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.