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.