Monday, April 25, 2011

Many Mansions

Currently I am reading Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Along with teaching me how to correctly spell the word “maintenance,” it has:
  1.         Made a motorcycle the new #1 thing on my list of wants.
  2.       Created an immense craving for backpacking.
  3.       Kept me calm in stressful times. 
  4.       Made me want to be a rapper so I can use Phaedrus as my alias.  
  5.        Been one of my main sources of inspiration.
Pirsig and Chris 

Number five is true in many different cases, and it accomplished one of those cases by introducing me to Albert Einstein speeches. A few lines that Pirsig quoted from a specific one stood out to me, so I looked up that speech. It was from 1918 and was his address in Berlin for Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday, but it’s much, much more than an I-just-wrote-this-on-a-napkin-five-minute-ago birthday speech. Here is a passage:

In the temple of science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside.

Now, I suppose these words could really apply to area of study, but music immediately popped into my mind when I read this. All the statements, when applied to music, present two argumentative sides and are incredibly debatable. 
There are certainly fair shares of people who feel superior with the music that they compose/listen to, whether it’s because of its academic value, its confusing nature, or simply because it’s unique (I think we have all experienced the latter).  Or perhaps it’s because of the reason presented by Einstein: that it’s our “own special sport,” something that we can claim and feel familiar inside of. Sometimes this is a wonderful feeling—it’s like living in a cabin in a hidden area; only we can access it. On the other hand, it can sometimes turn others off, this attitude of eliteness. That is one of the stereotypes that classical music resides with, but I have found it to be subconsciously true in many cases. Then there are the ones in the temple who are there for the utilitarian purposes. And, if we follow the form that Albert has set up, there are the ones that would be there if these two categories were wiped out. These people could be argued to be the ones who pioneer purposefully or create music for a cause—and I suppose there is where a small division between science and music comes to into play. Music can certainly be meant to accomplish something or to make strides in the arts world, and these pieces usually do just that. But there are also pieces created just to be—sometimes these make more of a difference than anything else.

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.  

Einstein must have just gotten distracted when writing the list of other occupations that apply to this paragraph and forgot to mention “musician.” Everyone has their own cosmos naturally that follows them from birth, whether it is an optimistic one, pessimistic, introverted, observant, or any other form. One of the greatest goals of a musician is to shape this cosmos with their art and aesthetic and to fill it to the brim. This cosmos is a place where we want to reside because, no matter how individualistic one is, it’s always a comfortable feeling to be defined (to some extent). Hopefully the cosmos is forever malleable, because being concretely defined is never fun.
The final quote:

…he must content himself with describing the most simple events which can be brought within the domain of our experience; all events of a more complex order are beyond the power of the human intellect to reconstruct with the subtle accuracy and logical perfection with the theoretical physicist demands.

And there’s where music beats science. 

Read the whole speech here. 

To follow along with Pirsig and to insert my Hommage à John Stewart: ladies and gentlemen, your moment of (somewhat energetic) Zen:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Big Yellow Taxi

I think the phrase “you don’t know what you've got 'till it’s gone” applies to many cases in life. It’s certainly a very true statement, and I don’t think anyone has gone through life without experiencing the effects of it firsthand. However, I think there are many variations on the topic of taking something for granted and not all aspects of things taken for granted are unappreciated. Like orchestras.
I’ve never lived in a city that didn’t have a symphony orchestra, in fact, and the truth of that alone is uplifting. Even if my obsession with classical music didn’t really begin until a few years ago, looking back, it’s a comforting thought to know that they were always there for the musicians, the listeners, and the future listeners like me. No matter how out of place I ever felt liking classical music compared to others, I always had the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra to fall back on, to feel normal around, and to count on for some of the best live music I could hear in my state. It was like going to a major league baseball game; that was the crème de la crème, the protruding option, the classic choice. That is, until the NMSO filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy on Wednesday morning.

Our conductor, Guillermo Figueroa (photo by Marla Brose from the ABQ Journal) 
The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra had been up and running since 1932. Next season would have been its 80th. For years the orchestra has been struggling, pilling up about a million dollars in debt to our main concert hall, Popejoy, and other venues. Musicians have been deprived of paychecks for months, and many concerts that have been put on are either advertised as free or were forcefully free to the musicians. I remember seeing news stories with images of musicians protesting outside of Popejoy with picket signs and chants. I could go to concerts and hear distant conversations of distress between the employees or outward calls for donations and faith in the organization from stages. But, despite an ailing foundation, the musicians played on, in all different venues, sizes, and spaces between paychecks.
There is so much buzz suddenly erupting over the bankruptcy filing (chapter 7 means a complete shutdown) over the internet and in day to day life. Management, culture, audience, pricing, you name it, it’s been blamed. However, I’m not going to talk about any causes, simply because I don’t think it’s worth it and because I don’t know the inside story. The point it, losing the NMSO is one of the biggest blows to the community that New Mexico has taken in the past years. Raising gas prices, large deficits, budget cuts—they all hurt our community in subtle ways, but the loss of an entire symphony orchestra? While our other political troubles are like losing jobs, losing such a core part of our culture is like losing a part of the family. It’s part of everyone, whether you’re a diehard or not.

Philadelphia Orchestra 
But New Mexico isn’t the black sheep. Recently, the Philidelphia Orchestra filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy to avoid financial meltdown. The PO has also been accused of bad management, and is labeled as one of the only music organizations in the city as well. Chapter 11 means that the orchestra will be allowed to keep playing and the musicians would still be paid, unlike the abrupt and complete shutdown of the NMSO. Orchestras all around the country, such as the Detroit SO, Honolulu, and Syracuse, are in debt or have gone under. 
I feel selfish when I only feel sorry for audience members like myself—what are the musicians going to do? Our concert master, Polish violinist Krzysztof Zimowski, told Albuquerque news station KOB, “I have dedicated 25 years of my life to this organization, to this orchestra. I feel horribly disappointed with whoever is behind this decision. There are definitely not musicians behind this decision.” New Mexico is definitely not the most well-known region in the United States. In fact, surprisingly, a large amount of people don’t even know that it’s part of the country (“You’re from MEXICO?” is one of the most common phrases heard). But we have an incredible pantheon of musicians in our tight-knit community. The talent is amazing and rich in every instrumental section. The thing that saddens me the most about the loss of the orchestra is the fate of the musicians. Knowing their caliber, I am certain that they all have the talent to continue as musicians, but life in a recession isn’t that easy. Hopefully they will all be able to continue doing what they love, because the world will surely benefit from it. New Mexico, and any other state in danger of losing their orchestra, for that matter, will never be a place absent of music. We have ensembles like Chatter and the players at the Church of Beethoven. We have the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Southwest, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and the newly begun Albuquerque Philharmonic. But taking a blow this hard is difficult to recover from.
Being in high school, I am almost inevitably going to be exposed to the newest viral video. The most popular one at the moment is a song by 13-year-old Rebecca Black called “Friday.” The video has over 100 million views and her song is in the top 40 on ITunes. However, this is all because the song is terrible. In fact, her segment on Good Morning America was titled, “Worst Song in the World?” How is it that people like Rebecca Black can be millionaires for being untalented while some of the most talented people I’ve met suffer because of debt? I can’t call it a conspiracy or anything too overdramatic, but all I can say is that something’s not right here.  I always knew that I was lucky to be in the presence of something like the NMSO as are others who live in areas with symphonies; I just never even fathomed it could come to an end. And I never knew I could miss something so much. 

Long live 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Out of Captivity

I’ve held a great horned owl before. It was perched on my arm covered in a thick leather glove, its silver dollar-sized, bright yellow eyes gazing lazily at me. Though the owl was kept captive because of an injury and I was physically separated by it from the glove, something wild radiated from it and left me speechless, not from the experience necessarily (though it was amazing), but from its overwhelming aura.
I was recently introduced to a newly created project called “Otomata” made by Batuhan Bozkurt, the self-described “sound artist, computer programmer, performer, and overall a curious person” from Istanbul. Otomata is a generative sequencer that uses cellular automaton technology, meaning that it employs the ubiquitous method of the grid system. Bozkurt created the system to “produce sound events” by assigning each cell of the grid a specific pitch. The user can then select certain cells that will move and can also select the direction. Hit “play,” and your cells are off to start making electronic music, bouncing off the walls of the grid and off each other, changing paths and pitches but keeping their steady beat. Otomata is addicting; all “pieces” that can be created sound final-draft like. Despite the fact that everything is in the grasp of a D minor 7 and, therefore, all tracks sound like part of a close-knit family, it’s fun and provides complete release to any type of composers’ block/block of basically anything.

The aspect of Otomata that is most lovable is its ability to morph constantly. Though the path one sets out for the grid’s cells is originally definite, there is no way of keeping it the same unless all the cells avoid contact with each other altogether. It’s like setting loose 100 bouncy balls in a racquetball court and trying to keep them bouncing in the same place—impossible. Otomata morphs subtly yet evidently, like the heartbeat of an inconsistent runner. While Otomata is unpredictable at the core, it doesn’t hit home like unpredictable, composed music does. When listening to this type of music, I am reminded of my many encounters with Iron Chef America—“It tastes gamey”—and agree. Composed music that follows the unpredictability and gradual growth that Otomata does subconsciously is like the great horned owl. It’s wild music.

Accurate feeling for this type of music
The first two composers that came to my mind while listening to Otomata were Brian Eno, the sort of modern Moses of ambient electronic music, and Nico Muhly, a young new composer who isn’t exactly known for his electronic compositions. Otomata isn’t necessarily ambient, but its personality is.

by Martin Goodwin

Brian Eno is a British composer, theologist, musician, and record producer. Eno began experimenting with avant garde techniques from the beginning of his musical career, playing “Piano Tennis” (much more literal than you would think) with his teacher at St. Joseph’s College and becoming a part of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Now Eno focuses on the ambient side of music, composing open, windy pieces that often sound like the audio representation of the aurora borealis and other natural wonders of the world. He released his newest album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, in 2010.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea

Let’s take one of Eno’s new compositions, “Late Anthropocene.” It consists of a faint but twitchy tremble in the mid-ground, low panpipe sounding swells in the background, and almost panpipe-vocal hybrids in the foreground. While the motifs are all the same throughout the piece, never truly changing their rhythms, the piece morphs like a slow-motion shot of cream exploding in a cup of coffee. New motifs come in every once in a while, but the mood stays on the same rolling plain. Ambient music can be emotionally terrifying, but Eno knows how to strike a balance between emptiness and fullness (really achieving both). One can imagine a trek through cold and wet caverns, tunneling deeper and deeper into the depths, but only knowing it by knowledge, not by perception. The piece dies out like someone with anesthesia.

Globe Newspaper Company
Nico Muhly, on the other hand, is no seasoned expert in ambient music, but he is one of my most favorite discoveries. He is most certainly one of the young stars of classical music composition today. Only 29, Muhly has a degree from Columbian and Julliard and has played with Björk, Arcade Fire, Jónsi, Now Ensemble, and many others. Muhly has composed for films such as The Reader and Joshua. He has worked with Philip Glass extensively, and this influence is evident in his compositions. In an interview I watched with Muhly, he described his goal in music: to make it “hospitable.” I think he has achieved just that. Muhly’s music is friendly but smart; it not only draws people in from all walks of life, but it keeps them there, swimming in his light yet flavorful concoctions. I only thought of one piece of Muhly’s music when playing around with Otomata, but all of his music is more than worth checking out.

Muhly's most recent release 

“Fast and Twitchy Organs” by Muhly is one of his only electronic compositions that is publicly (and freely) available, and is the piece by him that popped into my head in accordance with Otomata. The piece fits perfectly into the unofficial genre of “traveling music.” The changes in the piece are again subtle but evident.  The words “fast” and “twitchy” don’t necessarily come to mind when I listen to this piece, but “organ” certainly does. The work is muffled but not shielded in any way, like a heartbeat or magnetism from a body. Muhly’s chord choices are perfect and current—they are melancholy without being obvious, and the barely-there melody is as well. The piece is wild yet calm and the listener can see the animal, whatever it may be, crossing a flat and deserted field of grass in the wind.
Wild music does not have to be savage, for all wild animals are not. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of “wild” is the overwhelming power a large beast like a moose or elk has without moving or making a sound. Otomata is the epitome of wild music technically, but music by people like Eno and Muhly is truly wild, being able to meander but have a goal. My goal? To listen to this wild music with the owl. 

Listen to my music... or else

photo by Michael Fairchild

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


“Music is the silence between the notes.”

This quote may or may not be familiar to you, but, if it is, you know that it slipped from the lips of Claude Debussy. Music is thought of as organized sound, and in some cases organized sounds and silences. This quote, while seemingly cliché/generic, is quite interesting when said slooooowwwllllyyy. Is it really the silences that make the music? Would it still be music without them?
This quote came to mind after seeing the Thai movie “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Almost like a meditation itself, “Uncle Boonmee” is the story of a Thai man with pancreatic cancer who is slowly dying. Among other surreal happenings, his deceased wife materializes during dinner to help him, and his son returns after begin missing for years, only in the form of a “monkey ghost.” He ends up trekking through the forest to a cave where his first life began. Glimpses of his past lives are given, such as small vignettes of an ox and of a catfish. Though this sounds like a recreation of Where the Wild Things Are, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gabriel García Márquez (and 2001: A Space Odyssey, slightly).

Uncle Boonmee, aka the ox and many other animals 
But this isn’t a movie review. What really stuck out about “Uncle Boonmee” was the expanses of time where the shots were dormant—there was barely any panning, and no where could one find a Aronofsky-like montage of quick shots or Dod Mantel-style cinematography. Accompanying these seemingly endless shots was—nothing. To make sure, I searched “Uncle Boonmee soundtrack,” and the 1 sample I could find on Amazon was as quiet and mundane (yet spiritual) as the silences in the movie themselves. Despite this ambiguous mp3, there was no evidence of edited-in music whatsoever (it was three tenths of a Dogme 95 movie), besides the natural sounds coming from the Thai forest and from the soft-spoken actors and a pop song playing in a restaurant at the end. These were the sounds that shaped the movie and gave it it’s distinctively stream of consciousness feel. At the time, walking out of the theater, my friends and I didn’t really know what to think. But looking back on it, I didn’t fall asleep, which might have happened if the movie wasn’t put together well. But because these silences were so well placed and shaped, they made their own music and kept me interested and calm, but not bored.

Veil of silence 
Works like “Uncle Boonmee” make us realize that silence is as much of a malleable medium as sound is, and it is certainly not an untouched one. Schoenberg’s set of pieces for solo piano, Sechs kleine Klavierstücken, in fact begins with a rest. Inside the (relatively, but not actually) empty sound waves that circle the pianist, there is a divide between them for this rest to take place, even though they are identical. Though it could be perceived that the start of the piece is after the written rest, Schoenberg obviously thought that the realm had to be entered within this silence before the music began. Why? He once said:
“This multicoloured, polymorphic, unlogical nature of our feelings, and their associations, a rush of blood, reactions in our senses, in our nerves; I must have this in my music.
It should be an expression of feeling, as if really were the feeling, full of unconscious connections, not some perception of ‘conscious logic’.”
Human nature most definitely includes silences. We’ve all felt awkward silences between us and people we have just met, between us and people we haven’t met, perhaps sitting next to them, uncomfortably saying nothing (as is happening to me as I type this). When in a verbal or emotional exchange with someone, a silence can mean the world. Okay, okay, Schoenberg’s rest is academically needed for the score, but reading this quote makes one think that ol’ Arnold wasn’t all equations and calculated phrases.

Ligeti’s “Three Bagatelles for David Tudor” is, in fact, completely silent (like the I-though-it-was-obvious-enough-that-I-didn’t-mention-it “4’33” by Cage). Though it might seem like a piece that just beckons looks of annoyance and “C’mons,” (and it does in some cases), the piece says more than any actual sound could in a matter of seconds once the idea of the piece has been processed. David Tudor is an experimental pianist, and it seems as though the expanse of silence is the only way of really attributing him. In the case of Tudor's homage, silence hits more of an emotion than organized sound would. You can buy the blank sheet music here for $14. C’mon.

It's worth it.

The last piece I am going to mention is one that isn’t associated with silence, but one I am very familiar with all the way down to the nooks and crannies. Debussy’s “Prélude” from his Pour le Piano definitely can be taken as a wall of sorts of sound. The piece, with tritones and perfect fourths being amorphously outlined, leading up to triumphant chromatically cascading chords to glissandos, never seems to get a break. However, there is a crucial moment while the wall is being built when the pianist stops for a quarter rest in between descending couplets of sixteenth notes. Not only did I have to learn to orally make it unexpected, but my teacher coached me in my body language to make sure that I wasn’t swaying in any ways that foreshadowed the rest. I performed the piece recently—afterwards, my friend came up to me and said, “I thought you made a mistake!” After practicing the piece a lot, I’m 99.9% that’s how Debussy wanted it—to shock the audience back into the world of perception, because the murky build up of tritones before the surprising snap is almost hypnotic.
Many aspects of music are ambiguous, and silence is a definite aspect. Music can even be looked at as continuous expanses of sound pierced by silences, instead of the more common vice versa way. All I know is that “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” would have been terrible with generic movie sounds invading it. Its soundtrack was the absences of those, as is the day-to-day soundtrack of many lives. I can’t imagine a world without music, but I can’t imagine one without silence either. Especially when monkey ghosts are in the picture.  

Sunday, April 10, 2011

16 Cellos Are Better Than 1

I have delved into the world of sampling.
Now, in my case, the word “delve” is being used in the barest version of its definition. I recently was given a banjo from my friend, and, not having any idea how to play it in its stereotypical, high-speed finger-picking style, I settled for experimenting with original motifs and guitar-like strumming. I wasn’t getting too much satisfaction from playing the banjo like every other folk-based instrument I have played (ukulele, guitar, a bit of mandolin). But it wasn’t Sufjan Stevens or John Hartford that inspired me to pick up the banjo with a different attitude—but a cello. Rather, 16 cellos.

I started listening to Zoë Keating a few months ago, and ever since it’s been difficult to pin a genre to her one-of-a-kind music. She is listed on the internet as an avant garde cellist, on my IPod as “Dance & DJ,” and on the charts as classical. Classifying her type of music is almost impossible, because it contains that homemade feel that isn’t easily found these days. What Zoe Keating does is this: she layers tracks of her original cello melodies (sometimes around 20) on top of each other to create strong and creative pieces. This concept of classical sampling is nothing new (Ingram Marshall’s “September Canons” are gorgeous), but Keating does it in a way that appeals to anyone and captures the essence of one of the most beloved instruments. Though she uses technology profusely in all of her music, the listener cannot detect an ounce of it because she keeps the cello’s voice organic and strives for an almost chamber music sound.

Zoe Keating was born in Ontario, Canada and began playing the cello at age eight. In an Intel “Visual Life” mini-documentary, Keating says, “It never occurred to me that I could stop playing the cello, and I just loved it immediately. We moved around a lot and I think playing the cello was the one thing that was always the same.” She was classically trained until she went to Sarah Lawrence College, and played cello in/with a number of groups including Raspuntina. Pomplamoose, Halou, and Amanda Palmer. Her 2005 debut album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, heavily includes one of her most used styles, a sort of warrior inspired yet delicate feeling, but also includes tracks like “Fern” and “Frozen Angels,” more lament-like pieces. The piece “Tetrishead” is the epitome of Keating’s base style, beginning with exaggerated spiccato on an ascending D-E-F-G base line. Listening to this track, one thinks “Why has no one thought of this?” and in some ways, people have, but not like Keating has. On this album, her tone is incredibly organic and woody and sounds like it could have been emitted form a musical-making forest and simply recorded; or, more accurately, the listener isn’t even connected to headphones or speakers, but is in the forest that Keating has created. She is able to walk the line of technology saturation and technology deprivation.

Her second album, Into the Trees, came out in 2010 and is just as organic as the first, but seems almost more complex and intricate—while her first album was the combat fighter, up-front and gritty, her second is the sniper, with a more broad view and a keener sense of what is going on. It uses more techniques and seems to have a better sense of structure in each piece. The piece “Optimist” is light and almost playful, but surreptitious like a smiling, silent wise man. “The Path” is similar in its foundation to pieces like “Tetrishead,” but uses high glissandos and variations on her motifs that are new and beneficial. “The Last Bird” is subtly frightening and tragic, “Hello Night” is jam-packed with orchestral sounding swells, and “Seven League Boots” sounds unmistakably Asian with light-footed pizzicato pared with the pitched percussion she creates. Honestly, it is incredibly difficult to center on one or two pieces to describe, because they all have their own distinct personality that would fill pages on their own.
Oh, right! The banjo. I’ve been experimenting with Keating-like layering with software that I’m still getting used to (Cakewalk Sonar LE)—despite the thousands of buttons and options, I’ve been able to get by with solely using the “record,” “play,” “add new track,” and "enable loop" buttons. So far, after listening to Keating, the two tracks I’ve created are quite bare-bones, but I have to convince myself that Keating-like work is impossible as a starting point.
To listen to my first track, click here.
And here is my second (a bit more creepily relaxed than the first).
Also, awesomely, Steve Layton, the NiwoSound composer and editor of the blog Sequenza 21, took the last harmonica/banjo phrase of the second track, slowed it down, stretched it out, and layered it with “an ambient track” from Californian Paul Muller, who, along with Layton and many others, is an ImprovFriday composer. It sounds like a whale in the best way possible, and here is that track. Thanks, Steve! And thanks Zoë

Again, here is the Visual Life mini-documentary on Keating:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It was like a new knowledge of reality

Ten thousand, men hewn and tumbling,                                                                 
Mobs of ten thousand, clashing together, 
This way and that.

Slowly, one man, savager than the rest, 
Rose up, tallest, in the black sun, 
Stood up straight in the air, struck off
The clutch of the others.

And, according to the composer, this butcher, 
Held in his hand the suave egg-diamond
That had flashed (like vicious music that ends
In transparent accords). 

It would have been better, the time conceived,
To have had him holding--what?
His arm would be trembling, he would be weak, 
Even though he shouted.

The sky would be full of bodies like wood.
There would have been the cries of the dead
And the living would be speaking,
As a self that lives on itself.

It would have been better for his hands
To be convulsed, to have remained the hands
Of one wilder than the rest (like music blunted,
Yet the sound of that).

             This poem, called "Thunder by the Musician," is by Wallace Stevens, an American Modernist poet. Stevens has a countless amount of poems that mention music, from "Asides on the Oboe" to "The Creations of Sound" to "Peter Quince at the Clavier." Steven's words flow like liquid pouring into a complicated vase (I'm obviously in the simile mood); they seem effortless, but do not take on the so often encountered beatnik-like forms of free verse. Instead, his words fall into an immaculate structure. Not only does his structure reflect the pinnacle of what music is, but he also often uses puns and double meanings (for example: "The old brown hen and the old blue sky, between the two we live and die..." from "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man," has been thought of as a pun on the word "hen" for Henology, or "The One"). In music, one of the highest goals is to transcend past the black and white notes, and Stevens succeeds this goal only in the realm of words. 

            I chose to share this poem not only because of its supposed subject matter, but because of its enigma. The reader knows that it has to do with music, and the easy route would be to assume that the poem is an allegory for the emotion from a certain piece of music by the composer he discusses. Maybe I don't know enough about the philosophy that motivated Stevens so much, but I still have yet to come to this poem's "conclusion"... but that's what makes Stevens Stevens and what makes music music. There is always more to uncover. In "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man," Stevens also discusses the ambiguity of religion (his "supreme Fiction" idea), and I think that this can also relate to music incredibly well. Everyone has ideas of how music is meant to make us feel or what it is meant to convey, but no one will ever be correct, possibly not even the composer. Words and music perform similar tasks in very different ways; they create the inception of ideas, and that is a powerful thing to accomplish. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Einstein on the Beast

It’s almost an inevitable encounter in the life of a classical music lover; you’re in a small talk conversation with someone you’ve just met, and the topic of music preference comes up. They talk about their discovered indie rock groups, their favorite rappers and DJs, their preferred pop singers. They wrap up their monologue and look at you, waiting for an identical answer, but when you say, “I mostly like classical music,” their face drops a little and you just know that their internal Boring-Alert signal is blaring.
The thing is, we’ve gotten one of the worst raps when it comes to categories of music listeners. Despite the fact that there are millions of true listeners, half-listeners, and “supporters,” there is still an enormous amount of people who take our preferences to mean that we are dry, old-fashioned people. We stand our ground and know that these people are 1) missing out on something wonderful and 2) obviously have not taken the time to wrap themselves around the idea that this music and culture are some of the most interesting worlds anyone could encounter. But what these book-cover-glancers don’t realize is that we have in our grasp what is becoming a core to one of the fastest growing genres out there—dubstep. Not to mention that we are probably converting people just like them in this process.

Dubstep might not be the most familiar category to most, and that is mostly because it owes a lot of its fame to independent DJs, Youtube, and the London club scene. Dubstep is a method of remixing and creating new beats. It originally evolved from “DnB,” or drum and bass, another type of electronic mix that uses heavy bass beats, “2-step garage,” a more jittery and irregular version, and “dub,” a subgenre of reggae. While dubstep started out as underground, garage-made mixes in England, it has morphed into something much more mainstream—there are dubstep remixes of almost every popular song out there, even including Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong. In 2009, because of the increase in popularity of the genre, The New York Times reviewed it, saying “Earlier this decade grime emerged, with dirty bass lines and sparse beats that left plenty of room for rappers. Dubstep is nimbler and lighter, with skittering beats that hint at 1990s-era syncopation without sounding busy” (reviewed by Kelefa Sanneh). And, quite predictably, classical music fell into the whirlpool started by these DJ’s turntables.
 Also predictably, it works—incredibly well. The rawness of classical music, its natural magnetism, mixes perfectly with the added beats and heavy drum lines that dubstep offers. Because classical music is able to pack so much passion into small cadences that only use organic instruments, dubstep doesn’t really have to do that much to make it sound club-worthy. Vocal pieces, like baroque requiems or masses, work especially well with dubstep, adding a flare of intensity, the adjective that all dubstep producers strive to acquire. While there are not many professional dubstep musicians that use classical music exclusively, there are plenty independent DJs that make their work available to us over Youtube. Such as these three:

(I love this one^^^)

However, there are a handful of DJs that put out mixtapes or CDs which include classical dubstep, such as dj BC and the group Vex’d. dj BC, an American-based  musician, released an album called Glassbreaks where he mixed pieces by Philip Glass with songs by the Beastie Boys, Kenye West, Lil’ John, and others (the album is no longer available due to copyright issues, but a few are still up on Youtube). Although the album might not fit hand-in-hand with the genre of dubstep, it is very close and uses similar techniques. His remix called “Einstein on the Beast” (Glass and Beastie Boys) is very hip-hop leaning, but the “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” lines from Glass’s Einstein on the Beach are evident, as are Glass’s iconic chord progressions.

Vex’d is a dubstep duo from England—they released an album called Cloud Seed that was incredibly unpopular, but on it is a hidden gem: a remix of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2. Although G. Prokofiev is already hip-hop and dance-oriented, he is classically trained and his compositions easily fit into the classical category. Vex’d’s remix of his quartets is certainly dubstep, but it’s different in many ways. It’s incredibly open and echo-y, and the drum and bass lines sound more organic than most dubstep remixes do. It sounds tribal in some parts, electronic in others, and urban throughout.

Though we classical music lovers do take a lot of pride in the pure, organic, rooted music we listen to, dubstep definitely is doing things for us that we would have trouble accomplishing alone. In many of the comments on Youtube, the obvious dubstep, hip-hop loving users would comment on the accuracy of the classical pieces used, or the colors and flavors of the originals. For example, a comment on a Chopin remix read:

“Astounding the way that played out at 3:12 and you incorporating the piano into your mixing. The scratching was amazing and I love how it took almost a Middle Eastern sound in places when the dubstep kicked in. Genius. Your piano in the intro was so gorgeous and it was just as amazing by mixing time.

So, let’s always take pride in the natural art we love so much, but let’s also take a look at what is being done with it now—we never know how it will affect someone... like that guy who at the mention of the name "Brahms" turned the other way.