Thursday, April 29, 2010

Violin week, I guess

NPR's music blog ran a feature on five jazz violinists that Felix Contreras thought you should know. There's two I'd add to the list:

Joe Venuti: the most glaring oversight. If it wasn't for Grappelli's later career (when he finally branched out to genres of jazz other than gypsy), I'd probably place Venuti at the number one spot on the top violinist list without hesitating. Here's the audio for a recording of Venuti and Lang.


Interestingly, Venuti got bluesier with age.


This is reminiscent of the second violinist I'd have wanted in a top five, Stuff Smith. Where Venuti approached jazz like every song was a concerto for violin, Smith adapted New Orleans clarinet-like lines to the unique characteristics of the violin.


In another post at NPR, contemporary violinist Mark Connor talks about music education. I'm not sure about his goal to "re-brand America's various musical traditions as American classical music." But I'm all for recognizing music from the Mexico through the Northern Territories as North American music and paying more attention to how genres mix and musicians exchange ideas across supposed borders. The old style of field work - trying to find the oldest, most local-sounding players to record - really misses out on what's most exciting about American music: the number of ingredients that come together within it and the way it continues to evolve. That said, I'd be interested to hear these students, because the usual result of formally teaching violin students jazz or folk music is that they learn the melodies but not the feel or color. Learning the tunes by ear is a start, but I wonder if the deluge of styles will mean the students won't quite learn what separates the rhythm of a strathspey from swing or blue notes from the bent notes of Scottish and Irish music that originated in the imitation of bagpipes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Music: Songwriting, Math, and Spirituality

This week's last.fm top five: Feist, Folk Implosion, Sarah Vaughn, The Smiths, and T-Rex and Josephine Foster tied for fifth. Rather than talk about these fine folks, I'm in the mood for something completely different.

This afternoon my Google Reader feed served up Jeff Shattuck at Cerebellum Blues and his question, "Can an atheist be an artist?" Shattuck's post is actually about how religious (or, worse, "spiritual but not religious") artists give credit to the divine for their creations and why Shattuck finds this odd. The climax of the post comes in the last two paragraphs:

Last, and least, all these great songwriters proclaiming how their works are divine makes me sound like a total ass when I talk about how I think my songs come from me, thank you very much!

And that’s my point: because of the way artists talk about how they create, namely, some deity does it for them, a perception has been created that true artists are somehow closer to god than the rest of us. Well, for the record, I do think I am an artist and do not think there is a god of any kind.


If you'll bear with me, I'm going steer away from the cultural aspects and get geeky by saying that I see music in the same way that I see mathematics. Like a great song, there's something that seems supernatural and otherworldly about mathematics that some call “spiritual” or “transcendental,” and I think the connection runs deeper than just in the emotions the two elicit.

In this blog, we've seen how mathematics has been used - lazily and incorrectly - as proof that god exists. This view misses that a mathematical statement is true only in terms of its own rules (or axioms). If you change the rules, you change which statements are true and which are false, and the new rules still fall under the domain of math. It's a lot like how an English sentence is grammatical according to English grammar but not according to Russian grammar, even though both are human languages. There may be, as Chomsky proposed, a universal grammar which allows English, Russian, and every other human language, but even that needn't include every conceivable language (like Dolphin, Crow, or Vulcan). We could continuously find new ways to construct languages without changing our definition of language just as we develop new fields of mathematics without changing its definition.

The sidestep into language is a useful analogy because it's more intuitive to see how Russian and English folk music are as different as the languages. Each folk tradition has its own internally consistent patterns, but neither is any more musical than the other just as neither language is more or less grammatical. Just like Tolkien and Trekkies construct artificial languages, film composers have created specific sound palettes for fictional worlds. Some mathematicians (like those who work in the ) do these "what if" experiments all the time. It's essentially a game to see which alternative routes are useful or interesting, and the endeavor is just as legitimate an expression of humanity and creativity as music. It just happens that the objects involved in mathematical games (chiefly numbers) make them far more useful than musical games (and their equivalent reduction to pitches and divisions of time).

I brought up the game/puzzle aspect in an interview recently. (Do note that I was attributing the puzzle mentality to Jonathon Coulton's approach to songwriting, as I've written about before, and not Linnell's view of listeners. But it makes sense that way too.) This is also the frame of mind I'm speaking from whenever I say that literature, music, and the visual arts all work on the same principles. We can talk about space between notes, colors being in harmony, and literary leitmotifs. This is a lot like abstract- or meta-mathematics, where everything boils down to concepts like ordered sets and relationships. (MarkCC brought this sort of art-math connection not long ago here.)

One example of a musical game is trying to create new chord progressions that “work.” The relationship between music and math here is expressed most perfectly in attempts to write a generative grammar of jazz chord sequences. I won't go into the details, but suffice to say that in Western popular music - from Vaudeville to Bieber - there are only a handful of stock chord progressions that work. You've probably seen or heard humorous examples like this rant.

When you think about the relations and functions of the chords, rather than the specific notes or the instruments playing them, it becomes clear why this is the case. This is much like how there are only so many ways to organize an English sentence at the level of subjects, verbs, and objects. The variety – and the actual art - come in as one twists the form by replacing stock chords with new chords that have the same function. Bebop took this to extremes by extending harmony until nearly every tone was supported by nearly every chord, but one of the fundamental misunderstandings about this is the belief that this exercise freed or liberated the soloist. Rules weren't being eliminated, they were being created. If you imagine a music-making machine, boppers were adding more knobs (or discovering unused knobs). This increased the options but also made things more complicated for the person running the music-machine.

You're lucky it's not online or this talk of knob-twisting would have me veer toward typography in a reference to Hofstader's “Metafont, Metamathematics, and Metaphysics” (reprinted in Metamagical Themas), one of the best essays I've read this past year. What I took from it is that parameterizing art like this doesn't rob it of its creatively. There isn't a single ideal song, and there will always be undiscovered “knobs” that have been left at the same setting for millennia until one person comes along, tweaks it, and makes the result work. Even though music and mathematics are games in my view, they're much more open-ended than checkers or Hungry Hungry Hippos. You only have to look at musique concrete to see evidence for that.

All of this is how music becomes “transcendental” for me and how I explain where my songs come from without recourse to the divine or the spiritual to explain art and creatively (if those explanations even work). Before anyone says I've left out the emotional aspects, I don't think there's necessarily an either/or choice between treating art as a formal game and creating emotionally-engaging works. My favorite artists do both. I took the original question as a challenge that atheists could write the sort of music that others describe as spiritual or transcendental (the “closer to God” kind), not that atheists lacked human emotions or the ability to express them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shorts: Science Fandom

Not quite random selections from the week:

  • Normal Science talks about science fandom. (Whatwhat?) Follow the links if you aren't familiar with the two debates under discussion. Enlightening stuff.

  • On a not dissimilar note, I finally listened to Michael Mann on Point of Inquiry (sadly Grotheless). Under discussion: how media coverage and denialists fail to cope with the history and breadth of the case for AGW.

  • Rationally Speaking tackles one of my sore spots once again, Krista Tippett Some day I will try to decide whether her fluff is simply meaningless or actually harmful.

  • Sunday Music: DJ Shadow and Dan the Automator

    This week's top five as tabulated by last.fm: De La Soul, Portishead, DJ Shadow (w/ Dan the Automator), Amy Winehouse, Belle and Sebastian.

    I mentioned over at 52 Songs that US denizens have a tendency to avoid music from other cultures or containing lyrics in something other than English. There are a few exceptions. College undergrads majoring in a foreign language tend to obsess over one or two artists singing in that language. Anime-fans can get really into Japanese pop music. And a certain sort of geeky music lover stumbles onto Bollywood soundtracks. (In fact, I'm surprised the AV Club doesn't have a "Gateway to Geekery" feature on it.)

    I was turned onto the Bollywood from a KCRW interview/guest DJ session with Danny Elfman where he played a few selections from Khal Nayak (which I have sitting here waiting for me to find the time to watch it). Along with the Asian Underground trend, a renewed interest in Bollywood soundtracks. I don't listen to as much proper Asian Underground anymore (and always preferred North African influenced music anyway), but the DJ Shadow / Dan the Automater tracks spun this week were from Bombay the Hard Way, which remains an albums that I frequently play when coding or doing data-entry. I'm not even sure what either producer contributed. Here's "Theme from Don", which sounds simultaneously like 1998 (the year Bombay was dropped) and Isaac Hayes style funk.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Sunday Music: Bessie Smith

    This week's top five: Echo and the Bunnymen, Lemuria, Bessie Smith, The Presidents of the United States of America, and Fotheringay.

    Here's Smith with one of her signature songs, "St. Louis Blues," in her only known film appearance.


    The arrangement - possibly by the song's composer, W. C. Handy - is very atypical for Smith's recorded work, although it may fairly represent what her appearances in larger stage shows may have sounded like. Her recorded career begins with small-group sessions based almost entirely around her singing the melody with only a little improvisation from a horn or two around her alto voice. Later recordings introduce more musicians and fleshed-out arrangements.

    Smith occupies that wonderful gap between blues and vocal jazz that I like. She's representative of what's now called "classic female blues," and from my (young) standpoint, it looks like their stories were ignored by blues and jazz historians for being an impure amalgamation too influenced by record companies afraid of black male blues singers (who have always defined the blues tradition). It's become apparent that female singers like Smith were well-regarded and drew huge crowds (not just white record company owners). Smith was included in the Ken Burns's Jazz and her fame and contemporary influence was adequately noted, but that documentary's Whiggish construction of jazz as its own microcosm failed to really tell stories like Smith's (or W. C. Handy's) because it focused too much on their virtuosity and humble beginnings, rather than how they grew as musicians.

    Here's Smith with something more representative of her 20s output:


    And here she is with back up from a dance band (Buck Washington's in fact):

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    Sunday Music: A Mix

    This week's last.fm top five: Tommy Peoples, Yusef Lateef, Steeleye Span, The Beach Boys, and Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. Some of the numbers were inflated due to an iTunes/iPhone/Last.fm double-scrobbling mix-up. I don't have much to say on any of these today, so here's the short version.

    Jelly Roll Morton: I've been meaning to sit down and fully absorb the Alan Lomax collection that Rounder released. Morton's personal myth-making is probably going to feature in another project I'm working on.

    Steeleye Span: More Brit folk rock. Here they are with "Lark in the Morning."


    Tommy Peoples: Discovered thanks to Altan and my exploring of their roots. Peoples is one of the best living outputs from the Donegal tradition. Here's part one of a documentary on him.


    The Beach Boys are the sort of band on whom everything has been said before. In case you haven't seen it yet, here's a Youtube channel breaking apart their classic album, Pet Sounds. tape by tape. Here's "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

    Sunday, February 28, 2010

    Sunday Music: The Buggles

    This week's top five: Taraf de Haïdouks, The Buggles, Steeleye Span, Talking Heads, Eurythmics. Quite the unexpected 80s week!

    Like everybody and their grandma, I first heard The Buggles through "Video Killed the Radio Star." The Buggles were primarily multiinstrumentalists Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn. A few years ago, I went through a new wave phase and picked up 1980's The Age of Plastic. I wasn't disappointed by what I heard.



    Possbily because it was around this time of year that I first heard it, the album has wintry associations for me. Where Devo's futurism came with a campy candy shell and Kraftwerk's was cold, robotic and alien, The Buggles looked on the present with the nostalgic perspective of an unsatisfied future. This is underscored by the seamless blending of traditional and electronic instruments, especially in the doubling of synth parts with female vocals. The Age of Plastic brings this across through its excellent pop production sensibilities that bring to mind both Phil Spector and Mozart.

    Aside from the big single, "Elstree" also captures the future-nostalgia and the use of synths to fill in for the voices and timbres of traditional instruments and part-writing.



    The synth strings and the harplike arpeggios are status quo for synthpop, but its the "woodwind" synth countermelodies that create The Buggles' signature sound. It's touches like that which should earn the band a reputation greater than that of a novelty song writing one-hit wonder. I've been recommending the album to everyone I think will listen, but it's yet to really spark the same response from anyone. Here's hoping a little more spaghetti on the wall might stick.