Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Video of the Week: Weather Report 1978 "Black Market/Scarlet Woman"

Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, Erskine play "Black Market" and "Scarlet Woman." The usual Youtube sync problems are there, but check out Zawinul's "inverted keybord" set-up (part of the performance), a burning Shorter/Erskine duo, and Zawinul doing one of his ripping ballads. Amazing.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Four sound effects that made TV history (BBC's Radiophonic Workshop)

Four sound effects that made TV history

See the BBC NEWS story for video link demonstrations.

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, a pioneering force in sound effects, would have been 50 this month. Ten years after it was disbanded, what remains of its former glory?

Deep in the bowels of BBC Maida Vale studios, behind a door marked B11, is all that's left of an institution in British television history.

A green lampshade, an immersion tank and half a guitar lie forlornly on a shelf, above a couple of old synthesisers in a room full of electrical bric-a-brac.

These are the sad remnants of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up 50 years ago to create innovative sound effects and incidental music for radio and television.

The corporation initially only offered its founders a six-month contract, because it feared any longer in the throes of such creative and experimental exercises might make them ill.

Using reel-to-reel tape machines, early heroines such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire recorded everyday or strange sounds and then manipulated these by speeding up, slowing down or cutting the tape with razor blades and piecing it back together.

The sound of the Tardis was one sound engineer's front-door key scraped across the bass strings on a broken piano. Other impromptu props included a lampshade, champagne corks and assorted cutlery.

Ten years ago the workshop was disbanded due to costs but its reputation as a Heath Robinson-style, pioneering force in sound is as strong as ever, acknowledged by ambient DJs like Aphex Twin.

Although much of its equipment has long been sold off, every sound and musical theme it created has been preserved. To mark its 50 years, there are plans for a CD box-set.

Here Dick Mills and Mark Ayres, who both worked there, use the surviving equipment to revive four sounds from the past.


This was a stroke of genius from Delia Derbyshire, who died in 2001 and famously created the Doctor Who theme tune from Ron Grainer's score.

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The magic of Delia Derbyshire's lampshade, recreated by Dick Mills and Mark Ayres

She would hit the tatty-looking aluminium lampshade to create a sound with a natural, pure frequency. After recording it on tape, she would play with it to make the desired sound effect.

For a documentary on the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert, she took the ringing part of the lampshade sound, faded it up and then reconstructed it using the workshop's 12 oscillators to give a whooshing sound, allied to her own voice.

"So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs," she once said.

The green lampshade has since gained near-mythical status and Peter Howell, who succeeded Derbyshire in the early 1970s and reworked the Doctor Who theme tune, can see why.

"It's a useful thing to cling on to because everyone knows what a lampshade is because it symbolises the use of domestic objects to produce sounds."

The workshop fascinates his music students today because of all the kit used back then, he says, and its influence is still clearly seen - an advert for a VW Golf that uses only sounds of the car, for example.

"The sampling era we're now in is the next generation of the same principle."


The sound that sent youngsters, and many adults, cowering behind sofas was co-created by Mills, a sound engineer who joined the workshop in its first year and left 35 years later.

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Creating the voice of the Daleks

"We tried to give the impression that whenever a Dalek spoke, it wasn't speaking like we do, it was accessing words from a memory bank, so they all sound the same - dispassionate, mechanical and retrievable."

He used a centre-tap transformer plugged into the microphone of an actor standing at the side of the set, and the threat in the voice was all in the performance.

Sometimes the tape got played at the wrong speed and the voice came out slightly differently, but the arrival of the EMS VCS3 synthesiser in the late 60s did not signal the end for this tried and tested method.

In other ways, however, the synthesisers changed the way the workshop operated and - despite some resistance by individuals - offered a bigger choice.

"Synthesisers provided a wide open palate of colours and sounds to play with, but you still had to choose what you wanted to do and learn the discipline of this new technological form," says Mills.

"So on the one hand, it was easy but you still had the original difficulty of thinking of the idea in the first place."


Sci-fi fans will recognise the "swooshing" door from programmes such as Doctor Who and Blake's 7, plus in the odd hotel scene in other programmes.

The suitcase synthesiser was a portable version of the VCS3, useful for jobs out of the studio.

The workshop's suitcase synth

Recalling the early days and influences, Mills says: "We would take a pre-recorded sound effect from the BBC's vast library but treated them to produce cerebral effects. If you wanted a character to appear to be thinking, you got him to read the line and put in a strange echo."

Similar techniques were already used in Europe in "musique concrete".

"They did it for their own investigation and research, but our way of life was we never did anything until a commission. So all our experimentation and research was taking place in the context of that radio or television programme."

One of Mills' proudest creations was the slimy monster sound, which was him spreading Swarfega cleaning gel on his hands and then slowing down the sound.

And he made the upset tummy of Major Bloodnok in The Goon Show, a colonial officer who liked curry, by using burp sounds and an oscillator to give a violent, explosive gastro-effect. Using contrasting sounds very quickly is a trick in audio comedy.

"We did our own thing in the name of artistic creation. Working here was a bit like surf riding. Every so often a creative wave of energy kept you going until the wave ran out."


One pluck of a guitar string became the famous Dr Who bass line. Derbyshire and Mills sped it up and slowed it down to get the different notes, and these were cut to give it an extra twang on the front of every note.

Demonstration of the Radiophonic Workshop's guitar

"It slides up to the note every time if you listen carefully," says Mills. "Delia fabricated the baseline out of two or three lines of tape.

"You'd be scrabbling around the floor saying 'Where's that half-inch of tape I wanted to play on the front of that note?'"

Every sound generated by the workshop and used in radio or television is preserved, partly in thanks to archivist Mark Ayres, who worked there while a student.

He believes one of its greatest legacies is that it made listeners more used to hearing such sounds as part of everyday entertainment and education.

"[It led to] the steady integration of experimental sound into popular culture and the placement of such sound into the mainstream rather than it being confined to various strictly academic studios.

"Certainly, much of this took place in parallel with developments elsewhere - The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon for example.

"Later on, the workshop housed a couple of the most advanced computer-based MIDI studios in the world, but by that time competition from the outside world was too great and, under [the BBC's policy] Producer Choice, the workshop could not compete on price and its demise was inevitable."

De Phazz: Jazz with a Turntable (NPR)

De Phazz: Jazz with a Turntable

Listen to the story at NPR

Weekend Edition Saturday, April 26, 2008 - The music of German DJ Pit Baumgartner — a.k.a. De Phazz — is a bit hard to categorize. Calling it "jazz with a turntable," De Phazz samples and remixes music he finds just about anywhere, from Ella Fitzgerald hits to 10 cent flea market records. The outcome is both surprising and seamless.

Baumgartner plays a hybrid of electronic dance music and jazz while touring with his band and recording albums, but most of the time he works as a remixer — most notably for the Verve Remix Series — reworking classic songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Kurtis Blow and Boy George.

Baumgartner describes himself as more of a musical collage artist than composer or instrumentalist. "It's a collage thing. I love to bring things together that normally don't fit." he explains. "My music, it joins you while you are doing something. It gives you space to not listen to it immediately or constantly. But if you listen to it constantly and deeper, you should have some little pearls to find."

The artist's latest album is Tales of Trust, a solo effort that gave Baumgartner the freedom to move beyond the live band format. He says experimenting with the song dictates how it will turn out. "At a certain point the song gives you the direction. The song tells you 'listen I need a trumpet' or 'I don't need nothing, I'm an instrumental song' and then it goes by itself."

It's those combinations that Baumgartner finds most interesting. He says, "I don't think that somebody really invents new music. I don't think that's possible. There's so much music — in the train, the supermarket and the airport. I can't really tell you, 'Am I composing this or did I hear this just two days before somewhere?'"

Friday, April 25, 2008

China: Amy Tan Reveals Stories of Dong Folk Songs

NPR All Things Considered

All Things Considered, April 25, 2008 - In the Southwest China village of Dimen, song takes the place of the written word. People in Dimen learn to read and write in the official national language — Mandarin Chinese — but they speak in their own tongue: the language of the Dong people.

Their voices imitate cicadas in the fields above the village. Dimen is isolated, but like most places in modern China, it's learning the greater world is not so far away. With the recently released collection, Dong Folk Songs: People and Nature in Harmony, people everywhere can now hear this unique song style.

American author Amy Tan has been a repeated visitor to Dimen. She wrote about her experience in National Geographic Magazine — the May 2008 issue is devoted solely to the country of China.

Before All Things Considered staff members left for Chengdu for a China series, Tan sat down with Robert Siegel to recall the first time she set foot in Dimen.

"Entering into the village I had little girls singing those songs — those dong songs, the welcoming songs — one at each elbow," Tan says. "However, the singing isn't just to welcome tourists, it's how the culture communicates with each other."

While these "gate-barring songs" are reserved mainly for tourists and official guests, the Dong song-style is a form of communication every child learns from the age of 5. "And they sing on key, on rhythm, perfectly a capella, in tune with one another," Tan says.

Young children not only sing to greet but also talk about community and the changing of seasons. The song "Spring Is Here, Swallows Fly" talks about the shortness of childhood, using birds as a metaphor:

After winter we get spring / Swallows fly amidst green leaves / Cicadas sing on top of berry trees / High and low sounds fill the mountains / Cicadas' songs are so beautiful, let's stop and listen / You can hear the mountains and forests resounding / Even the birds would stop and listen / There is music, there is love / All four seasons are filled with happiness / We are happy in our hearts

Across the Dong culture, most of the songs celebrate the natural world.

"Many of the songs are about nature, listening to nature," Tan says. "There's a lot about being out in the field working and realizing that even though your life is very hard and you're working constantly and it never stops, no matter what the season or the weather, there is this beauty."

But Dimen's rich oral history is at risk. Only one woman can sing the hours-long story that recounts the entire story of the Dimen people and the younger generation doesn't seem interested in learning it.

"There was a couple, two couples, on a bridge — Lover's Lane — smooching," Tan says. "And I asked them what they like to sing. 'Karaoke.' I asked them about their other songs. Yes, they do sing the Cicada songs, they love those songs. How about the song about the history of their village? 'That song is boring.' 'Would you ever learn it?' 'No, I don't think so.'

"So it was a very sad feeling, as I listened to this woman sing this song over dinner, that she would probably be the last person to know this song."

The Death of the Irish Pub: In Affluent New Ireland, Rural Pubs Are So Yesterday

Washington Post

In Affluent New Ireland, Rural Pubs Are So Yesterday

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 25, 2008; A01

CONNOLLY, Ireland -- For generations, Carney's, the only pub in this tiny village in western Ireland, had been the place to strike up a romance, celebrate a birth or mourn a death -- or just sip a pint of Guinness among friends near a warm fire on a damp day.

So when Carney's shut down last year after more than a century in business, Teresa Tuttle, 62, took it hard. "Where can we go after a funeral? After work? Where would we all meet?" she recalled thinking, shaking her head in her kitchen, not far from the pub.

The "closed" sign abruptly posted on Carney's door -- and on the doors of 1,000 rural Irish pubs in the past three years -- was another sign of the profound lifestyle changes that have accompanied the country's dizzying rise to affluence.

"It was like a sudden death in the family," said Anthony Scanlan, 51, a farmer who lives near Carney's. "Everything has changed in Ireland. It's as fast as New York around here."

As recently as the 1980s, young people had to leave Ireland to find work and millionaires were as rare as hen's teeth, as the Irish say. But by 2005, according to the Bank of Ireland, the country of 4 million people had 30,000 residents worth more than a million euros, or about $1.5 million. A year later, the number of millionaires had jumped another 10 percent.

Ireland's per-capita income is now among the highest in the world, surpassing those in the United States, Sweden and Japan, according to the World Bank.

Wealth has given the Irish more options and less time -- a bad combination for the local pub. More people are spending sunny weekends in Spain rather than evenings of "craic," as good times and conversation are known, down at the pub.

Fewer people are farming the valuable rolling green hills around Carney's, about 50 miles south of Galway, and more are commuting long distances to better-paying jobs. And all over the country, when the weary commuters return home, many now prefer to stay in their comfortable homes with a glass of chardonnay in front of their flat-screen TVs.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland, which represents rural pubs, said the number of pubs outside Dublin has dropped from 6,000 to 5,000 in the past three years. Some estimates suggest the number may soon dwindle to 3,500.

Smoking bans in pubs and stricter drunken-driving laws have also played a role in the decline, said Michael O'Keefe, a spokesman for the Vintners group. He said some pub owners are serving lattes along with beer and whiskey in an attempt to cater to changing tastes. "Twenty years ago, if you asked a barman for a cappuccino, he would have looked at you as if you had two heads," O'Keefe said.

Some shrug off the closures, saying Ireland had too many pubs anyway. Many say they are delighted there are more fine restaurants and upscale coffee shops. But others, particularly older people, lament the decline of a touchstone, a place that linked neighbors, a seat near the fire where their fathers and grandfathers chatted before them.

"There is a certain sense of loss, of the coziness and companionship of the pub life," said Patricia O'Hara, a sociologist and policy manager with the Western Development Commission, which promotes economic and social development in western Ireland. She said some older people feel isolated and alienated in a faster-paced Ireland, where young people's lives seem to revolve around cellphones and social networking Internet sites such as Facebook.

"Be absolutely assured that people don't want to return to the days of poverty," O'Hara said. But, she added, "there is a questioning how much we are losing as result of prosperity . . . a nostalgia for simpler times when people had more time for each other."

Connolly sits at a bend in the road in the middle of County Clare, a little cluster of buildings set around a towering gray stone Catholic church. For generations, village life has revolved around the church, the pub and a small post office that collected mail, cashed checks and dished out news.

But now all three of those institutions are under pressure.

Regular church attendance in this overwhelmingly Catholic country has fallen from 90 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent today.

Ireland had nearly 1,900 post offices a decade ago, compared with 1,255 now. People use bigger urban post offices, ATMs and direct deposit, and fewer families are handing down the job of running the local post office.

"You don't want to see things closing, you want to see them opening," said Pauline Connellan, the postmistress in Connolly for 34 years. She said she is not sure what will become of her job when she retires -- or of many other traditions in this era of "rush, rush, rush."

To Eamon Ó Cuív, the minister in charge of rural affairs and a grandson of Eamon de Valera, one of the founding figures of the Irish Republic, those traditions include the art of conversation that thrived in pubs. But he said: "What are we to do? We can't make going to the pub compulsory."

Still, Ó Cuív said, "Change doesn't mean the death knell for a culture. . . . It will take a lot longer than 20 years to change the basic nature of the Irish people."

The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy said she believed there was "a danger that Ireland might lose its relaxed, easygoing, peaceful lifestyle," given all the changes. "But it's only a danger, not a fact," she said in an e-mail. "I may be Pollyanna, but I think our brush with prosperity made us better rather than destroying us."

Terry Kennedy, 37, a bricklayer, was working one June day when his cellphone rang with the news about the "closed" sign on Carney's. "I had to sit down for an hour," he said.

After Carney's shut, Kennedy said, he sometimes drove to the pub in the next village, but it wasn't the same. At his own pub, he either knew everyone in the place, or soon did: "It's small here, so the seven or eight of us at the bar can all be in the same conversation."

Older people who didn't drive had nowhere to go. Many stayed home. Some called taxi driver Garry Boon, 64, to take them out and about to meet people. "It cut the heart out of the village when it closed," Boon said of the Connolly pub.

Then in November, Liam Moloney, a villager who had moved to London and runs a pub and a construction company there, bought Carney's, fixed it up and reopened it -- a rare example of a shuttered rural pub getting a second life.

"I'm not going to make any money to write home about," Moloney, 33, said from London. "But it was my local pub."

Now Carney's has a fresh coat of white paint and a giant new TV to show sports matches. It opens only in the evenings, but the weekly Tuesday night card game is back.

"Having lost it once, we are trying to keep it," Kennedy said one recent evening, pulling out the euro equivalent of $5.40 for a pint of Guinness.

It was a special night: John and Teresa Tuttle were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Soon, two dozen people piled into the two-room pub, and a trio playing guitar, double bass and accordion filled the place with traditional music.

As the clapping began, John Tuttle, 82, sat smiling in his wheelchair and tapping his foot to an Irish reel. In the 1960s, when he dated Teresa, they had come here.

"If this pub weren't here, we wouldn't have a party," said their daughter Emer Tuttle. "All these people are country people and wouldn't leave the village. That is why these pubs are so important."

The day after the party, which lasted until 3 a.m., Teresa Tuttle sat in her kitchen looking out the window. In the near distance, over the green fields, she could see giant wind turbines, a new feature in an old landscape.

"I loved every bit of last night," she said, looking at flowers, candleholders and her other gifts.

She said she had marked First Communions, birthdays and funerals at Carney's and felt lucky that she had her meeting place back.

"Without it," she said, "the likes of us would have nowhere to go."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Mother of All Gold Records: The Voyager Spacecraft Golden Record

The Golden Record included on the Voyager Spacecraft:

The protective record sleeve:

In addition to greetings in 55 languages and snippets of sound from earth life, the following musical examples were included:


Golden Record

Scenes From Earth
Greetings From Earth
Spacecraft Lifetime
Sounds Of Earth

Music On Voyager Record

* Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
* Java, court gamelan, "Kinds of Flowers," recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
* Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
* Zaire, Pygmy girls' initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
* Australia, Aborigine songs, "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird," recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
* Mexico, "El Cascabel," performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México. 3:14
* "Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
* New Guinea, men's house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
* Japan, shakuhachi, "Tsuru No Sugomori" ("Crane's Nest,") performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
* Bach, "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
* Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
* Georgian S.S.R., chorus, "Tchakrulo," collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
* Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
* "Melancholy Blues," performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
* Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
* Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
* Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
* Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
* Bulgaria, "Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin," sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
* Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
* Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, "The Fairie Round," performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
* Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
* Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
* China, ch'in, "Flowing Streams," performed by Kuan P'ing-hu. 7:37
* India, raga, "Jaat Kahan Ho," sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar. 3:30
* "Dark Was the Night," written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
* Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

For more info about the golden record, read Murmurs of Earth and check out these sites: NASA/JPL, and NASA golden record.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ban on Solo Encores at the Met? Ban, What Ban?

New York Times

April 23, 2008
Ban on Solo Encores at the Met? Ban, What Ban?

After the tenor Juan Diego Flórez popped out his nine shining high C’s in “La Fille du Régiment” at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night, the crowd rose and cheered. Mr. Flórez obliged with something not heard on the Met stage since 1994: a solo encore.

He sang the aria “Ah! Mes Amis” again, nailing the difficult note — a kind of tenor’s macho proving ground — nine more times. It was one of those thrilling moments that opera impresarios live for.

And, in this case, prepare for. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said on Tuesday that he had asked Mr. Flórez weeks ago whether he would be prepared to repeat the aria, if the audience demanded. Mr. Flórez had already done so at other houses, including the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where last year he became the first to violate an encore ban since 1933.

Mr. Flórez agreed to Mr. Gelb’s request, and the orchestra and chorus were warned. A system was established. Mr. Gelb kept an open line on the phone in his box to the stage manager. After the explosive reaction he gave the stage manager the go-ahead. The manager activated a podium light for the conductor, Marco Armiliato.

Mr. Armiliato held out a questioning two fingers to Mr. Flórez. “He just smiled, and that means ‘Yes,’ ” the conductor said, although Mr. Flórez said yesterday that he did not remember giving a signal. (After the encore, he jokingly held up a third finger.)

Solo encores were common in the 19th century but fell out of fashion as performance practice grew more serious. At the Met they had been explicitly banned for much of the 20th century. Before Monday night the only such occasion had been Luciano Pavarotti’s repeating the second-act tenor aria in “Tosca” in 1994, Met officials said.

Mr. Gelb said there would be no encore ban on his watch, to make opera “as entertaining and exciting for the audience as it can be.”

And the rest of the run? “It always depends on what the public wants,” Mr. Flórez said.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Heatwave Live on German TV circa 1977

A rare video that makes me thankful for YouTube. A ridiculous live performance by Heatwave, one of the funkiest bands of the disco era (at least for their first two albums). How ridiculous? Well, it ends with the bass player and guitar player grooving while sitting on the shoulders of the two lead singers. If you can get past the common YouTube sound sync problems, it's one hell of a show.

As an aside, I would love to write an article on Rod Temperton and the disco funk sound, so if anyone knows contact info for him I would be grateful.

Looking back, it is sad to see Johnnie Wilder (he's the lead singer on the right) so energetic and vital knowing what happened to him in 1979. He died in 2006; you can read Johnnie Wilder's obituary in Billboard here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Meredith Monk in Syria

Yahoo Music News

Pioneering U.S. singer enthralls Syrian students

04/20/2008 5:00 PM, Reuters

Avant-garde musician and performance artist Meredith Monk enthralled Syrian students on Monday with a lesson on vocal and choreographic techniques in a rare cultural exchange between the two countries.

Monk, an innovative singer, composer, filmmaker and choreographer, gave a workshop at the national conservatoire before a concert in Damascus on Monday with vocalists Theo Blackman and Katie Geissinger.

Washington has imposed sanctions on Syria over its support for anti-U.S. groups in the Middle East.

Politics featured little as Monk and Geissinger gave Syrian singers, dancers and actors lessons in choreography, vocal techniques and how to construct complex singing forms.

"Everybody was nervous and little by little we spoke the same language. I shared some of the discoveries I have made in very direct way. It will help people experience the concert with more knowledge," Monk told Reuters.

"If we come and just perform we will never find out where Syrian artists are coming from and what they know."

Monk was invited by the Syrian government as part of performances to celebrate Damascus as the 2008 capital of Arab culture.

The last U.S. group to perform in Syria was the jazzy Freddie Bryant and Kaleidoscope in 2004.

"Music is fundamental as breathing. It speaks to any body. This is why I am here. The politics does not matter," Monk said.

One of Monk's favorite singers is the Arab diva Umm Kalthoum, who died in 1975. Like Monk, Umm Kalthoum stuck rigorously to traditional forms of music and singing.

Monk said strict practice and adherence to musical forms did not prevent improvisation even if the text, scale and melody hardly changed.

"A piece I sang in 1978 and I sing now is the same, but you will also hear that I have room to play. It is not that different from Arabic music. Umm Kalthoum took one text and did it different ways," she said.

Monk's performance on Monday at the Opera House will span work from her 43-year career, including unaccompanied solo pieces and others with piano and violin.

"I always want to be risky, working on something that I don't know rather than something I do now," she said.

Syrian students gave Monk an enthusiastic reception, although her techniques differed from traditional methods taught at the conservatoire, where classes are influenced by Communist era curricula from Eastern Europe.

"Her whole art is different. The exercises she gave we would not have learned in a year," actress Fatina Laila said.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

25 Ways to Kill an Old Piano

A YouTube compilation of people destroying pianos courtesy of Music Thing.

Loud Orchestral Music: No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down

New York Times

April 20, 2008
No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down

LONDON — They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.

Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.

So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers’ exposure to potentially damaging noise and which took effect for the entertainment industry this month.

But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through antinoise screens. Companies are altering their repertories. And conductors are reconsidering the definition of “fortissimo.”

Alan Garner, an oboist and English horn player who is the chairman of the players’ committee at the Royal Opera House, said that he and his colleagues had been told that they would have to wear earplugs during entire three-hour rehearsals and performances.

“It’s like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold,” he said.

Already there are signs that the law is altering not only the relationship between classical musicians and their employers, but also between musicians and the works they produce.

“The noise regulations were written for factory workers or construction workers, where the noise comes from an external source, and to limit the exposure is relatively straightforward,” said Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras. “But the problem is that musicians create the noise themselves.”

Rock musicians have talked openly about loud music and ear protection for years. The issue is more delicate for classical musicians, who have been reluctant to accept that their profession can lead to hearing loss, even though studies have shown that to be the case. At the same time, complying with the law — which concerns musicians’, not audiences’, noise exposure — is complicated.

One problem is that different musicians are exposed to different levels of noise depending on their instruments, the concert hall, where they sit in an orchestra and the fluctuations of the piece they are playing. In Britain, big orchestras now routinely measure the decibel levels of various areas to see which musicians are subject to the most noise, and when.

Orchestras are also installing noise-absorbing panels and placing antinoise screens at strategic places, like in front of the brass section, to force the noise over the heads of other players.

“You have to tilt them in such a way so that the noise doesn’t come back and hit the person straight in the face, because that can cause just as much damage,” said Philip Turbett, the orchestra manager for the English National Opera.

They are also trying to put more space between musicians, and rotating them in and out of the noisiest seats.

At the Royal Opera House, the management has devised a computer program that calculates individual weekly noise exposure by cross-referencing such factors as the member’s schedule and the pieces being played.

Musicians are spacing out rehearsals and playing more softly when they can. As the Welsh National Opera prepared for the premiere of James MacMillan’s loud opera, “The Sacrifice,” last year, the brass and percussion sections were told to take it easy at times in rehearsal to protect the ears of themselves and their colleagues, said Peter Harrap, the orchestra and chorus director.

Conductors are also being asked to reconsider their habit of “going for a big loud orchestration,” said Chris Clark, the orchestra operations manager at the Royal Opera House. Composers, too, are being asked to keep the noise issue in mind.

“Composers should bear in mind that they are dealing with people who are alive, and not machines,” said Mr. Nordwall of the Bavarian orchestra.

And companies are examining their repertories with the aim of interspersing loud pieces — Mahler’s symphonies, for instance — with quieter ones. They are also buying a lot of high-tech earplugs, which are molded to players’ ears and cost about $300 a pair. Many orchestras now ask their musicians to put the earplugs in during the loud parts of a performance.

“I have a computer program that gives me a minute-by-minute timeline chart through the whole piece,” said Mr. Turbett of the English National Opera. “I can go back to the musicians and say, ‘Between bar 100 and bar 200, there’s a very loud passage, so please put in hearing protection.’ ”

But these remedies can bring problems. Some musicians in the brass and percussion sections resent being screened off from their colleagues, as if they were being ostracized. Musicians, even if they accept the need to use earplugs occasionally, tend to hate wearing them.

Mr. Garner, the Royal Opera House oboist, said: “I’ve spent nearly 30 years in music and I know all about noise, and occasionally, if I’m not playing and there’s a loud bit next to me, I might shove my fingers in my ears for a few bars. But I have yet to find a musician who says they can wear earplugs and still play at the same level of quality.”

The modern noise-level-conscious orchestra is also dependent, of course, on the indulgence of the conductor. Arriving at an orchestra to find that decisions have been based solely on musicians’ noise exposure can be galling to the sort of conductor who likes to be in control, which is most of them.

Although Switzerland is outside the European Union, an extraordinary noise-related argument between the conductor and the Bern Symphony Orchestra disrupted the opening night of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in March.

The piece called for 30 string players and 30 wind and percussion players, all crammed into a too-small pit. When the stage director complained in rehearsals that the music was too loud, the conductor didn’t order the orchestra to play more softly, but instead asked for a cover over the orchestral pit to contain the noise, said Marianne Käch, the orchestra’s executive director.

That meant the noise bounced back at the musicians, bringing the level to 120 decibels in the brass section, similar to the levels in front of a speaker in a rock concert. The musicians complained. The conductor held firm. But when the piece began, “the orchestra decided to play softer anyway in order to protect themselves,” Ms. Käch said.

That made the conductor so angry that he walked off after 10 minutes or so, Ms. Käch said. Told that there had been “musical differences” between the conductor and the orchestra, the perplexed audience had to wait for the two sides to hash it out.

In the end, the orchestra agreed to return and finish the performance at the loud levels. For subsequent performances, a foam cover that absorbed instead of reflecting the sound was placed above the pit, and the conductor agreed to tone things down.

“This is the problem you find in many places, that the conductors are conducting more and more loudly,” Ms. Käch said. “I know conductors who have hundreds of shades of fortissimo, but not many in the lower levels. Maybe the whole world is just becoming louder.”

The Soundtracking of America (2000)

Andrew Sullivan resurrected this grumpy 2000 article by J. Bottum in The Atlantic:

Music made sense when the world did. Now the sense is gone, but the melody lingers on -- everywhere. We live surrounded by music, from torch songs at Starbucks to the Beatles in the elevator, and the barrage may be turning our minds to mush

by J. Bottum

Part I

A WRITER my wife and I knew in New York would sometimes invite us down for drinks on a late-summer afternoon. There in his apartment off Washington Square he would load into the stereo his latest CD -- with an odd, expectant look of pride, as though by discovering an album he were somehow responsible for making it -- and turn the music up so loud that the windows would rattle in their casements and the neighbors would dive to catch their toppling vases.

"Isn't it lovely?" he'd bellow above the din, and we would nod and smile dutifully before slipping off to the bathroom to cower, like dogs during a thunderstorm, in relative quiet until the terror ended.

The first time anyone openly acknowledged music as a weapon may have been during the 1989 invasion of Panama, when U.S. soldiers bombarded the Vatican envoy's house with rock-and-roll in an attempt to chivy out the fugitive Manuel Noriega. But the truth is that we all are terrorized by music nowadays. It's not so much the high school kids parading down the street with boom boxes, or the college students partying away a Saturday afternoon, or the insomniac in the next apartment pacing up and down to Beethoven at 3:00 a.m. It's, rather, the merciless stream of 1960s golden oldies drenching suburban malls, the disco-revival radio thumping out Donna Summer in the back of a taxi all the way to the airport, the tinny Muzak bleating from storefronts as you walk along the sidewalk, the tastefully muted Andrew Lloyd Webber seeping from recessed speakers above the urinals in the men's room. America is drowning in sanctioned music -- an obligatory orchestration cramming every inch of public space. There's hardly a bar in which to nurse a quiet drink or a café in which you don't have to shout your order above the upbeat swing of 1940s big-band standards.

Perhaps it was Hollywood that taught us to expect life to come with background music, a constant melodic commentary on the movie of our lives. But we are soundtracked nowadays with relentless demands for only the most obvious and officially appropriate emotions. You should be as bright and bubble-gummy as the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" when you shop for a new pair of blue jeans. You ought to be as sophisticatedly ironic as Frank Sinatra's "They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil (The Coffee Song)" when you go out to eat. There's something wrong if you aren't as moody and melancholy as the Cowboy Junkies' whispery version of "Sweet Jane" when you sit in a midtown bar. Popular urban chains such as Pottery Barn and Starbucks even sell CDs of the proper ambient melodies for shopping in their stores.

Of course, the movie sort of soundtrack never quite works, because in real life it's delivered entirely in snippets, as we cross from one stereo zone to another -- the radio suddenly blaring out as the car starts up, the jukebox suddenly cut off as the door to the diner closes. In a Washington, D.C., office building I was recently subjected first to a stomach-churning fifteen seconds of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" as the elevator rattled up to my floor, then to five jangly seconds of guitar in the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" from a deliveryman's radio down the hall, and then, as I stood by the receptionist's desk, to a minute and a half of one of those insane seventeenth-century Scottish folk tunes whose purpose was to make the tartan clans seize their two-handed battle swords and wade through English blood, howling like the sea. We've all been damned to a perpetual quarter-final round of Name That Tune.

And it's not just in public spaces. Private life in America is equally littered with dissociated musical fragments, from the moment the clock radio turns on in the morning until the "sleep" function turns it off at night. You can snatch five minutes of Copland's Appalachian Spring while you gulp your first cup of coffee, take in the second act of a Mussorgsky opera during the morning commute, slip a CD into the office computer and squeeze in a little Villa-Lobos between department meetings, recognize a scrap of Holst's The Planets in the theme song for the evening news, and fall asleep after dinner in the middle of Dvorák's New World Symphony.

Children at summer camp, college students in their library carrels, soldiers at war in the desert: Americans seem incapable of going without music. It pours from the open windows of the apartment house across the street and the car in the next lane at the stoplight. "Let us rather spend our time in conversation," the doctor Eryximachus tells Socrates as he dismisses the after-supper flautist in Plato's Symposium -- but when did you last go to a dinner party at which the stereo didn't rumble through the evening? When you add up the radio stations, the local philharmonics, the jazz clubs under the freeway, the dingy used-record stores, the movie studios, the $1.3 billion market for rap music, the $1.9 billion spent on revivified country-western, and all the rest, American music represents an enormous cultural investment.

In 1981 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, an influential attack on the fragments of Enlightenment philosophy that constitute much of our contemporary moral discourse. Part of his argument is a devastating account of the rise of twentieth-century "emotivism," and nearly the only thing he missed is its curious parallel in the rise of recorded music. People began to imagine that morality was a set of feelings rather than a system of ideas at around the time they began to be able to evoke any mood they wanted by putting a 78 on a phonograph.

The significance of this parallel has gone largely unremarked. In his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom did complain a little. Remembering Plato's warning in the Republic against dangerous art, Bloom suggested that Friedrich Nietzsche had been perfectly right to seek in music an anti-rational weapon with which to savage nineteenth-century Christian culture. "In song and in dance," Nietzsche declared in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, man "feels himself as a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy." This is the power that "freed Prometheus from his vultures," the "fire magic of music." If, Bloom seemed to argue, we want to reject Nietzsche's call for ecstatic irrationality -- if we want to preserve a classically derived, religiously informed, rationally enlightened social order -- then we must swallow Plato's bitter pill and banish music from our lives.

But it turned out to be only rock music -- "a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy" with "all the moral dignity of drug trafficking" -- to which Bloom really objected. He even ended up mildly praising the effect of classical-music recordings on his undergraduates at the University of Chicago.

This faith in the power of music seems universal nowadays. We have come to believe in music's power to shape not only our emotions but our very beings. In 1998 Governor Zell Miller, of Georgia, asked for $105,000 from the state budget for a program to send every newborn child home from the delivery room with a classical CD titled Build Your Baby's Brain -- Through the Power of Music. The idea grew out of a hopeless misinterpretation of a study suggesting that listening to Mozart might improve the grades of college students. But it was in its way a marvelous example of what far too many people, liberal and conservative, seem to imagine we should do: get people to have the right behaviors by inducing the right feelings, rather than by transmitting the right knowledge. Since music is the greatest creator of moods that human beings have ever discovered, why shouldn't we swaddle newborns in the properly chosen music?

Recorded music long ago relieved us of the hard labor of performing what we wanted to hear. It relieved us of the necessity of going to a concert hall. And now it has even relieved us of any need to listen. In the soundtracking of America -- in the constantly segueing fragments that fill our public and private spaces -- music is merely the inescapable background, the relentless mood-setter, the arbiter and signal of proper behavior. Those poor babies down in Georgia may never know an unorchestrated moment in their lives.

Endless Sophistication, Endless Irony

HARDLY anyone seems to remember that music stands fairly low on the traditional list of devices by which we try to understand human experience. Who ever learned anything from music except the emotional power of music? It's a thin rather than an intellectually thick art form, and a people that takes music as the highest expression has cut itself off from narrative, epic, allegory -- from the explanatory arts that could put to any use the emotions music represents.

A handful of the most serious composers may have sought with their music a philosophically complete account of human emotion. For Beethoven the aim may even have been conscious: "Music," he once said, "is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." But we have no one with such a grand scheme today. Even to attempt one requires that the composer's world contain what we in contemporary America lack -- what our artists and intellectuals have, in fact, spent the past century systematically rejecting as anti-democratic and exclusionary: a culturally shared idea of the goal of human existence.

John Cage, with his 1952 avant-garde adventure in which a concert pianist sits silent at the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before bowing and walking off the stage, seemed to aim -- along with his fellow modern American composers -- at breaking down the last vestiges of philosophical coherence that music still reflected. Even Philip Glass -- who, with the mainstream triumph of his minimalist Einstein on the Beach (1976), became perhaps the most successful opera composer since Puccini -- seems never to have entirely escaped the feeling that he was rebelling against some tyrannical remnant of purpose expressed in traditional forms.

Today such acclaimed and prizewinning composers as Lowell Liebermann and Tan Dun have left the Cage generation far behind. The subordination of music to an intelligible account of human purpose is so thoroughly lost that a contemporary composer can even indulge in a little old-fashioned coherence while he constructs a musical pastiche like Appalachia Waltz -- Edgar Meyer's 1996 classical-and-country crossover hit, performed by the symphonic cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the down-home fiddler Mark O'Connor.

Critics of contemporary culture typically imagine that the problem lies in the music. It seems to make little difference whether the critics are the local college radio station's classical-music snobs, or the intellectual journals' wry, nostalgic Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong fans, or the cultural conservatives and anti-pornography feminists who formed an uneasy alliance to denounce 2 Live Crew lyrics and Marilyn Manson tracks about rape and torture. They all speak as though we merely need different music to clear up our cultural confusions -- as in that almost perfect moment in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, tried to banish what he thought of as the drug-using, 1960s-loving Beach Boys from Washington's annual Fourth of July concert and replace them with Wayne Newton, fresh from a Las Vegas lounge show.

This is an understandable impulse. In a day in which the melodic line of a typical pop song runs fewer than twelve bars, the thirty-two-bar scope of a Broadway number from the 1920s -- to say nothing of the 200 bars of a nineteenth-century symphonic melody -- may seem like the solution to our listening woes. But it isn't, of course, or music would have done nothing but improve since the days of medieval motets, and an elaborate show tune like Cole Porter's 108-bar "Begin the Beguine" would do more than shimmer above the tinkling cutlery down at the local brass-railing-and-blond-wood café. In fact, the sheer accessibility on CD and cassette of things like Porter's cultivated songs is what has created our modern musical problem.

The mechanism by which this happened isn't all that complex. Like every other art, music naturally grows more sophisticated over time, as its creators and audience become more educated about a particular form -- and then it naturally rebels against its sophistication, as musicians become sated and listeners prove unable to follow their technical advances.

You can see this pattern play out in almost any swath of music history. The rise of something like punk rock in the 1970s seems to have been inevitable, given the convoys it took to transport the orchestral stage show of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, whose rock version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition may be the most pretentious performance ever attempted by a chart-topping band. The brief mainstream popularity of folk music in the early 1960s derived at least in part from the mind-numbing complexity that jazz had reached at the end of the 1950s. The enormous European audiences for opera turned to other music when confronted with a work such as Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone Moses und Aron (1932) -- whose uncompleted third act, Schoenberg guilelessly suggested, could simply be read aloud to patient listeners.

This natural and probably healthy pattern of sophistication alternating with primitive rebellion has undergone an odd skew in the twentieth century. The invention of the phonograph may well have been the original cause. For the first time, performances of a successfully rebelled-against music could be preserved unchanged -- vastly increasing the range of music a listener might know.

A second and more important cause was the rise of the music business, made possible by phonographs and by radio stations with hours of airtime to fill. "Concern with the social explication of art has to address the production of art," the twentieth-century philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno claimed in one of his most dated Marxist rants against the West's commercialized culture. In this case Adorno was right. The appearance of a huge industry seeking new products, trying to both predict and create shifts in popular taste, gave rise to a wild acceleration of the cycle of sophistication and rebellion. By now any musical form is overwhelmed by its counterform before professional musicians have made more than a gesture at giving the form real sophistication.

A third and even more important cause of music's skew was the disappearance of the shared, Beethovenesque belief in the intellectual coherence of human beings and the world -- a belief so faded that even much possibility of rebelling against it has disappeared. Music used to have a purpose: to express and, indeed, to perpetuate this shared sense of coherence. What, nowadays, is music for? We have a name for sophistication and complexity to no purpose: decadence. But in an age without a public philosophy about at least the most important things, all sophistication is purposeless and all complexity decadent.

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/03/bottum3.htm)

Part II

Plato was deeply suspicious of music for much the same reason Nietzsche celebrated it: in its direct appeal to the emotions, music seems to reach behind our rational faculties. "When a man abandons himself to music," Plato declared in the Republic, "he begins to melt and liquefy." Nietzsche wanted to end inhibition. He denounced Richard Wagner for committing a "crime against what is highest and holiest" by composing such moralistic, anti-emotional operas as Tristan und Isolde (1859) and Parsifal (1882).

Both Plato and Nietzsche would have been surprised by how undangerous America's indulgence in music has proved to be. Why music hasn't melted us down into Nietzsche's unconstrained beasts is hard to say. Rock-and-roll certainly sounds as though it has this goal. But even as we recognize that music claims to unleash emotion at its most primitive, we also understand that it never will. "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises," Adorno wrote. "All it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu."

Perhaps this perpetual unfulfillment is what has made sophisticated musical ironists of us all. Certainly Americans are given little credit by their cultural detractors for how knowledgeable they are about the breadth of music. You can see this breadth in Web sites that offer complete discographies of every diva ever recorded, or in the game by which oldies-radio-station listeners can link the countrified 1970s Flying Burrito Brothers to the British Invasion pop harmonies of the 1960s Hollies by tracing the band members through the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

You can see it even more clearly in the expectation that Americans will appreciate the "Hallelujah Chorus" in TV ads for Baskin-Robbins ice cream and Bayer cat and dog flea treatment, will prefer elevators with piped-in snatches of middlebrow classics like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and the William Tell Overture, and will be pleased that shopping malls provide them with musical clues to decorum and the appropriate emotional attitude.

Music's traditional defense against overelaboration has itself created a new kind of overelaboration. In all previous ages of music a new musical form succeeded by replacing its predecessors. But now each new form joins its predecessors in our endlessly expanding library of music. This is what Adorno missed when he claimed, in "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening" (1938), that Western pop songs make us "forcibly retarded," because they're so shallow and because we're compelled to hear the same ones over and over again. It's what the long-haired classical-music lovers and the culture warriors overlook, and what the nostalgic bemoaners of popular music's decline fail to grasp. We live in the most elaborate age of music in the history of the world. Ours is an extraordinary kind of musical sophistication that can never be rejected without creating yet more sophistication, shallower but wider, and yet another musical form to know.

Thus Paul Simon can swing from African music to Cajun to Chicano without penalty and get top billing on a concert tour with Bob Dylan after having spent the early portion of his career being dismissed by pop sophisticates as the poor man's Dylan. Cher, like one of those bottom-weighted inflatable dolls that won't stay down, bobs from folk rocker in a shag vest to family-hour TV minstrel to slinky torch singer to chart-topping techno-rocker at age fifty-three, with the success last year of her single "Believe." In the soundtracking of modern America neither musical sophistication nor musical rebellion can make anything go away. Not even Cher.

Ideas, Yes. Ultimate Purpose, No

NEARLY every art seems to have diminished in the second half of the twentieth century. Dance, painting, fiction -- it's not that we lack talent, interest, or financing for them; it's that we seem to lack sufficient reason to employ them. The last thing a shared world view does before it dies is to provide a target for revolt. The lengths to which artists go nowadays to make sure someone notices their revolt may be the best measure of how nearly complete is the decay of our old-fashioned, ultimately classical and Judeo-Christian sense of unified purpose. The handful of notorious works in recent years -- Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi -- mostly prove how desperate artists are to feel like rebels. And the relatively mild reaction to them proves how hopeless this aim is. We have come a long way from Dublin's brawling outrage at John Synge's comic The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and from New York's nativist response to the British actor William Macready's appearance as Macbeth in 1849, which left twenty-two dead outside the Astor Place Theater while a mob howled, "Burn the damned den of the aristocracy."

Yet music has survived the decay of a public metaphysics -- a shared belief in the coherent relations among God and nature and human culture -- because, more than any other art, music produces its effect without demanding a philosophical frame. To appeal to and create an emotion, a piece of music needs to make no particular gesture toward its purpose.

The late-nineteenth-century proponents of art for art's sake were after this when they proclaimed, as the Victorian Walter Pater put it, that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." Susanne Langer was aiming for the same thing when she demanded "expressiveness, not expression" in her book Philosophy in a New Key (1942), which for a time was the most widely discussed philosophy text in America. In the 1920s Ernst Cassirer attempted, in his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, to define an aesthetics for a modernist, post-Kantian age that lacked confidence in metaphysical goals. Langer's brilliance twenty years later lay in recognizing that Cassirer's analysis applied most of all -- perhaps only -- to music. "In music," she argued, taking the situation of her own day as art's universal condition, "we have an unconsummated symbol, a significant form without conventional significance." It exists "probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking," and thus "no assignment of meaning ... is permanent beyond the sound that passes."

Indeed, no matter how serious and elaborate, a musical composition cannot create its own metaphysical frame entirely from within the music. Even those who appreciate music in all its forms must recognize that music is not a rational art and cannot express an actual idea. I once knew an aspiring music reviewer -- in some ways as intelligent a man as I've ever met -- who couldn't stop himself from writing things like "the sunshiney arc of the symphony's second movement" and "the darkling power of the adagio appassionato." (Music critics hate to use an English phrase when there's a perfectly good Italian one.) He knew he wouldn't stomach anything similar in a review of poetry or fiction. But what was he to do? He felt it all so deeply, and there just didn't seem to be a vocabulary for what he felt. "Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?" Thomas Carlyle asked in one of his nineteenth-century lectures on heroes and hero worship. Music is "a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite."

That, of course, is the problem. There aren't any words for it, because there really isn't any it: no intellectual content, no idea in the melody. Even in, say, Vivaldi's Four Seasons -- in, that is, a deliberate effort to make music express something rational -- the ideas it takes forty-five minutes to convey amount to little more than winter is cold and summer hot, in spring things grow and in fall they don't.

There is, anyway, something artificial and incidental about forcing ideas into music. Handel's Messiah, by a long mile the most-often-performed piece of classical music in America, is full of small examples of this effort to slip in some extra rationality, the score drawing little explanatory pictures of the libretto. God has made the "rough places plain," Handel's tenor informs the audience -- and the word "rough" he trills roughly, and the word "plain" he holds plain. "All we like sheep have gone astray," the chorus sings from Isaiah 53 -- and the singing voices go astray, every one to his own way. It comes across as stupendous. It sounds superb. And considered purely as an idea, it's on a par with what might occur to a child asked to illustrate with crayons an uplifting text from a second-grade reader.

Plenty of genuine ideas exist in music, of course; they're just not what we mean by "ideas" in any nonmusical sense. They express musical techniques and music's root mathematical structure, and exactly what they have to do with what we experience while listening is something no one has ever satisfactorily explained. The fascinating elegance of music's mathematical technicalities made a Pulitzer Prize-winner of Douglas Hofstadter's book on formal recursion, Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979), and a best-selling album of Switched-On Bach (1968), with its synthesized fugues so absurdly accelerated that nothing survived except the underlying geometry of the music.

But these are ideas like the ideas in chess or math. They don't mean anything, and have no purpose in and of themselves. It's no accident that child prodigies -- with the skill of adults and the experience of children -- appear in music, chess, and math but never in poetry or philosophy. One pretentiously highbrow class of music criticism -- George Bernard Shaw said he could teach a poodle to write it in two hours -- involves nothing more than explaining music's underlying technicality.

What we experience in music is something else. Music stands, at last, as "evocative" -- a word whose only other use is in advertisements for expensive perfume. Music is chess drenched with perfume.

The Futility of Musical Poetry

I HAVE a cousin who is a musician, a keyboardist who played in Faith No More, a band that found some real success in the early 1990s. In its start-up days in San Francisco, while the musicians warmed up the audience for a concert headliner or pounded away above the hubbub at a club date, they would sometimes perform a version of the theme song for Nestlé's candy bars: "Chocolate dreams you can't resist, N-E-S-T-L-E-S." It was funny how marvelous they could make that absurd advertising jingle sound. But when you think about it for a moment, the comedy and irony begin to seem much too easy. Where, in fact, does one find any profundity in song?

The problem begins with the general failure of lyrics, the incapacity of sung words to introduce and maintain in music the ideas the music itself lacks. "Nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense," gibed the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison. The most famous poem set to music undoubtedly remains Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (1785), which -- Freude! Freude! -- Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony made sound as though God himself were speaking, but which as poetry ranks somewhere between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime" and William Ernest Henley's "I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul."

Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is perfectly serviceable parlor verse, but "profound" is not exactly the word for it: "He who has a noble wife, / Let him join our mighty song of rejoicing!" And it doesn't magically become profound when sung by massed choirs backed with roaring timpani and trilling violins. It only sounds that way. What Schiller becomes in Beethoven's hands is not wise but only sensible. We grow confused and imagine that we must be having a deep thought because we feel it so deeply.

You can see the failure of musical poetry even in the short span of rock's dominance. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen turned to music in the late 1960s after listening to Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono and realizing that an imperfect voice need not be a hindrance to pop success. If Cohen wrote a higher class of lyrics than some other rock-era composers (the song "Suzanne," the lines "God is alive, / Magic is afoot"), it was at the price of writing a lower class of poetry. The Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed studied as an undergraduate with the complex and serious poet Delmore Schwartz, but that didn't stop Reed from making an early recording (as Andy Warhol told the story) by tuning all the strings of his electric guitar to the same note and banging away at it, screaming "Do the Ostrich" over and over again until the studio technicians came in and made him stop.

And the quality of musical verse falls off rapidly from Schiller and Cohen and Reed. Most opera lyrics are second-rate poesy, most musical-theater songs are worse, and most popular tunes are worse yet. Can anyone ever actually have sat down and read Stephen Foster's lyrics without the music? It's interesting to imagine what Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary critic scribbling devastating newspaper reviews for a pittance, would have said if Foster had published as straight poetry lines like "Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea, / Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie; / Over the streamlet vapors are borne, / Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn." Poe wrote in 1849, "There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit, but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few."

Today's critics are equally skeptical about the profundity of lyrics. The columnist Dave Barry, for instance, has succeeded in making the inanity of 1970s pop lyrics a staple of American humor. From Carl Douglas's "Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. / Those cats were fast as lightning" to Neil Diamond's "I am, I said, to no one there, / And no one heard at all, not even the chair," you can hear, across America, offhand ridicule of the music of the 1970s. Even the brief disco revival in the 1990s was kept afloat with mockery, mostly involving the impossibility of doing anything but howl at lines like "MacArthur Park is melting in the rain. / I don't think that I can take it / 'Cause it took so long to bake it / And I'll never have that recipe again."

The interesting thing is not that millions of Americans can laugh at the bad lyrics they know but that millions of Americans know the bad lyrics. Old pop tunes are our major source of shared knowledge. Not everybody knows literature or politics, but everybody can sing along with "A Hard Day's Night." Not even the heavily recycled 1950s and 1960s television series, movies, and sports heroes of the aging Baby Boomers are anywhere near as recognizable among younger generations.

When E. D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), he unwittingly exposed the strangeness of our modern predicament. Attacking contemporary education for trying to teach techniques without content, Hirsch told an anecdote about his father's writing in a business letter the tag "There is a tide" with the reasonable expectation that the recipient would catch the reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Hirsch was right that it is hard to imagine a pair of businessmen corresponding this way anymore, just as he was right that such shared tags help to communicate complex thoughts in efficient ways. But he was wrong when he concluded his book with 5,000 references (subsequently expanded in a cottage industry of dictionaries and encyclopedias) that were useful for average Americans to know. What was odd about Cultural Literacy is odd about all recent collections of quotations. To look through any of them -- the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, the latest edition of Bartlett's -- is to realize that they are not tools for pinning down what we already know vaguely, the kind of thing John Bartlett thought he was providing in his 1855 Familiar Quotations. They are instead unfamiliar quotations -- useful crib sheets, curiosities of literature, and after-dinner speakers' handbooks filled with lines their users don't know and are not in the least expected to know.


Hirsch's mistake lay in forgetting that the old cultural knowledge was not meaningful because it was shared; it was shared because it was meaningful. It all fit into a frame, a generally accepted public system of belief about the way God and history and the world work. And when that frame at last broke, the old knowledge drifted out of public awareness, like the carefully organized contents of filing cabinets dumped in a pile and left to blow away sheet by sheet.

The gap at the center of culture didn't stay empty. It gradually silted up with something much like what Hirsch would later advocate -- something shared even if it wasn't meaningful. It filled with the lyrics of American popular songs -- from "Yankee Doodle" to "Dixie" to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" to "Streets of Laredo" to "Happy Birthday to You" to "White Christmas" to "You Are My Sunshine"to "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" to "Good Vibrations" to "Billie Jean" to the Titanic theme song. Who can doubt that more Americans know "When You Wish Upon a Star" than know who was President when Walt Disney put the song in Pinocchio?

It would be wrong to say that the composers and performers of those songs never imagine they are conveying actual intellectual content. So, too, it would be wrong to suppose that listeners never take pop lyrics seriously. In sixth grade my friends and I all believed that "One Tin Soldier," the theme song to the 1971 movie Billy Jack, was the deepest thing ever thought. A roommate I had in college felt he was handing on the wisdom of the ages when he tunelessly punctuated conversation with more or less apt quotations from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Teach Your Children," John Lennon's "Imagine," Aerosmith's "Dream On," and Kansas's "Dust in the Wind."

Mostly, though, no one bothers to think for long that the words to songs should mean anything in particular. We just share them. Far more important than any of the Beatles' songs -- or even than the murder of John Lennon, in 1980 -- was the fact that everyone in a particular generation knew the band's hits. Far more important than any of Nirvana's songs -- or even than the suicide of Kurt Cobain, in 1994 -- was the fact that everyone in a particular generation knew the Seattle grunge band's recordings.

The 1990s decline of rock as the dominant pop music has made available for general knowledge many other forms. We have the widest and most widely shared knowledge of the range of music the world has ever known. What defines an American these days better than the ability to hum along with both Handel and Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and Charles Wesley, Ella Fitzgerald and Hank Williams, Richard Wagner and the Nestlé's-chocolate-bar song?

Memories of Meaning

THEODOR Adorno has proved spectacularly wrong in his 1938 prediction that broadcast music would make us "forcibly retarded." He did correctly observe that "regressive listening" -- the passive submission of listeners to a bombardment of new pop songs everywhere they go -- is "tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising." That's the joke when a rising San Francisco rock band plays an advertising jingle with a wink and a nod for a knowing crowd of teenagers. But even Adorno, the most culturally observant of the mid-century Marxists, was too much of a traditionalist to guess that the stupidity of popular music would make us not stupid but ironic.

If decadence is what happens when intelligence turns entirely to trivia, irony is what happens when intelligence wraps itself around stupidity. How could we not become ironic when so much of our public knowledge consists of thousands of lines of song lyrics written for the most part after the collapse of a common metaphysics that might have given them a purpose and an order? We share an enormous amount of information, and we know it doesn't mean anything, and we smile wryly at one another as we sing along.

Last year in a New York Times essay about attending a lecture given by George Martin, the Beatles' music producer, Richard Panek wrote,

Shortly after hearing [Martin's lecture], I found myself attending an impromptu solo performance of a Beatles song in the privacy of my own living room. My 8-year-old son announced that he was now going to sing "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

"The Anthology version," he added.

Ah, yes: the Anthology version, recorded 3, 4, 5 July 1968, an outtake that "included overdubs of three saxophones and conga drums," according to the liner notes.... Yet halfway through the song, my son added a telltale "Ha ha ha ha" that was not in the Anthology rendering of the song. I looked at him.

"I switched to the White Album version," he explained. Then he resumed his performance. Yet at the end of the song, I had to look at him questioningly once again. Where were the whoops and wheezes and falsetto "Thank you"?

He shrugged. "I switched back to the Anthologyversion."

And I thought: Lucky him....

At a certain age boys delight in knowing things simply for the sake of knowing them; Panek and his son could just as well have been talking about baseball or movies or cars. But they were talking about music, and there's something disconcerting in a story about an eight-year-old with this level of knowledge of a piece of popular music recorded twenty-three years before he was born. It has to do in part with the "lowbrow scholasticism" (in the words of David Denby) involved, the induction of a child into the complex trivialities of popular culture. And it has to do with that "Lucky him" -- the father's earnest irony about a son's memorizing his father's music.

The most disturbing thing in Panek's account, however, is the meaninglessness of the knowledge the boy and the father share, the way it doesn't fit anywhere or do anything -- for somehow we still expect more than this from music. You could learn how to live from Woody Guthrie's songs, Bob Dylan once claimed. It isn't true, of course; mostly what you could learn from Woody Guthrie was how 1930s political radicalism, when fitted to the guitar chord progressions of West Virginia, could masquerade as the ancient wisdom of the American soul. But Dylan was on to a truth about certain pieces of music.

You can feel that truth in William Byrd's Mass on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, and Handel's Messiah. There's an echo still lingering in old blues tunes and in Mahalia Jackson's gospel. It's there in the Enlightenment confidence that runs from Mozart to Beethoven, trailing off in Brahms. The instrumentalist Robbie Robertson has said of the long 1967 recording sessions with Dylan that became The Basement Tapes (and are the subject of Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, one of the best books ever written on American music) that Dylan's songs always sounded as though he'd just found them in a collection of old folk songs. Taken line by line, folk lyrics may seem as silly as the words to twentieth-century popular music. But you can nonetheless sometimes catch in genuine folk tunes a glimpse of the real depths -- a world where, even if only tragically, God and man and nature still make sufficient sense that there can be a cathartic purpose to the emotion the music evokes.

The trouble is that these depths can't be faked in a different kind of world. With Blood on the Tracks (1974), Dylan came as close to succeeding as anyone. Bruce Springsteen made one effort, with the relatively slow-selling 1982 album Nebraska, and fled back to pop. The 1950s Woody Guthrie line of folk populism devolved into middle-class leftism, ending with a song like John Prine's "Paradise," the unofficial theme song of the Sierra Club's supporters: "Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel, / And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land." The mid-1960s folk-rock boom collapsed into the Mamas and the Papas.

Of course, we do have innumerable recordings of the old, meaningful works to listen to nowadays, from Saint Ambrose's fourth-century hymns to Beethoven's late quartets to the American folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger." But our ability to sense that they are meaningful is not the same as an ability to sense their meaning. Their purposefulness is not a purpose; knowing that they once fit somewhere is not knowing where to fit them now. What does a genuinely tragic folk song tell us, except that we no longer know what to make of tragedy?

Purposeless Emotion

IN 1923 Wallace Stevens published a poem, "Peter Quince at the Clavier," that runs, "Music is feeling ... not sound; / And thus it is that what I feel / Here in this room, desiring you, ... / Is music."

Stevens is the American poet most fascinated by formal logic, and he probably intended us to notice that the argument in these lines commits the fallacy that logicians call illicit conversion: the fact that all cows are mammals doesn't make all mammals cows; the fact that music is feeling doesn't make feeling music.

Or perhaps Stevens didn't intend us to notice, because this is the fallacy that seems to define the modern experience of music. It's as though music were trying to convert us to the belief that we are professional performers on the instrument of our emotional selves, producing the great music of feelings.

The result can hardly be anything other than the emotivism that Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue. We translate everything, even morality, from a system of ideas to be judged true or false to a set of emotions to be judged only pleasant or unpleasant. And as the constricting intellect is forced out, consigned to cataloguing the vast range of sounds available, modern music promises that there will open up for us the free play of imagination, the fantastic improvisation of feeling -- an emotional wealth undreamed of by the cramped rationality of ages past.

I wonder. Just as intelligence turns decadent when reduced to sophistication and complexity for no reason, so something peculiar happens to emotion when it has no coherent purpose except to be felt. Listening, say, to one of Byrd's sixteenth-century antiphons, do we actually feel the intensity of religious mood felt by his Renaissance audience, who shared a use for that mood? Do we actually feel as much as Beethoven's Enlightenment listeners, for whom his thunder echoed in a landscape of generally accepted ideas about God and man and nature? Certainly there is pleasure to be taken in the elegant mathematics of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." But you can sense something thinning in the twentieth century when Frank Lloyd Wright changed the title to "Joy in Work Is Man's Desiring" for his disciples.

The tragedy we feel listening to a folk ballad, the grace we feel listening to a gospel song, the humor we feel listening to one of Haydn's symphonic jokes, and all the rest of the feelings we can use our vast knowledge of music to call upon: are these actually living emotions, or only their ghosts? Adrift on America's sea of sound -- washed by constant waves of the Monkees in a clothing store, Frank Sinatra in a café, the Cowboy Junkies in a bar -- we have to wonder whether Wallace Stevens and Theodor Adorno didn't have it exactly backwards: the promise of modern music to make us performers of the music of ourselves didn't stupefy us intellectually, it stunted us emotionally. After almost a hundred years of our being increasingly surrounded by music, the emotions of public America seem to have grown poorer and sadder, as though we were no longer fully capable of feeling what we feel -- as though our breadth of musical knowledge had been gained by sacrificing depth of musical emotion.

Even sex has not survived undiminished. The rock-and-roll vision of love is an adolescent one, and hardly does justice to the fullness of human experience. But something more than seeing love through an adolescent's eyes is at work. D. H. Lawrence, the first great apostle of sexual salvation, wrote a poem in 1918 about music -- music and impotence, curiously enough. Called "Piano," it tells the story of a woman singing seductively to a man in the dusk. In spite of his willingness to be seduced, the narrator is seized by "the insidious mastery of song," and the music arouses in him not passion but childhood memories of "Sunday evenings at home," sitting under the piano and "pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings." The poem concludes,

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor,
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child
for the past.

Lawrence's evocation of a womb with the cave beneath the keyboard is worth noticing, as is his play on his "manhood" being "cast down in the flood of remembrance" -- meaning both that the adult is formed by his childhood and that he has been rendered impotent by the memory of that childhood.

Music is tied to sex in innumerable ways: through courtship lyrics, dance, seduction, the Dionysian promise to unleash primitive emotion -- yet somehow we do know, as Adorno put it, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. All one has to do is listen to the relentless beat of Maurice Ravel's Bolero (1928) to realize that the sexual power of music is real. But the gap between the music and its object is real as well. It may sound absurd to ask, but what, nowadays, is sex for? Where does it fit in the scheme of things? Even as the demand for an aroused sexual desire pours out in music all around us, the emotion itself seems sadly weakened, tinged with an awareness that it used to mean much more than it does now.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom remarked on the sexual obviousness of rock and its masturbatory power to arouse teenagers in the absence of any reason, but he neglected rock's simultaneous sorrow. An oddly constant nostalgia runs through popular music alongside the sex -- a sense of having somehow missed better times. Revivified Beatlemania appeared almost within days of the Beatles' breakup. With "American Pie," his 1971 ballad of rock's sad decline, Don McLean had by far the longest song to that time to receive wide play on AM pop radio. And there's that curious scene in the 1983 film Risky Business in which while Bob Seger roars "Take those old records off the shelf" on the stereo, the young Tom Cruise, not even born when those old records were made, dances around sexily in his underwear. The "insidious mastery of song" that D. H. Lawrence observed is based on its cruel mixing (as T. S. Eliot put it) of memory and desire. Even the music of sex becomes impotent under our awareness of its now-lost purpose.

Music is not culture. It's the mist that plays above culture. A people that takes its music as fundamental art -- as we have taken music, making the all-penetrating surround of recorded noise the single most apparent fact of American society -- has mistaken the foam for the sea. "I am fond of music," Hermann Hesse observes in his novel Demian, "I think because it is so amoral." Hesse was right about music's genuine amorality: in a culture organized around good thought, music will express the moods fitting that thought, whereas in a culture organized around bad thought, music will express the moods fitting that, too.

But what happens in a culture without thought, a culture with expression but nothing to express? The way we listen to music re-creates, more than anything else, Hesse's Glass Bead Game: a complex and sophisticated rite filled with delicate connections perceived by its priestly scholastics, lacking any meaning, and consuming the culture's intellectual and emotional energy. All that remains is ironic incongruity and the decadent moods that can survive irony: memory and desire -- or, rather, nostalgia and concupiscence, the feeling of memory without anything to remember and the arousal of desire without any object of desire.

It seems a cruelly small profit on our enormous investment, our vast sophistication, our wiring of the entire nation for sound. Everyone I know adores music, as I do. But our elevation of a secondary art costs us something. Music cannot build a culture, and in America today music is in the way -- keeping us from the higher arts that could aim at a unified idea and a public metaphysics, a purpose and meaning for our all-encircling noise.

J. Bottum is the books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard and the poetry editor of First Things. His work has appeared in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Asha Bhosle Returns: The Voice of Bollywood, in the Flesh

New York Times
April 19, 2008
Music Review | Asha Bhosle
The Voice of Bollywood, in the Flesh

“I sing everything,” Asha Bhosle told an adoring audience at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and she was not exaggerating.

Ms. Bhosle, who turns 75 in September, is probably the most recorded singer in history. As the voice of Bollywood musicals — called a playback singer, because actresses sing and dance while her vocals are heard — and a queen of South Asian pop, she has recorded more than 12,000 songs in a career that dates to 1943. (One of her few rivals is her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, another hugely prolific playback singer. At Carnegie Hall Ms. Bhosle sang one of her sister’s hits, “Lag Ja Gale.”)

Ms. Bhosle has sung Indian classical and semiclassical styles and all the culture-hopping pop hybrids that Bollywood composers have devised. Bollywood music is wonderfully multifarious; there’s no telling what might show up in a song, from traditional tabla rhythms to funk guitars to synthesizers. Ms. Bhosle’s Carnegie Hall set encompassed the pristine, unaccompanied Hindustani classical-style singing as well as styles from across India and twists on disco, rock, polka, waltzes and Latin music.

They all found room for her voice: high, clear, sweet and girlish even now. It can hover in the weightless, long-breathed, intricately rippling phrases of classical style or push, lightly but firmly, over a danceable beat, whether it’s Eastern or Western or a mix. Through her career Ms. Bhosle has collaborated not just with film composers but also with Indian classical musicians, like Ali Akbar Khan, and with Westerners from Boy George to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to the Kronos Quartet.

Ms. Bhosle can also sing in many of India’s languages. For the many Bollywood actresses who have lip-synched to it, her voice has been innocent, flirtatious, heartbroken, naughty or reverent.

Although Ms. Bhosle has spent much of her career as an unseen voice, she is at home onstage. Barefoot in a glittering white sari — and later in regal saffron and pink — she was elegant and playful, whether reminiscing about learning to sing in classical style from her father, the singer and actor Dinanath Mangeshkar, or twirling a wrist in graceful dance gestures.

Sharing the concert with her was Amit Kumar, a singer and actor who is the son of Kishore Kumar, the Bollywood actor, director and singer with whom Ms. Bhosle recorded 656 duets. Amit Kumar sang his father’s hits, including a few duets with Ms. Bhosle — love songs — in which she danced him across the stage.

Near the end of the concert Ms. Bhosle unfurled a pink and saffron scarf, matching her sari, and within seconds expertly tied it around her head in a Sikh-style turban. The beat picked up into the earthy 4/4 of Punjabi bhangra, while she traded long, improvisatory phrases with a keyboardist.

Then the beat moved toward the Caribbean as the band plunged into a riff straight from Santana. In the finale, “Dum Maro Dum” — an award-winning song from a 1971 film — she sang “Hare Krisha” over a hand-clapping, galloping beat and wailing rock lead guitar: devotional, frisky and joyfully cosmopolitan.

SEE ALSO: NPR Story on Bhosle's tour.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Interview about recording mastering with George Peckham

Akon's History Of Prison And Arrests Revealed As A Fake Marketing Tool

Black Voices
Akon's History Of Prison And Arrests Revealed As A Fake Marketing Tool

Rapper Akon, known for his songs "Don't Matter" and "Lonely" and for hurling a fan off of a stage, has been revealed as a huge faker by The Smoking Gun. He has built his reputation largely on the back of his criminal history, talking about his years in jail and his lengthy rap sheet. His album was even titled "Konvicted."

But, Akon's criminal history isn't not so:

Police, court, and corrections records reveal that the entertainer has created a fictionalized backstory that serves as the narrative anchor for his recorded tales of isolation, violence, woe, and regret. Akon has overdubbed his biography with the kind of grit and menace that he apparently believes music consumers desire from their hip-hop stars.

While the performer's rap sheet does include a half-dozen arrests, Akon has only been convicted of one felony, for gun possession. That 1998 New Jersey case ended with a guilty plea, for which the singer was sentenced to three years probation. Another 1998 bust, this one in suburban Atlanta, has been seized upon by Akon and transformed into the big case that purportedly sent him to prison (thanks to his snitching cohorts) for three fight-filled years. In reality, Akon was arrested for possession of a single stolen BMW and held in the DeKalb County jail for several months before prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

So there was no conviction. There was no prison term between 1999 and 2002. And he was never "facing 75 years," as the singer claimed in one videotaped interview.

Akon's invented tales appear to be part of a cynical marketing plan, but one that has met with remarkable success. Few press interviews conclude without Akon being asked about his criminal exploits and his prison days.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are excessive lyrics ruining pop music?

Words Words Words
Are excessive lyrics ruining pop music?
By William Weir
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2008, at 3:54 PM ET

Fifty years ago, Link Wray's "Rumble," a snarling instrumental, was banned by radio stations because programmers worried that the song's grinding distortion would incite teenage audiences to West Side Story-esque delinquency. Perhaps an overreaction, but at least this censorship showed a respect for the power of wordless music. Try getting your wordless tune on the radio today. From 1960 to 1974, 128 instrumentals reached the Top 20, while only 30 did from 1975 to 1990. And since? Five. These standouts are likely remembered only by smooth-jazz aficionados and soundtrack collectors: "Lily Was Here" by David A. Stewart and Candy Dulfer; Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen's remake of the Mission: Impossible theme; "Southampton" from Titanic; and Kenny G's "Forever in Love" and "Auld Lang Syne."

While wordless pop has disappeared from commercial radio, pop music has become ever more long-winded. The year-end top 10 songs from 1960 to 1969 have an average word count of 176. For the 1970s, the figure jumps to 244. In 2007, the average climbed to 436. The top 10 for the week of Feb. 2, 2008, features six songs over the 500-word mark. Chris Brown and T-Pain use 742 words in their "Kiss Kiss." While music can express what words cannot, music rarely gets a chance in contemporary pop, and certainly not in "Kiss Kiss." Except for the first two seconds, vocals fill the song's every moment. Entirely absent are instrumental phrasings that allow a song (and singers) to breathe. Guys, take a break.

In contrast, the Great American Songbook is a bible of pithiness. "Blue Moon," "Over the Rainbow," and "Embraceable You" all make their cases in fewer than 100 words. Will Smith, Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé all have songs called "Summertime" yielding word counts three to five times as high as Gershwin's tune of the same name. They all have a similar message: "The livin' is easy." But with only 92 words, Gershwin says it best by letting the melody become part of the story. Done well, the song sounds like a hazy, slow summer day. In Smith's "Summertime," he recalls hanging out in Philly parks, in Mercedes-Benzes, and at a place called "The Plateau," where everybody goes. All I picture are the Fresh Prince's summers. They sound fun, but I want my own. Gershwin's lyrical economy makes room for our own dog-day memories. Instrumentals are even easier to personalize. With no lyrics to dictate my emotional response, Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" conforms to my mood. When it's playing on my stereo, just driving around assumes a cinematic brio.

In the contemporary radio landscape, instrumental blockbusters like Duane Eddy's "Peter Gunn" simply don't happen anymore. Considering the cultural impact they've had, that's a shame. The ubiquity of "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the M.G.'s (used in at least 15 movies and countless beer commercials) makes us forget just how good this swaggering and slightly dangerous-sounding piece is. Long before there were video games, the Tornados' "Telstar" sounded like one in 1962. The song, with noises supposedly from the first communication satellite (launched months prior), has the spirit of a world giddy about space exploration. Edgar Winter's jam "Frankenstein" (and his early version of a keytar) and the laid-back sounds of fluegelhornist Chuck Mangione are gold mines for students of the 1970s. "Axel F" from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and "Miami Vice Theme" (our most recent No. 1 instrumental) tell us much of what we need to know about the 1980s. Herbie Hancock gave hip-hop its watershed instrumental in 1983 with "Rockit"—the first time many people heard record scratching.

Science offers some clues, if not a smoking gun, in the music vs. lyrics debate. Neuroscientists believe that the brain uses a different system to store and process music than it does words. Not much research has been done on which affects us more, but an American University study published in the Psychology of Music in 2006 gives a slight edge to melody. When listening to happy or calm songs, subjects found that lyrics dulled the tunes' emotional kick. Words, however, enhanced emotional responses to angry and sad songs. When researchers mismatched the melodies and lyrics—sad words with happy music, etc.—melodies held more sway with participants' moods than lyrics. Possible real-world application (my theory): Of all the phenomenal singers who have tackled the "Star-Spangled Banner," Jimi Hendrix's tortured, celebratory, and wordless version remains the most emotionally layered.

I understand the appeal of the human voice, and I certainly can't begrudge anyone's joy at singing along in the car (unless I'm in it). But why such shabby treatment for the instrumental? Marketability. A band is practically faceless with no crooning front man. People still credit the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" to the Ventures, the Beach Boys, or, bizarrely, Morton Downey Jr. And it's not as if good instrumental music isn't still getting produced. Singerless combos emerged in big numbers in the 1990s, and instrumental buffs have their pick of genres: electronica, sprawling post-rock, cello metal. But even the danceable and hooky pop of Ratatat runs into the same wall: No singer means no airplay. The experimental but profoundly catchy Battles didn't break out until the group added vocals on 2007's Mirrored.

Here's another problem for the instrumental: Fancy a new song, but don't know the name? You can Google the chorus. But with no words to work with, you're reduced to humming the guitar part to friends and record-store clerks, hoping they'll recognize it. They won't. Music journalists also share some responsibility. Words are writers' friends—they're easier to critique than a musical phrase the reader can't hear (although hyperlinks change this a bit). Take Black Sabbath's "Iron Man": I can go on for quite a while about the title character's tragic circumstances, but it's the riff that raises the song to pioneering doom classic. For all of the riff's majestic awesomeness, though, I'm at a loss to describe it.

Finally, there's Bob Dylan, the man perhaps most responsible for the word/music power imbalance. With the releases of "Wipe Out" and Lonnie Mack's "Memphis" in 1963, things looked bright for the rock instrumental. Then came The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his 564-word "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." That year, the New York Times likened his songs to "speeches delivered to guitar chording" and called him "an inspired poet." Two years later, the Times reported that everyone was copying him.
William Weir is a writer living in New Haven.