I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.
Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).
Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.
My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.
As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.
I love clarinet. I think it’s primarily the tone — a bit thin compared to brass, rounder than double-reeds; ecstatic as opposed to joyous; instead of longing, despair and lonesomeness1 — which strikes me, more than most instruments, as being shaped precisely as it sounds.2
The tune that brought clarinet to the front of my mind this week is “Pamela’s Holiday”, a bright, shimmering number. Summer music.
“Pamela’s Holiday,” Wendell Harrison & Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Rush & Hustle, 1994.
Some of you will recognize the brand of 6/8 at work here: I tend to think of it as the “My Favorite Things” feel established by John Coltrane’s quartet.3
Another favorite clarinet performance of mine is from the François Houle 5’s In the Vernacular CD, a collection of compositons by John Carter.
“Morning Bell (prelude),” François Houle 5, In the Vernacular, 1998.
I’m not sure what to say about this piece except that it’s one of two records I’ve ever bought because I heard it playing in a record store. I had never heard anything like it before. Whatever avant-garde energies are at work, it is the attention to tone that compels the musicians.4
As opposed to *lonely*, a word whose connotation is far more personal to me than *lonesome*; *lonesome* connotes a kind of performative distance between the subject and how alone the subject truly is.↩
Trumpets, for example, look much longer and flatter in my mind’s eye and ear than they actually are; flugelhorns much taller and rounder, more akin to a french horn held aloft and upside-down. G-d only knows what I make of saxophones, though suffice it to say that they’re subjected to rather telescopic, elastic redesigns by the time my ear is through with them.↩
Which group, I might add, made a signature of that time signature. Paul Desmond’s innovative “Take Five,” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, preceded the Coltrane Quartet number by two years but it was the latter’s understanding of this relatively long swing that brought some muscle to bear. The Harrison track seems to draw from both sides of the feel, buoyant and soaring, unafraid to assert itself when needed.↩
For what it’s worth, the other Houle work I know is far farther out than this set. F.H.’s devotion to Carter’s compositions is fierce, loving.↩
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.
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
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.
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.↩
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.↩
Syncopation refers to the practice of inverting or otherwise shifting accents in an established rhythmic pattern. Polyrhythm, on the other hand, describes more than one rhythmic pattern occurring simultaneously. Though these elements frequently appear in tandem, especially in larger groups, I think their distinction from each other is worth pointing out.
Here’s some polyrhythm:
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, “Sé Wé Non Nan,” The Vodoun Effect, 2009.
To my ear, the drums resolve in a 2/4 (two quarter notes to a measure) shuffle while the other instruments are played in 6/8 (six eighth notes to a measure). This polyrhythm yields syncopation for the ensemble’s total sound, though each rhythm sticks to its accent-pattern.
The resulting energy of the tune is sustained within the push-pull of the time signatures: the drums are steady but seem to push the other instruments, which in turn seem to drag the tempo. This is not the same thing as playing ahead of or behind the beat. It is, in fact, a difference of measure, which term should be read literally: it takes the horns longer to get back to the top of their phrase than it does the drums.
Once the vocals come in, however, the group coalesces into a collective 2/4, following the drums instead of the horns. The guitar, percussion, and organ, in the meantime, opt for a 4/4, bridging the gap between the drums and the other instruments.
If this is math, it is also rhythm. The fact that it can be quantified does not disqualify the energy and emotion it provides and amplifies. Rather, it confirms the energy and emotion, and one additional absolute truth: music does not exist outside of time.
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.
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.
Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.
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.
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…↩