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!