Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sunday Glass

I hope you'll take some time, if you'd like, to check out these videos of me and my friend Rachel Gallegos (who also just won the Jackie McGehee Concerto Competition with the first movement of the Mozart 5 and got to play with the New Mexico Philharmonic) playing the first two movements of Philip Glass's Sonata for Violin & Piano. We performed it at Sunday Chatter (formerly known as Church of Beethoven), which, if you have read this blog before, probably know is the place where I volunteer and is very, very important to me.





I think we did quite well, and wore some cool dresses. The piece has many Glassy moments and qualities, but it is also much more romantic and varying, especially in the second movement. 

With love, 
Elena

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Pärt of Something Else

     New England in the flesh, and the idea of "New England" with all that it implies, has always been something that lived only in my mind while growing up in a southwestern desert. It has primarily lived in history books, revealing itself through tales of the Revolution or passages of Walden. As of today, though, it became less foreign. I'm visiting colleges, the classic junior-year-spring-break activity, but I'm learning not only about possible venues of higher education, but about the birthplace of many of my favorite subjects in American culture, which sounds much more epic and monolith-like than it did initially. That is, until I started listening to music on the evergreen way from Amherst to Cambridge. 
     For some reason, my finger clicked on the Arvo Pärt annex of my iPod, somewhere I don't visit with as much frequency lately as "The Dharma at Big Sur" or "I Might Be Wrong" by Radiohead (I should let you know: I'm known for my too-long binges on very specific works). Immediately, I knew I had chosen the soundtrack to my trip, the first notes of "Da pacem Domine," the echoy fragments of a triad fit to worship, making everything feel like a water color. Pärt's music has a way of making itself a memory, and like a time capsule takes you back to the past, whatever that means at the moment. So, for me, in this place that both makes me think of "history" the class and "history" the concept, it turned the present from a concrete reality into a transparent lens. 


Arvo
     Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer and has made a significant crater in the terrain of contemporary music. His music does not evoke the word "contemporary" as often as other living composers, though, due to its sacred categorization. While he began composing with influences from Shostakovich and Schoenberg, his works after 1976 focus on ideas surrounding Christianity. His numinous works are airy and spacious, usually beginning and ending in gradual silence. His works have also been inspired by Gregorian chant, the slowly moving, monophonic works of medieval music. He has been categorized as a minimalist or as a part of the "New Simplicy" movement, a European group that went against the avant garde movements of the 50s and 60s, but that tells you much less than his music itself does:




     Pärt, along with his maturation into a sacred composer, developed a style of composition he calls "tintinnabuli," or "tintinnabulation." Straightforwardly, the term refers to his use of one triad spread over three or four voices, creating a cavernous, open sound, but also one he likens to bells. He says of the term:
     "Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation."
     Leave it to little Arvo to create a composition technique that is both concrete and metaphysical. And, while I am no expert on his creation and have never really looked at a Pärt score, it's difficult not to read about tintinnabulation and feel a sense of it in his music after. Aside from his consitstent usage of spread-out triads, he constructs his pieces like answer seekers themselves. His unresolved, gradual, metastasis-like structures often begin with healthy amounts of silences and tones that drift away. Sometimes they seem to find answers, like in the middle of his vocal piece "Nunc dimittis," which crescendos and unifies to a triumphant C major chord before resting and returning back to the melancholy melodies of the beginning, eventually ending in the contemplative, hushed, separate voicing of the beginning, never resolving. Just like most answer seekers. 
     He has more intense, dramatic pieces as well, but they have similar themes as his more bare works. "Tablua Rasa" is his concerto for two violins and orchestra, and is, in terms of size, much grander than many other pieces. It builds itself on evolving cycles. The first movement, "Ludus," is composed of a theme with close, slightly dissonant notes from the violins that is repeated, gradually becoming more intense with each repetition. The second movement, "Silentium," marks each cycle with a prepared piano arpeggio that leads into a tragic collaboration of the violins, again eventually ending in silence after the theme is transferred to the bass section. The piece, when thought about from Pärt's religious point of view, might be trying to ask "why?", but it eventually drowns itself in the journey to answer itself, so similar to many people who try to do the same. Pärt is able to make listeners feel as though something has been revealed, even if that thing may be that the quest towards revealing is long and often undoable. In his more peaceful works, like the violin and piano duet "Spiegle im Spiegle," I finish listening with a greater sense of my own perspective. 
     Perhaps it is the opposite of obvious why New England and Arvo Pärt are connected in my mind as I write this. Some of the connection is from my overdone-metaphor-loving mind, but a lot of it is from one sentence of that bolded quote up there: "In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning." 
     This sentence could be applied to almost anything, but it really has me thinking about history and how the past relates to our actions. Here, in New England, where our country was grown out of tobacco farms and kept in wooden houses on mud roads and written in humid, confined rooms in Pennsylvania, "history" is big and statuesque, both literally and figuratively. But while those revolutionary years were happening, I am positive there were nights when people sat awake in their beds, having some of those dark hours, thinking exactly what Pärt says he sometimes does. In the present, it is difficult to understand the influence each action will have on shaping the future, and it is often difficult to see how the past has constructed those actions. 
     America, to keep with this theme, is a place that has both succeeded and failed in recognizing that everything outside "this one thing," the present, a given lifetime, does in fact have meaning. When we succeeded, we wrote our Constitution with the past of monarchacal England in our heads, and we built culture trends off the influence of those before. But we have also failed. We began the peculiar, or cruel, institution of slavery without the thought of how those we treated with such unbelievable disrespect resembled ourselves at points, and we have begun wars without thinking of their repercussions decades into the future. It's the clash between our longevities and our minds, our realistic selfishness and our ability to understand that the butterfly effect is true to a certain extent. So, as I sit here in a Cambridge hotel, I can understand that I wouldn't be here if my ancestors weren't able to come to a country that was founded on the land I find myself on. But I also sit here occupied by my thoughts of myself: where I'll go to college, what I'll have for breakfast tomorrow, and what I want to make of myself. Maybe Arvo Pärt can't make me understand "history" to the extent it deserves, but he makes me meditate. With that, I can at least recognize

Thursday, January 3, 2013

MythBusters

                As we on Earth began measuring another one of our orbits yesterday, I read a thin paperback called Myth and Meaning on a 737 trekking across a handful of states. The book, a collection of essays by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, puts the idea of myths behind many lenses in five chapters, the fifth (“Myth and Music”) being a comparison between Western music and myths. Lévi-Strauss says:
…it is impossible to understand a myth as a continuous sequence. This is why we should be aware that if we try to read a myth as we read a novel or a newspaper article, that is line by line… we don’t understand the myth, because we have to apprehend it as a totality… we have to read the myth more or less as we would read an orchestral score, not stave after stave, but understanding that we should apprehend the whole page… it is only by treating the myth as if it were an orchestral score, written stave after stave, that we can understand it as a totality, that we can extract the meaning out of the myth (44-45).
He goes on to describe the pieces that make up these two phenomena; while language has phonemes, words, and sentences, myths (presumably orally told) only have words and sentences, and music only has “letters” and sentences (chords as words are up for debate). Even though a myth is something that can be abstract, and music is certainly no easier to boil down to phonetics, each become seemingly understandable and sealed to manageable ideas with this comparison. With the description of linguistic terms, Lévi-Strauss calls music and myth “sisters,” both mediums that offer meaning and resolution through similar structures. However, just like the creation of myths died out, Lévi-Strauss’s comparison has as well in some ways. Music now, ever different from music yesterday, is learning to both be a totality and suggest an infinite world beyond itself.



Old and new pictures of Lévi-Strauss, equally kick ass. 


                Under airplane light and now in front of a computer, I agree with Lévi-Strauss in many ways. Much of the reason music is so enjoyable to listen to is its ability to tell full stories, finished resolutions of sound that we can experience in a given amount of time. Experiencing an idea from start to finish, and, perhaps more importantly, the idea having a finishing point in the first place, is extremely comforting. Along with fairy tales, movies, and myths, a large portion of all music is made up of pieces like this—“closed systems.”
                Take almost any symphony with a conventional structure. Let’s use Milhaud’s Symphony no. 1 as an example (tip: listen to a lot of Les Six music in the winter with endless hot beverages). A sanguine, modernist work, the symphony has a structure like any basic movie plot; it lays a calm, impressionistic foundation, builds tension and conflict in the second movement with heavier and more intense brass, contemplates itself in the third movement with moody, smoky timbres and hints of resolution, and expels energy and action in the fourth movement, which ends in heavy snare and a triumphant blare from all the instruments. When listening to it, the listener is taken away like any listener to a great symphony should be—regardless of the things produced by his/her mind, whether they are images of a winter countryside or an underwater happening or an indescribable stew of good old fashioned feelings, the story is started and finished in that same mind. Meaning is extracted when the piece is looked at as a totality, an entire story.


            Lévi-Strauss also refers to fugues as music with myth-like structures:
You have what we call in French ‘le sujet et la réponse.’ The antithesis or antiphony continues through the story until both groups are almost confused and confounded – an equivalent to the stretta of the fugue; then a final solution or climax of this conflict is offered by a conjugation of the two principles which had been opposed all along during the myth (50).
One of the most pivotal and utilized forms of music can be equaled to, basically, the form of the birth of history (what Lévi-Strauss calls myths in chapter four of Myth and Meaning). Thanks, Zarlino, Frescobaldi and the like.
In fact, Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of history and myths in chapter four (essay “When Myth Becomes History”) makes me think more about music as well. He discusses the differences between myths and history (the former being the earliest form of the latter), illustrating how myths were the replacement for history in areas without writing and were the product of oral storytelling, while history counteracted the production of myths with the emergence of written documents in the Renaissance. One of his sentences in this essay, though, refers to music without even trying:
Mythology is static, we find the same mythical elements combined over and over again, but they are in a closed system, let us say, in contradistinction with history, which is, of course, and open system (40).
The music he talks about in chapter five is, as he says, like a myth—a closed system. And, of course, much of music is closed. The double bar is the happily ever after, at least for the plot and area for extraction of significance.


                But what if we want to compare music to life, not myth or story? Here is where Lévi-Strauss’s comparison stops being entirely accurate. Life, as we live it, is an open system, like the book’s description of history, which is the patchwork of lives. Like the Milky Way, we’ll never be able to take a full picture of our own life; we can only reflect on it and piece together the pieces we have.
                While music according to Lévi-Strauss is a closed system as a whole (because of his comparison of it to myth), we have more pieces of the picture of music history to say this is not longer entirely true. He does touch on his future inaccuracy at the end of the essay: “It is quite possible that what took place in the eighteenth century when music took over the structure and function of mythology is now taking place again, in that the so-called serial music has taken over the novel as a genre…” (54). We can still examine what has changed with his comparison.
Part of the reason for Lévi-Strauss’s belief of the relationship between music and myth is because his book was published in 1978, the time period when Ligeti, Penderecki, Xenakis, and Crumb were pivotal figures in the music industry, Robert Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives and Glass’s Einstein on the Beach premiered, John Adams wrote his Gates piano pieces (ones that started his distinct style), and Steve Reich was composing important works of his career. While these events obviously were changing “classical” music’s definition during that time, they were not placed into history just yet. They were not far away enough to be looked at as part of the past.

MS Paint collages forever

Now, though, we can look at this time period as history—with indeterminacy already established, minimalism was beginning to change the form of music again, allowing pieces to flow in repeating waves and cells instead of lines or (somewhat) follow-able, fluctuating tones. This structure is much more like life in first person—each experience is met as a continuation of the last, and past changes in the landscape are only felt after understanding the permanent shift in the present. So many pieces composed in and since the 70s can end without resolution. In our mind, they can continue beyond the double bar. There is no “happily ever after,” because the after is unclear.
As it turns out, music can be, and is, an open system.
I have been listening to “Timber” by Michael Gordon recently, and, through the ensemble that plays Gordon’s piece, one by Nick Woodbury, “Bells.” Both pieces reflect the importance of open system styles, creating sonic spaces that develop and morph but never resolve or come to a definitive end.
 Michael Gordon, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, has been a prolific figure in music. He and his music are influenced by legends such as Reich, and “Timber,” a recent commission by the dance ensemble Club Guy & Roni and percussion groups Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion  for six wooden simantras (slabs of wood that are basically prepared 2x4s), is no exception. As he says in his program notes, “I imagined that the six instruments would go from high to low, and that, through a shifting of dynamics from one instrument to the next, the group could make seamless and unified descending or ascending patterns.”



The piece is meditative. While multiple instruments can be detected, their blending makes for a wall of sound that fluctuates like a billowing curtain. The untuned simantras don’t necessarily tell a story, like a symphony or myth, but they create a world in which infinite stories could occur. Their dry, hollow timbre fills all empty spaces in the air and somehow creates rich new ones that are then filled again, like a fountain continually using its own water.
                “Bells,” by Nick Woodbury, a member and co-director of Mantra Percussion, reaches a similar effect with different methods. With bells, airy drones, and what sound like melodica bursts, Woodbury creates cycles (or at least sounds that somehow feel like circles) that merge into a comprehensive, changing organism; only after living in its world of sound for a while, however, can it be reflect on and observed. When it ends after five minutes, though, unlike closed system pieces, it doesn’t really “end.” It rings, continues, and has a further life in mind of the listener. It becomes history, not in a sense of its place among other pieces, but in a continual trajectory that could be influencing things as it floats further away from the instruments, speakers, or headphones.
                (You should also listen to "Bells") 
                Myths will likely survive for centuries more, and by no means will music with definitive resolutions die out any time soon. However, as we are seeing each day, meditative, indeterminate, and minimalist music has a portion of the reigns, even if a small one. Our ears are becoming more courageous, accepting sounds that never truly resolve, but build worlds that can ring and continue in our heads long after the music has officially stopped. “Closed systems” are comforting—they let us ride trajectories that leave nothing unknown, and they let us understand the totality of a story that we can reflect upon and decipher with confidence. Despite this, we are no strangers to the unknown—we live. And when we all can start listening like we live, maybe the unknown will lose its ability to frighten us. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Vivian Fung: Dreamscapes



Many of us have attempted to train ourselves to lucid dream. Lying in our beds, we’ve tried to wrangle our thoughts into those of control, discipline, and predictability. Some, if not most, nights, though, we are left with bizarre, alien-like episodes that seem perfectly normal only until we wake up.
Somehow, though, despite our attempts at control, these beautifully strange dreams can stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the story we tried to construct ourselves.
And, somehow, Vivan Fung’s new album Dreamscapes feels a lot like this. While only one piece on the five track album has the word “dream,” her abilities as a composer can take over the subconscious of the listener in any setting.
The Canadian-born composer’s works span from prepared piano pieces to string quartets, but she somehow finds a way to make each form sing new tones. Combining distinctive sounds of Western music with those of gamelan and other non-Western timbres, she equals something from a direction neither cardinal nor previously done. Dreamscapes is certainly no exception.
Like trying to control dreams, attempting to predict the direction of Fung’s works is futile. Throughout the album, with her Violin Concerto, her prepared piano pieces Glimpses, and her piano concerto “Dreamscapes,” melodies change instantaneously into rapid textures, otherworldly plucks of piano strings reverberate off of passing drones, and Americana brass back up gamelan-influenced violin lines. But the album is about more than mixing and contrasting—it’s about Fung’s ability to invent an entire world from a certain web of sound, and her knack for knowing exactly how to disintegrate it.
The album opens with Fung’s stunning Violin Concerto. Inspired by Javanese gamelan, the piece is a distinctly gamelan theme running through settings from around the world. Kristin Lee, the soloist who worked closely with Fung, does an impeccable job being both virtuosic and accurate with the demanding passages, and the Metropolis Ensemble (conducted by Andrew Cyr) moves well together, bouncing, traveling, and being able to release pressure all at once. Throughout the first half of the concerto, Lee is in control; she guides the orchestra and audience into desolate, high register moments, into chugging, brass-filled areas, all the while exploring the landscapes the orchestra reflects with the reminder of the concerto’s pelog scale influences. Almost exactly half-way through, the violin drops the orchestra, letting it quickly dissipate as the violin seems to travel down its range, leaping sideways to build, piece by rearranged piece, a museum of styles. It builds to a climax, navigating through the gamelan scales with violent tremolo. When the orchestra arrives, it becomes the leader with animal kingdom brass and distant strings lurking in the now-familiar scales. Lee comes back in focus with almost Chinese-sounding melodies, gliding over the orchestra with more grace than was introduced. Like the listener has learned, though, no one mood stays for long, and the concerto feels impressionistic for a few minutes before it releases again into period of thinness. The ending, identical to the beginning, is a palette cleanser and a mirror, so pristine it reflects the multifaceted body that preceded it. As the strings glissandi up, the violin holds out until a small gong-like instrument is played, letting go of every sound before it, seeming to resonate for minutes. 
“Glimpses,” the second group of pieces on the album, uses a gamelan-like prepared piano to provide exactly that, glimpses, into three very differently woven moods. The first movement, “Kotekan,” is titled after a gamelan style of fast, interlocking parts. With some notes ringing with a hollow sound, some vibrating against metal, and some shaking like strict percussion, Fung slowly builds a syncopated fabric, each tone bouncing off the next, each release as important as the contact.  “Show,” the second movement, fills the dents from the previous movement with a fluid, sometimes impressionistic wave still spiked with the textures of the prepared strings. The third movement, “Chant,” mentally abducts. Like a flying object, the piece passes by deep, resonating, buzzes from the strings as abstract strumming, wood knocking, and echoing phrases gently create a narrative to follow.
While “Glimpses” pulls us in each direction, tugging by the arm to each new window of sound, the album’s powerhouse “Dreamscapes” for piano and orchestra becomes an entire comprehensive world. Conor Hanick, the pianist for both “Glimpses” and “Dreamscapes,” plays the inside of the piano with as much dedication and confidence as he does the keys, allowing the listener to fully accept the strange, distinctly Fung atmosphere that quickly constructs itself after the opening sounds. The piece begins with surprising fervor that holds out, transitioning through micropolyphony, jazzy spells, and the exact theme from “Glimpses” movement “Kotekan,” which on strings sounds strangely regal. Like dreams, though, each setting is accepted. No matter how out of place a section seems through words, the listener’s subconscious is taken over by Fung’s ability to weave each theme, each melody, each cluster of tones into the same environment that the listener is fully immersed in. Hanick plays a large part in this hypnotizing quality. His playing, especially in sections with undefined structure and simmering mixing of tones, is restrained and resists the temptation to become over-powerful in the delicate balance; he is also able to release off of these moments into commanding periods. After an orchestral sigh, around two-thirds into the piece, the direction of the piece becomes steeper, denser, and more urgent. Eventually, everything begins to spread out as old themes are resurrected in simple versions. As the world we have come to know disintegrates, an alien-like glimmer resonates behind the still tentative piano, which eventually dissolves.
Many composers fuse genres. Many composers build worlds. And, naturally, many composers have dreams. But what sets Fung apart is her ability to take over the subconscious of the listener, to build a world so captivating that even the strangest of transitions happen seamlessly. Lucid dreaming may seem enticing, but being taken away to Fung’s world would probably take the cake. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Raise the Levels of the Boom Inside the Ear

              It’s safe to say that most, if not all, humans have had an experience with an irresistible beat. Perhaps a piece of music playing in a store made you tap your fingers on the handle of your shopping cart. Maybe you found yourself nodding your head at a stoplight to a song on the radio. Around three weeks ago, in fact, I was at a jazz concert, and I found that my crossed leg had become a separate entity, bobbing to Davis’s “All Blues” with alarming intensity while still synchronized with my shaking head. It’s as if you’re a pinball, and the beat is the colorful, blinking walls and obstacles you simply cannot avoid bouncing off of.
                When referencing the body-wrangling abilities of musical beats, it’s hard for rap to not find its way into the conversation. It’s the genre that is served on a platter of beats (not to be confused with a platter of beets, a very different phenomenon). Without a beat, rap becomes spoken word. It’s what sets the mood and keeps the heads nodding, and its twists and turns shape the lyrics. Unfortunately for the genre, the Billboard charts have painted the portrait of rap as a somewhat tasteless, image-focused section of the music community, gaining many haters of the mere idea of rap (h8ers? I promise to never type that word on this blog again).
                But there is a subdivision of rap, one that spews not only quality lyrics and flow but also beats that have refined bass lines, pure jazz, and real developments. Alternative rap, developed in the 90s especially, set up the foundation for the quality rappers of today. Plus, along with their irresistible beats, one feels pretty awesome blasting their songs through open windows during late night drives (one = me).

ATCQ
                The pioneers of respected alternative rap, in my opinion, are definitely the rappers in the group A Tribe Called Quest. From Queens, the group changed the outlook on rap, using intelligent metaphors, artistic verses, and, especially, tasteful beats. Close to all of their songs have strong, funky, beautiful bass lines. These are particularly pronounced in their album The Low End Theory, which produced many unbeatable songs as well as helped solidify the connection between hip hop and jazz, one that seems destined but surprisingly wasn't definite previously. Their song “Jazz (We’ve Got),” which samples Lucky Thompson’s “Green Dolphin Street,” is a perfect example of the Tribe’s ability to be both culturally aware and modern. The bouncing bass line begs to be rapped to, and the long pulses of the (I think) Hammond B3 organ keep the track on its cool course. The chorus, in which the members speak quietly “We got the jaaaazzz, we got the jaaaazzz,” includes Lucky Thompson’s saxophone jumping a perfect fourth and then chromatically descending down in between the original B flat. It’s slightly eerie, but mostly conjures images of smoky, black and white streets at night.


                Another A Tribe Called Quest song that demonstrates their influential, groundbreaking status is their song “Electric Relaxation” from the album Midnight Marauders. The song samples Ronnie Parker’s “Mystic Brew,” a cool jam with a simple drum beat, a funky bass line, and three satisfying pairs of chords on guitar. When Tribe used the song, they transposed it down a couple of steps, added a heavier beat, and layered a sound effect over the chorus and select parts of the verses that I can only describe as something that would play as a guy with an afro and bell bottoms walked down the street. “Electric Relaxation” is one of the few songs in hip hop with a three bar loop. The beat is not only addicting, but shows that a hip hop song does not need gunshot sound effects or overly intense electronics to be irresistible—in fact, it’s usually better when it doesn't (the song also has my favorite lyric of all time, rapped by Q-Tip: “They know the abstract is really soul on ice, the character is of men, never ever of mice”). Other pioneering alternative rap groups during the late 80s and 90s include De La Soul, Jurassic 5, and Jungle Brothers.


                A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy has inspired many new rap groups who are invading the mainstream with real instruments and attention to the poetry of the lyrics. Atmosphere, a rap group composed of rapper Slug and producer Ant, are probably the most popular group that currently carries on the values of groups like A Tribe Called Quest. Atmosphere’s beats are not based as heavily on jazzy bass lines, but other mostly acoustic styles, ranging from calm guitar to dense, singer-songwriter-like piano to distorted electric guitar licks. Atmosphere’s song “Sound Is Vibration” uses some slightly Debussy sounding harp chords, but paired with the drum beat and the held out pitches, it becomes a perfect foundation for Slug’s and Spawn’s verses.


Slug
                Another member of the revival of alternative rap is Aesop Rock, an intense and sometimes abstract lyricist who raps in front of a variety of different beats. Slightly more experimental than Atmosphere, his lyrics are seemingly more incoherent, while the beats fit into genres less concretely. Instead of polished, revealing songs, Aesop Rock has the quality of a slam poet, somewhat everywhere, jumbles of sound and words, all coming together for songs that redefine what it means to be a hip hop artist. His song "Shere Kahn" is a calm, slow moving beat with many different flavors. It’s slightly African inspired, slightly orchestral, and slightly Middle Eastern. Much of the song is without lyrics, instead having random spurts of flute and bassoon, brass, oboe, whistling, record scratching, a female singer, and other bursts. When Aesop Rock does come in, however, he’s explosive. The song doesn’t bring to mind the hip hop that we’ve been conditioned to recognize, the world of gold chains and sagging pants, but reminds the listener that hip hop is an art, not just an image. The beat is so strange that it becomes irresistible after a few listens, your head bobbing in a sort of trance.


Aesop Rock
                Alternative rap teaches us many things: hip hop doesn’t have to be a self-involved, shiny, misogynistic genre, beats can be made out of tasteful jazz and acoustic samples, and lyrics can be as poetic as the next spoken word artist’s lines. From pioneering, legendary groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to members of the modern revival of alternative hip hop like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, there are beats all around us that are irresistible and draw us in. If you start listening to these masters of rhymes and beats, you’ll soon find yourself bobbing your head, tapping your foot, wiggling your fingers. Or, if you’re like me, driving down the road with the windows rolled down, rapping the chorus into the night. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Loose Blues

I'm quite sorry for not blogging for a long time. I'm currently writing a longer post, so stay tuned, but in the mean time, here's a watercolor I did of Bill Evans: 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Don't Fret (ha ha... ha)

                Maybe it’s the kitschy but abundant associations with campfires, or perhaps it’s the secret desire that we all (debatably) have to become professional flamenco dancers, but the sound of a guitar holds a certain amount of relatable energy to it, some kind of mysteriously familiar timbre. Air-guitaring is basically a developmental skill, and the instrument is often played by children and fantasized about by aspiring rock stars.
                The guitar is looked up to as an instrument that can do anything and still be familiar and household. Music sometimes is not this; it's easy to look at music (especially composed, "classical" music) as a daunting, complex web when it really is just the familiar sounds we know woven together, most often. The guitar, being the superhero it can be, can take down these walls of bias and fear.  

photo by Brian Richardson
                I had a seemingly mundane experience a couple nights ago that showed me some truth to the simplicity of sound, and I hope my attempt at a metaphor here doesn't totally fail. 
                It was a warm summer night, and I had spent the last few hours listening to music, so I rolled the windows down in my car and drove the quiet, river-parallel street home. The large portion of the road goes along houses with large chunks of land in front of them, so there aren’t any major buildings or structures close to where I was driving. The sound of my car against the street was single-pitched and constant, only changing when I would slow down or turn.
                But as I turned onto the road that leads to my house, the fields disappear and bigger, more solid fences become closer to the road. As I would drive past a wall or fence, the sounds of my car and the wind would bounce back at me, making a louder sound than when I would drive past open air. Since the walls were split up, it would make a sort of rhythm.
                This reminded me that sound isn’t some tangible thing that spills out of instruments or a wall that orchestras create, but a simple thing, actual waves that can bend and disappear and reflect. I know this seems very far from the theme of this post, but it made me think about the guitar—the instrument’s vulnerability from the common, rural foundations it has in our culture and the universal knowledge of its workings and sound make it seem more of a person among us than something in an instrument shop. It’s like the difference between hearing, say, Obama speak at a conference and your aunt speak at the dinner table.
                After all that attempted allegory, what I’m trying to say is that the guitar and all its cultural power can remind us how the sounds that create music, from rock to classical, are ingrained in all of us and aren’t as daunting as they sometimes can seem.
                Shall we examine the guitar’s place in varying genres of classical/classical-leaning music?
                The place where I’ve been immersing myself in stringed sounds lately is Pat Metheny’s solo music, sort of jazz-folk-alternative stuff. After obsessing over his interpretation of “Electric Counterpoint,” I found a record of his at the store I go in about once a week. The record was New Chautauqua, his 1979 album of solo work—the instruments included are electric 6 and 12 string guitars, acoustic guitar, 15 string harp guitar, and electric bass, all played by Metheny. His playing is ethereal, and he has the ability to make a dense jumble of notes the clearest thing you’ll ever hear with his rapid picking and spot-on emphasis. His solo stuff, unlike the Pat Metheny Group’s more traditional jazz sound, is dreamlike and something you would listen to on a road trip in a beat up truck across the desert. The sounds of the guitars in his pieces are both grottos of amazement and comforting because of their familiarity.
                Check out the title track for a classic, feel-good jam:


                Or “Country Poem,” my favorite, for a nostalgic piece that calls for a far away, long ago home:


                OOORRRR another one of my favorites, “Sueño con Mexico,” a gentle, flowing piece:


                Another group of music that has to be mentioned is the classical guitar repertoire. From the Renaissance to the present, stringed instruments like the guitar have been common instruments to write for, and their familiar, relatable quality is constant throughout. In the Baroque era, composers like Gaspar Sanz and Francesco Corbetta were guitarists while composers like Robert di Visée or Sylvius Leopold Weiss were lutenists. During the Romantic era, the guitar began showing up in landmark composers’ works, such as in Paganini’s virtuoso pieces for the instrument, like his Capriccio No. 5:


…that inspired Steve Vai’s “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for the movie “Crossroads”:


The 19th century was the “Golden Age” for guitar, with composers who wrote specifically for the instrument, bringing it into the spotlight. Francisco Tárrega, a Spanish guitarist and composer, wrote some beautiful music during the period, like his “Capricho Arabe."
It’s haunting and sounds traditional at first, which it definitely is because of Tárrega’s influence on the rest of the guitar repertoire, but the flares make it seem like a spontaneous humanoid or whatever a guitar can be that’s close to a human. This is what a lot of classical guitar repertoire does—it brings the common landscapes of classical music to a medium that often reminds us of modern experiences, which can remind us how proverbial the music we call “classical” really is.
                And then there’s one of the coolest nooks in which the guitar can reside, contemporary music. I’m not talking about rock or indie or the places people can find guitar instantly, but the family of music that is ingrained in violins and pianos but accepts the guitar so perfectly. Both acoustic and electric guitars melt seamlessly into the different sounds of today’s music. An example I came upon while watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is “Phone Call” by Jon Brion, the rock musician and composer. The trembling outlines of C sharp major to F minor sound toy-like, as if they would come out of a windup toy from a different planet. Against the stability of the strings, it’s a beautiful little piece:


Mark Dancigers is one of the most prolific guitarists in the contemporary world right now. He’s in the NOW Ensemble, composes, and does many side and solo projects. He’s most often on electric guitar, and the rebellious flavor that has come to be associated with electric anything mixes with the traditional orchestra instruments like richness and acidity (either can be either)—opposite, perfect.  Take the excerpt from his “Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra” with the Princeton University Orchestra. The way the notes bend up and down from the strings is like sound waves themselves. Or his anchoring position in Judd Greenstein's "Sing Along":


                The guitar really isn’t unlike any other instrument. It has strings that need to be tuned, virtuosos, and pieces composed for it. But the cultural position of the guitar, one that resides so close to people who don’t even play it, can help it bring the pieces it’s included in out of the daunting roles they’re sometimes given. After all, even we classical fanatics fantasize of rock star dreams.