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.]
I draw these similarities based on my own observations and experiences – feel free to disagree, or comment if you have more input!
As a scientist, I find that devising vague sketches of experiment ideas is not too challenging. Most papers that you read inspire some sort of empirical question, and the more entrenched you become in a particular subject, the more questions you can ask. The problem is that most of these experiment ideas are either not novel or not interesting. You will pursue only a small fraction of them, you will complete only a fraction of those, and only a fraction of those will actually be successful – in the sense that they will answer some interesting scientific question, and become an entry in the scientific canon.
Similarly, for a composer (of any art, but let’s stick with music, because that’s what I’m most familiar with), musical ideas are not hard to come by. But most are unoriginal or uninteresting. Only a few will be pursued to completion, and even fewer will actually be successful.
So, both professions are pretty high effort and pretty low reward.
Success in the two professions is defined a little differently, but still pretty subjectively in both. Getting your music listened to and having it praised by critics is obviously subjective. But with science, there is subjectivity, too. While statistics are (basically) objective, the whole process of writing up a scientific paper is a bit of an art. Science is successful when it can tell a good story. And the people who judge paper submissions are your peers, with their own ideas and their own agendas. So, they’re kind of like critics.
The other measure of true success in science is the same as that in art: standing the test of time. The absolute best music, for example, will be listened to and appreciated by future generations. The best music changes our standards for music and our understanding of it. And, similarly, the absolute best science is replicable and serves as the basis for the best future experiments. It, also, can change our standards for science, and can change our understanding of the world we live in.
Finally, I find that the people that I’ve met who have been either artists or scientists (or both!) have been – on average – the most interesting people. At the heart of both professions is a search for truth and beauty, and those who are endowed with the inquisitiveness and curiosity to seek those out, and to create new knowledge, are people worth knowing.
In his review of Daphni (aka Dan Snaith) in last week’s New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes:
“It’s hard to know what to call this album. Genre descriptions…will inevitably dog it. The naming urge often bothers musicians, who don’t want to be constrained by labels. But listeners want, when dancing, to mimic the act of going to a restaurant. We want to move to a pattern of music in the same way we want to order off a menu, choosing from a set of defined options. The search is functional as much as aesthetic.”
It’s true that musicians hate to label their music. While all musicians are inspired by other music, they all like to think that what they are making is truly original, and in a way, it is. Choosing a genre means admitting that there is something about the music that is like something else, and for some musicians, that feels like a slight failure (of course, there are exceptions to this rule – cover bands and bands that are clearly inspired by one other band will often even include a reference to their “parent” band in their name. Lez Zeppelin or Panic! At the Disco are examples). But we listeners LOVE to label our music. Even if we claim that our tastes are “eclectic” and we like “everything except country” or “everything except hip hop,” we feel comfortable identifying our music, because it helps us identify ourselves. Liking “indie” music means that you don’t like to follow the beaten path. Liking “pop” means that you are hip to the times (and don’t forget those people who classify pop songs as something else so that they could appear to be unusual). In addition to helping us with our search for identity, being able to label music makes us feel more knowledgeable. It means that we have listened to enough music to be able to distinguish among different types at a minute level. For example, electronic dance music fans will tell me that there are huge differences between dubstep and house and trance. Jazz fans are proud to reveal their expertise by distinguishing between free jazz, cool jazz and bebop. Classical music fans find it easy to tell others what is baroque, classical or romantic. Expertise leads to more fine-tuned categorization, so fine-tuned categorization is a marker of expertise. Finally, genre labels help to make the search for music easier. In the age of the internet, there is SO MUCH out there to listen to, and we can’t sample it all. By drawing comparisons with other artists, artists can help their fans to know whether or not their work should be sampled.
When we choose a restaurant, we want to know about type of cuisine and quality level (even though it’s all just food). Similarly, when we choose music, we want to know what genre it falls into…it’s all just music, but not all of it will satisfy.
I read a piece on CNN blogs about Wyclef Jean’s new memoir, “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story.” According to the article, in the book, Wyclef reveals that he was seeing both Lauryn Hill (his collaborator in the Fugees) and his wife at the same time. He was young and always in the studio with Lauryn, so he fell for her, and she for him. Eventually, however, Lauryn lied to him about her pregnancy, claiming that the child was his. This drama led to the Fugees’ breakup. Instead of regretting getting involved in this whole mess, though, Wyclef writes:
“The people that are blaming me for the breakup,” Wyclef said, “if you all have [the album] ‘The Score’ that y’all love so much, ‘The Score’ wouldn’t've happened without the love triangle of everything that you’re hearing. Inside of the mystery of ‘The Score,’ there’s always a passionate undertone in it, and I don’t think that the music actually would’ve came out like that if we [weren't] going through what we [were] going through.”
This isn’t the first time that a musician (or any artist, for that matter) admitted that his music was inspired by real-life events, and the emotion behind those real-life events. In fact, the emotion that is simulated in music needs to be known by both the composer and the listener, for the music to be really appreciated. And the deeper the pain that a musician feels, then perhaps the deeper he can delve in his music. We’ve all heard of great art coming from people with mental illness; the unusual perspective that they have as a result of their illness probably leads to more creativity.
Then again, none of this has really been systematically proven. We have all experienced happiness, sadness, pain, guilt, regret, anger, jealousy, fear, etc. to some extent. Emotions would be far more difficult to explain if we didn’t all have some intuition behind what they are, and that intuition comes from experience. And let’s say that you have to be able to know an emotion in order to evoke it in your music. But is it true that experiencing these feelings more often leads to more insightful music? Is there a linear relationship between the amount of experienced emotion and the extent to which music is moving? I doubt it. I think that there comes a point where more pain in your life is just more pain in your life, and it doesn’t add anything to your product. Furthermore, I think that maybe experiencing too much of one emotion could desensitize you and even take away from your music. Sometimes, I feel that the claim that great art comes from struggling is just an excuse for not making a change in your life – an excuse to keep on struggling. There are lots of great musicians who are happy, who have overcome bad times. They can write about those bad times without continuing to live in them.
It’s great that Wyclef doesn’t regret his experiences with Lauryn, because bad decisions are always learning experiences. But he shouldn’t pin the success of “The Score” on those bad decisions – that’s just a cheap way to justify them.
Growing up, I always loved music notebooks – you know, those notebooks that had staves instead of simple lines on them. I knew that I couldn’t write music, and so, they were useless to me, but I just loved the unconventionality of them. I remember buying one and writing in the lines of the staves, as if it were a real notebook. Still to this day, I often buy graph notebooks for writing. Although they’re not ideal, I just love how unusual they are.
Today in Harvard Magazine, I read about a fellow alum, Tom Wolf, who also got obsessed with the idea of writing prose in music notebooks. He took his desire one step further than I did, though – he actually wrote a novel, Sound, in the style of a musical work. In the book, there are several tracks running at the same time. There is a “verbal track”, that is bolded, and comprises the dialogue. There are also “thought tracks” and “background music” and “talk radio” tracks. This might seem overwhelming to the eye (and indeed, it might be – I haven’t read this myself), but if several sounds at once can create an atmosphere to our ears, maybe several words at once can create an atmosphere in our minds. Personally, I never liked writing fiction because of the seemingly “required” structure. I didn’t like the idea of describing something purely in words, in paragraphs, with quotations sticking out here and there. This is why I like plays – all dialogue, with the scene set beforehand and open to interpretation. This is why I also like novels that use unusual structures. For example, Pale Fire, one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most compelling works, is written as a 1000-line poem with extensive footnotes. In the footnotes lie the story. As the protagonist (the author of the poem), explains his work, he reveals much about his biography and inner life. (Note: I think that Wolf was inspired by Nabokov, since he named one of his characters after Nabokov’s wife). Blindness, by Jose Saramago, lacks paragraphs completely. It is complete stream-of-consciousness, with dialogue intermixing with plot and with thought. It’s brilliant, both because it is still somehow decipherable and engaging, and because it is a perfect allegory for life without sight; life in which lines cannot be drawn between objects, and you are just flooded with sound and smell and touch. In the more recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, my favorite chapter is presented entirely in Powerpoint presentation form. The narrator, a young girl, explains her whole family dynamic in a deeply affecting way, using bubbles and arrows and flow charts.
I applaud Wolf for his idea, because I truly think that upending the narrow structure of the traditional novel is the future. Of course, I admire writers who can create atmosphere with their words in well-structured and well-organized paragraphs, but I can’t wait to see how paradigms will continue to shift in fiction writing.
I recently watched Kirby Ferguson’s 4-part online documentary, “Everything is a Remix” (watch on Youtube here). The message of this series is that no work of art is truly original; all are just conglomerations of elements of art that existed before. Sometimes, this is obvious (like when someone does a cover of a song, or a remake of a movie), but at other times, the “ripping off” is really subtle. The documentary is interesting, because of the well-researched examples that Ferguson gives for this phenomenon (who knew exactly which works Led Zeppelin was inspired by? Who knew where George Lucas got lots of the most important aspects of Star Wars from?). But the argument of the doc is not news to me. Of course, nothing is really original – but I don’t think that that cheapens great achievements in art (as well as science!).
What this documentary does emphasize to me, though, is the importance of being familiar with the existing “canon” of your particular field. Lucas might have copied some of Japanese director Kurosawa’s films, but he put his own spin on what he borrowed. And if he hadn’t ever watched Kurosawa, we might not have ever gotten Star Wars! In an extreme case, Hunter S. Thompson literally transcribed The Great Gatsby from beginning to end, to feel what it would be like to write a great novel. Waste of time? Probably not. Studying what’s out there is incredibly important, if you want to inform your own work. Finally, The Beatles – who, despite being guilty of “remixing”, are still credited with being one of the most original groups of the ’60s – spent years playing covers in Hamburg, as they perfected their craft. Most musicians learn their instruments by playing classical pieces, as well as songs that they actually like.
[Side thought: If nothing is original, what gives some works of art more staying power than others?]
Even though Ferguson doesn’t talk about science as much in the series (except for touching on technological history, with the story of how Apple coped Xerox), all of this is true in that domain as well. Great scientists read even the smallest, most insignificant papers to look for ideas and construct theories. And most scientific progress is incremental. The era of the “flash of inspiration” or “genius” is over (if it ever existed)…science moves in small steps, not huge bounds. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
And as I say, “The one thing all great artists have in common is that they all consume art.”
So, don’t be afraid to be “unoriginal.” Everything is just a remix, anyway.
I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted – turns out that it only gets harder to update once you’ve been away for a while. But I suppose I can solve the issue by taking away the self-imposed pressure to produce an insightful article every time.
This time, for instance, I just want to rave about one of my favorite new albums – channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, one of the Odd Future gang. I don’t know why I’m so into R & B lately. At the surface, it just seems to be an outlet for talented singers to lay their emotions out on the table, over minimal instrumentation. But there are a couple of things that make R & B into really good R & B – first of all, the rhythm of their singing is, as you’d guess, really important. For example, in one of my favorite tracks of the Ocean album, “Thinkin Bout You”, a solitary string instrument sets the tone, and then Frank’s voice comes in, and it sounds like this (my emphasis):
A TORnado flew around my ROOM before you came exCUSE the mess it made it USually doesn’t rain in, southern california MUCH like arizona, my* eyes* don’t* shed* tears but boy they pour when
(* sung in staccato)
The verse sounds like a tornado, with a strong beat cascading into a ramble, and then back to a beat again. The staccato single-syllable words then center the content on the speaker. It’s a whirlwind of a beginning to an incredibly touching song.
The other thing about R & B is that it makes me appreciate lyrics, because of the skill in timing of the vocals. In “Super Rich Kids”, the lyrics are very insightful:
Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms
The maids come around too much (long pause)
Parents ain’t around enough
Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar
Too many white lies and (beat!) white lines
Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends
Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends
The beat between “white lies” and “white lines” would seem to be a poet’s worst nightmare – why not fill the line with enough syllables to avoid that? But R & B is a different kind of poetry, and the beat there emphasizes both 1) the humor of juxtaposing “white lies” and “white lines”, which differ by one letter, but one is (by definition) harmless, while the other is very harmful and 2) the seriousness of this song and this topic. It might seem like Ocean is making fun of rich kids (after all, “too many bottles” of fancy wine doesn’t seem like a problem), but in fact, he sees the pain inherent in being closed off from the real world, and the irony that too much is actually never enough. And “loose ends” and “fake friends” are significant causes of distress, no matter what socioeconomic bracket you fall in. Indeed, suicide is the main theme of the song (“I say I’ll jump, I never do”…”close my eyes and feel the crash”). Earl Sweatshirt’s beautifully delivered rap in the song also makes it an extremely worthwhile listen.
R & B has a very loose definition, and goes back a long time. At the root of all good R & B, however, is raw honesty. Even a song like “My Girl” by The Temptations – the seeming antithesis to “Super Rich Kids” – makes you feel the protagonist’s pure emotion. Frank Ocean’s new album qualifies as good R & B, because of the emotion and honesty he brings to it.
Last night, I went to a late show at (Le) Poisson Rouge – one of my favorite NY venues! – to see Destroyer live. I’m not a huge fan of Destroyer, but I was taken in by a few tracks from their latest album, Kaputt (the few being “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” “Painter in Your Pocket,” and the title track). This is music that is probably best described as shoegaze, and is in the vein of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, but is way more lyrical.
Dan Bejar is the brains and voice behind Destroyer. In person, this Canadian is mysterious and soft-spoken, with a ‘fro and facial hair that would rival Questlove’s. In concert, he sang and twiddled some MIDI controls, which may not seem like much, except it actually must be pretty challenging to keep all those words straight – the lyrics flow out in massive waves. Bejar’s poetry is more spoken than sung, although he is deft at emphasizing words in a very musical way. The lyrics can be cryptic, funny and intriguing, but when you’re watching him live, you’re not thinking about them (unless, of course, you’re singing along). My eyes actually frequently left Bejar’s person, and inspected the actions of the 5-6 other musicians on the stage. Not only were their keyboards, drums, bass (the usual rock setup)…but there was also a saxophonist and a trumpeter! And I have to admit that the soloing on these two distinctive instruments definitely made my night, and definitely made me respect Destroyer more than other bands of their genre. You see, without this jazzy instrumentation and the clever ways in which it was put to use, Destroyer’s music would be kind of boring. I would maybe use it to create a certain ambiance, or maybe I would study the lyrics more closely. Who knows? But I do believe that at a live show that didn’t start until 11:45 pm, that improvisation was key. I also appreciated the lack of banter in-between songs. Bejar is obviously an interesting guy – his lyrics are poignant, sometimes political (and the way he blends vocal sounds with the music is incredible: “All that slender-wristed white translucent business”) – but he doesn’t blab on about anything. He lets the music speak for itself.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the Destroyer show, but I was pleasantly surprised. And I think that more and more indie bands will follow Destroyer’s path – incorporating jazz sounds and improv to create fascinating textures.*
*P.S. Bejar was definitely inspired by ’80s era musicians, who were creating these kinds of soundscapes just when the technology started to be available.