Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Least Favorite Things

In the two years since I started teaching elementary/middle school music, I've been waiting for the right opportunity to try out the complaints choir concept.

If you're not familiar with complaints choirs, here's a primer. And here's a children's edition that works fairly well, I think:

This spring, my choir learned the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, "My Favorite Things." I soon realized that I couldn't ask for a better excuse to compose a complaints choir piece than the fact that "My Favorite Things" fairly screams out for some kind of counterpoint (cuz ya gotta take the bad with the good, right?).

So I am now writing a rather sullen, fully-customized thing called "My Least Favorite Things."

Yesterday I got the ball rolling by asking my students for items that could be included in the lyrics to our song. My question: "What are your least favorite things?" Here is what they gave me:

Boobah [a somewhat psychedelic kids' show]
spicy stuff
being lit on fire inside of a box
an octopus grabbing onto you with suction cups all over your face
someone calling you names
when the cat pees on something valuable
school and anything involved in school
schoolwork [hmmm... do I detect a theme here?]
eating a dead fish
My Little Pony

Wish us luck.

[photo credit: _nickd]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Then again, some people just aren't down with animals at all.

Not even, I guess, armadillos? (That's my best guess as to what the creature in the middle is.)

By the way, there will be three animal-oriented songs on the new IJG record: "The Frog," "The Bee Dance," and "Antennae Town." So you know where my sympathies lie.

Monday, April 26, 2010

This ain't no damned Sarah McLachlan PSA

Still, it's raining here, and I've decided it's a good night for a short list of cats I have known (or have known about), who have died (or who may die soon), and who also have had some connection with music.


Now-ish: the thing that prompted this post was a bittersweet tweet by Seattle trumpeter / blogger Jason Parker. My condolences, Jason, and RIP, Izzy.

Last year-ish: TC, adopted by Tany Ling. If I remember correctly, "TC" stands for "Trash Can." Got to know this sweetheart when I stayed at Tany's during the IJG's April 2009 tour.

A while ago-ish: Owen, the first cat my wife and I owned. He died unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, before my disbelieving eyes, of an enlarged heart. (Does that mean he loved too much?)

You may (or may not) be familiar with the tune "Little Owen," from the IJG album The Star Chamber. It's a song about that damned cat, if you must know. (Notice how it doesn't exactly end; rather, it just stops.)

Little Owen by uglyrug

And now there's Sadie, an elderly girl we adopted a month or two ago, whose sudden not-eating drama my Facebook friends have already been subjected to (sorry to lay that on ya, Facebook friends). She may or may not be long for this world (we're getting a second opinion on Wednesday).

It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it? All of the crazy, fucked-up shit going on in the world -- enough grief to fill a billion lifetimes -- and still I feel compelled to make room for sadness over the demise of these silly, furry creatures.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When music matters most

I finally had a chance to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008) last week.

In spite of my reputation as a composer whose tastes run to the comic, I have always been fascinated (and driven) by the role music plays in contexts of exigency, crisis, or suffering -- whether we're talking about African-American spirituals and work songs, or an ensemble playing "Nearer My God to Thee" on a sinking ship, or the Quartet for the End of Time, which (in Alex Ross's telling) seemed to offer momentary respite from (and thus resistance to) a pinnacle of twentieth century barbarism:

The premiere of the Quartet took place on January 15, 1941 [at prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A]. Several hundred prisoners of many nations crowded into the camp's makeshift theater, with the German officers sitting up front. The work bewildered much of the audience, but a respectful silence prevailed. [...] Like Britten in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Messiaen responded to the mechanized insanity of the Second World War by offering up the purest, simplest sounds he could find.

The music of Acrassicauda (the subject of HMiB, and Iraq's only metal band) is anything but "pure" or "simple" -- instead, it sounds like an angst-soaked, rapid-fire reflection of the war-torn landscape of Iraq. And why shouldn't it? After all, as bass player Firas puts it, in Iraq, "headbanging itself could take you to jail forever." And, later:

Dude, I mean, I'm in a big risk right now, wearing this [Slipknot] T-shirt, because it's an American band... that could get you killed in Baghdad.

Back in high school I once had a conversation -- it was a typical high school conversation, I guess -- about whether suffering was a necessary prerequisite for true creativity. At the time, I took the devil's advocate position, arguing that the two weren't necessarily linked. (Ironically, I was suffering a lot at the time, while trying my damnedest to be as full-on creative as I could.)

Of course, "suffering" to a white lower-middle-class teenager in suburban 1980s America is not exactly comparable to the suffering of life in a war zone. I mean, my bands never had our practice space destroyed by a Scud missile, as Acrassicauda does in this film. There's a gap, as HMiB director Suroosh Alvi reminds us:

If you think about bands in the West, bands in Brooklyn, where our office is, they're all so spoiled, compared to Acrassicauda. In fact, we're all spoiled compared to these guys.

True enough. Still, I think most good artists, no matter how comfortable their material existence, strive for the level of creative urgency that is so clearly on display throughout this documentary.

Of course, there are degrees. Maybe the search for creative urgency does not typically include trying to make something so raw it can inspire fisticuffs. But most artists could probably find some point of resonance in sentiments like these (uttered by Marwan, Acrassicauda's drummer):

It just feels like you've been caged, like there's chains all around you. So you just want to, for two hours, for three hours, the practice time or, like, the live performance, free yourself from that chain, just like get that rage out. If I didn't play drums as hard as I can, as fast as I can, I was gonna kill someone. Each one of us will turn to be a killing machine.

Music born out of violence, so powerful that it can prevent violence: is there greater evidence of the power of this medium?

And in that vein, I'll close with this excerpt from the liner notes to Chris Schlarb's brilliant solo record, Twilight & Ghost Stories (which I got as a perk of our mixing session a few weeks ago):

Four years ago I was a sleeping ghost in an empty home. After quitting my job as an insurance adjuster I found myself working through a devastating separation which soon ended in divorce. Aimless and unemployed, I lost all structure and contact with the world outside. [...] Four years and fifty collaborators later, Twilight & Ghost Stories seems an odd choice for my first 'solo' album. There are hundreds of moments taken from their chronology in time and set alongside each other anew and I have acted only as the conductor of a giant, magnificent orchestra. To that orchestra, in some small way, I owe my life. [emphasis added]

And so say we all.

[Photo credit: US Army]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Music of the future

I was in beautiful Long Beach, CA, last weekend, to mix the new IJG album with the inimitable Chris Schlarb, who is also producing. I will have more to say about the specifics of this collaboration soon (I first hinted at it here), but for the time being let me say that the trip was fantastic (contrary to what you might think, I actually miss southern California sometimes), and I'm very excited by the work we got done and the shape the record appears to be taking. (The working genre description we came away with was "demented dance music" -- but don't hold me to that.)

Anyway, Chris works in Logic, which is unfamiliar to me. At one point, while I was observing him expertly fly through a rapid sequence of mixing moves, I was also completely lost as to what exactly he was doing. And so I allowed myself a momentary daydream about how records might be mixed in the future (say, fifty years from now).

At that point, I surmised, engineers will be able to plug their brains directly in to a given track, performing fades, EQ adjustments, quick edits, compression, and other processing, at will, and in real time. The music and all its characteristics will be represented by a hall-of-mirror-esque array of floating holographic screens that can be physically manipulated in the air around the engineer's head -- but the real key will be his or her total neural integration into the track. (Don't ask me why, but I found that to be a fairly compelling -- though not necessarily appealing -- concept.) The mix itself will become a kind of performance, almost to the point where the end result (the record) doesn't matter so much.

Or so I imagined. A few hours later, reading a bit of my Fellini book before heading off to bed, I came across this passage:

My greatest advantage in working at Cinecitta [a Roman film studio] is the freedom I have to direct my own way. Like a silent-film director, I talk to my actors as they perform their parts in front of the camera. Sometimes the actor doesn't even know what he's supposed to say, or the script has been changed too much at the last minute for him to have learned the lines, so I have to tell him his lines while the camera is rolling. [Fellini overdubbed all his dialogue later.] Obviously, in Hollywood with microphones this would be impossible. I would need a telepathic medium to communicate my last-minute instructions to the actors.

Interesting. Though I am big on the notion of collaboration, sometimes I think art can be defined as an attempt at (or desire for) total obsessiveness by a single author, who directs everything from a centralized location -- not unlike an air traffic controller or a juggler.

(Also, I promise not to keep quoting Fellini forever on this blog.)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Against the grain

When it comes to being a music fan, there is a side of me (the left side, I think) that is inherently curmudgeonly, and that likes being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

There, I said it.

Sometimes I am able to override this character flaw, because of course I recognize the silliness (or, I guess, the futility) of shunning something that everyone else likes -- something "hip," "in," or "hot" -- particularly when I have a sneaking suspicion that I am shunning it in part because everyone else likes it.

Alas, already I've stumbled onto shaky intellectual ground, because the notion of "everyone else" is fundamentally arbitrary -- sometimes I might use it to mean "most other listeners in the world," and sometimes I might use it to mean "most other listeners in a subset of most other listeners in the world" (jazz fans, say). In neither case am I literally talking about "everyone else."

But who cares? Sometimes I just want to go with my impulse as a music fan, and rationality be damned. I want to enjoy music, and ultimately I'm not particularly concerned with the question of whether my enjoyment is justified. And I'll admit that sometimes I'm (irrationally) terrified of getting lost in the mass commodification of culture, even when the culture being commodified is good. So to the extent that we choose (consciously or not) to like certain kinds of art as a matter of personal identity, I want to choose things that are, by some obscure criteria that may appeal only to me, different.

(Of course sometimes I go against the grain of the act of going against the grain, by publicly talking about my affection for certain kinds of music that are wildly popular.)

All of which is just a rambling prelude to this article, helpfully entitled "Your Favorite Band Sucks: Bands and Artists Bullz-Eye Writers Just Don't Get." In it, contributors to a trashy, mediocre, and mildly NSFW webzine attempt to argue against certain conventional wisdoms in the world of rock. Is it strange that I found the arguments unconvincing, but was nevertheless entertained by the piece?

On the Doors:

[...] they did indeed create a sound like no other band. But was that because no other band could successfully replicate their sound, or because no other band wanted to?

On Springsteen:

Perhaps Jello Biafra put it best when he referred to Bruce Springsteen as "Bob Dylan for jocks."

On Beck:

Beck is one of those artists, and one who critics use the word "groundbreaking" to describe. Yeah. If I took a sledgehammer to some concrete and took a shit in the hole in the ground I'd created, that would be groundbreaking too, wouldn't it?

On Pink Floyd:

But overall, their approach to music is decidedly non-musical; the bulk of their work feels like it was conceived mathematically or something…which, considering that three of 'em (Waters, Nick Mason, Rick Wright) were architecture students, should come as no surprise.

On Elvis Costello:

[...] when you're listening to Costello's collaboration with Allen Toussaint and suffering through track after track of Costello vocals while knowing that a perfectly wonderful soul singer was sitting right there at the piano while they were being recorded, it's just as hard not to want to muzzle the guy.

On Nine Inch Nails:

[...] a little Trent goes a long, long way. I have often tried to subscribe to the idea that he's some sort of genius. But I'm not buying it. A true genius won't subject his audience to 90 minutes of temple-pounding, unreasonably angry industrial rock without giving any sort of dynamic reprieve outside of "Hurt."

On Talking Heads:

Overall, they were good, but not great. Eccentric, but not head and shoulders above their peers. It's time to give up the charade and let the Talking Heads float down the river of East Coast artsy fartsy obscurity from whence they came.

On Frank Zappa:

Zappa's one of those guys where, if you tell one of his fans that you can't really get into his music, they generally find a way to let you know that it's probably just because you're too stupid to appreciate it. Now, I have never claimed to be a genius, so it's very possible that those Zappa aficionados are right on the money, but for my part, I've always just thought that Zappa's work too often felt like he was being weird solely for the sake of being weird.

Weird for the sake of being weird. I guess that brings me back to where I began.

[Photo credit: CarbonNYC]


Fellini, qtd. in I, Fellini:

All my life I've had a natural resistance to whatever everyone likes, or wants, or is "supposed" to do. I never was interested in soccer, either to play or to watch, and for a man to admit that in Italy is almost like admitting you aren't a man at all. I do not like to belong to political parties or to clubs. Partly this is probably in my black-sheep nature, but I think another very real reason is I remember the Black Shirts.

I was a child in a time when we wore the outfits of our school, or we wore the black shirts of fascism, and we were supposed to question nothing. That has made me question everything. I was always suspicious, not wanting to be one of the sheep going to the slaughter. So sometimes I may have missed out on a pleasure the sheep enjoyed which I could have had without becoming a lamb chop.