Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The symphony orchestra is a humongous thing, the greatest musical instrument available to the hands and ears of humanity. "Great" in several senses: the number of people required to play it; its physical size; the amount of coordination and teamwork required on the part of all participants; the amount of money needed to keep it operating smoothly; the artistic framing of the statements of which it's capable.

So great is this instrument that, properly played, its tentacles reach into spheres beyond music: economics, politics and civic life of a city are all wrapped up in the fortunes of a symphony orchestra. Such a simple thing at base: people blowing their breath into specially shaped tubes, vibrating strings of specific lengths and tensions, striking membranes for dramatic or rhythmic effect. Actions absurdly specific, seemingly abstract, but directed like evolution. With the training and investment of all the performers in each instant of action, the product becomes synthesized, human artifice so complex that it takes its place among the creations of nature; a novel entity; a species. Creating such a thing as the music of a symphony orchestra tempts the human intellect: who would not want to feel this power of creation? But it's not for everyone. The basics are so teasingly simple that it seems within reach: the oboes play this, the violins play this and the harp does a bunch of arpeggios at this time, just a fun puzzle to be put together. But there are a lot of people involved, and only so much time and money to bring these creations into the world. The creator is asking a lot: in a sense it is the fun assembly of a puzzle, but there are a *lot* of pieces in this puzzle, and it takes a while and there's only so much time, and when you're asking people for all this time, well, those people need to feel like there's something in it for them, too. The performers, the audience, and the people funding the whole operation. Hence the politics.

As it turns out, there's never enough time for any art: we humans are just too good at creating it. In music, the invention of better and better sound storage technology makes this problem more and more acute. Not only is there a backlog of trillions of hours of recorded music and sound from the last century and a quarter dormant in the grooves of kajillions of records, the iron shavings of bazillions of tapes, and the ones and zeroes of karillions of CDs, now there's the internet and the hard drives and the storage devices that have brought the voices of the past into the present and made it possible to mix and match the old and the new, and generate the new through direct manipulation of sound. The problem of the fan - by which I mean you or me - is not (if it ever has been) one of needing new things to be created; rather it's a problem of prioritizing one's attention amongst the flood of new and old things that clamor for it, and perhaps also of being able to relax in the face of the certain knowledge that there's just too much for you to ever hear all of it, and that worthy things exist now and will be created in the future that you will never experience.

Hence the need for recommendations, or "entertainment delivery" technology. My thousands of LPs and my anxiety at the task of their mastery: it's why I created the FPE, and before that, any number of other strategies to constantly till the earth, to remember the times and circumstances that led me to buy a Steven Wright album, or that led George Clinton to turn some nonsense into a song, over and over again for half a century, with varying degrees of success (and also to examine the various yardsticks by which that success can be measured).

That's the consumer's problem: but my concern here is the yang to that yin, the problem of the creator. Too much access for the consumer means that any single creator is a voice lost in a shout of millions; relevance to one's potential audience is determined by arbitrary criteria and a hair's breadth. We even work against ourselves: our past creations join those of our colleagues as competition for our present and future endeavors, and our present relevance is inevitably judged by the standards we set in the past.

Music is a self-similar system: break it into a hierarchy of genres, times and locations, and you'll find analogous forces at work in its creation and consumption. Those on the creating end struggle for ways to make it relevant to enough people to support the endeavor, or they consider such struggle to be compromise of artistic integrity and create for a few rather than many, starving. In between are the agents and promoters, the media human and physical who mediate between the creators and the consumers. All engage in a dance whose object is to live according to the dictates of conscience and means, and whose product is art (or commodity, or something in between). Sometimes you hit it big if your particular talents and statements line up with something a lot of people want to hear: witness Motown; other times you make a nice, comfortable living for yourself striking a balance between what you want to do and what others demand; and sometimes the music is a painful, money-losing obsession (or an enjoyable, money-losing hobby).

The FPE takes me back today to 1955, a time when sound reproduction technology had yet to explode and amplify the problem of musical over-bounty. Then as now, though, we find a tension between old and new, and competition for available resources. Eight years had passed since the introduction of the LP, and the possibilities of the new medium were still being explored. In 1955, the idea of 40 continuous minutes of recorded musical expression (divided into 20-minute chunks) was still new, and unlike the widespread availability of the means to decode the medium that accompanied the revolution of the late 20th century that was digital sound-files, access to the technology was limited by esoteric production methods and ownership of playback equipment. Not just anyone could make a track and distribute it on the internet - and if you did have the means to get your music out, it was tough enough that you were only going to do it for a pretty awesome 40-minute chunk.

One group who recognized the potential of the LP as a strategic part of their plan for world domination was the remarkable Louisville Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Robert Whitney. Beginning in 1954, they immortalized their five-year Golden Age in the mid-Fifties on a subscription series of LPs, issued at the rate of one per month. Sixty albums from this period, 1954-58, by my math (although I haven't done the research to verify if they in fact kept to the schedule during this time) - and each of them consisted entirely of world-premiere orchestral works, commissioned from living composers. It's a stunning, almost unbelievable achievement for a modern orchestra, unmatched as far as I'm aware by any other in the Twentieth Century. The hard work of Mr. Whitney and the orchestra during this time, and for the seventeen years prior to 1954 during which he and others labored to turn the wheel of circumstances to a place where funding and politics created an environment where hard work to such an end would even be feasible, bequeathed to the world not only a significant contribution to the literature for symphonic music written in the 1950s but also a recorded legacy of incredible depth and breadth. And they kept doing it, and recording it, albeit with less frequency than during this hey-day, for decades.

A recent effort to preserve this legacy is documented in this 2006 review of a reissue series by "First Edition Music", whose link in the review is, sadly, dead, suggesting it faced the same lack of sustainability the Louisville Orchestra itself was plagued with throughout its most progressive era. This, too, then, the establishment of the fact of indifference of the music-buying public to such art - one of the greatest and only monolithic modern contributions to the symphonic literature (except, perhaps, for film music) - is perhaps the other legacy of their experiment. People buy tickets and recordings for Beethoven and Mahler, but you can still count on the fingers of one hand the composers active since 1950 who fill concert halls and move units.

That's right, the modern composer is irrelevant. It's a fact. Yet the composer insists on continuing to exist, and furthermore, composing.

Of course I apply this to my personal experience. As a composer, my chief obstacle in promoting my music is the difficulty of convincing musicians to play it. Those who dedicate their lives to the performance of instrumental music have little time to be involved with something that's untested and probably financially unrewarding - and who can blame them? New music, when it doesn't touch a popular chord, is unsustainable financially. If that wasn't already clear in 1954, the Louisville experiment drove the point home - and if anything the situation is worse for creators now, with half a century's backlog of recordings available as competition for the public's time in the audience of performing musicians, and as always the continued march of time bringing with it the constant birth of new compositions and composers like me.

(Since I'm writing about the Louisville Orchestra, I should shout out to a contemporary parallel that's important in my own life and work: Access Contemporary Music, or ACM. With their mission to "promote the music of living composers through performance, education and advocacy", they are directly attacking the problem of access to performance for composers. They're an amazing resource for people in my situation [got music but no one to play it!], and direct inheritors of the mantle of the Louisville Orchestra's Rockefeller grant, whose purpose was "to commission, record and premiere 20th century music by living composers". ACM was the first group who played something I wrote without me having to find the musicians. Thanks, ACM.)

Robert Whitney's story, and that of the Louisville Orchestra, offer some clues that may point the way forward for those of us who foolishly insist on writing music. The telling of that story in a 1977 masters thesis by Carole C. Birkhead is the source for my sketch in the following paragraphs.

When Robert Whitney was hired to be its music director in 1937, the Louisville Civic Arts Association Symphony, as it was then known, had for years been involved in a classical music scene in Louisville characterized by factionalism and competition for limited musical resources. The strife had taken its toll: in a 1970 interview by Charles P. Berry, Mr. Whitney states that at his first rehearsal,

There were only a handful of people. There were absolutely no French horn players. There was only one oboe player. There were no bassoon players. Of the players there were, there were very few of them of a quality necessary for presenting symphonic music. I discovered that one reason for this was that we could not call upon all of those competent to play because there had been factional feuds going on in this community for generations and particularly the years prior to my coming.

Whitney came from Chicago and was outside of this fray, and he brought with him a young man's energy and ideas, coupled with a resume that shows him to be a relentless seeker and employer of any means available, whether financial, technological or just hard work, to bring music into the world. At the age of twenty, in 1924, he and two of his sisters formed a chamber music trio and got a weekly radio show in Chicago; by 1935 this had grown to a sextet (with two more sisters and the father) and a nationally syndicated radio show. Presumably because he didn't make enough money from this to live on, he had a "real job" as an administrator for the Federal Music Project (where his mission was finding WPA jobs for out-of-work musicians), taught classes in music theory, and was gaining experience as a conductor for the Illinois Symphony, itself a WPA orchestra.

The Civic Arts Association, in the 1930s, had a long history of spending more money than it took in and presenting music to an indifferent public, supported by wealthy, patient benefactors. Whitney's approach was basically to throw everything at the wall to see what stuck, and if nothing did, throw more, all the while never, ever admitting defeat or flagging his efforts. Throughout his first two decades with the orchestra, he had tons of cool ideas that were exciting and engaging and never once increased the organization's ticket sales or operational deficit. These included performances and presentations for children (including compositional lectures where he had elementary and high school kids actually write music that he would arrange and have the orchestra play!), getting military musicians from the local Army base during the war years, and my favorite, something called "Industrial Night", which unfortunately did not involve Blixa Bargeld driving a bulldozer through the wall of the concert hall and striking a live warhead with a sledgehammer, but was an outreach to major regional companies with discounted tickets for employees. Selling it, man. Working it. The hustle.

But yeah, like I said nothing worked. Ticket sales and subscriptions remained flat for years. The kids and the people of Louisville just weren't interested enough in the music of a symphony orchestra to pay its bills.

The genesis of the golden era for the group was an idea by the mayor of Louisville, Charles Farnsley. His revolutionary proposal to Whitney in 1948 was to hire composers instead of expensive soloists who had consistently failed to reverse the orchestra's deficit with increased ticket sales. Composers would be cheaper than soloists, and the novelty would start to generate public support. It was one of those ideas that was "so crazy, it just might work!"

It did. There was significant opposition from traditional supporters of the orchestra, complaining loudly that all the modern din and cacophany was cutting into their Brahms and Mahler time, and this opposition almost shut the orchestra down, especially because the burst of excitement around the new project still wasn't enough to fill the hall consistently. The bold move generated national attention, however. In 1953, five years after they started commissioning new works and three years after the orchestra cut its first LP, Farnsley the mayor hustled his way on into a big grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that funded the commissioning project on a major scale (46 works a year) and the LP series on Columbia Records (one a month). The grant money rolled in, Whitney rolled up his sleeves and got to work, and the history happened.

I dig the Louisville Orchestra recordings, a lot. I pick them up whenever I find them in used record stores. I have five, two of which, including the one that Frances selected for me to listen to this time, are from the first year of the commissioning project, 1955 (this one is from the 1975 reissue series on the orchestra's own label, First Edition Records - hence the references on the cover to Whitney's successor, Jorge Mester; it's Whitney in the grooves though). This one is the January 1955 issue, and contains Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 11 (subtitled "Seven Rituals of Music"), Alexander Tcherepnin's Suite, Opus 87 and Bernard Wagenaar's Concert Overture. All deal, in some way, with the same tension that animated the struggle of the orchestra that first recorded them: the difficulty of finding music's place in the world, as art subject to the reality of living, but pointing the way through the maze.

Cowell's piece is a symphonic portrayal of the life of man, from birth to death. The peaceful sleeping child section at the beginning is thematically linked with the sad and peaceful death section at the end; in between are sections which link love with magic and mysticism, and work with play and war. It's rich and emotionally stirring, melodic and mystical.

Tcherepnin's suite, a dramatic, sensitive thing, is inspired by the idea of "the Town" - the world where humans live in close proximity and go their myriad ways in a web of existence, and the individual response to that setting. In his notes, Tcherepnin says:

I do not believe in living in an ivory tower. I do not seek a hermitage. My place is with human beings. I put my faith in them. I love them. They inspire me. And I try to serve them by the way of music. And this is the general "motto" of the Suite.

Wagenaar presents his Concert Overture, the most tonally dissonant work in the set (but still really really tame when you compare it to, say, Stravinsky's more difficult stuff, or any Schoenberg), as art to be framed and experienced as such: "this music does not have any literary connotations at all, but has been built up of purely musical ideas and moods." He makes the argument that he shouldn't need to go into a bunch of jargony junk (what he calls "professional problems") about the harmonies and formal structure of the work (a pet peeve of mine as well - that discourse about classical music so often reverts to this kind of inside baseball), and if you don't "get" it, it's not your fault for being dumb but his for not writing it well enough:

If, let us say, unity and variety, emotional expression and logic, tension and relaxation are not apparent to the hearer - although only incidentally so - and irrespective of taste, then we must consider that we have failed.

Three composers making their way in a modern world where they were lucky to draw a modest income from their art. Three composers, like pretty much anyone who has the cojones to call themself a composer, who probably had university appointments to keep their lights on and food on the table, and probably gave a piano lesson or two to supplement things (disclaimer: I'm just guessing here; I don't actually know anything about any of their individual situations), given a rare opportunity by a remarkable orchestral group in Kentucky, using the opportunity to make their own statements about living in the world. Whether music is set apart from the world as pure thought and emotion, an escape or punctuation, or whether it undertakes to explore the condition of life by commenting on and thus enhancing conditions that exist apart from the music, it's a piece of the whole pie, and there's no escaping life in music or music in life.

What's interesting about this whole story is that all the national attention and acclaim never really fixed the Louisville Orchestra's sustainability problem. The LPs never sold profitably (Birkhead notes that for the duration of the grant, no more than 800 of them ever shipped during a single month). After the grant ended in 1958, good musicians left in droves for better-paying gigs in bigger cities. The orchestra, established after its shining moment as a fixture in the civic life of Louisville, continued to operate at a deficit, albeit on a much larger scale and in a nicer concert hall. It remains an institution to this day, and if the buggy way the site loads for me in Firefox and the headline saying "The Orchestra Board is committed to re-balancing the organization’s costs to be in line with historical levels of income" are any clues, I'd say cash flow is still an issue.

In art and music, sustainability is a red herring - what matters is productivity and progress. If you build it, they won't necessarily come. But if you own that fact, keep moving ahead like a shark and trying new things, you'll live in the world, you'll probably find ways to balance your life with your art, and you'll have a bunch of things that you made to show for it. Good luck competing with those!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. In the canon of completely ridiculously titled post-golden-age-of-career albums by musical giants, it's almost but not quite in the same league with George Clinton's 1993 Hey Man... Smell My Finger and the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282's 2001 masterwork Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche (both of which received mention in a previous post of mine). It's a cut above Tormato, though.

I first learned of this album from Douglas Wolk's ecstatic featured review of it on eMusic in late 2006. Until I read that, I'd never been able to get too worked up about Yo La Tengo, who I had always assumed made sweater-and-glasses indie pop that was, kinda serious. (I mean, that is actually what they make - but I think my mistake was thinking that sweater-and-glasses dudes and their indie pop are automatically lame. Some of my best friends are sweater-and-glasses dudes. These particular sweater-and-glasses dudes had to go and call their record I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass to get me to listen, though.)

I played this record a lot when I got it. Wolk's review and this one by Mark Deming emphasize its eclecticism, which is a particular happy-maker for me as well - it's like they took a mixtape and covered all the songs. The album opener, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind", recalls the awesome Faust jam "Krautrock" to my ears, with its keyboard wash and shifts in pulse (but why do both Wolk and Deming describe the guitar soloing as a "freak-out"? It rocks, sure, but the dude's glasses didn't fall off while he was playing it. They probably just slipped down his nose a ways). Other highlights for me are the atmospheric, drumless "Daphnia", the gorgeous, floaty "Black Flowers", the pretty, pretty harmonic palette of "I Feel Like I'm Going Home" and the triumphant closer "The Story of Yo La Tango" (sic). It would be a bit of a salad, rather than a delicious stew, in the hands of many - but the whole album, and I suspect Yo La Tengo's entire 25-year output, is overlaid with a lacquer of atmospheric, breezy seriousness, the sole constant.

It is pretty mixed up though. Maybe it's more of a soup than a stew. Minestrone.

I really like Douglas Wolk's writing (this is among my favorite pieces of music writing, ever), though I miss a lot of the aesthetic boats that he's in the front of the queue for. We have an on-and-off association that goes back 20 years (if you've already known me for more than half of this time, as 90% of the people who read this blog have, forgive me the expository indulgence!), and we fire on enough of the same cylinders for him to have released my old band's most ridiculous album (and to have composed a song for it); but his ultra passions, at least the ones he had back in the day, never set my blood a-boiling or my brain a-fire. They were always just a little too serious and not enough fart jokes or something. Now I'm a grownup, and Yo La Tengo has an album called I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and Douglas is in Portland saying "See Matt? You should have listened to me when I was telling you to like Azalia Snail!"

Nostalgia and naming names aside, if there's a point, it's that I'm not gonna pay attention to just anything that any old reviewer writes, even if it is Douglas Wolk (though if these guys both hate something, I might consider checking it out). Reviews are fun to read, but unless my friend is in the band, I'm not gonna get the record on a reviewer's recommendation unless:

  • The reviewer convinces me that it's got something in common with other stuff I like - like they tell me it sounds like some Faust song that I really dig

  • The album title has "ass" or a fart joke in it or is otherwise stupidly juvenile

  • Both? That works.

Artists and reviewers: bring something to the table, or I'll just keep buying used high school band records, and the new Deerhoof, Marnie Stern and Harvey Milk, whenever they put new ones out. (Man, would you check the artwork on that Harvey Milk record? Handsome! That jet-trail cross in the sky just kills me. Why won't the vinyl ever come out? Delay delay delay! This happened with their last record too!)

One of my first interactions with Douglas was when he called me out in semi-public for "playing the Violent Femmes on the air at 2am" - when I asked him why playing the Violent Femmes at 2am was a problem, his response was that playing the Violent Femmes at all was a problem.

I'm laughing now. And I'm playing the Wolk-recommended "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind", considering how good it might sound at 2am. If it sounds as good at 2am as it sounds right now, that would be pretty great.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Frances found me a four-way split LP from 2002! It's a pretty noisy one. The bands are JonnyX and the Groadies, Corpse Fucks Corpse, Gift of Goats, and Get Get Go. Overall this LP is a pretty special project, actually - it's way less common than you'd think to find a compilation album with four bands that complement each other so well. They are all noisy, and they all live in that weird world where bands put tons of thought and care into musical arrangement and creation - so much that they aren't "political" enough to be truly "punk", like His Hero is Gone or This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb or whatever - and yet, what comes out sounds to your average listener like a bunch of dog vomit that you just stepped in and then you wiped your shoe on the grass but it was actually a mud puddle and it sucked your shoe off and you put your sock down on a rotten apple and slipped and your head came down on the sidewalk, hard. But that doesn't mean they didn't work really hard to make it sound that way. I mean it sounds way more like that than Tragedy do. That's why I like stuff like this and I don't like Tragedy. Tragedy sounds more like your dad or your teacher or someone shouting at you, and they are drunk. I mean they want you to do the right thing or whatever. It just doesn't have the novelty of the dog-vomit scenario. But again, appealing to the average person on the street, I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who wanted to listen to either one for long enough to define the stylistic boundaries.

I mean these kids are punk, for sure! They're just the house-dwelling, potluck-having, mustache-sporting, bike bike bike bike bike bike bike bike riding kind, not the spiky-jacket wearing, bar-going, dog-named-Beer having, train-riding kind. Sure, there's overlap.

Grind grind grind! All these bands are what you might call "grind" or "grindcore" - they *are* it, but they don't "play" it, because you can't play a genre, you can only play music. There's a Quintessence that is Grindcore, and it's got no earthly existence save for these and some few hundred or thousand other attempts at realizing it, and is the form the thing or is the thing the bands and then, where do you draw the line? Why do they call it grind? The music has a tendency to sound like a meat grinder, a grating percussiveness like super hard metal chugging and bouncing. In many ways, this is a quintessential grind record - it's got the bike-punk vibe, the chaos, the screaming, the earthiness. It truly IS grind. It sounds funny, saying it like that. Like, "Hey, I dig grindcore. What's your bag, man?"

JonnyX and the Groadies, who have been called "cybergrind" because they have a keyboard, grind away at the pole position, thudding drum-machine beats, dark-charcoal guitar-morass, and painful shrieks swirling and coalescing like a poached egg around Super Haunted House organ lines. I saw them play one time - actually I saw them play twice. The first time the main dude, JonnyX I suppose, got totally naked, so there was like, sweaty naked-man horror invading the punk basement. For some reason I remember candles too, even though I don't think they actually had any candles. (The only bands I specifically remember having fire at a set that I saw are the Butthole Surfers, Milemarker, Landed, and Portraits of Past. PoP were the only ones that used actual candles, and man oh man was it pretentious.) Yeah so JX:ATG, as they seem to prefer to render their name - the second time I saw them, the guy wasn't naked, and they had upped the scariness. Maybe they did have candles that second time. I remember they were less awesome cause they had honed their attack in more of a black metal direction, and less of a horrifying naked man direction. But, we all grow up.

I played this record a few times when I got it, and mostly what I heard was SCARY ORGAN JX:ATG ok ok, whatever, sounds great, a little too "scary", then three more bands GRINDGRINDGRIND lotsa guitars and throats. Real screamy. Waauuughghhguggh... It turns out the bands are all really different though! I had to read this right-on-the-money review of the record (actually the only review I could find online) and have the obvious pointed out to me - Gift of Goats rule and they sound a lot like Born Against and that's why they rule. Cause Born Against rules. How did I not notice this before? Probably because I would have on the record and be like, doing my work or the dishes or something, and then I would turn into average guy on the street - I hear guitars, screamy noise, sounds great, whatever. I mean I guess I would be average guy on the street that likes noise rock and grind. Letting the sound flow over my head, and not really paying attention. I was hearing the genre, rather than the music. The general and not the specific. The more music you listen to, the more you let the shorthand of genre appreciation define your taste, and the less able you are to hear individual sounds. In most cases, the people creating the sounds are hampered by the same prejudice - so the genre creates its own feedback loop and slows its own evolution.

I've found that writing and reading about music helps me to break that habit and liberate my hearing.

The other awesome band on this thing is Get Get Go. They're the only band where the male screaming is so hysterical and high-pitched it sounds like female screaming half the time - and also they can't really play in time and they keep on speeding up and slowing down so it sounds really chaotic. Awesome.

Gosh this record just sounds great. Thanks for picking it, Frances! The production rules. It's clear as a bell, guitar and throat (and in JX:ATG's case, Scary Organ) standing out in crisp relief. You can almost smell the bike grease.

I'm pretty busy this week with some other irons I keep in the fire that aren't this blog, so I don't have the time or energy to post my usual excess of verbiage. So rather than an extended meditation on genre and demographics and the use of ugly, abrasive sounds, and the slipperyness of finer and finer distinctions of stylistic practice between subgenres, or even a further polishing up of the confused meditation I've just produced, I'll just post this pretty awesome video I found of Gift of Goats playing at Gilman, and finish up with a couple of brain-teasers.

Do artists play "in" genres? Or do they define them from without?

Does the orthodoxy of genre have the ability to completely define a musical artist? Is there a quintessential "rock" band?

Is Mozart famous because his music sounds exactly like what we think of as "classical" music? Or is it because he's really good at breaking the rules?

Is strict adherence to genre-based rules the opposite of music? Is attempting to create music that sounds like a genre always doomed to produce stale, lame music? What if it's a genre like "grind" or "drumnbass" or even "rock" that is defined in part by its ability to excite?

Is Rock dead? Is Girl Talk Rock? What the heck is Girl Talk, anyway? Is Jazz dead? Is "Classical" dead? Is Classical a genre? Is "World" a genre? How about "Worldbeat"?

Final thought. In the classical music world, the term "genre" often refers to a particular instrumentation or ensemble, like "string quartet" or "choral music" - and music written for the instrumentation might traditionally share a set of stylistic similarities, over and above the obvious sonic kinship.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to Indoctrinate People

The role of records in my early life was strictly utilitarian. My parents weren't record fetishists like I am; they had reasons for buying records that had almost nothing to do with collecting. It was pretty much just a combination of their personal taste (classical) and the need to have some pop stuff on hand for when they had parties. The pop ones I remember are Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Going Places!, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 and, I don't remember any others. When I was a teenager and asked my dad why in the heck, out of all the records that came out in the 60s and 70s, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 is the one rock record they felt the need to own, he said they needed some music for their bridge parties.


For me, they had a few kiddie records. I remember exactly one kiddie record from my toddlerdom, and it's a record I still have. It's by Marc Field and it's called On Top of Spaghetti and Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Other Favorite Songs for Children. (It's really hard to find information about Marc Field on the internet, because he had the misfortune of having a name that would later be a computer science term [and a metadata/library science related one at that!]; a yahoo search on the name at least turns up more persons [though none appears to be him], possibly revealing interesting differences between Google's and Yahoo's different approaches to search technology.) The Internet does have this video of a song from the record, a song whose title ("Drag the Magic Puffin") I recall but I can honestly say that despite dozens of plays of the record as a toddler, and perhaps a dozen more in my adult years including twice in the last month, it doesn't even sound familiar to me. I just now had to play the record again just to verify that it's on there. It is - it's the second song on side two, between "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and "Blue Tail Fly", both of which I remember quite well. It's the only original song on the album (Marc Field wrote it!), and it's, um, not that good of a song, so maybe that's why it escaped my notice until now.

Yeah so that's not the record that Frances picked out for me. Syke!

On the dissecting table today is Marc Field's label-mate at Rocking Horse Records, the Rocking Horse Orchestra and Chorus, and their album Puff the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs. I picked it up about twelve or fifteen years ago when I decided to explore other records on the same label as my very first record. This mini-collection effort ultimately turned up seven LPs, including the alarmingly titled Magic Toy Shop Where Music Brings the Toys to Life, a record of hymns called Children's Songs of Reverence, a couple of fairy-tale story records, and the Marc Field record. They're all loosely organized by themes - some are hymn-y religious-y, some are folksy, some are fairy tale-y - but the aesthetic is pretty unified. It's a synthesis on records of various strands of folk and religious tradition that together perpetuate the values and legend of America. Middle class values, with a heavy emphasis on religion.

On this album, the Rocking Horse Orchestra is a guitar and a banjo, and the Chorus, as far as I can discern, has a single female and two or three male voices. They're singing in that 50s folk idiom, like Burl Ives or the Kingston Trio. I'm picturing them in black and white vertical striped shirts, with those round stiff flat hats.

What's interesting is the repertoire. In particular, two of the songs are ones that I know from Lead Belly's recordings: "Ha-Ha Thisaway" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton".

Whoa. Hold on. Wait a minute. "Pick a Bale of Cotton"? Hmm...

So you put the record on. It's called "Puff the Magic Dragon", and that's the first song: a version of Peter, Paul and Mary's bittersweet ode to the orphaned creation of a child who no longer needs childish things. You're all set for a loose, fanciful journey through the institution of middle class childhood: joy and sorrow; wondrous stories; love and learning; candy and popcorn. Instead, you're immediately thrust into the problematic chorus of the next song: "Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy, pick a bale a day."

A song can be a challenge, a message with multiple meanings. This song is undeniably happy-sounding. It's not just the kiddie singers that make it happy. The most famous version is Lead Belly's, and it was also famously recorded by the British folk singer Lonnie Donegan and, bizarrely, ABBA; none of these versions have a hint of sadness or melancholy about them. In contrast to the manic mood of the tune, the scant lyrics evoke a back-breaking labor ("Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton, jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day"). Enslaved people weren't the only ones that picked cotton, especially in the South of the early 20th Century; plenty of white people broke their hands and backs in this way - historically, it's a labor associated with people of limited means and limited choices. But if that's all the song evokes, a kind of populist poor-people solidarity, why should I even have to mention race? What's the first thing you think of when you think of cotton picking? As a cultural reference, there's no separating it from the institution of slavery and the narrative of race in America.

There's no clear record of who wrote "Pick a Bale of Cotton". However, no recordings or references to it exist before the early 1930s, so it most likely originated in a prison farm around that time, and it's safe to say that Lead Belly, who had been an inmate in Texas and Louisiana, encountered it there. He wasn't the first to record it, so he probably didn't write it, but whoever did wasn't far from him in time or space. A prison farm in Texas in 1930 probably didn't look or feel too different from a plantation in Georgia in 1830 - with the polarization of the post-Reconstruction South, the loss of the security of the unquestioned order and status quo that existed in the slavery era, and the fact of it being a prison rather than a business, it could have been as bad or worse. And what survived to tell the tale? A song. A song written not to make a buck, not to express a creative impulse, not to win friends and influence people; rather, a song written to make the hours of agony go by, to scratch the itch, to divert the mind from the pain and boredom of insane reality.

A pure song; a song meant to annihilate pain with absurd happiness; a response to hell. A happy, catchy pop song.

Another absurdity is the amount of work called for: a bale of cotton was 500 pounds. Nobody could do that in a day. It's this crazy exaggeration, the invoking of super-human ability to call out the ridiculousness of endless work.

It's an absurdity of contrast: the happy tune with the hellish words; the superhuman task depicted with the dehumanization of the people who had to do it; the straight-up catchiness of the snappy hook with the discomfort the song as a whole. The circumstances of its creation and the circumstances that nurtured it through time and space, a message cryptically divorced from its meaning, a folk song without context on a children's record for white middle class kids. An extraordinary reclaiming by human minds of an essential fact of humanity: a legacy from the pit of hell.

The opposite of "Drag the Magic Puffin": a song that won't let you forget it, no matter how much you want to. A song that does what a song's supposed to do, too well.

The thing about music is, it can be really, really catchy. Its distortion of the way you perceive time gives it its power: simultaneously, it simplifies and deepens its subject. I'd guess that no one in that prison farm where they started singing that song for the first time some 80 years ago cared where it would go, or who would hear it beyond a hundred yards away, and yet here we are today in a world where it reached across generations to boondoggle hundreds of thousands of people. Was it the extreme circumstances of its creation that gave it its staying power? Was it just an unusually catchy song, or is there something about those words and that music that touches a deep place inside us?

No idea. I do know this, though: a message divorced from its meaning, a work song scrubbed of its difficult origin, has a dangerous power. Songs can have so much power that without historical context, they can perpetuate evil. Ironic intent is lost or construed as its opposite; bitter, angry men become happy darkies; history is rewritten.

Puff, the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs is another such misguided message. Its existence as a kiddie record, devoid of context regarding its creators' intent, renders its mixed messages instantly cryptic. I think the Rocking Horse crew had a legitimate belief in the good they were doing. Preserving the folk legacy of America; instilling Christian values.

They open side two with this, another Lead Belly number:

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

When I was a little boy, a little boy, a little boy
When I was a little boy a few years old

My daddy went and left me, left me, left me
My daddy went and left me, I've been told

Life's not all candy and popcorn, kids. Be happy you're one of the lucky ones. The story of "Ha-Ha Thisaway" continues: his mom and his school were good to him, they taught him the Golden Rule, they saved his soul. So the dad leaving seemed like it was gonna be a problem, but he's cool with it cause his soul got saved. To which I say: right on. Still and all, it seems like kind of a downer of a bio to be presenting in kiddie song format. I guess the Brothers Grimm's and Charles Dickens's tales for tots had their share of broken homes too, and worse.

Charles Murray, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post, discusses the New Elite that the new populist movement in America has coalesced in opposition to, and with which I, however reluctantly and incompletely, must identify. This New Elite has as one of its less endearing qualities a tendency to look the other way from the ugliness that life has to offer. We've got an easily offended sensibility. "Colorblindness" is a potentially really destructive attitude that's come out of this tendency as my generation has come of age. Colorblindness is the impulse of privileged, majority-racial-group middle class people to say, "Racism is icky. I'm not racist - everyone is the same!" It ignores institutionalized, entrenched inequalities, expects the same standard of behavior from everyone regardless of their background, and thus ultimately perpetuates racism. One of the most powerful ways to fight the damage colorblindness can cause is by talking about race, especially with children, and especially if you're part of the privileged group.

Kindermusik, the music education program Frances has attended since she was six months old, uses for more than half of its material traditional songs from many different cultures. In some cases, the tunes they use have problematic histories and lyrics - and their approach is usually to change the lyrics. So "Ten Little Indians" becomes "Ten Little Bubbles". Kindermusik has the resources to contextualize and create dialogue around difficult issues - but they've mostly chosen the "colorblind" approach.

I'm not sure that it's really part of Kindermusik's mission, or their responsibility even, to confront these difficult issues. In fact, you might characterize their attempt to reclaim these tunes from history and use the power of the songs to teach language, rhythm and motion, rather than divisiveness and racial stereotyping, as admirable. But whether it's Kindermusik or Rocking Horse Records, one thing is clear: catchy songs often outlive the circumstances of their origins. A catchy song is the best way to get a kid's attention - and once you get the kid's attention, they will believe whatever message you are sending.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weird and Poppy

Frances really called my bluff this time. "You really want to know what lurks in the dark corners of your record collection? What's sitting there in between the records you want me to pull?" Apparently I can't handle the truth.

Frances stuck her little hand in the W's once again, and this time came out with a record that's been there since the very start, the pre-record-collecting days. A record that's watched, neglected, as the collection exploded and multiplied around it, since 1985.

Nineteen eighty-five.

That was a tough year. I didn't have much of an identity socially, beyond "the smart kid" - which is a pretty damaging one to the social life of a 12 year old. Fortunately, I have the obsessive tendencies of a collector, a materialism whose end is to be a kind of archivist, a life-long project to define and encapsulate my appreciation through possession. I remember when it clicked that I could buy the music I heard on the radio, and that my commercialized, materialized appreciation of this music could be translated into points for social standing. The corner of K-Mart where they sold the cassettes (interestingly, the same corner, relative to the entrance, where CDs, books and electronics are currently displayed in my local Target) became a magical wonderland.

When I was 12, I would always get the weirdest stuff I could find - it was like, weird was code for good. When I was 12, I didn't have much of a record collection. I did have some funny ideas about music. I still have the same ideas, but they have become heavier through a process of accretion - just like my record collection. The funny ideas, like the record collection, boil down pretty cleanly to just two things: weird and poppy. Poppy in the sense of pretty melody and harmony. Like Gymnopedie No. 1. Weird in the sense of, hmm. Let's say, subverting the world of commonly accepted thoughts, artistic practices, and values, precisely by referring to and juxtaposing those values in unexpected ways. Like screwing and chopping an Olsen Twins video, or Lil B the Based God.

(The stuff I thought was weird in 1984 doesn't seem too legit in its weirdness to me now. I was convinced that Pink Floyd was the weirdest band. So ok, Ummagumma still looks and sounds totally bizarre. It's weird to me, though, that I could hear everything from The Dark Side of the Moon through Wish You Were Here and The Wall to The Final Cut and still remain convinced that Floyd was the most tripped-out band in the history of anything. It just goes to show the power of marketing, cover art, and reputation to shape the opinions of 12 year olds [even smart ones like I think I was] in suburban Middle America.)

Weird and poppy. The first music I ever purchased was a cassette of Duran Duran's album Arena, which had "The Wild Boys" on it - a song that I was convinced I liked cause it had a video with weird slime and monsters lurking in black water and stuff. My other music purchases around this time - mostly vinyl 7" singles - reveal a forming taste that was equal parts poppy melody and weirdness: "One Night in Bangkok"; Paul Hardcastle's "19"; a 12" single of "Let's Go All the Way" by Sly Fox; Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome (also on cassette, and featuring a totally lame cover of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" that wasn't on the CD that I got later. The CD didn't omit the totally rockin' cover of "Born to Run", though. I didn't realize either of these was a cover, and the first time I heard the Boss's version of "Born to Run" I was shocked that his vocals were so bad - it sounded like he was sleeping!).

These 80s pop gems (ok so yeah, I also had both the album and the single for "We Are the World". Not every purchase was a winner) were the seed of my peculiar, life-long attempt to document myself. The collection I began before I read a list (in some forgotten book that I can now recognize as having been by a Baby Boomer with a critical agenda) of the definitive albums of the Rock Era, and before I graduated into a Dazed and Confused-style high school where the cool kids all listened to Classic Rock. Sly Fox and Duran Duran soon gave way to a dominant paradigm well-characterized by the first two albums I got on CD: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Workingman's Dead. (I was convinced this second would be Weird, but the music didn't deliver. Waaaaay too country and not weird at all.) From the Beatles, I moved on to New Order, Public Enemy, Meat Loaf, Guns n' Roses, the Art of Noise... But before I got all that way, I had created the kernel of my collection, and one of the records I bought before the layers began building up was this stand-up comedy record by the weirdest guy I'd ever seen: Steven Wright.

25 years on, I Have a Pony still exudes a legit bizarritude. It's not the weirdness that makes it funny, though: it's funny cause he's a talented comedian and he has all the skills that make people laugh, like uncanny timing, observations that sound fresh (but in 2010 they still don't sound dated, even when he's riffing on 80s stand-bys like microwaves or "calling information"), and dextrous Groucho Marx-style bait-and-switch. It's weird, and poppy.

And you know what else is on this record? There's a super pretty little song! It's called "Rachel", and it's really touching and heartfelt. These are the lyrics:

Hey hey, Rachel dear
How I wish you were here
Hey hey, I can almost see you

He just pulls out his guitar at one point during his act, and starts playing. So cute! He makes it work by filling up the verses with Steven Wright-style one-liners: "I met her in Macy's in New York City. She was buying clothes, and I was putting Slinkys on the escalators." "I don't know how she did it, but Rachel got poison ivy on her brain. The only way she could scratch it was if she thought about sandpaper." But when he gets to the chorus, it's totally straight, sitting-around-the-campfire love. The crowd even sings along, without being cajoled.

It's safe to say that I haven't played this record in 25 years. And as you can see from the (hopefully brief enough) indulgent self-analysis I've just subjected you to, the forced re-opening of my dialogue with it has got me thinking more about myself than the record. These jokes are branded into my brain, I can't even begin to approach it with a critical distance. I seriously just went on youtube and started looking up songs that I know I'm supposed to think are crappy, but no! This one is totally awesome! So is this one! And this one! Oh my gosh, this one!!!! We're all doomed to forever love whatever crappy music we heard when we were 12, and defend its merits till the day we die. The actual quality of the music has very little to do with it. (I didn't make that theory up, Chris Bickel did, but I agree with all my heart.)

Yeah so memories. Record collecting as self-documentation. Useful? Maybe if you're really into yourself. Or if you think you're worth other people being into. I'm into myself. I have another life-long project too, though - it's trying to learn how to be into other people, and see the world through other people's eyes. One day I'll write about how my record collection helps me do that, too. It's the antidote for its own poison.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stopgap Measure Part 2: Dancing with the Stars

Whew! Show's over and I just got back from a birthday getaway in Carmel, NY. As I mentioned last time, I'm committed to posting every third Wednesday, but not necessarily posting anything of substance. Enjoy the pretty pictures for now, and I'll be back on the writing train in a couple of weeks. I might even post a new piece early cause I've been thinking a lot!

In case you were wondering, that's Rin Liminal Switch Volume Three: Ventilating the Corpse by Shrin. It's got this one super-long, jarringly ambient track on it that's gongs being bowed and beaten. Also there's guitar music. The cover is a photo of a cow that's flipped right-to-left and color-inverted.

Note the moves. Frances could win on Dancing with the Stars. I think she's more famous than some of those people too.

Here's a picture of a toddler with a Wire record:

It's Frances, and the record is Document and Eyewitness.

Nothing to say, so I'll just throw in this stunning picture of Frances and a telephone pole. Happy Fall!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sitting in Limbo

I've admitted to myself the twin realities that:

  1. I'm producing a show in 16 days.

  2. Everyone I've spoken with that reads this blog just looks at the baby pictures and ignores my blather.

Thus for September's posts, I've decided to streamline the process and just post a bunch of pictures of Frances holding records that she picked for me that I was never going to get around to writing about anyway. Expect more of the same for the next tri-weekly post on September 22. You all get what you want (Frances!) and I get what I want (well I'd like to have time to write I guess but also there's music to make and bacon to bring home) so it's a win-win. I'll return to posting real writing in October. Until then, enjoy these...

On Eagle's Wings, Volume Two features beautiful, relaxing music for harp and flute, and it set me back all of a dollar at Weirdo Records in Cambridge, MA. (I was hoping the awesome "get your freak on" price tag would come out in one of the photos, but alas.)

Bettine Clemen and Elizabeth Turrell play the flute and harp, and have long hair and flowy garments. Take another look at that front cover, though:

It's a watercolor! Specifically, it's this painting by Raegan Word. Look at that eagle! Watercolor! Wow.

Next, Terminal Boredom by the Registrators:

They are Japanese punk, and they say "thanks to no one."

And Jimmy Cliff:

Sitting in Limbo <33333.