In a new, ongoing format, this episode of the podcast is a Loose Filter Hangout. We’ll mix this up with our longer-form, special topic episodes, with the Hangouts featuring discussion of the random, fascinating stuff that makes it through our loose filters.
This time, we talk about Radiohead, Beyonce, Kevin Garrett, clipping, Stranger Things, Streets of Rage II, Pixelh8, and Twenty One Pilots. You'll find something new to love, guaranteed.
In this episode, we look at bands that were signed to major labels despite being unconventional, abrasive, or just plain weird. We explore conditions in the industry that led to these bands getting signed, along with the virtues of being weird.
The really amazingly cool playlist for this episode is:
In this episode of the podcast, we talk about how we think about music: the concepts that inform musical work, the different ways that people listen to and think about listening to music, and how we use metaphor to describe the ineffable. We even wander into some discussion about how those ideas influence our tastes and what we enjoy.
No, seriously: Alarm Will Sound has recorded an acoustic performance of the Beatles' (in)famous track "Revolution 9" (a peculiar example of musique concrète). And it is FANTASTIC. Like, really seriously the best thing I've heard in a while. It's kind of rehabilitating my opinion of the original track, actually.
Give it a listen:
Their new album is available for pre-order here. You should get it. AWS is one of my favorite musical ensembles of any kind. Their audacious and bold originality never fails to delight.
This week's pick is "Doin' It Right" by Daft Punk. I am not so disillusioned to think you haven't heard of Daft Punk. From "One More Time" to "Get Lucky", Daft Punk is the kind of group that it's hard to avoid, even if you wanted to. Most of their overwhelming popularity stems from their sense of mystery: the two Frenchmen wear robotic looking helmets to hide their faces, they rarely perform live, and they release music very sporadically. (They also collaborate with big names, past and present, and they have a merch line that would make any electro-hipster drool.)
Beyond all this, they make exceptionally great music. This is all well known--what you may not know are some of the other amazing tracks on their albums that did not become one of their beloved singles. "Doin' It Right" is one of the last tracks on their latest album, Random Access Memories, and is an incredible auditory experience:
Hey everybody, I'm back for another Pick of the Week! This pick focuses on the Bonnie Raitt classic, "I Can't Make You Love Me". Now, I'll admit, this is some cheesy stuff...but sometimes cheese is a good thing: think about it as a nice brie as opposed to Velveeta. You might know Bonnie Raitt from her 1991 hit "Something to Talk About", a standard, upbeat, Shania Twain-esque 90's pop song. In contrast, "I Can't Make You Love Me" is very intimate and personal. While it has broad appeal, it comes across as a song that was written for personal healing, not for record sales.
This is the first episode of a three-part series we've been recording about the history of punk music. A musical style often derided for its simplicity and unpolished nature, punk is actually quite seminal and important, and for part one we look at one of the earliest punk albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and consider the music, what ideas informed it, what impact it had, and so on--the usual stuff. What we found was surprising to me personally (I've mostly regarded punk as something akin to day-old garbage: not quite stinky and gross, but not desirable at all, either), and has really changed my estimation of this music and social movement. It's a fun exploration of a musical style you may not have considered very seriously before, but should.
I'm becoming more and more fascinated by graphical, software-based music composition tools. A well-known, simple example is ToneMatrix, a pentatonic step sequencer (if you've never played with this before, you're welcome).
If you find that one interesting, give these a try (flash plug-in required, sorry):
Online Sequencer: straight-forward, most resembles traditional organization of musical ideas.
Drumbot: a bunch of cool tools: several drum sequencers, chord charts for discovery and composition, practice tools, and more.
Seaquence: my personal favorite, Seaquence adopts a biological metaphor, allowing you to create and combine musical 'lifeforms' that will then interact, resulting in unpredictably evolving compositions.
From Ted Gioia at the Daily Beast is a great article detailing what the continually faltering and failing music industry can learn from what TV, as an industry, is doing right. His framing makes a powerful point: not only is TV thriving by selling content via a profitable subscription model, as an industry it is taking a product that was long given away free and convincing people to pay for it.
Happy Monday everyone! I'm back again for my Pick of the Week!
This week I'm highlighting "AKA M80 the Wolf" by Portugal. The Man. This track is a throwback for a group that has gained most of its popularity fairly recently (recording since the early 2000's, the band released an album produced by Danger Mouse in 2012, which has understandably brought them much more attention). I first encountered their music before they were all big and famous (FIRST!), back in the days when they only had one album - Waiter: You Vultures!. They specialize in a what I like to call 'trippy-rock', music that sounds both familiar and foreign at the same time.
While their new music is definitely cool, it all just made me want to come back and listen to their early stuff, which brings me to "AKA M80 the Wolf". One of the main tracks from their first album, this is, simply put, a fantastic rock song. It evokes the sounds of bands like The Mars Volta, and features a steady groove with light, haunting, tenor male vocals, sweet keyboard parts, and a psychedelic guitar line. Their sound varies a lot from song to song, and they can get really crazy (see "Chicago"), but I enjoy how this song seems to age so well and how I find myself regularly drawn back to it. I also appreciate the odd yet beary entertaining music video. Enjoy!
The tumblr Composers Doing Normal Shit features photographs of exactly what you'd expect. I love things like this because, hey, amusement, but also because it's an important and interesting exercise to humanize those whose accomplishments we really admire, who seem much larger than life. It reminds us that they are just people, too, and that their lives were filled with mundanity, just like ours, and that those accomplishments were mostly because of diligent, focused and consistent work, not magical art-making powers.
My favorite at the moment is probably Dmitri Shostakovich playing cards with his kids:
The video below is a fun, fast-motion tour of the most popular songs in the United States each year, from 1900 to 2009. It's only eleven minutes, so obviously you only hear a snippet of each song, but it's really interesting to hear our national taste evolve (note that the list is most popular, not most important or influential--the methodology for arriving at each choice is quite detailed, though any choices prior to 1950 are at best educated guesses).
The list of top songs for each year is here if you'd like to follow along as you listen. It includes links for each entry, leading to further information about each artist's recording history and lists of the top 100 songs for each year. It's quite a trip:
We wanted to challenge ourselves to try and connect three random musical choices, so we raided Dave's recent listening list on his phone and came up with music from Sufjan Stevens, Johannes Brahms, and 80s synthpop, which are definitely a challenge to connect. But as we listened, we discovered some exciting things these random choices have in common, and a little bit about what makes interesting music, well, interesting--no matter the specific kinds of sounds it's made of.
Our very random playlist for this episode includes:
Cage and Feldman, that is (sorry if the title misdirected any of you). The recording below is over four hours of conversation--open, familiar, unguarded--between friends John Cage and Morton Feldman. For the rest of us, it is a very rare opportunity to listen in on extended conversations between two of the 20th century's most important and incisive musical minds. Recorded between July 1966 and January 1967, they talk about ideas, art, music, people, philosophy, and so much more. If you like real, thoughtful, informed conversation, then this will be a delight.
Sam Beam is one of our greatest living acoustic singer-songwriters. GWAR is a band of barbaric interplanetary warriors who ravage the galaxy with a boundless hatred of all things alive. It doesn't seem like a pairing that would work out. But against all odds it produced this beautiful little ditty.
Sometimes in all the sheen and polish of most popular music, it's easy to lose track of the craft and musicianship of the performers. Australian music publication FasterLouder had a post a while back spotlighting 20 really terrific vocal performances from famous recordings, and I had a great time listening through their choices. A few of my favorites are:
Eminem, "Lose Yourself" - Mathers' sense of pulse and flow are so strong, he doesn't even need a beat for this track to be compelling listening:
The Ronettes, "Baby, I Love You" - this one is great, especially the choruses, and it makes me resent Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound,' because why would you cover up all that dazzling vocal work?
The Beach Boys, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" - because duh:
Back when I was first in grad school, studying conducting, we would sit around and nerd out to audio and video of different performances by various conductors. It's fun (if you're into that kind of thing), you learn a lot, and you really stimulate your own gestural imagination by analyzing exactly how really effective conductors are able to have the impact they can have. Our favorite at the time, and someone who remains a true titan in field of conducting, was Carlos Kleiber.
A virtuosic conductor, Kleiber married technical precision with a graceful, elastic expressiveness that--when paired with a finely detailed rehearsal process--allowed him to lead large ensembles in truly passionate, spontaneous performances. Video and audio recordings of his performances are few, but recordings of his rehearsals are even fewer. Below is video of Kleiber leading a rehearsal of Die Fledermaus overture, in 1970. The whole rehearsal is very entertaining and well worth watching, but the clip below starts a few minutes in so that I can point out a few specific things about his work.
First, watch this video, which starts at about 6:45, until around the 10:00 mark:
In that clip, Kleiber first seeks to change the way the violins play the melody by using poetic and detailed gesture, imagery, and descriptions of mood. Importantly, as he is verbally describing the way he wants the melody to be played, he is simultaneously expressing what he wants to hear gesturally, showing the kinds of movement he will shortly use when the orchestra plays the passage again. This makes an important and powerful connection to how he will conduct the passage when the orchestra is playing, what his movements mean more generally, and begins the process of teaching the players that not only will he will be asking for very specific things in his conducting but how he will be using his movements to ask for them. And he does all of this without being didactic or pedantic; indeed, he is charming and engaging in his humor and enthusiasm.
Happy Friday everyone! I'm excited to kick off my weekly post, Pick of the Week! I'll be sharing selections of music that will hopefully tickle your fancy, or at least provide you with some tasty food for thought. My first pick is "Nakamarra", by Hiatus Kaiyote. From their 2013 album Tawk Tamahawk, this track was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Performance that year, and it's been tweet-recommended by artists like Prince and Questlove (which is a pretty legit pair of endorsements).
The song itself is a soothing ray of sunshine that always seems to calm me, regardless of my mood. It has a gentle, comforting groove that invites you to sit back, relax, and enjoy its caress. Unlike most popular music, "Nakamarra" does nothing to hide its complex rhythmic movement and jazz harmonies. The song is a refreshing and welcome change from the standard sound palette that currently prevails in popular music.
The longer I teach music to college students, the more vexed I am by the gulf between much research in the field of music education, and how it is actually practiced in schools. In the U.S., music education in public schools by and large continues to be structured and practiced on the venerable model of large ensemble performance, usually in band, choir, and/or orchestra programs. I personally am a product of such programs, and have taught and worked in those modes and models for 20 years now. There is much to recommend them.
But as I continue to work in this field, I find it more and more preposterous how unchanging and unaffected by contemporary cultural practices the large ensemble, performance-based models of music education are. I mean, I can walk into almost any high school music room or university music building, and find curricula, models, modes of creation and performance, even values that are essentially identical to what I experienced 25 years ago. But consider how vastly musical culture has changed in those 25 years! What I experienced and learned as a student was culturally distant at the time; now it is absurdly so.
Finally, a new episode of the podcast! We cover a lot of ground in this conversation, including the joys of large-scale collaborative music-making, the human determination to make music despite severe material challenges, presidential playlists and how authenticity and accessibility have become expectations in our culture, learning to appreciate finite runs of great creative work (and the rise of the auteur), and a little about contemporary music journalism.
It's a fun, wide-ranging ramble, with some great music sprinkled in. Enjoy!
I am continually fascinated by the lush and nearly endless variety of styles and idioms in popular music, which attract devoted, attentive listeners to greater and lesser degrees. While I stand by my assertion that "genre" is mostly a fiction invented by those seeking to better commodify music and identify and target demographic groups (as amply demonstrated, I think, in this podcast episode--short version, it's mostly a continuum and spectrum within broad stylistic practices), there are common aesthetic or other features to be found within even the most nit-picky sub-sub-sub-genre distinctions.
A really great user post on reddit recently hipped me to the sub-genre and culture of Shoegaze (sub- to alternative rock, so technically a sub-sub-genre of rock, I guess). It's hard to write about music well, and the author of this post vividly describes what traits make up the sound world of this kind of music, and provides an in-depth timeline of its evolution with listening examples, lists sub-sub-(sub-)genre practices with specific albums/artists that typify them, and for good measure adds links for further reading.
It's a great post and a wonderful demonstration of one of the things that I most love about the internet, and one of its most disruptive aspects: people sharing their passions and knowledge freely, simply so others may also enjoy what they have found valuable and rewarding.
Stephen Colbert has the best band of any late night talk show. But on top of the excellent work of Jon Batiste, Colbert has also been consistently bringing in some of the most interesting musicians around, and when it comes to rappers he's 3 for 3.
Chance the Rapper used his guest spot to debut a new song and pay tribute to his home town, Chicago, with DLow, the reigning king of Chicago's current dance style "Bop." The song contains references to fellow Chicago rappers Kanye, "I ain’t going to hell or to Hillman" and Chief Keef, "I just might share my next one with Keef/Got the industry in disbelief, they be asking for beef."
The performance is kinetic and shows Chance's abilities as a musician, dancer, and overall entertainer. I was obsessed with his debut mixtape Acid Rap, and his latest album with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment is one of the most musically rich rap albums of the year.
Music technology influences musical creativity in fundamental ways, and in this episode we talk about how the tools and concepts of musical practice are entwined with the expressive and creative ideas being crafted.
We wander into some interesting and unexpected areas, too, as we consider how technology influences musical values, tastes, and institutional models. This episode offers a lot of food for thought, and will hopefully stimulate your music listening.
From the Guardian, a great piece on the huge (and ongoing) influence of the German electronica band Kraftwerk. As we discussed in the recent podcast episode on the hugely pervasive influence of musical minimalism, Kraftwerk are an important band, but surprisingly many people aren't aware of their extensive influence.
The Guardian piece, and Kraftwerk's upcoming appearances at the Tate Modern, will help to increase recognition and enjoyment of their terrific music and legacy.
The always incisive Your Movie Sucks is posting an in-depth look at Charlie Kaufman's movie Synecdoche, New York. This film, for me, packed more emotional wallop than any I've seen, and does it just beautifully and symbolically and allegorically and subtly and confusingly and.....well, you get my point.
This is a film with the richness of great fiction [...] it's not that you have to return to understand it. It's that you have to return to realize how fine it really is. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.
Here is how it happens. We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes, American Girl dolls, a handful of rice, sex, solitude, a trip to Venice, Nikes, drinking water, plastic surgery, child care, dogs, medicine, education, cars, spiritual solace -- whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call "me," trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things.
In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree.
Well, B. B. King has died. All I can say is, thank you for a truly lifelong gift of music shared with the world joyously. Of all the fantastic performances I could feature, I think the best, and one of the most meaningful to King himself, is from his 1974 concert in Africa:
In a lively conversation we tell the story of SMiLE, the legendary unreleased magnum opus by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks with the Beach Boys, and consider its musical scope and ambition. We also talk about the missed cultural impact of this work going so long unreleased, and, since all of the recorded material was finally released in 2011, what impact it could still have going forward.
It's a fun trip through the work of one of America's most significant recording artists, and what may be the Great American Album.
In this epic episode, we examine how the avant-garde movement of musical minimalism was translated into the popular music sphere surprisingly quickly, and how it came to be significantly influential throughout musical culture over the past half century. Short version: it's EVERYWHERE. Long version: podcast episode full of fantastic examples that illustrate this remarkable story.
DarwinTunes started with randomly generated sounds from a computer and then allows short loops to be chosen by anyone who participates. This 'hive mind,' internet-based method of musical selection has proven to mirror organic evolutionary processes. From the abstract of their PNAS paper:
Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms.
Here is a short explanation with examples of the process unfolding interspersed:
It's really pretty cool. I went to the game and played for a bit, creating some 'children.' Here are my three favorites I parented:
Not to be morbid, but I watch this video at least once per year, if not more often. It reminds me of the unavoidable, inevitable context of my life: that it is temporary, that I am a phenomenon and not a thing, and that one day I will experience the end of myself.
I find the poem, and the gravelly, matter-of-fact delivery of the narrator, to be immensely comforting. It helps me to spend my time and energy wisely, and to remember what truly matters in life.
The poem is by Timothy Furstnau, the film directed by Dennis Palazzolo and narrated by Vito Acconci:
If you prefer your unflinching life perspective with a little more Shatner, try this.
THIS. One of the clear weaknesses of contemporary music education in the U.S. at all levels, up through graduate school, is that it does not typically proceed from existing musical interests or contemporary cultural contexts into more detailed and less familiar territory. (There are notable exceptions.) This principle seems essential to me in music education, or any areas of study and work that are strongly connected to cultural practice.
Geoffrey Himes illustrates one way this principle can be applied in his delightful article "Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards." Seriously, this article makes me want to start writing a reverse music history curriculum that would start with contemporary music surveys (popular, concert, movie and game scores, all of it) and work backwards in time, which I think could be fascinating. Call it the "Where Did This Come From?" approach.
(I do realize that this would require a fundamental shift of values in the musical world on all sides, from ones that originate from judgments about means and modes of musical creation to values that emerge from engagement with contemporary cultural practices as they are found. I'm also aware that such a paradigm shift would take over a generation. But, you know, the second best time to plant a tree is now.)
This episode is a conversation with composer Jonathan Newman, about his Symphony No. 1 "My Hands Are A City." We also discuss his inspiration from Beat culture, composing symphonies in general, and more. It's an interesting peek into a brilliant piece of music from a keen creative mind.
If you enjoy the episode, you can listen to the recording of the symphony we made while Jonathan was visiting a few years ago, and watch videos of that performance as well as some fun outreach we added to the mix. (Teaser: some very conservative listeners were enthusiastically in love with JN and his symphony by the time we were done.)
Somehow I stumbled on Funklet, this great site for teaching drum set by analyzing and playing along with the very best drummers, and also by rendering what they do as dynamic patterns. The patterns also allow you to select which aspects of each drum track you want to hear.
The site is curated by Jack Stratton and features some really terrific selections, even if you are not a drummer and don't need to practice. The visualized, interactive pattern format allows you to hear some of the great drum tracks with some detail. Personal favorites include Stevie Wonder, ?uestlove, Clyde Stubblefield, and Bernard Purdie. I've especially enjoyed picking apart some of these drum set parts and then listening to the original full recordings they're from, to hear them in context. Makes for much more vivid listening.
A great animation showing expressive reaction to harmonic progressions in Mozart's "Lacrymosa," from the Requiem (K. 626). (N.B.: the animator of the video for some reason doesn't believe in lower case Roman numerals for minor chords--I know, right?--and also mis-identifies just a few harmonies, but it's nevertheless delightful to watch.)
Writing about music is hard. It is, as someone famously said, like dancing about architecture, or, as the New Republic published in 1918:
Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.
If words could produce the effect that music does, if we could express what music allows us to express using text or speech or image instead, we probably would. Music is difficult and complex and abstract and temporal so you have to really pay attention and listen actively and lots of stuff that it's frankly easier to get people to do using words or images but those things can't do what music does, so we music instead despite those rather distinct properties.
For something that pervades our lives like the internet does, I find that I'm not really aware of how it works, in a literal sense, and how it developed. Vox offers 40 maps that explain the internet, and I found it very enlightening and informative.
As issues about the internet become more politically prominent and important (e.g., net neutrality, privacy), understanding what the internet is, how it came to be, and how it works in a basic sense is increasingly essential knowledge for any informed citizen.
In this episode, we take a look at music in the middle, that is, music that authentically and substantially bridges disparate musical styles, or combines unrelated sound worlds, or borrows ideas from one mode of musical creation and applies them to another. Examples are many and varied, and I have a strong suspicion lots of listeners will find something new and interesting to listen to.
Examples for this episode, with links to acquire them should your interest be piqued (and it should be, because these were some fun examples):
As Russell asserts in his essay, leisure time is often tremendously productive, because our work is toward our own ends and interests. Unfortunately, we are convinced to work for others primarily by the construct of duty:
The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.
Bates summarizes Russell's thinking nicely, and asserts that his message is more timely than ever--especially considering the post-scarcity world we rapidly find ourselves moving into.
I find these kinds of arguments particularly compelling because I'm a musician, and making music is arguably one of the least useful and most important activities of human culture.
A long-time musical hero of mine is SimonRattle, an extraordinary conductor, musician, communicator, and human being. A recent BBC documentary about his working life is now available on YouTube, and is quite enjoyable. If you have the time to spare, I think you'll find an hour listening to and watching Sir Simon work is time well spent. (A little bonus reading: Working with Simon Rattle has been the best music education of my life.)
Composer Jonathan Berger recently penned How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time, a delightful examination of temporal perception in music, the ways that music can suspend and dilate a moment in time and make it seem to last forever, or compress time in a way that hurtles our consciousness along with it.
As Berger notes,
The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives.
In the article, he deconstructs and examines several passages from Schubert's String Quartet in C Major to consider how, exactly, a master composer--that is, one who shapes a listener's conscious experience through the temporal manipulation of pressure waves--uses music to influence our perception of time, and what expressive effect that can have.
It's a terrific, thoughtful piece with some excellent examples. Please enjoy here.