Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The tune of the Earth

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Listen to this.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2021 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Daily life, Music

How William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington are similar

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I had more thoughts on Octavian’s interview of James Shapiro about King Lear and Shakespeare, so I updated that post.  The similarities with Duke Ellington’s approach are probably the result of having to respond to similar creative (and business) pressures.

Written by Leisureguy

2 October 2021 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Art, Business, Daily life, Jazz, Music

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Ana Vidović – Classical Guitar

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Written by Leisureguy

1 October 2021 at 7:07 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Music, Video

“Count Me In” on Netflix: If you like drums and rock & roll

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Count Me In is an interesting and highly dynamic documentary.

Written by Leisureguy

29 September 2021 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Music

Dudley Moore parodies a Beethoven sonata

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Written by Leisureguy

29 September 2021 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Humor, Music, Video

Is the Three-Minute Song Bad for Music?

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Ted Gioia has a very interesting video, along with a transcript that includes at the end some additional thoughts that didn’t get mentioned in the video. Here’s the video, but click the link for the transcript and the additional thoughts.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 2:51 pm

Out of the Woods: Buzz Martin, the Singing Logger

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Casey Jarman has an interesting article in The Believer about a subculture that was unfamiliar to me. He writes:

In photographs, everything about Buzz Martin looks unnaturally large: big nose, big forehead, big lamb-chop sideburns that draw attention away from the big ears behind them. “The Singing Logger” was seldom photographed without an ax or a guitar, probably because his lumpy hands hung awkwardly without something to hold. He wore his flannel shirtsleeves rolled up near his shoulders to reveal formidable white biceps offset by tan, leathery forearms that once measured seventeen inches around—the same size as Andre the Giant’s. His top three shirt buttons never seemed to find their loopholes. It’s hard to tell, from the old album covers and family photos, whether the deep lines on Martin’s face were wrinkles or scars. In the declining years of the timber industry, in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest, Buzz Martin’s legend grew to Paul Bunyan proportions; he was a larger-than-life symbol of the logging world’s values, its resilience, and its screwball humor.

For about a decade, beginning in the late ’60s, the Singing Logger found enough success as a minor country-music star to hang up his lumberjack’s cork boots and tour bars, logging camps, and music festivals across the country. In his brief career, Martin wrote what would become nearly the entire canon of modern logging music. On his six albums—all released between the mid-’60s and early ’70s—he wrote forty-four original songs; nearly two-thirds are about logging.

Singing about blue-collar work has always been a rite of passage for country singers, but in the middle of the last century, a notable group of songwriters made their careers producing songs about a single occ­upation. Marty Robbins was a suburban kid turned racecar driver who made it big performing songs about gunslingers and cattle ranchers. Red Sovine, a former hosiery factory supervisor, found fame singing intensely melodramatic songs about the lives of long-haul truckers. But unlike many of his peers in the often-superficial and showy genre we’ll call “occupational country,” Buzz Martin was a direct product of the world he sang about. He approached his subject with a keen eye for detail. Martin preferred emotional realism to melodrama, and if his songs glorified the logger as a hero, just as often they painted a punishingly bleak portrait of the job. He wrote from the perspective of a keenly self-aware insider, resulting in a discography—most of which has been out of print since the ’70s—that provides a rare glimpse into a famously closed and protective segment of blue-collar America. Buzz Martin didn’t just document logging culture, he narrated the slow death of the Northwest’s biggest industry and the broken people it took down with it. Then, after a brief bout of fame, Martin returned to the wilderness and never came back.

*

Martin was born in 1928 in what has been described alternately as a tent and a “hops shack” in Coon Holler, Oregon, a hamlet so small it doesn’t show up on maps. Martin sings that as a dirt-poor kid he picked berries and scavenged for bottles with return deposits in order to buy candy and new clothes. In the late 1930s, he began to lose his sight, and at age thirteen he was sent to the Oregon School for the Blind, in Salem, where he first picked up a guitar. While at the school, he received a corneal transplant and regained his sight. Martin told friends and family that his new eyes had come from a dead prison inmate.1

His father, Harry, died while Martin was away at school. His mother, Stella, died shortly after his release, when he was fifteen. Martin didn’t speak much about his parents, and never sang about them. As a teenager, he went to live with his sister and her considerably older husband, a musician and amateur instrument-maker named Bill Woosley. They lived in Five Rivers, a tiny community at the midway point between the Willamette Valley and the Oregon Coast. The closest town was Alsea, a now-dilapidated truck-stop town in the thick of the Siuslaw National Forest. The family cabin did not have electricity—though there was a battery-powered radio, which was used only for listening to the Grand Ole Opry—so they complemented logging work by playing music of their own. Martin, with encouragement from his sister, quickly became the singer of the house.

Martin was eighteen when he began working in the woods. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. You can find many of his songs on YouTube.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2021 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Music

Did Music Create Human Rights?

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The first successful labor strike took place at Deir el-Medina—the same place where songs of personal expression were born. Mere coincidence?

Ted Gioia writes at The Honest Broker:

The first songs to express personal emotions and individual aspirations appeared more than 3,000 years ago in Deir el-Medina, a village on the west bank of the Nile. By seeming coincidence this was also the location of the first successful labor protest in history, when artisans launched a sit-down strike that forced “management”— Ramesses III in this instance—to increase grain rations. Is it just by chance that a major musical innovation and a historic expansion in human rights took place in the very same (and tiny) community? 

Perhaps only a few dozen families lived in this setting, yet they spurred a profound change in both arts and politics. But this wouldn’t be the last time that new ways of singing would be linked to the growth of personal autonomy and individual rights. The same thing happened in ancient Greece, in Christian medieval societies, under the Abbasid Caliphate, during the 1960s US civil rights movement, and in many other historical settings. In fact, song has been our most enduring tool for the advancement of freedom.

We take for granted that songs express personal feelings. But that wasn’t always the case. And we shouldn’t minimize how empowering this kind of music can be. Having the right to sing about what you feel legitimizes your worldview to an uncanny degree. First you claim a stake to your own music, and soon you demand other freedoms. That’s how the process has always worked.

Just consider how often rebellions and dissident movements take place in the same communities that produce innovations in music. During the height of the troubadour movement in the south of France, the sociopolitical environment was so threatening to authorities, that the Pope went to war against the residents of this region—the first time in history that a Crusade was launched against Christians. Greil Marcus has suggested that the Cathars, the heretical movement that made this intervention necessary, anticipated the later punk ethos. At first glance, that seems like a strange, exaggerated claim—could medieval punks really have existed? But a holistic view of the converging musical and ideological shifts of that time and place make it a plausible hypothesis.

In fact, the whole first thousand years of Christianity witnessed an extraordinary suppression of peasant songs. These were attacked repeatedly in sermons, laws, and various official pronouncements. The censorship was so severe that almost no love songs or lyrics of personal emotion in the vernacular languages have survived from that long period. It’s hard for us, nowadays, to grasp why a love song might be threatening to those in power. But, viewed from another perspective, the power of a love song in promoting personal autonomy makes perfect sense. After all, these romantic lyrics proclaim the lovers’ determination to take control of their destiny and happiness—and if they are willing to do it in this instance, what prevents them from demanding independence and self-determination in other matters as well?

The same is true in modern times. Consider the case of . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more.

Written by Leisureguy

22 August 2021 at 10:59 am

The Cigar-Box Guitar Maker

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Nancy LeBrun writes in Craftsmanship Quarterly:

1. Musical Freedom   
2. Pure Americana    
3. Box Mysteries     
4. Simple Dreams

It seems like a crazy way to make music— a cast-off cigar box, a stick of wood, and a few strings that barely look capable of making a twang. That’s about all there is to a cigar box guitar. Yet when Paul Simon recorded his acclaimed album So Beautiful Or So What, he played one. Jimi Hendrix made one when he was a kid. Johnny Depp once gave one to Paul McCartney. To a guy named Mike Snowden, the sound of these instruments is so compelling that making them has become the central passion in his life.

I recently found Snowden on a bright spring morning, rolling power tools around his garage in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb outside Atlanta. To set up his workshop, Snowden had to thread his way through kayaks, kids’ bicycles, storage boxes and the usual household detritus. “I don’t have crazy expensive tools,” he said, with an easy smile and a shrug. “Just a table-top saw, a router, a drill press, a sander and a band-saw.” Dressed in Converse sneakers and a plaid shirt, Snowden seemed so laid back that I wondered if he is permanently relaxed. It soon became clear, however, that he is deceptively diligent about his trade, happily following a path that has demanded a few idiosyncratic choices.

Snowden grew up Natchitoches, Louisiana, the state’s oldest town, where the main street echoes the New Orleans French Quarter—in both its Creole buildings and its vibrant music scene. Snowden took it all in. At age 13, he bought a bass guitar and began playing along to his parents’ albums, which included the standard Springsteen, Beatles and Stevie Wonder repertoire. In high school, he started playing bass with local bands but wanted more. When he turned 18, he headed not to college but to Atlanta, where groups like The Black Crowes and Indigo Girls had gotten their start. After four years of playing the bar scene, he helped found a blues-rock group named Band De Soleil, becoming their bass player.

The day after the group formed, they left for a six-week tour. They were soon opening for acts like Joe Cocker and Dave Matthews. Those were heady days. “We had a manager, attorneys, we were signed to a record deal, the whole shooting match. It was like being in the middle of a hurricane.“ For five years, Snowden played roughly 250 nights a year. Before they could reach their next level, however, exhaustion and rivalries began to take a toll. At one point, while they were in Atlanta recording their second album, they slowly realized it was over. It just wasn’t fun anymore. “Near the end of the band, it was way out of control, too many people had different things going on.” Snowden felt they were now at mercy of the recording industry, and had lost control of their destiny. “I was just done,” Snowden says. “I was so tired of music and playing music.”

After limping through a few last bookings, Snowden headed home to Marietta, back to his wife Monique, his high-school girlfriend. They soon had a daughter, and to make ends meet, Snowden took the job that he still has 18 years later—working the 5-10 a.m. shift in the garden department at Home Depot. At heart, though, he was still a musician. He just didn’t want the circus that went with it. For several years, Snowden didn’t touch a musical instrument. But when his daughter was five, something dawned on him: “She’d never seen me play,” he says. If she was ever going to know who her father really was, he realized, she would need to hear his music.

In an effort to find a new path back to his old love, Snowden tried drums, the banjo, the mandolin. “I started buying all these instruments and nothing satisfied me,” he recalls. One day, while surfing the web, he stumbled on a video of a guy playing a guitar made out of a cigar box. “I thought I knew a lot about music,” he says. But this was something totally new—at least to him.

MUSICAL FREEDOM

A cigar box guitar may be simple, but there’s a certain art to making a good one. The first one Snowden attempted worked, “and that’s what surprised me,” he says. Entirely self-taught, Snowden hammered his way through the craft’s learning curve. “The first hundred or so weren’t that great,” he says. “As you’re learning, you get real frustrated, it’s a very emotional thing. Sometimes I’d be down in my basement and I’d be like, ‘What am I doing, man?’”

The main challenge had to do with . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including photos and more videos.

Written by Leisureguy

14 August 2021 at 12:50 pm

On lullabies

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Ted Gioia has some interesting observations on the lullaby in The Honest Broker:

(1) Is any music genre more disrespected than the lullaby? It may be the oldest music genre, and almost certainly the most widely performed. Every one of us has benefited from the lullaby at some point in our life—if not as a singer, at least as a listener during our infancy. But show me a single musicologist who specializes in this genre. Who has written its history? What music writer has celebrated its power?

(2) And this power is undeniable. If you were constructing scientific experiments on the efficacy of music in changing human behavior, the place to start is with a lullaby. You rarely hear the words “power” and “lullaby” in the same sentence, but the history of song as a force of dominance and submission could hardly find a richer area for exploration. Yet it represents such a gentle force of persuasion that many would resist any such inquiry, almost as a matter of principle. The whole topic is rich with philosophical and sociological implications.

(3) The omissions in the standard texts are sometimes startling. The single most frequently cited book on the mesmerizing power of music is Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Trance. I don’t have my copy at hand (its packed up in moving box right now), but if I recall correctly he has no interest in lullabies. He’s a skeptic about music’s ability to put people into a trance state, yet almost every parent on the planet knows otherwise from personal experience. Rouget doesn’t even realize that this is an issue he ought to consider.

(4) The absence of lullabies in music history books is even more striking. Medievalist John Haines offers this interesting observation: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more. And I offer this:

Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2021 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, History, Music

Ella Fitzgerald – All The Things You Are

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Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2021 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Art, Jazz, Music, Video

Coldplay, Achilles, and Spiderman

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Brian Theng writes in Antigone:

Some years ago, after receiving a rejection letter from a Cambridge college, I decided to go onto the Oxford website. I looked up the A-to-Z of courses available, from Archaeology and Anthropology to Mathematics and Theology and Religion. I crossed these off my list, and a couple more. But ‘Classics’ was sufficiently unfamiliar for me not to cross it out.

That was the start of a wonderful adventure.  It is not one I can share with many where I live, Singapore, a city that is famed for good food and the general lack of chewing gum. (It’s not illegal to chew gum, but it can’t be imported or sold.) We are a modern nation, with swimming pools on a cantilevered rooftop, 16-storey-tall concrete and steel trees, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall in our airport.

Besides a few copies of Robert Fagles’ 2006 translation of the Aeneid in the National Library, there are few opportunities to even hear about Classics in the first place. That is a shame, because Classics makes us think harder and differently about what it means to be human.

Once in a while, I come across little things in today’s world that drive this message home. It could be rapping (sometimes wrongly) about Romans, Trojans, and the Odyssey, wanting to smell like a Roman centurion, or some interesting tunes, as in this case…

The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s 2017 electronic pop tune Something Just Like This starts off with the singer – let us call him Chris – doubting his worth as a partner, because he is no superhero:

I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spider-Man’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list.

His significant other replies that it is alright. She just wants a love that is simple and honest:

I’m not lookin’ for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some superhero
Some fairy-tale bliss.

It is not every day that we find Achilles and Hercules mentioned in the same breath as Spider-Man and Batman. To my mind, what divides them are what different understandings of ‘heroism’ entail and what different societies value. What unites them is far less their heroism than their conflicts and struggles despite their superhero abilities and feats.

What does it mean to be a hero? Taken together, gold, gifts (whether material or god-given), self-control, and fists form an intriguing combination of heroic references. Being a comic-book hero usually means saving the world. When we imagine Spider-Man and Batman, we may think of fighting crime and cosmic threats, or the famous clichés “with great power comes great responsibility” and “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” In the Homeric world, hērōs (ἥρως) “signifies a warrior who lives and dies in pursuit of honour (τιμή) and glory (κλέος)”.[1] Being a hero seems to mean more using one’s powers for oneself.

Let’s dive into some specifics, taking “Achilles and his gold” as our cue. Gold in Homer is often associated with the gods and immortality. It is surely associated with wealth, but sometimes it is not as highly “ranked” as we might think.[2] In setting out the chariot race prizes in Patroclus’ funeral games, Achilles offers a brand-new cauldron for third place, but two talents of gold for fourth (Iliad 23.267–9).[3] This opens up a whole conversation about symbolic and commercial value: what would we do if presented with choosing between a one-of-a-kind handcrafted kitchen appliance by a famed craftsman and a cash prize? The answer may be obvious, or not – the Iliad makes us think twice.

In any case, Achilles is not usually noted for his gold, even though he was rich in prizes and spoils. He tells us so in his great speech on honour and glory, when he rejects Agamemnon’s copious material compensation, which included seven whole cities (9.356–409). Others might say that the song lyrics refer to Homer’s famous ecphrasis, the shield and armour made by the god Hephaestus at the request of the hero’s mother Thetis (18.468–617). Achilles’ divine parentage and connection with the gods can go some way to explain why Chris does not see himself upon that list of superheroes.

To me, “Achilles and his gold” recalls the meeting between the hero and godlike Priam, who brings “countless ransom” (ἀπερείσι’ ἄποινα) for the body of his son Hector. This ransom included ten talents of gold (24.232; Agamemnon also offered this as part of his recompense in 9.122). It is a powerful and emotional scene (24.477–571).[4] Evoking Achilles’ aged father Peleus at the start and end of his supplication, Priam

roused in Achilles the desire to weep for his father. He took the old man by the hand and gently pushed him away. And the two of them began to weep in remembrance. Priam cried loud for murderous Hector, huddled at the feet of Achilles, and Achilles cried for his own father, and then again for Patroclus: and the house was filled with the sound of their weeping.[5]

Scholars raise many interesting points about the whole scene: there are themes of father-son relationships, memory, pity and anger, mortality and immortality, separation, and reconciliation with society.[6] But what strikes us first is a sense of tender vulnerability amidst overflowing emotion. For all the heroic associations we make, we find fragility. Achilles tells Priam, “this is the fate the gods have spun for poor mortal men, that we should live in misery” (24.525–6). We see and feel little fairy-tale bliss.

In a different way, the premise of the Spider-Man character elicits the same feeling.[7] Stan Lee explained how he created a superhero who “would lose out as often as he’d win – in fact, more often.” Peter Parker is a relatable teenager, self-absorbed, awkward, and misunderstood. As Brandon Wright explains, this could not have been farther from male DC superheroes, who were all the same: rational and in control, predictable, and wholly altruistic. Soon superheroes with “awesome powers and human shortcomings became the defining feature of Marvel Comics”, though in fairness I should mention that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy does well to draw out the conflicts and complexity of Bruce Wayne. Despite their gifted abilities, theirs are not the lives we unquestioningly yearn for.

Finally, the song’s reference to “Hercules and his gifts” opens up a whole new . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 July 2021 at 11:34 am

Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned

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David Treffert published an interesting article in Scientific American in January 2015. It begins:

I met my first savant 52 years ago and have been intrigued with that remarkable condition ever since. One of the most striking and consistent things in the many savants I have seen is that that they clearly know things they never learned.

Leslie Lemke is a musical virtuoso even though he has never had a music lesson in his life. Like “Blind Tom” Wiggins a century before him, his musical genius erupted so early and spontaneously as an infant that it could not possibly have been learned. It came ‘factory installed’. In both cases professional musicians witnessed and confirmed that Lemke and Wiggins somehow, even in the absence of formal training, had innate access to what can be called “the rules” or vast syntax of music.

Alonzo Clemons has never had an art lesson in his life. As an infant, after a head injury, he began to sculpt with whatever was handy–Crisco or whatever–and now is a celebrated sculptor who can mold a perfect specimen of any animal with clay in an hour or less after only a single glance at the animal itself–every muscle and tendon perfectly positioned. He has had no formal training.

To explain the savant, who has innate access to the vast syntax and rules of art, mathematics, music and even language, in the absence of any formal training and in the presence of major disability, “genetic memory,” it seems to me, must exist along with the more commonly recognized cognitive/semantic and procedural/habit memory circuits.

Genetic memory, simply put, is complex abilities and actual sophisticated knowledge inherited along with other more typical and commonly accepted physical and behavioral characteristics. In savants the music, art or mathematical “chip” comes factory installed. In addition to the examples mentioned above, I describe others in my book, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant.

Genetic memory is not an entirely new concept. In 1940, A.A. Brill quoted Dr. William Carpenter who, in comparing math prodigy Zerah Colburn’s calculating powers to Mozart’s mastery of musical composition, wrote the following:

In each of the foregoing cases, then, we have a peculiar example of the possession of an extraordinary congenital aptitude for certain mental activity, which showed itself at so early a period as to exclude the notion that it could have been acquired by the experience of the individual. To such congenital gifts we give the name of intuitions: it can scarcely be questioned that like the instincts of the lower animals, they are the expressions of constitutional tendencies embodied in the organism of the individuals who manifest them.

Carl Jung used the term “collective unconscious” to define his even broader concept of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom of the past.

Wilder Penfield in his pioneering 1978 book, Mystery of the Mindalso referred to three types of memory. “Animals,” he wrote, “particularly show evidence of what might be called racial memory” (this would be the equivalent of genetic memory). He lists the second type of memory as that associated with “conditioned reflexes” and a third type as “experiential”. The two latter types would be consistent with the terminology commonly applied to “habit or procedural” memory and “cognitive or semantic” memory.

In his 1998 book, The Mind’s Past, Michael Gazzaniga wrote:

The baby does not learn trigonometry, but knows it; does not learn how to distinguish figure from ground, but knows it; does not need to learn, but knows, that when one object with mass hits another, it will move the object … The vast human cerebral cortex is chock full of specialized systems ready, willing and able to be used for specific tasks. Moreover, the brain is built under tight genetic control … As soon as the brain is built, it starts to express what it knows, what it comes with from the factory. And the brain comes loaded. The number of special devices that are in place and active is staggering. Everything from perceptual phenomena to intuitive physics to social exchange rules comes with the brain. These things are not learned; they are innately structured. Each device solves a different problem … the multitude of devices we have for doing what we do are factory installed; by the time we know about an action, the devices have already performed it.

Steven Pinker’s 2003 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Naturerefutes the “blank slate” theories of human development. Brian Butterworth, in his 1999 book, What Counts: How Every Brain is Hardwired for Math, points out that babies have many specialized innate abilities, including numerical ones that he attributes to a “number module” encoded in the human genome from ancestors 30,000 years ago.

Marshall Nivenberg, from the National Heart Institute, provided insight into the actual DNA/RNA mechanics of this innate knowledge in an article titled “Genetic Memory” published in 1968 in JAMA.

Whether called genetic, ancestral or racial memory, or intuitions or congenital gifts, the concept of a genetic transmission of sophisticated knowledge well beyond instincts, is necessary to explain how prodigious savants can know things they never learned.

We tend to think of ourselves as being born with a magnificent and intricate piece of organic machinery (“hardware”) we call the brain, along with a massive but blank hard drive (memory). What we become, it is commonly believed, is an accumulation and culmination of our continuous learning and life experiences, which are added one by one to memory. But the prodigious savant apparently comes already programmed with a vast amount of innate skill -and knowledge in his or her area of expertise–factory-installed “software” one might say–which accounts for the extraordinary abilities over which the savant innately shows mastery in the face of often massive cognitive and other learning handicaps. It is an area of memory function worthy of much more exploration and study.

Indeed recent cases of “acquired savants” or “accidental genius” have convinced me that we all have such factory-installed software. I discussed some of those cases in detail in . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2021 at 11:27 am

Raymond Scott’s bizarre but intriguing ideas

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Being ahead of one’s time is a serious curse. Ted Gioia has a most interesting column that begins:

Background: Below is the latest in my series of profiles of individuals I call visionaries of sound—innovators who are more than just composers or performers, but futurists beyond category. Their work aims at nothing less than altering our entire relationship with the music ecosystem and day-to-day soundscapes.

In many instances, their names are barely known, even within the music world. In some cases—as with Charles Kellogg, recently profiled here—they have been entirely left out of music history and musicology books.

In this installment, I focus on the remarkable legacy of Raymond Scott. During the coming months, I will be publishing more of these profiles. Perhaps I will collect them in a book at some point.

The Secret Music Technology of Raymond Scott

Unfortunately, I need to start this article by talking about Porky Pig.

Raymond Scott deserves better. He never intended for his legacy in music to depend on cartoon animals. But his largest audience, as it turned out, would be children who laugh at Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the other animated protagonists of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warner Bros.

Scott didn’t write cartoon music—at least, not intentionally—but his music appears on more than 100 animated films. For that give credit (or blame) to Carl Stallings, who needed to churn out a cartoon soundtrack every week, more or less, while under contract to Warner Bros. Stallings found a goldmine in the compositions of Raymond Scott, whose music had been licensed to the studio. These works, which straddle jazz and classical stylings, possess a manic energy that made them the perfect accompaniment to a chase scene or action sequence or some random cartoon-ish act of violence.

Scott called his music “descriptive jazz”—his name for a novel chamber music style that drew on the propulsive drive of swing, with all the riffs and syncopation of that dance style, but with less improvisation and proclaiming a taste for extravagant, quasi-industrial sounds. It was like techno before there was techno, but with a jitterbug sensibility.

When I first learned about Scott, I was taught to view him as a music novelty act, akin perhaps to Zez Confrey or Spike Jones, and the most frequently cited examples of his work (to the extent, they were mentioned at all) were these cartoon soundtracks. But Scott had higher ambitions. He was, after all, a Juilliard graduate, with a taste for experimental music, and worldview more aligned with Dali and Dada than Daffy Duck. But Scott also wanted to be a technologist—his early aim had been to study engineering. He dreamed of combining these two pursuits, and gaining renown as one of the trailblazers in electronic music.

Under slightly different circumstances, he might have become even more famous for music tech than for his cartoon music, as well-known as Robert Moog or Ray Dolby or Les Paul or Leon Theremin. But those dreams were all in the future, when he picked the name “Raymond Scott” out of a phone book—because he thought it “had good rhythm.” . . .

Continue reading. It gets stranger and stranger. He invented a music synthesizer, for example, hiring Bob Moog to design circuits for him. (Moog later made his own synthesizer, of course.) Amazing story.

There’s an old country song called “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” This whole piece reminded me of that.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 3:03 pm

A jazz great who died too soon: Austin Peralta

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Austin Peralta recorded the album above when he was 15, with Ron Carter on bass. Ted Giola writes at The Honest Broker:

Frankly, I don’t recall why I reached out to pianist Austin Peralta back in 2008 or 2009. I vaguely remember that someone told me about him in an email—but I get recommendations like that every day. So why did I pay attention to this one?

It must have been someone whose judgment I trusted. Not a paid publicist or record label flack—probably a seasoned LA musician whose opinions I took seriously. The advice, as I recall, was short and to-the-point, along the lines of: Ted, pay attention to this LA teenager named Austin Peralta. He’s going to shake things up.

I can say with certainty that I had no interest in Peralta as a jazz child prodigy. There are few music critics less interested in child prodigies than I. I hear about them all the time—they’re everywhere nowadays—and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are just two kinds of child prodigies in jazz, and it’s wise to avoid both of them.

The first type is the over-hyped talent who is nowhere near as good as the press releases claim. This is not an infrequent situation—and usually because someone stands to gain from exaggerating the child’s ability. If I had a taste for jazz gossip (which I don’t), I could share shameful details of parents who invest a hundred thousand dollars or more in creating a reputation for their youngster as a prodigy, built largely on smoke and mirrors and cash payments. The kid must have a modest level of talent, but we’re definitely not talking about the next Mozart—more like a school band standout. If you have enough money to spend, you can even get radio airplay and fawning reviews. It sure looks good on the college application.

On the other hand, there are genuine child prodigies, with enormous talent. But even here, I find the whole situation distasteful. No matter how awesome their ability, children should not be releasing jazz albums. They need time to mature and find their individual sound and approach. If they’re rushed at this juncture, they may never achieve any genuine depth as artists.

Consider the case of Joey Alexander, the most hyped child prodigy in jazz in recent memory. The first time I heard him play, I knew immediately that he had huge upside potential. Alexander is the real deal. But I also knew that he shouldn’t be making records at age 11—and the New York Times wasn’t doing him any favors by proclaiming his greatness in large font headlines.

Even if the finger dexterity is impressive, the emotional depth and sense of individualism—absolutely essential elements in jazz—will be lacking at that age. There’s only so much soulfulness a preteen can put into a solo, and it barely fills a thimble. More to the point, too much praise too soon can stunt a child’s development. (If you have any doubts, just look at the teen sports world and count the tragic stories.) Alexander recently turned 18, and I’ve started paying closer attention—with the highest of hopes. But he may struggle holding on to his audience, because he built his public image as a precocious whiz kid, fast and glib at the keyboard—a rare adolescent, no doubt, but embraced by various interests as a marketable commodity. The time will come when Joey Alexander genuinely deserves a Grammy nomination, but when he was 13, there were a thousand jazz players more worthy than him. Yes, the marketing hype won out, but that’s a risky way to embark on your life’s work—you can only be the whiz kid for so long.

So I certainly didn’t reach out to Austin Peralta because he was promoted as a prodigy. That probably made me more skeptical than anything. But in all fairness, there wasn’t much promotion. I’d never received a press release, and few were aware of Peralta’s precocious music skills back in those days—at least in the United States. There was no fawning article in the New York Times or any other leading newspaper, as far as I could tell. I had never heard his name until someone told me about him.

But a Google search informed me that Peralta had achieved a degree of jazz fame in Japan when he was 15 years old. He even made two records in Japan—both of them released in 2007. The first one, called Maiden Voyage, featured Peralta playing with bassist Ron Carter. That caught my attention. Carter is one of the most respected bassists in the history of jazz—what’s he doing in the studio with a 15-year-old pianist? And that same year, Peralta recorded another album for the Japanese market, but this time with another world class bassist, Buster Williams.

At this juncture, I decided I should listen to this music, just to stay informed. I had low expectations—as mentioned above, the prodigy angle always turns me off. I’m old enough to remember the rise and fall of Craig Hundley—these youngsters come and go, usually sooner rather than later. But as a jazz critic, I still need to listen. I spend a lot of time doing just that, staying abreast of trends, whether I like them or not. Stan Getz once told me: “I listen to music the way a stock broker follows Wall Street”—a comment which puzzled me at the time, but I now understand exactly what he meant. You ought to know whose stock is rising, and whose is falling, even if you’re not making an investment.

But I ran into a problem. I couldn’t . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2021 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Daily life, Jazz, Music

A tradition successfully handed on to the next generation to protect, practice, and grow — and hand it off again

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And this totally awesome video, even better. The tradition lives — and evolves. Good meme strength.

Written by Leisureguy

20 June 2021 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes, Music, Video

The value of imitation in the arts

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Interesting quotation from David Perell’s newsletter:

I once met a painting coach who tells students to copy their favorite artists.

At first, students resist.

In response, the coach tells them to listen for friction. “Do you hear that resistance? It’s the whisper of your unique style.”

Through imitation, we discover our voice.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2021 at 7:28 pm

The Man Who Put Out Fires with Music

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Ted Gioga writes in Culture Notes of an Honest Broker:

I’ve long been obsessed with the hidden power of song. I’m not talking about how music entertains us, or even its higher artistic potentialities, but something bigger and grander. I look to music as a change agent in human life, even as a transformative force in human history.

It perhaps sounds simplistic, but this is the most important core value in my life’s work, the central tenet underpinning in my vocation. Song is a source of enchantment and a catalyst for change. Any philosophy of music—or even a journalistic approach to the subject—that doesn’t respect this remarkable capacity misses much of the point of human music-making

As a music historian, I’ve learned that we hardly possess words to describe this potentiality of song—although each of us feels it in our heart and soul. At times, this power is so strange and beyond expectations, that it almost seems magical. I have tried to write the history of this musical magic, and celebrate its great practitioners, many of them almost completely unknown, even to musicologists.

One of these hidden masters is a man named Charles Kellogg. And in the course of many years, I haven’t met a single music scholar who recognizes his name. I didn’t learn about him myself until long after my student days had ended, and I was already embarked on a career as a music writer. But he’s become a hero of mine, although it’s taken me many years to piece together the basic details of his life story.

I first learned about Kellogg from an unusual source—a book that has nothing to do with music. At least on the surface, that is. In fact, much of my most productive research has been the result of digging into sources of information that apparently have little to do with music. In this instance, my discovery of Charles Kellogg came from a peculiar footnote in the book Autobiography of a Yogi, first published in 1946 by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Here is the footnote in its entirety.

I took note of this remarkable story—if I was looking for music as a change agent, here was an undeniable example. What could be more impressive than putting out fires with your songs? But several years passed before I could learn more about Charles Kellogg.

Finally in 2002, I stumbled on more information while doing research for my book Healing Songs at the Geisel Library, an architectural monstrosity (named after Dr. Seuss) located on the campus of UC San Diego—a strange, claustrophobic facility, but the closest major library to the beach home where I was living at the time. There in the stacks I discovered by chance a book written by Charles Kellogg himself, entitled The Nature Singer, and published by a small California press in 1930. I photocopied a few pages, but decided I needed to track down my own copy. That took several years, but I eventually acquired a rare first edition of The Nature Singer signed by the author. My understanding is that only one thousand copies were printed.

In these pages, Kellogg boasted of musical talents few performers could hope to match. For example, he describes his ability to draw bears to him with his songs. And they came not to attack, but as enthusiastic attendees for Kellogg’s outdoor concert:  “All [the bears] sat down on their haunches. For fully ten minutes this curious audience sat listening with evident enjoyment.” If you’re skeptical, he shares photos to prove it.

After a childhood spent largely in small towns and the wilderness of the Far West, a hundred miles from the nearest railroad, Kellogg gained considerable fame for one of his most esoteric skills: his extraordinary talent for imitating bird songs. From his earliest days, Kellogg had conversed with birds and insects, and by the time he was 16 or 17 he realized he could imitate almost any sound they made. This would be the talent that eventually secured a recording contract for Kellogg and launched him on the road as a vaudeville performer. (His recordings are now available online.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 June 2021 at 7:53 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Music

Justin Bieber today is stunning

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Just read Zach Baron’s interview of him in GQ:

Justin Bieber and I have just met when I ask him something and he talks and talks—for 10 illuminating and uninterrupted minutes he talks. He talks about God and faith and castles in Ireland, about shame and drugs and marriage. He talks about what it is to feel empty inside, and what it is to feel full. At one point he says, “I’m going to wrap it up here,” but he doesn’t, he just keeps going, and that is what it is like to talk to Justin Bieber now. Like you’re in the confessional booth with him. Like whatever rules about “privacy” or the thick opaque wall of massive celebrity that people like Bieber are supposed to follow don’t apply.

He has lived a well-documented life—maybe among the more well-documented lives in the history of this decaying planet. But to my knowledge, there is not one example of him speaking this way—in a moving but unprompted, unselfconscious torrent of words—in public prior to this moment. I will admit to being disoriented. If I’m being honest, I had been expecting someone else entirely—someone more monosyllabic; someone more distracted, more unhappy; someone more like the guy I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber was not all that long ago—and now I am so thrown that the best I can do is stammer out some tortured version of… How did you become this person? By which I mean: seemingly guileless. Bursting with the desire to connect, to tell his own story, in case it might be of use to anyone else.

It’s a question that’s not even a question, really. But what Bieber gently says in response is: “That’s okay.”

He knows approximately what I’m asking—how he got from wherever he was to here, to becoming the man in front of me, clear-eyed on a computer screen from an undisclosed location in Los Angeles. His hair, under a Vetements hat, is long in the back; he is in no particular hurry. He is married to a woman—Hailey Baldwin Bieber—who cares for him like no one has ever cared for him, he says. He is happy. He is currently renovating the house in which he will live happily with his wife. He’s spent the past several months piecing together a new record, Justice, which is dense with love songs and ’80s-style anthems—interspersed with some well-intentioned, if not totally well-advised, interludes featuring the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.—that are bluntly honest about his bad past and equally optimistic about his future. (“Everybody saw me sick, and it felt like no one gave a shit,” he sings on the cathartic last song on the record, “Lonely.”) He’s still so overflowing with music that he puts out Freedom, a meditative, postscript of an EP about faith, just a few weeks after Justice. He is, if anything, the empathetic professional in this interaction too as he goes about trying to help me understand how he’s arrived at where he’s arrived. . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing. He does explain well how he arrived and where he arrived.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2021 at 3:24 pm

A Dance to ‘Swing, Swing, Swing,’ by Benny Goodman Orchestra (from a riff by Chick Webb)

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Written by Leisureguy

8 April 2021 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Jazz, Music, Video

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