Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music and Human Identity

I just listened to this radio broadcast via a link on the KUT website.

The recording is a fascinating article on the success of a guitar class in a juvenile correctional facility. Music, it seems, has the power to heighten an individual's sense of self-control and self-worth. One of the interviewees even says, playing the guitar allows these kids to discover something about who they are.

This fits in with the findings the students in my class, Music and the Natural World, keep stumbling onto: music acts as bonding agent and, in helping define us within a group, also reinforces and strengthens our identity as individuals. This appears to be a trait of humanity, not just classical music, not just our culture, not just the Western world.

I just touched on this same subject in a column I wrote yesterday for the Asbury Park Press, appearing this Sunday. By way of acknowledging Christmas, Hannukah and the New Years holidays, I point out this role of music in expressing the spiritual and physical bonds we share as humans.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dream, Dream, Dream

Note: This is a post written June 1, that, for some reason, I didn't publish. Just found it among my notes.

Falling asleep, I have some great dreams. Things become associated with other things, qualities from one item of my life become part another, forming monstrous complexes of identities.

RED, photo by JeftyYesterday's involved the hollow sound of octaves in an atonal texture. They stick out like a sore thumb--like parallels in tonal 4-part harmony. The same effect. Without proper planning in a free atonal environment, nasty octaves invariably appear, like ants at a picnic.

And there they were, in my dream, octaves everywhere. Each pair of octaves were also the wheels of race cars and comparative rates in dollar amounts for some service which I don't now recall. Difficult, all these, trying to move one pitch of each octave to get a more pleasing interval while not creating another octave, not wrecking the speeding car and still getting the best deal for my money. Very complicated.

In all seriousness, though, this psychological experience is where the origin of musical expression is located for me: the in-between world where borders become blurry, where meanings bleed into one another. As a college student, I would often fall asleep listening to music (usually Josquin) and as I nodded off, I would be aware that the music had become blended into speech patterns and characters stored somewhere in my head, an expression of the internal drama of relationships--the incredibly minute details that we pick up from one another and amass into our understanding of one another. I would hear the music--see the music, experience the music--as a rendering of real human interaction, including dialog and physical activity. My two greatest preoccupations of those days--music and social relationships--would become the same thing.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lennon Anniversary

Today is the anniversary of John Lennon's death. My blog entry from last year talks about my memories of that day and is titled Lennon Assassinated.

Also, if you're interested, you can now find a long excerpt from my article analyzing his "Revolution 9," from the Beatles White Album, at my page on www.academia.edu. The complete article is available through Perspectives of New Music (46/2, 2008).

For a quick taste of Lennon's genius, I would recommend "Julia," another "White Album" Lennon song, written about his mother -- the mother who first left him while he was still a child, to be raised by an aunt; and the mother who, after returning, died in a car accident when he was still a teen. His son Julian is named after her.

The song contains the most poetic use of a single-note melody I've ever heard. I love how strained, intimate and dark those openings words feel: "Half of what I say is meaningless/but I say it just to reach you, Julia ...." He sustains that chant on a single note until the last syllables of her name, when, as if moved out of himself by the memory, the melody suddenly starts to flower. In the break, the flowering becomes a lyrical moment among the best in any Beatles song. The contrast is heartbreaking.

Yes, we could talk about the confusion of his love for Yoko and his longing for his mother, a tension evident in the lyrics to this song. But for me, that only adds to the poignancy.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Island of Dr. Bjork

Bjork’s album Biolphilia is one of the most interesting recordings I’ve heard in a long, long time. I presented it to my Music and the Natural World class at The College of New Jersey today, emphasizing its theme, repeated at every level of structure, of viewing the natural world on its own terms -- a poet’s view through the lens of science.

Like most people, I’ve been casually aware of Bjork and her music since Debut, released in 1993. Her last album, Volta, was one that I bought, largely on the strength of its single, “Earth Intruders.” On that album, she was reaching for a unified artistic vision, connecting the sound world of the various tunes with similar instrumentation, including horns of various types: boat recorded on the water and chorused French horns. The theme of the album is sociological, a musical and poetic study of humans.

But though ambitious, Volta didn’t reach me. Some of the effects, including the boat horns, seemed a little clumsy. Likewise a few of the songs, notably the duet with Antony Hegarty, “Dull Flame of Desire”. It all sounded somewhat cobbled together, directed but uneven.

Biophilia is equally ambitiuous. I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times now and have grown more enamored with each pass. Using inventive choirs, organs, harps and invented instruments, Bjork sustains a consistent musical texture, a clean line from beginning to end. The songs all share a dark, moody quality, with a main improvisatory vocal melody. The rest of the music is structured around that, in highly complex, transparent arrangements that are always surprising. Standard song formulas emerge, but the surface textures float free of the ground, like sacred chant. There are a few awkward musical moments, as in the arbitrary addition of a “drum and bass” style coda in “Crystalline.” But more often the juxtapositions grow organically into a cultivated flow, a single garden, lush and lovely.

Each song takes an element of nature imagery as its starting point, interpreting it poetically with connections that are highly personal and sometimes difficult to follow: “Thunderbolt” somehow inspires her to think of “arpeggios”; “Virus” veers into a verse on gunpowder.

>.View her video of "Moon" on her YouTube channel:

But despite that (or because of it) the poetry is gripping. In “Virus,” she compares the invasive role of a bug or a parasite to an obsessed lover, turning it over and examining it as a scientist, for its beauty, without denying its horror. “Thunderbolt” sets fear and a yearning for enlightenment in opposition as she questions the motivation for “craving miracles.” “Moon” startles as a prayerful ceremony of rebirth, as she celebrates her psyche washed, clean and reawakened.

The words could be completely satisfying and engaging read as poetry. Sung -- with odd offbeat accents that underscore their nonhuman content -- they gain emotional power. But no matter what, they remain anchored in the “biophilia” theme. Bending all to that end, on “Dark Matter,” she abandons words altogether, using her voice and her choir of closely harmonized womens’ voices to sing nonsense syllables, echoing the mystery to physicists of the dark matter presence in our physical world.

The invented instruments – a combination of celeste and gamelan, called a gameleste, on “Virus”; a Tesla coil rigged to sound a bass line on “Thunderbolt” – add to the sense of intimate human exploration of the mysteries of the world. Each offers a new perspective on the well-established laws of the acoustic physical universe.

All this says nothing of the marketing galaxy that accompanies Biophilia. In addition to the customary tour, CD and promotional videos, there are apps associated with the songs for the iPod, iPad and iPhone.

While extending the artistic ambition outlined on Volta, Biophilia is everything Volta is not: a deep artistic achievement, completely satisfying.

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