Friday, February 26, 2010

Life is short

Especially, I guess, if you're a chicken.

Oh Billina and Henry, you were entertaining while you were here. You gave us many more eggs than we could ever consume. You were especially comical when you got wet. And it was oddly endearing, the way you would run up to greet us whenever we came home from somewhere. (Actually, I don't know if chickens "run" so much as they waddle really fast.)

I will admit that the Satanic cackling you emitted every time you sat down to lay was more than a little annoying. And the way you abused our foliage was downright obscene. But I guess the thing that finally did you in was your wanderlust. You simply could not tolerate the idea that your entire existence had to be confined to our front yard, where overhanging trees protected you from hawks, and where proximity to humans protected you from the neighborhood coyote. And though we like to consider ourselves the superior species, it seemed that, in the end, even we couldn't devise (read: afford to install) a fence fancy enough to hold you.

The sad irony is that now I'll never have the chance to tell you how much I admired your constant quest for freedom (even though I suspected all along that it would lead to your demise).

For the ghoulish, here's the crime scene:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears that there are two piles of feathers in that image. Which suggests, to me, that chicken A stood by, dumbfounded or unaware, while chicken B was being consumed. And then chicken A was consumed.

Anyway, RIP, ladies.

(Related: a poem I once wrote about a dead bird.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Senses all a-jumble

I was always interested in art. I used to practice, when I was a kid, drawing dollar bills. A lot of kids do that, I'm sure. Cal Schenkel was so good at it, he drew a five dollar bill one time and passed it. He bought his high school lunch with it.

I'd never seen music on paper. What I had seen had been orchestra parts they give you in high school, beginner stuff. Then I saw a score. It just looked so wonderful -- the very idea that this graphic representation, when translated into sound waves through the efforts of craftsmen would result in music. I said, Hey I gotta do this! So I got a ruler, I went out and bought some music paper, and I just started drawing. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, but I could look at it. Then I went around looking for people who could play it, to find out what it would sound like. That's how I started out.

-- Frank Zappa, qtd. by Ben Watson

I used to be a bit of a purist when it came to sensory experience. For a long time I harbored a grudge against Western culture's preoccupation with all things visual, because I considered myself primarily an auditory guy. Not because I couldn't appreciate art that was aimed at the eyes -- except for the few years I spent living in propinquity to the oppressive shadow of Hollywood, I have always been a film nut. Rather, I thought our mania for appearances -- no matter how artfully realized -- helped explain why music in general was under-appreciated (and why music that was played by people who looked "good" was more likely to be "successful").

One of my pet peeves has always been the idea that people are more interested in the way things look, than with the way they sound. This, of course, has implications not only for aesthetics but for politics. (It was also, I thought, the primary engine driving the clique-making dynamic I so despised in high school.)

More recently, of course, I have come up against the ways in which visual aspects of a musical performance, when obviously fiddled with in one way or another, tend to trump the musical ones, even when that is not the intention of said fiddling.

I still think there is some reason for harboring a grudge, but nowadays I can admit that I'm more comfortable with the peaceful cohabitation and intermingling of the senses. Because honestly, does one really end where the other begins? When you close your eyes in order to listen to music, do you really stop "seeing"?

What if sight is just another form of hearing, just as hearing (as Evelyn Glennie has argued) is another form of touch? Isn't it all just molecules vibrating in the air, and picked up by some sort of receptor?

I have, like most of the composers I admire, always drawn a great deal of inspiration from the musicians I have worked with: as I have said, I can't write in a vacuum. Some composers are driven by visual inspiration, in that (for instance) they see colors or abstract shapes when they compose. To the (small) extent that I visualize anything when I write, it's usually a fleeting imaginative glimpse of the people I want to play the music, actually playing it.

[photo credit: fPat]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Portrait of the artist as a young ninny

While out east last fall, I found a bit of time to dig through some of the youthful detritus I left behind in 1995 (the year I moved to California). My archive goes back to grade one, and the oldest portions of it are excerpted below.

Yes, the paper really is that yellow.

As my kid begins to fill the house with her own writing (like me, she's pretty compulsive about it -- we're finding her notes, cards, stories, grocery lists, post-its, menus, ballots, etc. all over the place), I've been amusing her by sharing some of my own early scribblings. Her stuff is much better, but she hasn't given me permission to publish it yet.

I like to joke that I was an abnormal child, but maybe I wasn't. Or maybe I was just a normal boy. A sample "story," from a badly-stapled collection entitled "Monsters," reads as follows: "Three monsters where [sic] playing baseball. And they got into a fight! And it got worse and... they KILLED each other!!" (With illustrations, this masterpiece took up four pages.)

I guess it was right around this time that I developed an affection for monster movies. (Did I say "affection"? I meant "affliction." One that continues to this day.)

Also, my first song, "The Shark," with its cryptic lyric: "I saw a shark eat bark."

You've gotta know where you've been to know where you're going.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My angels, my devils

But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men--
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
It's vapor done up like a newborn babe--
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!

-- Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi"

What is music for? It's a trite question, but one that I find myself wrestling with every time I sit in front of a piano.

Part of me wants to tie up every seam, preserving the illusion of a coordinated whole with a presentation so compelling and forceful that it makes you literally forget where you are. I want to ravish you, dear listener. I want you to believe that a bunch of vibrating air actually means something. (I want to believe it too.) And I want it to be aspirational and positive: this is a glimpse of something higher than the often-horrific, often-ridiculous way life can be. Something beautiful, that speaks to the soul.

At other times that approach feels like a supreme contrivance. An intellectualized put-on. A walking shadow, woven of escapist impulses. Shouldn't music at least occasionally take a penetrating and critical look at its own damned self? Point to the means by which it is made? Take you backstage? Sit you down at the desk upon which it was written? Stop in medias res to reveal the fragile, flawed humanity behind the end result?

[photo credit: "Angels without daemons," by plastAnka]

Friday, February 12, 2010

In defense of quiet

[Apologies in advance. Feeling the doom and gloom angle today for some reason. It'll pass.]

Are you actively marketing and advertising to get more jazz buyers to know your name/brand to generate sales of your CDs, products, services and to get bookings? Or are you waiting around hoping that consumers will come to you just because you think you've got a great product? 

Are you seizing the golden opportunity to get the leadership advantage in this economy or like competitors are you busy justifying fears and cutting back on marketing? It is easier now for you to get higher visibility than ever.

Are you getting the lowest “cost per contact” to reach each jazz buyer? 

Are you implementing ideas, strategies and solutions from marketing professionals to succeed?

(Excerpted from an ad mailer for a prominent jazz magazine that I happen to admire.)

For most of the history of communication, human beings have recorded for perusal or study but a mere fragment (usually a highly contrived fragment) of what they have done, said, thought. Perhaps memory was a different (sturdier) phenomenon at first, and (for instance) words spoken but not written could be recalled, challenged, quoted verbatim when the need arose. But for a long time the recording and representation of human activity (deeds, words, ideas) was a relatively exceptional phenomenon, as compared with the entirety of discourse.

Today, for most people, the recorded and represented self rivals the physical self. Some of these recordings and representations are voluntarily submitted to the world. (Surf through your Facebook friends’ pages sometime. Step into the Twitter stream. Hell, read this blog.) Some of them are captured, the object of surveillance. (Go out to any public space in any American city and let me know how far you get before you run into a security camera.) Some of them are stumbled upon by accident. (Do you know how many other people’s candid iPhone photos the back of your head has ended up in?)

Eventually, our recordings and representations will overtake us.

I suspect that as everyone’s pile of life “tapes” grows bigger, the chance that anyone else is going to review them in any meaningful way grows smaller (making the privacy argument moot from two directions at once: inevitability and apathy). In the dystopian scenario, we will eventually meet the magic, tragic ratio of one-to-one, in which each person only has time to peruse or study the recordings and representations of him or herself. And after that: production only. Like the items that take up vast sections of the Library of Congress, it’ll be stuff that is primarily just there.

So I'm going to take the dog for a good long walk in the woods now.

[photo credit: madmolecule]

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Plan B

Or: something to try when, after six months, you still can't get a critical mass of your student band to reliably produce the basic pitches / rhythms called for by the piece you are supposed to be working on.

1. Devise a set of hand signals that correspond with certain musical qualities agreed upon by the class (long, short, fast, slow, high, low, dense, sparse, start, stop, etc.).

2. Allow each student (in turn) to take on the role of composer-conductor.

3. Ask each composer-conductor (in turn) to direct their peers, using the aforementioned hand signals, in an improvised ensemble performance.

Maybe the resulting music is horrible. Maybe it's not. But suddenly the kids are concentrating, cooperating, and smiling. Take your victories where you can find them, and call it a day.

(Maybe this should've been "Plan A'"?)

[Photo credit: Roland Lakis]

Monday, February 08, 2010

Fun facts about the Super Bowl Halftime Show

(This photo has nothing to do with football. That's why I chose it.)

According to that mightiest of mighty sources, Wikipedia:

The theme for the Super Bowl VI Halftime Show (1972) was "Salute to Louis Armstrong." Ella Fitzgerald, Al Hirt, and, uh, Carol Channing performed.

The theme for the Super Bowl IX Halftime Show (1975) was "Salute to Duke Ellington." Mercer Ellington performed.

Arturo Sandoval and Tony Bennett performed at the Super Bowl XXIX Halftime Show (1995). The theme? "Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye."

Other jazz or jazz-inflected Super Bowl Halftime Show acts have included Woody Herman, Pete Fountain, and Helen O'Connell.

Two Super Bowl Halftime Shows have taken Mardi Gras as a theme (IV, XV), and one took New Orleans as a theme (XXIV).

The theme for Super Bowl XIV Half Time Show (1980)? "A Salute to the Big Band Era." The performers? Up With People.


Also, this:

The NFL does not pay the halftime show performers an appearance fee, though it covers all expenses for the performers and their entourage of stagehands, family, and friends.

[photo credit:]

Friday, February 05, 2010

40 sentences on 4D

[The new Matthew Shipp album.]


In a perfect world, the third track, "equilibrium," would be the single.


Though there is a lot of full-on piano pounding here (see iv, below), there is also an amazing lightness of touch throughout. Consider the filigree figures at the end of “the crack in the piano's egg." How can you be playing and sound like you're not playing at the same time?

Indeed, sometimes the music moves almost too fast or too dense to be able to tell what it is.

Looked at another way: some music is designed to work as if it were an Olympic event. Muscular precision that shines at a crucial moment, usually under the glare of the spotlight.

Some music is designed to work like a homemade birthday card. A private exchange that only really has meaning for the two people involved.


The mechanics of the piano are audible along with the notes. (At least I think it's the mechanics of the piano... perhaps the pads of the fingers sticking slightly to the surface of the keys?)

I'll go further: there's a homeliness to the sound quality that reminds me of how records used to be. (Did you hear Raphael Saadiq's last album, by the way? It was similarly "old-school lo-fi," despite a presumably much higher recording budget. Seems to be a trend with R&B musicians; see too Sharon Jones.)

Shipp: "As a pianist, I love to get great pianos, but I actually think it's probably good sometimes to really have to make bad pianos react to your personality. So I don't really subscribe to the kind of Keith Jarrett baby-ish idea of crying to promoters if the piano's not the greatest piano in the world [...] Thelonious Monk could take any piano and make it sound like himself." (Via Jason Crane's interview for The Jazz Session.)

At times the lo-fi overwhelms, though. The buzzing during "what a friend we have in jesus” is headache-threatening.

Thankfully that piece is less than a minute long. (And as an agnostic, I can't help but read the "bad sound" as a statement about organized religion. I'm sure I'm overreaching, though.)

Incidentally, Shipp performatively grunts probably at least as much as his nemesis, Jarrett (on that score, anyway, they are completely even).


The music is angry.

For instance, parts of “blue web in space” sound like Shipp is trying to punch the piano in the face. (Ironically, that is one way of getting beauty out of the instrument.)

Hey, I like angry music. Why not? There’s a lot to be angry about.

But maybe I'm guilty of reading this into the music because of Shipp's combative public persona. Which is a subject I don't really want to comment on.

Okay, okay, just one thing: I did like Peter Hum's quotation of Bill Evans, in his own article on the subject: "[...] it just didn't bother me that much as long as there was a little niche that I could find for what I wanted to do."

Problem is, what happens when it becomes hard to even find a niche?


Not sure whether I like the inclusion of the standards. If that's not what you do, why do it?

(I'm not counting "greensleeves" as a standard.)


While listening (eyes closed), a line from Apocalypse Now popped into my head: “You must make a friend of horror.”

Not because this CD is horrible (it's exactly the opposite), but because it seems to be informed by horror (modern-day weltschmerz-type horror, to be exact).

Consider the gorgeously thunderous version of “frere jacques,” which reminded me of the cinematic technique of employing slightly discordant children's songs in order to create high anxiety during a climactic moment.

[photo credit: wharman]

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Boulez on Boulez

Years later, in conversation with Joan Peyser, [Boulez] casually dismissed his early ventures in total serialism, saying that Structures 1a had been not "Total but Totalitarian." He also brushed away the formerly dire necessity of the twelve-tone composition. "I've often found the obligation to use all twelve tones to be unbearable," he said in 1999. In the end, the notion of musical progress proved to be contingent and subjective, its definition changing with the seasons. The philosophy of modern music was unmasked as the rhetoric of taste. All the same, Boulez adroitly maintained the illusion of being out in front -- the signature of a master politician.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, p. 434

Who says pop stars invented music marketing?

[photo credit: jonrawlinson]

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Everything eventually becomes obsolete

A comic, via Oliver Chesler (proprietor of the pro-audio blog, Wire to the Ear.)

You probably already know this, but that iPad-ish looking thing in the lower right-hand panel is one of these:

Why? According to the inventor:

"In days gone by, a musical instrument had to have a beauty, of shape as well as of sound, and had to fit the player almost organically. [...] Modern electronic instruments don't have this inevitable relationship between the shape, the sound, and the player. What I have done is to try to bring back these [...] elements and build them in to a true musical instrument for the digital age."

I play some guitar, some horn, and some drumkit, but the piano was my first (and remains my primary) instrument. And though these days I tend to do most of my writing away from that particular axe, I still suspect that my basic conception of pitch is horizontal.

Which is just another way of saying that the tools you use affect the things you make.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Coo-coo for Gaga

I was happy to avoid the Grammys last night. Why? Oh, you know: the usual reasons.

Still, now that the is show is over, I suppose it's as good a time as any to "come out" with respect to my admiration for Lady Gaga. I realize that I say this at my own peril, and at the risk of losing whatever sliver of jazz credibility I may still have, but what the hell: for my money, this chick is the most interesting thing to emerge from the "mainstream" popular music scene in a long time.

I'm aware of the Madonna comparisons, but I don't know. Whatever her other talents, Madonna could never really sing. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, has got some pipes, a sense of pitch, and a refreshing mistrust for melisma. She takes the direct approach with each song, and yet seems able to change the color of her voice at will. I dig that.

Also unlike Madonna (not to mention visually interesting but musically effete peers like Marilyn Manson), Gaga actually has more than a few decent songs. "So Happy I Could Die" is a good song. "Bad Romance" is a very good song (despite the bad grammar). "Paparazzi" is a fucking great song; perhaps because it's also disturbing as hell:

Baby, you'll be famous
chase you down until you love me
Papa, paparazzi

It would be hard to appreciate that sentiment (or indeed the entire Fame Monster album) outside the context of the carefully staged death-wish that is modern celebrity culture. And unlike an earlier paean to obsessiveness, the music of "Paparazzi" doesn't hide the song's more sinister content; arguably, it amplifies it. Yet the tune generally inspires no shortage of getting down. That has to be some sort of coup.

Which is not to say that The Fame Monster is flawless. It's an insistently loud record, for one thing. And though I admire the varied production (which runs the gamut from glam rock to full-on electronica), let's face it: any autotune is too much, even when it is not being used for pitch correction per se. (Still, I get it: this music wasn't intended primarily for solitary headphone listening, and, for better or worse, autotune has become the principal signifier of modern dance music.)

But the thing that really intrigues me about Gaga is her knack for pointing toward a nexus between two seemingly opposed musical ideologies. (I'm reminded of the political theory that "extreme right" and "extreme left" are, but for a few rhetorical quibbles, more alike than different, and that the political continuum is more circular than linear.) With her music, it's the peaceful (and seemingly effortless) coexistence of the so-called "avant-garde" and the so-called "mainstream" that fascinates.

Now, if you read this blog at all you probably know that I think these aesthetic terms are bunk. Still, I recognize that they have a certain utility in discussions of culture: for instance, they help us organize our perceptions. Which is great, because, as it turns out, the social organization of perceptions is useful material for an adventurous artist to play with.

Consider the video embedded below -- perhaps with these questions in mind:

If "avant garde" is characterized by weirdness, is there anything weirder than this happening in music right now?

If "mainstream" is characterized by popularity, is there anything more popular than this happening in music right now?

I realize that isn't the most provocative Lady Gaga video out there, but come on. Is there not something vaguely unsettling, even dystopian, going on here? What with the metallic themes, the hard-edged synths, the robotic dance moves, the leather-gloved middle finger, the roaring crowd? Gestures and tropes that would be merely boring in the hands of another mega-concert practitioner (the Black Eyed Peas, say) take on a whole new valence. And it's one thing to experience this music from the safety of the internets, but I doubt there are many fans of even the most thorny "new" music who could put themselves in the middle of that crowd and not feel at least a little uncomfortable.

And isn't interesting art, to some extent, about being at least a little uncomfortable?