On Ray Hudson’s Verbal Poetics

RAY-HUDSON

“Not by accident, nothing capricious about it, nothing fortunate
–it was insightful, questioning football.”
– Ray Hudson

If you are a soccer fan and you watch it on TV, as I do, you may have encountered the splendiferous voice of Scottish announcer Ray Hudson. Hudson played as a professional with Newcastle United from 1974-77 and then with various US teams until 1991. Since 2004 he has been a commentator for GolTV, a sport channel that broadcasts games from La Ligua. Alongside fellow commentator Phil Schoen, Hudson covers big Ligua matches, including the “El Classico” duels between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

When you watch these big matches you hear Schoen doing most of the play by play commentating. He’s the sensible one, tracking the ball from player to player. His is a reassuring voice, slightly low-pitched, with that page-turn quality that lends it a I wonder what will happen next? cadence. Schoen is a pro’s pro, adeptly narrating the flow of the game in a way that I could listen to all day—or least while I’m cooking. But sometimes sports TV is more than ambient sound, and during La Ligua broadcasts the X factor here that draws me in deeper is Ray Hudson. Relying on Schoen as his straight-arrow wingman, Hudson plays the role of exuberant interrupter, riffing on the game like a preacher with a microphone driving himself to exhaustion, yet somehow willing his body to keep going because the game unfolding in front of us is simply that good, that magical.

Hudson’s verbal poetics depend on two essential techniques. First, he improvises a seemingly never-ending stream of analogies to express his enthusiasm for how remarkable the goal that just happened really was. Hudson is a particularly rabid fan of one of the sport’s living legends, Barcelona’s diminutive forward, Lionel Messi. Hudson analogizes all around Messi’s goal-scoring. I have heard him say that a defender trying to stop Messi from scoring is like someone trying to stop “a twisting dragon in vaseline.” Or: “The placement is emphatic, the power 1.21 gigawatts.” Or: “Like Oliver Twist, he wants more. He just never says ‘Please, sir.’” Or this: “He could follow you through a revolving door, and come out first.” Or this: “Dynamite at the end of an electrical attack.” Or my favorite: “Defenders try to follow him on Facebook, and he comes out on Twitter.”

The second key Hudson technique is the intensity of his passion. He’s the only commentator I have ever heard who runs himself ragged calling the game, so involved is he emotionally with the unfolding action. As co-host Schoen holds it together, I imagine Hudson slumped in his chair, all but spent before it’s even halftime. On more than a few occasions I have found myself glued to a game hoping to hear Hudson do his thing—which can be grandly summed up thusly: breaking through the glass ceiling that exists on any occupation by transforming it into something else. What’s the secret? It has something to do with the effect intensity has on how we perceive something done. Hudson brings incredible energy to his verbal riffs, careening from ad lib to ad lib as he tries to render for us the level of his engagement with the game. What more could one ask for?

Freestyle: Music Aphorisms 3

FullSizeRender-61

Your resistance to a music is a measure of the music’s capacity
to destabilize notions you didn’t know you hold dear.

The singer of the pop song assumes that if she repeats the chorus enough
someone will believe her.

Classical music’s contemporary uses illustrate how the music has always been, among other things, an aspirational tool and badge—a way of making social class audible.

Music used in advertising prostitutes itself in the sense of misusing its talents
and sacrificing its self-respect for financial gain.

Music is not a way to “express oneself” but a window
onto understanding the mechanics of expression itself.

“Music” is the on-life-support thing that musicians practice all day in conservatories; “music” is the empty promise of every new product in the music store catalog; “music” is riffs strung together and improvised solos transcribed and learned; “music” is the abstract idea pondered by philosophers; “music” is the social presence observed and deconstructed by anthropologists.
And yet…music thrives!

One day at rehearsal the band played the music at 3/4 speed.
“It grooves more” declared the piano player.
“Fast tempos never really groove.”

Drumming for dancers teaches that articulations and accents
need to be exaggeratedly obvious
because your listeners are thirty feet away, not looking at you, and in constant motion.

One way to distinguish “relaxing” music from “contemplative” music
is to check if you’re getting drowsy.

On Spotify’s Vastness Versus Listening’s Smallness  

IMG_9772

The other day I was browsing through Spotify’s seemingly endless genre categories (a subject for a future blog post), marveling at how the company’s algorithms manage to carve music into so many micro-genres. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not just about rock, hip hop, EDM, and classical anymore: through Spotify’s eyes, there’s a musical niche for everyone, no matter how idiosyncratic you think your tastes might be. Scrolling through some classical music playlists (wondering why and how Rachmaninoff and Max Richter came together) I noticed a playlist called “Indian Classical Music For Studying.” And in case you’re wondering if this list has been carefully calibrated for studying, I would say probably not—it’s just a collection of some of the world’s finest Indian classical musicians including Ali Akbar Khan, Imrat Khan, Ravi Shankar, and others. The playing is so expressive and interesting I don’t know how anyone could study with this music on—unless of course you’re studying melodic improvisation, in which case this playlist is an encyclopedia. (Side note: Why isn’t Indian music required transcription material for western musicians? High school stage bands could be arranging these improvisations instead of playing “Birdland.”)

I decided to give the playlist a chance and started listening to Ustad Sultan Khan playing rag Shuddh Kalyan. Khan (1940-2011) was a prominent sarangi player and vocalist. The sarangi, one of many stringed instruments used in North Indian classical music (the most well-known of which is the sitar), is short-necked lute with many strings that produces a hollow, echoing sound. When a musician imitates vocal sounds on the sarangi using little shakes (gamaks) and sliding movements (meends) on the strings, it can sound eerily like singing. It’s for this reason that I like listening to this kind of music because it’s a change from my regular diet of sharp attack, short-decay percussive stuff. Khan plays the Kalyan raga, which is a set of pitches that sound somewhat like the western major scale, though not at all exactly. Khan explores the raga through a thirteen-minute alap, which is the slow and unmetered opening section of an improvisation that introduces the raga over a drone backdrop. I find alaps the most interesting parts of Indian classical music performances because they build so much tension and intrigue before the tabla drums enter and things get more regimented (i.e. a meter is introduced) and therefore predictable (i.e. phrases end in unison on beat one of the meter, etc.).

All of this is digression from my main point: as I listened to Khan’s spaciously expressive alap I thought about the disjuncture between the vastness of  Spotify’s algorithmically-organized content and smallness or specificity of how musicians actually create and listeners actually listen. Listening to Khan (several times now), I marveled at how many tiny details he incorporated into every beautiful phrase. One could spend hours on these ten minutes, finding lessons on phrasing, form, and affect. One could conceivably ignore all of Spotify’s other offerings and spend a year studying “Indian Classical Music for Studying.” I won’t do that, but one lesson from this encounter is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about what the music itself offers. What meaningful sense impression or insight can you extract from its sounds? Does the music leave memory traces? Does it contain moments that resonate with you? Having all the music choices in the world is wonderful, but one can also excavate endless interest within a single performance.

(parenthetical thoughts)

(Harold Budd is walking in sandals around the shrubs and weeds of his backyard in Pasadena, California. It’s mid-afternoon, hot and sunny out. He kicks a stone that triggers a tiny dust explosion on his feet. Over the backyard are two telephone wires, a white bird sitting still on one of them. Budd is thinking about his next project—a live collaboration with a painter friend with whom he has agreed to play piano. Walking around the weeds and shrubs he thinks about how little he cares about the piano and how much more interesting this backyard is. He looks up at the bird on the telephone wire, imagining for a second that the wire is an enormous piano string. How deep would its pitch be—could he even hear it, or would he feel it as a rumble, like thunder at a distance? That could be a whole piece right there. He wipes his brow. The painter will do her thing and Budd will just play…something. He has no idea what though, and prefers to not think about it until the moment arrives and there’s no turning around. Music is too intense to waste time practicing it, right? At least whatever happens will be true to the time and space in which everyone finds themselves.)

On Writing About Music and Making Music

IMG_9859

I spend about equal time writing about music and making music and these experiences are quite different from one another. When I’m writing about music I’m on the outside of it, listening in. It feels like the music is far away—as if it’s a foreign craft practiced by a different kind of person than me sitting here deleting words and reordering sentences and trying to get a few ideas clear. Because the music feels far away I keep trying to conjure it up mentally—by remembering a sound, or imagining how it feels to play an instrument, and so on. But even though the music is far away, the flow of writing becomes its own kind of associative music: ideas emerge mid-phrase, concepts connect, and I’ll find myself growing ever more excited about some small thing. In the best moments, writing about music feels like flying at 40,000 feet and seeing the lay of the landscape below. When I’m playing music—improvising myself towards what will eventually be “composed” pieces—the writerly need to define and explain is all but extinguished by my conviction that the sounds are “saying” all I need to say at this moment. If we define music as a special modality of knowing ourselves and the world, then maybe that explains why when I’m playing music my senses feel supercharged—as if memory, perception, and anticipation have found their ideal feedback loop. In the best moments playing music is an ideal mind-body flow experience.

Both writing about music and playing it have their unsettling aspects though. Writing about music is in constant need of reality checks—it has to remember to keep referring to the original sounding sonic sign or else the described signified will float off into irrelevance. At the same time, writing about music has to achieve more than simply enumerating what’s happening over the music’s time. It has to somehow deploy focused thinking on a massive scale to engage and capture some of music’s grand magic. Having good case studies to riff off of helps, but the key is imaginatively conveying one’s deep reading of a music’s significance and implications. In an ideal situation, this kind of writing would be, well, musical. (Which reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s discussion of rhythm in writing.) Though I haven’t figured out how to write like this, I have explored it though my reading of remarkable writers such as Kodwo Eshun, Paul Morley, and David Sudnow. You can learn more about them in my Popular Music article here. Also: go buy their books!

An unsettling aspect of playing music is how easily it co-opts my emotions and entangles me in a polyphony of feelings. (This is why I loathe like TV commercials—the music is telling me what to feel!) As a composer, I’m suspicious of music’s emotional power because that power can be misused, trivialized, or even over-interpreted. To illustrate: I’ll work on twenty pieces, then come back to them a year later (or more), only to realize that twelve of them really suck. They suck in the sense that they haven’t retained the emotional power I thought they once had. I blame my playing ability here, but also my judgment: what state was I in to think that those pieces were any good? Somehow the process of getting into the musical moment back then dulled my critical thinking skills. Fortunately I have an after the fact corrective: throw out all the sucky pieces, leaving only the ones that still sound good. Even so, it’s unsettling to know that I’m frequently wrong about the affect of my own music.

While neither writing about music nor playing music are substitutes for one another, they do have one thing in common: they’re all about affect. Playing music is living the urtext and becoming one with the experience itself, while writing about music describes its meanings and uses, its potentials and ambiguities. Music is the endurance animal, while writing chases after it over a distance, always one step behind where neither one thought it could go.

•º•º

(parenthetical thoughts)

FullSizeRender-62

(One of the most beautiful musical moments that happens from time to time: I’m listening to something and a single tone, moving from a lower pitch to one higher, sends me towards revelation, into a thought cloud realization that I may have music all wrong. It’s not the sound that’s beautiful (the piano is nice enough), it’s not the speakers reproducing that sound that sound good (they sound good enough), it’s not even the uniqueness of the sound (not so unique) that compels me. What makes the music beautiful is more immaterial: its capacity to send my imagination soaring just long enough to notice the moment that has happened and is now gone.)