Monday, December 20, 2010

Pi on the Piano


There are five widely recognized mathematical constants. These include, 1, 0, π and the natural number, e. Mathematician Leonhard Euler related all five of these constants in what many consider to be the most beautiful equation in all of mathematics. This mysterious relationship is sometimes called the "Magic 5 Equation" as reads as follows:

e to the power πi+1=0
So why the math lesson? Well, a man by the name of Tom Dukich appears to have "sonified" these mathematical constants in a work called Pi on the Piano, Eee with a Queeka and other math sonifications. Some of the pieces are audio only, some have accompanying visuals, and others are visual only. Here are some of the pieces as described on Dukich's site:

"1-Pi to 500 Decimal Places: Piano Solo. Audio with keyboard graphic. A good one to start with to familiarize yourself with how these sonifications were done. The same digit to pitch mapping was used in most of the following songs. The zero is usually not played as a note but shows up as a rest of the same duration as the notes in the particular piece. (3:11)

2 - Pi to 1,000 Decimal Places: Piano Solo. Audio with pi matrix. About four notes per second. (4:19) Update: Also an improvisation by Chis Mear based on this piece.

3 - Pi to 1,000 Decimal Places: Piano, Bass, Flute. Audio with graphics. A more complex mapping than the first two. (4:15)

4 - Pi's Digit Matrix for the First 100 Digits. Video animation, no audio. Visually explores the digit pattern in the first 1,000 digits of pi. (0:47)

5 - e to 500 Decimal Places: Piano Solo. Audio with e matrix. (1:47) "

These involved descriptions indicate some involved mathematical composition process, which Dukich doesn't go into detail describing (sooo it may not even exist and he just wants you to think he was using a complex system... maybe). You can listen and watch them for yourself on his site at http://www.tomdukich.com/math%20songs.html

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Whales: the other musical mammal

As previously alluded to on this blog, it is well known and studied that birds can be musical, that they can enjoy singing. Well, a recent study published in the journal Science credits the birds, as well as our aquatic singing relatives, the whales. The study's analysis of whale song shows that whales share some of the same acoustic techniques and follow the same laws of composition as those used by human musicians. Whale songs even contain rhyming refrains as well as similar intervals, phrases, songs durations and tones. And just as humans use rhyme, so too do whales implement rhyme as a mnemonic device to help them remember complex material. According to this particular study, the researchers state that whales physiologically have a choice: they could use arrhythmic and nonrepeating tunes, but instead, they sing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Captain Beefheart

Sympathies Enlarged has just learned the sad news of the passing of musician and painter Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart).



Mel Blanc did a million voices, but our next artist just did one, but it's heck of a voice. Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale, California. He stopped performing in the 80's and focused on his painting. He was a really good painter, but I wish he made more records. This song is about a frozen treat, and a corvid. Wanna know what a corvid is? It's a type of bird. Crows, ravens, jays, and magpies are all corvids, and they are some of the most intelligent of all the birds. Here’s a song that goes as straight as the crow flies.

Bob Dylan,from Theme Time Radio Hour

Read more here.



Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Silent Night

Every year, the English public votes on the holiday song of the year. For the past several years, the song chosen has been heavily influenced by the decision of music critic, Simon Cowl, on his television show, The X Factor. The premise of the show is to choose a winner among competing vocalists, and the release of this winner's album has -not by accident- occurs just before the public is asked to pick the nation's holiday song. Many have felt that the public is being manipulated because of this, and that the spirit of the nation's pick is being undermined by commercial interests.
So this year, in protest of the direction the contest has taken, several big-name artists have submitted a collaborative effort for nomination: They have rerecorded Cage's 4:33. Need I say more?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Vegetable Orchestra: truly organic sound


I've written on this blog before about the car orchestra, the group that reconfigures old car parts to make the most awesome instruments. In this way, they exemplify recycling at its greatest. Now, I introduce you to the epitome of multitasking: the vegetable orchestra.
The veggie orchestra is an experimental musical group which fashions its unique instruments exclusively out of an assortment of fresh produce. They whittle flutes and whistles out of parsnips and carrots, they bang on beets and eggplants and blow into bell pepper horns. It's all pretty colorful and impressive. And here's the best part. After the performance, they make vegetable soup, which is offered to members of the audience. How incredibly wonderful is that? The best dinner and a show combo I've yet to encounter.
The Vienna-based group's website states that the orchestra strives to deliver a performance where musical styles can fuse without boundaries. "[C]ontemporary music, beat-oriented House tracks, experimental Electronic, Free Jazz, Noise, Dub, Clicks'n'Cuts - the musical scope of the ensemble expands consistently, and recently developed vegetable instruments and their inherent sounds often determine the direction."
They perform all over the world and their newest release is entitled "Onionoise" and came out this past September. Check out their website at http://www.vegetableorchestra.org for photos of their performances and of their wonderfully creative veggie instruments.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Music as a Social Adaptation (or, The "Auditory Cheesecake")

The psychologist Steven Pinker once described music as the "auditory cheesecake," meaning that it is an invention that tickles the brain like cheesecake tickles the palate. "Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons."

So what evolved pleasure buttons does music press? One possibility considered by Pinker includes language, which shares with music the unusual property of being rule-based and recursive and with the power to take a limited stock of units (words of morphemes for language and notes for music) and combining them into a potentially infinite number of structured sequences. However, music gives pleasure through its sound, and language usually doesn't -we typically enjoy it due to what is said, not what it sounds like (On the other hand, there's a pleasure to singing, which has combined the best of music and language...).

But other scholars have proposed music as an adaptation, making the further claim that it exists because it was somehow reproductively advantageous to our ancestors (though the fact that it gives pleasure is not denied). Daniel Levitin, a prominent psychologist who supports this theory points to the idea that synchronous song and dance evolved as social adaptations, helping to establish community and aiding in certain forms of communication. He stresses the importance of music's role in movement, which backs up the theory that the genes of those who created and enjoyed music were able to outcompete the genes of those who couldn't.

Most languages have just one word for both singing and dancing -they aren't exclusive (much to the chagrin of Merce Cunningham, I'm sure). When people listen to music while sitting perfectly still, parts of the motor cortex and cerebellum -areas of the brain that control moving the body's ability to move around- are active. This is why we so often rock and sway to music, an impulse that can be somewhat irresistible, especially to small children. Thus, a theory of music that neglected its relation to movement would be a misstep.

Regarding natural selection, studies have produced evidence that if you move in synchrony with other people, you tend to liked them more, feel more connected to them, have a tendency to be more generous to them. In short, song and dance are the ultimate team-building exercises. This can very well explain the emotional rush that people get from going to a concert or being at a rave. This effect of music may explain why religion is so connected to dancing and music. It has the ability to establish, affirm and maintain a sense of community and solidarity.

All this considered, the potential evolutionary pattern would be that those individuals that could create and enjoy music hung out together, formed communities and cared for one another more easily and more often than those who couldn't. Consequently, the music lovers were more likely to prosper and reproduce. Suddenly, "survival of the fittest" becomes "survival of the musically-inclined."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

World Music Fest: Music Outside!!!

Today was a very special day, and unless you are an especially informed person, I'm sure you may not know what made today so special. So I'll tell you. The World Music Fest was held today in Covington! A celebration of music, dance, visual and culinary art from around the world, the world music fest brings together musicians and performers of all different styles to share the musical traditions of the globe. Last year, Eastern and Turkish influences were the highlight, and my experiences this year lead me to applaud the merits of "gypsy jazz" and the combined Russian/Turkish/French music traditions.
Of particular interest to me is that many of the acts this year were performed outside, opening themselves to the outdoor sonic atmosphere. On this particular Saturday, more than a few motorcycles, a fire truck, the rumbles of passing cars, airplanes, bicycles, and toddlers added to the music. At one point, there was a rest in a cellist's performance that was filled with a marvelous tinkling of a spoon stirring in someone's mug. The "unwrapping" of music and exposing it to the outside world -a world that may or may not be at rapt attention- allows an audience to see just how integral music can be in the world, and reciprocally, just how well the sounds of the world can fit into music.
Of note were two performers named Sasha and Sylvan who played for an hour on guitars commonly referred to as "cassaroles" (for the loud and obnoxious sound they project, like a saucepan, the French decided). A wonderfully playful duo, they men led the audience through French and Italy, Slovenia, Romania and Russia with a trip to Alabama for good measure.
Their stylings reminded me of playful banter, of a precocious dancing of these two guitars around each other, each allowing the other to lead before taking its place in the forefront once again. Several of the pieces were performed with lyrics in French, which add another level of experience, especially if you don't speak the language (and an embarrassingly exciting novelty for one, like me, who does).

verdict: 5 John Cage mushrooms for the World Music Fest! =} =} =} =} =}

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Vox Arcana

I went to the Vox Arcana concert on Monday with Tim Daisy who we got to meet as part of our freshman fys class. I really enjoyed the concert. The played many new songs along with a couple they played last year and our freshman year. Even the songs I had heard before and very different twist this time around. Tim Daisy did amazing things with his percussions, his style is best described as organized chaos. The way he mixes the use drum sticks and different brushes along with pans creates an interesting combination of sounds. the large xylophone (not sure of the proper name) was very enjoyable, and added a new twist to their performance. He and the other musicians created many different sounds throughout their performances that I did not expect to hear from their instruments. Overall it was an excellent concert that left me feeling very Cageian afterward.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cage and Cummings

I found out recently that, aside from using other composers' work by playing it upside down, Cage wasn't above using the work of poets either. Cage once set a Cummings poem in his work, Forever and Sunsmell.

Wherelings whenlings
(daughters of ifbut offspring of hopefear
sons of unless and children of almost)
never shall guess the dimension of
him whose
each
foot likes the
here of this earth
whose both
eyes
love
this now of the sky
--endlings of isn't
shall never
begin
to begin to
imagine how (only are shall be were
dawn dark rains snow rain
-bow &
a
moon
's whis-per
in sunset
or thrushes toawrd dusk among whippoorwills
or
three field rock hollyhock forest brook
chickadee
mountain. Mountain)
whycoloured worlds of because do
not stand against yes which is built by
forever & sunsmell
(sometimes a wonder
of wild roses
sometimes)
with morth
over
the barn


Sounds just ripe for use by Cage, right? And to be honest, I rather admire that he used what was made available already by other artists, composers, musicians and writers of his time. It only makes sense that if you're to work with only sounds that already exist, with instruments and tools that have already been invented by someone else, beginning with thoughts that are inevitably influenced by the work of others, then it follows that the work of others can be included. It's part of the array of tools at your disposal. And besides, the faculties of genius lie in perceiving the usual, that which already exists, in an unhabitual way. Perhaps these preexisting works are just waiting to be perceived in such an "unahabitual" way.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Acoustic Ecology

Readers of Sympathies Enlarged will enjoy this page from Wire magazine on the many uses of field recordings and the continuing importance of acoustic ecology.


Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sublime


A friend brought to me the idea yesterday that people may like music so much because it is the easiest way for a visually-biased culture to attain the sublime. I'd never quite thought about it this way before, but I think I have to agree. It could be that the reason so many are easily mesmerized by music is that sonic phenomena works on a plane that very few of us are well accustomed to operating on in such depth, and yet are very receptive to. Rather, we are proficient at categorizing and sorting visual art into preconceived categories, but music takes us by surprise. We can't so easily associate the physics of acoustics with that which we normally encounter, and for many, it's difficult to conceptualize, to put music into a nice and compact little box.

Because our species is so dominated by visual stimuli, and our culture is so biased with its various uses of this means of interpreting the world, music can capitalize on our less-refined auditory senses. It's an encounter of something heavily weighted in that which is outside our operating comfort zone, and when our cochlei are stimulated by the vibrations transmitted in the air, we are more easily able to attain that state in which all is beyond possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation for the moment.

It reminds me of the same way humans so frequently encounter the sublime when we talk about our conceptualization of God. Our ideas of who God is are so vast and unfathomable, that they aren't easily grasped in the normal sense. We revert to analogies and metaphorical comparisons to those things that we do know, but that never adequately describe that which is so beyond our usual parameters of understanding. We are pressed to prove the existence of something so hard to explain and yet we know beyond doubt that is exists because we do experience it directly.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

John Cage's Birthday 2010


Today is John Cage's birthday. Sympathies Enlarged is spending the day listening to Cage's works for prepared piano. Here is a link to a wonderful performance of Cage's "Dream" by pianist Stephen Drury.









Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letting smells be themselves...

I was thinking today about smells. I like smells, in general. The olfactory experience is a fascinating one. And then I began to think that, in much the same way we regard sounds as musical or cacophonous, we regard smells as those fit to be appreciated, and those that aren't. Think about it. It's socially acceptable to profess a love of the smell of oregano, bread baking in the oven, pine sap, lavender, spices. They even make candles scented to mimic the smell of sugar cookies, various fruits and flowers, even "midnight breeze," whatever that is. There's an entire industry developed around the nose and millions upon millions are spent each year on perfumes, colognes and aftershave. But all of these smells marketed to the public are those deemed to have met a certain standard.
I understand that some smells trigger the gag reflex and that the reaction of disgust to various odors is a natural and perhaps evolutionary response (protecting us from dangerous or unsanitary things), but there are other smells that are found to be pleasant by many -or maybe only a few- that aren't being bottled. How about fresh-cut grass, new crayons, or charcoal? These aren't bad smells. Personally, I must confess to a love of the smell of rotting leaves and fresh-tilled soil.
It's been proven that smell is the human sense most efficient at triggering memory, and therefore it would naturally follow that the sense of smell would be most subject to having value attributed to it by positive or negative association. I don't eat goetta, would never eat it, and knowing the composition of the stuff makes the possibility even smaller, but the smell reminds me of my grandpa, and so I like the smell. The smell of Listerine and rock dust remind me of my dad, and I like those smells, while catching a whiff of "new car," eau de toilette or canned mixed vegetables is automatically off-putting due to some negative association (the particulars of which I'm not willing to discuss). And so it leaves me rather surprised that these scents are often overlooked in the mainstream. Why should it be acceptable for flowery scents to be sold in lotions, bubble bath and perfume while sawdust, basil and rainwater remain in their original forms.
In the spirit of John Cage, shouldn't we embrace the possibility of all smells to be perfume? Should all smells be regarded as equally smellable?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Grandaddy of Electronic Instruments


Ever heard of an instrument called the theremin? Well, if you haven't it'd be a good one to remember in case you're ever on Jeopardy, because it's a rather significant development in the advent of electronic music, in my opinion. It was invented by a physicist, actually, in the 1920s named Leon Theremin and was the product of a government-sponsored research project on proximity sensors. See, you don't ever actually touch the theremin to play it. Instead, you just sort of hover your hands over it and move them back and forth and up and down changing pitch and volume. So, just think what people would have thought of this thing back in the 1920s: "Oooooh! Super-futuristic magic! It's the cat's meow!" -or something like that.

So Theremin demonstrated his instrument to Vladamir Lenin, who promptly began taking lessons and sent Theremin off on a world tour, showing off his instrument (while at the same time doing some undercover reconnaissance for Russia in the U.S. -you know, multitasking). The theremin was shortly after manufactured for public use, because surely, it would become the next big craze. Each big wooden box included an instruction manual complete with photographs demonstrating the proper way to use the instrument. Though not a real commercial success due to a certain stock market crash in 1929,the theremin still fascinated people. In the 1930s, Lucie Bigelow Rosen and her husband, Walter, took up the instrument and worked to provide financial and artistic support that would further popularize the instrument.

The theremin has a sound that's thought to be eerie by many, and so it's commonly put to use in movie soundtracks like those for The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spellbound . It enjoyed a resurgence in popularity on the avant-garde scene and in psychedelic rock music.

So now you know and have no excuse to not win all that money on a popular TV game show.

All I ask is that, when you do, remember who gave you the answer to that double jeopardy question.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Plato: Composer and Closet Pythagorean


Plato, a heretic? No, surely not! But according to Jay Kennedy, a scholar from Manchester, England, this could very well be the case. If one examines Plato's works in their original scroll from, one will notice that every 12 lines there is a passage that discusses music. According to Kennedy, this is something that likely wouldn't have gone unnoticed by Plato's readers. Unlike today's 8-note scale, the Ancient Greeks used a 12-note scale, and so it's postulated that, by using the aforementioned pattern, Plato could have been trying to communicate some sort of musical message.


What sort of message? Well, Kennedy thinks that, just maybe, Plato could have secretly been a Pythagorean. No, this has nothing to do with trigonometry -I don't think. See, Pythagoras and his followers believed that mathematics and music were the keys to the universe (oh, but of course!) Because the beauty we hear when we hear harmonies can be attributed to certain mathematical ratios, witnessing such beauty was the experience of the perception of the direct mathematical order underlying the world. Pythagoras worshipped this mathematics and for some reason, were viewed as weirdo heretics. In fact, they were violently persecuted because, obviously, such believers were working to overthrow the gods of Olympus.


This being the reality of the situation, Plato couldn't come out and tell people he was in agreement with these guys without fear of being banished or worse, and researchers think that he may have embedded a hidden message in his works (in The Republic, at least). It's even hypothesized that it could be a melody or score embedded in the text.


Plato, a composer and secret code expert? I like him better already!


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dr. Dimento Show Off the Air

Since the 1970s Barret Hanson (aka Dr. Dimento) has broadcast the weird and wonderful of the radio world. Beginning with quirky songs like Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater" and Barnes & Barnes "Fish Heads," Hanson moved on to frequently spin the music of Spike Jones, Monty Python, and Frank Zappa, ultimately forming what would become a cult radio institution. The funnier the songs he played, the more popular the show got, and listeners even began sending in their own parodies and comical works (a sixteen-year-old, accordion playing Weird Al Yankovic, for one).
But all good things must come to an end, I suppose, because this June, the show was finally taken off of the air. When I heard this, I was gravely disappointed, because I'd never heard it, but I needn't have worried. The Dr. Dimento Show will, like many other things, continue on the Internet. Hanson thinks this is a better fit anyway, because his show never scored too well with the common demographic.
Imagine that.

Swing Low


I had a friend once who I sang with in select choir. I was an alto, but she was a bona fide female baritone -not tenor, but baritone. She hit the low notes in a way I couldn't have hoped for and, as this was at a time when many of the boys in the group were struggling with voice changes, this girl could often hit lower notes than even they could.

So I thought of her when I heard about Roger Menees, a gospel singer who's just made his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for hitting the lowest note ever recorded. In February, at a recording studio in Carbondale, Roger hit an F-sharp at 0.393 hertz (Sorry, Madison, but I think he's got you beat on this one.) To be fair, a note that low isn't very functional. I mean, it's not like any opportunity would arise in a vocal ensemble performance to swing that low. If anything, it's more of a physiological wonder. Roger says himself that "thins is the slowest vibration that you can make with your vocal chord -the slowest vocal pulses with the greatest interval in between them." In fact, the human ear can't even determine that the note is an F-sharp, and Roger says that he's shattered electro-voice speakers by hitting so low of notes before.

I heard the recording of this record-winning low note, and it's true that it sounds more like a low refrigerator vibration than anything, or some sort of machine feedback.

John Cage would be proud.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Playing the Music Space





If the experience of a live musical performance is taken holistically, (the only way it should always be taken, best-case scenario, in my opinion) one must consider the space in which it is being performed. The instruments and voices you're hearing are meant to be a focal point, yes, but there's often so much potential for other sonic phenomena to affect the experience. The acoustics of a concert hall or other music venue are generally considered to be important (by some musicians more than others, I'll admit) because it affects the way the music will be heard. A small wood-paneled room is going to sound drastically different from a carpeted theater, and will also differ from an outdoor performance, one in a school gymnasium, or one taking place inside an airplane hanger.


Too often, though, it seems that the acoustics or sonic contributions of the space are ignored entirely, or they are manipulated such that they are rendered silent. With all this potential for variation out there, it strikes me as disappointing that artists don't play with this variable more. Being able to not only play your instruments but also to play the performance space seems an exciting creative concept to consider. Perhaps this is why garage bands are so infamously horrible. The musicians, confined to practice in a garage, sound great within the confines of their aluminum box, but when heard outside of the car port, the quality is altered (okay, perhaps I'm a bit too gracious here, but I'm trying).


But just think of the possibilities! Perhaps musicians could work the vibrations of the aluminum siding of an airplane hanger to their benefit, not to mention the marvelous echos that are sure to ensue. Or how about staging an outdoor performance near a waterfall or a forest where artists can play with the birdsong or frog chirps. And I'm reminded of a certain group notorious for playing bagpipes in cavernous wells and such... Then there's the ever-Cagean component of indeterminacy that can be thrown in when you incorporate such less-easily controlled sonic phenomena. Imagine playing improv with a thunderstorm or the train...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Itty Bitty Instrument Makes a Mighty Comeback


There's a new documentary out called The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog by Director Tony Coleman. The film travels all over in search of artists who play the instrument, and finds it in the hands of a rather eclectic bunch. From virtuosos like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole to the likes of Paul McCartney, to elementary schools in Canada and even a man who claims that the uke led him to discover hip hop, this documentary hopes to illustrate how this tiny Hawaiian instrument has built culture and community over the years and how, thanks to it's simplicity and affordability, it's making a comeback in popular culture today.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Robot Orchestra


It's amazing, really, the variety that one can experience in different musical performances. Go to the Cincinnati orchestra and you're watching over fifty people playing instruments. Go see an electronic music artist and you could be watching one guy making music on his laptop computer. Now, if you go to the California Institute for the Arts you will see something somewhere in between- that is a room full of music students at computers and machines making robots play music. Ajay Kapur, a music professor at the school, offers a class in which students learn to build robots and become prat of the Kametic Machine Orchestra. Kupur claims that he's not trying to teach kids to be programmers,, but rather to help them to become better artists in a world increasingly dominated by new technology.

But the performances by the students and their robots are a far cry from the "lone guy at the laptop" performance and these robots are far removed from the player piano. Aluminum boxes, wires, gears, mallets, drums, and skateboard wheels are just some of the components one will see, and these robots aren't just playing what they've been programmed to play. No, in the spirit of John Cage, there's a bit of uncertainty involved. Rather than programmed to simply play music, the students have programmed their robots to improvise. This essentially means that the students are never quite sure how the robots are going to respond. In this respect, Kapur claims that playing with the robot orchestra is a lot like playing with other people. You never quite know what they're going to do next.

And to those who claim that Kapur is teaching his music students to replace themselves with robots? He says that he doesn't think of the robots as replacing human musicians, but rather as instruments that can make sounds that humans can't. For example, one person could play three drums at a time with two sticks, but a robot can have seven arms...



Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Confines of theTraditional


I've mentioned on this blog before that I generally like Celtic music. I find, however, that this "traditional" genre is often dominated by "traditional" songs. That is to say, that most experiences that I've had with Celtic music have been in the form of various renditions of old Irish tunes. I'm sure that if I looked hard enough, I would find original works in the Celtic music genre, and I have, but these have been in the minority. And so I started wondering why those genres steeped in tradition, like Celtic, bluegrass, even classical to an extent, seem to be stuck, so to speak,. It seems that the same tunes are played over and over and little innovation, little creative originality is seen in these genres. One definitely doesn't see this in rock, rap, jazz, etc. but when you start listening to Celtic, or classical, people seem to be content to play the same songs that someone wrote a long time ago over, and over and over again.

Perhaps this is how the genres maintain their integrity. I've discussed how the lines between musical styles become blurred and it would seem that as little deviation as possible would result in these different genres remaining separate. Playing the same songs would facilitate this, I suppose, but then I wonder whether the sacrifice of potential is worth it....

You don't run into this with dance, I must note. Dancers seem to be able to keep well within a dance style without repeating the same choreography. "Traditional" French or Russian ballet, hip-hop, clogging, jazz -all types can maintain a degree of "integrity without hindering creative contribution. (then again, on might object to the definition of "integrity" that I employ).

Makes me wonder where these "traditional" styles of music would be if the focus tradition were relaxed just a bit...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Stutter Music


Today I was thinking about stuttering. I mean, in general-that is, I wasn't contemplating whether or not to do it. I found myself remarking at how lots of disk-jockeys turn records such that they seem to stutter their music. Can you make instruments stutter? I'd like to hear that. Actually, these musings started while listening to The Who on my way to school today. A friend had commented on how the lead singer purposely stutters (I think) in the song "My Generation." And then ensued the thoughts about dj-ing and whether or not you can get instruments to stutter and how I think I'd like to hear stuttered music. It seemed to work for The Who -I mean, I liked the "stutter effect" in "My Generation". Perhaps stuttering should be seen as a speech impediment, but an musical asset. And just think what you could do with a lisp...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Denis Brown


In my recent adventures in random musical selection, I've found myself listening to several reggae collections, the majority of which feature Bob Marley. I also found myself "jammin" to a CD or two by a man by the name of Denis Brown. Now, it may just be my unique ignorance to the musical world, but the name "Denis Brown" meant nothing to me (it's not even a particularly interesting name, what with my uncle being named Denis and my being acquainted with many Browns in the neighborhood). And then I heard the name mentioned on the radio as I was driving to school one morning. I hadn't realized that this Denis Brown character was a man often referred to as the authority of the genre, the "Reggae Mozart", if you will.

Denis Brown has been refered to as reggae's child prodigy and is hailed by the likes of Marley himself as the best and most influential reggae singer in the world (and they met when Brown was only 11 years old). Born in Jamaica in the late 50s, Brown became an international superstar, cut his first hit "No Man is an Island" (which even I've heard of, so it must be big) when he was only 11 and over the next three decades released 75 albums. His popularity in the musical world ultimately paved the way for other well-known reggae singers and, though he died in 1999 at the age of 42, Brown continues to serve as an inspiration to many artists.

And so, I had another one of those embarrassing, "I can't believe I didn't already know this" moments....

Bad Boys


So, when someone says the phrase "bad boys," I'm sure the images that come to mind vary among individuals, but I can be fairly certain that most don't immediately think about opera -or perhaps more unlikely, musical theater. But if you're at all familiar with the opera scene, you'll have to agree that "bad boys" are in no short supply in the theater. I mean, think about it: Don Giovanni, Don Juan, Sweeny Todd? Opera is chock-full of villains (that's what the baritones are for, right? Ii don't think I've ever heard a tenor sing a villainous role, but I digress...) Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone singer, has recently pulled together some of the more classical, evil roles in traditional and contemporary opera and compiled them onto a new record entitled -ready?- Bad Boys.

He, himself, contributed vocal talent to the record and you can read his recent interview with NPR on the subject at http://www.npr.org/. Just search for "Bad Boys."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sun Ra Arkestra Pays Homage to Icelandic Volcano




The current incarnation of the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Louisville's own Marshall Allen, has been grounded in London by the volcanic ash problem. They are preparing a special "volcanic performance" to commemorate the event. See the details here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Martha Graham




While writing a paper for the spring honors seminar, I was required to briefly report on the life and influence of one of Time Magazine's top one hundred people of the twentieth century. Thus far, I'd reported on physicists, psychiatrists, musical composers, successful businessmen and several musicians, and so jumped on the opportunity to write a paper on the life of a dancer/choreographer. Martha Graham was listed as one of Time's most influential people of the twentieth century, and though I knew she was instrumental in the development of modern dance, I wanted to know why she would be on this list... and then I was embarrassed that I didn't already know.


Graham was greatly influential in the dance world and the art world at large, forcing dancers and artists to reexamine what dance was and what it should or should not do. She pioneered a new approach to dance that required the creation of an entirely new vocabulary to describe and talk about it, using motion as a means of expressing emotions in an unprecedented way. Her career was a long and successful one that ended in her receiving various accolades and recognition toward the end of her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the nation. In spite of all this praise, however, Martha was rather discontented with the way she was being received by the public. She wanted to be remembered as a dancer, but the world saw her largely as an innovative and original choreographer. This perception was probably exacerbated by Martha's insistence on performing into her later sixties. Unable to execute dance that carried with it the energy and power that hallmarked her earlier work, her later performances simply highlighted her role as an expert choreographer and not as a dancer.


But this frustration regarding Martha's memory was also due to her largest contribution. She is remembered as a choreographer and not as a dancer in great part due to her influence on her fellow dancers. Graham served as teacher and inspiration to names such as Erik Hawkins, John Butler, and even -ready for this?- Merce Cunningham. She is remembered not as a dancer, but as an instrumental and powerful impact on the great dancers that would change the world after her. She is remembered for creative work that would inspire other artists to push the limits of art, for serving as stimulus for original thought. And though she was discontented with the fact that the world didn't recognize her as a dancer, i think that had she known and understood the role she was, in fact, playing, she might have been a bit more appreciative. Had she known the true effect that her work as a choreographer -not as a dancer- was having and would have on the world, she might have been okay with her memory.


Friday, April 16, 2010

A Warning to Listeners of Loud Music


We've been told that listening to loud music will ruin our hearing, will annoy the neighbors, may even get the police called, but did you know that it might result in animal abuse? Yes, my friends, your listening to loud music might just result in some poor animal being caused trauma and distress. At least, that's what one man found out recently while staying in a motel in south Carolina. He hadn't been the one blaring the beats, some other guy had. He'd complained and thought the confrontation was over, but was tapped on the shoulder a few hours later and turned around to see that he was face to face with a four-foot python. The disgruntled pet owner had apparently not appreciated being told to turn the tunes down and so decided to introduce the man to his pet snake. The man claims that the snake's head was squeezed so that its mouth was open and swears it tried to crawl into his mouth (pure bull hockey, if you ask me). But, the poor guy probably peed his pants as he crawled back to his room. The snake's owner was arrested and charged with assault.

So, let this serve as a warning. Be careful around whom you turn up the volume, because it's just as likely that some complaining neighbor might own a pet snake as well.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Car Music Project (aka Recycling at its Finest)


When Bill Milbrodt's car, a 1982 Honda Accord, was on its last legs back in 1991, it had about 200,000 miles on it. Had Bill wanted to repair it, it would have cost much more than it was worth, and had he wanted to trade it in, well, no one would have wanted it anyway. But rather than scrap it, Bill decided to be environmentally responsible. Bill decided to turn the car into music.

He had the car dismantles and, with the help of metal sculpter, Ray Faunce, spent the nest 18 months creating brand new instruments out of old car parts. And boy, you should get a load of these musical wonders. There's the exhaustaphone, and strutbone (constructed from the struts, shifter linkage and exhaust system and played like -get this- the trombone), accompanied by percarsion, which consists of a fifteen-foot diameter circle of racks from which springs, gears, windows, pistons, etc. hang (in total, it's about 55 percussion instruments). In addition, these are drums made from wheels and cymbals made from floorboards. There's the tank bass, made from the gas tank, and the "air guitar" made from the air cleaner and brake calipers. It looks like a banjo without frets.

With awesome instruments in tow, Bill formed a band he called the Car Music Project, and the group has gone on to wow critics with their avant-garde resourcefulness. Likened to Frank Zappa and other experimental superstars, the group is composed of talented musicians, the likes of which have played before with John Cage himself. And really, what's not to love? They had me at recycling.

You can find out more and hear a sampling at www.carmusicproject.com/

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mozart's Requiem

I would call this a diatribe, but that would be a lie. It's less of a diatribe than a very long-winded enthusiastic response to what I feel to be a performance worthy of much more.


So, I suppose this preface is more of a warning of the hopelessly pathetic gushing that is to come and I urge any readers who have the inclination, to skip reading it without any feelings of remorse -or in the worlds of Cage, "if any one is sleepy, let him go to sleep."

So, the Cincinnati Ballet's performance of Mozart's Requiem premiered last night at the Aronoff center for the Arts. It can hardly be said that the ballet was a dance interpretation of Requiem, but then the playbill seemed to have a difficult time describing it also, calling it a "non-narrative drama," which seems like a contradiction in terms to me. In fact, a very clear narrative is evident, with an obvious conflict encompassing the first half and an evident resolution in the second.
A minimalist set was used to its full potential, with the artistic director, Victoria Morgan, relying on several props suspended from the ceiling and the illumination of objects in the background to convey messages regarding the situation playing out onstage. Light was also artfully used to suggest changing venues while allowing the audience to perceive a change in scene and in mood. The scaffolding that filled the background of the stage and the bare, uncluttered dance space worked well within the theme of the ballet, accentuating the ideas of harsh reality, without the pretenses of of something more beautiful, even superficially. The ultimate transition from darkness to light at the climax of the performance was also artfully communicated through these minimalist means, with a sparse use of modern art pieces and a generous helping of light and color cues. Costuming was similarly simple, with dancers attired in black or white, leaving the dance itself to speak, without interruption or background noise provided by costume (female dancers did, however, wear their hair down, using its movement with the choreography to emphasize the emotions inherent in the dance).
The choreography itself was likewise stunning, contrived of classical technique without any of the oft-attached classical conventions. Modern dance influences were ubiquitous throughout the performance, glimpsed in the tendencies of dancers to use combinations in ways that were unexpected, often filled with allusions to crude contortion, yet with ease and athletic finesse. The emotions portrayed through the movement in the first half of the performance were immediately apparent. Tension, angst and struggle -both internal and external- were common elements in all of the dancers' motions as they made their way across the stage, sometimes charging and leaping in desperation or anger, sometimes limp and listless like marionettes or rag dolls. The use of lifts was liberal and also worked to enforce the ideas of pain, with female dancers posed in such a way that suggested struggle or unwilling compliance. A stark contrast between the powerful and the powerless was made evident in such movements.
The second half of the show was immediately a contrast to the first, yet with references to the struggle encountered in the later. The company began clad in white with a solemn march in circle formation, dancers sometimes exhibiting those puppet-like movements, but with a clear soberness, hinting to a desperation for some sort of salvation. Then, two figures dance to the middle of the circle, shouldering red capes and garbed in a simple, white attire that makes the rest of the company appear to be clothes in a dingy yellow. Their fluid movements free from any of the stress and tension thus far seen in the other dancers, the two figures dance with each other, as opposed to against one another, their movements working in a harmony and paralleling to create a sense of content equality, rather than a power struggle. Their mirrored motions and lifts that convey a sense of flight starkly contrast the dancers who had thrown themselves about the stage earlier. The pair represents freedom and redemption and as the act progresses, the sense of puppetry and struggle dissipates. Though the rest of the company never reaches the grace of the two dancers in white and red, the transformation makes evident that a healing has taken place. Finally, the dance ends with the company following the two red-caped figures out into a painfully white light, away into a hopeful unknown.
Though paired with a legendary classical score, I can't express how pleased I was to find the accompanying ballet did not fall into classical ballet conventions. Yet I also greatly appreciated the adherence to technique and good ballet form as filtered through modern influences. The intense emotion conveyed and the subsequent freedom could easily have been executed in a generic sense, but doing so through precision and technique added a stylized flair that elevated the performance in an admirable way. I was also impressed by the powerful subject matter portrayed onstage and its presentation in such a way that made it accessible by all present without insulting the intelligence of the audience.
On a final note, I felt that this performance was a beautiful example of a dance and musical score that can each stand alone and independently. Undeniably paired with a fantastic score, the ballet could easily have been overshadowed by the musical performance, the dance being relegated to a mere echo. Thankfully, this was not the case. The artistry and mastery that was displayed onstage rivaled that which was taking place in the orchestra pit. This could have been disastrous under other circumstance, becoming a battle for the audience's attention. I'll admit that the music sometimes failed to permeate as my attention was fully absorbed by the visual phenomena, but in the end, I think an excellent balance was struck as the two stand-alone performances succeeded in creating an epic dialogue. What could have been a fight for the spotlight became a veritable duet in which both parties maintained beauty and integrity.
I left the theater feeling tingly in my elbows, weak in my knees, and light in the head. Unable to speak about the performance and yet unable to think of anything else, I've concluded that it might be worthy of recommendation to any readers of this blog who have managed to get all the way to the end of this long-winded, excessively wordy play-by-play.
It really was quite wonderful.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sounds of the Cell


New technologies bring with them new sonic phenomena all the time. Cage was autely aware of this and embraced it as a perquisite of progress (and later changed his mind a bit on the issue, but we'll overlook that for right now). I was thinking about this the other day and decided that one such technology that has undoubtedly brought with it its own "soundtrack," as it were, is the telephone. With all man-created sounds, the telephone has introduced noises into popular culture that today are universally recognized. The dial tone, the busy signal, various recognizable rings, even the "low battery" sound on many cell phones has become largely self-evident. It's amazing how these sounds have become so ingrained into our upbringing in this country that their identification is now second nature.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Seedy Seeds (and others)


So picture a group of three musicians. Now imagine a mixture of guitar, precession, banjo, accordion, and occasional kazoo offered by these musicians. Trust me, it's marvelous, and I'm lucky enough to be able to say this from personal experience. The eclectic group, the Seedy Seeds, performed last night at the Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky. The group shared the stage with local bands Come on Caboose and Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos, but clearly stole the show with their fun, upbeat performance. Their self-introduction taken from their webpage is as follows:


" The Seedy Seeds don't know you, but they already like you.

With a completely original sound and presentation, including

banjo, accordion and toy keyboard beats, The Seedy Seeds

create upbeat, melodic, danceable indie music that is equally

at home alongside pop-punk, alt-country, and lo-fi."


The band was allegedly formed in 2005 when members Mike and Margaret threw around the idea of performing as a group with the instruments they owned but didn't exactly know how to play at the time. Percussionist, Brian, joined in 2008 and the group has been writing, recording, and performing music ever since. In addition, the group has been the recipient of three Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, including Best Live Act, Album of the Year and Best Indie/Alternative Artist.

You can go check them out at http://www.theseedyseeds.com/.


And I think you should.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Solo Album


Have you ever listened to the work of a group and liked it, and then found out that one or more of the members have a solo album out? Or, how about this: the band breaks up and then one or more of its former members releases an album? Or what about: one of the group members leaves in a huff and the next month releases a solo album just to spite the other members, it seems? Regardless of the circumstances, I'm sure everyone has a least heard of this happening before and lately, I've been thinking about what these solo works say.

Many will attest to the trend that most of these albums are never any good. Perhaps this is so, but what I'm more interested in is what they say about the artist and what they contributed to the group while they were in, and what they do now that they're out. The most recent example of this that has caught my interest is the Beatles -which isn't recent at all, but I'm a little behind on these things. After the breakup of the Beatles, John and Paul went on to release their own solo work, and while listening to a sampling of each of these, in conjunction with the work the Beatles were turning out while together, I began to wonder...

John's influence is very heavily seen in the work that the Beatles did together, and this is perhaps easy to see because of his lead vocals in so many of their songs, but when listening to Paul's work, one is able to see the creative contributions he added to the group's work also. Part of me also wonders if the solo works of each respective artist are actually representative of each man's contributions to the group, or if they are what they are because each man decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do something completely different. And how much influence did the Beatles have on each man's solo work? It's all very convoluted and I'm not sure that these guys could have told you themselves.

I did, however, come to some personal conclusions which are completely subjective and possibly ignorant, but I will state them here anyway. I listened to Paul's Tug of War and John's Mind Games and, based on these works, decided that Paul is more like Mozart and John like Beethoven. What do I mean? Well, Paul's work seems to be more laid back, fun, and freely creative, while John's work always seems to be reaching for some objective, angsty, trying to make a statement, and is all around much more serious. If these men were painters (yes, painters, because I'm biased toward the visual arts) Paul would be a Georgia O'Keefe, painting things simply because they were beautiful and John would be Keith Herrig, constructing works with images and symbols aimed at communicating a specific message.

And now I can't help but wonder about the painting techniques of George and Ringo...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Happy Birthday Chopin!


Yes, today is Chopin's birthday. I heard a piece on the radio today about his funeral march (you know, "dun dun dun-dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnn"). It's become ubiquitous in popular culture and parodied by everyone from Monty Python to Porky Pig. Funny how just a few notes can be almost universally recognized that way... I also learned that this march was actually inspired by/a variation on a funeral piece from an Italian opera -and it's sad that the world can know the variation so well, but I can't even remember the name of this particular opera. Oh, well.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rock is For The Birds



John Cage would surely be pleased by this exhibit, which can be visited at London's Barbicon Centre.  Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has created an installation in which 20 pairs of zebra finches are housed in an aviary furnished with, among other items, an array of Les Paul electric guitars. A video of the resulting interactions between birds and guitars is posted on the exhibit website, and is required viewing for soundscape enthusiasts. The following text is taken from the Barbicon website. 

Trained as a musician and composer, French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot creates works by drawing on the rhythms of daily life to produce sound in unexpected ways. His installation for The Curve will take the form of a walk-though aviary for a flock of zebra finches, furnished with electric guitars and other instruments and objects. As the birds go about their routine activities, perching on or feeding from the various pieces of equipment, they create a captivating, live soundscape.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perfectly Imperfect


I think it's interesting how we, as a culture, have somehow managed to come to a consensus on what constitutes a good singing voice. With so many people having so many different sounds, it's amazing how we seem to think that there are common traits that make a voice nice to listen to. Then again, we've done this with physical appearance too, and there's plenty of variety there, so I really shouldn't be surprised. And just how different physical attributes are viewed as beautiful by different cultures, so too, are ways of singing. In many Asian cultures, a woman's voice is supposed to ring in her head as she sings, creating a high-pitched and piercing sound. In certain African cultures, low, melodious, almost guttural styles of singing are the norm. There's really quite a bit of variety out there as far as styles, or methods of singing go, and it's kind of a shame that we aren't more accepting of them in this country.

Anyway, I recently read an article about an opera singer, Maria Callas, whose voice has been wow-ing people for ages, and this in large part, due to its unconventional nature. In the 1950s, Callas was performing as Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walkure. It was a role which required a heavy voice, something that played to Callas' strengths. And then, on short notice, she was called in to play the part of Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani, perhaps the antithesis of Wagner. What's more is that many people thought she couldn't pull it off. Callas was a dramatic soprano, and this role called for an impressive high range and a fluid, fast delivery, which is usually difficult for more dramatic singers. But Callas pulled it off and did so with a voice no one had before heard.

Her rise in the opera world was controversial as most people couldn't yet fathom how this singer appeared to have two separate voices, a bewildering range that many had never before heard. And it's this uncommon ability that is believed to be the cause of her decline. As opera singers go, Callas's voice began to deteriorate while she was still pretty young and it's believed that this was due to her lack of technique essential to maintain her ambitious vocal endeavors. Critic and voice teacher Conrad Osbourne explained it as such: "It's very unusual to combine those two ways of singing and to extend the range over that wide of a compass. And if your structural technique -I'm talking about the way the voice is balanced and structured so that when you throw a lot of energy into it, the way an athlete does, the coordinations that respond are balanced and efficient- isn't true all the way up and down that very wide range, then you're inviting some trouble." But many feel that this recklessness and the imperfections it brought into her performance was what set Callas apart. It made her extremely distinctive and expressive, allowing her complexity and flexibility.

As many of her fans would say, her voice was perfectly imperfect.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Love Songs Revisited


I was thinking today, with Valentine's Day coming up and everything, about love songs... again. Prior discussions in the blog have concluded that the label "love song" is applicable to more than what initially comes to mind. That is, the verdict held that break-up songs, good-riddance songs, songs of unrequited love, songs of frustration with a significant other and the more obvious "you're-my-soul-mate-and-I-love-you" songs all qualify.

But upon reflection of this seemingly broad definition of a love song, it occurred to me that, perhaps it's still not broad enough. This collection of love songs fails to recognize that there are other kinds of love out there other than that which immediately comes to mind on Valentine's Day, and I think that these are worthy of inclusion.

The Greeks had this all figured out. They were very specific when they spoke of love, which I suppose comes in handy when you want to make very clear just how you love someone (no, "I like you, but I don't like like you" problems). They actually had four different words for love:


1.) Eros (air-ose)- a passionate love, a sensual desire or longing


2.)Philia (fil-ee- uh)- a friendship-type love, dispassionate and virtuous


3.)Storge (store-jee)-a natural affection, like the kind of love that parents have for their children


4.)Agape (uh-gah-pay)- a selfless, giving love; utter contentment


Those songs considered "love songs" should be able to run the entire gamut and not be confined to any one definition -but they often aren't. I mean, a song about a father's love for his son wouldn't qualify in the minds of most people. I don't think that's fair.

And personally, I think the stigma that surrounds Valentine's Day would be less and that more people could let themselves enjoy the holiday if all four kinds of love were equally represented. I love making and giving valentines as much as the next eight year old, but all the mushy-gushy, ooey-gooey, lovey-dovey romantic stuff isn't for me. And besides, a holiday with so much chocolate involved should be for everyone, right?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Another Kind of Dialogue


I had the opportunity today to see the Brotherhood Singers perform in Steigerwald. A Capella has always impressed me, but after all this thinking about improv and the communication required between musicians, I'm seeing it in a whole new light. Just how well must these guys know each other to be able to sing like that? I know they rehearse and everything, but I'm sure they can improv too. Isn't that kind of how a Capella got its start anyway? I just have to admire the communication that goes on to be able to play off one another's voices that way. And the rules of musical dialogue must still apply: don't monopolize the conversation, let others' voices be heard if they have something important to say, take turns letting each other lead while playing a more supportive role yourself...

It's neat to get to see this all played out using a voice as opposed to an instrument, but then again, I think that these men use their voices in such a way so as to be regarded as musicians rather than singers...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

John Cage and Hollywood




Readers of this blog might be interested to learn of the presence of a couple of John Cage compositions on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's new film, Shutter Island. The great Robbie Robertson, former guitarist and songwriter from The Band, produced the album. Robertson is quoted in the press release as saying "this may be the most outrageous and beautiful soundtrack I've ever heard." One suspects that Mr. Robertson has heard his share of outrageous and beautiful soundtracks, so this is definitely an album worth looking into. 

Striking a Balance


Have you ever listened to a CD from a new group you'd never heard before, listened to the disk all the way through, and not even realized that you'd gone through twenty songs because, really, they all kind of sounded alike? That happens quite often when I choose at random CDs to listen to from the library, and it got me thinking about how there's a certain balance that must be struck when a musical group or artist works on becoming established. This balance is between the objectives of making each piece new and innovative, keeping it interesting, and being consistent enough so as to establish a certain sound by which they are recognized.

This is why I appreciate the merits of a mix CD. Each song is -hopefully- different from the one before it and very rarely does the ear get tired of listening to the same kind of sound again and again (not saying it doesn't happen, though -especially if the artists chosen subscribe to a certain musical genre). The experience is a far cry from, say, listening to an AC/DC album all the way through, where, when you've listened to one song, you've heard them all.

And yet, there's merit to the idea that the public should be able to hear a song and say to themselves, "Hey, isn't this so-and-so?" Wanting that recognition is totally understandable. It's a mark of style, the same way people can look at a painting and say, "Hey, isn't that a Van Gogh?" The important thing for the artist, no matter the medium, is to make sure that their audience doesn't get tired of it. Variety is nice. Then again, I'm sure the audience can get attached to an artist's style and expect that when they listen to their work. It serves as something reassuring to come back to, because they'll know what to expect.

Unless, of course, the artist initially chooses to be consistently inconsistent from the get-go...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Arbitrary Lines

There are too many arbitrary lines drawn in life. Designating some sounds and music and others as noise, deciding that this piece is jazz and the others are not jazz... it's as if we feel the need to put everything in a box, a category, just because it's the easiest way for us to understand it -regardless of the fact that it doesn't fit. It's like trying to put a cloud in a box. You can try, and I suppose you could do it, but is it still a cloud in there? Personally, I think you lose something when you do that. To try to slap labels on facets of the human experience is to overlook the fact that it is made up of a continuous spectrum. Though when split up into parts, it undeniably becomes easier to recognize and analyze, to divide it up is to miss out, to impoverish oneself.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Igor Stravinsky


I recently wrote a paper on Igor Stravinsky for a class, and until doing the bit of research this paper required, I was familiar with Stravinsky's major works (mostly his ballets), but hadn't fully appreciated just how controversial he was in his day. He was like Cage, in a way; willing to try anything and everything out. He dabbled in neoclassicism and modernism, experimented with different methods of composition, accused his contemporaries of being "wrong," and then proceeded to change his mind. Finally, he concluded that his music should be about the music, rather than about an arbitrary narrative or agenda assigned to it. Then again, he would also go on to compose circus music for Ringling Bros., but a guy's got to eat, right?


I wonder if he and Cage ever had the opportunity to meet...


... and what Cage would have thought of Coco Chanel...

It's a Clarinet! No, it's a Saxophone! No, it's a...


It's pronounced "zah FOON." And what is it? Well, it's a bamboo sax that was invented over two decades ago over in Maui, Hawaii. A cross somewhere between a saxophone and a clarinet (though I think it looks more like its mom, myself) it's a bit like a fancy travel-sized hybrid of the two. What used to be a job for a whistle, the xaphoon can be taken anywhere and played any time the mood strikes (note: "any time" doesn't mean that there are not times that are not so appropriate -that is, musicians should use their discretion) and it sounds so much fancier than a whistle. It uses a tenor sax reed and has a chromatic range of two octaves, allowing it to have a more sophisticated sound than other simple instruments of the same size. Woha! Move over harmonica! This little guy is sure to be the instrument of choice among vagabonds, hobos, outlaws and men who get paid to lead the mice out of town.

It's now being marketed as a "Pocket Sax," in fact and I hear that many people are growing more and more fond of it. There are apparently three xaphoon-only instrumental CDs out there and Paul Simon, it's said, used the instrument prominently in his 2006 U.S. tour.

Personally, I think it's cute. And it comes in fun colors (red, green, blue, and probably pink), so what's not to love?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere



I've got two words for you: bubble organ. Yeah. Pretty awesome, right? And apart from just sounding cool, this thing is real. An arguably "musical" instrument, the bubble organ was built by Aaron Wendel as an attempt to explore the sounds of bubbling inside of tubes and how this sound could be control ed for the purposes of musical composition. Built from pieces of old furniture, wood and rain collected from the alleys and dumpsters around his apartment, Aron's bubble organ is truly a 100% recycled machine- but that's not all!

Beginning with two balloons attached to either end of a pipe that runs below the keyboard, the bubble organ is controlled by small plastic tubes that attach to this pipe, running through the keys that were created out of clothespins and Popsicle sticks. These keys pinch down on a piece of heat shrink tubing, essentially controlling the flow of each tube. The tubes running from the keys lead to a pool of water at the bottom of the box. On top of the plastic tube system inside the box rest PVC pipes covered by gutters, cut to resonate a specific pitch. When depressed, the air flow is allowed to move from the balloons through the tubes, bubbling inside the PVC pipe corresponding to the keys played.

Supercool instrument, right? Reminds me of Cage's Water Walk, where musicians blew air into water through straws to get that bubbling noise -only this bubble organ is admittedly much more elaborate. And probably more fun.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Soundworlds Conversations



I just discovered a fascinating article chronicling the efforts of two avant-garde composer/improvisors to find ways of interacting creatively with the soundscapes of remote areas of Scotland. The idea was to have the musicians improvise in response to various specific sound environments found within these areas. This is a project that no doubt would have fascinated Cage, as it combines the practice of free improvisation with a Cagean openness to "letting sounds be themselves." One of the musicians featured in the article, renowned English saxophonist John Butcher, may visit us at Thomas More next fall. Please stay tuned to this frequency for more information on upcoming Thomas More experimental music events. See John Butcher's website for more information on his work.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Music and Lyrics


I was thinking the other day about how the relationship between music and lyrics can be likened to the relationship between music and dance. Just as Cage and Cunningham held that dance and music could coexist independently of one another, so, too can music and lyrics. The separation of music and words is perhaps a bit more easy to swallow than the separation of music and dance, seeing as they're both sonic phenomena and certainly evolved independently of one another. So, this is no new and radical thought, but I got to thinking about how, as accompaniment to music, lyrics, like dance, seem to run on a spectrum with regards to their dependency on that music.

Some lyrics can stand alone and not seem to be missing anything at all. That is to say, with music they are lyrics, and without music, they become poetry or prose. Other lyrics, however, seem to be completely dependant upon musical accompaniment, sounding a bit absurd outside a musical context. These are likely the songs that one might try to sing to oneself, but find difficult because there's so much missing without the music present -or songs one sings anyway and no one else can decipher what it's actually supposed to sound like. Much like tap dance, there are lyrics that are sung with the music, outside the music, around the music, and in and out of the notes. And then, there are words that aren't sung so much for their content -unlike the aforementioned poetry- but for their own musical qualities.

It really is wonderful just how multifaceted words can be.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lost in Translation


Remember that game you probably played when you were a kid called telephone? Maybe you called it something else, but the basic premise was to sit in a circle (or square, or oblong shape, -whatever your geometric preference) and one person would begin by whispering a phrase into the ear of the person next to him. The message would be relayed in a similar manner until everyone in the group had received it and passed it on and it got back to the person who sent it. What generally occurred -and what made the game any fun at all- was that the message would have been misheard and/or paraphrased and/or misinterpreted and re summarized, so that by the time it got back to the sender, it was drastically changed from its original form. This type of message metamorphosis occurs outside of parlor games as well - we all know how stories, once told and retold and retold, tend to become fantastic caricatures of their former selves.


With the widespread conversion of music to digital form, this same phenomenon is happening to our favorite songs; that is, in going from vinyl, to CD, to itunes, some might argue that certain works have lost their integrity, or at least been changed enough from their original form for people to take notice. The process of digital compression is one factor in this change. Digital compression allows a song to go from being a very big sound file in its natural state to a very small file in your iPod — so you can carry your entire record library in your pocket. The challenge is to maintain the quality of a CD (or record), but to stuff it into a much smaller space, and here's where your calculus comes in. You start out with a very smooth sound wave to be stored in digital form. You want to reproduce a smooth curve with square blocks, which are the digital numbers (your 0s and1s). The only way you can make square blocks look like a smooth curve is by using lots and lots and lots of very, very, very small blocks so it ends up looking as if it's smooth. Using all of these blocks means lots of storage, so practically speaking, you end up using fewer, bigger blocks- which means you end up not representing that curve very smoothly at all.


Confusing, I know. Go back and read that again if you must. You'll get it. I promise.


The difference between the smooth curve and the rough edges you end up with in the digital recording, you can think of as "noise" because it's perceived as noise. It's heard as an error, something that wasn't there in the original recording. The trick is to take the noise — which is the loss of fidelity — and just make it so you can't hear it anymore. It's kind of like having a conversation in a quiet room, versus a conversation on a loud and noisy street. You're going to miss a few words as you chat by the busy intersection.


Okay, so there are technical barriers to overcome. That can be understood, but digital compression isn't the only culprit behind the change. One must also consider what has come to be called the "loudness wars." Basically, modern engineers tweak original recordings, editing so that it "jumps out" at you. This is nothing new. It actually goes all the way back to vinyl disk cutting, when one producer after another just wanted to have his 45 sound louder than the next guy's. This is still a motivation for some producers. If their record jumps out of your iPod compared with the song that preceded it, then they've accomplished their goal, and so in the process of this editing, quiet sounds become louder and louder sounds softer, and you can see where a song's integrity might be changed.


For example, the release of Metallica's album, Death Magnetic, last year caused quite a stir because it came out simultaneously to fans as a version on Guitar Hero. The Guitar Hero version apparently doesn't have all the digital domain compression that the CD has. So players of the game were able to hear what it could have been before this compression. The result was that 10,000 or more fans signed an online petition to get the band to remix the record.
I don't think that these "remastered" versions of music are necessarily bad, but they shouldn't be synonymous with the original works. There's danger in losing the originals if we accept reworked digital forms of music as simply replacements. It'd be like "improving upon" the Mona Lisa. Yes it would be restored, maybe there are even things that could have been done better the first time around that are fixed... but is it still the Mona Lisa? Is a reproduction the same as an original work? Is a forgery -even an excellent one- worth the same to you as the original? Even if DaVinci were the one to make the changes, I think there are still some who would take issue- and, as seen with the Metallica album, there are at least 10,000.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Choral Kinks


I found out the other day that, back at the end of December, Ray Davies, frontman for The Kinks, had decided to pair some of the groups most popular songs from the 60s with a full choir. Now, I know that the instuments with which a piece is played can drastically change the way the piece is recieved, and this choir thing had me a little worried. But, turns out that much of the material Davies chose for his new choral album, comes from the group's 1968 record, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which is composed of many simple songs with beautiful harmonies. All in all, it seems that the songs performed are well suited to a choral rendition... and that the New York City-based Dessoff Chamber Choir can do pretty well on little to no rehersal.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why Beethoven is Wrong


It was oft discussed in FYS and continues to be referenced in conversation, but I do not think that it was ever written in this blog what Cage meant when he said that "Beethoven was wrong." And so I thought I'd take the time to explain this statement in context and to record here what was being said when Cage uttered these fightn' words.


In the 1930s, Cage had studied with the Austro-Hungarian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had settled in Los Angeles in 1933. It was during this time that Cage discovered his lack of aptitude for harmony and after two years of study, Schoenberg also saw this. Harmony, maintained Schoenberg, is an essential for writing music, an obstacle which Cage would always encounter if he continued to compose. If it were true that Cage had no feeling for harmony, as he so claimed, then, said Schoenberg, it would "become a wall through which [he] could not pass." In response to this, Cage recalled saying, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."


In his battle against harmony, Cage was not alone, finding two allies in the French composer Erik Satie and Anton Webern, a former student of Schoenberg's. It was after studying the works of these two men, Cage came to mount his attack on Beethoven. Cage reasoned that, in the field of structure, there has been only one new idea since Beethoven and this new idea was what Cage saw in the works of Satie and Webern. Beethoven defined the parts of a composition by means of harmony (already we see why Cage would develop a sort of vendetta with the man). In contrast, Satie and Webern define the parts of a composition by use of duration, time lengths. To this divergence in compositional relation of parts to the whole, Cage pose the question, who is right? He also provided an answer:




" I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence. which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music."




One wouldn't be alone in questioning whether such a statement were simply a way for Cage to get around the issue of his personal handicap with regards to harmony, but even if this were so, Cage uses logic to back up such an antagonizing statement. As he saw it, regarding music in terms of harmony left no room for silence. If one considers that silence is the opposite of sound, it is therefore, sound's essential partner. Sound is characterised by pitch, volume, timbre and duration. Silence, however, can be characterized by duration only and cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony, but only in terms of length. And, I mean, who can argue silence's necessity to music? We even write notes for rests.


All this considered, Cage was drawn to the conclusion that of the four fundamental characteristics of the material of music, duration was most important... and that Beethoven is wrong.