Saxophone Riff

I ran into an old friend, Mark Brown, a few weeks ago who plays the saxophone, and I  explained what I’ve been up to in my studio, mixing field recordings into soundtracks and such. He gave me permission to record him. It took me awhile to figure out how to cut this up into something that worked, but this weekend I sat down at the D.A.W. in the right frame of mind, and it all came together. This is what I ended up with.

 

I’ve also taken footage of a bird singing and faced similar problems in terms of how to mix it so that it works musically. This saxophone track was good practice for that one, and now I feel like I might be ready to take another look at the mockingbird and see if it can be made into something sensible. The main problem has been too much footage and sifting through it. Sometimes fewer resources are easier to deal with.

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Willie Nelson, Master Cover Artist

Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.

Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.

Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.

It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.

Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.

Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.

Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.

The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.

Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.

He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.

This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.

Recent Cubase Soundtracks

I’ve made a series of soundtracks recently from field recordings I’ve taken here and there. These are not always the easiest to put together, but it’s always a lot of fun.

Anyone who knows me knows that I drink entirely too much coffee. I consider it to be one of the four food groups. I’d sooner give up alcohol–I think. I love the fact that Bach wrote a Coffee Cantata, at a time, according to Victor Borge, when coffee was considered a vice more akin to illegal drugs today. I decided I wanted to make my own coffee cantata, but instead of stringed instruments and singers, I decided to use the percolator that’s in my kitchen.

 

Another recording I made was of Philly’s famous Trolley Poet, Mike Fuller, who’s been featured in a number of stories. First I recorded him, then I mixed the soundtrack, then I got his permission. Perfectly backwards process, but it worked. I didn’t do much manipulating with this one, as I wanted to preserve the deliberate rhythm of his speech and the long pauses he employs, several of which allowed other sounds to come out of the texture and make music along with him.

 

(That’s my picture in the soundcloud link, not the Trolley Poet’s, alas.)

I’ve been using Cubase for my soundtracks. I’m now in the process of learning Reaper, a program with lots of potential. Hopefully I’ll have some results from that experiment soon.

I truly believe that music is everywhere, and I listen for it constantly in the most random things. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy from the oppressive prosaic character of day to day life.

Two Kinds of Music

A few years ago I took to saying that there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. Little did I know that Steve Earle had already said the same thing in 1988 at a live show at the Town and Country in London. I’m glad for him to have the credit, though. At any rate, shortly after I started saying this, I started getting into different genres, and I even joined a rock band. This added several dimensions to my musical life, and I don’t think I knew I had it in me.

Previously this blog focused strictly on “classical” music, but with my expanded horizons, I’m going to be branching out on here, discussing not only classical music and  my own work but also outlaw country, EDM, rock n roll, and maybe a few other genres. I’ll do my best to make sure it’s all good music. Style is important, but I don’t think it should be an impediment to the enjoyment of music. In any case, I’ll be sure to tag and label posts appropriately so that the site is easy to navigate, should some readers wish to keep up on some subjects but not others.

Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.

 

I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.

 

New soundtrack from SEPTA announcements

I’m constantly recording my surroundings for new material, especially when I’m on transit, not only for the obvious rhythmical noises that trains make, but also because of other sounds that can be turned into music. Public address announcements are some of them. Here’s a track I made out of delay announcements on the SEPTA system. Not trying to pick on them, it’s just great material.

 

 

How to Listen to Music

I confess that I have listened to music for all kinds of reasons, and some of them have very little to do with actually listening to the music. I put my earbuds in to get the world out. I do this on the trolley into work, at the gym, and even at work itself if I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’ll do other things while I listen to music, like surf the internet or read a book or clean the house. There is nothing wrong with mixing music with any of these activities, but what I’ve discovered recently is that I’ve been missing out on a lot by allowing myself to be distracted. I figured this out one day when I actually sat down to listen to the music without anything else going on. It was the first time I’d done this in a while, and it was long overdue.

One of the tricky things about listening to music while we’re on the go is that we think we’re hearing everything but we’re not. Even if the outside noise isn’t getting in our way, there are simply too many distractions for us to hear everything. Even the noise in my own head is enough. This impairs our understanding of what’s going on, to our own poverty. Life is tough and we hate a lot of the things we have to do in life. Listening to music helps us to get through it, but we’re not really using music for its intended purpose at that point; we’re using it as a barrier to protect ourselves.

Many performers will fall for a similar mindset when they ask us to “sit back and relax” during their show. This is ridiculous. Music is supposed to make us feel invigorated. It’s supposed pump the blood through our veins—even ballads and sad songs, in my opinion. Sitting back and relaxing is the opposite of this. And relaxing is the opposite of paying attention, or even of catharsis. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of music is marketed for this sit back and relax, or on-the-go, mentality. Try listening attentively to a Top 40 song and see how much repetition it will bear. Usually not much. One of the tests of a good song, in my opinion, is how many times you can listen to it and still be interested. Even better, it’s how many times you can listen to it and keep finding something new in it. There’s a lot of music out there that is fine if it’s just keeping you occupied during your commute, or pushing your treadmill session at the gym, or getting you through the work day, but as soon as you sit down to listen to it for real, it reveals itself to be vapid.

Activity is prized in our era, along with extroversion. But I would like to speak up on behalf of inactivity. Do nothing, and do it mindfully. Just sit. I would like to encourage inactive listening. Sit still. You can’t learn anything flailing around. It doesn’t work like that. I’m amazed at the number of people who, when I try to play them a song to listen to, listen to the first thirty seconds, if you’re lucky, and then start talking or running around or answering the phone. That’s not listening. It’s trying to placate me, to make me think they’re interested. Or it’s foolishness, thinking that keeping one ear on a song is the same thing as listening to it, synonymous with eating it up.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the people who do this are bad. It’s more likely they just haven’t thought through these kinds of things, or are simply copying the behavior they’ve learned. It is almost a matter of culture that music is abused as a crutch. Is this fair to this form of art? It’s also true that we do it to other forms of art, too, such as painting and sculpture. It’s a pity that so many people in the art museums mosey right past one work after the next, thinking that because they’ve glanced at it, they’ve seen it. They might remember it, but will they have noticed the difference in the left hand and the right hand in Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son? Maybe that leads to a good metaphor. When consuming art, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Be generous with yourself, and with your time. Nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished in a hurry except an ambulance call.

I still listen to music in distracting circumstances, but I just don’t fool myself that this is any way to learn, and I don’t imagine it’s any tribute to my love of the art. Often I prefer to listen to the music that exists naturally in nature and in our cityscapes. I can’t stand the stuff that’s designed for distracted listening; I’d rather get half a good song than totally understand a bad one. I confess that I just can’t seem to let go of music though. It is too beautiful. I even wonder if it’s really the only thing that matters to me. So I put in my earbuds and run off to work and and try to keep as much of this boring world away from me, especially small talk.

It seems as if the best thing to do if we want to be serious about inactive listening is to schedule time to do it, just like we’d schedule gym time or a doctor appointment. Make sure you’ll be free of distractions, and allow at least an hour. Two hours would be ideal. This is no small thing we’re doing. We need time to absorb all the ideas, and to rewind to listen to something that we didn’t get the first time, or that we just want to listen to again. The television can wait. So can the automatic bill pay on our bank accounts. And the phone certainly can. If you don’t make music a priority, it won’t be front and center where it belongs. Life is too short to be in a hurry. It’s too short to be on the run. Sit down. Do nothing. And listen.