[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kag1F6KEqbY[/youtube]

The music is Hildegard of Bingen’s O Jerusalem, from the early 1100s. Yes, the video shows fractals, and true, the association of psychedelic visuals with spiritual stuff is kind of silly, but in this case there is at least a passing resemblance to Hildegard’s own artworks, like:

An image from Scivias, Hildegard's description and depiction of 26 visions she had.

and

Also from Scivias

I love this piece of music, especially this performance, which is by the ensemble Sequentia.

Greetings,

More good comments and discussions last time. Thanks to all who read and post each week!

I think I’m still generally contemplating the ramifications of all things copyright this week. I just started reading The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, and just reading the first few essays, which discuss songs like Barbara Allen and The Water is Wide, I found myself wondering about how these old songs might have fared had they been written today.

These haunting, archetypical songs come from anonymous sources, not from single authors, and because of that, I think an interesting parallel can be drawn between the shared origins of these classic ballad songs and something contemporary like mashups.

Now, I’m not comparing the importance of, say, the Grey Album to a seven hundred year old song. However, the classic ballads exemplify what is artistically potent in the tranformation of personal content to shared content. Whatever you might think about mashups as a genre, a similar absorption of sources is at play. Who really knows where mashups might end up if they continue for 500 years?

Had the current copyright laws been in place in the 1500’s, that original version of a song might have been closed, insulated from the subsequent additions that transformed it from a singular bit of storytelling into a shared repository of human wisdom, dread, wonderment, and community.

So, if there is something shared and communal in the essential nature of music, and especially in songs, then would it follow that restricting the creative community’s freedom to amend, alter and interact with new ideas is in conflict with the essence of the art?

Have at it,
mz

Q: Did Music Discover Emotion? And What Does that Have to Do with Song Lyrics?
A: “God Only Knows”

 

The Problem with Song Lyrics

As a songwriter, I think of song lyrics as a specialization within creative writing. Unlike other kinds of creative writing, song lyrics can be excellent even when the writing (taken on its own) isn’t particularly good. It’s a feel you have to have, it’s a sort of creative half-writing. It’s leaving things out. It’s a kind of writing which in some ways is more like conversation than literature.

This is pretty apparent when you take a lyric out of the context of its song. On the page or read out loud, a song lyric will rarely work. The music, too, generally depends on the presence of the lyric to have its full effect.

Separated from each other, the elements of a song usually fall shy of what we consider true literature or music.

The Conundrum

Now obviously, I believe that songs are the equal of any other art form. I write them, after all. But exactly how such excellence is fashioned from such humble materials – the alchemical quality of songs – is hard to see. It is perhaps the central mystery and attraction of songwriting, and it is of perennial fascination to me.

It’s not essential to understand these things in order to do them well, and it’s surely not possible to ever fully understand them, but it can’t hurt to try; and yesterday I came across a quote that may just offer a missing piece of the puzzle. It’s from What is Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music,” by Philip Alperson, and it says:

“”emotion” can, in effect, be defined as what music articulates, much as “reality” can be best defined as that which the concepts and grammars of languages can capture.”

(italics mine)

Emotion is “That Which Music Articulates”?

The idea is that, just as the discovery of a mathematical order in music led to larger ideas about a mathematically ordered universe; it was music that enabled us to discover, perceive, understand and differentiate our emotional states. At least in the beginning, music may have functioned as a kind of emotional mirror, reflecting back to us our feelings so we could see them more clearly. In the process, it allowed us to name those feelings.

This suggests that without music, we might not know the difference between, say, fondness and love, or anger and hatred. A radical notion, to say the least, and one with something to say about songs as well.

Song Lyrics Only Point the Way

Song lyrics may be free to be understated because the words don’t actually carry the emotions that they seem to. But this is seriously counterintuitive, because we identify so strongly with the singer and the words. It seems like that’s most of what most of us hear! How could that not be the expressive part of the song?

Well, if emotion really is shaped and understood through music, then the words in a song only have to function as pointers. They seem for all the world to express emotion (of course they express some), but perhaps they only indicate the names of the emotions that the music is expressing. That may be enough (and if they did more than that, wouldn’t they then would work just as well on the page as they do in the song?).

“God Only Knows”

How does this play out in the real world? Well my favorite example for this, and a lyric I think about frequently, is by the great Brian Wilson:

I may not always love you
but long as there are stars above you
you never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it

As creative writing, this reads more like a Hallmark card than anything else; and yet it’s one of the best song lyrics I can think of. The melody, especially in the last line when he sings “SURE about it,” is so purely, fully expressive of the meaning of the words that it seems impossible to imagine how those words could be improved.

In fact, better writing, in the sense of writing that stands on its own, would probably divide the listener’s focus, and thus paradoxically actually be worse writing.

Put that in your sandbox and smoke it. And maybe listen to God Only Knows Radio while you do.

=

Mike Seeger’s Old Time Music

The music that we’re speaking of is a cultural resource that we’ve built up over thousands of years… Before we had radio and phonographs… The music from these earlier, old times endured through the generations because of its rich and varied sounds and lyrics and because it filled the needs of the people, who, after all, created it for themselves.Mike Seeger

As many of you probably know, Mike Seeger died on August 7. I’ve been listening to some of his work and thought it would be cool to have some company, so I’ve made a station called Mike Seeger’s Old Time Dream, based on our collections of Mike Seeger’s music as well as our collection of the New Lost City Ramblers, the group that he founded and played with for more than 50 years.

Mike Seeger was a key participant and leader in the “old time music” movement, and if you’re not familiar with this music, you’re on the threshold of a very cool discovery. Even if you ultimately decide you don’t particularly like it (doubtful, I bet), old time music’s acoustic instrumentation, rough performances, and old shared songs preserve a powerful way of making music (and perhaps of living).

Old time music lets us hear the sound of music as it must have been before recordings were common. Back when performances would have been more idiosyncratic, less standardized, and would have come out in the same ways of speaking and being that the people used in everyday life.

It also takes old, unattributed songs as a main part of its repertoire. These days, assuming someone wanted to write those kinds of songs, modern copyright laws might make sharing them difficult, at least in their recorded form. But songs that were shared freely in the ongoing, practical use and performance of the songs by people in their homes would live on, as the traditional repertoire has for so long.

Mike Seeger’s Old Time Dream, indeed.

There is so much to hear and ask about this music, but I’ll beg off here and let Mike Seeger do the real work. Looking forward to hearing comments, and thanks for reading and listening!

best,
mz

Some of the Best Music Expresses Nothing at All

I’ve been listening to a lot of J. S. Bach lately, as well as bits of Thomas Tallis, Josquin, and similar pre-Classical Era composers. Often as I listen to these pieces of music, I find myself thinking: this music expresses nothing.

The power of a piece like this may well be that it can’t be broken down into any kind of meaning other than the meaning that it seems to have as we hear it unfold. Perhaps that helps to explain why, even as it has no message, it still seems to express information that seems both deep and somehow true as well.

In any case, I have become addicted to the experience of listening to these pieces and searching for the meaning in them. I never find anything I can really point to, but that’s meaningful in and of itself, just like the experience, say, of looking at a tree might be. What do I make of a tree? What does it express? Everything and nothing, I suppose.

I’ve made a station for you. It’s called “Inexpressible Radio.” Take a listen and ask yourself: what is this music saying? If it says nothing, then why does it also seem to make so much sense?

6 things I bet you will notice:

1. The pieces are beautiful.
2. The pieces are extraordinary things for a person to have conceived and written.
3. The pieces are evidence that the people who lived centuries ago may not have been all that different from us.
4. The pieces that have no words (especially the solo piano pieces) are the ones that seem most abstract. They seem to be full of a kind of meaning as you are listening to them, but once they are done, there seems to be no takeaway message.
5. The choral pieces seem more expressive than the solo piano pieces do.
6. Listening to these pieces of music is a really great way to spend some time!

I hope you enjoy and find some new music, and I’ll look forward to your comments.

best,
mz

What’s in a voice?

You could make a good case that popular music is all about the voice, since for some listeners a likable or even lovable voice is all it takes to make or break a song. But, as with most things musical, what can be stated simply – “I love that voice!” – turns out to be practically unfathomable upon further reflection; and so it appears to be with the human voice.

To start, there are some purely technical dimensions to any vocal performance: things like dynamics, pitch, and rhythm. Obviously, these determine to some extent a voice’s effectiveness and power in music (though I might argue that they are really only noticed to the extent in which they are missing and thereby reduce the believability of the vocal). Be that as it may, surely we’d all agree that the various technical aspects of singing can and sometimes do provide the basis for an effective vocal performance.

But of course we all also know that there’s much more to our experience of any vocal beyond the simple technical facilities of the singer. For example, while timbre (the texture and sound of the voice) has a musical dimension, it also engenders a kind of basic, animal sense of attraction or aversion. Just as we find some people to be beautiful and others not to be, the same is true of voices. This consideration is not technical, but it is certainly a primary determinant of our reaction to a voice, right?

OK. So far so good. We’ve established that technical and timbral qualities affect our reactions to voices (no surprise there). Now we can get to the good part.

We human beings are so deeply attuned to the nuances of other human voices that a whole bunch of other information comes sneaking in along with that pleasing or grating timbre, that good pitch, or that laconic phrasing. There is something fundamental and deep that is suggested simply by the way the voice is used in the song; and this ‘ethos’ (or ‘vibe’, if you prefer) is very influential in our determination of whether we like something or not.
For example, in big, mainstream pop music, it is not always the music or even the lyrics that are at the core of a listener’s aversion. The thing that turns some people off is actually just the way the singers sing. There can be excessive grandiosity, embarrassing melodramatics around fairly commonplace emotions, earnestness, over-embellishment of the basic music (aka showing off), or just an imbalance between the content of the lyrics and they way they are expressed. Any or all of these can combine to create a smarmy kind of “largeness” to the persona that the voice projects. There can be a deep sense of self-satisfaction in some pop singers’ voices, to which many people not only can’t relate, but against which their very souls rebel. It’s a kind of singing that literally offends some people’s principles.

On the other hand, it may precisely be the lack of these kinds of grand vocal gestures that repels some listeners from the voices in other genres, like punk or metal music. The very nakedness and even ugliness of the voice might go so far as to imply a decadent or unseemly culture, a tendency to violence, anti-social behavior, nihilism, and so on.

In the plain vocals of some folk or vintage country music, or in the sophisticated vocals of some jazz pieces, there may be a great deal of meaning for older listeners, but nothing for certain young listeners to latch on to. In this case, the plainness or elegance simultaneously point to and express fully developed world-views to those who hold them, while having basically no meaning to those who don’t (obviously it is not only the vocal that communicates such things, but for those vocal-centric listeners, it might as well be).

If you ask me, every competent vocal performance expresses nothing less than a set of beliefs (part of the problem with incompetent vocals is that they can’t choose what they do or don’t want to express, but that’s another subject). Maybe understanding this dimension of the voice can help us to expand our range of beliefs, or maybe it will just make it easier to understand exactly why a piece of music hits us in a certain way.

Imagine that you are a judge at a baby beauty contest. Thousands of babies are brought out in front of you for you to inspect, and it’s up to you to decide which ones the public at large would want to see.

Every baby that you see is wonderful: full of life, full of curiosity, energy, enthusiasm and its own kind of perfect integrity and even beauty. In that sense, they are all exactly the same, equally open, curious, and ready to engage. Every one of them deserves the same chances as every other.

At the same time, though, you have to admit to yourself that some of the babies are certainly easier to look at than others (and now that you’re on the subject, some of them – bless their little hearts – just look pretty undercooked).

That’s what it’s like to make judgments about music.

 

Many interesting comments from my last post – I had no idea so many people might find the Beatles to be underwhelming, but there you have it…!

Last week I watched several of Radiohead’s recent webcast performances, and one of the covers they did was The Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual. I loved that song when I was younger, and hadn’t listened to it in quite a while; and seeing Radiohead’s cover reminded me of how much I like the song.

Then when I investigated it a bit more, I realized that not only do I still like the song a lot, but I also believe it is actually quite a good piece of recording and writing, considered from general artistic and aesthetic perspectives.

Musically, it’s an interesting song which contrasts a dissonant opening chord progression with a loping, chiming guitar and bass riff, and which overall has a kind of shimmering power. It’s a diatribe against the abusive effects of British boarding schools, with lyrics like “belligerent ghouls run manchester schools / spineless swine, cemented minds / sir leads the troops, jealous of youth / same old suit since 1962,” and images like “bruises bigger than dinner plates.”

Pretty great.

Listening to it again, I started to think about all the music I listened to when I was a kid, and how cool it is is when that music, which is so important and remains so vivid for so many years afterwards, also turns out also to be really interesting and, yes, good.

What music did you have in your formative record collection or did you hear on the radio when you were younger, which you not only loved, but which you think also turned out to be good, very good, or even great? And for bonus points, can you describe how and why you assess the music in that way?

Hello again dear readers!

You know the line in the Talking Heads‘ song Psycho Killer which goes: “When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed”? Well, while I wouldn’t push any further into identifying with such a dangerous character, it does help explain why it’s been several months since Vol. 35 of this series.

Thanks to all of you who have been requesting that we resume the discussion. I’m glad to know that you’re as interested in these posts as I am in hearing your responses. I learn a lot from what you write.

OK, down to bidness.

Ever thought about bad music? Seems to me that the way each of us evaluates musical quality is not simple at all, and yet we do it on a nearly instinctual, automatic level. After all, it only takes a few seconds of hearing a piece of music for us to adjust our expectations about what’s to come later on.

Now I’m not talking about whether we like a certain style or genre here, I’m talking about that something that we each intuit about whether the music was made competently or not, or if it somehow fails as music (what a mysterious thing that is: a piece of music is both music, and it’s not).

I’m looking to hear your experiences and thoughts about that, such as: what kinds of musical incompetence matter to you, and what kinds don’t? Which flaws enhance the music you like and which ones detract? Is it possible for music to be too perfect and therefore ineffective for you? Et cetera and on and on…

Looking forward to reading your replies,

Cheers,
mz

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of learning of an important, definitive artist or record, then listening to the music and either not liking it, or not understanding what all the fuss is about.

What I’m curious about this week is how you listeners would describe or explain that experience.

Can you name some music that you both know is good but also that you just don’t like? Can you describe how you know it’s good? How can you hear the “good-ness” of the music, even though you don’t like it?

I always think of this when I hear people say they don’t like a certain genre of music, because almost every genre must have some artists that are good, right? Separating my personal taste from evaluations of the quality of music is a great challenge, but it can have great rewards. I’m very curious to hear how you all think of it!

Have you heard that sales of vinyl records are way up these days, and that last week Elvis Costello announced plans to release his upcoming record on vinyl only, with a coupon for a free download of the release with purchase?

No this isn’t going to be another post about how deeelicious vinyl is. But these trends seem to be related to something I’ve been hearing and thinking a lot about lately, which is the effort to reinstate a “rich experience” for music listeners.

In terms of vinyl’s resurgence, people say that vinyl record has gravitas and its own odd beauty, and it requires an attentiveness that confers a specialness to the music and to the act of listening; and beyond vinyl’s popularity, many artists and labels are seeking ways to offer real rich experiences to their fans.

They do this in many ways, like sharing more video from tours and backstage or by asking fans to help them create artwork for album covers or videos. What these things seem to have in common is that they are attempts to establish deeper connections to the band or artist’s community.

Given all that, I’m wondering some things: does a rich experience matter to you, either in terms of enjoying vinyl or CD album art or videos, or in terms of finding a way to interact with a band you like in some new way? Do you seek out or remember those kinds of experiences? Have any unusual opportunities to meet or interact with your favorite artists or music really added to your experience of the music, or otherwise been cool?

And I’m especially curious to know the following: if you could ask your favorite artists or bands for your ideal rich experience of their music, what would it be?

Tent_camp.jpgPhilip Alperson, in the introduction to “The Philosophy of Music,” describes “the four broad areas of music which were to become standard areas of inquiry in Western thought” about music. They are:

Formalist, which is “concerned with the qualities of musical form itself.”

Expressive, which is focused on “the connection between music and human emotion.”

Metaphysical, concerned with the “ontological, cosmological and religious significance of music.”

Ethical, concerned with “the effects and role of music within society.”

I read and hear lots of you talking about how the music feels, how it makes you feel, and things like that, so I bet that the expressive camp would be well-populated. And the idea of an ethical perspective on music might help clarify that muddy thing that so many people seem to be concerned with when they talk about how vapid and empty some music seems to be.

Maybe the formalist camp would be reserved for the most esoteric and avant-garde among us; and the metaphysical might be populated by new age listeners and certain composers.

Of course, we’d wander between camps. We might be in two or three at once, even.

Even so, do you think you can place yourself in one or more of these groups? What are your concerns when you listen to music? If you have no concerns, does that automatically mean you are an “expressive” listener? Are there any things that are missing from this list?

[Music] exists as and for appearance. There is no actuality underlying it… Musical coherence is abstracted from actuality, not based upon it… [Music’s] appearance and its actuality are one and the same.

Geoffrey Payzant, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind

ghost song.jpgClearly, it’s possible to create believable, effective, amazing recorded works independent of the quality of the music on which the recording is based. Even when a recording’s musical content is lackluster or unremarkable, vibrant elements (a great vocal performance, a hook, or clever stylistic choices, etc) can work to make the recording itself into a potent creation, such that the so-called “deeper” content doesn’t matter.

This seems obvious enough. Is anyone really going to be troubled by the suggestion that the sounds within a recording are of comparable importance to the so-called content (i.e.,the musical ideas, words, melody) that we ordinarily perceive to underlie it? I doubt it.

Now, some critics might say that this sort of music makes silk purses from sows’ ears, and common sense would probably agree. Anyone who has ever noticed a vapid lyric or a tired chord progression underpinning a beloved popular song has had that view, if only for a minute. Silk purses from sows’ ears.

But when we look more closely at a recording, we get into some trouble, because (to state the obvious) the true contents of a recording consist only of the actual recorded sounds themselves, and nothing more. The recorded sounds are not just of comparable importance, they are all there is.
Music is, as Payzant says, “entirely phenomenal… [it] actually appears, and its appearance is the kind of actuality is has.” In other words, that “coherence” that we recognize as a song is something that we abstract from the actual music.

This is both obviously true, and also more than a little unsettling, since most of what I hear when I listen to music, and most of what I am seeking when I listen, has to do with the sense of a song that is behind the one I can hear. I am hearing content that is implied by the recordings contents; or, to use Payzant’s terminology, I am interested in what I can abstract from the sounds I am hearing.

It is usually the excellence of those perceived deeper implications, and the quality of the communication transmitted through the music from another human soul who somehow found and adapted their experience into art, that matters to me, much more, apparently, than what I am actually hearing.

floyd.gifThe Red Hot Peppers records are the prototype for a school of phonography that includes Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Zappa, Miles Davis and The Beatles – master builders who would mean much less to us if their work had been done only on paper. Evan Eisenberg – The Recording Angel

(As per my last two posts, I recently read The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg’s book on the significance and influence of recording, recorded music, and recordings as things. This week’s post continues to explore the ideas from that excellent book, specifically the idea that records are examples of an art form best described as “phonography,” or the art of making recordings.)

I don’t know about you, but I have for many years used the word “song” to refer both to the composition and the recording of the composition. I’m sure we all do this, like for example when we’re driving with friends and a long-forgotten record comes on the car radio, prompting someone to say “this song is so incredible,” or “I love this song.”

We use the word “song” as shorthand to describe something that encompasses both the song and the recording, and while it’s sometimes true that the song we’re hearing in that car is in fact a great song, I am certain that there are also many times when it would be more accurate (if a little bit tedious :)), to say “this record is incredible,” or “this is a great recording.”
I’m thinking for example of some old hit song that might be kind of silly, dated or just somehow dubious as a musical or lyrical piece of writing, but which still carries real power, impact, and maybe even deep truth. That truth may be coming from the recording, not the actual song as written, and the piece may well be deriving most of its identity and power from some artistry, achievement or serendipity in a recording studio.

Looked at from a certain angle, these records are no less good because they are good as recordings, they are simply good in a different way (one might argue that a great recording that also carries cliched words and/or music is a bit of cultural pollution, but that’s another subject…).

As it is, if we adopt this viewpoint, then we have to admit that our experience of recordings far outpaces our experience of songs, in the sense that we mostly hear the songs as recordings (and if we go to see a performer in person, we are then experiencing another form of mediation: the performance). The song then is possibly an abstraction: an ephemeral lead/lyric sheet delineating the words, melody, and harmony, without locking it into any one iteration.

Personally, this resonates with me. I like the way this notion disengages the contents of the song (the words, harmony, melody, etc) from any particular version of them, and therefore allows for two simultaneous dimensions to coexist: the song and the record.

I also like considering the resulting [slim] possibility that none of us has ever really heard a song in its purest form….

cheers,
mz

record_collection.jpgLast week I described my experience seeking out and listening to a fantastic Brahms intermezzo. After listening to the piece many times at work, I ended up scouring the web to find a copy to have for myself, and now a vinyl copy of the recording is wending its way from somewhere in the UK to my house in Oakland.

Why did I do that?

In The Recording Angel (the book that started me off on this quest in the first place), Evan Eisenberg posits a “tentative list” of reasons why people collect things. Quoting the first line of each of his reasons, they are:

1. The need to make beauty and pleasure permanent.
2. The need to comprehend beauty.
3. The need to distinguish oneself as a consumer.
4. The need to belong.
5. The need to impress others, or oneself.

I’m sure I can find myself in every category on that list in some purchase or another. In this case, I’d say my motivation is largely related to the first and second items on the list, in that I want to hear the music whenever I want, and I want to absorb whatever threads of insight and vision it might have to offer.

There’s also something else happening for me personally, which is that I want to hear the music in full audio, and I want to hear it in a good listening environment.

Eisenberg (mostly) wasn’t confronted with this when he wrote The Recording Angel, but the typical digital music file not only usually contains about 1/10th of the audio’s full information, but it is also often competing with the considerable visual distraction of the computer monitor, and the considerable temptation to do something else (i.e., check email) while listening (for the curious, we have discussed the digital music listening environment a bit in an earlier post).

With all this in mind, I’ve got a whole gang of music-collecting questions for you this week:

1. What motivates you to buy music as opposed to just listening to it when you happen to come across it?
2. Do you feel that the digital and physical music you buy are of equal value?
3. Do you feel that it is possible to collect digital music in the same way that you can collect CDs or vinyl records?
4. (Extra-credit) Is the intangible nature of a computer file something between traditional radio and traditional records?
5. (Ultra-double-extra-credit) Is there something about music’s new intangibility (aka digital files) that might allow it to be more essentially itself, by returning to the intangible nature music had before recordings were invented?

All ears,
mz

brahms1.jpgI’ve been listening to Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in Eb Major off and on for the last week or so, after being led to it by something I read in Evan Eisenberg’s excellent book entitled The Recording Angel (Eisenberg refers to Brahms as “the great consoler”).

My interest was piqued by that phrase, although as I sought out some Brahms, I wasn’t feeling any strong, immediate need or desire for comfort. In listening, however, and in hearing the aforementioned intermezzo in particular, I was influenced, somehow. I felt the emergence of a melancholy feeling, which was then addressed and assuaged by the music. I was in fact comforted.

The mystery of how this kind of thing happens has been pondered and expressed by so many smart and articulate folks that I think I had better keep my ears open and my mouth shut on the issue, at least for a while. In the meantime, I wonder if any of you out there have thoughts about this particular conundrum:

Does music create the feelings you have while you listen, or does it lure them out of you?

Can music impose a feeling upon you that you don’t really have? Can it introduce you to a feeling that you’ve never had (if there is such a thing)?

Considering the fairly extraordinary fact that in the span of five minutes you can 1. learn of a piece’s existence, 2. search it out, 3. listen to it, and 4. thereafter find yourself listening to that piece and only that piece for days afterward; how is it that certain pieces of music are so seductive and/or addictive?

yours,
mz