On Soloing A Part: Listening To Eddie Van Halen’s Electric Guitar

Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.

It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.

When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.

If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).

Alan Watts On Deep Listening

Notes On FK twig’s “LP 1″

One of my ongoing frustrations with popular music–and the problem may be with me–is that the music doesn’t always keep my attention. So I was delighted when I heard FKA twig’s debut, LP1, an at times stunning release, both musically and production-wise that the Guardian called “the UK’s best example to date of ethereal, twisted R&B.”

On its sounding surface FKA twigs’s voice reminds one of the late Aaliyah or even Ciara. Her voice is clear and sweet in that contemporary R&B way, but without pyrotechnics. For me, though, the interesting action is in the production by the Venezuelan DJ Arca. There’s little that’s straightforward about the arrangements–each sound choice and each layer adding surprise, texture, and dimensionality. It’s both experimental and listenable.

“Two Weeks” is the first single and features an unusual half-time feel beat, heavily weighted with 16th notes on the first and third bars of each four bar percussion phrase. The beat is typical of the production touches and flourishes on LP1 that keep my ear interested.

Notes On Toggling Between (Disparate?) Musics

Lately I’ve been thinking about toggling.

I think about it as I switch among various go-to apps on my phone–email, news, Twitter, blog, music player, Wikipedia, calendar, amazon.com–back and forth, quickly, seamlessly, without thinking much about it. The process, made possible by the technology of my phone, feels like the essence of thinking itself: continuous zigzagging among ideas, always weighing and assessing, always seeking connections, always toggling from one bit to another.

And there’s toggling within these individual activities too. Take music listening, for example. I often toggle back and forth between stylistically different musics just to remind myself of their essential (and maybe shared yet overlooked) qualities and also to see how they affect me in tandem. A while back, I toggled between American composer John Adams’ “String Quartet” and UK electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham’s (aka Actress) “Ivy May Gilpin.” Even though these musics may not have much in common, I kept toggling!

Here is the Adams piece:

Here is the Cunningham/Actress piece:

Toggling between the two pieces of music I also thought about what the musics may say about their respective creators. And then came this (perhaps unfair) musing: Based on their music, which composer would you most like to hang out with?

Krista Tippett On Listening

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Listening to a podcast, my ears perked up when I heard the day’s guest, Krista Tippett, talk about what it means to listen. Tippett wasn’t referring to music listening per se, yet her words had me thinking anew about what listening in a musical context might entail. Here are some quotes, along with elaborations on them:

Listening is a spiritual technology.
We don’t often hear those two words together. Yet listening is a way to tap into what many people believe music indexes: some parallel affective realm in which patterns of sound give rise to patterns of feeling. Combined together, sound and feeling can feel pretty deep.

Listening is an ordinary, everyday virtue.
We hear and make sense of things all time–ambient noise, conversations–and so each of us has a finely tuned apparatus ready to take on music. It’s a virtue to be able to listen because listening has built-in moral component: at minimum, by listening we engage with others.

Listening is an essential way that we can reach across the mystery of the Other.
This is a fundamental principle of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology: that informed and open listening is a way to understand the cultural value of all the world’s musics–no matter how different they may seem from what is familiar and local to us. Listening literally connects us to other ways of hearing and making sound.

There aren’t many things that we do in our lives that are more important than listening.
Making music with others can’t exist without close listening. In fact, effective/affective music is defined by how closely its makers interact with, and respond to, one another. It’s the interaction among musicians and their sounds that makes the music compelling. In this, listening is the most important thing.

Listening is an essential tool that we need to cultivate in a noisy, busy world.
Listening, inside or outside of musical practice, is a way to focus and block out distractions.

Listening is about presence.
When we listen we accrue a special kind of presence as listeners. Our best selves rise up as our senses hone in on the importance of sound.

Listening is about being open to being surprised and amazed. Listening is about being vulnerable.
Brought about by listening, our best selves are open to the world, ready to be guided into unfamiliar territory. There is risk involved because we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. But we listen anyway, wondering what will come next.

On Music As Overlay

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Here we are, me among them, sitting on the subway, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else. We each listen to a different music, and each of our musics acts as a cultural overlay that separates and distinguishes us from one another. Headphones on, we ensconce ourselves in protective bubbles of sound.

Music and musical action are often spoken about as means of sharing experience, expressing and enacting identity, and building community. And this is true: as a form of symbolic action (symbolic because melodies and rhythms don’t literally do anything in the world outside of music), music is perhaps the most powerful social technology we have.

In its staggering diversity of styles, music also invites each of us to surround ourselves with a unique mosaic of (recorded) sounds that articulate who we feel ourselves to be. This is exactly what we, me among them, do as we sit alone-together on the subway with our musical overlays, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else.

On How The Shape Of A Sound Shapes Us

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I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.

To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!