Sunday, September 25, 2011

Music Smoothie

The musical tradition of a people and place serves as a sort of identity for many. They hear it and can say, there, that's me, that's my family. Nowhere is this most evident than in populations straddling cultures. There's no shortage of that in America, even today. First, second, even third generation immigrants to the USA bring with them or have grown up saturated in a musical tradition that identifies their heritage. And as they come into this new place, they have to decide what they pass on to their children, what they will embrace and adopt of their new home. And "home" is a loaded word. Do I belong here, or is my real home back there? And does embracing this new place make me a traitor? Should I worry about losing my roots?
This is illustraded quite clearly in the music of American Latinos. Mambo. Salsa. Tango. Hip Hop. Rock. It's all there and hybrids erupt regularly. The fusion of styles is a wonderful indication of how two cultures have been reconciled by these people. How they can at once embrace their new home while celebrating their heritage. Latin hip-hop, combining familiar Carribean beats with a hip-hop language makes one wonder why the two weren't put together before. Latin Rock is a relatively new phenomenon on the scene that is coming to prominance with the advent of Latin Rock Stars in America and elsewhere. It's also served as inspiration for the new musical In the Heights, which incorperates all these rich and complex musical styles into a story that explores this very topic (it was also winner of 4 Tony Awards, including best musical of 2008).
Latin rock star "Juanes" is just one musician that has married LAtin and American Rock traditions and is bringing them into the spotlight. Influenced by the music of Metalica, Iron Maiden, and Led Zepplin, Juan Estiban Aritizabal received his first electric guitar at the age of 13 and at 15, began playing in a heavy metal. Signed to a record label and releasing 4 albums over ten years, the group finally broke up. Juan, changing his name to Juanes, moved to Los Angeles and began exploring a unique and personal music style that would blend his heritage with the rock music he loved. He composed tunes that blended rock/pop with Colombian folk rhythms. His lyrics spaned a wide variety of topics, but he resoled to only sing in Spanish.
He was an instant hit in Columbia, and after several years, had established himself as a significant player on the international pop music scene. Called by some "the most successful and influential Latin music ambassador ever," the Los Angeles Times named Juanes "the single most important figure of the past decade in Latin pop music."

"I sing in Spanish, but I play guitar in English," says Juanes. And it's helped him to reconcile the tough subjects of music, love, family and country.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Science and Free Jazz

The World Question Center and Jazz
An intriguing reply to the World Question Center question of the year, which is "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

Andran Kreye
Editor, The Feuilleton (Arts and Essays), of the German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich

Free Jazz
It's always worth to take a few cues from mid-20th-century avant-garde. So when it comes to improving your cognitive toolkit Free Jazz is perfect. It is a highly evolved new take on an art that has (at least in the West) been framed by a strict set of twelve notes played in accurate factions of bars. It is also the pinnacle of a genre that had begun with the Blues just a half century before Ornette Coleman assembled his infamous double quartet in the A&R Studio in New York City one December day in 1960. In science terms that would mean an evolutionary leap from elementary school math to game theory and fuzzy logic in a mere fifty years.
If you really want to appreciate the mental prowess of Free Jazz players and composers you should start just one step behind. A half a year before Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz session let loose the improvisational genius of eight of the best musicians of their times, John Coltrane recorded what is still considered the most sophisticated Jazz solo ever — his tour de force through the rapid chord progressions of his composition "Giant Steps".
The film student Daniel Cohen has recently animated the notation for Coltrane's solo in a YouTube video. You don't have to be able to read music to grasp the intellectual firepower of Coltrane. After the deceivingly simple main theme the notes start to race up and down the five lines of the stave in dizzying speeds and patterns. If you also take into consideration that Coltrane used to record unrehearsed music to keep it fresh, you know that he was endowed with a cognitive toolkit way beyond normal.
Now take these almost 4:43 minutes, multiply Coltrane's firepower by eight, stretch it into 37 minutes and deduct all traditional musical structures like chord progressions or time. The session that gave the genre it's name in the first place foreshadowed not just the radical freedom the album's title implied. It was a precursor to a form of communication that has left linear conventions and entered the realm of multiple parallel interactions.
It is admittedly still hard to listen to the album "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet". It is equally taxing to listen to recordings of Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton or Gunter Hampel. It has always been easier to understand the communication processes of this music in a live setting. One thing is a given — it is never anarchy, never was meant to be.
If you're able to play music and you manage to get yourself invited to a Free Jazz session, there is an incredible moment, when all musicians find what is considered "The Pulse". It is a collective climax of creativity and communication that can leap to the audience and create an electrifying experience. It's hard to describe, but might be comparable to the moment when a surfer finds the point when the catalyst of a surfboard bring together the motor skills of his body and the forces of the swell of an ocean start in these few seconds of synergy on top of a wave. It is a fusion of musical elements though that defies common musical theory.
Of course there is a lot of Free Jazz that merely confirms prejudice. Or as the vibraphonist and composer Gunter Hampel phrased it: "At one point it was just about being the loudest on stage." But all the musicians mentioned above have found new forms and structures, Ornette Coleman's music theory called Harmolodics being just one of them. In the perceived cacophony of their music there is a multilayered clarity to discover that can serve as a model for a cognitive toolkit for the 21st century. The ability to find cognitive, intellectual and communication skills that work in parallel contexts rather than linear forms will be crucial. Just as Free Jazz abandoned harmonic structures to find new forms in polyrhythmic settings, one might just have to enable himself to work beyond proven cognitive patterns.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The All Sound

I've been reading quite a bit lately on Einstein's contributions to physics with his theories of general and special relativity. Naturally, such readings have led me to further readings on string theory and it's general concepts. And so I wish to comment on some of the implications that string theory has to Cage's "All Sound" music.

String theory operates upon them premise that all matter and energy (for Einstein tells us these things are synonymous) is composed of strings and these strings are vibrating. think of it like the strings on an instrument, say a cello string that has been tuned by stretching the string under tension. Depending on how the string is plucked and how much tension is in the string, different musical notes will be created by the string. These musical notes could be said to be "excitation modes" of the cello strings.

In a similar manner, in string theory, the elementary particles we observe in particle accelerators could be thought of as the "musical notes" or excitation modes of these itty-bitty elementary strings. As in cello playing, a string must be stretched under tension in order to become excited. The strings in string theory are floating in spacetime, they aren't tied down to an instrument, but they do have tension.

Without becoming too bogged down in the theory, one can simply say string theory holds that everything is composed of these vibrating strings of energy. In Cage-speak, that is to say that the universe is composed of music, a grand cosmic symphony, if you will.

And so, as Cage implied, who are we to claim that this "sound of the universe" is not music? And how can you argue? He's got math and physics backing him.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Buffoon Bassoon No More!

Who knows what a bassoon looks like? Okay, okay. Now, who can tell me the last time they heard a bassoon played outside an orchestra? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Despite being super-hard to play and pretty cool looking (8 feet of wooden tubing all coiled up on itself is pretty neat, in my opinion... or maybe that's just me) the bassoon has been the proverbial clown of the orchestra for literally hundreds of years. How'd that happen, you ask? Well given that it was so hard to tune (especially in ye olde days) and that it was very difficult to master, composers didn't write solos for it early on. Then the likes of Hyden, Grieg and Beethoven began to characterize the sound of the instrument as comical, featuring it as the "baffoon" of the piece, the indication that something had gone comically awry. This precedent was quickly adopted and has hung on for ages. Think Mickey Mouse dancing with broomsticks in Fantasia. Yeah, that's the bumbling role that the bassoon has been playing for forever.

Well, tired of having their instrument typecast, players of the bassoon have decided to fight back and to rebel against the stereotype of the bassoon as solely comic relief. Ever heard a bassoon play jazz? Country? Pop? Rock? No, you haven't... until now.

Mark Eubanks, teacher of bassoon at Lewis & Clark College, jams in a group called the Bassoon Brothers. Based in Oregon, the group has released three albums with some less traditional bassoon songs — including Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," featuring a bassoon with a pickup and an amp. And yes, it's as cool as the idea sounds.

Ben Wendel is another musician giving the bassoon a makeover. He also plays the saxophone, but lately he's been jazzing it up on the bassoon. He says the instruments limitations make improvisation that much more interesting.

And last year, a quartet of classically trained bassoonists, who call themselves The Breaking Winds (not helping the bassoon's reputation with a name like that, in my opinion), donned wigs and outrageous costumes to perform a Lady Gaga tribute — the video of which quickly went viral on YouTube.

These musicians aren't in any way trying to change the sound of the instrument, as each of their ventures appear to use the bassoon to its full potential, to revel in its "bassoon-ness." Yet they are making it very clear that the "double-reeded bedpost" is much more versitile than it has been given credit for.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Courtesy of composer Pauline Oliveros

This was shared on Google+ by the composer Pauline Oliveros (Deep Listening Institute). I am certain Cage would have approved.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Symbolism and Music

John Cage was not a fan of symbolism - at least if you believe what he said in the album Indeterminacy. He preferred to take things as they were rather than pretend they stood for something else. But, there's a distinction to be made between what is symbolism and a strange way of looking at something. Symbolism is putting a dog in a painting and saying it represents fidelity. There is an alternative, which is drawing a faithful dog.

The same thing can happen in music. You can compose a sheet of music that symbolizes a bird - you can make a C represent a the coo of a dove - or, you can just say that you composed a dove singing and it happens to be the note C. The difference probably lies in your intention; one is forcing an entity to take on the role of something else, the other is recognizing that in an entity exists this other thing. One is the idea of creation, the other is the idea of recognition. You can say that you were able to recreate some entity in another format, or you can say that you found this same sound here that you found over there. You can take credit for the action, or you can give credit to the sound. Or you can not worry about things like this. None of these options are better than the others.

The idea of hearing a dove singing the note C is recognizing an inter-connectedness between these things. The note C is never going to be a Dove, but you can realize that there is an intimate relationship between those two things. You can realize that with everything though.

One last note about this recognition thing: Capt. Beefheart did the something very similar when he produced the lyrics - "Fast and Bulbous - That's right, the Mascara Snake - Fast and Bulbous also tapered". This is not a symbol of a woman crying with her mascara streaking, it is a woman crying with mascara streaking. Capt. Beefheart happens to see those words are those things. Those words aren't representing that woman's face, they are that woman's face.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Do not concern youself with Music

Music is a game of looking at dead people. One looks at dead people and points out how they were influenced by other dead people and how they all built upon each other contributing to some grand ideal, which is Music. Then live people, people who are making sounds and trying to figure out Music, they are criticized and scrutinized without end and never receive the vindication of being called Music until they are dead people. The only way to win at being Music while still alive is to never try to make Music. And in those cases, it's probably not what you were going for anyways. It's really ironic that the more genuine an artist is, the more their work will be claimed for some other thing. And it's not that this is inherently a bad thing, but it must be frustrating at times to be Georgia O'Keefe.

And this isn't to deny tradition. Those things are culture and will lead to their own variants. Tradition is a better word for what I like about Music. Tradition, in whatever manifestation it has, will lead to expression of culture which is a powerful thing. Tradition is the development of a culture as interpreted by the participants in that culture. Music, as I have been taught it, is the preservation of dead culture at the expense of contemporary culture. This is where my cynicism comes from, and perhaps it is unfair. But, whenever I hear somebody decry some sound as not being Music I want less and less to participate in Music. They can have their special thing called Music, I will concern myself with that which makes up Music.

And this isn't to say that music is bad, just Music.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

World Listening Day is July 18th

Monday is the birthday of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, a founding figure in the discipline of sound ecology. In honor of Schafer, numerous organizations and individuals with an interest in sound ecology are observing World Listening Day by organizing soundwalks and other activities designed to heighten awareness of the audible world. Here is a randomly generated quote from Schafer's classic work The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, in which Schafer responds to Bishop Berkeley's familiar question about the sound of trees falling in forests:

"... as a matter of fact, when a tree crashes in a forest and knows that it is alone, it sounds like anything it wishes-- a hurricane, a cuckoo, a wolf, the voice of Immanuel Kant or Charles Kingsley, the overture to Don Giovanni or a Maori nose-flute. Anything it wishes, from past or distant future. It is even free to produce those secret sounds which man will never hear because they belong to other worlds..."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

If a tree falls in the woods...

I've been thinking a lot lately about music in outer space. That is, what it means to be sound, to have sound in a vacuum. When such is the case, it makes music, sound, this thing that we've objectified into not some thing, but necessitates that it be only recognizable as a phenomenon that does or does not happen. What we can hear as a distinct sound on Earth, is actually a series of waves, a vibration initiating from a single source of impact. These waves need a medium to travel through, such as water or solid or, as is normally the case, air. Without a medium, this phenomenon cannot take place and the sound, as we recognize it, does not exist. Thus, sound cannot be a thing so much as it is an occurrence.

And so the experience of sound and music in space is a unique one, one that bears that age-old and cliched question: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or rather, in our case, if an impact occurs but there is no medium to transfer the vibration, is a sound made? Does sound happen? And when can it be said that a full-fledged sound has actually happened? How far must the vibrations travel? And must they make it all the way to the human ear drum, or is traveling a little way, but stopping short of the ear drum sufficient? That is to say, must a sound be received and interpreted in order to have occurred?

Such questions also bring into question other oft-objectified phenomena, like color. Being the reflection and absorption of different wavelengths of light, color cannot, then, exist if there is no light. Light cannot be interpreted if not received, and so if color isn't received, can it exist? And what of the colorblind, of organisms capable of "seeing" and thus interpreting different wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye?

Does sound exist?

Does color exist?

And if sound doesn't exist, what does that mean for music?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Music of Alaska and the Whole Earth

"Art embraces beauty. But beauty is not the object of art, it's merely a by-product. The object of art is truth. That which is true is that which is whole. In a time when human consciousness has become dangerously fragmented, art helps us recover wholeness. In a world devoted to material wealth, art connects us to the qualitative and the immaterial. In a world addicted to consumption and power, art celebrates emptiness and surrender. In a world accelerating to greater and greater speed, art reminds us of the timeless." -- John Luther Adams

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jimmy Giuffre on "Free Fall"

From Jimmy Giuffre's liner notes for his 1962 album of "three-sided music", Free Fall:

"... Given: the urge to enter new realms, glimpse other dimensions, reach the absolute. Given: the visions from thinking on such things as... gravity, Monk, electricity, time, space, the microcosmos, leaves, chemistry, power, Gods, white-hot heat, asteroids, love, eternity, Einstein, Rollins, Evans, the heartbeat, pain, Delius, Scherchen, Art, overtones, the prehistoric, La Violette, wife, life, voids, Berg, Bird, the universe...

...We come to NOW and this album. YGGDRASILL!!!

Is this what Kant meant when he said "seek always to expand rather than to narrow your horizons"?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pi Day!

Happy pi day! That is, today is March 14th, or 3/14. In celebration of the well-known irrational number, musician Michael John Blake decided to compose a musical interpretation of the figure. First, he composed the piece in C, and then assigned each not a number, beginning with C as #1, D as #2 and so forth. In the end, the composition plays through the sequence up to 31 decimal places. (3.14159... you get the picture). Numbers have been assigned to chords as well and he also claims to have used pi as inspiration for the tempo, which is at 157bpm, or half of 314.

I hear he's put a video of his performance up on Utube, if you care to see it. Several instruments are involved.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Residents: ego without an identity

Since the 70s, a group of west coast (maybe?) sound artists have been releasing albums and multimedia works under the groups name The Residents. Over sixty albums, more than a couple of music videos and short films, three CD-ROM projects, ten DVDs, seven major world tours later, their audience still doesn't know who they are. And so I find myself asking, what would Cage think of this. Their work aside, -which is admirable in its own right- this ego they've created via the mystery of their identities combined with elaborate costuming and self-promotion most surely goes up there with the egos of Beethoven and Bach... but is it really ego if they refuse to tell you who they are?

By keeping their identities out of their work, they inhibit the listener to place upon their art an identity to which it is attached, and any association with figures or persons is imposed by the listener, unvalidated by the creators themselves. They create an odd parody of the cult of personality promoted and utilized by so many musical groups, while at the same time freeing the listener/viewer to observe the piece on its own merit, without having to separate the experience of the art from its creators -an easier thing to do when you don't have a clue who they are.

Fun to think about. Interesting. Anonymity allows for the art to stand on its own merits, without being propped up by its artist. I like that. Reminds me of the "dance without music" idea.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dialogue Revisited

The concept of a musical dialogue has been visited on this blog before, but today, I'd like to consider specifically the dialogue that takes place in free jazz music.

As compared to improvisational jazz in general, free jazz tends to not emphasize so much the give and take of play between musicians. Whereas the saxophonist and the bass may respond and contribute to each other's playing, free jazz lets them do their own thing... but what does this mean in terms of the musical dialogue? Is there one?

I can think of at last three ways to view this. The musicians can be playing their respective instruments, without regard to what anyone else is doing, and this can be seen the same way one might regard a group of people each talking out of turn, not listening to what the other is saying, but instead talking over everyone else. This can be interesting, if somewhat confrontational-seeming in nature.

A second way of looking at free jazz like this would be the way John Cage and Merce Cunningham intended their collaborative efforts to be seen: As mimicking real life. That is to say, just as interesting sounds and sights can be encountered in the everyday world, and just as these things can occur simultaneously and independently of one another, so too can a performance exhibit to equally interesting, yet unrelated happenings, without their being in conflict, necessarily.

Yet another way this free-jazz performance could be viewed is as the activity of individuals who are so comfortable with each other that they feel no need to hold a formal dialogue, instead pursuing their own musical realizations while in the company of one another. It's much the same way that two best friends can hang out together and feel no compulsion to converse, or even participate in the same activity. Rather, the comfort level achieved by the individuals is such that they can enjoy each other's company in silence, doing separate things together. Even this creates a sense of community, communicates the solace of being in the company of another.

Regardless of which approach is taken -and given the individuals participating, I might say that all are possible and each is as likely as the other- even free jazz creates a sort of "dialogue". Whether this means they're shouting over one another, speaking as if the others weren't there, or saying whatever they want because the others are there, the final product is a forum into which voices contribute.

I also like the idea that the audience can influence the actions of the musicians, and I wonder to what extent the audience is able to play a role in free jazz. I would expect that their influence varies, much the same way the musicians allow themselves to be influenced by each other and respond accordingly.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Braille the Musician

This January was the 202nd birthday of Louis Braille, the well known creator of the Braille alphabet and writing system. But what I recently discovered -and maybe I'm the only one in the dark, but maybe you also didn't know- was that Braille' s system was not originally confined to written language. Rather, when he initially designed it, Braille intended for the system to be used to write music as well (which, when you think about it, really makes sense, because a blind person can't read sheet music). A musician himself (he played piano and organ), Braille became acquainted with many blind people who liked to play music -surprise, surprise- when he started his famous school. When he designed his alphabet system, it was only natural that he would also create a musical system to go along with it (which raises the question of whether a person reading his written music could play a two-handed instrument...).

With technological advancements, Braille's musical system has become less and less needed, and fewer and fewer people actually use it anymore, but in 1829, he published his book entitled Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Song by Means of Dots, for use by the Blind and arranged by Them. Words, music and plain song all with just 6 dots. The above picture is the braille translation of three quarter notes.