A fairly regular conversation regarding the use and function of the iPod occurred between family over the holiday. At the onset of the conversation, talk centered around the respective merits of types of iPods (video, mini, nano, regular etc.); a perfectly banal, bourgeois thing to talk about especially getting close to Christmas. Soon the question was whether to own an iPod at all, given certain people’s particular habits regarding listening to music. I remained largely silent for most of this, mostly because I was really thinking about why the format for music is of such a crucial importance right now, particularly with regards to portable and transferable digital music, but as well to the dubious vitality of live music, the amorphous identity of concert spaces and the ever broadening personal taste that the speed and ease of digital culture promotes. Why should we care what type of iPod to own, it’s just music, can’t we listen to it any way we want?

Of course, one could make the easy Marxist swipe by condemning each new version of the iPod as simply smart marketing (i.e. stupid buyers falling into a consumer trap). On the other hand, iPod’s are a very real cultural signpost for upper class success. They mean cool (if to be cool is to be rich, fashionable, tech-savvy, and into ‘good music’ which invariably means current pop in all its genres and forms). Furthermore, they allow for a type of listening which is demanded by a vast audience. This type of listening (headphones, the ability to change tracks on a dime, totally unencumbered storage, the ability to view relevant production information, and now to watch videos, store photos etc.) is increasingly the dominant form in America. Chalk it up to on-the-go lifestyle, a voracious appetite for new media, or a decline in interest in other performance norms (specifically that of the virtuoso), it is simply the case that listening to recordings on-the-go using the hippest of robots is what the kids want.

The other response, however, is, well, what if you’re not single, don’t walk or travel alone, don’t like headphones, or just don’t have the money? What if you have kids, or better, babies? So it’s really a sociological point: the fact that the iPod retains the cultural currency that it does is a result of the way people require music in this country (fast, alone, and in short spurts – thank god for the 3 minute song-form). Maybe more people are single, maybe more people have smaller attention spans, and bigger wallets, or listen to downloaded music because it gives you the feeling of control and freedom. The iPod is democratic, it says ‘you only need to listen to me as long as you want and furthermore you can accessorize me!’ What does this mean for music though? If Apple is dominating the format for music, do we, the music-makers, have to kow-tow to the robots? I think yes and no. Yes, if you want to influence middle to upper class youth/single/urban culture. No, if you have other intents (like, writing music longer than 3 minutes, or for the theater, or for space-specific pieces, or for people with babies). Is the CD obsolete? Yes. Does that mean we won’t still listen to CDs as we do LPs and Cassettes? No. Are we headed for personal robots that give us total control over media in all its forms? Totally. Does that say anything about music? Only sociologically, which means, hell no. Music lives in a different space. It operates in a web of influence defined by the infinitely complex relationship between human beings, and their relationship with the universe. If people with iPods want to listen to crappy music, that’s just a demographic actuality. But that crappy music, however brief its life may be, has a immutable uniqueness that transcends sociological determination. In the end, its important how we listen to music, but that represents only a small portion of the larger event called music. And it seems almost silly to have to say that what’s really special about that event is the music itself, not the apparatus.
'till next sunday,

I’m making a mad dash to finish a draft of a piece today so unfortunately (or fortunately) this week’s post will be considerably less long-winded than the last two and a mish-mash of a number of diddlies (footnote: Barnes Boffey).

1) For dorks only: the fundamental pitches of the chord that is sounded in my Chinese chiming/meditation balls are those of whole tone scale beginning on C# with A and D thrown in for fun. I’m not sure if this is standard but it’s a point for us atonalists who claim that dissonance and consonance are a received notion that is historically/culturally limited.

2) According to Ralph Ellison (of Invisible Man fame) the mockingbird is the most likely ‘songbird’ analogue to Charlie Parker (and I imagine to the lineage of altos that he birthed from Coltrane to Ornette to Braxton). Like the mockingbird “his [Parker’s] playing was characterized by velocity, by long-continued successions of notes and phrases, by swoops, bleats, echoes, rapidly repeated bebops – I mean rebopped bebops – by mocking mimicry of other jazzmen’s styles, and by interpolations of motifs from extraneous melodies, all of which added up to a dazzling display of wit, satire, burlesque and pathos. Further, he was as expert at issuing his improvisations from the dense brush as from the extreme treetops of the harmonic landscape.” This is such a great description, listen to some Charlie Parker and see what I mean.

3) In thinking about birds I came across a great quote from Morton Feldman talking about Messiaen (who was obsessed with bird calls and transcribed them and put them in his music etc.): he writes “Messiaen is not an orchestrator. That’s not orchestration you hear, I don’t know what the hell it is. It’s Disney, it’s Disneyland. It’s Technicolor, you know from the forties when it first came out, like a Doris Day movie, those crazy colors, you know how crazy people look in the old Technicolor, that’s Messiaen, just something is wrong someplace.” Tangentially, I think that the compositional interest in birds that bridges from Jazz and the Blues to the avant-garde (especially wind instrument and choral music) and back, stems from a reorientation towards the voice, both the human and broadly. Part of the break down of triadic tonality, is a liberating of individual voices from foreground and background hierarchy and rules of motion. The human or animal voice has an diversity of sound production so profoundly engaging, why cage a beautiful bird?

4) Here’s a question that came up at a concert last night: why don’t we ‘roast’ our composers as much as we do our comedians, celebrities, and political figures? Imagine a concert of music, written by friends of the composer, solely making fun of that composer’s music. The concert was great, but I was thinking how fun it would be to celebrate a composer by making bad exaggerated copies of their music. I’m talking about parody (but not direct like Weird Al, more like a distorted, debilitated, smart-ass send up).
Ashley Simpson is doing that for every good pop star in history...and Madonna’s doing it for herself!
‘till next Sunday,

I had it in mind to write a more literary story about this topic, and I might still, but for now I’ll keep to my semi-coherent rambling.
A few days ago I watched my white 1990 Jeep Cherokee get hauled off to be stripped and demolished. It overheated twice in the last few months, the most recent of which was indicative of an engine problem which was simply too expensive to fix on a 15 year old car. The Jeep went the way of many good, trusty cars (the same way, I suppose, of people); that is, all of a sudden, everything just started breaking. What was surprising was not that the car was falling apart, by all accounts it was a miracle it lasted as long as it did considering the kind of aggressively negligent relationship I had with it. The shock, rather, was how deeply emotional it was to say goodbye to it. Before they took it away, I rummaged through the conspicuously odorous heaps that stuffed, wormed, festooned, and perhaps populated the interior of the car. I realized that with every stray scrap, every cassette tape, every pair of 3 dollar sunglasses, even all the nickels and dimes, I was accessing a wide stream of memories, some significant, others delicately ordinarily. All this stuff, the lost and found of the last 4 years, got me thinking about how the car, raised to symbolic stature, commands a cultural identity so private, so personal, yet so endemic to American-ness, to masculinity, to the mode our cultural interaction, to our social psychology, our identity, and more relevantly to this post (which will now get to the point), to music.
As a performance space, cars are so beautifully well-suited to listening to music. Acoustically, they provide a happy medium between headphones and your living room or bedroom, or studio. Assuming your car produces about half the diversity of ambient sounds that mine did before it died, the car stereo provides a highly intimate field of aural perception. Of course, when you ride in cars that clank, shudder, squeak, whimper, buzz, and growl, as mine did, or even if you like driving with the windows down (a cliché, but still a wonderful cultural metaphor), you would know that more than any other musical venue, including clubs of any kind, the car encourages us to insert ambient sounds into the fabric of the music itself. Even in the theater, opera, or ballet, where the aural integrates with the visual, ambient sounds are to be correctly excluded from the art. There is so much music that sounds right at home with the whirring of a freeway, or the impatient buzz in a traffic jam. Moreover, when we watch the scenery of a road slip past, when we design abstract patterns in the tapestry of traffic, or invent histories of abandoned buildings, and anonymous people in familiar towns, or when we wait patiently for the right time to lean in for a kiss; the accompaniment of the right music (no matter what kind it is) is what makes that moment resonate, it's what makes life filmic, breathes emotion into deadened objects, and penetrates a vast pool of memory, hope, love, despair, regret, giddiness, nostalgia, or any depth of feeling so profound that it enters a separate plane of consciousness.
I think, although there are so many other reasons, that cars are able to make these experiences possible because despite having an obvious socially functional role (transportation), the physical experience of car travel is quite removed from the urban, suburban, rural, natural context. The car can be an imaginary space. It holds an a-historical air, like the concert hall, the movie theater, the gallery, the refrigerator. It is merely a moving container. But the fact that it moves, more importantly that it moves us, gives it the kind of openness to suggestion, the highly charged but ambiguous aura that primes a person for musicality. This, together with the fact that it forces us to sit in a way in which is fundamentally antisocial (illuminating, rich, and revelatory car conversations notwithstanding) creates a space rife with possibility, and yet comfortable enough not to force the point (as concert spaces often do to the uninitiated). In fact, what makes great conversations in the car so great may just be the fact that you don’t have to address another person head on, and if you’re driving it’s downright dangerous trying to look someone in the eye. It is precisely that midpoint between a performance-like space, and a space that is normalized as an everyday, functional exercise that gives a car the atmosphere that seems to say; “the pressure is off, we’re safe, let’s talk, let’s think, let’s listen.” To be true, cars and driving in general can also invoke the kind of deathly boredom, impatience, annoyance, and even anger that analogizes well into the kind of station-surfing ADD overload, that makes you feel like all music is terrifyingly homogenous, completely useless, and pathetically artificial. This is the point at which, we should turn off the music, pull over the car at the nearest gas station, buy a coke and eat a hamburger (unless you’re not American, don’t own a car, don’t drink caffeine, or don’t eat meat, or don’t like listening to music in cars at all, in which case, go driving with someone whose music taste you admire).
‘till next Sunday,
This is my first blog. I am jumping onto the blogwagon with the intent to write about music every sunday. This is as much an excercise for me as it is the desire to begin to share ideas about music in a public manner. But as projects go, who knows what this will turn into. It is my hope that some of this will be lucid, profound, engaging, and maybe read by someone sometime. If it is none of these things, then I am no worse off, and no one would have read it anyway. Here goes nothing:

Sunday is for sounds. I debated about whether to use the word 'sounds' in the title of the blog. I thought of 'sunday is for song' ; too cute, and I want to read broadly beyond the stylistic implications of the word 'song' here. Oddly, the word 'sounds' seems to have its own limitations. What do we mean when we say "I'm listening to the sound" of something - a piece, an object, a person, a painting, a memory? This is neither a blog about sound art in any of its permutations, nor is it about acoustic ecology or cultural anthropology, or anything else in particular. In all the vastness of implication that sound, or the notion of 'sound', can take part in, and that the potential emergence of what can be known as music can be based on (for music can never, ever, only be about sound, or what we try to conceptually partition as sound), any attempt to employ a single word to represent this enormity will necessarily lose value as it careens toward a particularity of sound - in better words, as it means certain things to certain people. I chose the word that seems (historically of course) most open ended (i.e. least judgemental) to the spectrum of musical/acoustical possibility. That said, why sunday?
Sunday is a good day for music. It is a day that bulges with suggestion. It can mean anything. In my cultural background, among many other things, sunday is for resting, for church, for movies, for making phone calls to family or friends you didn't call during the week. Sunday is for reading, for sleeping, for eating, for enjoying those things which are merely details during a weekday grind. For students, of which I am still one, sunday brings the harsh reality of deadlines, guilty consciences, and hangovers together with a bursting sense of nostalgia, loneliness, sentimentality, aesthetic contemplation, and general laziness. But beyond that and more broadly, sunday has been reserved in one way or another as a punctuation, a day unlike any another, sandwiched, elevated, and swept clean of much of the branded, grammatical ambition of a monday or wednesday. Sundays seem to lie just outside of language, somewhere between a concept and the complete absence of a concept. This place, the ambiguity, the suggestiveness, the unexplainable (disfunctional) but highly emotional importance put on its reservation from regularity is so akin to the experience of a profound musical event that it seemed a good day to spend on music. To waste a little time outside normal time, or thinking about time as it bends and twirls and dances during a piece of music, is just what a sunday is good for. So listen. Think about sound, about its familiarity, its complexity, about how it is part of something but not anything itself, about how it gets pieced together to make music, and about how music gets pieced together in your body. And then take a break and eat food.
'till next sunday,