I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing here again.

Where by “again,” I mean almost four years after I packed it in on this blog. I’ve been messing with my harp blog (Harp Oddities) and my flute blog (Accidental Flutist) for quite some time, and am still active on both of those instruments, more so than on the piano. I can’t recall the last time I really sat down and did anything at the piano, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I started taking harp lessons and stopped — and in an ungracious way that did no justice to my wonderful teacher — once it became clear that my hands, although fine for piano, are simply not good for the harp. (I had no idea how punitive that instrument would be toward the human hand.)

I’ve been arranging music for harp and enjoying it very much. I’ve also been arranging music (and composing melodies) for flute as well (19th century conical flute, the sound of which is much richer than the boehm system flute, although I do have one of those as well). I’ve been learning 12th century plainchant on the flute as well.

I seem to have finished my Haendel project and then just … petered out. I can’t play the music well enough, and if I can’t play my own music, what is the point of writing it? Who’s going to care about this shit anyway? I don’t know how to be a composer or an arranger. When one does music, one takes lessons and plays, especially as an amateur. I don’t even know what an amateur composer or arranger even is.

I’ve also felt extremely enervated by my tendency to bump up against some sort of exposure of my music and abilities and then shy away out of some kind of fear or drained hopelessness. For example, although I had been under a cloud due to the pain that the harp lessons put my hands through (and a variety of other life-related things), I finally disappeared from lessons when my teacher told me that she liked one of my compositions well enough to want to perform it publicly. While I had — and still have — been piling up reasons to want to cocoon myself prior to that, for some reason, that was the final straw. I’d like to be able to apologize to her and offer an explanation of some sort, but I have no clearly understood explanation and so am compelled to remain silent since I feel it would be pointless to apologize without some understanding of why I disappeared in the first place. I don’t understand why I did it — how can I apologize without any understanding?

In other news, I’ve been amused to get notifications that my voice articles on countertenors (and specifically Steve Perry) have shot upwards in traffic, no doubt prompted by the welcomed release of new music by him.

And finally, however much I have a love-hate relationship with my instruments (less so with the flute since that one just doesn’t have the same angst related to it with me), the one constant in my life is that I can’t seem to put down the crochet hook (or sometimes knitting needles). I like to be in a good mood when I sit at my instruments, and being chained to the second law of thermodynamics on them seems to really just chafe my ass cheeks in a way that I can’t get away from. Composing and arranging help tremendously with that since one is less “locked to the tracks” when doing that, but again, there is no such thing as an “amateur composer.”

On the other hand, I’m compelled no matter my mood to pick up that hook and make things up out of thin air with no guidance whatsoever. I can do that when happy, sad, angry, depressed, or feeling any mood at all. Maybe that’s my native language, and not music or math. They’re all underlyingly the same skill anyhow — three-dimensional grammatical architecture of one form or another. And I can do that for days, and my hands don’t care at all.

And I end up with an actual thing when I’m finished. And I need not share it with a single living soul, which invariably freaks my shit clean out whenever I so much as think about it.

And whether I share it or not doesn’t appear to impact whether I do it. The hook winds up in my hand no matter what.

I guess I’m just thinking out loud. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I guess none of us do; we’re all just rookies in life, fumbling our way through for the first time.

I sometimes wish I were less of a crazy little anchoritic weirdo, but then I look around me and get an eyeful of the rabid monkeys that comprise the rest of my species and I’m like, “Uhhhhh, okay I’d rather be a crazy little anchoritic weirdo than one of them.”

There is one person I’d like to chat with though, just to see how she’s doing.

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My god. It’s like announcing free beer.

Crazy but true.

My readership yesterday shot through the roof. Okay, as a niche blog with a very low readership and comments turned off, it’s a low ceiling.

Still. I swear, mentioning Steve Perry on your blog is like putting up a sign that says “Free Bacon All You Can Eat.” I adore the guy, but o_O.

The next time we hear Steve Perry — a prediction

I will hereby put my amateur nobody @$$ out there and make a prediction with no stakes, nothing on the line, and no one to bet with as to how and when we will ever hear The Voice singing anything other than in the past.

He has without a doubt recorded stuff. He’s like that. He’s done it, and we all know he has.

The chances of him ever touring again (I might even say “perform live in support of any new music at all, ever”) are zero. Seriously. It’s like trying to give a bath to a Great Dane that doesn’t want to get in the tub. I mourn it with a profound darkness, but it ain’t gonna happen. Those of us who have never heard him live, never will.

I have also heard and tend to give credence to the belief that he has an adult child, a daughter. Or at least, he’s been seen attending various dress-up events with a young woman of the right age who looks suspiciously as if she got half her DNA from him.

I have a sneaking suspicion, although I’m prepared to be proven wrong, that the next time we hear him sing, it will be after he has died (I don’t like thinking about it any more than you do) and given his adult daughter the rights to publish his music for her own financial benefit. It seems like the sort of thing he’d do. He’s a bit of a peculiar, high-functioning diva, let’s face it. At the very least, it wouldn’t shock me.

Again, I have put no money whatsoever on the line on this. I simply speak this prediction into the aether as something that would not surprise me if it comes to pass someday. I won’t even put a probability on it. Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe it will.

But if it did, I wouldn’t exactly be knocked off my pins.

Jesus, are there no other string players who are inspired by singers?

It’s so bizarre. I’m listening to some of the interviews on RBP’s Violins Rule podcast, and they are quite interesting, but man. One of the big things that people always say about stringed instruments is that they sound like voices — and yet every single string player in these podcast interviews, and most other interviews I’ve heard, talks about how they love guitar players and find inspiration in guitar players, etc. etc. etc.

Jesus. I seriously am the only string player in the known universe who found the majority of my inspiration from singers, inspiration to play this box with strings on it that supposedly sounds like someone singing. Crap.

The hell with guitars! I admire the living daylights out of EVH and Neal Schon, but seriously. Art Garfunkel! Cass Elliot. Frank Sinatra? Steve Perry! Aretha Franklin! Jesus on toast! I simply cannot be the only string player who see this, on this instrument that’s big claim to fame is that it’s a replacement voice.

Adopting the Ugly Pet

I am irked that the 20th century art-music snoots seem to have adopted the viola as their special mascot — and purely because of its rejected status in the standard classical world. There’s no particular appreciation for the sound of the viola, the way it can melt into your soft tissue like a combination of Aretha Franklin hitting a low note and a good, sweet Irish coffee. They just like it because it’s the rejected Ugly Pet and thus appropriate for their clove-cigarette status as self-consciously weird.

They’ve just adopted it because they think that befriending the ugly instrument will make them look deep.

News flash: it’s not ugly. It’s ugly the way that Sophia Loren was called “Stuzzicadente” (“toothpick”) when she was a kid, and the way that an idiot movie director once said of her when she was a teenager that “there is no way to photograph this girl and make her look good.” It’s ugly the way that Steve Perry’s school nickname was “Beaky” and the way that he said of himself that he was just a “skinny, big-nosed kid” when he was a teen.

Yes, you read that right. This was called ugly. And so was this.

And so is this.

This leaves as the only possible conclusion that the majority of sighted and hearing people are somehow both blind and deaf. And more revealingly, that “ugly” is actually a synonym for “doesn’t blend in,” despite the fact that beauty requires that one stand out! Francis Bacon said it: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

If you can’t hear the beauty of my instrument, you’re nuts. You (points to one side of the room) stop treating it like the Ugly Stepsister, and you over there (points to the other side of the room) stop treating it like the Ugly Pet. Stop writing boring music for it that gives it little to do, and stop writing creepy bump-and-squeak music that puts it center stage, and just play Vaga Luna on the damned thing!

Classical Cargo Cults: Taking the Wrong Lessons from Popular Music

I’ve said elsewhere that classical music insiders lack respect for their surrounding communities. They whine when they have to program or play music that typical people like or connect with — which is sometimes gorgeous symphonic music that’s every bit as complex as anything written 100 years ago. And they have heart attacks when people suggest playing Bach or Tchaikovsky on a non-symphonic instrument.

Why?

Because average people like this stuff.

Eew, them?

Yes. Those people whose money you need on ticket sales to stave off Chapter 11? Them.

The disdain for the typical surrounding community is palpable. The classical music industry needs the community’s money through ticket sales, but it hates playing what they like, which is often beautiful and complex, and wants them to keep their cooties off of it. (And by the way, I’m not talking about the musicians. I’m talking about the management and funding structures. The musicians rarely if ever disdain any one entire form of music.)

However, the classical music industry also wants to be relevant to them at the same time. Or relevant enough to get them to open their wallets.

Pop and rock doesn’t reflect this disdain in its music. That’s why pop and rock make more money, because they don’t disdain their audiences. In fact, they often write music from the point of view of the typical listener. (Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and Jonathan Cain are geniuses at that — and there’s more of them. I’m only mentioning the ones that a typical 45 year old would know.) They write and perform things that ennoble the audience as they are. “Here you go: here’s a song (ex. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”) that speaks of what rhetorical-you, the listener, are feeling and living and have experienced. It is noble, and by extension, you are noble.” That is why people love that music.

When I was thinking of why people love, as an example, “Don’t Stop Believing,” it really hammered that point home. This is a song that ennobles the emotions felt by no one more elevated than your typical blue-collar kid who feels trapped by their surroundings and who is in the midst of a deep episode of “anywhere but here.” That’s essentially all the song is about.

It’s certainly beautiful just as a piece of music, something so catchy and meaty that it almost demands that you listen to it from the minute the opening hook starts. But there are a lot of songs with catchy hooks around, and they aren’t all the most downloaded song ever on iTunes. This one ennobles the audience. It doesn’t act like the listener is just a cheap little working-class nobody who has to be ushered into the World of Fabulousness occupied by the elevated musicians and insider audience. It doesn’t promise to elevate the listener by first reaching down to them. It can’t. It was written and performed by people who had been blue-collar kids looking for a means of escape themselves.

Yet what conclusion does the classical music insider reach when pondering why this sort of music has such a devoted (and financially rewarding) following?

It must be the video screens! Oh, and Steve Perry ran around on stage in jeans. Maybe if we had video screens and our musicians wore jeans instead of tails (Perry, in a massive stroke of irony, often wore both) we might get the same reaction!

This is cargo-cult reasoning — that empty aping of the shallowest gestures from a given culture will result in that culture’s bounty raining down from out of the sky.

Only the most pathologically distant, culturally incompetent people, who couldn’t connect with the average listener if their lives depended on it, would conclude that the video screens, flashing lights, and blue jeans were the secret to that music’s success. Only people who have no idea what it means to grow up trapped in a grey industrial life, fully aware that one either escapes when the getting is good or one will live out one’s entire existence in an undemanding, poorly-paying job, tied down and forever unfulfilled, could possibly see nothing but the lights and jeans in popular music. It’s boggling.

And yet, since the classical music industry often runs on donor support — the support of very wealthy people — the back offices are skewed in favor of people for whom caviar luncheons are simply the way the universe works. Moreover, if that world runs on donors, there’s no other choice.

As a result, I don’t think that the current classical music industry can ever manage to reap the level of audience devotion and connection that popular music can. They function in a world where connecting to the very rich is an absolute requirement, since donations are how they survive. Connecting to the ordinary person is in direct opposition to this.

Hence, they are left with nothing but the empty gestures of popular music to mimic. The wrong lesson is all that they can bring into their world, because the right lesson just doesn’t breathe the same air.

In the blink of an eye …

I’ve gone from seeing a little tabloid-size piece of cardboard tacked up in the locker room of my first high school for this album to being halfway to 50, both shocked at how quickly the time went by and incredibly touched and moved at how thoroughly this music has been embraced by succeeding generations.

Not the Comic-Book-Guy art-rock junk that went before, that snooty, distant (and let’s face it — misogynist) stuff that was rock’s answer to the weird atonal art-classical that’s been so completely rejected after having rejected its audience first. Not the Politically Relevant Protest Songs that went before that, understandable only within the narrow historical context in which they were created (like all that unpleasant, ugly, cacophonic stuff that was a response to World War 1). Not the smash-your-guitar-on-stage-before-choking-on-vomit nonsense that confused being an Artiste with dying a preventable, tragicomic, preposterous death from a heroin overdose at 27.

This. Music that was music, that concentrated on telling a basic, timeless human story that will always be relevant, in a melodically rich, technically rigorous way. Stuff that the Art Rock Crowd disdained. Stuff that my generation was laughed at for loving by the people who came before — people who had better like the taste of crow, because unless they manage to paint themselves out of the critical corner in which they’ve lived for the past 30 years, they’re going to be dining on it a lot from now on.

I’m seeing youngsters who haven’t even passed completely through puberty falling in love with this stuff that we loved first. I’m seeing youngsters watching old concert footage with the same expression of amazement that the kids in school wore who were lucky enough to be able to see them live, that stunned look that said, “Wow. Perry really sounds like that.” I’m seeing kids with secondhand Strats from eBay woodshedding Schon’s work like violinists do Paganini. I myself continue to find incredible inspiration in Jonathan Cain in every way, and in his predecessor Gregg Rolie as a Baroque stylist that I can never hope to equal.

I’m even seeing 13 year old girls wearing that same facial expression I must have worn at the same age, as if every brain cell in their head went on vacation at the same time, because they’ve seen Steve Perry on stage and can’t fathom anything else ever being so beautiful, beautiful enough to break your heart, wedged in that thin crevice between “gawky” and “elegant” where one also finds 17 year old supermodels and Russian wolfhounds.

People love this music. Everyone. (Those who don’t are either beginning the arduous verbal process of logicking themselves out of the Gordian knot they created or are just very, very quiet.)

This music meant so much to my generation. We love it and are possessive of it and protective of it like a 10lb stray cat of her litter. It is timeless, rich, rigorous, beautiful, complex, and entirely free of irony. I can’t communicate how it feels to see it moving proudly and regally into Velveteen Rabbit territory.

That Ebm thing I’ve been working on? Started with “Who’s Crying Now,” because I wanted to try something in a minor key that didn’t raise the seventh to get a V7 and instead used v7 to resolve. (I’m not as good as Cain. I raised it in the end. Someday … )

Our music is the Velveteen Rabbit. My music. You better believe it.

Me versus My Baboon Brain

I know he’s an inflexible, high-functioning diva.

I know he’s a giant pain in the ass.

I know he’s also a classic eccentric, reclusive genius who’s bent at some strange angles along the lines of all the other Eccentric, Reclusive, Bent Geniuses whose music I have either worshipped or killed myself learning. (Wagner, Berlioz, Chopin, Beethoven — you don’t know the archetype until you’ve dealt with those jokers.)

And I know that I could probably spend about six minutes in close proximity to him before I’d want to strangle him out of frustration.

However, the parts of my brain that I share with a baboon — the parts I refer to as Ooga the Cavewoman — don’t care about any of that. Those parts see pictures like this:

… and all they can think is JUICY BOY OOGA WANT.

Ooga is rarely sensible. Thankfully, she doesn’t make many decisions that aren’t related to ice cream, wine, and chocolate pie — and those infrequently.

It’s all very sad.

Different approaches to music

I listened to something last night that I have had for some time but was saving for the right moment. It’s a 43-minute long mp3 of a writing session for a piece of music called “Missing You,” by Steve Perry. Like a lot of his later-era relationshippy music, it’s a tough listen, but aside from that, the approach was fascinating.

I’ve said before that my own approach to music (and to writing it) seems to be more a fascination for the abstract structure of the music, the tinkertoy mobile that hangs in midair in my mind associated with a given piece. Almost the grammar of the piece. That’s what I love. The notes are just the vertices of the 3-d structure that the music itself makes. They’re only there to reveal that structure.

With the viola and most single-note instruments, the beauty is more the perfection and glitter of the individual notes that are at each vertex. The piano (and me when I write) builds the tinkertoy structure, but the viola polishes the gems that are then stuck on each vertex, and a lot of the beauty of that music is in the beauty of the crafted gems.

The “Missing You” writing session exposed a completely different way of approaching writing music as well. (I guess which one resonates more with a given writer is a matter of personality and natural inclination.) “The less there is to say, the more there is to sing” (paraphrase) was flat-out said in this writing session. And while the melody was gorgeous — and labeled as such with the comment “this is such a great melody” by Perry as he was working — a good part of that was due to the room it afforded the singer to move and embellish. It wasn’t too claustrophobic and gave him a lot of room to work in the manner he preferred, concentrate on expressing the message of the song, and which showcased his voice where he knew it was at its best. (Singer-songwriters always write in a way that shows their own unique instrument off best.)

It was almost completely lyrically driven, and also driven in a “telling a story” sort of way that I found was very much like the way that a classical music interpreter has to approach their work as well. Any piece of music is a narrative; a song with lyrics simply makes this obvious. In fact, it’s a damned crying shame that files like this are *coughs weakly* somewhat dubious regarding their legality, because they would be golden for composing students. It’s a shame more writing sessions aren’t available for modern composers/songwriters along the lines of Valentina Lisitsa’s youtubed practice sessions. As useful as this is, I’m sure that other composers noodle and work in different ways, even other rock and R&B composers/songwriters. We tend to see only the polished, finished product when it comes to pop/rock, and classical/jazz is where the hood gets lifted to see all the fiddly bits. Pop/rock are completed commodity items, and classical/jazz are the DIY stuff. I’d kill to lift the lid on more real pop/rock songwriters. What I wouldn’t give for a similar writing session from Jeff Lynne or Dennis DeYoung …

It was also very impressive to note that, as a working writing session, this file was not autotuned, cleaned up, or rendered fit for consumption but simply recorded as-is. Except for the moments (fewer than I could count on one hand) when Perry was hesitating or would interrupt himself and rework something, he was exactly on the center of the note every single time. It reminded me of the way that Yo-Yo Ma might pick up a cello bow and noodle casually — sounding perfect the whole time. It was the sort of negligent perfection that is anything but negligent and speaks of decades of hard labor, and an insatiable appetite for getting it exactly right.

Doing it right is non-negotiable. You do it right when performing. You do it right when practicing. You do it right when writing. You do it right when noodling. You just do it right. That’s step zero, no matter what. There is no excuse for not doing it right.

Also, I’m familiar with this song, but less so than with some of his other work. (Again, his later-era love songs are a bit draining to listen to.) In every single instance where he was noodling around and I was thinking to myself, “XYZ is a better lyric,” or “drop down there at the beginning so you can go up later,” that is precisely what he would wind up doing. He always ended up making the best possible choice for the music, in every instance. Unfailing instincts and training. Extremely impressive.

Anyway.

Examples of the speaking voices of falsettist and natural male altos

That article I wrote about high male voices seems to be getting traction lately. I should add in the laryngoscope images at some point, and have included below some interviews with altinos and falsettists to illustrate the contrast between the two voice types. Once you listen to James Bowman and Andreas Scholl talking and then hear Russell Oberlin, it becomes quite clear what’s going on.

Falsettists — all with baritone speaking voices:

Andreas Scholl: An interview wherein he discusses his experience of the falsettist countertenor voice.
David Daniels: Promotional clip for his (now available) Bach CD, featuring his speaking voice.
Jimmy Somerville: Interviewed on television in 1988.

And here are a few with natural male altos (and one soprano) — all with very light, high speaking voices:

Russell Oberlin: Billed himself as the only “true” countertenor of his time.
Neil Sedaka: Yes, the bubblegum pop singer.
Steve Perry: Yes, the rock singer.
Smokey Robinson: Of the Miracles and Motown.
Dennis DeYoung: Yes, the other rock singer, and the lowest voice in this list.
Michael Maniaci: Brilliant male soprano, at least a fifth to a sixth above the other voices in this list, and an incredibly unique artist.

A cursory listen will more than illustrate that sumpin intrestin’s goin on. Tell me that you don’t listen to the guys in the second list and feel an urge to slap them on the back so they can clear their throats.