Monday, December 28, 2009

Sensory Overload

Cage's 1966 piece, Variations VII, is a rather unforgettable production. Wanting to use sounds that were available at the time of the performance, Cage asked that 10 telephone lines be installed in the performance space (an airplane hanger, I think) by the New York Telephone Company. In addition, he had lines opened in various places in New York City, including Luchow's, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, the New York Times press room, and Merce Cunningham’s dance studio. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage's sound manipulation system back at the hanger. Cage also had 6 contact microphones on the performing platform itself and 12 contact microphones on household appliances such as a blender, a juicer, a toaster, a fan, etc. Thirty photocells and lights were mounted at ankle level around the performance area, which activated the different sound sources as the performers moved around. The grand result was a technological, cacophonous, electrically powered extravaganza that had the potential to send certain individuals into bouts of hyperventilation. A true sensory overload.

Despite the regrettable lack of kitchen appliances, I might say that I'd experienced a similar "performance" yesterday afternoon, when I accompanied my brother to Kenwood mall. I haven't been to a shopping mall for about six years, and so had had ample time to forget just how unpleasant they are. Upon entering I was filled with a certain disgusted feeling as I walked past ridiculously clothed manikins and displays of shoes and handbags for which one might pay well over a sensible amount of money (and then found myself thinking of starving people in underprivelaged nations...). Shoppers ambled through from store to store, carrying their bags filled with new purchases (lots of Macy's bags. There must have been an after-Christmas sale), and all of the women seemed to be dressed rather similarly in straight-leg jeans with boots and long graphic t-shirts. The constant bombardment by vendors and salesmen attempting to sell you something, anything, was not to be ignored and was greatly unappreciated (though, truth be told, the glare I gave to the man trying to get me to buy a manicure package might have been a little harsh). But before I let myself go on to a diatribe regarding American consumerism as perpetuated by a capitalist society, let me get to something more Cagean.

While my brother made his purchase at the Apple store, I sat on one of the benches outside the shops, watching the zombies-I mean, shoppers -as they walked on by. As I sat there for what seemed like far too long a time, I closed my eyes and took in all of the sounds. There was a roaring tide of hundreds of conversations, some Christmas music playing back by the food court, a baby crying somewhere to the left, the sound of a child's echoing footsteps running on the hard linoleum floor. There was that guy at the kiosk practically shouting about the wonders that dead sea bath products will do for the skin, the techno music coming from inside a clothing store, and the sound of the automated directory, speaking in oh-so-polite tones. And then there were the smells. The perfume counter, the french fries and soft pretzels down at the food court, the pine-scented artificial Christmas trees, the chlorine at the fountain. I opened my eyes and took in the carnival of visual stimulation: bright red Christmas displays, flashing twinkle lights, the loudly dressed manikins and the mulling, also loudly dressed people.

This was definitely a Variations VII-type performance, though perhaps a more "multi sense" as the elements of sight and smell were added to all of the sounds. I realized that all of the constant, sensory stimulation must be used purposefully, likely to sell us things, as all other elements of shopping malls do. Regardless, the experience was largely overwhelming for those few moments and I was more than happy to see my brother strolling out of the Apple store with his computer program in tow.

For the record, I do not plan on returning to any shopping mall for quite sometime. And you can't make me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

True to Life

Much of the philosophy behind Cage's work is centered around perceiving life as it is and yet as art- perceiving life as art. His use of indeterminacy further establishes this. Life's occurrences happen at random, with no preconceived orchestration, thus, composing a piece by use of indeterminate methods mimics this quality. Cage's desire to mimic life and stay true to indeterminacy is clear when one regards his attitudes toward recorded music. Once a performance has been captured, it is no longer a living performance. It becomes two-dimensional, a characiture of the real thing, and no longer mirrors the way life occurs, because the record will always perform the piece in the same way every time (unless your record player is dysfunctional, adding a degree of indeterminacy to the listening of the piece, but that's another matter altogether, for the real life experience wouldn't be of the performance itself, but would be a real life experience of the record played on this particular record player in your parlor).
Recording a performance is an attempt to capture and freeze a fleeting moment, a phenomena in time and space. Cage seemed to be aware that, in real life, one cannot capture such moments, that there are things in this world that are temporary. Life has a progression of sorts that does not always stop for as long as we might like. Leaves change from green to red and yellow, fall from the trees and will inevitably brown and crumble. Sunrises and sunsets will begin and end with or without our blessing. Children will progress into adults despite our demands that they stay as they are. We have put much effort into contriving ways to get around this steady march of time by, say, recording music or taking a photograph, but will always fall short of replicating the real life occurrence.

Perhaps Cage realized, and wanted others to see, that fleeting moments should not be lamented for their loss, but celebrated for their occurrence, however short it may be. That is, rather than regret having lost something, rather than brood over having had something that one can't keep, one should instead revel in the joy it brought while it was present.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dancing in Silence

Since learning of Merce Cunningham's approach to dance and his work with John Cage, I've had a heightened awareness of the degree of dependence that a dancer has on music. In my own experience, that dependence has been rather great and I feel at times handicapped my my reliance on music to dance to. Lately, I've made a conscious effort to dance without music, to focus on the movements alone, instead of the movements as a means to accentuate musical notes. I've also just finished choreographing a dance combination that was put together entirely without music. Let me just mention that the process was unbelievably frustrating, because choreographing with music is hard enough for me, but without music, you're starting from scratch, without any musical suggestions for movement. The process does, however, focus one's attention solely on the movement and, though I intend to dance this with music, I feel like this has helped in polishing the dance. You can concentrate on making the motions without music to distract.

Just like Cage's emphasis on sounds as ends in themselves, rather than a means to an end, Cunningham's focus was on the movement of the dancer. Conventional elements of dance structure were absent from his work: conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax. Cunningham was not interested in telling stories or exploring psychological states, and yet this isn't to say that the theatrics were absent. Many claimed that the drama arose from the sheer intensity of the kinetics. Since he wasn't telling stories, Cunningham's dancers were never actors, never pretending to be anything other than themselves. He once said to his troupe that “you are not necessarily at your best, but at your most human.”

For me, that's scary. Uncomfortable, really. To get up and dance and not be anything other than me? To not become an actress or even a physical expression of the music takes away all feelings of security up on stage. I'd feel naked. And that's terrifying, and utterly wonderful, and yet still terrifying! What an experience for the dancer, let alone the audience. I think what Cunningham does with this is the same thing that Cage did with sounds. He puts the ordinary, everyday in a context that allows it to be viewed as art.

It's interesting how each man's medium can be so different and convergent all at once.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Musical Box Again, and Jazz Police

Once again, the The Musical Box blog is essential reading. This time around, a review of Saturday night's Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly performance in Lexington. As Penny points out in her excellent post on this blog (see below), those of us who were lucky enough to have been at Friday's Thomas More workshop with Rempis and Rosaly witnessed something similar.

On another note entirely, apparently one must be very careful when performing contemporary or experimental jazz in Spain. It seems a disgruntled fan at a Spanish jazz festival called the police to report that the music he was being "subjected to" was not jazz. Indeed, it was some pernicious form of contemporary music that might in some cases prove injurious to one's health. The truly bizarre feature of the story is that the police responded. Read the details here as reported in the Guardian.

Improv Diaglogue

If you were one of the unlucky few to not make it to Friday night's jazz performance, well, I have no words of comfort for you, because it really was as good as advertised and it's just too bad you missed it. Spectacular, really. Anyway, after performing a couple of numbers, Dave Remphis and Frank Rosaly opened up the floor for questions and over the course of a half and hour, I gained a new insight into the inner workings of improvisation.

Improv has always been bit of an elusive practice, to me. The concept makes perfect sense, but I never really understood the practical application, that is, I always thought that there was some sort of special understanding involved with it that I was just unable to grasp- that the musicians must just know something I don't. But after the conversation that took place on Friday, I feel like just a bit of light has been shed into the dark corner in which I always thought improvisation was hiding (and I came to realize that it wasnt actually hiding there at all). Frank and Dave described improvisational music -in the context of playing with other musicians- as a dialogue, a conversation between the instruments. For example, the saxophonist starts with a few notes, the drummer responds, the saxophonist responds to the drummer and so on. It was clear that both musicians on Friday were listening to each other, basing their next move on what the other was doing.

Frank emphasized that hearing what the other musicians are doing is crucial, as is knowing the musical personalities of those one happens to be playing with. He described this with a marvelous analogy about the complexities of conversations with other people. You have your friends with whom you can talk about politics, your friends with whom you can talk out your problems, those you can joke around with, ect. You have to know the musicians you're playing with in a similar manner, because if you try to converse with any of them in the wrong way, you mess things up. That is, you can't try to talk politics with the friends you normally goof off with, because the result is an awkward silence, or simply an uncomfortable exchange.

Knowing these "musical personalities" is also instrumental (bad pun, I know) when it comes to performing well. You can't play with someone who wants to dominate the space, because they, in effect, dominate the conversation and none of the other musicians are going to like that- especially if said musician tries to play over everyone else (Frank mentioned performing with guitarists who just keep turning the volume up on their amplifiers to stay in control of the exchange, much like someone who simply keeps talking louder whenever you try to make a comment). One can't play well with someone who always attempts to control the direction the performance is going, bringing it back to what they want to play, similar to a person who always tries to bring the conversation back around to what they want to talk about. When asked about solos, the guys said that you know when they're going to happen, because the other musician is playing something that takes precedence, that needs to be heard. I see this as what happens when one stops mid sentence to allow someone else's thoughts to be vocalized, because they deserve the floor at the time, because "hey, they might have a good idea- let's listen."
And now, improv is beginning to make perfect sense.... So does this mean that someone doing improv by themselves is performing a monologue?

I love analogies.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rempis and Rosaly on The Musical Box

Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly are visiting Thomas More this evening for a performance/workshop on free improvisation. There is a nice article about them on The Musical Box. Please have a look, and stop by tonight if you are free and looking for some exciting music and discussion.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Back in preschool, we used to sing this song. Didn't find out what a kookaburra actually was until much later (assumed it was a bird, of course, but could never be sure). Recently, this childhood song to so many has been at the center of an intellectual property battle. That's right. And I wonder what'll be next... Ring Around the Rosy?

So, in 1981, Men at Work's "Down Under" became an international pop hit. Twenty eight years later, contestants on an Australian music-themed TV quiz show called Spicks and Specks were asked to guess what children's song "Down Under" contained. No one could figure it out. But guess which one it was. Yep. After the TV show aired, Larrikin Music Publishing filed suit against the two Men at Work members who wrote "Down Under." The "Kookaburra Song" was originally written by a Melbourne schoolteacher in 1934, for the Australian version of the Girl Scouts. According to Adam Simpson, who represents Larrikin Music Publishing in the lawsuit,

" 'Kookaburra' is a copyright work, just like any copyright work, and there are laws surrounding how it can be used." And I thought Girl Scouts were all about sharing. My bad.

Simpson claims that the laws governing fair use in the US are more restrictive in Australia and he's got quite an argument for showing that "Kookaburra" is used significantly in"Down Under." I'll let him explain:

" 'Kookaburra' is a four-bar song. Over half that song is used in 'Down Under,' which is the test of law."

Wow. Two whole bars. What a crime. Simpson says the publisher should collect royalties whenever the Men at Work song is played. Apparently, this happens more frequently than you might expect: Simpson says it's often heard in advertising and in such films as Finding Nemo, Kangaroo Jack and a Crocodile Dundee film (might I point out that the song heard is "Down Under" and not "Kookaburra," but apparently, it's all the same). At the moment, Strykert and Hay, from Men at Work, receive 100 percent of the royalties from "Down Under."

Most Australians think this is ridiculous, but when asked if the lawsuit is really worthwhile, Simpson simply replies, "Yes, it is, and I can't go into any details because — the financials, of course, are still very confidential." Oh yes, but of course. The financials.

What I would like to know is: who was the guy who wrote the question for that quiz show?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Orquestra de Guitarres de Barcelona

The United States isn't a stranger to Spanish guitar. For years the music's character has been pervasive in this country, with musicians continually noting guitarits such as Andre Segovia as influences. It's musical heritage that extends as far back as the Renaissance in Europe and modern instrument manufacturers cite the 19th century Spanish advancements in instrument design as pivotal to the development of the modern classical guitar. But only just recently, one of Spain's newest guitar innovations has reached this continent: the guitar orchestra.

Last week, the Orquestra de Guitarres de Barcelona (that's Guitar Orchestra of Barcelona, if you really need to know) began its tour of the US. Conducted by composer Sergi Vicente, the orchestra consists of 25 musicians all playing the same instrument -the Spanish guitar. They began as informal ensembles of seven or eight guitarists and really just got bigger from there. Now, they're playing things like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Albeniz’s Suite Espanola No. 1, to audiences of 1700 or more.

Pretty cool that a group as big as that can all play an instrument that isn't normally played in numbers like that. Funny how some instruments are designated as fit to be played in large numbers and others are not. Violins, yes. Kazoos, no. Just doesn't make any sense...

They're actually playing tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville and the show would have already started like... 15 minutes ago. Sigh. Organic chemistry homework gets in the way of everything.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Many writings on the compositions of John Cage refer to his practice of composing without an agenda. Certainly, when juxtaposed with many classical composers, contemporary and otherwise, it appears that Cage writes his music without an agenda, a motive, and end in mind. But I don't think this is so. I think Cage always had an agenda, or perhaps that's not the word for it. I believe Cage wrote music with intention, and this intention was different from the intentions of the other composers to which he is often compared.

Instead of writing with the intention of manipulation, with an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired formula for controlling the audience's emotions, Cage wrote music with the intention of giving the audience an experience, allowing them to feel however they chose to. The ambiguity of his compositions, rather than acting as an indication of lack of intention, serves to reveal his intention. I think people just assume that the intention isn't there, because they aren't expecting to have to regard music in such a way. It's an indirect analysis, really. Rather than the music itself appearing to perform the action that its composer intended, one has to regard Cage himself, and ask "now why would he do that?"

So maybe it's more fair to say that Cage had an agenda, but his music didn't...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rempis and Rosaly at Thomas More

You are hereby officially invited to end the semester in a joyfully indeterminate mode as Chicago jazz luminaries Dave Rempis (alto and tenor saxophone) and Frank Rosaly (drums) visit Thomas More College on December 11th for a very special workshop on the aesthetics of free improvisation. Both musicians are very active in the Chicago "experimental jazz " and improvised music scene, and both are frequent collaborators with drummer Tim Daisy (Klang, Vox Arcana). Rempis plays with Daisy in Vandermark 5, one of the most celebrated and influential ensembles to emerge from Chicago in the past decade. 7:oo p.m in the Science Lecture Hall. See below for more on Rempis and Rosaly.

"During live performances, Rosaly is intensely animated, so much so that it seems initially distracting. He hovers over the drums in constant motion, his shoulders rolling and arms twitching in anticipation of his next strike. He puts his whole body into the drumming, and once he really kicks the songs into high gear, his curious postures no longer seem unusual but rather essential. Whether he’s pounding away intensely or simply laying out a delicate hi-hat pattern, his motions seem to translate the sounds into body language, and watching him feel the music in that way really conveys the physicality of what the band is doing." --- Michael Patrick Brady, Pop Matters

Rosaly’s drumming is easily recognizable, on record and live . It melts between the perfect complimentary player and the ultimate standout. His rhythms are unstoppable and perfectly timed. His solos are imaginative and expressive. --Adam Kivel, Consequence of Sound



Over the last decade, Dave Rempis has emerged as one of the most active 

young players in the Chicago jazz and improvised music scene. Rempis 

graduated from Northwestern University in 1997 with a degree in anthropology, 

focusing in ethnomusicololgy, and a year spent at the University of Ghana, Legon 

in 1995-96.  Since 1998, his work with the Vandermark Five as the "other" 

saxophonist has established him as one of the up-and-coming voices of his 

generation, and has also provided him the opportunity to perform extensively in 

clubs, concert halls, and festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  His 

own groups, including the Rempis Percussion Quartet, Triage, The Engines, The 

Rempis/Daisy Duo, and The Dave Rempis Quartet, have toured regularly 

throughout Europe and North America, and have been documented on the 

Okkadisk, 482 Music, Solitaire, Utech, and Not Two record labels. In addition to 

these groups, Rempis plays regularly with Ken Vandermark's Territory Band, The 

Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten Quintet, The Outskirts, and the Rempis/Bishop/ 

Kessler/Zerang Quartet. His frequent ad hoc collaborations have included 

performances with Paul Lytton, Axel Doerner, Peter Brotzmann, Hamid Drake, 

Kevin Drumm, Paul Nilsson-Love, Tony Buck, David Stackenas, and Joe Morris.  

As a founding member of the Chicago presenters' collective Umbrella Music, 

Rempis curates a weekly concert series at Elastic, as well as the annual Umbrella 

Music Festival, now in its fourth year. Rempis has also been named as a Talent 

Deserving Wider Recognition in both the alto and baritone saxophone categories 

in the annual Downbeat Magazine International Critics’ Poll. 





Frank Rosaly is a percussionist and composer currently living in Chicago. Over 

the last 10 years he has become an integral part of the Chicago scene, 

navigating a fine line between the vibrant improvised music, indie-rock, 

experimental music, and jazz communities. He contributes much of his time to 

performing, composing, teaching, and organizing musical events, while 

managing a heavy touring schedule that takes him throughout North America 

and Europe.  


Frank is currently active in many different groups. Some of these include Rob 

Mazurek’s Mandarin Movie, The Rempis Percussion Quartet, The Ingebrigt Haker- 

Flaten Quintet, Jeff Parker/Nels Cline Quartet, Matana Robert's Chicago Project, 

Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Valentine Trio, Keefe Jackson’s Fast Citizens, The Jeb 

Bishop Trio, Jason Adasievicz’s Rolldown, Jorrit Dijkstra’s Flatlands Collective, 

The Chicago Lucern Exchange, and The Daniel Levin Trio. Rosaly also leads his 

own quintet, Viscous, featuring his original compositions. Other performances in 

the recent past include collaborations with Peter Brotzmann, Tony Malaby, 

Anthony Coleman, Paul Flaherty, Marshall Allen, Louis Moholo, Eric Boeren, Ken 

Vandermark, Michael Zerang, and Walter Weirbos, among many others. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creative License

Just what requirements must a musician meet to "do a piece justice?" Where are limits, the parameters, the lines within which the musician must stay in order to "depict" the piece he or she plays... and what happens to the piece when these parameters are breached? In all fairness, I don't believe a line really exists, but historian and music writer, Stephen Davies once wrote an essay on the idea of authenticity in a musical performance that I thought was noteworthy.

First off, by "authenticity" Davies means, specifically, musical performances as performances of a particular composition (this, in contrast to authentic with respect to a musical style, or genre). That is, authenticity of a performance as a member of the entire class of performances recognized as that same composition, or a group of ideal performances of that piece. In short, "authentic" is used to acknowledge the creative role of the performer in faithfully realizing the composer's specifications.

Definitions out of the way, Davies first addresses the importance of the recreation of sounds in an authentic performance, as opposed to the recreation of "milieu," as he calls it. When Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, he was probably intending for the score to be played by musicians using the instruments of and in the conditions available at the time. Therefore a decidedly authentic performance would employ the these types of conditions, for example, use of the instruments contemporary to the period of composition, an ensemble the size of which the composer had specified, and stylistic interpretation of the score in light of the practices and conventions of the time it was written in. But all of this is aimed at the recreation of the sound that the composer intended and nothing else. The ambiance within which the piece would have been presented to the composer' s contemporaries is not necessary (which rids of the potential mutiny of the orchestra at the proposition that they don leggings and ruffs) and the authenticity of the piece performed within a concert hall in front of a large audience is the same as that of the piece performed within an eighteenth century salon.

This said, Davies notes that the acoustics of the place in which certain compositions are performed does make a difference, and so there are buildings more suitable for some compositions and not others. Playing Beethoven's fifth symphony in a garage will not be as authentic as it performance in a concert hall with acoustics modified to reflect those of a wood-paneled room in which Beethoven might have had it performed. BUT this isn't because of the fact that the performance is in a garage and not a concert hall, instead, it's because the performance in the garage sounds different than in the concert hall. No tights or ruffs necessary. And if you're performing modern music written for modern settings, well, many problems like this become non issues.

This emphasis on the recreation of sound established, Davies stresses that the authenticity of a performance is judged against an ideal performance of the composition, rather than any one definitive performance. The sound that the authentic performance aspires to create is the sound that is possible, rather than actual. The notes written in the score, the directions written by the composer all must be observed, but even when this direction is given, it isn't always straightforward as to which and how each note is to be played and/or modified. Thus, tendencies of the performers of the composition at one time need not be the same as those tendencies of a performance at another time for both to be considered authentic. Also, the sounds sought to be faithfully reproduced need not be identical to those sounds produced at any one performance. Yes, a CD and a live performance of the same piece are allowed to sound different and both are equally authentic. Vivaldi, as played by an orchestra in Nebraska, is allowed to be different and yet is considered just as authentic as Vivaldi played by the symphony in New York.

Finally, Davies talks about the role that the composer's intentions play in the creation of an authentic performance. Long story short, he says that only those intentions which are normally accepted as definitive byt the conventions in which musical scores are read are relevant to judgements of authenticity. Translation: any other intentions that the composer might have had can be completely and totally ignored -and the piece is still in the running for being called authentic. Mwwa ha ha ha ha ha!!! And I have to agree with Davies on this point. The experience of the composer in creating music is different than that of the performer's creating music and though the composer may have written a piece with a certain intention, once that score is down on paper, it takes on an identity of its own. That's the great thing (and perhaps frustrating thing) about art. Once it's out there, it's still credited to the artist, but the world can interpret the work however it so chooses.

So, I think Davies explains the authenticity of a musical performance much the way a professor might consider a history paper. The author has to have the facts right, has to stay within the parameters of what is accepted as non-fiction, but once those bases are covered, he or she is given license to deduce from the facts whatever they want -and it's still an acceptable research paper.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'A Love Supreme' With Strings

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is a jazz classic, powerful and seemingly untouchable since its conception... sort of. Just a few months ago, the Turtle Island Jazz Quartet is said to have done this iconic piece justice, and with strings, to boot. The group released A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane in April of 2007, and they recently performed a live version, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City receiving a Grammy for their audacity in reworking the seminal album (and probably because it sounded okay too). An ambitious take on the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, the centerpiece of the album is, without surprise, a string quartet reading of John Coltrane's 32-minute, A Love Supreme.

What I wanted to know was how a group can "recreate" and do justice to a jazz piece by Coltraine. I mean, the fact that he's Coltrane set aside, there's quite a bit of improv to account for... But the Turtle Island Quartet's violinist and arranger David Balakrishnan explains their approach to A Love Supreme through each of the movements: "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm." The first movement is simply a transcription of the entire Coltrane saxophone solo, only orchestrated for strings (already I'm impressed). The second and third movements incorporate their own improvisation over the rhythm section, and the last movement, Psalm, is supposed to be a prayer to God. It's said that when Coltrane recorded it at the end of 1964, he brought a Psalm to the studio and set it on a music stand, then played the prayer note for note. And, of course, uniting the composition, Balakrishnan uses the four-note figure "A Love Su-preme" that underscores the original.

I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around how one can "recreate" a jazz piece with so much improvisation, when the composition belongs to someone else... and I find myself slipping back into those musings on plagiarism and the blurry lines separating an original work from a remix, from a new original work altogether...
I've become convinced that arbitrary labels really have no place in music.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making a Mistake a Masterpiece

My sketchbook is filled with many things. Some good, others decent, some that will never see the light of day. But I like to keep my not-so-great sketches. Why? Well, for different reasons. Sometimes I don't like something initially, but can go back and see what I was attempting to do, or I can see what had inspired me to start the sketch in the first place. And -though these events are rare- I can sometimes go back and see potential in these sketches, and rework them into something that I do like.

I know lots of other artists have had their flops. Picasso's painting, The Guitarist, was found, upon x-ray analysis, to have a painting of a bullfight underneath it. Many famous painters would start a work, and stop, leave it for months, and then come back to it and rework it. So, what I got to thinking was, given the method by which Cage composed his music, is it possible for him to have ever had a flop? Did he ever compose a piece that just didn't work out? Or, did he ever compose something that he gave up on, came back to, and then was happy with it? Was he ever happy with it? Could he have been happy or unhappy with the way things turned out when he threw his I-Ching coins and derived a musical score?

Guess it comes back to that saying in Alice in Wonderland: "If you don't know where you're going, then any road will take you there." Given that Cage didn't begin with the end in mind when he started, he can't really be unhappy with what was turned out, right? I mean, if you try to remove all of your own tastes and preferences from a work, then you can't complain that it isn't to your liking when it's finished. And I don't think that was the point.

I wonder how this works with other experimental composers. Not everyone goes as far as Cage in their method of composition, so I wonder how they go about deciding what is performance worthy and what merits flop status... And what is an experimental flop like?

Klang in Lexington Review

Klang played in Lexington last night.  Apparently, the band is equally comfortable in the soundworlds of Jimmy Giuffre, Benny Goodman, and, of course, John Cage. See the excellent music blog The Musical Box for a review. I hope to see everyone at the show tonight. It should be fun, and a nice chance for a Cage class reunion. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Eye of the Storm

My neighborhood is not a quiet place. In fact, it's a rather noisy suburb. The neighbor to my left rides a Harley, the neighbor to my right mows his lawn more than is probably necessary, and the neighbors adjacent to my backyard all own at least one rather vocal dog. My own family has three (sometimes four) dogs of our own to join into the chorus, my mother never learned to use an "inside voice" and my brother has to practice the electric guitar if he's ever going to get any good. It is therefore safe for one to assume that quiet time at my house is a very rare thing. Because it is. And that's too bad.

So in an attempt to find some sort of sonic solace, some reprieve from the constant audio stimulation provided by my "low-fi" neighborhood, I wake up very early on Sundays. Every Sunday morning I take a long walk just as the sun comes up and make my way down an old street that was probably, at one time, the only street in town. The houses on this street aren't so close together, there are no sidewalks, and there's a guy back there who has room enough for his four horses. In short, it's as close to a country lane as one gets in my neighborhood, and it's amazing how different it feels. Sunday mornings on this street make me feel like the world has slowed down, that everything has has paused to take a breath and -dare I say it- things are finally quiet. Without the traffic sounds and the barking dogs and the sound of children playing down the street, I can hear birdsong come to the foreground. I can actually hear the wind as it skims through the tree branches making the leaves whisper. I can pinpoint just exactly where each sound is coming from.

It's amazing how the quiet hits you, really. Hearing the absence of sound is just as powerful as hearing a very loud noise, and when I run into the quiet on this street early Sunday mornings, it feels like I'm someplace else. Like this soundscape is out of place, here in the middle of suburbia, and I realize just how used to the scoundscape I am. All this white noise around me all the time is something I've become so accustomed to that I really notice when it's gone. And I know, as I stand on this quiet street that the world around me is continuing to sound in its cacophonous way... even at 7:00 am.

It's what I imagine being in the eye of a storm must be like.
And I am aware that this post makes me look very hypocritical after my post yesterday.
Oh, well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

U2 Fined for Noise Pollution

The City of Dublin has fined concert promoters MCD 36,000 euros (that's about $53,000) for breaching noise levels during their Croke Park concerts last July. Now, if I were Bono, it would seem that if I were asked to give a concert, noise would be a given, but the Dublin City Council levied the penalties against MCD for allowing U2 to exceed allowed noise limits on a number of occasions during the shows. Twelve times over three nights of concerts, U2 is reportedly responsible for breaching these noise limits, racking up 3,000 euros for each violation. Now, I can't help but wonder if anyone bothered to tell them they were running up the tab, or if they decided to send them the bill later as a surprise...

In addition to being party poopers about all the "noise" that comes with a musical performance (oh, heaven forbid!) the shows elicited many complaints from area residents. Apparently, they weren't too happy with the continuous 44 hours it took to dismantle the stage, and would have liked to have their park back sooner. I suppose I can understand their frustration, especially if they weren't all too keen on the concert being held in their backyard in the first place, but really, is the $53,000 necessary? But perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to judge. If some concert crew trampled by azaleas, I might seek retribution as well.

Then again, considering the 20 million euros amassed in profits from the three stadium performances, some don't consider these fines quite so bad. And apparently, someone enjoyed the "noise."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cage-Inspired Jazz at Thomas More

Our friends James Falzone and Tim Daisy from Vox Arcana are visiting Thomas More next Wednesday with Falzone's ensemble Klang (German for "sonority"). Falzone will deliver a talk at 12:30 on the topic of music and meaning, and the band will present a full concert at 7 p.m. Both events will take place in the Student Center. Klang's main inspiration is the sound of the 1950s groups led by the great jazz clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre , whose records are well worth checking out if you have not done so already. Klang has received numerous glowing reviews for their new album Tea Music, including a very nice article in the New York Times. Tim Daisy (drums) recently performed with the Vandermark 5 at the venerable Newport (Rhode Island, that is) Jazz Festival. By all accounts, the group's performance was a memorable one. Please come out and enjoy the energetic and creative music of Klang. Together we can work to make Crestview Hills the jazz  capital of northern Kentucky. Brought to you by the Thomas More College FYS Program and the Friends of John Cage . 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Well Prepared Instrument

A prepared piano is a marvelous instrument. It's hardly a piano anymore, really. You take a normal piano and alter its sound by placing objects (preparations) between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers. The wonderful thing about this is that all it takes are some screws, washers, pie pans, or any other object you have lying around that you can stuff into your piano, to transform a mild mannered instrument into a super piano (or "supiano", if you will).

Having coined the term "prepared piano" himself, John Cage first prepared a piano when he was commissioned to write music for "Bacchanale", a dance by Syvilla Fort in 1938. He had been writing exclusively for a percussion ensemble, and then someone was so kind as to casually mention that the hall where Fort’s dance was to be staged had no room for a percussion group. In fact, the hall was exceptionally small and the only instrument available was a single grand piano (minor detail, right?). After thinking about it, Cage said that he realized it was possible “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra ... With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.” Exploded keyboard... yeah, no problem, right? So Cage prepared this single grand piano and even quipped that by preparing it, he left it in better condition than he found it. Not sure what the owner of said piano thought...

In Cage's use, the preparations are typically nuts, bolts, and pieces of rubber to be lodged between or entwined around the strings. Some preparations make duller sounds, while others create sonorous bell-like tones and the individual parts of a preparation such as a nut loosely screwed onto a bolt will vibrate themselves, adding their own unique sound. Often, the pianist would be instructed to pluck and scrape the strings of the piano directly, a technique that Cage himself said was inspired by Henry Cowell's experiments with the so-called string piano (and I thought all pianos had strings... silly me). And in the end, it really does sound like an entire percussion orchestra.

The first time I heard a prepared piano, I would never have guessed that, well, for one that I was hearing a piano, and for another, that a single musician was producing all of the sounds I was hearing. In addition, watching a pianist play a prepared piano is just so much more interesting. One can't expect any of the sounds emanating from the instrument -and I wonder if the pianist even knows what it will sound like- and the way the musician plays, banging on the keys with fingers and fist, reaching inside to pluck the strings, well, it's all very energetic and exciting.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Out of Context

The earth is crammed with heaven

And every bush aflame with God

But only those who see

Take off their shoes

That's a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning that I've always liked and I think it describes very well the way people regard the world. Beauty is always there, everywhere, in everything, but only those who stop to see it appreciate it. And there's a phenomenal difference between looking at things and really seeing them. Too many people simply look... and subsequently miss out.

The philosopher, Paul Ziff, wrote an essay examining on the possibility of anything to be art. (Really, anything. He begins the essay with the exclamation, "Look at the dried dung!") So what constitutes a work of art? According to Ziff, a work of art is simply something fit to be an object of aesthetic attention. In today's world, this is widely viewed as something built by man, tailored for the purpose of being viewed aesthetically. These works need not even be beautiful. Picasso's Guernica and Grunewald's Crucifiction are two examples of paintings that one wouldn't describe as especially lovely, and yet they are recognized as masterpieces without opposition. They are paintings done by man, and so they are art.

By chance, some objects of aesthetic attention are naturally produced and are not recognized as works of art. They are not artifacts, and are accordingly disqualified, as it were. That they are not artifacts does not suggest nor establish that they are unfit to be objects of aesthetic attention. In fact, the status of "artifact," in my opinion, says little about an object's suitability to be regarded aesthetically. There are many man-made objects that are not widely recognized as works of art: a watering can, a screwdriver, a green paper plate. And yet, placed in the correct context, society's perception of them changes such that they can be viewed and appreciated as art. Put that green paper plate on a pedestal in an art gallery, under just-so lighting and talk it up as a sculpture. Is it art now? Some would say so.

Perhaps the work of an artist is to present the world to others in the context that allows them to see it the way the artist does- or simply allows them to see it. Paul Ziff states it well when he says, "To suppose that anything that can be viewed is a fit object for aesthetic attention is not like supposing that anything can be put in one's mouth and is a fit object to eat. It is more like supposing that anything that can be seen can be read. Because it can. [...] Not everything has meaning, but anything can be given meaning."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Color of Sound

Synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense. All very scientific, but what I really want to talk about is how people with this condition (which occurs in one of every 200 individuals) can, when they hear music, see certain colors associated with the sound. It's often described as something like fireworks, with voices, traffic, music and all sorts of sonic phenomena triggering the experience of color and simple shapes that arise and then fade when the sound stimulus ends. And different sounds elicit different colors, changing hue and brightness with variations in pitch and volume. Individuals with this condition often disagree about which sounds correspond to what color, but many agree on certain things, like how louder tones are brighter than dull, soft tones, whereas higher tones are smaller and lighter than low ones, and low tones are both larger and darker than high ones. One synesthesiac described the sound of an acoustic guitar as shades of yellow, while an elcetric guitar was bright red.

There are actually composers with this condition who have incorporated color into their musical compositions. Russian Composer, Alexander Scriabin was pioneering the multimedia performance as early as the nineteenth century and used his perception of music as color in the composition process. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was a contemporary of Scriabin, was a fellow composer with synesthesia and the two often disagreed about which colors were created by which notes (both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue). Even modern composers have utilized light shows in their performances, matching the music to specific colors.

Being a visually-oriented person, I find myself wishing that I could see music too. Even as one not having the experience of the dual stimulus provided by synesthesia, I find myself thinking about which colors match which sound. I think it would come down to pairing the feelings evoked by music and those by certain colors. Irritating sounds might be orange, fast tempos red, slow, sonorous bass, blue. And I wonder how much influence the power of association might have in this situation...

Someone once told me that the sound of flip-flops was definitely yellow, but I would have to say they're a rather annoying shade of pink.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Power of Association

Earlier this week, I posted about the power that association has to improve a runner's endurance. In addition, I believe that association is even more influential in the development of one's musical preferences.

So, here's my confession: I really can't stand much country music. At all. I don't like it.

And there's really no reason for this -except that I associate country music with rather unpleasant things... like motion sickness. And it's amazing how even songs that are musically beautiful and interesting can do nothing for me if they cross that "country music barrier" in my mind. There are very few country songs that I can enjoy, and when I do enjoy them, I have to try very hard. It's a shame, really, but I just can't help it.

I tried to listen to Indigo Girls yesterday and couldn't sit through even one song before I turned it off. I didn't like the Bon Jovi CD, Lost Highway, because it shared too many similarities with country music. Now, I'm probably making this sound worse than it is. I have no phobia, no irrational, psychological aversion. I can listen to country music without vomiting, but I feel like there's this certain barrier that prevents me from enjoying it the way others do, simply because of this association it has in my mind.

I think Cage was aware of this power of association, and therefore sought to remove all of his own tastes and preferences from his work - and in some cases removed all taste from his work- in order to allow everyone to experience it in as unbiased a way as possible. We all bring to our experiences our own set of "goggles," our own biases and preferences, a culmination of life experience that influences how we view the world. By removing his work from all those musical parameters set by society at large, Cage freed his audience of all the "baggage" associated with so much of the music that was out there, allowing them to experience it with the least amount of distortion from these personal "goggles." He introduced them to things never heard before, so that the audience could not have made associations regarding it and hear it for what it was, and not for what it meant.

And to my knowledge, no one ever vomited.

As an aside, I love Celtic music, which is really just Irish country music when you think about it... funny, huh?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not a Contradiction

The more I delve into my studies of environmental science, the more I think I share John Cage's way of viewing the world. Comparing his early to his later writings, one might think that he contradicts himself, that he's changed his mind with regards to his general outlook. He begins his career with the view that the world is beautiful, and that one only need open one's eyes (or ears) to what exists around us. His later writings take a more activist approach, a conservationist stance. In his How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse, he expresses an urgency, a desire resist the adultrative changes that mankind is bringing to the planet.

I don't think this later philosophy is a contradiction to his earlier one. Rather, I see it as an extension, a natural progression. Cage opened himself to the world and found it to be amazing. He spent his early career trying to get others to see the world as terrific as it is, without mankind's interference or meddling. Consequently, it only stands to reason that he would come to the realization that what he saw as so beautiful was threatened, and that it deserved to be preserved and protected. This later world view is simply the second stage of the first. To find enjoyment in the sounds of birdsong is to see the world as beautiful the way it is. To realize that the birdsong may disappear with the advent of a mini-mall and only the sounds of traffic in its place will no doubt spur one to protect the world and preserve the beauty that is.

I won't argue that he didn't change his mind about things. He said so himself. At first enchanted with the possibilities that electronic sounds presented, he later moved to an attitude that valued the preservation of natural soundscapes. He liked the sounds of traffic, but not to the extent that he would have the sounds of traffic drown out the sounds of nature. His belief that all sounds are created equal still stood, but he came to see that, all sounds being equal, no sound deserved to be trampled upon, to be eradicated or driven out by another.

I see the world as a beautiful place. I want others to see the world as a beautiful place. And if they do, I hope that they will also be moved to keep it that way. So many individuals just let life happen, without reflection, without opening their eyes to the world, which, in the words of John Cage, "is so terrific." The optimist in me wants only to show them this beauty. The realist wants to tell them how stupid they're being for not protecting it better. I'd like to think that Cage may have felt the same way.
Today was spectacular. Absolutely, without a doubt magnificent. I got out of organic chemistry lab early and sat outside to read. We spent all of my ES Research methods class outside collecting water samples and being outside, with the water and the ducks and all of the trees decked out in their flashy fall ensembles, a riot of color... it was simply wonderful. I walked to the parking lot, intentionally swishing through the leaves the whole way, admiring how they appear nearly fluorescent as they lay scattered on the green grass. I may or may not have even picked up an handful and thrown them in the air to see them flutter down again. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the leaves so obnoxious in their fall colors that I actually did a little dance out beside my car (And then I found a present for me there, which brought me to the point of possibly exploding with happiness).
Perhaps I was wrong when I thought Cage's work devoid of inspiration. Perhaps it wasn't the work itself that was inspired, but the process that was inspired. I can't contain myself on a day like today, when I want to share the beauty of the world with anyone and everyone. That's what Cage's philosophy was grounded in: sharing. Perhaps he felt like I do today, and thought that the best way to share the glory of the world was to present the world to people in the way he did. Me, I have settle with a little happy dance next to my car, because I barely have time to write up a lab report...but I can do with that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Wednesdays, for me, are busy. School, then work, then over to the elementary school to teach ballet and tap to little girls before having my own dance class. This particular night, classes were rearranged such that I actually got a break in between teaching classes and starting my own. As I lay on the floor of the stage, I closed my eyes and listened to the music that the tap class was dancing to. I pressed my hands into the floor at my sides and felt the vibrations- but these vibrations weren't from the music coming from the CD player. I was feeling the vibrations from the girls' tap shoes. It was an interesting sensation to hear the beats from the CD and then feel the beats from the tapping. The vibrations were like a harmony, a compliment to the music I was hearing, rather than the simultaneous beat that is felt in time with music when you listen to it loudly.

I've always loved that aspect of tap dance. The fact that one can dance to the music, or with the music, or even outside of the music (and let me tell you, fourth graders have no problem dancing outside of the music). It's almost like singing along, or playing along with the music. Your tap shoes can be your own instrument and, I think, are a superior instrument in that they allow you to listen to music, play music, and dance with music all at the same time. It reminds me of the idea that John Cage and Merce Cunningham shared on how music and dance can be independent and simultaneous. Tap dance is definitely one of the more independant types.

A friend brought up in a discussion today that there's a distinct difference in the experience of music for the composer, as compared to that of the musician who plays it, as compared to the audience that hears it. I would argue that the dancer gets to experience music in yet another way that is different from all the others. I think a certain type of relationship is formed between the dancer and the music and such relationships exist on a spectrum, with the dancer and the music being partners on one end (as in tap dance) and the dancer and the music becoming one on the other. Both ends are quite enjoyable.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why it Feels So Right

Just as important to a runner as a pair of broken-in shoes is their source of motivation, inspiration and distraction: their music. Running with music has become so common that the two biggest names in both industries, Nike and Apple, have been joined at the hip with the Nike + iPod combination. So just what is it about music and running that feels so right?

Scientists have been working to find out more about this special connection between our ears and our feet and in a recent study, sports psychologists helped to create a half marathon in London that tried to find the perfect music mix of live bands based on research of human reaction to rhythm (Now, how cool would that be? Ultimate multitasking right there. Go to a concert and run a marathon all in one Saturday morning). This second annual "Run to the Beat" event was held a few weeks ago with 9,000 runners either enjoying the live music or listening to their own mix of tunes on their MP3. Scientists even offered a scientific selection of songs based on their findings. Wonder what that playlist is like...

According to the study, there are four factors that contribute to a song's motivational qualities: rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact and association. Surprisingly, a runner's response to rhythm is actually tied not only to how well it matches their pace, but more importantly tied to how well it matches their own heartbeat. Syncing running with music has been shown to improve endurance, allowing runners to require up to 7% less oxygen, and has a dissociation effect that results in a significant reduction in perceived effort.

But then again, it's not like we needed to be told that running to music was a good idea. Nice to know anyay, though.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I had the opportunity the other day to listen to Primus for the first (technically second, but who's that picky?) time. The CD was a collection of greatest hits, or something of that nature, and though lots of things struck me about the music, the first was probably... how democratic it was. Throughout every song I listened to, the instruments appeared to play an equal role in the creation of the music. The lead guitar wasn't actually "in the lead" as in "in the foreground" while all else is in the background. Rather, the drums, the bass, the electric guitar, they were all allowed an equal share in the presentation, without any one instrument being designated solely to the background (which I greatly appreciated, because the bass player, Les Claypool, is amazing).

This idea of democratic music reminds me of John Cage's democratic approach to sounds in general. All sounds are created equal. No one sound is more fit to be music than any other sound. All has potential to be music. A bit more extreme in its context, true, but I've a feeling Primus might agree with that.

The friend who introduced me to this band made the comment as we listened to the CD that he was somewhat disappointed that he had gotten their greatest hits collection, because it gives one a different experience of the band's music. I hadn't thought of that, but I have to agree. Picking the songs which someone out there deems best and compiling them into a CD of their own might serve to give the "highlights," but I don't think the Spark Notes version ever really does the novel justice. And besides, songs compiled onto an album such as this are taken out of context. Perhaps they weren't made to be played together, or in this certain sequence. It's just not the same.

So, to truly get this "experience," I decided to get one of their CDs from the library. I happened upon Sailing the Seas of Cheese, which, if anything, was worth checking out for the title and cover art alone. Then, come to find out, Les Claypool has led a bunch of side projects with just if nifty, if not better names, including, Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. And his newer release, Whales of Woe, came out under the moniker "Les Claypool and His Fancy Band." This one's supposed to incorporate everything from the saxophone to the sitar (perhaps the coolest looking instrument I've ever seen, by the way).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Big Apple Jazz

I never cease to be amazed at all the apple varieties there are (of course, I never cease to be amazed by apples in general, but that particular amazement is not quite as justified). There are thousands of varieties and, if you're a horticultural geek like me you can spend hours pouring over seed and tree catalogues ogling the plethora of types and laughing to yourself at the funny names they have. Recently, a new conventional breed has been making an appearance. It's called the Jazz apple (I was getting around to music eventually) and much like its namesake, it's a hybrid of some great things(Braeburn and Gala, to be precise).

NPR's Take Five series recently showcased five jazz tunes related to this fall fruit. I'm not sure why they did it, because the whole thing was kind of corny, but it was fun for me to listen to. The songs included Stealn' Apples by Fletcher Henderson, Apple Honey by Woody Herman, Back to the Apple by Count Baise, Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) by Coleman Hawkins, and finally -my personal favorite- Scrapple From the Apple by Charllie Harper. I'm not exactly sure how one makes scrapple from an apple, and I'm not certain that I even know what scrapple is, but like I said, I enjoyed listening to it immensely.

Wow. I think this might be the most awkward post yet. I just heard this compilation of good jazz music and thought it was a great excuse to talk about apples too. But it's really not that much of a stretch, is it? Jazz is wonderful, apples are marvelous, it all works out.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


When we walk to the edge of all the light that we have

And take that step into the darkness of the unknown,

We must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for us to stand on,

Or we will be taught how to fly.

I don't think that this has anything to do with John Cage or music, but I'm putting it here anyway.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I've come to admire Cage's philosophy of compositition and music, his celebration of sound as beautiful without orchestration for man's purposes. In the world of composers, too often it seems that the sounds themselves are only means to an end, rather than ends in themselves, only tools by which the composer or musician communicates their message or expresses their emotion. In choosing to remove his tastes from his music, Cage allowed the sounds to be the meaning, rather than assign meaning to them. This, I find admirable.

But, I do sometimes wonder if this approach is lacking in something that seems so integral to creation. Inspiration. It's the stimulus behind artistic work, that which sparks the desire to create something beautiful. I don't think that Cage's approach to composing music through indeterminacy leaves room for inspiration because it attempts to take all emotion out of the process. Emotion and inspiration are inseparable. One can't be inspired without the impetus, the longing to express something.

In a way, I feel that this could be seen as a deficiency in Cage's work. I'm sure he would adamantly disagree with me. He would claim that the highest purpose is to have no purpose. He would insist that sounds need not be given purpose, that they can exist as they are. I wouldn't put it past him to say that I just don't understand the Zen of it all, and he might even sigh and shake his head at me. But I can't help it. Perhaps I'm a hopeless case, brainwashed in romanticism, but I believe that feeling is important to the artist and makes for some of the best artistic work. I know I couldn't dance if I felt nothing. I know I wouldn't paint either.

Maybe it's alright for Cage, but I just can't see keeping a desire to come back to my art if I weren't emotionally involved. Inspiration is, indeed, a beautiful thing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frogs in Australia

This post is really just gratifying my inner science nerd, but it has to do with sonic phenomena, so I can justify its being here -or, that's my story, at least.

Australia's Frogs are having a hard time hooking up. Male brown tree frogs meet their girls by vocalizing elaborate mating calls. The sound of the male looking for a date hits the ears of the female tree frog and she chooses weather or not to pursue the guy -or that's how it's supposed to work. But lately, there's been some interruptions. Traffic noise and other sounds of city life, like air conditioners and construction noise, are drowning out the mating calls of male frogs in urban areas. These guys can sing their hearts out, but add the sounds of nearby traffic, and the serenade never reaches the female. The distance over which the male frog can be heard is cut dramatically by traffic noise from hundreds of meters, in some instances, down to maybe only 20 or 50 meters. Consequently, these frogs aren't hooking up and their population has seen a sharp drop recently.

Remarkably, some of these persistent Romeos have come up with an interesting strategy for making themselves heard. They're changing their calls to a higher, squeakier pitch, increasing the distance over which they can be heard. One would think this is the solution, right? Survival of the fittest? But the Juliets out there don't seem to agree. While the males have figured out how to make themselves heard above the noise of the city, scientists say this just may not be what the females are looking for. When females have a choice between two males calling, they tend to select the one that calls at a lower frequency because, in frogs, the frequency of a call is related to body size (So, the bigger frogs tend to call lower, and well, that's very attractive in a frog, apparently). In other words, the high talkers typically don't get the girls. Yes, brutally unfair, but true. Personally, I prefer tenors...

Nights in Aussie are noisy nowadays and female frogs can only hear a few of the males that are all calling in a group. So the number of mates she can choose from is reduced. The scientists describe it like being in a noisy cocktail bar and there are men everywhere. You can only see and hear the three that are closest to you. You either choose to go with one of them, or you spend more energy going to search the room to find someone who looks a little bit more promising. This results in the females doing quite a bit more hopping around, and the longer they spend looking for mates, the more time they're exposed to predators and the more energy they use. Not the best situation and infinitely more frustrating for those girls, I'm sure.

Yep, a bit of depressing news. But didn't even John Cage acknowledge the meddlesome nature of humans in his How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse? I'm sure no one took the time to consider the love lives of nearby frogs when they installed that new air conditioner. How thoughtless of us!

Emily Howell

Haven't you heard? There's a new and mysterious classical composer on the scene. Her name is Emily Howell, and no one has ever seen her in person. Wanna know why? Its because she isn't a person. Emily Howell is a computer program created by David Cope, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (whose middle name just happens to be Howell). His program allows him to use letters from a computer keyboard, as well as musical input to "collaborate" with the computer in creating new music. The foundation upon which Emily operates is created from a database of musical composers, all mostly dead, classical composers. Emily is then able to analyse this data and then compose in the style of these composers without actually recreating any of their original compositions. Basically, when one collaborates with Emily, one is essentially collaborating with all of these said dead, classical composers to create new music. Pretty cool.

Now, I think Cage might have been a fan of this idea, given that the human composer would be involved as little as possible in the composition process, therefore removing his or her own tastes and preferences from the work completely. But then again, Emily is programmed with the "musical knowledge" of all of the great 18th century classical composers -most of which we can agree had massive egos and perhaps personal agendas or emotional messages they wished to push with their music. We know what Cage thought of this "pushiness" and his opinion of Beethoven... perhaps Cage would have programmed Emily's database with something else.

There's also the technical aspect to consider. From an indeterminacy standpoint, one might question the degree of chance involved with a program like Emily. When one hears her music, one can note that she operates off of patterns. She is, indeed, following the musical patterns most likely used by those composers that make up the data base from which she draws. It might also be noted that even computers can express a "personal preference," accessing memory and running operating patterns which they can most easily access and run (even ipod shuffles do it).

So maybe Emily isn't exactly "up to snuff"in the indeterminacy department, but her work is truly original and I personally think it sounds fantastic.

Moving away from the John Cage ethos for a moment, Emily Howell also presents some rather alarming questions. Is a computer program that composes its own (her own) work a threat to the human spirit of creating music? Emily's creator doesn't believe so. David Cope says that since computers can do only what humans program them to do, Emily is only as talented as the composers in her database and the programmers who dictate her method of analysis. Not to mention the feature that allows the operator to "collaborate" with Emily to create the composition. Though this may be true, and though Cage would definitely agree that human meddling is involved, I must disagree.

I see Emily as a formidable opponent to the human composer with respect to composition of a technically complex piece. Her ability to produce variations and spit out bar after bar of original and interesting material is admittedly intimidating. I don't, however, think that Emily's compositions can hold a candle to the very aspect of human composition that Cage sought to avoid -emotional involvement. The classical composers from which Emily's database is made filled their compositions with feeling and sentiment. When they are all mashed together and drawn upon, that feeling is convoluted and renders Emily unable to produce anything with the same emotional intensity that springs from the human composer. Technically interesting, Emily's pieces lack that underlying, magical quality that elevates music to an intimate and personal experience, for the composer, the musician, and for the listener. In short, Emily's amazing, but I don't think us humans have anything to worry about.

Oh, and if anyone's interested, Emily Howell's first record will hit stores next spring.
P.S. The picture up top is really a photo of Daft Punk (more on them later) but I thought it was fitting.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cage at the Movies

Having become acquainted with John Cage's philosophies, his views on music and of the world, and having gotten a sense of his personality, I somehow feel as though I've been privy to a small glimpse inside of his head. To study his philosophies brings one so close to something that seems so intimate, and though I will never meet him, I have a sense that I've gotten to know Cage personally -sort of. Anyway, seeing as, in reality, I didn't know Cage, I can only wonder about some things. And I do. Quite a bit. Feel free to call me a weirdo if you'd like, but I find myself asking "What would Cage do?" or "What would Cage have liked?"

Don't tell me I'm the only one who ponders these kinds of things. Didn't we all wonder what kind of doughnut Cage would have most appreciated on the last day of class? (Doughnut holes, wasn't it?) Well, I find myself doing that all the time. What was Cage's favorite sandwich? What would Cage think of reality TV? I don't believe he ever wrote about such topics, even in his tangents during his talks, so I can only wonder.

Most recently, I found myself wondering what kind of movies John Cage might have liked. Judging by his reaction to the Hallelujah chorus ("I don't mind being moved, but I don't like being pushed!") I doubt he would have enjoyed the big money Hollywood blockbusters. Hitchcock is definitely out -too much manipulation of the audience, too much orchestration. No, Cage seems to me like a guy who would like a film that emulates what life is truly like. Perhaps one with no plot at all. Like Napoleon Dynamite, maybe, but even that seems too much. He'd be interested in all aspects of the film, like camera angle, musical score (or lack thereof, which I believe he might have preferred), lighting... I'm thinking low budget, independent film. Or maybe he would like something more along the lines of the bizarre, like Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre-but then again, there's an existential message behind that one. No, nothing that tries to communicate a meaning or moral. Gosh, this is tougher than I thought...

Okay, I've got it. Cage would probably most enjoy watching a movie made by just setting a camera up at a bird feeder or in a fish tank, an maybe moving it around at random, periodically. Yes that seems right. No meaning, no orchestration, no agenda. Just birds or fish living out their days, the only way they know how. And best of all, complete indeterminacy. Yep, I think I've got it right this time.... then again, maybe he was a fan of Star Wars...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cross-Over Music

Having only recently become in charge of the CD section at work, I've become aware that there are only so many categories under which we file CDs. Pop, rock, rap, world, country, folk, jazz, blues, vocal, orchestral, musical, opera, and "new" are the only labels available. I will readily admit that I am relieved that I am not the one responsible for deciding which CDs go under which category -that's the librarian's job. But I have to wonder... how con one possibly make such decisions. Music seems to constantly be in a state of change, and ever-evolving, blurry transition state. And because of this, there appears to be a spectrum lying under all these arbitrary labels. I mean, Elvis is not the same rock that AC DC is. So, the question I have is, where does one label start and another end?

I began to ponder this question when I checked out Bon Jovi's Lost Highway. It was filed under "Rock," and I initially thought rightly so. Bon Jovi = rock music. "You Give Love A Bad Name" is definitely rock music. But, as I put the CD in and started to listen, I thought, "this doesn't sound like rock... it sounds like... country?" Yes, what I heard coming from the speakers registered on my radar as country music. Granted, it wasn't Johnny Cash or Randy Travis, but more like the "country-rock" that's so common today. My initial reaction was disappointment, I'll concede (I am not a fan of rock-country anyway, ans was expecting to hear something... well,, more like rock), but it really got me thinking about how, after awhile, as musicians start branching out, trying new things and sampling from different genres, they may just "cross over" into another.

Now, I'm not going to debate who crossed into who's territory here (which would be an interesting debate, I'm sure) but I will question the validity of the labels placed upon music nowadays. What constitutes "rock, or "punk rock," or "hard rock," or "soft rock?" What criteria distinguish country, from rock, from jazz and to what extent must these criteria be met? Very subjective stuff here, I think. And as I mentioned above, I'm just glad I'm not the one who puts the labels on the cases.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jethro Tull

Umm, no, not the guy who invented the steel plow -that's what I first thought too. Jethro Tull is a British prog rock group from the 70s (yeah, big hair and everything), perhaps best known for their "mother of all concept albums," Thick as a Brick. Like other progressive rock groups of the time, (Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis) Jethro Tull sought to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credability. This "elevation" in artistic credability often involved "concept albums", which -according to wikipediea- made unified statements, via an epic story or overaching theme for the album. I think Jethro Tull may have taken this to the extreme...
Look out John Cage, Thick as a Brick contained only one song that spanned a total of 43 minutes and 28 seconds (that's like 4:33 ten times). The recording used extensive overdubs and splicing to create two continuous record sides, and was finished in about a week with the group working diligently and freverently in their practice sessions. With influence from Monty Python's Flying Circus TV show of the 70s, it's without surprise that the group describe live performances of Thick as a Brick as "nerve-wracking and exhilarating, requiring much concentration" (and caffeine, I'll bet).

In addition to the album's unique song list, it also became famous for it's cover art. Done in a collage of a mock newspaper (complete with a crossword puzzle, even!), the cover depicts stories of the bizarre and absurd, and though I personally think the newspaper pages were too sensational to be mistaken for legitimate, apparently there were many who thought a real back-issue of a newspaper had been used. You can imagine what a stir that caused :)
Oh, and the picture up top? That's Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull playing the flute while wearing what looks like spandex.