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

Thursday, March 31, 2005


Sorry about last night's harangue. No, I don't love all music, and yes, it's fine to hate music. I'll still object to outright dismissals of entire genres, but please, pay no attention to my moralistic priggishness.

I don't happen to like Kenny G -- tried to, really tried, but failed. I'm guessing it's the sluggish tempos that put me off. One of my best friends in high school was a bluegrass banjo player with a beautiful country tenor voice. He loved bluegrass, classical, metal, and smooth jazz -- all chops music -- and couldn't stand pop or mainstream rock or jazz -- he hated the Beatles. He turned me onto George Benson, and I've always liked him since.

After a stressful day at work, flipping on the Smooth Jazz station gives me the deliciously absurd fantasy that my spouse's '82 Datsun (which I typically drive) is a sleek new sports car, and I have lots and lots of money and a much better clothes sense. And it doesn't always cheer me up, but it often does. I like the bouncy post-disco rhythms, I like the slick-sound-sculptedness of it. Often they play R&B classics like Anita Baker's lush and superbly detailed "Rapture," which I love. I admire the intellectual independence and honesty that sees Anita Baker as jazz.

Smooth R&B and Smooth Jazz are music of class aspiration. I've been engaging with the muzak side of music since I was a teen-ager, but I don't want to go into more of my story with it now. Perhaps another time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Younger critics tend not to worry over it, but some older rock critics still occasionally protest the prejudice that classical music partisans historically have had against anything-but-classical, the mostly discredited snobbery that characterizes the divide as Art v. Entertainment, or High v. Low Art, or Classic v. Popular.

It’s been a multi-generational, multi-genre effort to topple Classical from its hierarchical castle, and the different genres have employed different strategies. The strategy of jazz discourse was to claim High Art status for jazz on musical grounds of complexity, musical integration, originality, and innovation. Few classical partisans dismiss these claims any more.

The strategy of rock discourse has been more complex. In general (and I ain’t lookin’ nothin’ up at this hour -- lazy sleepy me), the idea has been that the High / Low divide doesn’t exist, that the sociology of mass culture imbues its aesthetic fetish objects with undeniable energy, and that the constant gyrations that popular artists go through to keep themselves in the spotlight of an over-saturated and fickle mass marketplace drive them to heights of creativity and innovation that they would not have otherwise attained. What makes this argument complex is that traditionally, rock critics have re-inscribed the High / Low divide within popular music itself, and claimed for the popular music that the critical consensus has coalesced around a seriousness and emotional and ideational complexity, if not necessarily a musical complexity, fully commensurate with that of classical. The Beatles are the chief example of a pop act whose advocates have claimed high art status for them. By contrast, the Monkees have historically been dissed as Low Pop Entertainment manufactured for pre-teens by cynical image manipulators, not artists.

The post-boomer critics have critiqued this re-inscribed divide as prejudiced and un-aesthetic -- prejudiced against audiences whose sensibilities differ from the critical consensus, and un-aesthetic in that criteria other than aesthetic ones are used to judge artworks. In the Monkees’ case, because most of their hits were written by behind-the-scenes pros, and not the Monkees themselves, the boomer rock critics have tended to dismiss the work as unworthy.

The pro-Monkees crowd invented the epithet “rockist” to hurl at the mostly older crew, and the skirmish has been characterized as rock v. pop. Some pop partisans have claimed the charming term “poptimist” to describe themselves. The poptimists have set the terms of the debate, coined the epithets, and claimed the one they like for themselves -- all sure signs that they are winning. (I consider myself a poptimist and recovering rockist -- and I don’t remember ever having heard anyone call themselves a rockist.) (I’m also -- even worse than “rockist” -- a jazzhead and a folkie.) (And worst of all, a Barry Manilow fan -- a sentimentalist.)

One of my lights in the poptimist world -- the man from whom I first heard word “poptimist” -- has been Carl Wilson, which is why I bum out when I see him inscribe the High / Low line yet again, this time by making “a joke” about not making a joke about placing a bomb at a Smooth Jazz festival. I don’t care if Carl doesn’t like Smooth Jazz. But a cry of “death to that genre” betrays the poptimist cause; it shuts off discourse and attempts to shut ears.

Some people got ears to hear that music. Carl got big ears to hear lots of good music and good words to tell us how & why. That’s the words-about-music game, man, not trumpeting your “deaf spots” and claiming pride in them with no explanation. All that says is, “I can’t relate to that at all; therefore those people must be chumps.”

As it happens, I’ve been listening to Smooth Jazz more and more lately. Had been thinking of posting on it. (I have posted some on Smooth Jazz, but not in depth.) Maybe I still will, but not tonight.

As Barry Goldwater said, Extremism in the defense of Grover Washington Jr. is no vice.

Rented the Brit blues-rock doc in the Martin Scorsese blues series and watched a bunch of it. Interesting stuff. Tom Jones & Jeff Beck wail in the contemporary jam session sections. Lots of stuff about skiffle & the Brit “trad” jazz scene, including a bit on the tune that McCartney ripped the “Lady Madonna” riff from, a ’56 jazz instrumental that the composer hated because the producer mixed the bass of the piano and the drums so loud – the composer hated it until it became a hit! “Bad Penny Blues”. Anyway, the surviving Brit blues rock guys come across as decent chaps crazy about the music – now in their late 50s and 60s and some older.

Got the Blow-Up Soundtrack from the library – never saw the movie – and Herbie Hancock’s score is nothing special, but one trak by the Yardbirds that Antonioni commissioned for the film is spectack! Beck & Page are in the band, and the tune isn’t much, but the guitars – 1966 – are Sonic Youth-style NOIZY. Great great stuff. A couple years ago I got a cheap cheap import of a Yardbirds 2-disc comp – 10 bucks for the 2 discs, I think – and really dug it – most of the first disc is 5 Live Yardbirds, FAST blues rave-ups with hot leads from Eric & great offhand lead vocals a la Danny & the Juniors or Mike Love, energetic but somewhat aloof though not unfriendly; disc 2 those wild hits mostly with Beck. A friend borrowed the CDs several months ago & I’m missing them.

Got an early Elvis soundtrack from the library too – “Loving You” – with “Teddy Bear” the hit. Highlights – a perfect “Blueberry Hill” Domino tribute sans horns – Elvis so absorptive, getting into the ring with ANY singer he digs and covering him or her straight & not embarrassing himself – and a quartet-harmony take on Cole Porter’s “True Love” – very short, and gorgeous – the 32-bar form being either an arranger’s form or an improviser’s form, rock has not done so well with it, not having the variations-chops to extend it much. And so El is very smart to keep it short & perfect. (My complaint about Willie’s “Stardust” hits – they repeat too much, go on too long. Should have given more solos to Mickey Raphael or something.) And the bonus track – an unexpurgated unreleased-at-the-time “One Night of Sin” – great, dirty Elvis.

Monday, March 28, 2005


So said the pop-up registration form at the web site.

Well put! The reader just has to fill in the blanks to find the truth of the matter.

“Help us serve you UP TO OUR ADVERTISERS better.”

I'm not the customer, I'm the entrée!

Sunday, March 27, 2005


Yesterday the 2-year-old told me to sit and play piano. He set up all his stuffed animals in rows around the livingroom carpet. I picked up a songbook to sing Hoagy's (and Ray's) "Georgia on my Mind." The 2-year-old said, "No, no sing Georgia." How'd he know? There are 30 songs in that book! So I got another book and started butchering the chords and singing old songs, while he sat at a drum and started singing something else simultaneously. At the end of the song I stopped and looked at him. "I sing and you sing," he said merrily. One he sang was a song he was making up at the time; another was part of "Good Morning Starshine" from "Hair" -- "gliddy glup gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo," which I sing to him sometimes. We did a few, dedicating different songs to different stuffed animals. "This one goes out to you, Dizzy" -- the stuffed hippo.

You might think that I’ve pushed Ivesianism onto him, but no, it comes from him. All I do is go along with it, very happily.

Saturday, March 26, 2005


Alex Ross’s call for publicity stunts from classical musicians got conflated in my mind with his previous call that classical position itself as “the new underground” and downtown composer Kyle Gann’s consistently excellent writing on the uptown-downtown schism among contemporary composers.

“Dateline: New York, New York

“In a page from the hip hop publicity playbook, America’s post-minimalist composers have shown up heavily armed at several recent concerts of music by contemporary 12-tone composers, spewing threats and waving guns, a la 50 Cent and the Game. The classical ‘gangsta’ scare seeme to be over now, as evidenced by a kiss-and-make-up press conference last night.

“‘Me and the 12-tone crew got no beef,’ said conciliatory-sounding but still surly-seeming post-minimalist composer John Luther Adams.  ‘It was a misunderstanding that got blown out of proportion by you guys in the media.  Peace out.’”

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Olympus is not attained with a struggle. Grace is a gift.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005


One of the things that’s so touching about the new live Barry Manilow album that I’ve been listening to is that he seems genuinely surprised and happy by the enthusiasm of his reception. Barry’s booklet note points this out -- he originally planned a 6 week tour to promote a new album; then a new compilation came out and it sold like crazy, and they went out on tour for 9 months. My spouse and I saw the show early in the tour. The songs from the new album were “eh,” and none of them made it onto the 2-disc live album from later in the tour. But another new song was one of the most memorable from the show we saw and on the album: the title song from a stage show he’s written about the Comedian Harmonists, a German vocal group from the ‘20s that the Nazis broke up because half the members were Jews. It’s a really catchy, super-engaging song, like a bright lively complex Sondheim opener, without the sardonic undertones.

The album has a great arc, opening both discs with songs that can be heard as love songs to the audience, and closing with a medley that definitely plays that way, Sondheim’s song “Old Friends” and Barry’s own “Forever and a Day,” 2 songs I hadn’t known. “Old Friends” is the simpler of the two; oddly, Barry’s song sounds like a haunting Sondheim creation, with an insistent, melancholy figure that underlines the improbability of the happiness that the song’s words and foreground melody convey. Beautiful, emotionally complex song.

I was cranky the other night when I grumpificated about the critical disdain for Barry, but the history of that disdain is part of what makes the album so touching. With no discourse apparatus in support of his career, and a cult status that’s invisible to me anyway (unlike Streisand, another bete noire to the rockers whose cult status is well publicized), he woke up 25 years after his heyday and found himself well and widely loved; his public stuck with him despite the negative cultural cues. Though I have to admit, now that I look for it, his fans are not averse to expressing their enthusiasm (scroll down).

His case helps me understand the boundaries of rockism. It’s not his bombast and lack of irony that make him an exile from rockville -- otherwise U2 and Springsteen would be kicked out too, and to my ears Barry’s standard musical narrative, which starts quiet and ends loud, covers a lot of U2 songs too. His doe-eyed romanticism is a strike against him in rockerville, for sure. I’m guessing it’s mostly his reliance on strings and horns for power chords instead of the canonical electric guitar that gets him in trouble with the rockers, even though the beats on most of his hit songs were contemporary, and he was no acoustic fetishist.

It’s too flattering to say that he’s the Nat King Cole of the rock era -- he isn’t nearly the pianist Cole was; few people in pop, jazz, or rock have been. But he’s written a lot of good songs and picked a bunch more, his voice was comparably lovely, his ability to deliver a lyric’s meaning and emotion is topnotch, and his approach to singing is in the same showbiz vein as Cole’s. And that may have been the biggest reason that rock history and pop criticism have had no way to deal with him. He pushes too many of rockism’s anti-pop buttons, and the “pop studies” people have written no general histories that I’m aware of.

Barry Manilow, like any star, is an individualist.
“The Battle of Trenton” by James Hewitt, 1792, particularly the 4th and 5th of the 6 movements.

“IV. The Battle -- Flight of the Hessians -- General Confusion”

“V. Grief of the Americans for the Loss of Their Comrades Killed in the Engagement.”

Need to listen to it again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, ELO -- they’re not guilty pleasures. They’re just pleasures. I never believed in the snobbish, puritanical concept of guilty pleasures. Until once I noticed Schadenfreude creeping into my being. & it was a guilty pleasure, and, yes, I should feel guilty. But guilt about liking something just because all the cool kids disdain it? Unless you’re on a Kierkegaardian anti-aesthetic trip, feeling guilt about aesthetic matters at all makes no sense to me.

* * *

Been listening to Barry’s most recent album, the 2-disc live album “2 Nights,” from his 2002 tour, which my spouse and I saw. It’s too late at night for me to judge how much my feeling that the album’s achievement is complex is due to the complicating context that critical consensus gives Barry zero respect, but regardless of context, I dig most of the songs.

I’m feeling bitter about that critical consensus right now; it has so drowned out any appreciation for Barry that probably half of you think I’m joking. And it’s funny -- Barry would not approve of my bitterness. One of the most interesting things on the album is his cover of the very bitter Sinatra song, “That’s Life,” which Barry drains of bitterness. At first I thought, bleeaah, hold onto that bitterness, it’s a great bitter song, but Barry won me over. Though he had to alter the lyrics to do it, by bringing back the “get back up and try” after the as-written conclusion, “gonna lay right down and die.” Still, he made it work.

He’s a really sophisticated musician with a lovely voice & a friendly tone. And his thing is rock, he just uses horns and strings instead of fuzz-tone electric guitar for his dramatic accents. Interesting, though -- on the live album he doesn’t sing one of my two or three faves of his, “Could It Be Magic,” but uses an instrumental arrangement of it as his exit music at 3 different spots over the 2 discs. And it’s a fuzz-tone electric guitar that plays the melody, over ‘80s-ish Aronoff-ish thunder-cannon drums, very arena. And it totally works.

Another funny bit of irony -- the opening number is a medley of 4 of his hits (thankfully the album’s only medley), starting with the allegorical-in-context “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” (I hear a lot of popular love songs as allegories for the singer’s wishes & fears towards the audience; example, Orbison’s “You’re Not Alone Anymore,” from the Wilburys album, allegorizing the Orb’s fear that his audience has moved on and left him behind.) (Did I get this idea from reading somebody’s observation that John Ashbery typically begins his books with an allegorical poem about his relationship to his readers?)

The CD case’s title for the 4-song medley as a whole? “Gonzo Opening.” Barry and Hunter Thompson, peas in a pod.

Barry synthesized a pre-rock singing style into a mostly rock-based song-style. His persona conforms to the singing style; hence, he’s a great showman, very generous, playing the hits and constantly conveying how happy he is to be there, singing for us. I loved the concert, and it’s great to have the album out from the library now.

It’s funny -- not all critics hate Bette Midler (I like her fine), and Barry got his start as her musical director and pianist. I’ve heard on the pre-rock AM station a few times their recent duet of the old Tin Pan Alley standard, “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China / all to myself alone.” They sing it beautifully -- they’re both stars, with strong, attractive, totally distinctive voices -- and they sound like the old friends they probably are. At one point Barry says, “Bette, I never knew you felt this way about me,” and Bette says in a ’40s movie cynical dame voice, “Forget it, Barry, I just need a piano player.” And as I type this it occurs to me -- Bette’s counterexample shows that it’s Barry’s utter lack of irony in his presentation that sinks him. Well I say, while irony has its points, it ain’t the Alpha & Omega.

Of course, Barry is a star, and as such he’s utterly beyond worrying about what critics say. Barry has a direct line to lots and lots of people. I’m one of them.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

A couple months ago I was saying hereabouts that while Elvis was a huge inspiration to the ‘60s rockers, I didn’t hear much direct influence, but today while listening to him I thought, duh, of course he had an influence, the range and freedom he brought to timbre which few singers I’ve heard, black or white, had before him, the range from sweet smooth croon to rough raspy yell -- who sang like that before him? Bobby Blue Bland could do it, maybe Ray Charles, but Elvis’s ability to encompass the range in one breath, in a single phrase -- like nobody else that I’ve ever heard. So yeah, though nobody after has quite measured up technically as a singer (contenders: Etta James, Streisand, Lennon, McCartney, Marvin Gaye, S. Wonder, Robert Plant, Prince, Bjork -- and some of them have had technical capacities that Elvis lacked, and probably some of them could go from a roar to a croon in one phrase but simply haven’t felt it), Elvis’s range was hugely influential.

And, you know, I just think his voice is beautiful.

* * *

Technique: This morning the 2-year-old got going on a scat chant -- “oona boona toona coona,” or some such -- dancing and chanting, waving his arms, stomping in a circle, getting more and more intense, till he’s shouting, and his head is vibrating with the intensity, like he’s shaking with rage (though he doesn’t seem angry), and on and on it goes, a few minutes, with more than a minute of peak-wild vibrating, and then he stops, and he says -- calmly, smiling, looking me in the eye -- “That was a good song.”

In the “Fourth of July” movement of his “Holidays Symphony,” Charles Ives musically depicts two village bands marching from opposite ends of town, both playing, and meeting. It’s quite a sound.

I thought of this today (Saturday -- I haven’t gone to bed yet) at the anti-war march. Lots of volunteer percussionists of varying ability, competing chants, rehearsed percussion ensembles, and all of it echoing against the glass towers of downtown Seattle. I love the random percussionists, with their callithumpianism. The rehearsed-sounding percussion ensemble, when I finally saw them after hearing them for 45 minutes, turned out to be mostly teen-age looking white punks -- they made a nice sound. The sonic highpoint of the march came when a group of people singing the old spiritual “Ain’t gonna study war no more” overtook the rehearsed-sounding percussion ensemble, both groups playing in different tempos. I tried to sing with the spiritual singers, but I was 40 feet away from them and couldn’t always hear them to stay in synch. With the random percussionists adding their accents from wherever, the melange exhilarated.

Good turn-out in a good Seattle daylong steady rain -- well more than a thousand. Bumped into several friends, as expected. Festive. The 2-year-old mostly slept, in his stroller, kept dry from the rain by an attached stroller-roof fashioned out of a plastic dropcloth by my spouse.

We skipped the loooooong and haranguing pre-march speeches and took the two-year-old on his first Ferris Wheel ride, which he dug. And a couple carousel rides (the march started at Seattle Center, which has a permanent fairground). The speeches seemed designed to depress the marchers, drain the energy from the event, and alienate everybody -- supporters, opponents, and people on the fence. Wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Richard Mellon Scaife funded them.

A really nice day, nice family outing.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Last Saturday, a week ago, driving around with my family on the other side of Puget Sound, looking for totem poles (which the 2-year-old loves), we came upon the 86-year-old Marian McPartland’s weekly show, Piano Jazz. Her guest that week was the 82-year-old Toots Thielemans, the great Belgian jazz harmonica player. They chatted about their love for Hoagy Carmichael. Thielemanns told of how he met Carmichael once at a party, and then, surprised by memory, “But you were there, Marian! It must have been 50 years ago!” Cy Coleman was there with his lyricist, Toots said, and they sang their new song, “Witchcraft” (a big hit for Sinatra). It was really touching.

And they played Hoagy’s song “The Nearness of You,” and it was lovely.

What we think of as mainstream jazz -- the swing-to-bop practice of jamming on changes -- requires of its practitioners an immense memorized repertoire of mostly 32-bar songs, and an ability to improvise obligattoes and variations over the chords in any key. Most of the 32-bar songs really reduce down to 16 bars of music, as most are structured, 8 bars of an A strain, a repeat of the A strain, 8 bars of a B strain, and another repeat of the A, perhaps with a slight melodic or perhaps even harmonic variation: “AABA” is the famous diagram. And the jazz guys & gals know hundreds, maybe thousands, of these songs by heart.

It’s a musical language that depends completely on the players knowing the conventions, so that 5 people who have never met can get together and sound good, which is the premise of McPartland’s show. And the other side of that word “convention” -- the music almost always sounds conventional now. Perhaps because so much effort goes into learning the conventions and the repertoire, few players have the abiliy to make particular, personal statements. Much as I enjoy Marian McPartland’s show, it’s because of her conversation -- her own completely competent playing doesn’t ever strike me as especially engaging. Toots Thielemans’ playing often does have what Barthes may have called an excess, something beyond what’s expected, beyond the smooth surfaces of convention. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Barthes’ “The Pleasure of the Text,” but while listening to McPartland & Thielemans it came to mind. From Barthes, I associate that personal, particular, excess of style that I hear sometimes in Thielemans’ playing with a flirtiness. And, as you and Barthes know, flirtiness can be a great pleasure.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Listened to "Integrales" and part of "Deserts" by Edgard Varese today. "Integrales," from 1925, does the job of writing music without European influence better than anything else I've heard up to that time. Slabs of dissonant horns and percolating, un-groovy, start-and-stop percussion rhythms, for 10 and a half minutes. I have to be in the mood for it, but when I am, it's great.

Not dramatic or angsty like Schoenberg, not showy and splendid like Stravinsky, no echoes of pop or folk music as in much of Ives -- "Integrales" slabs the sound up straight.

Noise-as-music-meister John Cage had to give props to Varese, but Cage dissed Varese for being "music of the past" because Varese allegedly uses the noises as expressions of himself. Cage's dogmatic exclusion of Varese would exclude just about every composer ever, including, I'm sure a case can be made, Cage himself.

Cage's diss points up another uniqueness of Varese: Unlike Cage and most of the percussion-minded white American 20th century experimentalists, Varese took neither aesthetic nor philosophical cues from Asian music. He got it from himself, with sound-for-sound's-sake inspiration from Debussy and slight rhythmic influence from Stravinsky.

Because of Varese's distance from a typical European dramatic vibe, his style -- unlike Schoenberg's and Stravinsky's (especially via Carl Orff) -- did not get absorbed by Hollywood. The one exceptional case I can think of: Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack to "Planet of the Apes" of 1968 (which my friend Jay turned me onto). Varese's music of 1925 still plays as "futuristic" and "alien" and "disturbing" and "other."

"Deserts," from 1954 (when Varese was 71), is much the same, except the orchestral passages alternate with garish noise from a manipulated tape montage of street and industrial noises.

Magnificent stuff.

* * *

Heard on Seattle’s classical choice, KING FM the other day, the evening drive-home DJ telling a tale of Mozart. It seems he got a commission to write a flute concerto. In letters he complained to his father how much he hated the sound of the flute. He transcribed an oboe concerto that he'd already written and passed it off as his new flute concerto. The patron found out about the self-plagiarism and paid Mozart only half his fee. Early sampling controversy.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


First there’s Franklin Bruno reminding me to wonder, “How often do [I] say to [my]self: I don’t know anything about X, and in some sense should?” Worse, for me, it’s more like, “How often do I know very little about X, and then go on and on as if I did?” Answer: too. Case in point: the classical style -- so much more I don’t know about it than I do. My fingers love to admire themselves while they’re typing, most narcissisticly, so please assume that any authoritative tone around here is the result of enthusiasm about a vague and quite possibly mistaken notion rather than thorough knowledge. Rebuttals definitely welcome (though I may complain about the pain inflicted to my self-esteem).

I could rationalize & attempt to justify this approach, but for now I’m content to shake my face at the vastness of my ignorance. The other night while listening to Seattle’s commercial classical station, I heard the DJ say that KING-FM has 28,000 albums in its library. The BBC’s classical music magazine reviews 150 new albums a month. Many of these albums are 2 and 3 disc sets. I’ll never get caught up.

Second, Jessica Duchen reminds us all that when a critic dislikes something, even if she provides good reasons, it’s strictly personal and should never persuade someone who does like something to stop.

Heartening to read a critic saying something like that. Good to remember, as reader and blogger.

Before going on my own to see Plaster the other night, the whole family went to a dinner and sing-along hosted by the Seattle Labor Chorus, which a good friend sings with. They opened with a welcoming song, a cappella, sounding good, 15 or 20 singers, good and strong and solid simple harmonies. And then we all sang together, with words projected from a computer. They had a list of songs from which to request. Since the 2-year-old is crazy about Woody Guthrie (we listen once or twice a day), and he knows a lot of the words to “This Land Is Your Land,” of course I requested that.

Before I started listening to Woody daily, I sang the song as everybody does. In the standard version, the last three words of the chorus and every verse are sung, in the lingo of solfege, ti-re-do -- you AND me, with the word AND the high note of the arc. Woody doesn’t sing it like that. He sings, ti-ti-do. The YOU and the AND come on the same note, which then slides up to the ME.

The common ti-re-do version has a cheeriness that bugs me, now that I know Woody’s so well. Emphasizing the AND feels mindlessly pedantic. Woody’s version of the melody assumes that you and me, we’re together -- he doesn’t make a big deal of the conjunction. The stoic assumption in Woody’s version of the melody gives the song more force.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


The Pierre Boulez Project, which I wrote about here, is over! In honor of Boulez’s frequent (past) exhortations to destroy the art of the past, Josh Ronsen solicited donations of records, CDs, tapes, and books by Boulez in order to publicly destroy them, as examples of art of the now past. Ronsen reached his goal of 100 works to destroy, and their destruction occurred on February 28 in Austin in sonically various ways, as described by Ronsen here. Congratulations to Mr. Ronsen on the successful completion of his project, and to Mr. Boulez on having his ideas taken seriously and his instructions carried out.

Friday, March 11, 2005


Finally made it out to see my friend Peter’s band Plaster tonight. Heavy, loud rock; played with precision, energy, and head-banging joy -- like a lot of Count Basie tunes, punk & metal are built on riffs, and while the Count succeeds in making you pat your foot, good metal makes you rock your head back and forth. This band’s tempos range from medium slow to fast ‘80s-style trochaic punk. Sometimes within the same song the tempos would vary between medium slow and medium fast, dragging then rushing, executed with expert togetherness, to wonderful effect -- pleasurable anticipation and release. I couldn’t make out more than a few stray words, and the melodies were minimal though effective. And Pete -- well, he’s a friendly frontman, no different than as I know him from playing a summer Sunday pick-up softball game with him for years, except his singing voice is pitched higher than his speaking voice.

Great to be there -- a good crowd, and people seemed to be having fun. Youngsters with mohawks, lots of black leather. At one point I was hopeful that some slam dancing would ensue, but it didn’t gel. (“Slam dancing” -- that dates me. At least since the early ‘90s people call it “moshing.” When did the terminology change?)

Classical fans know that not even the best sound system does justice to the sound of a beautiful instrument well played, and jazz fans know that a lot of its best music has never been recorded. Gospel can’t begin to be adequately captured on record. And loud rock in a smallish club -- well, I know it’s bad for my hearing, but it sure feels good. Listening to a heavy rock record on a boombox is like enjoying an 8.5 X 11 size poster of the Mona Lisa. It’s a smaller, less vivid experience.

“With records, one might say, we experience the immortality of others: of the human musicians whose spirits we invoke. In primitive magic the spirits whose powers are enlisted are nature spirits or the spirits of the dead. There is an echo of this in phonographic magic, lending it a certain eerieness. Record listening is a seance where we get to choose our ghosts. The voices we hear come from another world -- something voices are good at. So there is a certain bafflement: the voice seems to be coming from the medium, or the loudspeaker, but where is it really coming from? Sight, in the habit of tracing sound to its source, finds nothing but some wooden boxes and a spinning circle. At the end of the search for focus one finds a surd. The performer becomes (in the etymological sense) occult.” -- Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel, 1987

I’ve been re-reading Eisenberg’s book, which (the link above shows) is just about to come out in a new edition with a new afterword, which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t sound promising. I read the book 7 or 8 years ago (not exactly sure) and love it as it is, and am not surprised to find its influence in my recent posts on the paradox of the materiality of the recording medium facilitating the interiorization of the musical experience.

Eisenberg is interested in the transcendent capacities of music, a concept that intrigues me but eludes my grasp. Lucky for me, George Hunka has been posting on the capacity of art to *transcend* the phenomenal world; even luckier for me, George has been providing, at my request, generous e-mailed private tutorial on just-what-in-heck this transcendence business is about. Still chewing on it, and thanks George!

In further coincidence, my friend Ross Lipman sent me a link to a very interesting article by James Gaines on J.S. Bach’s “Musical Offering” and the strained relationship between Bach and the piece’s patron, Frederick “the Great.” Gaines mentions that the Old Bach (as he was known then) disdained the “galant” style of his sons, which eschewed the father’s mastery of polyphony in favor of “the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of a single line of melody.” To quote Gaines further:

“For Bach this new, so-called ‘galant’ style, with all its lovely figures and stylish grace, was full of emptiness. Bach's cosmos was one in which the planets themselves played the ultimate harmony, a tenet that had been unquestioned since the ‘sacred science’ of Pythagoras; composing and performing music was for him and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual enterprise.

“For Frederick and his generation, the goal of music was simply to be ‘agreeable’, an entertainment and a diversion. Frederick despised music that, as he put it, ‘smells of the church’, and in the disenchanted world of the Enlightenment, cosmic notions like the ‘music of the spheres’ were just more dark-age mumbo jumbo.”

Lots of pertinent, interesting stuff here -- the relationship between an art aiming for transcendence and an art aiming for entertainment -- interesting parallels to recent blastings of pop music by classical partisans. Mozart learned a lot from one of Bach’s sons -- J.C. Bach -- and never even heard of the Old Bach until he had been touring and composing for many years, at which point he studied him hard & seriously and undertook to master counterpoint himself and integrate it into his style, which had been so influenced by the “galant.” Symbolically, the classical tradition became conscious of itself as such in that act of recovery by Mozart. Before then, music had always been contemporary, even if some of it -- specifically, some church music -- might have been hundreds of years old.

The music of Bach’s sons -- and that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Romantics -- has an aristocratic vibe, maybe even rhythm, that the Old Bach’s lacked. Debussy’s music got absorbed by film scoring, as did Schoenberg’s and Stravinsky’s, and lost its aristocratic patina. Pre-“galant” music sounds churchy by comparison, not aristo. I can’t remember the music of Debussy or Schoenberg or Stravinsky being used for period ambience, unlike the Romantics or the Classics, but I could be wrong.

Too late at night -- too much digression & ill-considered vagueness. G’night.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Took the 2-year-old to a classical guitar concert by Elizabeth Brown on Sunday afternoon. A schedule conflict with someone’s unexpectedly early nap made us miss everything until the last three -- tasty -- pieces, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Antonio Lauro, and Leo Brouwer. The 2-year-old really wanted to go, and he was very quiet throughout and enjoyed it very much.

I hadn’t been to a classical guitar recital before. Guitar is quiet! And squeakier than on record -- I had heard Brown on a local public station, and the stuff from her CD didn’t have any notable finger squeaks on the strings.

Of the 3 composers I caught, Villa-Lobos seems the most modernistic and dissonant. Brouwer’s piece is the most guitaristic, calling for taps on the strings and on the body of the guitar. The Lauro piece was very pretty and very short -- less than a minute, I think! Hardly had time to get to know it! Really nice pieces all three.

Monday, March 07, 2005

even in the silence, the echoing yang yang yang of musical memories. Now Playing in a mind's ear connected by a neckbone and shoulderbone to these typing fingers -- Barry Manilow, "Even Now." Not my favorite Barry song, and I don't even know the words, but the title phrase -- "Even now, ya da da da da da da" --

"soaring" melody -- not bound by gravity, airborne, transcendent-ascendant -- seeing large vistas --

Friday, March 04, 2005


Music is difficult to talk about as love is difficult to talk about. We can talk about WHY we love our beloveds, what it IS about them -- she’s amazingly lovely, smart, imaginative, kind, funny, passionate, persistent, loyal. Similarly, some people can talk about WHY we love certain music -- Roland Kirk’s “Saxophone Concerto” has blazing melodic themes, intense rhythms, bracing timbres, strong dramatic arc, skillfully mysterious transitions. Other people have difficulty with any vocabulary of musical description, and what’s even more telling is that these descriptions don’t get at how the love experience or the music experience affects us, how it makes us feel. And -- these experiences are so deeply subjective and personal and intimate -- for people who love music, music is like love.

Tuesday I took the 2-year-old to the zoo; we had a fine time as usual. At one point I really wanted to see the unicorn. We didn’t see it.

“Infinity” has no more extra-imaginative existence than unicorns. The universe is finitely large and it can only be broken down into finitely small parts. Zeno’s paradox assumes that any operation can be broken down into an infinite number of sub-operations: before I can walk ten feet, I have to walk five; before five, two-and-a-half; before two-and-a-half, one-and-a-quarter; before one-and-a-quarter, five-eighths; before five-eighths, five-16ths; before 5/16ths, 5/32nds; and so on, AD INFINITUM.

But. Infinity has no extra-mental existence. Zeno’s paradox is based on a false assumption.

“Infinity goes up on trial,” said Bob Dylan. I am ready to pronounce my verdict. Guilty.

A 7:30 meeting in Everett, a good 45 minute drive north of here, put me on the highway about the time the sun was peering over the Cascades, and listening to Yehudi Menuhin shimmer and shine through Mozart’s 3rd violin concerto in a 1935 recording with Georges Enescu conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris glorified the sun’s rising in an exultant manner.

Driving back, with the morning sun high and glaring, Silvestre Rivuelta’s “Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca” of 1937 beat the glare back with its dissonant modernist celebration of Mexican dance music. After that, it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Saxophone Concerto,” a 3-movement masterpiece without pause from 1973 that powers and glories for 21 absorbing, thrilling, deeply satisfying minutes.

Damn, I love private listening time in the car.

Last night I wrote that the spacial projection of the fade-out suggestion an immaterialization of the musical performer, as if the musician were fading away with the music, or floating into the heavens on a bubbly musical cloud. Today it occurs to me that such a fantasy-image is possible only after recordings have been thoroughly naturalized into daily life. Such an image would never have suggested itself to music consumers who had to deal with living drooling musicians -- well, not all drooling, I was thinking of wind instruments -- living breathing musicians in order to hear music. Before the advent of recording, music was a social event, unless you were very wealthy and had an inclination to hire musicians for entirely private performances -- and even then, you had to deal with the musicians. The naturalization of record consumption has made the majority of musical experiences for most people private. Earphones accelerate the tendency, so that now we have in Seattle a museum devoted to the experience of music, where people walk around the place with headphones on. Entirely interior. The musicians float away on a musical cloud.

Last week I wondered whether fade-outs happened before 1939, the date of a Count Basie recording of a tune called “Dickie’s Dream,” that ends with a fade-out. (Dream -- more interiorization.) My friend Jay sent me this link to a lively internet discussions of the question. A few records pre-dated this one, but not many. Though jazz records were hugely popular, so were jazz dances with live jazz bands. The primary experience of music was shifting from live to records, but live music was still the norm and the standard. Music was earthy and live, baby, live.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Maybe it’s projection, but today when I heard on the “quality rock” station a nice mildly moany adult pop number by Joss Stone, “I’ve got a right to be wrong,” it struck me that the current fad for mild moany-groaniness on that station -- Jack Johnson’s elegantly mildly funky acoustic guitar and low grainy voice; Lucinda Williams’s staking claims on Sly Stone’s old vocal timbre circa “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”; Norah Jones’s yawn-and-stretch, just-rolled-out-of-bed sound -- reflects the beat-down-ness that I feel in the face of the Bush onslaught. Humanism is on the defensive, and music for middle-aging white liberals is sounding elegantly tired.

In real news, the D’s in Congress are showing some fight, and This Is a Very Good Thing, assuming you’re not a plutocrat or a back-to-Medievalism type. We’re in need of some Underdog action, people -- speed of lightning, roar of thunder, fighting all who rob and plunder!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Having posted recently about sound collage and fade-outs -- they’re both about the materiality of recording.

I wrote that I came to collage via Rauschenberg & Cage, but that’s not quite right. It may have been Picasso and Duchamp. Freshman year, I joined a band in the dorm, a synth-pop-noise-rock band. Played only 2 shows with them, even though I really liked the music and 3 of the 4 other guys -- personality conflict with the 5th persuaded me to leave. One show was our 5-piece doing electronic improv to silent surrealist films from the ‘20s and ‘30s in the dorm -- a really exciting gig. The other show was an actual set, mostly of songs and instrumentals, all original, with one noise improv with pre-recorded material that the lead guitarist, a really talented and nice guy named Phil Seiden, had put together. I don’t remember all the pre-recorded stuff, but a scratchy record of Oscar the Grouch singing “I Love Trash” was part of it. The improv was terrific to do -- I played electric bass guitar. 1982 -- a while ago.

The collage soundtrack I made, which I wrote about the other night, and this gig, were both before the era of sampling rights -- it was coming from a “fine art” background where using reproductions of other people’s stuff was old hat, had been around for decades and decades. Things are different now.

The materiality of recording -- but even scores are material, right? Wouldn’t maybe a handful of Beethoven pieces enjoy a nice fade-out on the endless Dominant-Tonic cadences? I mean, just as a change of pace. Not to displace Beethoven’s originals, but to ring changes on them. Really, Beethoven’s reluctance to finish a piece sometimes just CRIES OUT for a fade-out -- the illusion of never-endingness.

Listening to some lush gorgeous Earth Wind & Fire tune today, and hearing the fade-out, I was reminded that a recording projects a fictional acoustical space. And the fade-out not only gives the illusion of never-endingness, but it also suggests movement of the listener away from the music. The question becomes -- is the band moving away from me-the-listener, or am I moving away from the band? If I’m moving away from the band, why? If the band is moving away from me, why don’t I follow? Or maybe the band is visibly fading out as well, or rising into the heavens, like the evaporation of a dream. That must be it -- and a good song-recording gives a feeling of satedness, that I don’t mind the song’s ending.

“Supermodel” is a funny word.

What are their special powers, anyway?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


"The Village Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism. It was a philosophical position. We wanted to jam the gears of creeping automatism. . . . No contributor was or is paid." -- Daniel Wolf, Voice founding editor, Forward to The Village Voice Reader, 1962.

1. Only people making less than $90,000 a year pay the full Social Security tax. Interest, dividends, capital gains, business profits are all exempt from Social Security tax. If your wage or salary from your job is greater than $90,000 in a year, you pay social security tax only on the first 90 grand.

2. Since its inception, Social Security has received $1,635,443,000,000 more in taxes than it has paid out in benefits. We call this surplus the Social Security Trust Fund. More than ONE POINT SIX TRILLION DOLLARS. Experts estimate that Social Security will continue to run a surplus until 2018, at which point it will start to have to drawing down the Trust Fund. In the current configuration, the Trust Fund wouldn't run out of money for several decades.

3. The U.S. government has borrowed the entirety of the Trust Fund.

4. Since wealthy people are taxed at a lower rate than people making 90 grand or less, this amounts to a loan from the middle and lower classes to the upper class.

5. Republican columnist Charles Krauthammer says that there is no trust fund. In other words, the government won't pay the loan back. He says this to justify President Bush's proposed Social Security rip-off. According to Krauthammer, the rip-off has already occurred. Of course, neither Bush nor Krauthammer refers to it as a rip-off; in their view, the poor and middle classes SHOULD be paying higher taxes than the rich.

6. As Bush has admitted, his proposed rip-off does nothing to address the long-term fiscal instability of Social Security. Some of his franker supporters, such as the aptly monickered Dick Armey, has referred to his proposal as step one of the phase out of social security. As Republicans chanted in a rip-off rally in Pennsylvania, "Hey hey! Ho ho! Social Security has got to go!"

7. Eliminating the $90,000 wage cap would do a lot more to strengthen Social Security's bottom line, and it would be fair.

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