IMG_6653My most recent post is from November 2013, and it says “I’ll be doing this tomorrow,” which now makes no sense. Maybe it’s partly because of the sour taste that event back in November left in my mouth, or maybe it’s something else, but I haven’t felt any desire to post anything. It’s not that nothing is happening; I think I’ve just been enjoying keeping to myself lately.

Scott Pinkmountain and I had a conversation about ambiguity in which I artlessly referred to Lorde’s song Cities, among other things. It’s a hard subject, and plus I’ve talked so much about ambiguity in the past, mostly with friends like Scott or in other places, that my ideas seem pretty stale to me, but in case you’re intrigued (and if you want to read Scott’s really insightful comments), check it out here. It’s part of Scott’s “Surviving the Arts” blog on Pank. Scott is great, he’s doing so much cool stuff, look him up and check out his music and writings.

As for the event last November, I played some Pink Thunder songs at a TEDx event near Boston. I specifically decided not to give a TED talk. I don’t think anyone who speaks for himself as an artist can take on that whole breathless, technological-utopian TED talk thing. We have our own voices, and that’s how it should be. I played the songs and said a few words, like it was an annotated concert, rather than a talk with a few songs in it. The whole time I was performing, I felt like I was a mile away from the audience and the lights and cameras and the big timer ticking down etc. I stood on one of those red TED carpets.

IMG_6656I think they were expecting me to talk about digital music and technology, two subjects about which I can go on at length, but almost entirely in a negative direction, which, again, doesn’t really scream TED. I actually want to say some things about music, the internet, etc at some point (not right now – see above), but why go there to scold people? I stood there for new possibilities for songs. I’m happy with that. It felt bad but probably wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. I got two comments after I played, both of which were essentially of the “I don’t get it” variety. There is a video of the performance (you can look it up if you really want to, but I’m not sending anyone to it), and the only comment there (as of a few weeks ago) is “I don’t get it.” I think, all things considered, I can consider that a good thing.

I’m finishing a new composition for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It’s called “Fits,” and after spending most of the past 9 months or so on it, I feel like I want to make it much simpler, which I can’t really do without totally changing its nature. I have a week coming up where I can totally focus on it and try to make all the parts as playable as possible. It feels like a luxury. It will be performed in May.

I’m also starting to think again about the record of new songs (technically) that I started back in 2011, or was it 1011? That’s going to happen this summer.

IMG_6737My studio partner Jon from Exray’s and I just moved to a new rehearsal/recording space, and I softened up the concrete walls in the back with this —>

It was a fun thing to be obsessed with for a minute.

Nate and Merrill aka tUnE-yArDs have the space next door to us and I’m sure everyone knows to be on the lookout for their new record Nikki Nack on May 5th. It’s nice when great musicians are also great people.

There, I posted. Play on, players. I’ll be back.

Some photos from my too-short stroll through this famous cemetery in Paris.

As I was walking there, it occurred to me to wonder whether Francis Poulenc might be buried there. He is, and his memorial was my first stop. The composer of some of the best melodies ever, including Le Bestiaire and Tel Jour Tel Nuit, gets first billing for me.

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I stopped by to see Bellini, whose memorial was steps away, and made a commitment to investigate his music more thoroughly.

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Went up the hill a bit to see Chopin’s grave. When I visited Kafka’s grave in Prague I left him a pen; I left Chopin a small piece of blank staff paper (if you click on the photo, you can see it rolled up in the fence there on the right).

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On Saturday I spent a few hours playing photographer. I wanted to make a light box to take some photos of the Pink Thunder portmanteaus, so I followed the directions on this blog post at Strobist to make one out of cardboard, tissue paper and posterboard.

It worked out pretty well. The photos still need to be edited, but if you’re curious, click on the photo below to take a look:

Thanks Strobist!
mz

Connie ConverseConnie Converse.

Her song Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains) has a fresh melody on the words “don’t see why they call it lonesome…” It’s chromatic and dissonant, leaping up (to a note referred to as the key’s tritone), then drifting back down by half-steps into more well-worn paths. Very unusual. It has a delicious kind of pungent flavor. Plus the song has the line “…up in the tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing…”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3IfRX3NwbA[/youtube]

This is kind of like Vashti Bunyan’s story, except instead of being discovered and re-emerging to great acclaim like Vashti Bunyan, Connie Converse is still little-known, and still gone. She packed up her VW bug at the age of fifty, wrote some goodbye notes, and disappeared.

You can listen to the whole recording, and buy it if you are so inclined, here:

Connie Converse – How Sad, How Lonely

 

This is from 2009. A lovely, long interview with Leonard Cohen in his house in Montreal. The whole thing is really good, and the very end is pretty great. After the official interview ends, Jian Ghomeshi confesses that he has an incredible fear of death. Leonard says that if the preliminaries aren’t too unpleasant, he looks forward to it.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugh8Xe6hX7U[/youtube]

Recent musical discoveries and things

Lately I’ve been listening to three records:

Orchestre “Kanaga” de Mopti

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxOkAj_ZViA&feature=related[/youtube]

An album by Rokia Traore:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBr2XxNE3V8&feature=related[/youtube]

and I found a box with every melodie composed by Francis Poulenc!

Here’s a performance of his song cycle Le Bestiaire, from poems by Apollinaire. The Carp is my favorite. So beautiful. It starts at 3:30:

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

poisson de la melancolie!

I am just discovering Hector Zazou. He did some recordings combining poetry and music which is why someone told me about him.

I lived in Nepal for a year, and this video really makes me miss it (even though Mumbai is pretty far from Kathmandu). The fact that the footage from Mumbai is interspersed with footage from the recording studio makes it even better, since the recording studio, with its long hours and all-consuming process, is a lot like its own country, too.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=offpTz–vY8[/youtube]

 

 

I’m grateful that I make music. Even after many years, I still love it more than anything that isn’t certain people.

I’m very lucky, and I should be more thankful. Thanks for listening to music, mine or anyone else’s!

It’s a bit of a fuzzy recording, but here’s Julius Katchen playing Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 in Eb Major. It’s a good antidote to whatever ails you.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQGCSNUCu2U[/youtube]

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

[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?