Here in Philly, WHYY, one of the city’s public radio stations, has a Local Music Project to feature the work of musicians in the area during voiceover announcements, irrespective of genre. Someone recently tipped me off to its existence, and the station agreed to feature my Flute Scherzo for pipe organ. I am very grateful for their interest. Please visit the link above and check out not only my profile but the other musicians as well. And tune in to WHYY and keep your ears open for the Flute Scherzo.
I love books. If it weren’t for music I’d love books more than anything in the world. I have too many of them, and having moved twice in the past two years, I can say for sure that they comprise the bulk of my possessions. So why not talk about some of my favorite music books? I’ll just sit here in my living room and glance at the shelves and briefly describe the ones that catch my eye.
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise and Listen to This
Ross mirrors my background in that he grew up listening to classical music and only moved into other genres in adulthood. In The Rest is Noise he writes on 20th century music with passion, like he really listens to this stuff to put his heart, mind, and soul back together. There is not a hint of snobbery in his approach. Maybe this is because, while getting into heady avant-garde music, he does not eschew more popular composers like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, or because he relates the music to what was going on in history at the time. Whatever it is, Ross brings new enthusiasm to many musical styles that have been weighed down by the popular perception that they’re dry or academic or even hostile to the audience. If anything could soften a cantankerous Romanticist’s attitude towards modern music, this book might be it.
Listen to This was a major stepping stone for me. Ross interviews a number of contemporary artists such as Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who confesses an admiration for Olivier Messiaen–an influence that can be heard in their album Kid-A. In fact much of this book encouraged me to bridge or even transcend genres in my own work. Unfortunately a quick glance at the table of contents reveals that I don’t remember a whole lot about its specific contents, but I’ll never forget the change of mind it created in me. Among other things, I learned a new respect for pop artists and how substantive their music can be. I might have to revisit this one soon.
H.C. Robbins-Landon: 1791: Mozart’s Last Year
Everything you know from the movie Amadeus is wrong, such as the supposed rivalry between the protagonist and Antonio Salieri. Robbins-Landon undoes a lot of the myth-making surrounding Mozart’s death, which might make for less dramatic movies but also for more beautiful story lines, such as the fact that shortly after Mozart’s death, Salieri used many of his Masses for the various coronation services throughout the Hapsburg Empire at the accession of Emperor Franz Joseph II. Sounds to me like he was anything but a rival.
Another mind-blowing fact from this book: Shortly before Mozart got sick he was appointed to become the next Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna whenever his would-be predecessor, Leopold Hoffman, should die. This would have allowed him to make a living from something other than commissions, which then would have given him more freedom in his compositional style. Like the public of today, the aristocracy of Mozart’s time knew what they liked, and liked what they knew, so Mozart was somewhat unfulfilled in writing their ditties. He lamented in a letter to his wife Constanza (is there a more beautiful name than that?) shortly before he died that now that he finally was going to have the freedom to compose as he wished, he had to die. One of the greatest composers of Western history looked down on his own music.
Robert Sherlaw-Johnson: Messiaen
A lot of information about Messiaen focuses on biographical details, which surprises me because I don’t think his life was particularly interesting, save for a few episodes, like writing the Quartet for the End of Time in a prisoner of war camp. He was a deep thinker about music but not much of a reader. He owned two books: the Bible, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. When it comes to his music, writers are often content to speak of it in almost mystical fashion, making a few mentions of the modes of limited transposition and leaving it at that. Maybe this makes the subject matter seem more profound to some people.
But Johnson doesn’t fall for it. He pulls back the veil in the temple, so to speak, and discusses Messiaen’s actual compositional approach. The direct path turns out to be far more fascinating than the mystical one.
Besides components such as his system of scales and his borrowing of Eastern rhythms, Messiaen was pretty much a finger composer–deciding on chords on a case-by-case basis by virtue of their timbre. There was no systematic theory of harmony that went along with his modes, but don’t let this “finger composing” seem too easy. It’s actually quite difficult to compose the way Messiaen did and still have the music make sense. Thoughtless randomness will not work, not even in supposedly-dissonant music.
Christopher Hogwood: Handel
I’m not much of a Handel fan. I don’t know if my contrarian spirit dislikes his popularity, or if I’m just more of a Bach guy–or if I’ve played too many weddings. This could be viewed a number of different ways, all of which run the risk of coming off as polemical. But I will plead that I am in good company–Brahms. He subscribed to periodicals featuring music from the Baroque era, and when something new by Bach would come in, he set aside whatever else he was looking at, Handel included, and turned to “Old Bach,” as he called him.
After reading Hogwood’s biography, though, I found new respect for Handel. His work ethic was like Mozart’s without the mania. His sense of humor was hilarious: “Welcome back!” he once said to a tenor whose errant voice wandered through several keys before arriving in the correct one. He had more business sense than most musicians then or now. There’s a lot to admire about Handel, even before you get to those gorgeous aria melodies in The Messiah that are too often beaten to death by conductors (or soloists?) who don’t know how to dance.
Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea
Reading Schoenberg, like reading Nietzsche, usually feels like getting an electrical shock. He is blunt, opinionated, and sometimes obnoxious. A little goes a long way before exhaustion sets in. But as with Nietzsche, Schoenberg is worth the effort, and there’s never any reason to wonder what he’s really thinking.
Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on music, his own and that of others. Two of my favorite take-aways:
–Brahms the Progressive. Schoenberg points out the asymmetry in Brahms’s work, particularly in phrasing. He argues that there are tendencies in Brahms that point to the future, in spite of his interest in early music and his desire to emulate the best contrapuntists in the Western canon. This casts serious doubt on any rigid conception of Brahms as a Romanticist or a neo-classicist, two mostly-mistaken categorizations I’ve heard repeatedly. No good music, of course, could simply live in the past, which is why everyone knows Brahms but almost no one knows the Caecilians.
–Throughout the book, Schoenberg rails against listeners who focus on what he calls the surface-level impressions of music. They get lost in snapshots that sound harsh, rather than following closely how the themes work. They hear the “dissonance” but not how it came to be. Most people just want music that sounds nice and goes “straight to the feet.” I guess not much has changed in the past half-century.
It is important to note that Schoenberg wrote not of composing dissonant music but rather of emancipating the dissonance. In his mind, there was no dissonance, just themes worked out to their logical conclusions, regardless of any resulting harmony. Interestingly, this is similar to the approach used in Medieval and early Renaissance music, where more attention was paid to each individual line and not the “chord,” per se.
There’s a whole pile of books I could write about, but this is a good start. I can’t claim to remember everything about them, or even to get all the facts right–and feel free to correct me. If, however, this short list contributes a little bit of understanding, or lights a small fire of inspiration for someone, that’s good enough for me.
I recently visited Somerton, a community in the farthest northeast reaches of the City of Philadelphia. As I waited for the return train downtown, I noticed one of the public address speakers malfunctioning and emitting a remarkably rhythmic sound. So I pulled out my phone and started recording. Sometimes our environment has already composed music for us to hear, and we just have to capture it somehow.
Last night I finally sat down to mix and master this track in Cubase. I spent a lot of time with the EQ to avoid unwanted white noise and distortion, but without hollowing out the sound and making it sound unnatural. I’ll also admit that I ducked the fader during the train arrival to get extra headroom in the mix so that I could add more gain during the mastering process. I find the more I make recordings, the more aggressive I get with the EQ and the more headroom I aim for. It can make the mixing process seem interminable but then the mastering process is so much smoother.
Blaze Foley was killed in a drunken gunfight at the age of 39. His assailant, Carey January, was acquitted by reason of self-defense. The story only gets sadder from there.
Ethan Hawke, whose love of outlaw country was unknown to me until now, has teamed up with Foley’s former love, Sybil Rosen, and told the story of this Texas songwriter’s strange life in a movie now out from Sundance Select simply entitled Blaze. It takes plenty of liberties but is largely based on Rosen’s book about Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree.
Hawke relates that the project got started when he was hanging out with Ben Dickey, a Little Rock native who once lived in Philly and whose band had recently broken up. Dickey played through a Blaze Foley song, and when he finished, Hawke suggested that he play Foley in a movie about his life, even though he had no acting experience.
From my perspective, the movie is anchored by many scenes from Blaze’s last show at the Austin Outhouse. Incidentally, this show was recorded and it’s the record of Foley’s that I constantly return to when I’m eager to hear his voice. Some commentators have said the movie jumps around mysteriously, but in my opinion it still holds together. It’s neither a puzzle like Pulp Fiction nor semi-mystical like Field of Dreams, but more closely reflects the manner in which someone might reminisce about various times in their life. A radio interview of Townes Van Zandt and Blaze’s friend Zee (a composite character of several different people) provides further context, almost like color commentary.
The romance between Blaze and Sybil is portrayed as almost idyllic in the beginning, the couple nestled in a rent-free treehouse in bucolic surroundings. But after two moves to Austin and Chicago strained their bond, Sybil painfully breaks it off, and this seems to be a downward turning point for Blaze, both musically and personally. For me this added new context to several of Blaze’s songs. “If I Could Only Fly,” one of his most beautiful works, was written for Sybil after Blaze spent a lot of time on the road and left her home alone with almost no idea of when he would return. In the context of the movie it’s almost unbearably beautiful to listen to, and Dickey gets the cadence of Foley’s delivery exactly right.
We like to say that artists are tormented. Townes Van Zandt was tormented. Charles Bukowski was tormented. But Blaze reached a whole new level. He was driven totally bananas. “He only went crazy once,” Townes famously said. “Decided to stay.”
This frequently came out in his drinking. An abusive childhood might have been in the mix as well. The music that we put into the background with our earbuds was often written at a very high price, and this could not be more true for this movie’s protagonist.
Blaze suffered in obscurity almost more than anyone else I can think of, although admittedly much of it was self-inflicted. Townes was obscure but not this obscure. Charles Bradley was a late bloomer but lived to see some success. The movie depicts Blaze burning the bridge with the one record label that gave him a chance. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon story.
The makers of this movie admit that parts of it are fictionalized. Still, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with certain aspects of it. Townes Van Zandt’s personality strikes me as a bit off key in this performance, self-serving and oleaginous. This isn’t the Townes I’m familiar with from Heartworn Highways and Be Here to Love Me, but maybe I’m missing something. During the radio interview he takes credit for recording Live at the Austin Outhouse. Did he actually do it? Did he actually make that claim? Why did Zee walk out of the interview when he said this? This wasn’t the only grandiose statement attributed to Van Zandt in the movie. An interesting note at the end of the movie thanks the Van Zandt estate for permission to use his songs in spite of their objection to some of the portrayals of Townes in the movie. I did, however, think that Charlie Sexton did a good job of singing Townes’s songs.
In addition, the movie presents a more ponderous version of Blaze at the Austin Outhouse than is apparent from the recording, in which he is upbeat and hilarious, not withstanding the fight that he did in fact get into. His story about Officer Norris, who, as Blaze tells it, arrested him on a trumped-up traffic violation and inspired a song, demonstrates this. You can hear the twinkle in his eye as he talks. But not so much in the movie, in which he is downbeat through the entire set. Maybe both versions of Blaze are true, but we only get one of them in the movie at the Outhouse.
This is still an excellent movie, though. What I think are flaws are small, and Hawke and Rosen’s work is a powerful statement about a genius who was ignored in life and even three decades after his death is still not getting his due. One wonders at the bitterness Blaze must have fought. A telling scene occurs at the Outhouse after he finished his set in a near-empty bar. Another band comes on stage and sings an insipid song that goes, “T is for Texas, T is for Tennessee,” etc, until you feel braindead from the stupidity. By then the bar had filled up, the customers nodding their heads and tapping their feet to the music. Blaze blankly stared at the floor. This, as it turned out, would be the last performance of his life.
I agree with Ethan Hawke that it’s good for people to see a story about a musician who never really made it. Most of the stories in this business do not have a happy, made-for-TV ending, and Blaze was no different. His music wasn’t for foot-tapping or head-nodding; it tapped the heart and the soul and the spirit. That kind of approach doesn’t usually sell very well.
The poetry and the wisdom of his music, the impish sense of humor, the heartiness of his bright baritone voice all suggest the possibility that, had he lived longer, even Blaze Foley might not have been able to stand in his own way. Now, though, not only after the release of covers of his music by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, we also have this movie, and I wonder if his legend will find new life in this wider exposure. He may yet become a star, and although he won’t be around to see it, those of us who’ve admired him may discover that Blaze can, in fact, fly.
Anton Bruckner was constantly revising his music, to the point that it’s sometimes hard to tell which version of a given piece is the “authentic” one. It was like he just didn’t realize that no work of art is ever truly finished, it is simply left in peace at a certain point. He even allowed himself to be intimidated into revising some of his choral music by the Caecilians, an organization of Catholic Church musicians who were trying to give rebirth to the best of the Renaissance. They wanted pure modality, none of that 19th century chromaticism stuff, and once or twice, Bruckner obliged. I wonder what music we lost in the process.
I usually think of Bruckner whenever I’m tempted to second-guess something I’ve already done. After all, you really can polish the life out of something, make it flat, inhuman, too perfect for its own good–or even disfigured. I would rather have impassioned imperfection than music that sounds like a mathematical formula.
So it’s been with a sense of extreme caution that I’ve revisited a number of my musique concrete soundtracks as I’ve learned new D.A.W. skills in Cubase. Maybe the difference is that usually I’m not making artistic changes so much as I’m trying to improve the quality of the recording–but I can’t promise that I haven’t made some compositional changes, as well.
I had occasion recently to look at three of my tracks–Vox Organa, Ode to Messiaen, and Coffee Cantata. When I last worked on these I hadn’t read through Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio–a highly useful book–nor had I had my crash course in mastering, which happened when I was under deadline for 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia, and my friend who usually did the mastering was out of town. That was…interesting. But I made it.
In the wake of all this, I have useful hindsight, so I’m frequently finding aspects of my earlier soundtracks that are lacking. Why not improve them?
Luckily for much of this, I had an expert engineer over my shoulder to save me from myself, particularly in Vox Organa and Coffee Cantata, which required the use of compressors, with which I had very little if any hands-on experience. Ode to Messiaen was more straightforward; it really only needed gain. I like to add stereo widening a lot, maybe even too much, but I resisted that urge for this last track, since making a mockingbird sound larger than life struck me as just a bit ridiculous.
I’ve previously discussed Ode to Messiaen and Vox Organa on here, but I don’t believe I’ve mentioned anything about Coffee Cantata on here before. J.S. Bach wrote a choral piece by that name that was performed at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, with Bach conducting the ensemble that was the precursor to what is now the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. You wouldn’t expect anyone but the most astute classical musician to be aware of such things, but I’m reassured by a local coffee roaster here in Philly that this particular cantata is well-known among baristas everywhere, which is encouraging.
I decided one day to record the brewing of my morning coffee and mix it into a soundtrack. Much to the horror of my hand-pouring friends, I use an electric coffee maker. In my defense, however, it makes more interesting sounds. When I was done, I thought there could be no better name for it than Coffee Cantata, even though it does more gurgling than singing. Some choruses do that, too, though.
In addition to the three above, I’ve also done further work on Crosstown Commute. This one already got a good once-over after I finished the Mike Senior book, which helped me to understand much better how to use EQing and other techniques. But it hadn’t yet benefitted from some mastering, so I went back into it and added some stereo widening and some gain too. It seems like something simple–assuming you have enough headroom in the mix–but I spent a good deal of time on it, ducking the fader here and there to keep little blips and bloops from clipping. The dumbest things in the world cause digital clipping, and you can lose your religion chasing them down. It’s worth it in the end though.
All these tracks seem to have turned out for the better for having been revisited. I don’t mind admitting that my earlier work left something to be desired. I’m on a learning curve here, and I’m eating it up. In some ways it’s more interesting being a novice rather than a master. I just hope that as I achieve more skills I’ll have the sense to know when to leave a piece of music well enough alone. Time is scarce enough as it is.
If you wiped out public transit, I wouldn’t have much left on 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia. At the very least it wouldn’t be the same album. I doubt I’m the only one, but the rhythmical noises of trains just get to me. I can’t stay away from them.
When I started on this project the Ben Franklin Bridge crossed my mind almost immediately. It’s always been one of my favorite locations in this city, and suspension bridges, with their cathedral-like heights and their testimony to human ingenuity, have long fascinated me. The PATCO, the rail line that connects Philly to Camden and points southeast, rolls over the bridge and makes this a perfect recording site.
Later on I thought of the Race St. Pier, which experienced a wonderful makeover a few years ago and sits practically right underneath the bridge.
“This’ll be great!” I thought. “I can record the train and the water.” And who knows, maybe some other interesting sounds too.
The very first day I recorded for the album, I made it to a number of different locations, among them, the pier. Some of these recordings went well on the first take, others not so much.
I walked out onto the pier and discovered that the water wasn’t making the slightest sound, not even a trickle. So, I wondered, what were the waves–admittedly gentle, but waves nonetheless–hitting up against? Then a boat with a pretty sizable wake came by.
“Finally!” I thought to myself. I watched excitedly as the wake approached the pier, but when it got there, there was still no sound. What in the world? Was I on a stealth pier or something?
Although I got plenty of train footage, I was disappointed in the take and was pretty sure I wanted to do it again, but when I got home I listened to it anyway. Microphones sometimes pick up sounds that we don’t necessarily hear as well or even at all in person, and sometimes we notice things at a later listening that we didn’t take note of in real time. So I listened, but still, no water.
It wasn’t the worst loss, since I was as yet without my wind screen and there was just enough of a breeze to create noise on the track, so I’d have to go back another time anyway. (Some wind noise can be mitigated by low-end EQing, but only so much, before the inevitable trade-offs creep in.)
I headed back to the pier a few weeks later, armed with my windscreen, with my fingers crossed. As I thought about the first take, I realized that the way I had set up–out on the end of the pier, with my recorder facing the water–I was asking for a wonky stereo image, since that would put the trains all on one side, and next to nothing on the other. This might have been acceptable or even preferable if the water had been audible, but since it wasn’t, even on this second trip, I set up on the side of the pier, facing the bridge so that the trains would move from one side of the stereo image to the other as they passed. This proved to be doubly advantageous since I also caught a lot of foot traffic passing by on the pier, and even a skateboarder whooshing past near the end.
Near the west side of the tracks on the bridge, there’s something–I don’t know what–that causes the train to make a lot of noise, that is, a lot of rhythmical noise, which is my favorite, of course. It just so happened to be practically right in front of me. Another advantage of my new set up was that the opposing directions of the trains, from Philly or from Camden, would be more audible.
Like the MFL 13th St. Turnstiles track, I wanted to get this one at rush hour, and I even went to the trouble of researching when the PATCO runs most frequently to determine when I should take this footage. I hope it worked well enough. There’s something about putting things on tape that seems to give them a slower pace. Maybe that’s just my imagination. Or maybe it’s a symptom of being from a culture that lives on ten-second soundbites and 140-character rants. I don’t know. But I try to take refuge in Pierre Schaeffer’s advice not to be frightened of slow tempos.
It might not seem like it to someone who doesn’t know the place, but this footage couldn’t possibly have been taken anywhere else. The Market-Frankford Line whimpering as it emerges from underground a few blocks away only adds to the unmistakability of this location. It’s a great place to think, and an even better place to get magnificent views of the two cities that hug the Delaware River, uniting nature and some of the most wonderful feats of human engineering of the past century.
It’s amazing how our own mistakes and misconceptions can lead us down a productive path in spite of ourselves. I guess I was only half paying attention in college in Music History IV when we discussed John Cage’s Music of Changes, which was based on the I Ching–in English, The Book of Changes, a classic Chinese divination text that has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the West in modern times. My misconceptions remind me of comments I made about springboards in How to Compose Music and the messiness of the creative process that I mentioned in this post about Bach. In this vein, my poor memory gave me useful inspiration for my recent album, 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia.
I errantly thought the Music of Changes was totally randomized, but as it turns out, Cage used the I Ching to determine the placement and duration of already-composed motifs. He also used the divination text to determine the thickness of the musical texture. This is a bit different than the total randomness that I mistakenly thought was involved, something akin to rolling dice to see what note should be composed next. I suppose some similarity could be claimed between Cage’s project and mine, since the sounds I recorded are short motifs, but I’m not willing to hazard this based on what I know so far.
A few years ago, SEPTA, the local public transit agency in the Philly metropolitan area, started rolling out new turnstiles to go along with its new KeyCard program. They emit three sounds: two different ones for when someone is admitted to the station–a repeating pleasant tone not unlike an iPhone notification, or a three-note motif, consisting of an octave jump and a descending fourth. If a card doesn’t work for some reason, it repeats an unpleasant buzzing sound, one that has the timbre of “you lose” or something like that.
Of course, the order, frequency, and even simultaneity of these sounds depends upon who shows up and when. I wanted an active soundtrack, so I would head to one of two underground stations–Walnut-Locust or 13th St–around 5pm. In spite of the hour, the turnstiles were never quite as active as I wanted them to be, but eventually I got a take I could live with. The various sounds, randomly pieced together by whoever happened to come in, made a kind of melody of chance, one that possibly will never happen again as it was captured on this recording.
For some reason, SEPTA runs a bunch of god-awful fans in their stations during the summer. These fans blow filthy, humid air into your face, and they also make for incredibly inconvenient background noise in field recordings. Standing on the other side of a thick column didn’t do much to dull this sound, but I did cut the EQ on both the low and high end, though not so much that the incoming trains ended up sounding too ghostly. It did make the fans themselves sound a little weird, though. But leaving them in the track at full power was simply out of the question. Thankfully the timbre of the turnstile sounds remained unaffected, which can never be guaranteed. EQing in field recordings frequently takes out something you do want along with the noises you don’t want. But I got lucky this time, with a little help from the disparities in the frequencies involved.
Like in the South Philly Air Conditioners track, I used my iPhone, and for similar reasons. In this case, too, the directional nature of the iPhone mic kept the focus on the turnstiles and away from other noise in the area.
In some respects I’m a traditionalist when it comes to art. I don’t need classic forms or harmonies in music or meter in poetry, for example, but the work needs to make sense somehow. Beyond that, push the boundaries, for all I care. But one of the unfortunate by-products of a more-or-less traditionalist view of art is the seeming belief that in order for something to have meaning or be truly artistic, there needs to be intent behind it on the part of the artist. If my apprehension that such beliefs exist is accurate, I don’t think they’re true. Accidents can be wonderful, whether they’re compositional accidents, randomness or aleatoric music, or just a field recordist who distorted in his memory what he thought he knew about John Cage and the I Ching and ended up with decent music anyway. Sometimes we’re the agent of the art; other times we simply find it and point it out.
Boethius spoke of the music of the spheres, and the church composers sought to reify the eternal into the temporal, to take the heavenly and make it earthly. I, on the other hand, at least in projects like this, am trying to raise the mundane out of the gutter and make it part of the beautiful randomness that we live in. This strikes me as necessary in a world in which grand discourse has crumbled and our lives seem to be increasingly hemmed in by mere pragmatism while we fight for some measure of control in the midst of a frightening amount of chance.