Musical Longitudes And Latitudes

Music has geography–
located in a place,
rooted in a set of coordinates,
mappable onto interpretive grids.

Like a spinning globe
music’s time moves from left to right,
it’s melodies fall from high to low,
it’s bass and treble create near and far.
Music has depth–it’s 4D.

Music also has inner coordinates.
Imagine smashing that globe
into a thousand small shards
that scatter around a room.
Each shard is a set of instructions
for a style, a tradition, a movement.

Take a small shard
and zoom in on its instructions–
binary script that describes
how this sound
will evolve into that,
one rule at a time
built upon or broken,
while musicians proceed
as if they’re the ones doing the thinking.

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?

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 Portlandia’s Music-Cultural Critiques

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The sketch comedy series Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and now in its third season, humorously riffs on social life in Portland, Oregon. The show skewers–or is it homage?–a range of Portlander-types, from self-employed creatives to self-absorbed nouveau yuppies to touchy-feely uber-alternative characters almost beyond precise description. Portlandia excels at noticing the many small details that help define a social scene–how people dress, how they talk and interact with one another, and what they value. Since both Armisen and Brownstein are musicians (Armison was a drummer before he became an actor and Brownstein was a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney before forming her current band, Wild Flag) it comes as so surprise that music is a frequent feature of the show. In its music-themed sketches, Portlandia illustrates just how powerful music is to our sense of self and community. Below are three examples.

In a sketch called “The Studio”, Fred plays an amateur home recording enthusiast and gearhead who invites his friend Lance over to his house to check out all of his specialized gear. Fred’s character is obsessed with vintage equipment, and shows Lance his keyboards, amps, microphones, and drum set. With a perpetually wide-eyed and spaced out look, he keeps referencing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as a kind of pinnacle example of studio-recorded music and hopes that one day someone will actually come visit his basement set-up to record.

In the “Wanna Come To My DJ Night?” sketch, Fred and Carrie realize, to their growing horror, that everyone around them has become a DJ. What is happening to the world?

In the “One Party At A Time” sketch, Fred and Carrie play unemployed millennials who attempt to make sense of their post-college lives and channel their vague political aspirations through meaningful music. “I feel like we need to mobilize. Like in the 60s there was Woodstock…people rallied around something. There was a protest song” says Carrie. A robot “Bot Dylan” suddenly appears to pitch a millennial protest song whose hook is “change the world one party at a time.” The song is catchy and its 4/4 electronic dance music thump transports Fred and Carrie’s characters and those around them to the club, brainwashing them into forgetting what they were protesting in the first place.

Even sketches that have nothing to do with music can have a musical quality. In the “Knot Store” sketch, the singular Jeff Goldblum plays an eccentric proprietor of a store that sells knots of string. The “music” in this sketch is 100 percent Goldblum’s voice itself. Listen to how he makes every utterance different in intonation and cadence, continuously changing up his delivery. Listen to his introduction (“My name is…Alan”) that slows, pauses, and dives to a low pitch on his name; listen to him answer Carrie’s questions about whether knots are a utilitarian or an aesthetic thing with parallel quick staccato replies (“nope…yep…”) followed by a deep and affirmative “yeah….” that swirls over several pitches; and listen to his sound effects too, as when he rolls his tongue at the end of a sentence that explains tangled iPod earbuds as a kind of sculpture (“An artist we work with makes these by jamming them into his pocket…rrrrr“). I’ve watched this sketch a dozen times. Oh so very musical!