwriter night to Tranter’s publishing company Warner/Chappell Music and “Justin immediately came to mind.”

Aside from the events, YouTube creates channels for songwriters that include playlists of all the songs they’ve written. “There really isn’t a place, a digital home for songwriters out there,” adds Rothschild. “Nothing that is visually engaging like this is. A lot of songwriters think, ‘Why would I have a channel there would be no reason that I upload content?’ Except so much of their portfolio — or all of it — is already on the platform.”

For the event, Tranter alternated between his onstage chat with moderator Hrishikesh Hirway, the host and creator of podcast “Song Exploder,” and his performances accompanied by a string quartet and background singers. He sang three of his most recent popular songs: Halsey’s “Bad at Love,” Julia Michaels’s “Issues,” and Imagine Dragons’s “Believer.”

Sitting in an all-white, five-piece outfit that Tranter joked made him look ready to start a cult, the lyricist spoke to Hirway about growing up in Chicago and originally thinking he would never write for other artists, sign a record deal, or make pop music. He’s done all three. “I’m so grateful for my endless delusion,” which he says is the reason he kept pursuing music for many years.

When speaking with Variety, Tranter further discusses the current state of the music industry. He says that a social consciousness is missing from pop music, and notes that YouTube is a great way for young LGBTQ people to share their voice, but translating that into music hasn’t happened yet.

“I think that that’s kind of the biggest issue that we’re facing—if you want to make mainstream music how do you also speak your truth at all times,” he says. This is an issue all marginalized people face, he adds, listing Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper as two artists who incorporate powerful messages into their music and remarks that hip-hop leads pop music in this area. “Every, every artist should strive to be as social conscious as [Lamar] is.”

Adds Tranter: “The beauty of letting marginalized people tell their own stories is it isn’t only the right thing to do socially, but it’s also the right thing to do financially. People love the truth and people like to spend money on the truth.”

A little over a month into the year and Tranter has already hit career milestones. He was nominated at the Golden Globes for his song “Home” with Nick Jonas and was recognized at the Grammys in the song of the year category for Michaels’s “Issues.” He addresses President of the Recording Academy Neil Portnow and his recent comments about female artists needing to “step up.”

“When the statistics are that bad—in the last six years only nine percent of nominees for the Grammys have been women—and you make a comment like that, there has to be serious change and possible repercussions. Women have a right to be angry, and I’m angry too.”

Tranter says he spends most of his time making music with female musicians and relates to feminine narratives more. He has been advocating for more women to be involved in the songwriting and producing processes.

“If a song is being written for a woman, there should be a woman in the room collaborating,” he says. “Young women should be telling stories of other young women. And if the superstar who is an amazing storyteller isn’t a writer that’s totally fine, but we should get a young female writer in the room to work on that song with us. A young woman’s idea of sexuality shouldn’t be dictated by 45-year-old men.”

So far this year, Tranter has reunited with songwriting partner Michaels and started working with the Haim sisters, Janelle Monáe, newcomer Jess Kent, and Shea Diamond, a trans woman of color.

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Amazon today announced that Amazon Music listeners can now build playlists using voice commands via Alexa. For example, if they’re streaming music from an app or listening to the radio on an Alexa-enabled device, they can use voice commands to add the current song to a playlist, or start a new playlist from scratch.

It’s a small but useful addition that’s only available to the online giant’s music service. It’s also a natural next step on voice commands for listening to music on a smart speaker. Currently, voice control for competing services like Spotify and Apple Music only go as far as requesting a song, artist, album, or radio station, or skipping and repeating a song.

The new playlist feature rolls out today to Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited users, and works on any device with Alexa built in.

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A new hip-hop documentary called Word Is Bond is set to premiere on Showtime on Friday, February 16. Today, the network has shared a new trailer featuring Anderson .Paak, who discusses his influences. “I consider myself someone that’s coming up out of the hip-hop culture. And when I really was trying to write music, I thought I was going to be an MC. I thought I was going to be a gangster rapper,” he says. “I was influenced by Snoop and Dre, and there was nothing bigger than that.”

.Paak continues, “I love Radiohead’s stuff. I like sad white boy music, too. That stuff is all important to me, and it all goes into my artistry, but it’s coming from a hip-hop perspective. I feel like it’s coming from a drummer’s perspective.” The clip also finds .Paak performing Malibu’s “The Season / Carry Me.” Watch below.

Word Is Bond is directed by Sacha Jenkins. According to a press release, “the film explores the transformative power of lyrics in the world of hip-hop.” In addition to .Paak, the documentary features interviews with Nas, Pusha T, J. Cole, Rapsody, Big Daddy Kane, and others. Word Is Bond premieres at 10 p.m. Eastern on Friday, February 16.

Read Pitchfork’s Rising feature “Anderson .Paak and The Power of Positive R&B.”