Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Thought

Driving to work this morning, I saw a woman engaged in a game of fetch with her dog, in the field near my home. 

As I went by, trying to keep my attention on the road, for some reason I was drawn to the ball she had just thrown, which was at that very moment making a long lazy arc in the air. Everything seemed to shift into slow motion as I watched that little red circle sail higher and higher. 

And then it nailed a seagull that had been flying across the field, minding its own business. There was a puff of feathers -- but by that point I was already too far away to see anything else.

And so, dear readers, here is my holiday thought for you: life is random, so be sure to look out for each other! Our love is all we have.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts I have every year at about this time

I would trust best-of lists more if reviewers had to pay for the music they reviewed.

I would trust best-of lists more if there was a ten-year lag time before any of them were compiled.

I would trust best-of lists more if it wasn't inevitable that good music is always left out.

I would trust best-of lists more if the media they were published in didn't have to make a buck too.

I would trust best-of lists more if I didn't know that some of the greatest music is never recorded.

I would trust best-of lists more if music wasn't such a contact sport.

I would trust best-of lists more if they couldn't be shared on Facebook.

I would trust best-of lists more if they were more skeptical of themselves.

I would trust best-of lists more if they were revised every few minutes.

I would trust best-of lists more if I could just relax and let them wash over me.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Earworm: A Cry for Help

[photo credit: morgantj]

Until recently, I have never had a problem with earworms. I don’t know why. 
Since, when I have to choose, I favor melody above all other musical parameters—both in my composing and in my listening—one would think I would be particularly susceptible to these little pests, if it's true that most of them are melodically-based.
But until recently, I had a simple, effective strategy for fighting back. I called it the “riff antibody” treatment. Here’s how it worked: when an ear worm struck, I intentionally hummed a different tune for a bit. Like magic, the ear worm was overridden (or overwritten?), and that was that. 
Two of my most effective riff antibodies were the opening guitar from David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” and the synth part from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” I have no idea why either of those worked. I don't even like the tunes they come from (anymore). Yet my musical taste didn’t seem to be a factor in the treatment. The riff antibodies never stayed in my head after I deployed them. It was like they knew that their whole purpose in life was to destroy a thing I didn't want to hear, and then vanish themselves.
Lately, however, I’ve been getting ear worms that are more resistant. Many of you know I have been the keyboardist and music director at a Lutheran church here in Portland for almost five years now. It’s a great gig in many ways. It has made me a better musician (and especially a better sight reader). It pays well. It's steady work. About three quarters of the music I get to play is really lovely: old hymns and spirituals. I also get to improvise a bit. Plus, the congregation is very respectful of the fact that I’m agnostic. I give them major props for that.
The other twenty-five percent of the music, though—the music that isn’t old hymns and spirituals—is contemporary Christian music. It’s really horrid stuff, in my professional opinion. As luck would have it, that’s where the new ear worms are coming from. 
Perhaps the problem is that I have been doing the gig too long. Or perhaps it’s that all the offending songs are so similar and predictable. In any case, I have been struggling to keep them out of my head when I'm not actually performing them (and sometimes even when I am). For the first time in my adult life, the riff antibodies are no help.
And so I turn to you, dear reader. Do you have your own earworm remedy? Or do I just need to get a new gig?

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Now you know. . .

In some species, peduncles are leafless, though others bear small leaves, or even cataphylls, at nodes; such leaves generally may be regarded as bracts. The peduncle may be ramified, in which case the ramifications are called pedicels

Text source. Image source.

Just some wacky stuff I found while doing research for the novel referenced in my last post.

Monday, November 18, 2013

At last

I have big news. In fact, I have had it for some time, but I have been keeping it under my hat until I knew it was official. That's the reason I haven't been blogging -- I'm not very good at keeping secrets, and this has been one of the hardest secrets I've ever had to keep. But now I can speak freely:

My first book, Decomposition: A Philosophy of Music, will be published in late 2014 by Knopf Doubleday, under their Pantheon imprint. My editor will be the brilliant Erroll McDonald, who has worked on many amazing books, by many amazing writers.

I owe an enormous debt to Barbara Clark, my agent, who not only discovered an early version of Decomposition on this very blog several years ago, but went above and beyond the call of duty at every step of the process of finding it a home. There are plenty of other people to thank as well, of course, and that will all come in time (the book will need a hefty acknowledgments section) -- but I wanted to take special note of Barbara's role in advance.

In the meantime, I'm not looking back. I guess 44 is not the usual age to embark on a brand new career, but here goes nothing. I mentioned in my last post that I was working on a new book project, but in fact (and here's another secret I have been keeping) I am working on two: another work of nonfiction, and my first attempt at a novel. (If all this seems like an odd shift, keep in mind that my life thus far has been marked by odd shift after odd shift. I don't claim to understand it, I just do what the voices in my head tell me to.)

Also, to be clear: I won't be abandoning music, just because I've been bitten by the literary bug. For one thing, I have two unreleased albums nearly finished (an IJG recording that I have been obsessing over since 2009, and the debut album by Proto-Human, my Portland sextet). I can't seem to stop writing new music for either group. I ask your patience as I figure out how to bring these sounds to new audiences in 2014.

Finally, I will do my best to keep this blog going -- though it may take a little while to get into a regular posting schedule again.

Thank you for reading.

(The above photo, by the way, was taken at the Random House building in New York, which is where Knopf Doubleday is based. That's a big beautiful shelf in the lobby, full of notable first editions.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I'll show you the life of the mind

Alas, the summer got away from me. I started out with the best of intentions, but various commitments prevented me from checking in here at all.

I do have updates to share. One is that I have begun working on a new book. To that end, I have been doing a lot of reading (one reason I have been off the grid). My summer booklist included, but was not limited to, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future?, Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb, Jill Lepore's The Mansion of Happiness, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto, Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion, Carlin Romano's America the Philosophical, and Colin Meloy's Wildwood

If you think that's a strange list of books, just imagine the connections I am trying to make between them! 

Other updates, and more regular blogging, coming soon.

In the meantime, I have been pondering these words of Alan Jacobs, which beautifully capture my own struggles as a writer:

And yet many have been my idle words over the years. I wonder how much harm they have done to others, and even to me. I did not publish my first book until I was nearly 40, and while I used to regret that late start, I now am thankful that I didn’t get the chance earlier in life to pour forth yet more sentences to spend my latter years regretting. A handful of times over the years I have drafted essays only to realize, before submitting them, that I did not want to say what I had written there; and a few other times I have had cause to thank editors for rejecting pieces that, had they been published, would have brought me embarrassment later.
In some cases the embarrassment would have been because of arguments badly made or paragraphs awkwardly formed; but in others because of a simple lack of charity or grace. An essay begins with an idea, but an idea begins with a certain orientation of the mind and will — with a mood, if you please. We have only the ideas that our mood of the moment prepares us to have, and while our moods may be connected to the truth of things, they are normally connected only to some truths, some highly partial facet of reality. Out of that mood we think; out of those thoughts we write. And it may be that only in speaking those thoughts do we discern the mood from which they arose. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” — a terrifying judgment, when you think of it.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Black Sabbath: 13

Black Sabbath: 13
Get it here.

     I grew up lower middle class in a mostly white New Jersey suburb in the 1980s. Generally speaking, two musical communities influenced me there. The first was the high school concert band and its various offshoots (marching band, pit band, a weak attempt at a “jazz” band). The second was the high school metal scene. Officially, I belonged to the former group—playing bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and piano. I liked it because it was my first exposure to “serious” and complicated ensemble music—we had a somewhat adventurous bandleader, who programmed pieces by Hindemith, and the overture to Bernstein’s Candide, for instance. But secretly, I wanted to be one of the metal kids. Many of them were great musicians—especially the ones who took it seriously enough to form their own bands, to develop “chops,” to get real gigs, and, presumably, to pick up other trappings of the lifestyle. It felt like we concert band kids were still, to some extent, playing by the rules, no matter how strange the music we made. The metal kids had gone farther in creating their own subculture. When I finally got around to forming my own musical projects, I always felt honored when one of them was involved—I took it as a compliment, proof of the music’s viability.
     All of which may explain the vested interest I feel in the reception of Black Sabbath’s latest album, 13 (possibly their last album, given guitarist Tony Iommi’s cancer). Sabbath was the quintessential metal band in my neighborhood. I say this fully cognizant of how fraught it is for me, a jazz composer—albeit one who shuns genre—to claim an affinity with metal. It can be annoying when “art music” people profess such affections—not because it’s inauthentic, but because it implies an extra-musical agenda, in which one music has deigned to legitimize the other. It reminds me of the impulse to push back against the “jazz was born in the brothels” myth. That’s a valuable counter-narrative, insofar as it responds to a racist stereotype of sexualized black musical creativity. But the same gesture implies a problematic need to rationalize our musical pleasure—as if we couldn’t truly care about the music if it didn’t have the appropriate pedigree.
     What if some early jazz took its cues from the transgressive mores of a culture that permitted brothels—even if it did not literally emerge from within their walls? And what if some metal has precious little relevance for jazz? Would either music be less valuable? Hardly. I don’t have to love 13 because Tony Iommi’s playing is “jazzy.” I love it because of how it helps me come to terms with my own musical history. Indeed, the older I get, the more that effect trumps any question of artistic “greatness.” Does 13 “need to be good?” H. P. Taskmaster asks in a thoughtful critique. Taskmaster is ultimately a little coy about the question, but for me the answer is no. The album doesn’t need to be anything. At this point in my life, having listened to probably tens of thousands of musical works, I can think of no more tedious thing to ask about any one of them than whether it is good or not. I care about music because I care how it makes me feel. What does being “good” have to do with that?
     To me, 13 sounds like high school. And while I don’t miss high school even a little, there are aspects of it that I recall fondly, because I survived. That’s how I excuse the album’s crisp, too-clean digital sheen—very unlike early Sabbath, but not at all unlike the 80s, when the overproduction of pop seemed to trickle down to all genres. And even through that veneer, something about the band still sounds, to quote Ozzy Osbourne, like “a lucky bunch of guys that got together and something magical happened.” (This even though one of the original “bunch of guys,” drummer Bill Ward, is sadly not on the album). I hear echoes of the metal kids I knew, and still know, in this music. I hear their conversations, their taste in clothing and food, their general aesthetic and philosophical interests. It’s not all my cup of tea, but I know it; it’s a real cultural reference point for me, and it’s good to be reminded of that. And there is something endearing about the mix of grandiose and simple—from the parallel fifths of the opening four notes to the psychedelic blues of “Damaged Soul” to the unwieldy song structures to the more-minor-than-thou harmonic sensibility to Osbourne’s nearly punk monotone (I always preferred him for this band) to the heavy lifting done by the monstrously good playing of Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler. 
     I understand how the album might be disappointing to some. Unrealistic expectations being what they are, how could it be otherwise? In their heyday, Black Sabbath gave voice to hopelessness—but they also gave the false impression that doing so was in itself a way out of hopelessness. And 13 may be proof that there is no way out. More than forty years after Sabbath’s debut, and after four decades of their noisy resistance, the world retains its bleakness. How could this new music help but sound less rebellious, and more of a dead end?
     Maybe the seeds of that disappointment were there all along. In my first year of college I had some clean-cut ROTC dorm-mates who locked themselves in their room every Saturday night, watching Headbangers’ Ball loud enough that you could hear it down the hall. (I only know this because I usually didn’t have much to do on Saturday nights either.) It was a little creepy, but metal could seem like that—immature masculine rage locked in a dorm room on a Saturday night. That dumb earnestness has doomed much of it to ironic appreciation now, tossed into the hipster dustbin with trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
     Call me naïve, but I say one of the strengths of 13 is that it resists irony, in spite of its bombast—in spite even of the album title, emblazoned in flames on the front cover, just in case you missed the symbolism. Rather, it’s a record that lives defiantly, in the face of its own mortality. And that’s enough. Whether or not it is high art (or even decent metal) hardly matters; all it is, and all it needs to be, is a testament to itself. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It

Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It
Tight Natural Production 101
Get it here.

     I am ashamed to say that though I lived in LA for ten years, I never crossed paths with the band once known as “The Negro Problem,” and now as “Stew & the Negro Problem” (highlighting the role of front man Mark Stewart, who co-writes most of the band’s music with bassist Heidi Rodewald). I have some recollection of them on the cover of a local alt-rock music rag in the late nineties, but as I was primarily interested in such publications for their sociological interest (rather than for their aesthetic advice), I never took the bait. 
     Fast forward a decade and a half, and I’m sitting in my living room, scanning aimlessly through Netflix. I find something called Passing Strange (2008). Strangely, I almost pass. But the blurb indicates it is about a musician, so I’m curious. The blurb says nothing about it being a musical; about it being an offshoot of a cult LA band; or about it being as riveting as it was (due at least in part to Spike Lee’s tight direction, and a superlative cast). I watch and listen in one sitting; I buy the album; I am hooked. The show is deeply tuneful—most every song sticks, like Ben Folds’ music at its best. It’s also a bittersweet Bildungsroman and a witty cultural commentary. But it's more, too. As a kid, I learned a lot about collective music making from doing community theater, but was frustrated by the plastic turn Broadway had taken in the 80s and 90s. Passing Strange is welcome evidence that musicals can still be good in the wake of that era, in this case by opening up to the gritty narcissism of rock. (If only more Broadway composers would take the Stew character’s lead when he sings: “I let my pain fuck my ego and I called the bastard art.”)

     It has been a month or two since I discovered S&TNP, and I haven’t yet caught up with all of their music. I’m working on it, though. After Passing Strange I moved on to their debut, Post-Minstrel Syndrome (1997), which did not disappoint, packed as it is with power pop, and plenty of axes to grind. That one actually made me wish I could go back in time, to hear it in its original context, when I was still a faltering graduate student, new to LA and unsure of how to balance my academic and artistic lives. Struggling to form the band that would eventually become the IJG, I would have drawn sustenance from lines like “What does Robert Hilburn know about rock and roll?” (Hilburn was the LA Times pop music critic at the time; I didn’t like his writing much.) I would have fallen in love with the eerily psychedelic “Submarine Down,” the punchy New Wave anthem “Buzzing,” and the hushed rage of “Doubting Uncle Tom” (“Just got out of surgery
/ Mother University
/ But last night in my dream I saw
/ Garvey on the cross
/ Woke up and called my mom
/ Doubting Uncle Tom”). No matter; it says something about the power of these songs that I’m able to fall in love with them all these years later.

     More recently I tried the band’s latest, Making It (2012). Informed by the romantic (but not artistic) breakup of Stew and Rodewald, this one was initially a bit harder to warm to. At first listen, I think I agreed with Noel Murray’s assessment that it was “overworked lyrically and underdeveloped musically.” I found myself asking, for instance, how many rhymes for the word “nurse” does one song (“Pretend”) really need? (The answer? Six—“hearse,” “worse,” “converse,” “terse,” “purse,” and “curse.” And that last is repeated five times, just for good measure.) Too much of the album seemed to bog down in that kind of nervous obsession, obscured by Stew’s gift for aphorism, and by an overabundance of four-bar phrases.
     And yet there was a rationale too. The case is made elsewhere in “Pretend,” when Stew sings of needing “a stupid song to pull me through, like a childhood dog when you had the flu.” It’s the logic of McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” or Sting’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” but in reverse—tilted toward misery, an attempt to purge a bad feeling by wallowing in it. While other themes are treated on this record—race (the acerbic “Black Men Ski”), drugs (“Speed,” which rivals Lou Reed’s “Heroin” in its evocation of what it’s like to be in the grip of chemically-induced self destruction), and culture (“Suzy Wong,” a stream-of-consciousness meditation on power and sexuality)—it is the backdrop of interpersonal crisis that gives Making It its bite, and, finally, its appeal. In the end, that title seems less as some critics have assumed—a comment on the broader success the band attained with Passing Strange (which in my opinion still has not gotten the attention it deserves)—and more a way of documenting the process of just surviving.

     Survival depends on identity—and that’s probably the biggest theme in S&TNP’s work. But identity can be hard to forge. Stew is a Black guy who happens to be more comfortable as a rocker than as a hip-hop or R&B artist; on top of that he’s quirky as hell. Rodewald too seems committed to her own path; one can only imagine what it takes to stay in a band with an ex-lover, and to have your former relationship with him publicly analyzed in performance after performance. Together they are an interracial co-ed songwriting team; surely one of the more unlikely scenarios in the annals of art rock. Yet their writing is not merely a quest for uncompromising self-definition, but also for unconditional acceptance. Thus they brilliantly answer what I consider the primary challenge of underground rock: how to write music that people like without giving the impression that you want them to like iteven though, of course, you do?
     We are entitled to wonder why a band that can pull off such a sophisticated trick as that has yet to attain the acclaim of contemporaries like the aforementioned Folds (or Spoon, or Radiohead, or Elliot Smith, or the Flaming Lips). In a culture that can momentarily break free of its past by electing a Black president, while devoting a significant portion of its national conversation to idiotic suspicions about his legitimacy, the answer may seem too obvious, and too familiar. The “Negro Problem” is really America’s problem—our inability, or unwillingness, to embrace the range of beauty of which we are capable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To see and be seen

“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

(Edward Snowden)

“We must be prepared to find, therefore, that the patient yields to the compulsion to repeat, which now replaces the impulsion to remember.”

(Sigmund Freud)

     Last Thursday, my beautiful wife performed in a tap dance recital at our local community center, with a large crowd of supportive friends and family in attendance. Before the recital, it was agreed that I would make a video recording of the evening. Since we have a daughter who is in third grade, I’m no stranger to the documentary possibilities of modern consumer grade video technology—the sheer volume of data you can record, how easily you can edit it, how easily you can store and share it.
     All of that power comes with a cost, though. Sometimes when I find myself behind the camera at an event or outing, I have to resist a nagging thought: am I really experiencing the thing I am filming? We have one of those cameras with a three-inch LCD monitor, so you can see what is being recorded without having to shove your eye up against the viewfinder. It’s a neat feature, but it creates the false impression that you can actually step back from the device, and just enjoy the experience as any other audience member would. In practice, the moment you step back from the device is the moment your wife dances out of the frame. So long as the camera is in your hand, and you have something to film, and you take that mission seriously, you are trapped in the role of “camera operator”—beholden to the tiny screen, and its rendering of the machine’s real-time copy of the performance. You may became so wrapped up in that puny facsimile that when the thing you are filming is over, you feel as though you missed it—even though you had been there, front and center, the whole time.
     I certainly felt that way on Thursday—thrilled by the dance but unsettled by the technology. This even though I knew full well that ultimately there was no ideal audience experience that looking at the LCD screen could have been unfavorably compared to. What would it have meant for me to “really” experience the dancers’ dance? Let’s say I had imposed upon a friend to film it for us, or decided to purchase the DVD that the arts center staff would be making. That would have freed me to focus my own eyes directly on the dancers—but I would still be in my uncomfortable seat, in a hot auditorium, fielding whispered questions from my nine-year-old, and trying not to accidentally kick over the cup of coffee that was on the floor beneath my chair. And suppose for the sake of argument that I could have escaped all of those distractions? The most perfect possible experience of the dance would still be the copy that my brain wanted to show me, only made up of firing neurotransmitters rather than liquid crystals.
     Perhaps the problem—the unsettling feeling—isn’t the elusiveness of authentic experience, but the mania for documentation. Or perhaps the two are related—maybe a deep, immitigable fear of missing the “real thing” leads us to want to use the new tools at our disposal to make as many copies as we can, in a vain attempt to know a thing from every possible angle. Maybe it no longer matters which angle is best.
     So is that unsettling, or beautiful? To sit in that dance recital audience was to see the old idea of integrated reality exploded into a thousand reference points. From the back row you could direct your attention to the stage, or to any of the other LCD screens on any of the other cameras being anxiously thrust into the air alongside mine. One person in the front row even had a Skype feed going, streaming the show to an elderly relative. In that sea of bobbing, glowing devices, somehow we had all been compelled to follow the same unspoken fiat: copy everything. Were we looking into the future?

Friday, June 07, 2013

Mike Keneally: Wing Beat Fantastic

Mike Keneally: Wing Beat Fantastic
Exowax 2413
Get it here.

(H/T to Jason Crane, who first alerted me to the existence of this record in a post on his own blog.)

I first came to Mike Keneally’s music through long-time IJG member Evan Francis, who played in Keneally’s band, Beer for Dolphins. (Coincidentally, Evan contributes clarinet to one track on Wing Beat Fantastic.) This was around 2000. I was already a serious Frank Zappa fan, but had yet to get to the later albums, or at least the ones that featured Keneally—the guy Zappa referred to as his “stunt guitarist.” Yet I was immediately attracted to the measured exuberance of the man’s playing, and indeed his whole approach to music. Like many Zappa alumni, that approach seemed driven by an underlying aesthetic omnivorousness, even (sometimes) to the point of liability. Perhaps there’s a downside to being so enormously talented—when you’re able to do everything, is it easier to lose focus?

Yet the first thing I noticed about Wing Beat Fantastic was its gorgeous coherence. “This is a nebulous term, but to me it really feels like an album,” as Keneally puts it on his website. Could that have been the influence of his collaborator, the famously picky Andy Partridge, of the British band XTC? Hard to say: collaboration is always obfuscatedeven, or perhaps especially, to those doing it. Here’s mundane evidence of that confusion: the liner notes and the back cover of this album credit a few of the tracks differently. (“Land,” for instance, is credited to Keneally/Partridge in the booklet; on the back cover it is credited only to Keneally.) But keeping a tally of these things is a ruse anyway; we write differently just by having someone else in the room, whether or not she overtly contributes a note. Best to assume it is all collaboration.

By “coherence” I do not mean that all of the tracks do the same thing. Some are comparatively brief instrumental interludes, dropped throughout the album just frequently enough to allow us to savor the songs proper. And one of those, “You Kill Me,” is much sharper than its companions. Incongruously cloaked in the bright colors of lilting, tight pop, it treads a line between cynicism and something more like despair—a tension captured in the double entendre of the title, which we can hear as both slang for being brought to laughter or surprise, and an implication of literal violence. When Keneally sings, “I don’t mean to vote for you, but your machine will fix it so I do,” we may recognize ourselves, trapped like flies in the amber of twenty-first century political inertia. (Do we want “it” to be fixed? Well, that depends on what you mean by “fix.”)

That sting is salved by several of the more impressionistic songs, by a child-like wonder at words (“Inglow / snow motion snow crow / Inglow / Did we ebb and flow there?”), by a melodic richness, and by one track in particular, which captures the oddly tender spectacle of a middle-aged man yearning for companionship, while he is simultaneously self-conscious enough to tread lightly. This is the poignant “Your House,” an awkward snapshot of courtly love on par with other masterpieces of modern art song (McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” all come to mind). “What if you should see me here?” Keneally asks, his voice rising as he stands outside the home of an anonymous and none-the-wiser beloved, suddenly sensing his own ridiculousness. Is it self-awareness that causes him to “whirl blue and disappear”? We are left only with the failure to connect; “I won’t be back again,” the song concludes.

Guitarists will at least appreciate, but more likely adore, the power and intricacy of Keneally’s handling of the instrument on this record. Texturalists will respond similarly to his production; the album is full of subtle sonic details, and while headphone listening is not essential, it is rewarded. Of course, we all listen for what we can take from music, even if what we take is partly of our own making. In my case, the recordings I love best are usually the ones that compel me to go straight to the piano and start working on something that sounds like that—first a clone, then an homage, then a distant relative (but a relative nonetheless). Last week, I hadn’t written pop music in a while. This week, Wing Beat Fantastic has already changed that.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Reviewing: a rationale

Now that I have returned to blogging I’m thinking of writing about my own experiences with art again. I’m going to try posting semi-regular reviews (mostly of music, maybe some film and books) in this space soon. I have no intention of turning JtMoU into a proper review site per se; please don’t send requests! (I already get inquiries from publicists every few days; I have no idea why.) Instead, I will more or less follow my whims.

But I should probably clarify my decision to review anything at all. Why do it? I have had enough negative things to say about the culture of music reviewing, both on this blog and in my book, that a reader is certainly entitled to be surprised to see me participating in it, even if only occasionally.

Here’s my philosophy. I generally think reviews are misleading in terms of their implicit goal of helping to delineate between the “best” and “worst” in culture. The underlying flaw with the genre is that aesthetic perception is always subjective—a platitude that is rarely followed to its logical conclusion. We can’t speak authoritatively about how other people experience art, so how can we know what is authentically “good art”? The best we can do is make claims for our own experience—and even there, thanks to the limitations of language, and our poor understanding of the human mind, we inevitably lack clarity.

Here are the six reviews I wrote for All About Jazz back in the aughts. They are nice enough examples of the genre, but they also suffer from the problems I’m describing. Take, for example, my piece on Jean-Michel Pilc’s Follow Me. “A former scientist,” I wrote, “Pilc plays with a precision that in places is reminiscent of Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. More importantly (and also like Evans and Peterson) he avoids sounding dry or academic despite the fact that he rarely misses a note.”

What exactly does “dry” piano music sound like? Does it have to do with the attack? Note selection? Timing? Recording quality? And why should one not want to sound that way? It’s amazing how many unstated assumptions fit into that one little word. And it’s more amazing how the unstated assumptions pile up as I go from phrase to phrase: What is musical “precision”? What would it mean for a jazz musician to “miss a note”? And why is any of this “important”?

The standard response to such questions is either to tautologically cite the record as an example of the thing the record is supposed to be, or to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But that’s a cop-out: if we can’t talk about it, why did you bring it up in the first place? Could it be that the review helps to create the context in which a work can be enjoyed—that it helps to construct the pleasure you attribute solely to the music? Would you have liked the album well reviewed by a respected reviewer if you had heard it before reading the review? That’s a counterfactual problem in every case, but I can’t help but think that sometimes the answer is definitely no.

My complaint is not that all of this is necessarily a bad thing, or that I have a better idea for how reviews should be done. It’s just that writers and readers pay little attention to how the genre actually works. Good writers, I think, understand the influence their work can have, particularly if they are widely read. But there is the danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from that influence: of coming to believe your own rhetoric, rather than accepting it for the flight of fancy it is.

If I am to post reviews here, I need you to understand that I have no illusions that my opinions on art matter any more than yours, just because I happen to be lucky enough to have this space, and some readers, and a willingness to work hard enough to put words together in a moderately pretty way. My reasons are baser: I write for the pleasure of it. I find that if I enjoy a recording (and sometimes if I don’t), I will usually enjoy writing about it. And there’s a blatantly self-serving utility to the enterprise: it helps me keep track of my listening (which is out of control most of the time), and gives me the false but comforting impression of having made sense of my affections.

If my reviews inspire you to check out the art I write about, great. When that has happened in the past, it has been personally flattering, and felt vaguely like an accomplishment. But that’s not the reason I do it.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems

So apparently we are now to be treated to another reconsideration of copyright law (my life has been so busy of late that I completely missed this announcement last month). The basic question facing Representative Goodlatte and the Judiciary Committee, I presume, will be whether current copyright law (much of which is still fairly new) is well suited for the (rest of the?) digital age. Here’s my prediction of how things will go: the RIAA, MPAA, and other rights holding institutions will argue that copyright is not strong enough. Google, Pandora, Spotify, and other new technology companies will argue that it is too strong. Artists and audiences will be caught in the middle, while prominent commentators (professional and otherwise) will have a new chance to vent, sometimes childishly. Someone somewhere will be unhappy when the whole thing is over.

Change happens fast; faster, perhaps, than anyone expects. How easy it is to lose sight of the ways things were. It is one thing to be annoyed by the occasional glibness and snark of the Free Culture folks (which I am, even though I find myself in philosophical agreement with that movement, most of the time)—but how much more frustrating it is to have to deal with the revisionism of the other side. Consider writer and filmmaker David Newhoff, who runs the blog The Illusion of More. In a recent post on the abovementioned hearings, Newhoff castigates Google and its peers, who have betrayed a mania for consolidating their own ridiculous power. It’s a mostly valid critique. Still, Newhoff’s framing of the issue is woefully incomplete. In taking on big technology, Newhoff argues that the “copyright system” (a phrase that comes close to reifying a body of law that has in fact been revised numerous times since its inception) produced “more than two centuries of tremendous social and economic benefit.” That generalization nearly took my breath away. Elsewhere, Newhoff insists that though the powers that be, acting under the imprimatur of said system, may have made mistakes in the recent past (e.g. the “RIAA lawsuits of the aughts”), those are to be taken off the table when considering what to do about copyright law going forward.

How easily we forget. The RIAA lawsuits of the aughts were not an accidental moral detour in an otherwise honest journey. They were, rather, symptomatic of a chronic commercial psychopathology: the bitter and predictable result of a long history of power tripping by recording industry elites. Evidence falls to the ground like overripe fruit: from the in-your-face pushiness of Tin Pan Alley song pluggers (see for instance David Suisman’s Selling Sounds), to the industry’s mob-inflected golden years (see for instance Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men), to the genre of anti-music-business music that emerged in the 1960s (see for instance the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”), to the BPI’s paranoid anti-home-taping campaign of the 1980s (see for instance the scathing parodies it inspired), to the scare tactics meant to demonize bootleg culture (see for instance Clinton Heylin’s Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry), to the strain of mediocre, pre-fabricated “product” that came to a head in the nineties, and was a strong incentive for the many kids who flocked to Napster in the first place. (I remember that last argument very clearly: Who wants to get stuck buying an entire album, when the popular bands mostly seemed to care about producing songs, only a few of which were any good?)

I don’t mean to single out Newhoff (whose blog I actually enjoy, even though I disagree with much of what he writes). In his selective sense of history, he is by no means alone among those who would see copyright strengthened. Last year, David Lowery included a similarly naïve vision of the past in his much-circulated open letter to an NPR intern. Lowery made some pretty fishy claims in that piece, not the least of which concerned the standard recording industry contract, which, in his telling, had suddenly morphed into a benign, artist-friendly document. According to the typical deal, Lowery wrote, “if there are no or insufficient record sales,” an artist’s advance “is written off by the record company.” Really? Colin Frangel, in a trenchant response, turned this fantasy right way round by reminding us of how many rich doo-wop musicians there are (“That’s right, none”). The sad truth is that most doo-wop artists, most blues artists, most jazz artists, most country artists, most pop artists—most of the great musicians in all genres—ended up as economic casualties of the twentieth century culture machine that Lowery was defending, victims of creative accounting and underhanded legalese. A mere decade and a half into the new century, and all we want to remember are the old system’s success stories?

Now, I know the Internet is supposed to be a rough place, but I’m prepared to give both Lowery and Newhoff the benefit of the doubt. They do fall into the trap of revisionism, but both men are artists themselves, and I suspect their intentions are good—driven by a keen awareness of the current situation on the ground, which is undeniably dicey for anyone trying to make a living in the arts. RIAA attorney Steven Marks, on the other hand, ends up in the same trap, but not by falling; he jumps. In a recent Wisconsin Law Review article critiquing the idea that copyright limits innovation, Marks claims that record companies have been “a critical part of the creative process,” because “record company employees scout hundreds of thousands of artists, help develop repertoire for recordings, and actively participate in the recording process.” 

That is certainly an ideal vision of how things could work. But it is not a vision that exactly aligns with the experience of those who have gone on record to complain about the industry. Would Marks say that testimony was delusional? Is Steve Albini (cited also by Frangel) talking nonsense in the opening paragraph of his well-known 1990s screed?

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke.” And he does of course.
What about Hunter S. Thompson, who also described the culture industry as a trench? Granted, Thompson was not talking about the music business, as is usually assumed. But in a way it hardly matters. The viral adaptability of that telling phrase—"a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps runs free," indeed—says something about its relevance.

As we evaluate copyright law, we should push back against attempts to portray the musical culture of the past as one big happy family of endless aesthetic bliss. With any luck, that pushback can remind us of something else, something about which I am in agreement with Newhoff and Lowery: any discussion of the future of copyright should include the input of artists, not just the giant corporations who have a financial stake in the matter. And that inclusion should be honest and complete, taking into account more than the material impact of piracy, problematic as that impact is. We need to think carefully about where art comes from in the first place, and what sort of system best “promotes” its “progress” (to cite the language of the original copyright clause). That's a subject for another post, but the bottom line is that people who define themselves as creative professionals are in a unique position to testify about the time-honored artistic value of sharing art—the very activity copyright is increasingly concerned with restricting. That too is an important form of remembering.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stranger in a strange land, part 1

As I make my re-entry into blogging -- I think I am back for real now, though who really knows -- I am trying to get a handle on how things have changed out here. Keep in mind that I've been writing JTMOU since 2004. That's an eternity in Internet time. I have seen a lot of folks come and go.

Some of the usual suspects are still doing what they did back in the day; that's good. Others have disappeared; regrettable, but understandable. But as I look around I am mainly interested in the writers who have jumped in since 2011 or so, when my own posting dropped off so drastically.

To that end, I thought I would start a series in which I point to blogs I like that are either new, or new to me. Generally, I'll be mentioning folks who deal with music critically, avoiding the road warrior / journeyman genres.

First up is my friend Frank Mabee, currently teaching at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Frank and I were grad students together at USC a few years back. He is also a guitarist, whose band, Full of Emptiness, performed in one of the first double bills the IJG ever did, back in 2000 or 2001, at the one and only California Institute of Abnormal Arts. It would be an understatement to say I have fond memories of that gig.

Frank's blog, Nonsailor, is literally days old, but he is already churning out great stuff, including this post on the cultural valences of punk and other music. We had a brief exchange about it in the comments that I hope you will also read.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

A simple desultory philippic

In a recent issue of The Awl, Jaime Green asks: “How Are We to Listen to Contemporary Classical Music?

The absurdity here is perhaps easy to miss. One has to work backwards a bit: what sort of culture makes a question like this possible? What old aesthetic assumptions are being trotted out? Why is it not obvious that “contemporary classical music” is not a special case, and that the answer is the same as it would be for any other type of music? 

How are we to listen? With our ears, of course.

That’s a little flippant; my apologies. I’m bristling too easily at how Green’s title assumes a key -- or a formula, or a program -- for understanding the truth of musical experience. I would similarly bristle had the suggestion been applied to any other genre. That’s the absurdity, in short: the idea that there is an authentic way of listening, if only one can figure it out (figuring it out -- what Green calls “getting it” -- is the driving anxiety of her piece). 

Framing the issue as a question of “how to listen” presupposes that we all agree on what listening is in the first place. Yet after half a lifetime I’m no longer sure even those of us who make music professionally can describe listening in anything but the most personal terms. We are all condemned to experience it from within successive layers of mediation -- mediation that affects the way a sound is generated at a given moment, how it travels from a source to our ears in the next, and how it is processed by our minds after that. No one -- not even the putative expert whose approval Green seems to be seeking -- is able to escape those filters, which are far more complex than what I just described, and which affect each work, each and every time we hear it. Since sound depends on those filters for its existence, we might say “the work” is a new work with each hearing, and with each listener. 

Indeed, when we speak of music, we may do it a disservice by assuming there is ever really a work at all, rather than a succession of individuated aural perceptions. So when Green asks whether she is “missing something that would let me enjoy the tricky parts? Or are they just unpleasant to listen to?” not only does she discount her own response to the music -- of course it’s unpleasant, if it’s unpleasant -- she overlooks how that response is the music, at that moment.

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with wanting to understand a piece that confuses you. Indeed, kudos to Green for making the effort -- most listeners aren’t ready to step out of their aesthetic comfort zone in the first place. Listeners who take that risk may ultimately discover that the rewards are greater than they anticipated. Taste can be cultivated with certain kinds of study and exposure; musical affection, as Charles Rosen once admitted, can be a matter of choice and will. But you don’t get to assume authenticity just because you made the effort. That is closed-mindedness masquerading as open-mindedness. Why can’t the wrong response be the right response too? Why ridicule the hapless individual Green refers to as “the asshole looking at abstract art and saying ‘my kid could do that!’”? Art makes assholes of us all. None of us are free from our own perceptual and epistemological shortcomings.

When someone tells you that a given piece is beautiful, how are you supposed to know what that means, beyond it being a compliment? It is not that we can’t assume that beauty exists for the listener who claims to hear it -- though surely fans do lie about their feelings too. In either case, you have your own mediations to deal with, and your own piece to perceive. Why should it matter -- as it seems to matter so much to Green -- whether your responses track with someone else’s? Even dedicated fans of the “same” work are experiencing it “alone together,” as John Blacking felicitously put it.

I know of no way that that gap can be closed. Maybe the resulting solitude is frightening or frustrating -- I will give Green that much. But maybe it can be liberating too.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Hayhurst Composition Project

A few years ago, I began volunteering to teach music at Hayhurst, my daughter's school, hoping to fill the gap left by the unfortunate fact that they had to let their "real" music teacher go (thanks to the budgetary constraints that seem to be everywhere in education nowadays).

Honestly, though I don't know if I could ever commit to a career as a full time elementary school teacher, getting involved with music education for this age level has been one of the most enjoyable gigs I've had since moving to Portland.

Last year I visited the school on most Friday afternoons, working with three classes of K-1-2 kids. We did a wide range of things -- I taught them to read rudimentary notation, we built simple instruments, we had "listening parties," we learned introductory improvisation concepts -- but what I enjoyed the most was the composition project I am about to describe. I had created it a few years earlier, while teaching at another school -- but it wasn't until I got to Hayhurst that I had worked out most of the kinks. It took a few weeks to implement, but the experience was great fun (for me, at least).

I'm writing it up here both because I thought it would be a nice way to get this blog going again (at long last), and because I want to have a record of what I did, before the specifics fade from long-term memory.

* * * * *

I started by familiarizing students with a palette of possible sounds. Using the incredibly versatile Yamaha MOTIF XS8, we listened to decent approximations of saxophones, trumpets, drums, pianos, guitars, basses, violins, and other instruments (with the caveat that none of these decent approximations were exactly the same as the sound of the corresponding "real thing").

Next I asked the students to think about music in the terms described by Frank Zappa, in the "Let's All Be Composers" section of his autobiography:

1. Declare your intention to create a 'composition.' 
2. Start a piece at some time
3. Cause something to happen over a period of time (it doesn't matter what happens in your 'time hole'--we have critics to tell us whether it's any good or not, so we won't worry about that part.) 
4. End the piece at some time (or keep it going, telling the audience it is a 'work in progress'). 
5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

After discussing the implications of this formula -- softening that delightful Zappa cynicism a bit -- I divided each class into "bands" consisting of no more than six students. Each band was given a poster-sized empty "score," with time represented horizontally, in 10-second increments (for a total of 60 seconds), and instrumentation represented vertically, with space for a total of six instruments. Like so:

Each student in each band was asked to choose an instrument -- it could be any instrument they wanted, provided its sound was stored somewhere in the impressive memory banks of the MOTIF --and was given a strip of paper that was also divided into 10-second increments, corresponding to the increments represented on the poster-sized empty score. Students were instructed to label their strip with the name of their instrument, and then to use a crayon to fill in the increments with a color of their own choosing; the color would then represent that instrument's "sound." And so, for instance, if a student chose "saxophone," and filled in the first 10-second chunk on their strip with blue crayon, that meant the first ten seconds of the song would include saxophone. Conversely, if they chose to leave the second 10-second increment blank, that would mean the saxophone would be resting for ten seconds.

We talked about other possibilities -- students who were really ambitious could fill in a portion of an increment, with the understanding that the instrument would sound for whatever sub-set of 10 seconds the color was taken to represent (i.e., a half-colored block would probably mean 5 seconds of sound). I also encouraged students to talk with their "band mates" so they could plan for each other's parts. No one was permitted to have their instrument make sound all the way through the piece, and no one was permitted to be silent the whole time. Students were encouraged to look for gaps that needed to be filled, or to "lay out" for a 10-second chunk if they noticed other instruments making a lot of sound at that point.

Students completed their own strips, and then pasted them in no particular order onto the poster-sized empty score for their "band," so the instruments were all stacked vertically and the time increments lined up from left to right. This allowed us to analyze the pieces before we even heard them, point out moments where different instruments would combine in smaller subsets (duos, trios, etc.), anticipate sections where things might get loud, talk about how other musical choices (whether the notes chosen were high or low, in clusters or spread out, executed quickly or not) might impact the final piece.

And then, of course, we played them. The MOTIF has a built in sequencer, and so each student performed their part separately, and we layered them one at a time, so students heard the piece as it was being built. I had a stopwatch and started everyone at the same point. Reading along with the score, I let them know as each ten second increment went by, and cued them according to whether they had written themselves into the composition for that section. In this way, we made a whole bunch of great little one-minute songs, each created by a different "band," each collectively composed by the kids themselves (and yet simultaneously improvised, in that we were dealing with the openness of graphic notation). I gave everyone a CD at the end of the process, and allowed them to design their own CD packaging, naming the pieces and the "bands" according to their whims.

What follows are four of the scores the kids made, followed by the relevant recordings.

* * * * *

Composition 1:

Composition 2:

Composition 3:

Composition 4: