Monday, July 09, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 7

Chapter 6, "Ego Noise (1950-1951)" begins the second section of the book, where the mountains are no longer mountains. Many characters are introduced, and I'm noticing a pattern in these introductions that gets annoying in its repetitiveness. A leap back in time to show the origins of a particular character's interest in Zen, or in contemporary music, or in contemporary art, traced forwards to that character's meeting with one of the more major figures of the book. I'm also annoyed by the shifts between past and present tense, often within the same paragraph. Speaking of ego noise, these imperfections pull me out of a merged contemplation with the subject, instead becoming aware of the writing as writing, rather than as ideas expressed. This is also the problem with the structure, such as on page 193. This was the end of a fascinating description of Cage's fourth lecture of "Empty Words" at the Naropa Buddhist Center in Colorado. The quotes by Cage disrupt the narrative, muddying the idea that the Buddhist leader, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, had liked the confrontation of ego noise spurred by Cage's lecture performance. The author both clouds the punchline, and avoids addressing Cage's misunderstanding of his audience and Trungpa's delight in ego noise. Why is this ego noise good, if the goal is to avoid ego noise? Why doesn't Cage appreciate this ego noise? Why is the audience stupid for not being part of Cage's journey through Thoreau? (I'm using questions, just as the author likes to do when discussing Zen.) That last question reflects my frustration with Cage. He wants to create music that opens the mind, but he is unwilling to provide the same help that he got in his own spiritual journey. The four lectures go through a process of winnowing Thoreau's words, what Cage envisioned as clouds dissipating. But he got to see the beautiful cloud shapes first, before they dissolved. By delivering only the fourth lecture, Cage was doing the equivalent of showing a picture of a tiny wisp of cloud and saying, "look at that beautiful big shape!" I'm very intrigued by the lectures, but I feel that Cage was not only disinterested, but also indifferent to the audience. From page 136:
His music was headed toward disinterestedness – which is not "indifference," the word that keeps cropping up in academic writing on Cage. From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words having nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of "not caring." It is "apathetic." It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole."
It may not be that Cage didn't care about the audience, but perhaps was showing his own stupidity in not understanding their needs. He even faced away from them during the performance, creating more and more barriers to their understanding. Either way, he demonstrated a mighty ego in criticizing their responses as "stupid criticisms." Yes, the audience showed signs of closed-mindedness, but so did Cage in his own responses.

Where the Heart Beats 6

The fifth chapter ends the first section of the book, but rather than feeling like a conclusion, it seems to be setting the stage for future developments.  Cage's introduction to Hinduism is explored, as well as his lectures at Black Mountain College and The Club.  He meets Morton Feldman and reads Zen books at the Orientalia.  The chapter, "Seeking Silence" twists through time, jumping around not just in the titled era (1946-1950) but also forward to 1989 and back to 1907. This destroys a sense of narrative, just like in the first chapter. The descriptions of Ramakrishna's Hinduism and Meister Eckhart's Mysticism are fascinating, and Cage's development of his new artistic philosophy, "[music should] sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences," is laid out clearly.

Where the Heart Beats 5

"Chapter 4: Four Walls (1942-1946)" describes a very emotionally turbulent time in John Cage's life.  Different stories are told of how his marriage to Xenia fell apart, both from her perspective and from his.  Regardless of whose fault it was, it was clear that Cage was scared of the social dangers inherent in his homosexuality, but also became aware that he could no longer deny those feelings.  The author uses Henry Cowell's conviction on child molestation as an illustration of Cage's thinking.  Cowell had been driven by social taboos to seek sexual gratification with 17-year-old bullies in his neighborhood, rather than to enjoy physical affection with a peer.  The author suggests that his sentence of 15 years was caused more by Cowell's self-loathing about his sexual attractions to men than by the justice system's concern for the safety of the teenagers.  This self-loathing may be what Cage feared he could descend into, accompanied by the professional destruction that Cowell faced. 

While I'm still not happy with the author's descriptions of Cage's music, it is not because she is not trying.  She quotes performers and critics in efforts to describe Four Walls, The Perilous Night, and Ophelia, as well as including her own emotional impressions.  What frustrates me as a music theorist is that there is little or no detail on the musical structures themselves that create these impressions.  I want to know what type of chord is repeated att he end of Four Walls, what the melody line is, how much of the structure was determined by Cage and how much by the performer.

Larson does do a good job in showing how Cage's personal concerns affected his aesthetic philosophy, as he became concerned that the emotional energy he poured into his works was not recognized by the audience, critics, and fellow artists.  It was in this personal and artistic confusion that Cage found Zen Buddhism to be a lifeline; a way to survive the divorce from Xenia, a way to come to terms with his sexuality, a way to find better reasons for writing music.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 4

Chapter 3 of Kay Larson's book, Where The Heart Beats, is titled "Merce Cunningham" even though he is not a major character of the chapter.  Yes, this is the first time Cage meets him, but their connection is not significant at this point.  Rather, it is Cage's connections to dancers such as Bonnie Bird and Martha Graham, and artists like Mark Tobey that influenced his life at this point.  Larson describes the visual arts very well, and the dance repertoire adequately.  But her musings on Cage's music itself is lacking.  She makes the claim that Cage invented live electronic music in 1939 with Imaginary Landscape #1, showing no awareness of the theremin (invented in 1919) or the ondes martenot (invented in 1928).  And her descriptions of the invention of the prepared piano lack the momentousness that this amazing development deserves.  The interaction between Zen and Dada is very interesting, and I'm amazed at the luck Cage had to be in the right place at the right time.  He got hired at the Cornish School of the Arts, the location of the first radio lab in the country.  He was involved in a summer percussion concert at Mills College that suddenly became a Bauhaus workshop with the arrival of László Moholy-Nagy.  Granted, Cage did exhibit courage to make his own opportunities, by moving to New York with no money, only a shady promise from Max Ernst for housing. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 3

Chapter 2 is entitled "John Cage 1912-1938."  Considerably longer than the first chapter, it is broken into different titled sections:  "The View From Pacific Palisades," "The Shape of the Future 1: Men," "The Shape of the Future 2: Music," "The Shape of the Future 3: Art," "Buddha of the Bathroom," "Luigi Russolo," "Arnold Schoenberg," "Oskar Fischinger," and "Walking Water Walk."  Many more Cage quotes are used to create pseudo-conversation.  The opening sections have fascinating descriptions of Cage's early adult life.  He really bluffed his way into just about every aspect of his life, from painting to music to love.  I had no idea that Cage got married, though the author uses quotes to make the very good point about the underground lifestyle forced upon homosexuals in the 1930s that Cage found untenable.  Plus it sounds like he was very confused about his whole sexual identity, falling into and out of love very quickly.  Slowly, as Cage encounters more movers and shakers of the avant-garde, he moves from dabbling dilettante to serious practitioner.  And the seeds of his influences from Dada and Futurism are explored, though more from the perspective of Marcel Duchamp and Luigi Rossolo than from Cage's perspective (so far).  There are hints of the connections to Buddhism as well.  The quotes flow much better than in the first chapter, and the chapter ends with a tease about Cage's later success with Water Walk to show the results of those early influences.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 2

Chapter 1 is part of the first section: Mountains are Mountains.  Everything is as we understand it, before Zen makes us unpack everything.  D. T. Suzuki is introduced through his influences on the Beat Generation, notably Gary Snyder, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.  With the Beat set up, suddenly we are shifted to Project Manhattan and Robert Oppenheimer for a brief look at Dr. Atomic's association with Vishnu, before sweeping over to Japan for a biographical account of Suzuki's early life.  The descriptions of life in a Zen temple are very appealing.  They filled me with peace, and got me thinking about starting to meditate again.  I'm also impressed by Suzuki's dedication to Zen, even though he never formally became a monk.  While at university, he would walk over 30 miles to sit zazen (meditate) instead of going to class.  He was brought to the U.S. by the abbot of his temple, Soyen Shaku, to serve as a translator both for Soyen and for Paul Carus, who wanted to translate ancient Buddhist works into English.  Suzuki is portrayed as an incredible workaholic.  He translated many works, wrote his own texts, and traveled all over the world to study different philosophies and to give lectures on Zen Buddhism. 

After 14 pages, Cage is allowed to quote a koan as part of the supposed conversation on which this book is structured.  But the author does not respond to this quote as part of a dialogue.  Rather, she explains where Cage heard that koan, and some of the first works Cage composed based on Buddhist ideas.  The chapter ends with another koan, written as if Cage is quoting it, but not why.

I'm intrigued by Suzuki's story, and want to hear more about how he influenced Cage.  But the structure of this book is bothering me.  Perhaps I'm being too Western-minded, expecting a linear logic that isn't appropriate here.  But I certainly feel that the author is flitting from subject to subject without making clear transitions. 

Where the Heart Beats 1

Several months ago I was asked to write a review of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson.  I just got the book last week, and started reading it.  Since I haven't been blogging much lately, I thought I would do a "live blog reading" of the book, posting my impressions with each chapter, instead of waiting until I was done to give an overall review.  The book is in fifteen chapters, plus a prelude, epilogue, and the Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.

The prelude introduces the three main characters in the book: John Cage, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, and the author herself.  The description of Suzuki is intriguing, telling that he was not a Zen master, though still considered an expert on Zen.  He was not formally educated, but clearly a master of languages, having taught himself Sanskrit, Tibetan Sanskrit, and Pali, and fluent in Japanese, English, classical Chinese, and "several European languages."  It certainly makes me want to learn more about him.  The introduction of John Cage did not teach me anything new, and did not do much to evoke the avant-garde sense of wonder that I associate with his works.  4'33" is naturally given the main stage, but just a taste is given.  Perhaps the book will delve more deeply later, giving only a teasing taste in this Prelude.  The author describes her own path to Buddhism, and explains the structure of the book.  Grouped in three sections, the chapters are meant to follow a Buddhist arc of revelation.  And within the chapters, quotes from Cage are used to create a sense of conversation with the author.  This could work, or be very annoying as a conceit.  I shall see.

Friday, May 18, 2012


I was listening to "Wintermute" for trombone and tape by Bruce Hamilton yesterday.  I didn't know anything about the music, other than it was performed by Andrew Glendening.  I've performed some trumpet and tape music, so I was prepared for a mix of electronics, musique concrète, samples of standard instruments.  Something more abstract, stretching the boundary of normal timbres, since that is the strength of taped accompaniment.  I was a little surprised how polished the sounds were, and then it hit me that most of the electronic sounds were not abstractly generated, but were rather samples of electric guitar and electric bass.  Oh, and yes some smatterings of drum set, though just hits and ghostly hints of grooves.  The timbres were undeniably rock-oriented, and I started listening with a more third-stream/post-rock/indie-classical-to-make-Nico Muhly-wet-himself stance.  I could easily see this piece converted to allow a DJ to accompany the trombone, spinning various samples. 

There was no four-on-the-floor driving rhythms to make it sound rockish, no blues progressions or pentatonic scales.  The only thing evoking the rock genre was the timbre.  The electric bass, electric guitar, and drum set sound like rock, especially the overdrive bass sound that was used.  What are other timbres that evoke a genre?  A particular vibrato in singing can evoke opera, a raspy off-the-string bowing of a violin can evoke "old-timey music."  Period instruments are for that very reason, to create the timbres that evoke a time period and genre, thus the use of the shawm, cornetto, harpsichord, and lute.  Some world musics have very distinct instruments, like the sitar or the didgeridoo.

Can you name any other timbres that instantly cause you to think of a style of music?  Timbres only, no harmonies or melodies, rhythms or tempos.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The idea of composing with timbre isn't new.  Wayne Slawson wrote a book, Sound Color, back in 1985 which details previous attempts at composing in timbre, and his own theory of how timbre composition should work.  Schoenberg's piece – Farben, op. 16 no. 3 – is perhaps the most famous, and the one that gives us the delightfully pretentious title of Farbenmelodie to describe any "melody of timbres."  Check out the Youtube video below, with some very good analysis by F. Nicolas included.

I like Elliot Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet, particularly the third and seventh etudes that focus on timbre.  Etude 3 (first video, at 2:40) isn't as effective, because I was distracted by the bassoon's movement between notes, though I could still hear the shifts in timbre.  But in Etude 7 (second video, at 3:00), with the hairpin dynamics to suddenly bring in or out various sounds on the single note, there was real motion, a journey of emotion.

Penderecki came up with an organized theory of timbre, based on the types of materials used to make the sound.  However, this theory could not accommodate wind instruments or voices.  Crumb creates some very imaginative timbres, but it isn't the only focus of his compositions.

I want to compose some pieces that attune the ear to very subtle changes in timbre.  I was inspired by reading Tim Rutherford Johnson's latest article on NewMusicBox.  In it, he describes Kunsu Shim's expanding space in limited time.  
 In one two-hour performance of the piece, Pisaro reports, it was 20 minutes before he could make out any sound at all; after which his sense of hearing had become so attuned that those sounds that were produced began to take on an extraordinary richness.
 I want to create that degree of sensitivity, but I don't want to take 20 minutes of the audience's time to do it.  My goal is for the listeners to be engaged, not annoyed.  Is that asking too much?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, the humanity!

I found this post through Corey Dargel's tweet.  Corey appreciates the "intense and insightful review" of his concert.  I was intrigued, but also confounded by a bold statement made by George Grella that
"Pop music may be affirm­ing, but it is exceed­ingly rare that it is truly human­ist, that it is sym­pa­thetic towards the things that it is not, and that the world of pop music — musi­cians, crit­ics and fans — is barely aware that any other music exists attests to this. Embrac­ing human­ist val­ues means embrac­ing human­ity, and that, beyond all abstract tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, is what clas­si­cal music does, and has done, and what pop music has yet to develop as a fun­da­men­tal value."  
I think it is wrong, and yet brilliant.  Pop fans are just as blinkered as classical fans.  Pop musicians tend to be less musically educated than classical musicians, but only when considering beginners.  Those pop musicians who have survived their sophomore albums without receding to obscurity have demonstrated a broader awareness of the artistic world, equal to that of their counterparts in the classical world.  Paul Simon embraces South African music.  Dave Matthews loves Vivaldi.  Even Justin Bieber has an awareness of jazz as a counterpart to his knowledge of hip hop and pop.  And for every popular musician who is unaware of the existence of classical music, there is an opposing classical musician who believes popular music is not worthy of acknowledgment. 

Going beyond the claims of awareness of the other, popular music attempts to express the human condition just as much as classical music.  Some popular music can be very monothematic about human emotions, focusing on love and/or lust, injustice or depression.  But Baroque music had its own Doctrine of the Affections to limit content.  The musicological concept of Gebrauchmusik could slander some of Hindemith's music, Bach's dance suites, and "The Twist" equally for the goal of community-building action rather than emotional contrasts.  And yet these songs are meant to join humanity together, helping people from different backgrounds to unite in a larger sense of culture.  Is that not humanitarian?

I think George's post is brilliant for addressing the need of music to be humanistic.  I completely agree that the best artworks contain contradictions, nuance, and heart.  Beauty formed from contrasts of the ugly and the pleasant, this is what both represents us and teaches us how to be better humans.  I have experienced these challenges in classical music, in popular music, in jazz music, in world music.  I have also found these elements of humanism in the "high" and "low" forms of painting, literature, film, theater, and dance.  It is wonderful to see a passionate reminder of why the arts are so important, especially as I get ready to argue against cuts to the arts in our local school board meeting tonight.

Friday, April 20, 2012


I am listening to Penn Jillette on the Nerdist podcast, and he just talked about the fear of being wrong.  He was riffing about a quote, and then pointed out the best way to find out if something is true is to say it publicly.  If it is wrong, you will be corrected.  It is only when people are willing to be caught being wrong that the truth will out, that learning will happen.  Penn is notorious for appearing fearless in stating his beliefs, and his willingness to admit when he is wrong.  But he just admitted that he still has fear of being wrong, but is also brave enough to continue despite of that fear.

I realized that this is my problem with my current writing block, and with all my previous writing blocks.  I am afraid of being caught being wrong.  Occasionally I let myself relax and write something outrageous.  Apparently I did so in my first blogging contest* entry, inspiring one judge (I think Nico Muhly?)  to call the post right, wrong, brilliant and infuriating. I also used to have a lot more humor on the blog, until with one post I manged to offend someone who let me know about it.  And since I'm not a sociopath, I do want people to like me, and therefore made the bad decision to curb my humor, especially the sarcasm.  Going through a divorce also hit me in the 'nads of affirmation.  Sometimes divorce makes people more bitter and cocky.  It made me self-effacing, questioning who I was in a very quiet way while trying to remain strong for my kids.  I've come back from the divorce, but I still have less bravery than what's good for me, something I need to fix.

So, I will make bold statements, always with the effort of being correct, but without the need to have my inner lawyer triple check each statement for accuracy.  I leave that to you, gentle readers, to point out to me in excruciating detail how I am wrong.  First up:  the key of a piece still matters in this world of equal temperament with a population of non-APers.  I'm taking this from the perspective of the listener, not the performer, though the comfort-level of the performer will affect the listener's experience.  Equal temperament did away with the characteristic "mistunings" of different keys that led to the various key characteristic charts.  And while Dan Levitin showed that most people can sing their favorite songs within a half-step of the original recording, the majority of the population cannot identify what key they just sang in, unless they studied the score (a statistically insignificant part of the population).

I believe keys matter for two reasons.  First, the timbre is affected by the key, and this is perceivable by the listener.  A string instrument that plays more open strings will have a different sound than playing more stopped strings.  An Ab4 has a different color than a Bb4 on a trumpet, due to different pipe lengths and compromises made in the instrument design.  And key choices will affect whether the music is in the high, middle, or low part of the instrument/voice's range, which will directly affect the color of the sound.  Second, the choice of key will affect that piece's relationship to surrounding pieces.  If Bach or the Ramones play everything in G major, a certain tension is created by the static nature of the timbre/key.  If a movement of a symphony is in an distantly-related key to the previous movement, the listener will experience a frisson of doubt that these movements belong together, or at least a reset of subconscious expectations. A pump-up within a song may be cheesy, but it is noticeable, because of the perceived relationship.  I have a question.  Is there an example of a pop or rock album that has a pump-up between songs?  (Song 1 is in C major.  Song 2 is in D major.  Song 3 is in Eb major, etc. etc.)

*Congratulations to Jennifer Rivera for winning, and to all of the finalists for some great writing.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Death and rebirth

I did not make it past the second round of the Spring For Music blogging challenge, but I'm grateful for the public support I received, and I'm happy that Elena SB and Will Robin have made it to the final four.  I had a great vacation in Key West, a wonderful Easter with my family, and am now tackling a book proposal that is due by the end of the month.  In the meantime, here are some strange composer deaths.  I would include some more:

1) jazz trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan.  He was murdered onstage by his wife, the details are questioned

2) Maurice Ravel suffered from brain lesions, and died after experimental surgery.

3) Schumann died in an insane asylum like Wolf, though the exact causes are debated.

4) Alessandro Stradella, assassinated due to an affair.

Feel free to add your own "favorite" deaths in comments, and make sure to vote for Elena and Will next week.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

How to rename a contest

I've made it to the second round of the Art Blogging Match of Doom (ABMOD).  I was quite glad to hear that at least one of the judges found me to be "right, wrong, brilliant, and infuriating." p I'm called at least two of those things regularly at home, it's nice to get the full gamut.  So here is the next writing prompt:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

I started out thinking about how to characterize contemporary culture. I came up with the qualities of diversity, eclecticism, and ubiquity. As I wrote in the last contest post, the Internet has provided access to so many cultural experiences that we don't even blink at the ability to see a Finnish folk singer or a Brazilian ballet. Our culture isn't local, it is global. But this diversity is not creating thousands of artistic enclaves. Instead, any given person consumes a whole range of cultural products, even within a single art form. This diversity and eclecticism is encouraged by the economics of the new digital media, that allows selling the long tail to be a viable business plan.  I can sample a whole variety of poetry with little investment of my time or money, because I can locate recommendations from experts online, view samples for free, and purchase small quantities online.  Heck, there is an app for that!  And then I can discuss the poetry in online forums, to help my understanding and appreciation.  And with smart phones and tablets, I can reasonably expect to consume my diverse cultural products whenever and wherever I want.

Once I defined contemporary culture, the next step was to show which art form says the most about it.  My natural inclination was and always is to look to music.  I've been trained in music from the age of four, it is my main means of fun and profit. There are plenty examples of music that demonstrate those three qualities.  Despite his current troubles, Osvaldo Golijov created (with help) a work of genius in Ayre.  This song cycle is incredibly eclectic, combining elements from around the world and across many genres.  The ABMOD's own judge Nico Muhly is known for his eclectic approach to music as well.  Andrew Bird, Björk, Bon Iver, The Clogs, Bang on A Can All-stars, all these groups defy genre labels.  The pop/classical divide is not necessarily gone, but it has distinctly blurred.  I can write academically about Dave Matthews Band, and be accepted by my fellow music theorists, and an opera singer can make it on The Voice or Britain's Got Talent.

There are also great examples in books and video games; theater and dance; painting and sculpture; architecture and synchronized swimming.  But comments on contemporary culture, require a multi-media approach, using the languages of visual images, audio examples, and expository writing.  A film character can say explicitly, "contemporary culture is very eclectic," accompanied by great examples of rap from Pakistan and hip hop version of Carmen, while eating some fusion cooking.  A blog post can contain links to all these examples (watch out, I'm starting to get recursive here), and allows easy feedback from the consumer.  Blogs, of course are so 2008, so Twitter says the most about contemporary culture.  140 characters to allow us to sample from a wide number of followings without a huge time commitment.  Links to deeper coverage on Tumblr, YouTube, or online articles reward higher levels of interest, but with the consumer still in complete control.  This says a lot about our culture.

However, I found I had serious problems answering the posed question. Art exists within culture, thus any given art form cannot act as a disinterested observer. Just as the act of observation affects the result in quantum physics, a self-aware art form changes the culture around it. And since I based my definition of culture on my knowledge of art, it seems circular to then use that same art to comment on the state of culture. So while I think social media is an art form that says a lot about the state of contemporary culture, I don't think any given form can give an accurate picture by itself. It's sort of the artistic version of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: So Much To Say

“So Much TO Say: Dave Matthews Band 20 Years On the Road”, Nikki Van Noy

This is the newest popular book about DMB, published in 2011.  It is organized in ten chapters, plus an introduction and discography.  This book is intended to represent the views of the diehard fans who follow the band from venue to venue each summer.  Each historical event is accompanied by quotes from fans who were there, practically one quote for every paragraph. The writing reflects this intention, as the author is also a huge fan who can’t keep from gushing at every opportunity.  The first chapter, “An Evening Spent Dancing,” begins at the last show of the band’s twentieth year of existence.  This show is used as a template to provide an overview of the band’s history, with a heavy emphasis on the grassroots nature of their success.  There is a sense of ownership, that the fans discovered and influenced DMB.  “…what makes the DMB fans so unique is that they have actually played an integral role in the trajectory of the band from day one.  In so many ways, DMB fans are just as much a part of the story and history of this band as the musicians themselves.” (p. 9)

Chapters Two, “Getting Started” and Three, “The Little Red Van” cover the origins of the band.  Van Noy focuses on Charlottesville, Virginia, painting a picture of the artistic environment there in the late ‘80s that encouraged musicians to collaborate.  There is a very brief description of Dave Matthews’ upbringing, with no mention of his early musical experiences before he came to Charlottesville  in 1986.  There are many quotes from local music critics and some of Dave’s earliest music friends, like Mark Roebuck.  Very rarely is the music itself described, beyond a general “acoustically-driven folk-rock style of music.” (p. 22)  “[t]ypical of the quintessential DMB sound, with its distinct acoustic guitar, driving rhythm, bellowing sax, and full-band crescendo, all underlying whimsical yet introspective lyrics.” (p. 25)  There is a big effort to describe the scene, the feel of the audience itself, such as the tradition of taping shows and trading tapes. 

The studio albums are discussed in the next chapters.  “For Dave, it was important there was a delineation between the live show recordings that already existed in abundance and the band’s first major label studio effort.” (p. 60)  “Together, Dave and Tim [Reynolds] laid down dual tracks for Under the Table, resulting in a full acoustic ound that not only immediately set DMB apart from the vast majority of its musical counterparts of the time but also went a long way toward re-creating DMB’s bold live energy in recorded form.”  Now that Van Noy is talking about the actual music, several discrepancies and clumsy phrases come out.  In efforts to describe the diversity of musical styles of the album (which is true), Van Noy conflates rhythmic patterns with stylistic feel, emotion with orchestration.  There are connections between these features, but in the same way as apples and asparagus.   Yes, apples and asparagus both start with a, are foods, and nourish us.  But it is hard to talk in one instance about the tartness of a Gala apple, and contrast that with the mushiness of overcooked asparagus.  Van Noy also makes the mistake of implying that the lyrics of the songs on Under the Table and Dreaming were written after Dave’s sister Anne was murdered.  The album is dedicated to her, but the lyrics were set well before the tragedy in January of 1994. 

Inserted between chapters are minibiographies of fans, tracing their lives in their connections to the band.  At the middle of the book are sixteen pages of color photographs of the band, fans, and famous performance venues.  The pictures are mostly credited to relatives of the author, as well as Weekly Davespeak.  The book ends with the most recent tours, up to the “break” of 2011, and has a discography up to 2010.

If you want to get a feeling for the attitudes and passions of the DMB fan community without going to a concert or wading through the forums at or, this book will help you.  But if you are looking for a clear history of the band and descriptions of the music, there are better choices.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Isn't it beautiful?

This post is precluded by a bleg to go vote for me at the Spring For Music Art Blogging Contest.   It seems that you can vote at least once every day.

When I was in college, I took a course on the Psychology of Music, mostly as a lark.  It fulfilled part of my liberal arts requirements, while still standing one foot in my beloved subject of music.  Little did I know that the things I learned there would stick, waiting to surface five years later when I started the graduate program in music theory at Eastman.  I still have a vivid memory of that first day in Psychology of Music, when Professor Rew-Gottfried asked us to define "music."  I offered up the definition, "Sound organized to be beautiful."  Some of my fellow music majors disagreed, saying they had heard and played plenty of ugly music.  But that is not an argument against beautiful music, that is an argument against pretty music.  I believe that beauty does not preclude ugliness.  Instead, artistic beauty is that which touches us emotionally.  We can be horrified by beauty, challenged by it, envious, sad, or angry because of it.  So, is there unbeautiful music, music which does not create an emotional response?  I believe there is not.  We humans are not emotionally monolithic.  One person's garbage, another person's treasure, etc etc.  As long as someone hears some organized sound and feels something because of it, that sound is music.

This definition requires an unpacking of "organized sound."  Someone might be eagerly raising their cyberhand with the example of John Cage's 4'33", the notorious silent piece.  Or perhaps they have examples of purely randomized sound used in a piece. In any case of a composed piece, there is a person who came up with an idea and notated it in some way.  This is a means of organization.  With 4'33", Cage had the idea of chopping an audience's attention into three sections of time, organizing our perception in this way.  And the piece is not really about silence, but about environmental sounds.  When audiences are forced to keep themselves silent, focused on what they are really hearing, all the little creaks and squeaks become obvious.  Cage could not control what particular sounds are heard, but he made sure the audience did hear these sounds, within an allotted time period. 

In the case of an improvised work, the performer is the organizer.  It may be completely unplanned, and yet the performer is making choices of what to play and what not to play.  Even a computer generating randomized (or seemingly random) bursts of noise has been programmed by someone.  And as long as someone listening to those bursts has an emotional response, it is music. 

So when I wrote "the major point of the program, to bring beautiful music to the people who need it most," I meant music that maximizes a) the number of people with an emotional response, and b) the magnitude of the emotional response.  I'll admit that I have a predilection against music that creates only a "horror" response.  But sprinkling pain with pleasure, horror and ecstasy, can be a powerful and moving experience.  I'm talking about music here, people!  Now, go vote for me.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


From a colleague's tweet, I heard about Jake Schepps.  Jake is offering an album of bluegrass-flavored Bartók compositions for free this weekend, in honor of Bela's birthday.  An Evening In The Village has eight of Bartók's violin duets, four pieces from Mikrokosmos, and other Hungarian and Romanian folk songs (literal or inspired).  Jake stays true to the gnarly spirit of Bartók, while emphasizing the folk dance elements.

An Evening in the Village (Hungarian Sketches) BB 103   
Hungarian Song (#6: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104  
Hungarian Song II (#25: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104 
Melody (Hungarian Sketches) BB 103   
Mikrokosmos #78: Five-Tone Scale BB 105   
Mikrokosmos #149 (Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm II) BB 105   
Mikrokosmos #150 (Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm III) BB 105   
Mikrokosmos #153 (Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm VI) BB 105  
Monroe's Hornpipe (Bonus Track)   
New Year's Greeting (#30: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104 (Bonus Track)   
Painful Struggling (#2: Ten Easy Pieces) BB 51 (Bonus Track)   
Pillow Dance (#14: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104  
Play Song (#9: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104   
Play Song-duet (#9: from 44 Violin Duos) BB 104   
Romance: I Know a Little Forest (#34: For Children: Slovakian Folk Tunes) BB 53   
Romanian Christmas Songs: Series I BB 67   
Romanian Whirling Dance (#38: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104   
Ruthenian Kolomeika (#35: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104   
Stars, Stars Brightly Shine (#31: For Children: Hungarian Folk Tunes) BB 53   
Stick Game (#1: Romanian Folk Dances) BB 68   
Wedding Song (#13: 44 Violin Duos) BB 104   

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cultural Competition

Despite some very good arguments against it, I have decided to enter the Spring For Music blogger competition.  I'm not bothered by the idea of a contest.  I've been in countless orchestra and military band auditions, and several concerto competitions. The winner is not necessarily the best performer overall, but the person who did the best to impress the judges on that particular day.  I also enter slightly different contests regularly, otherwise called attempts to get published or presented.  When I submit a paper proposal for a conference, my writing gets judged by a panel of experts, who determine by both my qualities and the qualities of fellow applicants whether I should be allowed to present my paper at the conference.  When I submit an article for publication in an academic journal, I am judged by an editorial board and outside readers, on whether my article will be accepted, rejected, or encouraged to be revised.  Likewise with books being shopped to publishers.  Even with blogging, I get judged by readers who decide whether or not to continue following my blog, by fellow bloggers who decide whether or not to link to my posts, by journalists that decide whether or not to use my blog as a source.  So why not have fun seeing what I can do with the writing prompts?

The first writing prompt is: New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

First we must unpack who long considered New York as the cultural capital.  New York City is the second most populous city in North America, barely behind Mexico City.  New York proper has well over twice the population of the next closest US city, Los Angeles.  It is also the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the world, with Tokyo and Seoul joining Mexico City in the lead.  People have a tendency to vote for themselves, so it is not surprising that New York would get more "votes" for cultural capital than any other contenders in the US.  And given US dominance financially over Canada and Mexico, plus US attitudes of self-importance, alternative candidates like Mexico City or Toronto are discounted.  One could argue that the reason New York has so many people is because of the great culture there, but I think that ignores the historical development of New York, especially the large port that encouraged economic development.

Second, what is meant by the cultural capital?  Is it the main source of cultural products that pervade America?  Is it merely the location of the highest number of artists, or the highest number of art consumers?  Or does "cultural capital" mean that this location serves as inspiration and goal for the majority of artists in America?  The first definition is somewhat close to Pierre Bourdieu's concept, except writ large.  Rather than being the skills and cultural products that an individual personally owns, New York was (is?) the location of the country's majority of cultural products, from the large number of theaters and concert halls, to the visual artists in the Village and writers in their brownstones.  Comedians, actors, journalists, they all lived in (or wanted to live in) New York.  That is a perspective that lends to the view that New York was/is the cultural capital of America.
But to accept that conclusion is to accept that cultural capital is measured by the number of artistic bodies and number of artistic products that reside in a particular place.  Should it rather be determined by the ability to access artistic training and artistic products?  If so, then the internet wins out with YouTube videos, TED talks, iTunes and Spotify, online media that is growing at scary fast speeds.  Patrick Vaz already anticipated this conclusion during his rant against the Spring For Music contest.

I assume one of the reasons this topic was chosen for bloggers is so that we can make the obvious points about the digital world breaking down these geographic barriers etc etc. But I think maybe what it's done is just create new power structures, ones which are perhaps less easy to figure out than the old "go to New York and work for the Times" sort of power structure. I'm not so sure this is such a good thing, at least for people like me who always have trouble figuring out power structures, which is why I don't like things that obscure the already shadowy structures even further from view.
I'm not sympathetic to Patrick's worry that things have changed.  It used to be that really good musicians could audition for an orchestra, an opera company, or other big institutions.  If you didn't have a job right away, going to New York was a good place to be, because the large size gave more opportunities for gigs, because there are more consumers and more artistic density for collaborations.  But the institutions are dying.  Orchestras are folding, dance companies have stopped using live music, audiences are growing older.  This is the circle of life, except with symphonies instead of lions.  The models of success are small chamber groups that can perform all over the country, like eighth blackbird or So Percussion.   Flexible in repertoire and in concert dynamics, these groups are winning over younger audiences, without being locked in a place like New York (though So Percussion is now based at Bard College-Conservatory, near New York).  Connections don't have to be made in New York.  So Percussion met at Yale, eighth blackbird met at Oberlin.

In fact, I would argue that the cultural capital of America is in our academic institutions, spread throughout the country.  Successful chamber groups are associated with them, either through short residencies or long-term programs.  Composers usually are supported through the academy, as are performers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, and authors.  The internet allows the contributions from these institutions to be shared at the speed of meme (not quite as fast as the speed of light, but more Lolcats).  Anyone can be conducted by Eric Whitacre in a virtual choir (Eric is based at Cambridge University).  YouTube created a symphony from music students trained around the world.

So at the end I would say New York is not the cultural capital of America.  I can tell, because I used to be very intimidated by anyone I knew who lived in New York.  They had access to all these great events, things I could never experience in Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana.  But now I don't feel that loss.  I can see and hear things in New York, and in Boston, and in Los Angeles, without ever leaving my house.  I can listen to my students perform a brand new piece they discovered on the internet, composed by someone in Tallahassee.  I hear great live concerts in Indianapolis, and Bloomington, and Chicago.  I read online newspapers from New York, London, Washington, and San Francisco.  And one of my favorite authors lives in Bradford, Ohio. Our cultural capital is spread all throughout the world, with less gatekeeping by large city institutions.  This is the change in power structures that Patrick laments.  It can be scary, the number of choices we have to make on what art to consume.  But it is also exhilarating, to ride the artistic winds that blow from every direction.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Truth and Fiction

Last night I finally had the chance to hear This American Life's retraction of the Mike Daisey story.  I had already read Mike's response to the retraction, as well as listened to Luke Burbank's interview of Mike that occurred well before the brouhaha.  I felt empathy for Ira, who felt both betrayed and sorry for his own mistakes.  I respect him for owning up to his own mistakes.  I think Mike is trying to own up to his own mistakes, but he is not communicating his point well.  This is ironic (don't you think?) given his acumen as a storyteller, but perhaps the emotions are too strong for him to speak clearly about it. 

One thing is absolutely clear: Mike Daisey lied to the TAL staff repeatedly during the fact-checking on the story.  He represented his story as holding up to journalistic vigor in various emails with producers when he knew some parts of the story were not accurate, and he lied about the name and contact information of his translator.  He should fess up to that, strongly and in no uncertain terms when he talks about this issue.  Admitting it on the Retraction piece was like pulling teeth, and in his subsequent statements he ignores this fact (hah!) completely.

Less clear is Mike's credibility on the rest of the story.  I understand why Ira doesn't trust him when Mike disagrees with the translator's version of events.  But I also heard clearly that the events took place two years ago, and were not necessarily a big part of the translator's life.  So her memories aren't guaranteed to be 100% accurate.  Plus the translator does still live in an oppressive regime, and may not want to publicly confirm some facts, like underage workers, that could anger the government.  So there is the possibility Mike is telling the truth about those facts.

This gets us to the big picture.  Mike Daisey says that despite the deliberate inaccuracies, his monologue is still truthful.  I've written before that artistic discourse can contain paradoxes, and that logic can contain irrational elements.  I do believe that fictional art can lead us to understand ourselves better, and perhaps lead us to have greater empathy for other perspectives.  Self-awareness can be truth, but I don't know if I can define empathy as truth.  Empathy is a good thing, no, a great thing.  But is it truth?  This is where Mike falls down.  I believe he should stand up for his monologue as a work of beauty, something that will make you feel more.  As he puts it, "But understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from—that is not a lie. That is art. That is human empathy, and it is real, and even if you curse my name I hope you’ll recognize that and continue reading, caring, and thinking."  I agree that it is art.  But it is not truth.  

I enjoy watching biographical movies.  Ray, Man in the Moon, Topsy-Turvy, all very entertaining.  I gain greater respect for the artists represented in these movies.  I also know that the movies aren't 100% factual.  Andy Kaufman had several girlfriends who were composited into one character in the movie.  Ray had scenes "fictionalized for dramatization purposes."  That would be great if Mike Daisey would say, "some scenes of my monologue were fictionalized for dramatic effect."  And if he were to make clear in the monologue or in the program notes for the monologue that it uses a "combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story." But he seems to have a hang-up about 'fiction.'  I think he is afraid that if he admits the work is fictionalized, people won't have the emotional connection he is trying to make.  I also think he truly believes in the cause of the Chinese workers.  That is his truth.  But he oversold his work in trying to convey this truth, which will only hurt his efforts in the end.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Music, unjustly

I promised to write about unjust uses of music, which is a tricky thing to do.  One can think about the army blasting rock music at Noriega to get him to surrender.  When googling for an example of this, I found this Wikipedia page on Music in Psychological Operations.  Besides Noriega, it mentions using loud music in interrogations at Guantanamo and in Iraq.  Andy Worthington has a detailed description of music used for torture.  One could ask why the torturers use music at all.  Why don't they just use loud white noise, or randomized sounds?  I have a feeling it is because of the perceived organization of music.  Music doesn't allow our brains to ignore it, because it has patterns that can be recognized.  It seems the most effective music torture uses music styles unfamiliar to the detainees. 
When CIA operatives spoke to ABC News in November 2005, as part of a ground-breaking report into the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques on “high-value detainees” held in secret prisons, they reported that, when prisoners were forced to listen to Eminem’s Slim Shady album, “The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic.” And in May 2003, when the story first broke that music was being used by US PsyOps teams in Iraq, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, whose favored songs were said to be “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and “Enter the Sandman” by Metallica, told Newsweek, “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it.” (Worthington)
 The listeners' brains can tell that there are structures to comprehend, but they have no cultural context to help out.  Add to this looking "through a glass darkly", the music used is played at unbearable volumes, and usually includes very heavy bass sounds.  Studies have shown how intense low frequencies will disrupt the physical processes of the body, causing nausea and breathing problems.  This physical distress, accompanied by pain in the ears and the mental stress of being interrogated in the first place, is indeed very torturous.

What about using music to convey a message the composer or performer never intended?  Benjamin Britten was a well-known pacifist who wrote his War Requiem to portray the horrors of war.  He dedicated it to friends who died during or because of WW II.  James Horner appropriated the Sanctus of this requiem to accompany the Trojans marching to war in the movie Troy, a movie that celebrates war rather than lamenting it.  Janis Joplin wrote "Mercedes Benz" in 1970 as a commentary on the consumerism of society.  She holds up the desire for goods as a ridiculous thing to pray for, with fancy cars and TVs as shallow means of happiness.  And then in 1995 Mercedes-Benz used it to get consumers to buy their car.    Various musicians have asked politicians to stop using their music for campaigns.

Then there is the flip side, musicians who write music as propaganda.  The Nazis employed musicians to compose anthems for their cause. Toby Keith wrote "The Taliban" to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This is a trickier matter than the others, since the musician could be completely sincere in supporting that cause.  It takes more objectivity to determine if the cause itself is unjust, which is clear in the case of Nazis but cloudy with the "War on Terror."

The horror of using music in an unjust way is the way music directly touches our souls.  We can't listen away from music, like we can look away from a visual work of art.  Music entrains our physical bodies with visceral responses to its rhythms and harmonies, even as the emotional content pushes at our psyches.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi Day!

Here is some Pi music:

Monday, March 12, 2012


As I sometimes do, I have filled out the March Madness brackets.  Since I know nothing about basketball, I have picked the teams based on their music programs.  Here are my choices.  IU is lucky the University of Rochester is not Division I!