Energies: Taking it from the Top

Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1

From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.

porgy+bess
Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.

My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2

jt-sbj
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.

It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.


  1. Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.

  2. John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.

Inspiration: Afrisong

afrisong
“Hymn to the East,” Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrisong, 1982.

I picked up Muhal Richard Abrams’ Afrisong LP yesterday, and though I was not familiar with this record, I liked the cover and have had good luck with other India Navigation titles in the past 1.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Abrams’ playing here lands for me somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett; that is, he appeals like the former in his chords/rhythms and the latter in his flight, for lack of a better term 2. Communicative and uplifting.


  1. e.g. Arthur Blythe’s The Grip, Anthony Davis’ Lady of the Mirrors, and Cecil McBee’s Alternate Spaces, three of my favorite not-too-far-out recordings from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  2. I’m lying. I think flight is a terrific term and means, for these purposes, exactly what I trust it implies: his energy, his lift, his movement.

Energies (Craft)

To reiterate: the problem is not  generating the energy but rather managing it. Taking a moment from a drum-centric view, I think it’s worth considering how energy is presented in songs which handle it more or less the same way, though to different ends.

In the case of early Hardcore, for example, there are two conditions under which the energy is maintained. First, the tempos are unusually fast. Second, the songs in this style generally contain all the same elements as conventional popular songs, they just occur more rapidly. So there are verses, choruses, bridges, solos, or codas, all occurring in the space of under two minutes instead of the usual three or four.

out-of-step

Minor Threat, “Out of Step,” Out of Step, 1983.

The aim of the accelerated tempos is clear: manage the energy by forcing a burst of it and nothing else. A limitation to the style is that each song must be short. The aggression and compression makes longer songs unthinkable.

A variation on this style appears in a certain vein of popular folk-derived music (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Kozolek, et al.) . In these songs, pace and duration are determined by the song’s lyrics and the singer’s style; that is, the manner in which s/he sings and how long it takes to sing everything. Gillian Welch’s “Dream a Highway” is an example of this practice, as is her “My Morphine,” whose yodel might be the slowest such call ever recorded. It is aloof, nostalgic, self-absorbed, slow, sweet, remorseful.

revelator

Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.

haty

Gillian Welch, “My Morphine,” Hell among the Yearlings, 1998.

Both the folk-derived mode and that of Hardcore, however much they swing to extremes of tempo and duration, still stay close to the form, if not the structure of conventional songs. I suspect this is due, in large part, to their reliance on singers. In the above cases, the vocals and music reflect each other mutually: the first voice can’t keep up (or thinks he can’t), the second dreams at her own pace, the third sings from the depths of a dope habit. The music is frantic, contemplative, and stoned, respectively.

In any case, I think this mutual reflection is a sign of the quality of songwriting — the high level of craft — at work here. Each of these songs continues to resonate with its fans, even after many years and with no obvious distinction from its peers. 1

Most of the time, if someone in a conversation about music brings the term “craft” to bear, they’re talking about singers and popular music. I suspect further that what they’re responding to is the fact that they are moved in some notable way by the music in question even though they know precisely where the tune is headed. This notion of craft, then, describes to me the effectiveness of a song’s distribution of energy according to its conventions: if the song does precisely what we expect in an unexpected way, we praise its craft.

I contend that craft is defined by its unique relevance to an established practice. Once one abandons the parameters of a given practice, one must establish, from the outset, the parameters of the new practice. These parameters will result in a new definition of craft.


  1. e.g. most Hardcore fans like several bands in their preferred genre, which all sound identical to the uninitiated ear — one has to learn to hear it; the same is true for slow, long, Americana or roots music: get hip or get lost, which is further true, upon reflection, of most things worth knowing. But I digress…