Last month, Fleet Foxes earned a cover story in Spin magazine. The article focused on Robin Pecknold – the voice, soul and mastermind behind the popular folk-rock band. Pecknold exhibits an extreme perfectionism about his music. It pays off, of course, but I do worry that the songwriting process is not so pleasurable for him. He even admits that he’s not 100% happy with the new record, Helplessness Blues, even though it’s already (pre-release) being hailed as one of the best, most beautiful albums of the year. Critics are suggesting that its merit surpasses that of their awesome debut album.
The Fleet Foxes article got me wondering about how composers deal with the fact that they are hearing their songs so many, many times as they are recording them. I don’t think that this is a trivial point; how we interpret songs, and how we feel about them, changes as we listen to them more and more. For example, there are:
1) Songs that we like at first, but that we quickly grow tired of;
2) Songs that we find difficult at first because of their complexity, but they grow on us;
3) “Earwigs” – songs that we don’t really like at first, but they’re so catchy that we eventually end up liking them (termed earwigs because of the way they come in through our ears and burrow into our brains).*
The third type of song is very commonplace in pop music nowadays (for e.g., Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, etc.), and I don’t think that’s an accident. There is a phenomenon in social psychology called the mere exposure effect, whereby we have a preference for things that we are exposed to more often, just because we are exposed to them so often. Many experiments have been done to demonstrate this effect; for example, if research participants are shown certain shapes subliminally (so they are not aware of seeing them) on a computer screen, they will indicate showing a preference for those shapes when asked later. The participants obviously can’t explain why one triangle is better than some other square, but there is an emotional reaction to the triangle that is brought about by familiarity. Do you ever wonder why other people like pictures of you that you hate? This is because you are accustomed to seeing a mirror image of yourself (when looking in a mirror), so you prefer that inverted image of yourself. Other people see you straight on – just as the camera captures you – so they like pictures of you. The theorized mechanism of this effect is a two-factor one: exposure leads to perceptual fluency (ease of processing some stimulus), and fluency leads to positive affect (we like when things are easy to process!).
So, how does this phenomenon relate to earwigs? When a song is built to be catchy, it sticks in our heads, so we end up hearing it very often (your auditory cortex is still activated, even when you’re not listening to something, but rather, just playing it in your head). The more often you hear something, the more pleasant it becomes, so you may end up thinking that a catchy song is really a good song.
Therefore, I think that it’s important for composers to keep in mind that characterizations and opinions of songs change with exposure. You may love the song that you’re working on, but someone who only hears it once (and hey, you can’t sell an “acquired taste”) may feel totally differently about it. The best songs are intriguing enough to invite future listens, without giving everything away the first time.
* These are not the only kinds of songs out there. There are songs that we may like from the beginning that we never grow weary of, and of course, there are many songs that we simply hate and may always hate.
One of the topics raised during the Ethan Iverson Q & A was: Thelonious Monk – was he a serious pianist? (Iverson has written about this on his blog).
No one doubts Monk’s influence in jazz. He was at the forefront of the bebop movement, but unlike his contemporaries (e.g., Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), who played “too many notes”, he filled his music with pregnant pauses and interesting rhythmic structures. Monk was also a serious jazz composer, author of standards such as “Monk’s Dream” and “‘Round Midnight” – extremely popular pieces in the jazz inventory. Iverson – who praised Monk to no end – went as far as to say that Monk would be to the 20th century what Beethoven, Mozart and Bach were to centuries past, i.e., a representative of the musical milieu.
So what’s the controversy exactly? Many jazz historians claim that Monk couldn’t actually play the piano with a virtuosic ease. They say that, even though he could undoubtedly read music, the reason that he didn’t play so many notes so fast was not because he chose not to, but because he was incapable of doing so. Monk’s live performances were remembered more for him getting up and dancing in the middle of a song while wearing funny hats than for impressive playing. However, some jazz historians so refuse to believe this, that a record of Monk playing Chopin recently surfaced as an attempt to prove that he could really play (note: someone in the jazz dept. at Rutgers is now saying that the record is not Monk after all. Someone will have to explain musical forensics to me at some point). I’ve also heard that Dizzy Gillespie would try to reduce Monk’s time onstage during their performances together, because he knew that Monk was the most talented guy there.
To all this I say: who cares? Thelonious Monk was an amazing musician. His style was unique; his grasp of rhythm was incredible. Monk’s influence is still felt in the jazz world. Whether he could bang out a Chopin etude is besides the point, especially now that he’s, uh, dead.
Yesterday, I was happy to enjoy a free mid-afternoon concert at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark (side note – the IJS has a wonderful collection of jazz historical documents, which I would love to check out one day). Ethan Iverson, the pianist from the well-known jazz trio The Bad Plus, played a solo piano recital and fielded questions from jazz grad students and professors. The whole event felt like a department colloquium, with a performance replacing the Powerpoint. It was also very informal, and Iverson seemed to want to keep that vibe going from the very beginning. In fact, he hadn’t prepared anything to play! He started off by asking for requests from the audience; he wanted to play jazz standards that were not written by jazz composers. Fair enough. My Funny Valentine made the cut, as did Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I suggested My Favorite Things (probably my favorite not-so-standard jazz standard, made famous by John Coltrane’s version), but after some fiddling on the piano, Iverson decided that he didn’t know it well enough. Mmm hmmm. He lowered his piano bench, and then began to play.
And, well – post-modernism makes me uncomfortable.
Iverson deconstructed the tunes, some to the point of almost – unrecognizability, while others, such as Over the Rainbow, he just played painfully slowly. Okay, I know. That’s his thing. If you’ve ever listened to the Bad Plus, then you’d know that they deconstruct pop songs all the time – for example, Heart of Glass by Blondie, Smells like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, and Flim by Aphex Twin. It’s interesting, and sometimes enjoyable (Iverson’s version of “Can’t Get Started” yesterday was quite good), but I just don’t think it really makes it into my proverbial cup of tea. Another aspect of the performance that bothered me was (were?) the dynamics – and by dynamics, I mean literally how consistently loudly he played. It is definitely his style, and you can hear it on Bad Plus recordings, but I prefer variation. Iverson also often tapped his foot or got up and sank back onto his piano bench, creating his own percussion (makes sense, since he’s used to playing with a trio), and at times, I wasn’t sure if he was realizing that these noises were punctuating the piece. When Keith Jarrett moans over a nice solo, it’s unintentional, but it works. When I hear the repetitive sighing of a leather piano seat in between (way too many) arpeggi, I’m just kind of distracted.
What did I like most about the afternoon? The Q & A. Iverson is extremely well-read in jazz history, and he speaks quite eloquently about his idols and about his own playing. I’d love to share more about his thoughts and the topics that he raised, but that shall have to wait until another day.
Fabulous New Yorker profile about David Eagleman, neuroscientist.
If you get the chance, please read the above piece by Burkhard Bilger on Dr. Eagleman. He studies how we perceive time in the brain, and he is also interested in many other questions, including the origin of consciousness. In short, he is a neuroscience rockstar at Baylor College of Medicine.
The study of his that I’ll focus on for this post is one that he did with the help of Brian Eno (yes, that Brian Eno). He and Eno were interested in seeing whether professional drummers are better at perceiving time synchronization than average non-musicians are. You see, when Eno was working with Larry Mullen, Jr. of U2, Mullen sometimes complained that a click track was off, even when no one else observed it. When Eno checked the track – just to humor Mullen – he noticed that, indeed, every time, the track was off – sometimes by less than 6 MILLISECONDS. That’s incredible, since the normal human ear can usually only notice when sounds are off beat at 35 ms or so. An EEG study ensued, with subjects from Razorlight, Coldplay, and other prominent bands participating, and Eagleman’s suspicions were confirmed. This phenomenon is obviously a result of much training, and this is yet another way in which even the brain’s most basic faculties are plastic.
Eagleman’s studies also demonstrate the amazing conflation of time and memory; when you are in a stressful, scary life situation, you do actually feel that time is slowing down. This helps to explain why our early years tend to pass by slowly, and why our senescent years fly by – we are simply “writing more things down” early on, and the frequent use of our emotional memory system is making those years, minutes, hours seem longer.
I was recently involved in a discussion about whether the amount of effort that someone has to put into his art does - or should – matter when we evaluate the merit of the art. For example, in My Left Foot, Daniel Day Lewis brilliantly portrays a man with cerebral palsy. We are stunned with Daniel Day Lewis’s performance, partly because we know that the actor does not actually have cerebral palsy, so the amount of effort that he puts into the portrayal is greater than the amount of effort that an actor with cerebral palsy would have had to put in. However, without the internet and TV, we would probably not know whether or not the actor had this affliction, so would we still think that the performance was great? Probably. But the fact is that we take effort into account when judging a performance, especially in our rags-to-riches, do-it-yourself culture.
Another example, from outside the art world, is the use of steroids in professional baseball. Barry Bonds hit 70 home runs one season, thereby providing fans with entertainment, so why should it matter whether or not his muscles were enhanced by creams and injections? It’s not like he isn’t also putting in a lot of effort, and it’s not like he wouldn’t be talented without the steroids. So should it matter? No. Does it matter? Yes.
Next time you listen to a song, think about whether you would like that song better or worse if you found out that it took the artist only 5 minutes to write it. In an interview on NPR, Keith Richards was questioned about his songwriting; he was asked how he came up with certain lyrics and riffs, which to some people, are now considered classic. Let’s just say that he didn’t have many good stories. Much of the music just came to him. Does that make us more, or less impressed? Finally, think about Beethoven, and all of the difficulties that he had with making music, since he was deaf. Do you consider his music better than that of any other composer, just because he put more effort into making it? Probably not, right?
Yesterday was a fabulous day in my universe, because 1) it hit 70 degrees in New York for the first time in months, reassuring me that what seemed like the most interminable winter of my life was, in fact, finite and 2) I was able to spend one hour of the day in the sun, reading on a bench in Washington Square Park.
Yes, I was sitting amongst the hipsters and hipster-wannabes – some shirtless, some clad in the bizarre combination of sundress and military boots. And yes, I was on top of the world, because I was sipping a hazelnut iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts (one of my favorite beverages), listening to Fleet Foxes (one of my favorite artists), and reading a New Yorker article by Jonathan Franzen (one of my favorite authors). The Franzen piece (excerpt here) was, quite fittingly, about solitude. Franzen took a trip alone to the island of Masafuera to read Robinson Cruesoe and to get away from his hectic, nicotinic schedule; I loved this image: by the onset of his journey, he was “feeling more and more like the graphical lozenge on a media player’s progress bar.” The piece is partly about his experience, and it’s partly about his friend, the deceased David Foster Wallace.
While the parts about Wallace were very engaging (he was an extremely depressed individual who took his own life, probably out of his unconscious refusal to accept love from others), I was struck by this idea of alone-ness, and how unnatural it is. Franzen not only couldn’t handle the remote island for that long, but he also wrote about his first experience of loneliness as a child at camp. It was extremely distressing, until he thought to pick up a pen and write about it. I think that this journaling was therapeutic because writing is a way of engaging with another, since you are imagining that your words will be read or heard by another, even if they never will be. Putting thoughts into words is very much a social process, even in the absence of another person.
This realization made me think about music, and why I think that people are often less lonely and bored when they are listening to it. Music must have been created by another, so it must be an expression of someone else’s mind and emotions. So, even if we don’t consciously think about it, listening to music is also a social process. I dare say that it’s even more social than watching TV or movies, since the worlds that we watch in those media are closed to our input and interaction, while music is much more open. Perhaps that’s a bold claim, and music can make people feel very lonely as well, but I think it’s definitely worth speculating on why a solo activity like listening to music is not as socially isolating as it might seem.
During Happy Hour on Friday at Banjo Jim’s (~9th St. and Avenue C), I enjoyed a short set of music performed by Spiff Wiegand, Tripp Henderson and Michelle Yu, also known as the Whistling Wolves. The multi-instrumentalists played some good ol’, foot-tapping country, and I quite liked it (although, given my musical tastes, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed it for an extensive period of time).
Spiff usually performs as a one-man band, since he’s virtuosic on several instruments, including banjo, guitar, voice, bass, accordion, etc. On Friday, he mostly sang and played guitar and banjo. Spiff possesses a pleasant tenor, and his voice seems to fit country music very well, especially as he weaves jokes and stories into his original songs. He also seems to relish playing live, as is evidenced by his enthusiastic banter before and after every piece. One of the other Whistling Wolves, Tripp, was very talented as well, in my opinion. He was one of the most gifted harmonica players that I’ve ever seen perform (his harmonica solos were mature and complex, in stark contrast to the generic solos that you usually hear shoved into the bridges of pop songs). He also occasionally sang in harmony with Spiff; his bass seemed perfect for the blues-y sound that they were trying to capture on some songs. Tripp and Spiff did a lively number together, on which they played ukulele and banjo, respectively. That was pretty great. Finally, Michelle did a great job of providing support on a portion of the set, skillfully (although not too impressively) plucking on a guitar and fiddling.
Although I don’t really like the genre distinctions that have become part of popular parlance (i.e., “country”, “rock”, “pop” – ugh), this particular genre of music is not one that I would typically listen to. However, I’m happy that I saw such an energetic performance!
Most people’s favorite instrument is the voice. I hope that no one tries to dispute that; this conclusion can be reached easily if you just think about how the majority of pop music involves vocals that are very much in the foreground. So, what makes a good vocal performance? I propose a tier system. The lower the tier, the more fundamental the component.
1) Pitch – Hitting the right notes
2) Quality or timbre of the voice
3) Expressiveness of the voice
A voice that is expressive is effective in moving the emotions. In fact, I dare say that the way that a singer distributes emphasis over her syllables, which is often improvisational, is the main factor that separates a voice from any other instrument (Yes, a pianist or violinist can play with rhythmic structures also, but these instruments don’t have meaningful words to play with). I think that many soul singers are phenomenal at this.
A few of my favorite singers are not necessarily super-gifted in the traditional sense, but they can pronounce the hell out of their words. Two examples are Kevin Barnes of of Montreal and David Byrne of Talking Heads.
Here is one of my favorite pieces by of Montreal – The Past is a Grotesque Animal
It is a twelve-minute masterpiece, in which the background track slowly gets more and more expansive, complicated and layered, while Barnes sings/talks over it. Not only are the lyrics brilliant (lyrical content might be the fourth tier of vocal performance…but perhaps more on that another day), but Barnes knows exactly where to place backing vocals, exactly where to make his words staccato, and exactly where to stretch out ideas. The desperation comes through so crystal clear. I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times, but I’m positive that I could not replicate his singing, no matter how many times I tried. The most effective part, for me at least, might be “The mousy girl screams ‘Violence! Violence!’ The mousy girl screams ‘Violence! Violence!’ She gets hysterical!” *(Listen to the way he sings “hysterical”!).
Here is one of my favorite Talking Heads songs – Once In a Lifetime
The chorus is very catchy, but I definitely prefer the verses, precisely because of Byrne’s excellent enunciation. After the second chorus, pay close attention to the “same as it ever was” bridge. Byrne repeats this phrase over and over, but every time, it comes out differently. The words feel almost like they’re melting under his command. And that’s how a great 80s song becomes a classic 80s song.
*This line is (apparently) a reference to a scene in the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”