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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music memes

Reflections On Richard McGuire’s “Here”

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“I had this motto that I was going to make the big things small and the small things big.”
– Richard McGuire (quoted in The New Yorker, November 17, 2014).

Richard McGuire’s Here is a graphic novel that presents a poetic mediation on place and time. The book focuses on a single room in a house from the perspectives of different past, present, and future time periods. The room is a living room, and we see it as it looks and is inhabited circa 1959, 1983, 2015, 1774, and also on other dates, hundreds or thousands of years further back or forward. As the time periods change, we see fashions, decor, and social conventions shift. But we also see how similar humans are over time. The specifics of the place may change, but an underlying energy of the people in it persists.

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One of McGuire’s visual narrative techniques–besides inserting the date on the corner of every page–is to divide the page into smaller windows of alternate time frames. In this way, we see the room as it looks in 1971, but at the same time see a corner of it as it is in say, 1791. This allows McGuire to show how different times and places interpenetrate one another, acting as mutual portals for sharing meaning and resonance across the ages.

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Here gets you thinking about how things happen and are uttered repeatedly but in different forms over time. Here’s another example from the book that juxtaposes the deep past with the more recent century:

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Naturally then, the book’s structure had me thinking about its musical resonances. One of McGuire’s techniques for shaping the book’s text (sporadic and brief as it is) is to show how bits of dialogue (“So what did you say?” “Did you hear that?”) echo and call and respond with one another through different eras. These utterances suggest how specific sounds can remain the same over time, yet have different local meanings.

This is common in music: a riff or a phrase or a composed gesture or a rhythm can travel through time and space, moving from the past to the present, from somewhere there (West Africa, say) to somewhere here (the United States, say)—like a meme. Or sometimes people say very similar musical things in vastly different contexts. And then there is the idea of musical quotation, and the fact of digital sampling. In fact, the musical world as we can experience it today thanks to so many musics streaming at our fingertips is deeply interpenetrated. Like those little windows in McGuire’s Here, we hear musical pasts in our present, and also endless lateral connections–from the East, West, and all points in between. So I guess what I’m saying is that this thought-provoking graphic novel had me thinking about a musical history (in the form of a graphic novel?) that would trace just a few small golden nuggets of sound along their travels to show how deeply music–itself an evanescent kind of space and place–connects us all.

On Information, Musical Memes And Earworms


For James Gleick, author of the recent book The Information, information has a life of its own independent of us.  In a recent interview on On Point radio he says::

“We live in a world where information passes from machine to machine.  We know that when it’s stored in material forms and when one machine talks to one another, something is happening there that doesn’t need human intervention.  And so it makes sense logically to speak of information as independent of us.”

“Then you start thinking: That snippet of music has a life of its own (…)–when you can’t get a song out of your head or when an idea takes hold of you…”

Gleick then goes on to describe these little pieces of information that can self replicate as “memes”, a term he borrows from Richard Dawkins (who coined it in his book The Selfish Gene).  Memes, says Gleick, have “a living stability and the ability to mutate.”

It’s interesting to think about information and memes in the context of those little bits of music that somehow lodge themselves in our heads every once in a while.  Recently, I had a song by Bruno Mars pop into my head one morning.  I didn’t ask for it, and I like to think I don’t even like this song and can’t remember when I last heard it, but no matter: there it was on loop mode in my head.

There’s a name for these kinds of cognitive itches: earworms.  Any music can become an earworm and I suppose that constant exposure to a song might help the earworming process along, but oftentimes earworms just appear full blown.  Also, earworms are kinds of (sonic) memes and as such are intensely contagious.  In fact, it has often happened to me that I have “caught” an earworm from simply hearing my wife sing a snippet of a song at home.  Moments later I find myself humming the same song without knowing why.  I only realize what has happened when she rightly accuses me of “stealing” her song (!) But as Gleick points out, that’s in the nature of information/memes/: it’s independent of its hosts/transmitters.  In the case of earworms, perhaps we are all just nodes in a vast network helping musics circle the world.

You can read an article on earworms here.

On a different note, Gleick also weighs in on the challenges posed by the flood of information that’s easily accessible with our digital devices. He makes an incisive point when he notes:

“It’s harder than ever to be original when you can instantly find out
what everybody else is doing.”

On the other hand, as connected information-breathing citizens, we have responsibilities too:

“We need to think of ourselves not just as passive consumers of information, but also as its creators and its guardians.”

Music Travels Cont’d

Nine-year old Willow Smith has an infectious pop hit circulating the Internet (a full album seems to be forthcoming).  “Whip My Hair” is an intense affirmation song and is good repetitious fun:

Here’s a cover of the song rendered on piano in a ragtime-jazz-ish style.  I don’t know who the pianist is, but you can hear how he works with and improvises on Smith’s repetitious chorus melody:

Finally, here is late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon (with Bruce Springsteen later on in the clip) doing an impression of the iconic Canadian folk singer Neil Young singing–you guessed it, “I Whip My Hair.”

What makes all of these renditions so interesting to me is how they foreground the importance of musical style as a filter for what we choose to listen to.  Smith’s song, produced by Jukebox, is a high-tech, electronic pop music production, and attracts one kind of audience.  It sounds really good played loud too.  The solo piano version is adventurous and chromatic, with new harmonizations creeping in under the right hand melody.  Fallon’s Neil Young version slows everything way down and sets the lyrics against a old-fashioned two-chord strumming pattern. It’s quintessential 1970s Young (and Fallon has nailed Young’s grain of the voice too).  What makes Fallon’s version funny is that somehow Smith’s lyrics don’t seem “deep” enough for the reflective folk idiom; there’s a disconnect between the seriousness of Fallon’s Young and Smith’s young-playful lyrics.  But it actually works.

I happen to like Smith’s original version the best because it makes the best sense stylistically: the music and her voice seem of one (heavily technologized) piece.  But the cover versions remind us that just about any music can travel from one idiom to another.  And when a song like “Whip My Hair” lands in jazz piano land or the folk music orbit, it asks us to consider for a moment which musical styles resonate the most for us, and more mysteriously, why.

Musical Memes: A Bassline Travels

In a recent (and fascinating) New York Times article on the resurgence of soul music among young and mostly white singers (“Can a Nerd Have Soul?“), we’re reintroduced to The Supremes’ 1960s Motown classic, “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

Propelling that uptempo hit is James Jamerson’s 8-note bass line (with a rhythm kinda like: 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1-2).  As the article notes, Jamerson’s bassline got repackaged in the 1980s by Hall and Oats (“Maneater”):

and also by Katrina & The Waves (“Walking On Sunshine”):

and probably made appearances in a good many other songs too.

An up and coming white soul singer Meyer Hawthorne’s recent song “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin'” revisits Jamerson’s groove once again:

The Times writer Rob Hoerburger makes a point of noting that for the current generation of soul artists, a classic bassline pattern such as Jamerson’s is just part of a musical vocabulary to be learned, absorbed, and appropriated to propel their new songs:

“By the time Hawthorne caught up to those eight notes in “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” a song from his album, “A Strange Arrangement,” though, they seemed to be just that: notes. They weren’t jacked up, minced, diced, reassembled, reduced, infused, technofied, processed, irony-dredged or in any other way commented upon. It was as if the last 20 or 30 or 40 years of pop music hadn’t happened.”

Hawthorne, like Hall and Oats, Katerina & The Waves, and countless others, was just claiming a musical meme for himself.

While I’m certainly no expert, there are all kinds of musical memes out there that form the building blocks of our favorite popular musics.  Chord progressions can be memes (I-V-VI-IV, etc.), a rhythm can be a meme (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” comes to mind), a bassline like Jamerson’s Motown groove . . . the list goes on.  Musical memes anchor the music in terms of recognizable chunks of information.  In fact, there’s a good chance that a music has a better chance of being liked (by a community of fans) if appropriately appropriates the right musical memes.

And since I’m dancing around the issue without addressing it, I will: Is “soul” in music a kind of meme too?  Can it be learned like a chord progression can find a comfortable place through fingers on a guitar?  Can the essence of soul music, an African-American invention, travel outwards to other communities of musicians?  Whether we’re discussing soul music, jazz, middle eastern taksim, Indonesian gamelan music, or the polyrhythms of a West African drum ensemble, that’s an always open question: Can musical ways of being really travel?  Maybe.  But let’s also remember that sometimes musical memes can be the result of just really, really good, individual musicians who created distinct stuff. Check out this little profile of Jamerson below:

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