Last Thanksgiving week, I took the opportunity to see Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestra during their annual stint at the Jazz Standard in NY. I’m not usually a fan of jazz bands (I prefer smaller ensembles and a less brassy sound), but I found the music to be innovative enough and the musicians to be talented enough to engage my interest.
This week in the NY Times Magazine, there is an article about Maria Schneider’s brand of music (by Zachary Woolfe). Here were a few things that I found interesting:
1. Schneider’s background is mostly in classical music, so her focus is on composition. The music still sounds like jazz, and the musicians take solos, of course, but rather than going off in whatever direction they please, they need to get from point A to point B, for the composition to flow. This is unlike the style of a lot of previous jazz bands, but these restrictions on the soloists may actually be helpful. Sometimes innovation can be even more challenging (and powerful) when it is hampered, just a little. This also means that Maria herself is under a lot more pressure (she only composes and conducts), and she admits to suffering from writer’s block quite often.
2. Recording orchestral music is expensive! Think of all the musicians that you have to pay, for starters (Schneider’s band always features seasoned jazz artists, some of whom are professors at conservatories). To help make it possible for Schneider to actually make some money (she gets very little in the end when she records with a big label), her friend Brian Camelio started a crowdfunding program named ArtistShare, which is a lot like the present-day Kickstarter. The idea is that fans contribute money to help make the music, but – like stockholders – they get to be involved in the music-making process. In exchange for the money, Schneider gives up a little bit of her independence (for example, the shareholders can veto her working with an artist they don’t approve of), and she also gives up a little bit of her privacy. In order to bring the fans into her creative process, she’ll make videos of her creative process. These videos are often emotional and pessimistic, since Schneider does struggle against procrastination. Does this honesty hurt her in the end? (her dad said to her that she should never say that the music is bad, or else no one will buy it). Does this dependence on the fans hurt her creatively?
Or is this just the wave of the future? More and more, we’re seeing bands posting photos of themselves on tour on Instagram, songwriters sharing ideas and feelings on Twitter…fans want to be let in on the creative process, and to feel as if they have input. In the end, the bands become more successful, at least commercially. Whether it hurts the music itself – well, that’s still an open question.
3. Finally, I liked this quote from Maria in the NYT piece:
“Like dreams are a way to process your psyche, music is a way to preserve and share memory.”
Schneider’s compositions aim to bring the audience into a memory or experience in her life. To the extent that people share experiences and emotions and memories, this self-reflection and recollection through music can be very moving.
When I say that Snarky Puppy’s sound is “unique,” that’s probably an understatement. A band that I’ve just started getting into, Snarky Puppy mixes funk and jazz and dance music in a way that works well. Sometimes they sound like The Bad Plus; sometimes they sound like Skrillex. Sounds crazy, right?
On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of seeing them at the Brooklyn Bowl (they were only in NY for a matter of hours, but they are touring a LOT this year). Headed by bassist Michael League, the ensemble that night consisted of 9 instrumentalists – 3 percussionists, 1 keyboardist/synth man, 1 guitarist, 3 horn players (sax and trumpet), and of course, Michael himself. As taken aback as I was at how full their sound was, I was shocked to discover that they record with an even bigger group of musicians (including string players!). They also record in front of a live audience on headphones, which is really cool (clip here). Snarky Puppy seems to acknowledge that its music – like all jazz, really – is performance music. While I imagine that they plan their solos in advance for the recording sessions, there’s still more unpredictability when you have an audience right there (that is, you can’t stop and do something again, because you wouldn’t do that at an actual concert). The music comes out more raw and real that way.
Snarky Puppy’s melodies are actually quite simple – not in a bad way, just in a way that is accessible and danceable. Where they really show their complexity is in their improvisation. All the musicians demonstrated astounding virtuosity on their instruments, but I was an especially big fan of the keyboardist, the guitarist and the drummers. At one point, the 3 drummers soloed together (somehow not a contradiction in terms) for what seemed like a full 5 minutes! This was a lot of fun, because the beats kept changing, and it was great to see how the drummers managed to keep up with each other. This part of the show really reminded me of hip hop – all the music needed was someone spitting rhymes over it. I think I was smiling the entire time that this improv was going on, which would have been rare for me at any other jazz show. Most other jazz just seems to take itself so seriously, but Snarky Puppy’s music seemed to have been meant to make you dance.
And people did dance. The crowd was much younger and more diverse than the crowd usually spotted at jazz shows (most jazz nowadays is watched live by young white males), and some people were jumping and hand-waving as if they were at a rave. Not only were the beats awesome, but Snarky Puppy also has a way of moving from the solos back to the main melody so that the return of the head feels like a climax, or a “drop” in dubstep terms. There’s no subtlety here, and since the melody is usually played by all musicians at once, it always sounds loud and merry and triumphant.
Overall, the Snarky Puppy show was one of the most fun shows that I’ve been to in a long time, and quite possibly the most fun “jazz” show that I’ve ever been to. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of their records and for more of their performances.
My favorite album of the last few weeks has been David Bowie’s The Next Day. Those who know me might think, “Duh, you’re a huge Bowie fan. How can this NOT be your favorite album?” But I’ll be honest – some Bowie albums are not great. And it’s been so many years since his last album, that this one was quite over-hyped. But man, does it deliver. The ballad “Where are we now?”, with its simple chorus and sublime bridge, is beautiful. I’m also partial to “Valentine’s Day,” “Love is Lost,” and other tracks that are more “80s” and uptempo.
What I’m most impressed with about the album is the quality of Bowie’s voice, especially given his age. In a recent New Yorker article (I know, I know, I need to read other publications), John Colapinto wrote a profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels, a laryngeal surgeon who has operated on the vocal cords of some of the best singers in the world, including Adele, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey and James Taylor. Zeitels is impressive not only because of his surgical prowess (imagine operating on such a delicate, sinewy system that is so intricately connected to the very mechanism that allows one to breathe?!), but also because he has pioneered new methods for restoring voices, including methods that involve lasers. In fact, cancer patients who would have to get their voice boxes removed now have the possibility of keeping them intact, thanks to new laser-based surgery.
Why do so many prominent (and not-so-prominent) singers need to get their voices fixed? Well, in order to produce certain pitches – especially very pure and loud ones – the vocal cords have to work quite hard, rubbing against each other. This hard work can often lead to minute rips and tears, which lead to the buildup of scar tissue and polyps. So, practicing singing works out the muscles in your throat a lot like exercising works out other muscles. “Strongmen” and body builders rip tendons all the time (as do other athletes), and they have to get surgery to repair this tissue all the time. Singers can do the same to their vocal cords. Those who belt it out (like Adele does), can get damage at a young age. [Side note: the pressure on Zeitels was really on with Adele, since everyone was aware of her vocal issues, and a lot of money was on the line. The Grammys were as nerve-wracking for him as they were for Adele, but she pulled through with an excellent performance.] But even non-singers eventually end up with crackly, “old people” voices, because of this same wear-and-tear. I noted in a previous post about The Who at the Barclays Center that Pete Townsend’s voice sounded way grittier than Roger Daltrey’s did – no wonder, since Daltrey is a regular client of Zeitels, and Pete has never had any “work done.”
The article about Zeitels has given me more respect for vocalists, especially those who are getting on in age, as David Bowie is. When your guitar or piano starts to break or wane in quality, you can get a new one. You can’t get new vocal cords (at least, not yet). So your instrument is very delicate, and you have to tow the line between giving it your all every time you perform and holding back to take care of your voice. I’m happy that there are doctors like Steven Zeitels who can restore singers’ voices. Why shouldn’t vocalists get the same advantages as athletes or other musicians do? Why should they have to give up singing once they get older? If Bowie had stopped singing, we wouldn’t have “The Next Day,” and if Zeitels hadn’t helped Daltrey, we might not be able to see The Who on tour now. Advances in laryngeal surgery help not only the performers, but also the fans and the music industry.
synthetic (adj.) – artificial, fake, false, fabricated
supersynthetic (adj.) – very synthetic, synthetic to a greater degree; also, above or beyond synthetic (compare to: supernatural).
First Blush’s sophomore EP, composed of a diverse set of 6 tracks, has now been made available online (stream at firstblushmusic.com). Led by composer, keyboardist and vocalist Charles Sekel, with Zak Croxall on bass and Zach Honoroff on drums, First Blush is finally starting to pin down their sound with this collection. The theme, of course, is the idea of “synthetic” – synthetic relationships, synthetic music, synthetic emotions.
The EP starts off strong, with its most well-crafted and polished song, “Off the Lights.” This song is a raw, honest look at a relationship between two people, and an encapsulation of that relationship. The words are definitive (“You’re an angel and I’m alive”; “Yes I know, it’s all over, all over, all over.”) But these quiet, introspective moments are quickly drowned out by cries of “Turn off the lights!”, and bursts of instrumental interludes (the moment after the first chorus, when the drums and synth line come in full blast, may be the most beautiful moment of the album; in fact, the magic of this EP really is in its transitions between disparate song segments). This drowning out signals that denial, and darkness, are where the song’s protagonist wants to remain. Despite his knowledge, he doesn’t want to shed light on a relationship that seems super-synthetic.
The next track, “Supersynthetic,” begins with an extremely cool synthesized riff; now we aren’t talking about “synthetic” in a metaphorical sense – we’re talking about synthesized music. This track is an homage to the ’80s, with its dance groove and simple vocal melodies, but also with its subtle melancholia. Again, the switch from part 1 to part 2 is the highlight (you’ll have to hear it to agree with me). Fittingly, there are effects on the vocals throughout the entire track, but on part 1, they sound muffled, trapped. In part 2, we get a feeling of breaking through, as the vocals take on more of an echoing and reverberating effect. These subtle touches are integral to the song, and wouldn’t even be possible without the technology that this track seems to be celebrating.
“Velvet” and “Velvet Remix” as a couplet explore the “meta” definition of synthetic by demonstrating that the same elements (chords) can be combined in different ways to produce totally different pieces of music. “Velvet” and “Velvet Remix” differ greatly in style, tempo and mood. One has vocals and lyrics, and the other doesn’t. (In fact, on “Velvet,” we have Charles’s most alluring vocal performance. There is also a lyrical reference back to the “Off the Lights” theme: “You may be perfect / but not down to the bone.” The listener can’t help but wonder, who is “you?” The angel, or the one who is alive?). “Velvet” even uses real instruments, whereas “Velvet Remix” does not (but would one be able to tell? Hmm.). This is “synthetic” in the sense of fabricated, man-made. What makes music real is the choices that create it. Here, First Blush has decided to forgo making the choice between the two tracks, to show us just how delicate this process really is.
“Venture” and “Pack it Up” are also really well-constructed and fun to listen to. Zak’s bass part on “Pack It Up” and Randy Runyon’s guitar solo on “Venture” are high points of those tracks. In fact, the instrumental prowess of all four musicians is apparent throughout the EP – it’s hard to pick out the best parts. And the producer, Pat O’Leary, also deserves a nod for carefully mixing the songs.
What else is synthetic? Oh right – this review, probably. I’ve gleaned the above interpretations from my own listening, but that’s just my mind’s handiwork. If you take a listen to this EP (which you should!), you may feel different things, and project different meanings onto the songs. And that’s what makes music itself supersynthetic – something that is inherently synthetic that is somehow transcendental.
In the last issue of the New Yorker, there was a “Talk of the Town” piece by Nick Paumgarten about the machine on which the best-selling album of all time was made. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, along with albums by other prominent artists, such as Billy Joel and Donna Summer, were recorded on the solid-state recording console called the Harrison 4032. Of course, most people don’t know or care about such details. Production quality is obviously an important attribute of the Thriller album, and most good albums. But we usually take note of the man behind the job (e.g., Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson), and ignore the equipment. Nevertheless, the specific instruments and consoles behind a piece of music that we love are imbued with a special value that’s hard to explain rationally. Knowing that a guitar model is the same one that Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix used makes you desire it more (and these models are priced accordingly); when a guitar is literally and specifically one that these musicians used, it ends up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or is auctioned off for hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of dollars.
According to Paumgarten’s article, the Harrison 4032 on which Thriller was made somehow ended up in the hands of a Christian-music recording studio owner named Clayton Rose. When MJ passed away in 2009, Rose decided it would be a good idea to sell the console. After all, once it was certified as authentic, wouldn’t this piece of equipment go for lots of money? Jackson was one of the most beloved musicians of all time, and he continues to have many wealthy fans. But unfortunately, Rose had to lower his price on eBay from one million dollars to $500,000, and then he had to lower it even more. It wasn’t until Laurent Brancowitz from the band Phoenix came across the console that there was a serious buyer. The French electronic band (I am a fan!) decided that they had to have it, and they began negotiating with Rose. And at once, it became apparent why it was so hard to sell this equipment. Rose’s e-mails and exchanges with potential clients were misspelled, hostile, defensive…just all around distasteful. He was turning people off with his poor salesmanship. Such a valuable item should’ve been able to sell itself; but it seemed like a bad salesman could actually hinder the sale! Phoenix ended up buying the Harrison 4032. For $17,000.
It’s amazing how context can influence our valuation of an item. When a non-human animal views something of value (such as a piece of food…there are few other things valued by those outside our species), it weighs a few attributes – taste, smell, amount, effort required to obtain it, opportunity cost of eating it. When we consider something of value, on the other hand, the number of potential attributes explodes. This recording console means more to someone who can use it (like a musical artist) then to someone who doesn’t know how to use it. This recording console is valued more than others of its same kind because the most beloved album of all time was created on it. Finally, this recording console loses value because the person who owned it before seems a little abrasive and a little nuts, given his e-mails. All of these attributes are completely abstract! To even consider these, we must be able to make extremely complex inferences (that don’t seem complex to us at all). And in the end, it can all be translated into a price.
Phoenix’s next album (to be released in April) has been mixed on the same recording console on which Thriller was mixed. I’m not gonna lie – as silly as it seems, this makes me want to buy and listen to the album all the more.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to enjoy two full nights of jazz in NYC, through the Winter Jazzfest. This festival is organized by a non-profit called Search & Restore, which aims to keep the jazz and improvised music scene alive. This was the biggest year that the festival has ever had, featuring over 75 acts, at 6 different venues (all walking distance from each other, downtown). It was the first year that I attended, and I will definitely be returning next January.
Unlike rock or EDM festivals, the jazzfest is reasonably-priced ($45 for all you can take in, over 2 days). Although the crowds were not nearly as big as you would expect for more popular music concerts (case in point: they didn’t have to rent out a desert or large park to hold the festival), the number of young people – especially young, bearded men in their 20s – who attended was surprisingly large. Even the performers were pretty young, and many of them attended each other’s performances (famous people in the jazz world don’t need to be followed by security – you could easily approach one of your favorites at the pizza place next to the venue and congratulate them on a great set). Maybe jazz isn’t dying after all. Part of the reason why the festival was so popular, in my opinion, is that the definition of “jazz” seems to be expanding. What I witnessed over two days was not a series of jazz trios or quartets, improvising on famous old standards. I saw country-folk bands and large groups that featured strings and horns. I saw rappers, singers, guitars and DJs. I saw amateurs, as well as legends. In fact, the festival was quite overwhelming, and below, I’m just going to highlight a few of my favorite acts from the festival (note: I only got to see a small percentage of the acts that actually played).
Julian Lage & Nels Cline: At the Bitter End on Friday, the house was packed to see these two guitarists improvise together onstage. Cline is a legend in both the jazz and rock world – he is currently the guitarist for the alternative/folk/rock band Wilco (one of my favorite bands, primarily because of Cline’s awesome solos). He has his hand in a number of different projects, including the Nels Cline Singers, and a performance piece in which he improvises on guitar, while a painter improvises on a canvas. This newest collaboration with Julian Lage is very promising – Lage is only 25, and is known for being a child prodigy in the jazz world. He has toured with jazz greats, such as Gary Burton, from a very young age. Lage has incredibly sophisticated technique, and a great intuition for improvisation. On stage, the two faced each other as they both freely improvised, as well as performed some of Cline’s compositions (which heavily feature improv as well). As with most jazz, there were moments of true beauty, but also moments where the connection between the two performers seemed to get lost. Overall, though, it was fantastic to listen to. I only wish that the venue had been a little less full, so that it would be easier to concentrate on the music. With only two guitars on stage – at times, playing very minimally – it was easy to get distracted. One day, under more comfortable conditions, I’d love to see these two men perform again, either together or separately.
Ari Hoenig group: Early on Saturday at Sullivan Hall, Ari Hoenig (drummer) took the stage with Wayne Krantz on guitar, Mike League on bass and Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax. After they introduced themselves, they warned the audience that they would not say anything else until the end of the show. Instead, they exploded into their set, which was incredibly exciting and entertaining. I was quite pleased to see that they improvised on popular music melodies, such as Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box”, “Funkytown,” and even “Baby One More Time.” The most amazing thing about the performance, though, was definitely Ari’s drumming. He would seamlessly transition between different rhythmic signatures, and the rest of the band would follow his lead. When I listen to jazz, I often don’t focus on the drums – because they are not the most melodic instrument – but Hoenig made the drums melodic, and the drums (as well as the bass) became the driving force behind the jamming. It was probably the most fun set of the weekend, and I would love to see some of Hoenig’s groups perform around the city.
Kneebody: I might see Kneebody again on Monday – they were that good. What makes Kneebody (a group of young guys with amazing compositions, as well as fabulous soloing chops) so distinctive is that the music doesn’t really sound like jazz at all. It is so tightly wound together, with such a big sound, that you don’t even know what to react to first. I found the keyboardist, Adam Benjamin, to be especially interesting to watch. And of course, the bass guitarist, Kaveh Rastegar, and the saxophonist, Ben Wendell, gave noteworthy performances as well. I highly recommend giving Kneebody a listen – it’s hard to find music that is both so sophisticated and so accessible at the same time.
Jason Lindner’s Breeding Ground: When I heard that Lindner was a pianist, I expected a quiet, piano-solo-heavy set. What I got was totally different, and totally awesome (probably the most engaging and beautiful set of the whole festival, for me). Lindner recruited a bassist (who was also a vocalist), a drummer, a floutist, a saxophonist, a string quartet, a trombonist and another vocalist to help him out. Like Kneebody’s songs, Lindner’s songs were also incredibly cohesive. The violinists gave solos that kept you on the edge of your seat, and the vocalist, Jeff Taylor, gave one of the most interesting vocal performances I have ever seen. It wasn’t just that his voice covered quite a range – it’s that he delivered the lines with such expertise and passion. It wasn’t surprising to hear that he was also the lyricist. His facial expressions and the way that he moved the mike around his body only added to the enjoyment. Finally, the group was kept in step by the fabulous drumming of Mark Giuliana and the direction of Lindner. At the end, Lindner noted that the group was actually a “supergroup,” and that each artist has his/her own projects separate from Breeding Ground. Sounds like those are worth checking out as well.
Well, that’s all I’m going to report for now. If you get the chance, go out to see some jazz. It’s a music meant to be experienced live, and you never know what gems you will discover.
The memory research canon is replete with sleep studies. A few decades ago, some researchers discovered that memories – in particular, procedural memories (these are the implicit memories for motor skills, such as riding a bike or playing the piano) – can actually improve after a night’s sleep. This is even controlling for time; you see, individuals who stayed awake did not experience the same benefit as those who were allowed to nap.
So, now, the questions in the field are: What kinds of memories are helped by sleep? (Evidence shows that it’s not just procedural memories anymore, although those still benefit a great deal). And how does this happen?
The working hypothesis for this second question is that there is “replay” during sleep. Basically, you play back the memories from during the day that you plan to remember (keep in mind – lots of memories decay from day to day, too) in your head, using the same neural regions that were activated when you first experienced that memory. The “play back” is shorter than the length of the actual memory, and it happens repeatedly. For example, if you wanted to remember riding a bike, you would play a “bike-riding” episode in your head over and over. Since we know that rehearsal in real life helps you to consolidate memories, then it makes sense that unconscious rehearsal during sleep also does! It’s a theory with a lot of support for it. One source of support is from a recent study by Antony et al (2012) in Nature Neuroscience.
In this study, Antony taught his participants to learn simple motor (finger-tapping) sequences that resembled playing an instrument to produce a melody. Yes, he basically taught them to play Guitar Hero. Individuals had to hit the right “notes” at the right times. [From my own experience with Guitar Hero, I can tell you that the game definitely involves procedural skills that I got better at over time, partly with the help of sleep. I was often surprised at how much I improved after a night's sleep - more than I would have if I had stayed up all night playing the game.] Participants heard one melody (didn’t practice it), and then practiced two other melodies (A and B). Then, they went to sleep. While they napped, the experimenters played melody B for them, so that they heard it, but it did not wake them up. The idea was that the melody was a cue that would cause “replay” of the finger-tapping sequence for melody B to happen in the brain. That is, when you hear the melody, you can’t help but practice the sequence in your head – even if you are asleep.
Sure enough, it turned out that individuals were better at doing the finger-tapping sequence for melody B than for melody A the next day. There was also motor cortex activity during the night when melody B was played for the individuals – showing that they may have been reproducing the motor sequence in their minds then. And another group, who did not sleep, did not get better at either A or B.
We can conclude a few things from this really cool study.
1) Benefits from sleep for procedural learning probably happen because of “replay” in the brain. The motor cortex – the same region that you use to produce the finger-tapping sequence – was activated during the night when the individual was cued with a melody.
2) Cues may increase the likelihood that replay will happen, or may increase how much replay there is. So, maybe listening to those vocabulary or language tapes over night does help…who knows? But it definitely seems that, if a musician were trying to learn a brand new piece, he might want to play that melody for himself overnight so that he could learn it more quickly.
I love these studies that have real-world implications, especially for new musicians who want to improve their skills. If you are interested in memory reactivation and replay, there are a lot of recent papers out there for you to check out.
You may not know Serge Gainsbourg or his music, but I assure you that you’ve heard his influence in a great deal of pop music. Gainsbourg was a Frenchman, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants. His parents left Russia after the revolution there, only to find that the Nazis would occupy France for years during Serge’s childhood. This was a terrifying time – a time when the joy of music was overshadowed by the need for survival. Gainsbourg’s family managed to get to safety, but he would be haunted by the stories that he’d heard and the sights that he’d seen for the rest of his life.
Serge soon went from being a piano player at bars to being a successful musician. His personal life was marked by many, many affairs – most of which ended in divorce or other ugliness. He dated Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin (with whom he has a child – Charlotte Gainsbourg, also a musician) and other starlets. He was known for a life of hedonism and drunkenness.
So, why am I sharing his abridged biography? Because that terror and that morbidity that Serge faced as a young man seeped into his music. He had seen evil, and he knew that life was all too fleeting and precious. So, he made no apologies when he wrote songs about sex and violence and death. Gainsbourg didn’t want to be limited by rules and propriety – he wanted to make art that was meaningful to him, and that inspired emotion, even if that emotion was just, well, disgust.
The work that I am most familiar with is 1971′s Histoire de Melody Nelson. This short concept album is beautiful – it involves Serge speak-singing in a deep, sexual voice, while orchestrated string parts and funky bass guitar interact behind the vocals. It flows well as an album, but also has distinct sections (songs) about the various aspects of this one affair. It is, after all, the tale of a girl named Melody Nelson. This album inspired many future pop and electronic musicians, such as Air and Beck.
If you listen to the lyrics carefully, however, and if you know any French at all, you will soon discover that Melody Nelson – the nymphet on whom Serge is doting – is a 14-year old girl. All of a sudden, the smooth voice and the suggestive bass take on a new meaning. You feel almost dirty listening to this album. There is one track called “En Melody” (I’ll let you figure out what that means), that features – almost exclusively – girlish giggling and shrieking. The sense of shame and disgust that this track evokes in you (even if you don’t consciously acknowledge it) draws you to it even more. What Gainsbourg is doing is inviting an outpouring of emotion in his listeners, and he doesn’t care what the nature of the emotion is. Another song of his, “Je t’aime…moi non plus” also featured explicit lyrics and sounds of female orgasm. While the song was censored in many communities (even in France!), Gainsbourg calls it the “ultimate love song.”
He acknowledged that sex, and other animal, carnal, visceral instincts are real and that we should not suppress them. After all, based on his experiences, he truly believed that life is “nasty, brutish and short.”
Last week, I finally got to see one of my favorite bands play live. The Who are legends of rock – they’ve switched styles a lot over the years, and not all of their work is equally meritorious, but they are one of the great bands to come out of the British Invasion of the 60s and 70s. As I’ve talked about in this blog before, I think that what they are best known for are their rock operas: Tommy and Quadrophenia. These concept albums have incredible music, but also fascinating stories. Quadrophenia, especially, is deeply insightful. It tells the story of a boy who struggles psychologically, and The Who paint a better diagnostic picture of this character than any psychiatrist could. When I heard that The Who were going to play Quadrophenia in its entirety on their current tour, I bought tickets right away.
Bands rarely have the luxury of playing full albums live. We live in a “singles” musical culture. In order for bands to make it, their songs need to be hits: compact, 3-4 minute tracks with choruses and hooks. This demand started with radio, but continues to this day because of the popularity of music videos on Youtube, the prevalence of pop music in commercials and on TV shows, and because of the increase in music sharing in general. Luckily, the Who have been able to write some fantastic singles – Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Who Are You?, The Pinball Wizard (from Tommy), The Seeker, etc. But I think that their rock operas are greater than the sum of their parts. Quadrophenia, for example, has repeated themes and lines from song to song, which make it very pleasant to listen to as a whole, in order. It was really a joy for me to see this live, but lots of Who fans in the audience seemed distressed by it. They didn’t get excited until Quadrophenia was over, and the band started playing the classic singles (some of which I listed above). Now, I hope that they knew what they had signed up for…but even those very dedicated fans might still only like a few tracks off of Quadrophenia.
So how was the show? Great! Pete Townshend can shred as well as ever, and Roger Daltry can still really hit the high notes (Townshend’s singing has gotten a lot more gruff and shaky in his ‘old age’, but I didn’t mind the style change). The drummer and bassist were good, and I was happy to see Pete’s brother, Simon Townshend, singing on “The Dirty Jobs.” His voice was well-controlled, and he sounded just like his bro does on the record. I also really liked how they paid tribute to the late members of the band – Keith Moon and John Entwistle. On one track, Keith Moon (the drummer) had a vocal part. Instead of singing it on his behalf, Pete and Roger played a live video of Keith doing the lines on the original Quadrophenia tour. They also showed a video of an incredible Entwistle bass solo. Normally, I would be disappointed with recordings at a live show, but this was such a nice way to pay homage to the original band, without being corny about it. And speaking of corniness, there was absolutely no banter from the band throughout the whole performance of Quadrophenia, which was wonderful. Small pauses for applause were inserted, but other than that, they kept it coherent and moving (I have never felt Quadrophenia go by so quickly!). It was a fantastic and fun show, and since I doubt that The Who will tour with this particular album again, it was an opportunity that I had to take advantage of.
Conventionally beautiful music and conventionally beautiful art often provoke the same response – ennui. So, over the years, artists in both domains began experimenting. After photography became commonplace, realism in painting fell totally out of favor – what was the point of making something look as close to real when you could just take a snapshot of it? Even impressionism became unpopular. Modern and post-modern art emerged, and were predominantly conceptual. Jackson Pollack, for example, became famous for sprinkling dots on a canvas. Other abstract artists followed suit with similar projects. Some of these abstract pieces spoke to people, and were perceived as beautiful, while others could not be appreciated without some sort of backstory or explanation or whiff of satire.
How about modern, experimental music? Music that uses atonal scales, for example? To most people who are accustomed to Western musical scales, this music sounds ugly and abrasive. Or it can simply be intolerable without being ugly. John Cage is an example of an experimental composer of the 20th century. Some crtitics really admire him, especially for his ideas. His most seminal piece is called “4:33″ and it’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But do people really listen to John Cage? Can you sit down and appreciate sounds that aren’t quite musical without constantly reminding yourself of the greater import of the piece? Of course, maybe you can. But what I would argue is that it’s harder to appreciate “abstract music” than it is to appreciate “abstract art.” Or to put it another way, it’s easier to tolerate abstract art than it is to tolerate abstract music. Maybe this is because our visual environments are far richer than our auditory environments, and we have evolved to be mostly visual creatures. We, therefore, can tolerate many different visual inputs, unless they are extremely emotional, or viscerally disgusting to us. There are many sounds and chords that are repellant to us, though (think of screeching, or the sound of nails on a chalkboard). Maybe this varies from culture to culture, and over time, but it seems like our perception of auditory stimuli is almost more ingrained and less adaptable than our perception of visual stimuli. Maybe it’s better for our reaction to visual inputs to be flexible, since we rely on our vision so much…but our reactions to auditory inputs may not have to be as flexible. Seems like that might be possible, no?
[Today's blog post was inspired by the Facebook comment of a friend - thanks, Stefan.]