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.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finding Creativity in Unexpected Places

At work, I've been put in charge of the CD section (I'm also in charge of Adult Fiction, Teen Fiction, Adult Magazines, Teen Magazines, Comics, and Graphic Novels, but I digress...). Quite a chore, I'll come right out and admit, because the cataloging is very confusing and also because patrons are lazy and just stick CDs back in any old place. Well, two nights ago, I was filing returned CDs when I came across one that I recognized the cover art on. I'm not sure where I'd seen it before, but my recognition of any cover art is kind of a big deal (despite my admittedly feeble efforts to broaden my musical horizons, my knowledge of popular music remains limited). So I checked it out. It was When the World Comes Down by All-American Rejects.

Given that they're a popular rock band and making lots of money, I wasn't expecting anything profound. In fact I was expecting something pretty conventional... and was pleasantly surprised. True, they sound a lot like other bands I've heard, but as I listened to the CD in my car, I noticed some pretty novel things. Like Strings. They use violins and some other string instruments in some of their songs. Can't say I was expecting that. And the tambourine. Now, I know the tambourine has been in rock music for awhile, but you don't hear it so often anymore and, well it surprised me. I think, once, I may have heard a snare drum, there was definitely piano, and in some of their songs, they have large choral groups in the background singing harmonies, like church choir style. So, all in all I was pretty impressed with the group's usage of not-so-conventional tools (I won't go as far as to call them unconventional, but I've gotta give them some credit).

And, to allude back to that conversation we had about love songs quite a while ago, I was also surprised that the expected themes from a group of all men were largely absent. So often (too often), the story goes as such: the girl leaves, the guy is heartbroken, the guy proceeds to write sad songs about how he misses her and how he wants her back (some hard rock groups nowadays will have a song with more of a "good riddance" theme, but these aren't so common and are even less common from groups of all guys). Not so with the songs on this CD. Many of them express a resigned, unrequited love. Some are more of a "gosh you stupid girl, can't you see what's in from of you?!" type theme. And yes, the song on which this CD bases its popularity, "Gives You Hell," is that "good riddance" song mentioned before. All of this was actually refreshing. Personally, I get tired of the whiny, "I want you back" love songs, especially when a relationship is supposed to be a mutual thing. The guy should get a say in it too, rather than following the girl around like a lost puppy (no offense meant to the Beatles. "Puppy Love" is a very catchy song).

* Speaking of the Beatles, I have an embarrassing confession to make. So, a few years ago I danced to the song Blackbird, and decided that I really like it. Very pretty song (and I tend to develop a liking for almost any song I dance to). Anyway... I only recently realized that it was by the Beatles. Yes, I'm culturally estranged, I know. But I'm working on it!

Monday, September 21, 2009

33 Variations

So, the honors program kids made a theater trip to see 33 Variations at the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati last night. All I can say is, it was absolutely, without doubt the best play we've seen there yet (which isn't saying much really, but it was good.. unless you ask Daniel). To begin with, it premiered at the Ensemble Theater on September second, and made no other regional "appearances" because they were the only ones given the rights to perform it. Otherwise, the only other people to see it would have been in New York, watching Jane Fonda play the lead.

Anyway, the play is about Katherine, An American musicologist and Beethoven specialist who decides to take a trip to Bonn, Germany, even though she's just been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). Her daughter, having just found out about the diagnosis that Katherine has known about for months, is distraught and makes the trip to Bonn to bring her mother back. Simultaneously, the story of Beethoven and his writing of 33 variations on Diabelli's waltz is being told. Katherine is so obsessed with the genesis of the variations that she can't quite see them for what they are, just as she can't quite connect with her daughter, Clara (which, funny enough, is the name of the lead ballerina in Tchaikovsky's, Nutcracker, but I digress...). And then to complicate matters, Clara starts dating Mike, a nurse who's been caring for her mother (can you say awkward?).

Though Dr. Marlowe said that the main theme of the play was that of legacy -and she must be right, because she got that information from the playwright- I felt like it was focused more on something else. Personally, I felt that the main theme was in finding beauty in places where it is commonly overlooked. Katherine always felt frustrated with her daughter, annoyed that she couldn't stick with a career, seeing her potential and wanting to harness it, to make her daughter into someone "great." In the end, however, Katherine realizes that all her criticisms were for naught, because, for one, her daughter isn't going to change, but mostly because her daughter was perfect and beautiful already. For all her perceived faults and inconsistencies, Clara was actually the finished artwork, and it just took Katherine a little while to finally realize that her daughter had always been a masterpiece. On a slightly less touching level, Beethoven realized the same thing in Diabelli's "mediocre" waltz. When Katherine realizes, with the help of Clara, that the waltz wasn't a concert waltz, but rather a beer hall waltz, she also comes to see that she's been judging it by the wrong standards the whole time -much as she has her daughter. Beethoven's variations, she hypothesizes, were not to poke fun a Diabelli's waltz, but rather to celebrate it. But, apparently, all this is wrong because the plays really all about legacy and not about "finding beauty in a grain of sand." The playwright said so.
Anyway, Beethoven might have been wrong, but I give this play five John Cage mushrooms! The music was great, the dialogue intriguing, the actors simply wonderful and the set was quite impressive (my favorite part!).

=} =} =} =} =}

Friday, September 18, 2009

Birds on the Wire

Brazilian composer, Jarbas Agnelli, saw a photograph in a news paper of birds sitting on five parallel telephone wires and decided to use their positions as notes on sheet music. Now I ask you, how much easier can it get? No complicated I-Ching interpretations, no trying to make oneself as objective as possible, attempting to put all preferences and tastes out of your mind, just letting the birds do what birds do and capitalizing off of it. Gosh, that's easy! In fact, that's an absolutely marvelous idea and I'm jealous that I didn't think of it first! Cage would be proud! Messiaen would be proud! I'm proud! All I'm wondering is... did he give the birds any sort of compensation for their help -or, since this was a photograph, was the photographer at least given credit? Does this sort of thing fall under the jurisdiction of copyright? :)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Musician, Keeping the Dancers "There"

Musician Dan Deacon claims that composition of dance music has always faced a fundamental problem : the dancers frequently turn off their brains to enjoy it. When I first heard this, being a dancer myself, I was offended. I don not turn off my brain, thank you very much! But then I got to thinking about what he means when he says "dance music" and I kind of started to agree. You go to a dance club nowadays and what with the pulsing beats, the repetitive nature of the songs, well, it's easy to see how people just check out. And -no offense meant, Jimmy- discotheque isn't exactly mind-stimulating.

So Deacon has moved to face this problem. Being more electronically-based in the past, he's added more acoustic instruments to the mix, and has begun to play in the middle of the audience, rather than from the stage (perhaps feeling that they can't ignore the music if he's right there, bumping shoulders with them). His new album, Bromst, features a more thorough blend of acoustic and electric instruments than his earlier stuff, and he claims this is part of an effort to make what he calls "more substantial" music. He says "I just wanted to make a record that wasn't escapism. Like, I didn't want to write another record that was devoid of meaningful content."

Interesting thoughts. Do you think electronic music is more prone to encourage escapism? Do you think dancers "check out" mentally, like Deacon says? I have to say now, that Cage would probably scoff -if he was actually capable of scoffing, which I doubt- at the attempt to make music have meaning (isn't it's highest meaning simply to be meaningless?). But it's good to know that musicians are out there thinking about this stuff, rather than just doing what sells to make a buck.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Country Club

So, I recently heard that punk rocker and co-founder of the LA punk group X, has released a new album... a country album. Yeah, who knew? So one night in Toronto, Doe shared the stage with this Canadian indie rock group, the Sadies, and they really hit it off. And now, they've released this collaborative CD called Country Club in which they cover the songs of people like Willie nelson and Johnny Cash. Doe says, "Country... always seemed like a snooze to me [until] the Sadies and I played together at a festival in Canada, and it was like, 'This is what [country] should be.'" In the style of John Cage, it seems that these musicians have no trouble "changing their minds. "

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ditching the Whitehouse Tour

I recently read an older article (from January, I think) in which the author claimed that the city of Washington D.C. was much more than a town of business suits. Though filled with lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, the author claimed that the city was also a hotbed for the music scene due to the large numbers of musicians who live there as well. From country and bluegrass to Duke Ellington, hardcore and go-go, D.C. has had its share of music history (note that D.C. was also home to some of the most famous guitarists to ever touch a fretboard -Roy Clark, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton- and you'll have to agree).

But today, apparently, experimental music is thriving under the official radar and is gathering quite a following. There's this really popular place called the Velvet Lounge where people go to hear the city's up and coming experimental artists (if they can be "up and coming" in the sense of the phrase). Many feel that the experimental music scene, happily dominated by a bunch of amateurs, is a result of the fact that D.C. doesn't have a major music school, and since, in the words of one musician, "even nominal financial success is impossible" in this genre it remains strong because "few participate for any reason other than the music. That has helped eliminate stylistic cliques, allowing jazz, noise, electronica, modern composition, free folk and psych rock to all rub elbows."

Apparently, this close-knit and open community of experimental musicians, composers, and enthusiasts keep pretty busy, forming networking groups such as Electric Possible, a gathering of die-hard experimental-music junkies who meet monthly in a basement classroom of George Washington University's music department. Electric Possible is run by a musician named Jeff Bagato who, by day, works at GWU's law school. By night, he's Tone Ghosting — a respected local act with a signature sound achieved by scraping a handsaw over thrift-store vinyl records. Bagato is widely credited with helping keep D.C.'s experimental scene vibrant.

So next time you're in the area, you just might consider ditching the tour of the White House and catching up with one of the many groups. Jeff Surak, another fixture at Electric Possible, could even play for you on his autoharp that, he claims, is "pretty much warped, and I removed all the keys, and it's never been tuned." Sounds like a good time to me! :)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Monkey Music

So, I saw this article on NPR's website and could just add a link to it... but personally, I hardly ever click on links and it's just so easy to copy and paste, so that's what I'll do. And don't you dare say that I plagerized because I already said that I didn't write this!
So here it is:

Music Written For Monkeys Strikes A Chord
by Richard Harris

"Music has great power to alter our emotions — making us happy or sad, agitated or calm. Psychologists have tried in vain to figure out why that happens. Now, a composer says he's has a clue. And he got it by writing music not for humans, but for monkeys.
David Teie plays cello with the National Symphony Orchestra and even on occasion with the heavy metal band Metallica. He's also a composer.
Teie has been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing.
"When I thought I had all the pieces put into place, I figured any good theory is testable, so one of the ways to test it would be to see if I could write music that would be affective for species other than human," he says.
He wrote to Chuck Snowden, a psychology professor who managed a colony of monkeys called cotton-top tamarins at the University of Wisconsin. Snowden was happy to cooperate and sent Teie recordings he'd made in the lab. ...
"Basically I took those elements and patterned them the way we do normally with music," he says. "You repeat them, take them up a [musical] third — you know, using the same kind of compositional techniques we use in human music."
He played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys' voices. Monkeys don't respond at all to music written for humans, but they did respond when they heard this composition.
Snowden says people may not be calmed by this relatively fast tempo of one of the pieces, but the monkeys in his lab certainly were.
"This is a rhythm that approaches the resting heart rate of a tamarin and had this calming effect on them even though the pum-pum-pum in the background was maybe a bit faster than we would expect as humans for this music."
Compare that with the music Teie wrote to try and agitate the monkeys, a la Metallica.
"Monkeys reacted to this by increasing their movement," Snowden says. "They moved faster through their environment. And they also showed increase in a whole variety of behaviors we have associated with anxiety."
Snowden and Teie report these findings in the journal Biology Letters. They argue these aren't simply sounds that imitate monkey voices — they are actually music. Teie says they are written on a staff, played on a musical instrument, and have rhythm and tonal structure.
But is it really music?
"I wouldn't say so, to be honest," says Josh McDermott, who studies music and the brain at New York University. "There's always this issue of how to define 'music.'"
And in this case, McDermott says, it's impossible to say whether the monkeys are reacting to the musical elements that Teie has added to the recordings or simply to the sounds that mimic monkey voices.
And that's the nub of the issue. Teie is, after all, trying to understand the nature of music — what makes it tug at his heartstrings. It's a question so powerful, Teie says, at first he was afraid to even ask it.
"The paradox is that I distinctly remember thinking once that when they figure out why Puccini makes me cry, I hope I die the day before the news gets out. But the great news about this exploration into music is it's actually more magical and wonderful once you realize how it works."
In fact, Teie is now hoping to use his insights to compose music that will appeal to other species — and to trigger even deeper emotional reactions in us."

So it's kind of lon-ish for a blog post, but definitely worth reading, am I right? And admit it, you wouldn't have clicked on that link, would you?

Makes me wonder if this is why my "happy songs" make me happy... Do you have a happy song? An angry song? A sad song? There's lots of music that I love to play when I feel a certain way -or want to feel a certain way. And it all comes back to monkeys, whatddya know.