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October 2015
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Pick of the Week: Bonnie Raitt

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. 

 

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The History of Punk, Pt. 1: The Velvet Underground & Nico

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. 

Playlist after the fold....

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Putting dots on paper isn't the only option

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.
  • Otomata: a generative musical sequencer.
  • 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.

 


How TV Can Solve the Music Crisis

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.

Read it here: Five Lessons the Faltering Music Industry Could Learn From TV. (Gioia's writing about music is always interesting, btw.)


Pick of the Week: Portugal. The Man.

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!


Composers are people too!

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:

Shostakovich


Most popular songs, 1900-2009, in 11 minutes

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: 

 


Sufjan, Brahms & Synthpop

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:

  1. Sufjan Stevens, "Fourth of July"
  2. Stevens, "John My Beloved"
  3. Stevens, "Age of Adz"
  4. Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 - I. Allegro non troppo
  5. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 - IV. Allegro energico e passionato
  6. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, "Enola Gay"
  7. OMD, "Sealand"
  8. (outro) Depeche Mode, "Enjoy the Silence"

Hanging out with John and Morty

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. 


Iron & Wine Covers GWAR

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.

 


Isolated vocal tracks are amazing

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:

There is more interesting listening in that post, but also much more on Youtube.


Carlos Kleiber, the conductor's conductor

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.

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Introducing: Pick of the Week!

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.

 

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Music Ed: a bastion of traditional practice and realm of fantastic experimentation...with no overlap

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.

Continue reading "Music Ed: a bastion of traditional practice and realm of fantastic experimentation...with no overlap" »


Back from Hiatus Ramble

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!

 

(playlist & references after the jump)

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People are experts at the most random things (thanks, internet)

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.

Seriously, check it out.


Colbert Has Really Good Taste in Rappers

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.

For his 2nd show he brought on official best rapper alive Kendrick Lamar, and the results were pretty spectacular. After that Run the Jewels dropped by and brought TV on the Radio as their backing band.

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.