Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, January 31, 2004


I looked up the quotes that I paraphrased yesterday.

"When we listen to music most deeply we seem to trace with one hand the furrows of the mind, with the other the folds of the universe." -- Evan Eisenberg, "The Recording Angel"

Every thing in the universe vibrates. Rhythmic cycles and patterns everywhere -- heartbeat, earth's rotation on its axis, earth's orbit around the sun, stars rotating around galaxial axles. When music is able to create a tension between different rhythmic patterns, or suggest multiple patterns through rhythmic obliquity, and when it does so with beauty, that's when I'm put in mind of the folds of the universe, the uncountable rhythmic cycles that permeate our lives.

"He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom." -- Melville, "Moby Dick"

Friday, January 30, 2004

This morning, driving to work, listening to the radio show "Caravan,” Friday mornings on the local folk/jazz/world music/non-NPR world news public station:

“Epistrophy,” Thelonious Monk Quartet, live in 1966 at the Olympia in France (Paris?).  Never heard this version before.

Monk’s solo.

So minimal, just a few notes, usually just one note at a time, his distinctive sharp, clear timbre ringing out, grabbing you by the ears saying “listen to me”; Monk’s transcendently oblique relationship to the swinging 4/4 rhythm, making a few notes convey a depth of musical-soul consciousness that’s awe-inspiring; the obliqueness a mark of musical mastery conjured by few musicians in my experience -- Satchmo, Ornette, Monk, Mingus, Jon Hassell -- their way of playing beautiful melody in difficult-to-notate rhythms with a conscious but ineffable relationship to the beat at hand; calling to mind the wonderful quote from Evan Eisenberg in “The Recording Angel,” his great book about recorded-music-considered-as-such, “when we listen to music most deeply we seem to trace with one hand the folds of consciousness and with the other the patterns of the universe” (paraphrased); like the Pequod’s Pip after he’s fallen overboard, thinking he's going to drown, experiencing a vision of the foot of God pedaling the loom of the universe -- Monk’s solo with its stark and rhythmically complex, melodically simple, harmonically sophisticated beauty, it . . . it . . . it did THAT.

Thursday, January 29, 2004


Intense individualism is not strictly an American or even a Western thing (“Western” as in Western Civ, not John Wayne). I don’t know whether it’s a Rule, but in reading about masters of classical Indian music, I’ve been struck by how many of them made fundamental alterations to their instruments, sometimes to the extent of inventing a new instrument. Over and over again, a master classical musician will add one string or several to his instrument, or fundamentally change the bridge, or design a longer flute, or add keys, so that not only is their Style individualistic, but so are the very Sounds they make, and the way they make them.

At first blush, parallel examples in American music are few. Clarence White, the great country-rock guitarist of the Byrds, designed a device to bend the B-string of the guitar in a way that gives it the capability of imitating pedal steel guitar sounds. A folk-style guitar and banjo player told me that Pete Seeger designed a 5-string banjo with an extra long neck; my acquaintance showed off his Pete Seeger-style extra-long neck 5-string banjo and said, a little embarrassed, “Everybody went out and got one.” The contemporary alt-country-rock guitarist Junior Brown designed something he calls the guit-steel, a double-neck guitar with a standard guitar neck and a country-style steel-guitar neck.

Then again, if you count the amp and the special effects as part of the instrument -- and I think you should -- probably a lot of rock guitarists and keyboardists and some bassists have designed fundamental alterations to the electric equipment through which the sounds pass and are altered. Starting with Les Paul. And! I just remembered: A high school electric-bassist friend asked a science wiz pal of his to build him a distortion box that when activated would turn the entire instrument into a wonderfully garish white noise bomb generator. It was great; my friend used it only when the music called for a white noise bomb. I’m sure there are tons of examples like that, people designing their own electric effects.

Tonight driving home from work, on the local college alt-rock-alt-country-rap-reggae station, a virtuoso guitarist was ripping a long blues solo over standard 12-bar changes played straight and fine and medium-slow by a bassist and drummer. Hmm, who’s this? Nothing really new here in tone or melodic approach, but blazing speed and tasteful blues licks, and, oh! a few country licks, almost like a pedal steel guitar. Something of a Hendrix-y ‘60s tone, not as meaty as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound. Impressive chops, definitely worth a listen. Then after several choruses of guitar, a low-voiced southern white singer comes in with banal boasts about what this “country boy can do” with his “guit-steel.” It’s Junior Brown, which I should have been able to tell from the country pedal-steel-sounding licks, played on his very own unique guit-steel.

It’s weird. He can play anything he wants on the guitar, but it seems that all he wants to play is a pastiche of other people’s blues-rock and country licks. The rhythm section is tight as a good bar band but less inspired than most (though seeing the band live would probably improve my experience of them). The pastiche was unique, but he appeared to get no pleasure from his boasting, and I kept on hoping for something more. My apologies if you’re a Junior Brown fan. I can see why someone would like it -- it’s solid and he blazes and his hybrid instrument is very cool.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


Everybody has a distinctive walk.  The shapes your body makes as you propel yourself over ground are distinctly yours.  Your posture, your gait -- they’re yours and no one else’s.  Same with your voice.  As individual as your fingerprint.  Surveillance experts know this; science can track it; for all I know anybody who’s ever marched at a protest may be on some giant government gait/posture database somewhere in suburban Maryland.

A traditional jazz value is the development of an individual voice print on one’s instrument.  Some rockers achieve this as well, particularly lead guitarists and drummers.  Electric guitarists often play particular guitars and dial their amps and pick-up settings to get a particular tone.  To take two examples, implying no special endorsement, Jerry Garcia often (but not always) played with that unique Jerry Garcia tone; Carlos Santana has his typical tone (which he sometimes strays from).  But each of them also has a unique way of improvising melodies that makes their solos distinctive even when they stray from their typical tones.  George Harrison in his solo career changed his guitar tone frequently, but his slide guitar solos are always immediately recognizable because he has his own “way of walking” with that guitar.

Last night on the jazz/folk/world college station I heard James Blood Ulmer playing Ornette’s composition “Lonely Woman.”  What a gorgeous composition, a signal composition of free jazz, a beautiful melody that DEPENDS on being unmoored from strict adherence to bar lines.  (It occurs to me while typing that I’ve never heard the Modern Jazz Quartet’s early version of the tune; I wonder how they dealt with the intense rubato built into the tune.)  I’d never heard or heard of Ulmer’s version, but I know it’s him because no one else sounds like him.  His skittery, angularly melodic electric guitar style is distinctive and terrific.  He and the bassist and drummer flowed through their multiple tempos beautifully, often each playing in their own tempo, but responding to each other in terms of density, or intensity of attack and dynamics.  When one would play louder and more staccato the others would respond to that while each usually maintaining their own rhythmic pulse.  Dense, complex music.  Very cool.  I would have liked to have heard it live, where the louds and softs really do get loud and soft, unlike on record, where recording technology flattens the louds and softs to produce a consistent volume so I can hear it nicely over the noise of traffic while driving in my car without having to constantly turn the volume up and down.

Everybody is a star, like Sly and the Family Stone say. And my definition of a star is somebody with a uniquely personal “way of walking,” which means everybody. The complexity and degree of distinctiveness is the question in musical style. In his autobiography, Roland Barthes defends his hack piano playing, mistakes and all, on the grounds that better pianists impose their interpretations on the music, while he, Roland Barthes, lacks competence to do so, and so he plays what the composers have written unfiltered. Whether that’s true or a witty and elegant line of baloney (and I suspect the latter), nothing could be further from individualistic jazz America. James Blood Ulmer and band interpreted the heck out of “Lonely Woman,” and the composer wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004


In the men’s room before going in to see “Return of the King” on Saturday night, us pissers were treated to a swatch of Howard Shore’s heroic and spooky orchestral score. Not my usual mood while pissing, but I’m flexible.

A whole new meaning to the old insult “canned” music.

Monday, January 26, 2004


Yesterday I wrote of how an encounter with beauty can sharpen the senses.  I rhapsodized on the beauties of a song by late ‘60s pop group the Cowsills, and I said I learned from the DJ the name of the song.

It turns out, my senses weren’t as sharpened as I had thought.  The name I reported hearing is not the name of the song.  The song is called “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”  It's embarrassing, and funny, how pride goeth. Despite the mistake, I'm still down with "The Symposium." Beauty can sharpen the senses. Can.


A childhood friend (since 5th grade), Emily Dietrich, a writer and pianist, wrote to say she remembers hearing the all-harmonics string quartet piece in our elementary school too.  "It sounded someway, some good weird way that I liked hearing."

Los Angeles-based professional opera bass-baritone Dean Elzinga wrote, in response to my post on 5/4 meter, that in Britten's "War Requiem," "There is a beautiful movement for the Tenor Solo: Movement V, Agnus Dei which is in a haunting 5/8 meter.” Dean e-mailed me a highly compressed recording of the movement, and it was, as advertised, beautiful and haunting. Thanks so much! 

Chicago playwright and actor and author Mickle Maher, an old friend, wrote to remind me of something I’d forgotten to mention “. . . about 5/4: When the first Mission Impossible came out, I was at Bennington, and a teacher of mine, Bill Reichblum -- theater guy, gave the eulogy at Growtowski's funeral, big brain, intense -- gave this reason for his distrust of the movie (which he hadn't seen and wasn't planning on seeing.) He said he suspected that the theme music for MI had originally been in 5/4, but for the movie (he'd seen the trailer) it was in 4/4. He had this confirmed by fellow faculty member Allen Shawn, the composer and little brother of Wallace. And for some reason he didn't like this change.” I haven't seen the movie, but the TV theme is indeed in 5/4. It's hard to imagine it in 4/4! I can imagine it in 3/4, but now I want to hear it! Very cool 5/4 tune.

Another old friend, John Logie, a professor of rhetoric and a blogger (blogologie, http://logie.net/ ) wrote to say why he dislikes a song I wrote about liking: “Old U-M Prof Stan Garner once spoke movingly and angrily about 'Touch of Grey.' While it's beautifully sung, he was furious with the (then Grateful) Dead for exchanging what he perceived as the more expansive idealism of the late 1960s for the song's refrain: 'I will get by/I will survive.' I had to agree. When Gloria Gaynor sang the latter, it seemed fierce, but with Jerry, et al. it bespoke a measure of surrender.”

Sunday, January 25, 2004


The amount of visual and aural stuff that one encounters in a two minute walk down the street is astounding. If you’re like me, you tune out well more than 90% of the detail almost all of the time, but you also, sometimes, experience moments of lucidity where seemingly everything appears to you in vivid clarity. And such moments of clarity are usually accompanied by a feeling of awe for the complexity and detail of existence, often a happy awe.

For me, these moments are sometimes precipitated by seeing something that makes me happy -- a tender moment between people, or people playing sandlot sports, or a pretty person. Socrates in Plato's “Symposium” talks about how contemplation of beautiful bodies can lead one to a finer understanding of reality. For me, happy contemplation of a pretty person can make the surrounding phenomenal world more vivid. And that’s reality -- the vividness of the world and its particulars. I don't know that these experiences give me a finer understanding, but it feels like they give me a finer perception of reality. (According to "The Symposium," the finer understanding of reality entails contemplation of the eternal Forms [capital F!], of which the phenomenal world is but a shadow play -- but I don't feel the urge to follow Plato down that path.)

On Thursday afternoon and then again on Saturday night I heard an old pop song from the late ‘60s (I’m guessing) on the radio. The first time I heard it, when the bell-like tone of the keyboard arpeggios and the glistening harps came in, I realized I knew the song, but not its name or the musician. Here it comes, I thought, the part where three voices come in, one after the other, in harmony, singing, “Happy! / Happy! / Happy!” The (male) singer sees a pretty woman. (Or, I hope and assume she's a woman, even though he says "girl"; I hope she's a woman because the song implies sexual attraction.) She has “flowers in her hair / Flowers everywhere.” Were flowers ubiquitous before he saw the female? Did she make them appear? Sounds like a metaphor for ecstatic vivid perception. Joyous chorus, harmony singing, pretty voices, harps and bell-like keyboards, flowers in the hair, flowers everywhere, happy happy happy!

The first of the two times I recently heard the song, the DJ didn’t tell its name or who sang it, but the 2nd time I learned it was “The Flower Girl” by a group called the Cowsills. All I know about the Cowsills is that the Partridge Family is based on them, and that the TV production company invited the kids in the band to be in the show on the condition that Shirley Jones play their mom, and the kids refused. (I've even heard that there's a Partridge Family episode based on this true story. Exploitation knows no irony.) I don’t knowingly know any other Cowsills songs, but this one sends me. The song argues and beautifully exemplifies something I’ve experienced. An encounter with vivid beauty reveals the bloom of the world.

Saturday, January 24, 2004


Yesterday morning driving to work I had a few minutes of radio heaven, courtesy of KBCS, “a world of music and ideas,” a local public non-NPR station. Their Friday morning music show is an eclectic trip called “Caravan,” named after the Ellington standard, one of the classics of jazz exotica, written by Ellington’s Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol. The DJ usually opens the show with one of the hundreds of recorded versions of the tune. (Duke alone had dozens of distinct arrangements of the song, and all of them that I’ve heard are terrific.)

Today, an acquaintance of mine who works at the station, a good musician and a really nice guy named Bruce Wirth, was guest-hosting the show, and he opened with two great versions of the song -- broadcast simultaneously! One by trumpet great Jon Hassell from his wonderful album of a few years ago, “Fascinoma,” the other a really early Ellington version, maybe the first recording ever. (It may have been one of the small-group bands nominally led by Ellington sidemen; maybe Barney Bigard in this case).

Hassell, if you don’t know, is most famous for playing gorgeous electronically-altered trumpet on one song on the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” and for a beautiful electronic album cut with Brian Eno in ‘80 or ‘81. “Fascinoma” may be his first album with trumpet sans electronic alteration. His tone is gorgeous and his improvisations have always traced melodic beauty with unique sound and style and harmonic freedom. The band is wonderful (jazz pianist Jacky Terrason; classical Indian and New Age flute player Ronu Majumdar; tasteful all-round utility guitarist Ry Cooder; others); and the tunes are great, originals and standards. Two versions of “Caravan,” expansive and atmospheric.

(I picked up the phrase “The Magic of Tone,” about which I posted a few days ago, from Hassell’s liner notes to this album. He picked up the phrase from a Euro-institution-tradition composer [and astrologist] named Dane Rhudyar, whose music I’ve never heard and whose astrology I’ve never read.)

Bruce started this morning’s Caravan with one of Hassell’s languorous reverby versions, with a slightly dissonant piano riff intro before the tune comes in strong, then segued into uptempo the late ‘30s Ellington version, with its tight ensemble riffs behind the classic melody. I thought the Hassell version dropped out completely, but then I heard it ghostly in the background, behind the solos of some of Duke’s nonpareil stars -- Tizol, baritone saxist Harry Carney, clarinetist Bigard, maybe Rex Stewart on cornet. Bruce boosted Hassell’s trumpet when he was playing the melody, and briefly boosted it again after the brief Ellington version ended before quickly fading it out. The whole thing was gorgeous and exciting. The simultaneity of time past and time not-so-past; the dense tapestry of tone magic made by master musicians all with their distinctive sound prints. The collage faded out just as I pulled into work.

Thanks Bruce. And thanks Juan Tizol, Jon Hassell, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart (?), and, always, Duke.

Friday, January 23, 2004


The other day my cubicle mate asked me what the name of that song by Bob Geldoff was. She was downloading songs from the internet and wanted that one but couldn’t remember the name.

I suggested, “I don’t like Mondays?”

“That’s it!”

A couple hours later she was listening to her downloads and a song started and she said, “Here’s our song!”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but a few bars in I recognized it: “I Don’t Like Mondays” -- the Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldoff’s group.

Funny thing is, I’ve heard the song a couple times now in the last few days, and I could not hum you one lick of the opening bars. I couldn’t repeat any of the melody before the part that goes:
“[ba da dum] no reason
cuz there are [?] no reasons
no reasons for [ba ba da da dum]
tell me why
I don’t like Mondays
tell my why
I don’t like Mondays
tell me why
I don’t like Mondays
I wanna shoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oot
the whole day down”

I don’t remember many of the words either.

The distinction between being able to recognize a tune, and being able to repeat it, to really remember it -- well, we call the catchy parts “hooks.” But it’s interesting that part of the whole is distinct in my memory, and part is completely vague in my mind’s ear but quickly recognizable while it’s actually passing through my eardrum.

Remembering puts back together that which has been dismembered. Dionysus torn to bits by his worshippers. Except total recall is impossible. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

When something makes an impression, it presses down hard and leave its shape in a “negative” space. A song’s hook bites in and painlessly tears the mind’s flesh, lodging decorously like a mind’s ear-ring.


Why do they even call them Presidential "Debates"? It feels like the condescending journalists get more time to ask the questions than the contestants get to answer them, making it more like a sound-bite-a-thon, like a TV reality show, like the elocution portion of a beauty contest. "I want to devote my presidency to world peace and fighting hunger. Thank you."

Before the Marquess of Queensbury codified boxing in the late 19th century, pugilists would go round after round until one fell down and didn't get back up. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were the oratorical equivalent. I'm not sure that that would be the best way to go either, but it would be a hella better than what they got going now.

Thursday, January 22, 2004


"The secret of a great melody is a secret."
-- Dave Brubeck

(I have no recollection as to where I came across that quote.)

The cliche goes: a "haunting melody." Meaning, a melody is a ghost, a spirit, an un-dead trace of human consciousness, spirit, energy. It unwinds through time and creeps in your ear, uncalled for, unasked, uninvited, and haunts your mind's ear. If it's a "good" one, if, like a cold, it's "catchy." Sick me, melody; haunt me, ghost!

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


I was in and out for the State of the Union, dealing with the baby, dealing with dinner, but I caught most of it. I’ve long been a fan of the serpentine flicking of the President’s lying tongue when he speaks, and as his lies this time were monumental and shameless, his snakelike tongue made many appearances. My favorite moment was when he almost cracked up when talking about being a responsible steward of the people’s money. Broad smile as he says it, vigorous applause from his Party loyalists, as they all know their plan to BANKRUPT THE GOVERNMENT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE is going great. Really, I laughed out loud at the con man getting such a kick out of his con. The movie isn’t as interesting if the bad guy isn’t attractive sometimes. Not to take away anything from his wickedness.

Respect to Rove’s adviser Grover Norquist for telling the truth. “The goal is to shrink government down small enough so we can drown it in a bathtub.” (Paraphrase.) The method for the shrinkage? Bankruptcy. It would be nice if the mainstream press took, you know, Norquist at his word, and contextualized Bush’s policies therefrom.

Bush’s hammering on the ongoing threat of the terrorists fell into a new light when I read NY Times Republican hireling columnist David Brooks’s Tuesday column after watching most of the SOTU. Brook had been hanging out in Iowa -- I guess the phrase is “reporting from” Iowa -- and while snarking at the “smallish”ness of the Dem candidates and praising the idealism of the Dem caucus goers, he expressed surprise at how little the atrocity of 9-11 weighs on people’s minds. Bush sure took pains to try to persuade people to be afraid, be very afraid. The implication being, only the R’s are tough enough to deal with it.

The con man’s going down. People ain’t buying his crock of lies no more.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


I bought the current issue of “Sing Out!” magazine because the cover story is on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and I’ve been interested in her lately. One of the great musicians of the 20th century, a titanic singer, a riveting lead guitarist, and a first-rate bandleader. The article filled me in on aspects of her career I didn’t know about, but per usual it shortshrifted her brilliance as a guitarist and bandleader. I’ll probably post more about Tharpe at another time -- she’s amazing.

You can tell I’ve never read “Sing Out!” by the following sentence. Omigod, Pete Seeger still writes for it! I’ve read a bunch of Pete Seeger’s “Sing Out!” columns and articles in his terrific, argumentative collection, “The Incompleat Folksinger”; I knew he’s still alive; but I didn’t know he was still writing. “The Incompleat Folksinger” is sometimes full of baloney, like when he talks retrospectively about the Weavers getting Number One hits by simply singing the good old songs of the people plain and hearty. Well, that’s true, except that the versions that went to Number One on the Hit Parade had slick orchestrations by one of Frank Sinatra’s more rococo arrangers, the great Gordon Jenkins. Well, when Pete made those claims, it turned out he had just forgotten about old Gordon, and a subsequent mention in the same book from later in his life sheepishly admits his mistake. So props for admitting a mistake.

Along with the argumentation, “The Incompleat Folksinger” has a lot of great tales to tell. Like how when Pete & Woody were barnstorming the country, playing work camps and union halls and wherever they could, in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. They played a lumberjack camp somewhere in the north country, for a bunch of Scandinavian American lumberjacks. Woody and Pete played a song. Silence. They played another. Dead silence. They played a third. Not a peep. They wrapped up and went to bed. Next morning, a lumberjack approached them and said, I don’t know why you stopped, I could have listened all night, it was so beautiful. (Paraphrased.)

Pete’s still a zippy writer, and his new column is all about the mystery of melody, a belief I fervently subscribe to. He’s still alluding to Woody and Dylan and Arlo, but he’s mellowed since his “folk and only folk” heyday -- now he allows as to how he digs Gershwin and Harold Arlen and people like Schubert too. Great tune writers. As a longtime amateur-sometimes-semi-pro songwriter myself, I’ve learned that you can learn harmony, and you can learn rhythm, but melody is a gift. Pete says that as old as he is (he’s 84 now), if there were a school where he could learn melody, he’d go. And he’s written some great ones -- “Bells of Rhymney” is beautiful. But he may have stolen it, and he wouldn’t mind admitting it if he did, which is only respectable.

One thing I love about Pete, besides that he’s a great musician, he’s never made any bones about being a patrician New Englander. His dad, Charles Seeger was a music professor, a one-time composer in the European-institutional tradition, and an early and influential ethnomusicologist. He pretty much gave up composing to focus on studying the music of “the people.” Pete inherited that, and, eventually, he got to his father’s lack of dogmatism.

The first words of the Introduction to the first widely respected general history of jazz ever written, "The Story of Jazz" by Marshall Stearns, from 1956, is the name “Charles Seeger.” What’s an ethnomusicologist and Euro-tradition composer doing at the beginning of a history of jazz? Here's Stearns:

"Chalres Seeger tells the story of a conference of musicologists after which one of the most famous confided: ' You know, I don't hate jazz; I think it's probably very important and it certainly deserves serious study. The trouble is that all the jazz people treat it as holy, holy, holy!' To this, Seeger replied: ‘Well, now, don’t you consider the area of classical music in which you specialize as holy, too?’ ‘Ah,’ said the musicologist, ‘BUT IT IS!’”

Music is holy, and it can be hard for me to remember not to diss other people’s religious beliefs, namely, if I think someone’s music is drab.

Monday, January 19, 2004


It's Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday holiday today, so I have the day off. King was a prophet. His last famous speech, "I have been to the mountaintop" -- he made it a few days before he died. The "mountaintop" is an allusion to Moses on Sinai. Moses never made it to the Promised Land. King knew he was going to die. People have written about the Religion of Elvis, about how he has been transformed into a religious icon. The iconography around King is similarly divine. Every year a billboard goes up around Seattle with a brooding photo of King, captioned with his name and the years of his life, 1929 --. Left open-ended. If we were honest about our natural polytheism, we could be more open about our worship of these prophets. (Not equating King with the King in terms of moral stature or cultural importance, but I'm cool with Elvis worship. The man could sing, and music is a central stream of my personal religion. He could dance too. In aesthetic terms, King's oratory and Elvis's music were both tops. And although King's oratory needs no assistance, the great drummer and civil rights activist Max Roach recorded a spectacular and beautiful drum accompaniment to King's "I have a dream speech.")

So, Happy MLK Day, everybody. I can't hear his "I have a dream" speech without crying. If you're ever in Memphis, you should check out the Civil Rights Museum, built in the motel where the assassin(s) murdered King. They've kept the room where King last slept intact, and the parking lot has cars from the era. It's spooky -- just a little inconspicuous motel. Hope work and sacrifice and horror and violence -- and hope. America has made real strides, but the struggle continues, as do the hope and work and sacrifice and horror and violence, and we're now more aware of how they've gone global. Walmart still locks its nightshift in all night, but Paul Bunyan moved to Brazil, and the blood and bone exploitation of the bosses has mostly left our shores for cheaper labor markets. And racism still stalks this land.

It's utopian and hallucinatory and wild and beautiful, this prayer:

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Sunday, January 18, 2004


(In the Greek pantheon, Memory was the mother of the Muses. According to them, “musical memory” is a family affair.)

I haven’t listened to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony in probably 15 years. Up early this morning sucking on a throat losenge to quell a temporary coughing fit, I was thinking about its structural savvy. As I recall, the Pathetique upset critics enamored of standard form by concluding with a heavy, teary, slow movement instead of the standard uptempo movement. The penultimate movement, if my memory serves me well, is in 5/4 meter, and Tchaikovsky gets a strong march feel despite the strange beat. The concluding teary movement is thrown into stronger relief by the brilliant structure of the 5/4 march, which Tchaikovsky wrote as a “variations and theme.” The melody is fragmented and oblique at the beginning and gathers coherence and unity as the movement moves along until it comes together with a rousing, uplifting theme and screams to a halt, leading to the devastating undercutting of the heroic mood by the symphony’s lachrymose finale.

But now as I type this I’m sure I’ve got it wrong. The 5/4 movement is the second movement, and it’s got an awkwardly graceful waltz feel. The next-to-last movement is a standard 4/4 march, with the tremendously effective “variations-and-theme” structure.

I’ll try to find a recording of the symphony and listen to it and report if I’m wrong.

Another musical memory I want to confirm: In 5th or 6th grade, a string quartet came and played in our school gym in Kalamazoo, Michigan (population circa 80,000, a college town with a symphony). 5th or 6th grade would have been some time within 1973 to 1975, back when there was public school funding for arts education. I remember the quartet playing a movement made up entirely of “harmonics.” On stringed instruments, harmonics are the bell-like tone, or the glass-harmonica-like tone, that a player produces by placing her finger lightly on the string at one of the mathematically harmonic points -- halfway up the string, a 3rd, a quarter, a 5th -- without pressing the string all the way down to the fingerboard. Hearing 4 stringed instruments playing these ghostly tones at once has haunted my memory for nigh on 30 years now. As I recall, the composer was Bartok.

One of these days I’ll track down his string quartets and give them a listen. But part of me doesn’t want to. I also remember hearing the Kalamazoo Symphony playing Stravinsky’s “Firebird” when I was 10 or 11 or 12 years old. I remember spectacular psychedelic splashes of musical color. Explosions of tone color. A couple years ago I bought a bargain CD of the Firebird. It didn’t live up to my memory. But to give Stravinksy the benefit of the doubt, a recording is a puny thing next to a live symphony orchestra.

Saturday, January 17, 2004


High school students run a public radio station in Seattle -- "C89, Seattle's Hottest Music." Uptempo dance dance dance music. I'm hopelessly behind-the-times, and couldn't tell you the names of the dance music genres of the last 15 or 20 years, but this station is true to its slogan -- it's HOT. Great beats, powerful singing, almost all songs about that great pop staple, that staff of life: Lust. Though once I heard a song there, the chorus of which was a chorus of cheerfully masculine men chanting, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." Go, Little Engine, Go! Another song I heard there had a driving beat and a diva wailing, "Remember me? I'm the one who had your baby." Those were the only words of the song, sung a dozen or more times with galvanic dance music riffing between. It made me cry.

One of the modern dance genres -- I'm guessing it's techno or house, not electronica, but as I said I'm not sure -- often creates a wonderful rhythmic power by crossing 5/4 rhythm over the basic 4/4 dance beat, the 5/4 usually being played by an organ/sythesizer with the bass and drums keeping the main 4/4. West African music and its myriad North and South American stylistic descendents have always had a 3/4 over 4/4 cross-rhythm power move, but I'd never heard (or maybe never noticed) a 5/4 over 4/4 cross-rhythm. The 5/4 over 4/4 rocks me!

5/4 is a cool meter. There's the lovely Desmond/Brubeck "Take Five," of course, and some stray songs by the Byrds and Led Zeppelin. I recently read, in Constant Lambert's terrific book "Music Ho!" (written in the 1930s, a history of modern European-institutional ["classical"] music by an English composer), that the early 19th century Russian composer Glinka (whose music I've never knowingly heard) was the first "classical" composer to introduce the 5/4 meter. A middle movement of Tchaikovsky's great 6th Symphony, the "Pathetique," is in 5/4. I want to know more about 5/4.

Friday, January 16, 2004


Had to drive up to Everett for work today, so lots of radio time. The MOR NPR jazz station from Tacoma, KPLU, played a lovely version of Duke's "In a Sentimental Mood." I don't know who it was, a female singer who had taken into account the gorgeous versions by Coltrane with Duke and by Nancy Wilson. Such a lovely melody, haunting sweetbitter, and those happy blissful words with the hint of melancholy, the meloncholy only coming at the end when the singer expresses surprise at ever having found happiness at all. And the melody contains the happiness-refuged-from-melancholy, and the singer's tone of voice carried it as well, the knowledge of the awesome good luck at having found happiness, an island of happiness in the sea of sorrow that is the world.

Thursday, January 15, 2004


Yesterday I claimed to be a lukewarm-to-lukecool Grateful Dead fan. Then today driving home from work, listening to Seattle’s “Quality Rock” station, KMTT “The Mountain,” I heard “Touch of Gray,” a song of theirs I really really like and liked even before I started graying myself. Jerry Garcia is a warm and appealing singer, and the band grooves attractively and energetically. Before he died, I thought of Jerry as a national treasure, a writer of excellent tunes, a fine bluegrass banjo player, a sweet singer, and one of the few rock guitarists who could have pulled off sitting in with Ornette Coleman and Prime Time without embarrassing himself, as he did on Ornette’s tremendous album “Virgin Beauty.” His guitar sound and melodic improvising style are unique. Apropos also of yesterday’s post, I don’t particularly like his guitar tone, which is a purely personal and inexplicable, indefensible opinion.

Some great lines in “Touch of Gray,” by the Dead’s house lyricist, Robert Hunter.

“Every silver lining has a touch of gray.”

And, climactically, with Jerry pushing his voice harder and subtly varying the melody to excellent dramatic effect: “Oh well a touch of gray / kind of suits you anyway.”

Love! It’s a love song. Full of love for the “you” of the song.

And the dramatic switch at the end, after having sung “I will get by / I will survive” several times, the band sings together, “We will get by / We will survive.”

Love! Inclusive love.

The band’s mythos, the band’s reputation, supports the words of the song. Letting people bootleg their shows freely for decades. Very cool.

Another song came on the goofily sloganed “Quality Rock” station, and I switched to KIXI, Seattle’s AM “Great Songs, Great Memories” station, which plays pre-rock and non-rock pop. And another favorite song had just started! “Trying to get the feeling” by Barry Manilow.

Another time I’ll write more about music I liked before I knew what was supposed to be cool. Barry Manilow was in that category, and by early teen-dom I had figured out that Barry was supposed to suck, and so I despised him. Sometime in my 20s I realized that, no, I really do like a lot of his songs. “Trying to get the feeling” is one of them.

A sad song, sung with a tender sympathetic quality that Barry does so well, with his lovely friendly voice, conventionally prettier than Jerry’s but sharing the elusive tone of friendliness. His arrangements deploy a great sense of dynamics. If he produced that dynamic range with electric guitars, rock-ists would probably be more sympathetic, but he does it the old-fashioned way, paying studio musicians union wages, and getting an orchestral sound that I glory in. Sometimes he undercuts, to my ear, the building drama by throwing in a gratuitous key change near the end, but even THAT I sort of like -- it’s so corny, and it’s SO against the rules of tasteful music making and classical style. The great feminist musicologist Susan McClary has written that classical style condemns as feminine a piece of music that ends in a different key than that with which it begins. An observation which certainly mirrors critical condemnation of Barry.

The rising tension and pressure of Barry’s voice parallels the growing dynamics of the orchestration, and the uplifting, buoyant music pleasingly contradicts the desperate frustration of the song’s words. You will get the feeling again, Barry! The orchestra says so, and the sympathetic smooth background singers say so, and my sympathetically beating heart says so too! And then the song changes, and you say it, Barry, you say it, with some ferocity, "I'm gonna get that feeling / I'm gonna get that feeling." You will get the feeling -- we all will. We will survive.

"Music I love" -- substitute your own if Barry or the Dead aren't IT for you -- "music I love" does that to a body. Rest in peace, Jerry Garcia. You survived for a while, like we all do and will.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


According to the web site of Toronto-based music critic Carl Wilson, zoilus.com, Toronto based composer John Oswald has a new album out, and I really want to hear it. Oswald is famous for his Plunderphonics, music created completely out of samples, altered and unaltered. His most widely heard Plunderphonics piece is a 2-CD collage commissioned by the Grateful Dead, made up entirely of excerpts from hundreds of live versions of the Dead playing their song "Dark Star." Speaking as a lukewarm-to-lukecool Dead fan, I find the piece lovely and enchanting; a lot of serious Dead fans apparently dig it too. Some of Oswald's shorter Plunderphonics pieces are brilliant -- witty and exhilarating.

Oswald's new album, "Aparanthesi," also relies on computer-altered sound. It consists of two 30-minute versions of one note. Oswald processes all sorts of sounds from nature and culture and pitch-fixes them to same note. The interest comes from the changing timbres.

Lately I've been thinking more about the history of timbre. How the gravelly sound of Louis Armstrong's voice transformed music as much as his rhythmic and melodic genius. Edgard Varese and John Cage brought what had been considered "noise" to their music. Musicians are always looking for new sounds.

Tone -- timbre -- tone is It. A sociology professor once told me that some huge X percentage (I don't remember the exact number) of verbal communication consists of tone of voice, and that the information from the meaning of the words spoken makes up a minority of the information communicated. Singing is acting; life and emotions are endlessly complex. Tone carries ample portions of complexity.

John Oswald's new CD promises a wealth of tone-magic compressed into one note. I listen forward to hearing it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004


My beloved wife and I sang Happy Birthday to him many times. We sing to him often. Sometimes he sings along.


So is The Star Spangled Banner. Little known facts.


Tuesday is one of my child care days, and my wife took the day off so we could have a day-long party together. We drove up to the mountain pass and went snowshoe-ing with the baby in the backpack. Listening to a local public radio international music show on the way back, I was having trouble understanding the DJ. It wasn't his accent -- he sounded urban northern standard white American. DJs commonly boost the bass frequency of their voices while broadcasting, and this guy boosted his so much it made it hard to hear what he was saying. He didn't make the music too bass-y, and he played good music, but it was funny when he talked.


We had a bunch of people over for dinner after getting back from snowshoe-ing. I surprised myself and started banging away at the piano, reading the chords of songs I know and love in a songbook called "Softer Songs of the '60s." I do this in private pretty often, and I'm quite bad at it. I had hoped to practice to get good enough to do it at a party by next Christmas, and here I was doing it eleven months early. It wasn't alcohol -- I'd only had one beer, a couple hours before. Maybe it was the cake; maybe it was my son's birthday -- whatever it was, I plunged in. And a few guests joined in and we gathered around the piano as I butchered the chords, and we bellowed away on "King of the Road" and "The Impossible Dream" and "On A Clear Day" and other old favorites.

Those old songs have great melodies. Group bellowing is cathartic, and its trace will linger in my heart as a present-tense presence at least through tomorrow. The effects of group singing, when it's happy and loud, can last with me for days. It then remains as a memory, but of the past, not the present.

Happy Birthday! A very happy birthday. The boy enjoyed the hubbub. He's a party baby. And he sure liked the cake.

Monday, January 12, 2004


Heard that song by Blue County on the country pop station today, “Good Little Girls can make mighty wild women.”

If you haven’t heard it, it’s a trip.

The singer is hot for a woman. The woman is saving it for marriage. The prospect of being her husband makes the singer very very happy. Because good little girls can make mighty wild women.

How does the singer know this?

Some possibilities.

He’s widowed. (If so, sorrow has not apparently touched his soul.)

His wife (wives?) dumped him. (If so, ditto.)

He’s an underground polygamous Mormon.

He’s a polygamous Muslim.

He’s polygamous without benefit of divine dispensation.

He’s a cad.

Which is it? How does he know that which he so exuberantly, catchily proclaims?

Epistemologists want to know.

Sunday, January 11, 2004


I finished reading Hesketh Pearson's 1935 biography of Gilbert and Sullivan today. Interesting tidbit: Pearson refers at one point to 3 popular songs Sullivan wrote in the 1860s without Gilbert that were still well known in 1935, 70 years later. I'd never heard of any of them. It's now 69 years since the book came out. I know a lot of songs from 70 years ago, but not very many from 70-plus-70 years ago. I bet the same was true in 1935 -- Pearson probably didn't know a whole lot of songs from the 1790s.

One song of Sullivan's I have heard, which I didn't know he wrote until I read this book: "Onward Christian Soldiers," which Pearson mentions some time other than with the "3 still well-known songs" reference. (Sullivan wrote music only.)

My parents took me to a G&S show when I was a kid of about 10. I remember liking it. It was either Pinnafore or Penzance. I remember a late middle-aged braggart soldier doing what later became Groucho's Captain Spalding dance. When I saw the G&S bio-movie "Topsy-Turvy," I saw that dance again. I didn't make the Groucho connection until I saw the movie. I love that dance. Loved it when I was a kid, love it now.

The only G&S tune I can hum a few bars of is "I am the very model of a modern major general." Catchy tune.

Pearson quotes a critic who takes Gilbert to task for the sadistic violence of some of his "humorous" lyrics. I have the same reaction to many of Alan Lerner's lyrics in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." A bloody vicious sense of humor sometimes that doesn't appeal to me. Though I love a lot of Lerner's lyrics. (And his memoir, "The Street Where I Live," is a very funny and surprisingly moving elegy for the passing of the prime of his life, his friends and his father and the culture in which they lived.)

One more thing. Both G&S got knighted. Gilbert, the cynical sentimental patriotic military veteran, had to be talked into it by his friends. He made derogatory comments about the honor. A more rockin' attitude than Sir Mick Jagger. As an American, it's hard to imagine bending the knee to the hereditary monarchy.

Pearson is a witty and thoroughly engaging writer. Some day I'll get around to renting a G&S video. I'm sure I'll enjoy parts of it.

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