16 June 2007, 12 am EDT, Revere MA

And we race past downtown Boston, tunneling underneath skyscraper and street, barreling eastward towards the Atlantic without breath wasted or moment savored.

And the smell of that sad and salty air! Fresh off the ocean vast and vacant! The distant streetlights of suburbs twinkle in the urban dark, not points of light so much as stars that spell out human constellation. Past Charlestown, past Everett, past Winthrop and Malden; old streets I’ve not seen in fifty weeks move towards me like adoring fans, pushing up for a rockstar’s smile and signature, and then flittering off again, ne’er to be known or remembered.

And at last the road that has been my guide for the past three thousand miles, dear Interstate 90, the vital eastern artery, shuffles off its concrete coil, ended. From Missoula past Boston, three days, seventy hours. Ever east. Godlike in perfect attainment, we pull over and park and catch our breath and look at each other, Sean and I, just lock eyes for the briefest of seconds, and know, and look calmly ahead, blankly into the dark street, human and vulnerable at last, some kind of simultaneous exhalation of the world’s breath, and just fucking know.

We step out of the car. We grab a few bags each. We walk, maybe two blocks to the apartment. Boyd is outside and he starts to get up to help us. The street and sky hang motionless. It’s that post-midnight softness of Revere, MA, my one-time home, that old and sacred humidity, the sad damp trees and the thick sidewalk, the silent flat street, the high buzz of the clustered power lines overhead, the sound and sight of the things I know and knew, the thin echo of indoor voices waiting for our late late late arrival, the orange glow of Boyd’s cigarette as he sits on the downstairs porch and smiles broadly, goddammit, all of this, this nostalgia, this tightness in the chest, this impending release, this bitter pill. Makes me feel like I have never left; I’m still living there, up on the second floor, my computer’s white cerebral glow giving the crimson red of the old bedroom that sweet vespertine pallor of long days and longer nights, those claustrophobic winter weeks when all five of us, Evan and Boyd and Alex and Beth and I, would sit and wait for the day to happen, those screaming summer soirees of drunken valor and terrible poker playing and midnight cigarette runs, all memories just buzzing through me now, torn in half, fucked, consumed, living both in past and present, oh yes. It is good to be back.

So we move all the necessities up into the apartment and make our appearance. The place is packed. Boyd, Evan, Alex, Gwen, Jess, to be sure, but also Raju and Pevner and Beth2, newer friends from the last two years I was at MIT, and Dmax, a good old friend of mine who spins DnB, and has these impossibly arcane insights about the modern world and its trappings, and is otherwise grudgingly pursuing what some would call a career at the time of this writing. I miss them all so much.

Everyone is impatient to get this party started, but I insist on distributing the gifts first. They are unwrapped to a combination of hysterical giggling and general awe. Lists are boring so I’ll just mention a few of the presents: I got Jess one of those Playskool basketball hoops that stands about four feet tall and comes with a rubber basketball about the size of a cantaloupe. Ages 3-7. Boyd got a baseball cap embroidered with the words “Living Legend”. And so on. The energy in the room at this point is starting to become viscous. People start floating, drifting around the room aimlessly, chatting and screaming and alive with this terrible powerful force. Elastic friendships, pulled apart only to snap back together tonight. Conversations between seperate beings that are so idiolectic and personal and revelatory and pregnant with multiple meanings that it’s like twins meeting for the first time. Fuck soul mates: this is a jigsaw puzzle of soul, complete in one flashing instant, the complete picture so intimidating and electric that it can’t possibly be described, only witnessed. An apartment of deities bursting at the seams. Plus like half of the people there are high, and Sean and I are running on sleep deprivation, and it’s warm and sweaty in the main room with eleven people and one cat all circling around, and it’s pretty late at night so people are starting to get the crazies, and there are six or seven bottles of liquor sitting there on the central coffee table, mocking and taunting and waiting to be opened and consumed. So we get to it.

This is a party that I have held annually in various locations, once a year, since 2004. Like all good parties, it has a theme, a theme which is pretty much necessarily a little self-loathing and -deprecatory and -aggrandizing. Also it’s flat out a great idea. To wit:

The Fifteen Minute Drinking Party

1. One cannot drink before the party begins.

2. One cannot drink after the party is concluded.

A few people get out stopwatches and keep track of the time. Normally the party is held in the smallest room available, but this year there are too many people in attendance. There’s a countdown in seconds, beginning with ten. The bottles are uncapped and uncorked, glasses are readied like musket shot. A handful of us preload. Exuding smiles. Vodka and Hpnotiq and Jager. Silence. Anticipation. Rum and gin and Crown Royal. Ssssh. Total glee, of a sort. That instantaneous moment right as you jump off the diving board, before your feet have left ground, but after you’ve pushed your center of gravity out past the board, your fate somehow both sealed and open to whatever may come. And then:

Splash!

I take four shots of vodka in as many minutes, and then wait for a moment for the stomach to regroup. Sweat is pouring out of the walls almost. Someone breaks out a shot glass that stands eight inches tall. This does not end well. I lock eyes with various friends. After the first five minutes people start to talk, the pained grunts grow sparse. Unwritten rule: if you drink so much that you vomit, you lose. It’s a fine line. Fast music catalyzes the continued debauchery. I get into a brief but serious conversation with Raju and then Dmax about plans for visiting Montana. There is some screaming somewhere. I am hailed by someone as a king. A girl tries to get up but can’t. It takes about ten minutes for the effects to kick in. It’s very warm inside. No air conditioning. The main table starts to get caked with a thin layer of 80-proof resin. People knock shit over, things are upended. And just like that, the party is over. We all shout: “One minute!”  “Thirty seconds!” “Five, four, three, two, one, stop!”

Of course most people forget to stop drinking. I’m sipping on a beer, but with no drunken intent; I’m thirsty and I haven’t thought it out. A metaphysical line is crossed. Pevner damages my shoes with long distance stomach acid; fortunately I took them off earlier. Someone leaves and falls down the stairs in lieu of walking. Sean and I get into a beer fight. People’s socks are sticky. A cake, which appears out of nowhere, is partially devoured and the rest smeared on various people and objects. Shit gets acausal. The tension built up from coast-to-coast car travel is partially responsible. Fury unleashed. Things don’t wind down; they collapse. I lived here for fifteen months in 2005 and 2006, and the poster that we original five taped to the door is still there, drawn crudely on a sheet of computer paper, albeit sticky and dusty: Welcome To The CDF: Competitive Drinking Fortress. Ah, youth.

I come to, knocked out of a coma, just like that. Asleep and then not. Somehow resting in my sleeping bag. Sprawled out on a futon, headaching, uneasy, but together and undamaged. The floor is littered with cans, bottles, colored liquids, food, dinnerware, clothes. I sit up and immediately regret it. Everyone has left except for Sean and the people that live here. My T-shirt is stained pink for some reason. The place slowly comes to life as we compare notes and clean up. It’s about noon. Alex cleans some cake out of his ear. I change socks and put on my backup pair of shoes. Four of us – Evan, myself, Sean, Boyd – go out to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and linger over our food like alcoholics in their fifties, heads down, burping and groaning, old clocks rusty with age. I could wax philosophical about the human need to alter consciousness at this point, or justify my bizarre and self-damaging choices as paneceatic, a treatment for my own personal ills accumulated through Western isolation and three days of endless gazing into the horizon’s maw. I won’t. There’s no need. This and all parties, regardless or in spite of their objective immaturity, are brought into being by a secret contract of camaraderie. The rules are personal, the societies veiled. The fact that I am not ashamed but proud of my stories, the way that we all relish our “this one time” and “I can’t believe that I” narratives, is so very vitally important. Book clubs, bar friends, best friends, bands. Community. Be all, end all.

Some other irrelevant things happen. We shop for CDs, play some strategic board games, indulge in a little beer pong. We eat at a Brazilian restaurant where the waiters bring out just-cooked meat, skewered on swords. A brief nod or motion tablewards grants the user endless chicken hearts, garlic pork, kielbasa. Evan chauffers us around Boston in my trusted Subaru for a whole day before realizing that the emergency brake is still activated. Sean meets up with a good friend of his, Black Metal Justin. BMJ and his girl live on a boat at the harbor, having sold most of their possessions. A subletted house pays the food and gasoline bills. We gaze across the harbor from his boat, watch the sun set, listen to Motorhead, drink shitty beers. I meet up with Chris for a little while, and we hang out in Central Square. Eat some Ethiopian food. Walk around Cambridge. And all of a sudden, two days have gone by. I have done nothing, it’s 6 am, I’m groggy from razor-thin sleep, Sean is still awake, the car needs to be packed, I need a shower, my clothes are dirty, the car needs gas, we haven’t packed any food; yet I can hear the low moan of the road just below us. I am on old time once again. The sweet siren beckons. We can’t resist. We head out into the summer dawn, Pennsylvania-bound.

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an ongoing celebration, part two

November 17th, 2008

15 June 2007, 9 am EDT, Novi MI

So I wake up all of a sudden, red bleating alarm, bleary-eyed on a couch, not really knowing how I got there. A dog walks over from an adjacent room and starts slobbering on my face, and then it hits me: I’m in fucking Detroit. Kind of. Novi, MI is a distant suburb, thick with million-dollar houses and luxury SUVs, hot off the lot both, the downtown qualia of carbon monoxide and cramped alley a world away. My 20th century car looks strangely out of place here, its caked-on dirt and bug-smeared windshield a soiled and depraved antithesis to this sterile and silent designer town. Not to mention my own shall I say bedraggled appearance: driver’s clothes, slept-in jeans, a faded gray tee that was born black… I am anti-Novi.

I make small talk with Sean’s parents as the suspension on the car sinks lower and lower with new accoutrements. Bagged clothes, CDs burned, a blue cooler stacked with snack; the attainment of all things road. I am impatient to be off but remain polite, my fervent glances at the whitening sky the only giveaway. This is not the West. It is hot, HOT, hot, a preheated oven flat with white heat. Sweat rolls without motion caused. It isn’t quite ninety degrees when we at long last depart, but it is close. A/C, so frivolous in the Mountain West, is here a stark necessity.

I follow Sean’s wise-man local directions to the freeway, and we put on some thrash metal. The first song of the day is the travelers’ morning joe, as powerful as coffee. Wake up. Be real. Music is a catalyst for true understanding of the abstract concept of freedom. Even if you are not a musician, there is a song somewhere that was written for you, that will release you, that will make you free. It makes you not you, it makes you the only thing that matters. It makes you the only thing. It tells a story that only you can hear. So we agree on the rule to abstain from music before rolling on to the wide blue shield highways, the Interstate. It is a totem of freedom, this first song, a morning prayer to safe travel. A fine song wishes in the day with splendor. Ah, and the Eisenhower System, glorious in its web-like connectivity and fluid motion, the true blue highways, the speed corridors of America. The relationship of the words Interstate and Internet is not lost on me. If a Sunday drive on your local byway is a delicate waltz, each moment seen and fully realized, then blue travel is a mosh pit, in some ways predetermined but chaotic, whizzing by, unseen in its power of primal connection. We travel without moving.

It is between 10 and 11 am. We are to arrive in Boston this very evening. Sean drives most of the way to Boston; I take over at a Mass Pike rest stop just outside of Worcester, MA to do my own personal navigating on the home stretch. A fine high speed burn, the day passing like water under our stolid feet. Partially cloudy and bespeckled with sun. A rainbow greets our New England arrival, a harbinger of endless perfection to come. Not much else happens in the interim between MI and MA; we jam out to tunes, we tell jokes, we act like idiots. Exempli gratia:

“Ooh I like that part where the drummer is like dadakaBAMkaBAM!”

“Is that in five?”

*drumming on parts of car ensues*

“Dream Theater is always interrupting their own riffs to be progressive.”

“We should write a letter to Dream Theater about that….”

“…but interrupt ourselves in the letter to prove like a meta-point!”

” ‘Dear Dream Theater, Why do you always inter-Dear Dream Theater, Why do you Dear Dream Theater…’ ”

” ‘Dear Dream Theater, Why do Dream Theater, why do Theater, Theater?'”

*laughing to the point where it’s technically impairing the driver*

There’s a special kind of humor here which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s simply sheer delight at the world and all its strange idiosyncrasies. I don’t know. It’s like we’re children or very old people, wise and recursive, laughing just because we can. Related: there’s a game called Color Or Country which is played by a group of people, who take turns naming either a color or a country. The point of the game is to NOT name a country. If you do, you lose. The meta-point being that unless you intentionally lose, you can’t lose. So it’s not really a game, per se. But the intentionality of the game is the very thing that makes it fun. In some confusing and analogy-stretching way, the small kernel of truth that Sean and I manifest when together is the same truth that makes this game worthwhile. It’s the same truth that makes anything worthwhile. What it is I’m not sure I can express. It’s a feeling, a sense of things, something overwhelming. What it is not is a thing, an idea, an action expressed.

So earlier I briefly mentioned the intent to buy presents for some old friends I will be meeting at the apartment I used to live in in Boston. Five people, two presents each, one permanent and the second temporary. (I’ll also be throwing a special kind of party when I arrive, so just remember that fact and I’ll fill in those juicy details when the time comes.) The people are:

Evan. My brother, glorious in a dark and powerful way. He listens to exclusively metal and is a walking metal encyclopedia. I’d bet money that he could rattle off 200 metal bands as an involuntary reflex. He is the tightest rhythm guitarist I am aware of. Although fledging at the time, his taste for fine beers has since flourished and he prefers (when the $$$ is available) fine meads and ales over PBR. Also he likes obscure strategy games, talking in falsetto to kitties, and just being purposefully and intensely offensive. I love him. He got the short end of the stick when my parents divorced, and I hope that the rift between him and my mom will eventually close. Words can be sticks and stones sometimes. We can finish each others sentences and laugh at invisible jokes.

Gwen. His girlfriend. I hadn’t met her at the time, and had only briefly spoken to her previously. Gwen and Evan are two pieces in a 2-piece jigsaw puzzle; my s/o Beth treats Gwen like a sister-in-law, and I’m sure it won’t be too long until that legally comes to pass. She wears a lot of black and at the time, lived upstairs in the same apartment. Now they live together in a small cottage by the seashore, and simultaneously raise cats and try not to get so intoxicated that they (not the cats) forget how to eat. Beth knows her better than I do – I hope to remedy that.

Alex. When I was living in the dorms he became Alex2, one of four Alexi in the building at the time. Most persons still or at one point affiliated with that dorm (Senior Haus) still call him this. He’s the quirkiest person I know; his speaking voice varies between a lilting murmur and passionate screaming, ne’er to be averaged. He’s got this Pokemon thing. He likes video games the same way I like video games: an intersection of the mindless perfect attainment of high scores and cruelly sadistic difficulty. At one point we were best friends but distance is beginning to split us apart. Dammit.

Jess. Alex’s girlfriend, and Evan’s ex-girlfriend. She tends to be very silent, so I know her the least well. She, like Evan, also appreciates offensiveness for its own sake. She also likes creepy Japanese things like Alex does. I don’t know much else about her, but the fact that she can continue to be chill in the presence of an ex-bf speaks volumes, in what language I am uncertain. Suffice it to say.

Boyd. Boyd is a good friend of both myself and Evan, but mostly Evan. Evan and Boyd act like a married couple when together, always bitching and moaning. It’s indicative of deep empathy whose value cannot be overstated. Boyd moved up to Boston to get this apartment sight unseen, a decision which I both respect and fear. People tend to like Boyd; moreso than all of us, he is a people person. Between his easy-going nature and his empathy for all, he’ll be the most successful of us yet, just you wait. Like myself, many people have never seen Boyd angry. We both also share a hesitation to express our deepest of deeps.

Sean and Chris are the other heroes of this tale. They are novels unto themselves; I will crack that nut when I come to it.

So we’re outside of Worcester, Sean has just given the wheel to me. We plug in the new Slayer album and floor it, forced to maintain cruising speed of like 65 on this damned Eastern coast. Loud, luxuriant, windows down, Red Bull in hand. Metaphorically screaming at the night sky. It is 11 pm, pushing on midnight. The skyscrapers loom towards us, the city swells with white sparkling force. We are the great ones who choose all paths. We are the dreaming giants who exist only as percolating thoughts of the world-at-large, bubbling up for a brief second then floating back down to the vast sunless sea. We are, we become, we breathe as one.

Welcome to the city, it’s going to get crazy.

Song Theory

November 29th, 2007

The possibilities for a song’s context extend infinitely beyond verses and choruses. Here are some things I’m going to try for my next album:

1. Imagine a vast landscape, seen via bird’s eye view. Mountains stretch out into the distance. A lonely stream trickles past rocky outcrops and tufts of cat’s tails. The remainder of the ground swells with rolling grasslands that become more and more treed as they approach the distant peaks.

This is the theoretical structure of the song, which exists at all times. The song is a linear exploration of this landscape. For example, the song could start at the stream’s level, and follow the steam through a valley for a bit, and then raise up slowly to reveal the entire area, and how the stream trickles down from mountain springs and snowmelt. Or, the song can start at bird’s eye and slowly focus in on a single tuft of grass, and show how the grass’s water supply and attendant wind come from larger forces that were introduced in the beginning of the song.

2. A song is a conversation. Each voice in the song tells a difficult story; perhaps they argue, perhaps they augment. There is a conflict or there isn’t. By and by the conversation quiets or doesn’t, and the song ends.

3. A song is a description of adaption or evolution. An organism is challenged by some difficulty – it must adapt to overcome it, or fail. The song details what happens to the organism as it struggles through its environment.

4. A song is static. It doesn’t move or change; it describes nothing, it does not evolve. It is the Big Freeze, fragments of atoms and quarks at thermal equilibrium, for all time. It is lifeless, yet foreseeable, inevitable.

5. A song is an opinion; an idea is presented, and the song agrees or disagrees with it, and either backs up its claims with evidence or argues from the heart. The idea can be objectively right or wrong; the song is a value system, placed in the opinion’s context. It is the logical result of perturbing a given system.

The Verse Chorus Paradigm

September 21st, 2007

(Lots of links, dear readers, but it’s a) worth your while and b) going to take a long time to get through this. So don’t start unless you have an hour or so to kill.)

It’s a sorry state of affairs in today’s music industry. Music-as-business has been around since about the 1920s, when Decca Records, one of the first record labels, was incorporated in Great Britain. By 1939, Decca and EMI were the only two record labels in Britain – a monopoly that still exists today in a similar form. Eighty percent of the U.S. music market, as well as seventy percent of the world music market, is controlled by just four music groups: Warner Music, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music. A music group is kind of a conglomerate holding company that controls many different facets of the recording industry under a corporate umbrella. Music publishing, music recording, distributors, and actual record labels are all typically retained under the brand name of a music group. There are many side effects of the near-complete centralization of the music industry, two of which are worth mentioning here:

1. Artists must sign a contract with a music group to get their music out to the public.

This was particularly bad in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, due to the lack of both the internet and independent labels that had the ability to cater to exotic genres and non-mainstream sound design. To get your music heard, you had to go with one of the Big Four. This meant that the record labels could exercise an appalling amount of creative and financial control over the artist. A standard contract for a first time artist generally included a pennies-on-the-dollar royalty scheme, leaving said artist reliant on ticket sales and merchandise sales to be able to continue profiting and making music. A great deal of the time, lesser artists signed away their rights to their own music as well, ceding them (the rights) to the record label in question. The label generally selected the producer, the studio, and the songs to be recorded, in addition to retaining the ability to edit or censor songs and titles of songs in post-production, without the approval of the artist. Many times the producer that the record label hired would co-write the songs with the band, playing as a sort of modern-day Minimus, making sure that everything that’s produced is in sync with the perceived current popular trends in music, in addition to controlling said current. All of the music of the last two decades that you hear on the radio has gone through this process. It is literally filtered through and designed by the label to both pander to the tastes of the consumer and control what the consumer hears. And who do you think, owns most of the radio stations? You only get one guess.

2. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality has stifled creative growth by potential new artists.

The question remains: exactly how much influence do producers and record labels have in the actual writing and performing of songs? Generally, the more popular a song/artist is, the more that the producer/label has meddled in the song’s creation. This says something very deep about the average listener’s appreciation of music, which I’ll get to in a little while.

Exempli gratia: Max Martin and Jim Vallance are two world-class producers and songwriters who are responsible for a sizable amount of the popular music of the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Check out the links, but I’ll sum up: Vallance writes metal and hard-rock tunes. He’s most “well-known” for writing a lot of the Scorpions’ material, in addition to penning the Bryan Adams hit, Summer of ’69. (I say “well-known” because the fact that the producers – not the performers – are behind these songs’ creation is generally kept on the down-low. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Max Martin is single-handedly responsible for the Backstreet Boys’ rise to fame, as well as Britney Spears’ first wave of hits, including …Baby One More Time[1], which he wrote himself. Since U Been Gone, performed by American Idol’s Kelly Clarkson (a consumer-as-pseudo-controller paradigm which I’m not even going to get into), was also authored by Martin. To wit:

“I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio. I want nothing forgotten, I want nothing missed. I’m a perfectionist. The producer should decide what kind of music is being made, what it’s going to sound like – all of it, the why, when and how.” – Max Martin, L.A. Times, 6/05/00

_____________________

Everything I’ve written so far is the background and introduction. The two following sentences are the raison d’être of this article, which hopefully I’ll convince you of:

1) 99.99% of popular music (ever since there has been music one could call “popular”) presents itself within a common form which I have dubbed the Verse Chorus Paradigm, which is simultaneously informing and subverting creation and appreciation of new music, regardless of its popular or underground origins.

2) The fact that the V.C.P. exists and persists says something truly deep w/r/t the public’s interpretation and perception of music, and of art in general.

POINT ONE:

The Verse Chorus Paradigm is a system of organization that delineates a song’s possible structures. It has very strict rules of form and function (the reason for the V.C.P.’s name should now become clear):

Intro / Verse / Verse /(Pre-chorus) Chorus / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Bridge / Solo / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Outro

Intro: usually instrumental (viz. no singing) in nature, introduces the key and tempo of the song.

Verse (V): generally either 4 lines or 8 lines long, tells a story or otherwise moves the “plot” of the song along its thematic path.

Pre-chorus (PC): harmonically more “tense” than the verse, somehow leads inexorably to the chorus – this can technically be considered part of the chorus as it never appears without it, but sometimes there’s only a chorus with no harmonic/thematic lead-in, which is the main reason for this explanation. It’s generally 2-4 lines long, and sometimes only instrumental in nature (usually in rock/metal/punk only).

Chorus (C): generally close to the same length as the verse, states the theme of the song, also usually contains the song’s “hook” – that is to say the part of the song which is designed to be catchy or easy to remember – which can be lyrical or instrumental, and tends to have an affect that is clever (country), or poignant/romantic (R&B and Top 40), or a statement about the artist’s cleverness/romanticism/poignancy (hip-hop, rock, “pop-punk”), but nearly always repeats more than once. There are never more than three distinct choruses within a song; if you hear three choruses without hearing a bridge, there won’t be a bridge. This rule is never broken.

Bridge (B): melodically different than the verse, usually containing a thematic or stylistic change w/r/t the song’s established motifs, and can vary in length dramatically.

Solo (S): traditionally instrumental, as in “guitar solo”, but can also feature vocal acrobatics – this is temporally interchangeable with the bridge, i.e. the solo may come first and the bridge second.

Outro (O): clean segue out of the song, traditionally containing either a repetition of the song’s chorus, or a fade-out, or an instrumental diversion that relates harmonically/melodically back to the intro’s key and theme.

Listed above are the parts of the song and the order in which they appear. The sections in bold are never skipped – the sections in normal type are optional. My argument is that the vast majority of popular songs – and by “popular” I mean “written by a band or producer for a major record label” – follow this format. I dare you to find a song written in the last twenty years, that you’ve heard on corporate radio, that does not follow the V.C.P. explicitly. While the verses and choruses are compulsory, the most typical format is I-V-(PC)C-V-(PC)C-B-(PC)C-O; that is to say, an intro, two verse-prechorus-choruses, a bridge-prechorus-chorus, and an outro. Here are three examples, with the song structures explicitly laid out. I strongly suggest you listen to each one and follow along, otherwise it’s not going to make any sense (the title of the song links to the file; right-click and select “open in a new window/tab” to follow along).

1.) Justin Timberlake – My Love (I-V(PC)C-V(PC)C-B(PC)C-O) (2006) [2] This a pop song; you’ve probably heard it.

Intro (0:00-0:16) Sets up the theme with a vocal cue, then brings in the backing beat and melody for what turns out to be the

Verse (0:16-0:49) Four lines about love, the last of which is repeated in other verses (This ring here represents my heart…), which provides a harmonic and thematic tie-in to the

Pre-Chorus (0:49-1:06) Four more lines about love, which repeat in other pre-choruses, and lead directly to the

Chorus (1:06-1:36) My Love, etc. It’s the hook. Pretty melody in the second half, too. Note that the Chorus and Verse differ in length by about three seconds.

Verse (1:36-2:09) If I wrote you a love note, and made you smile at every word I wrote, what would you do?

Pre-Chorus (2:09 – 2:26) All I want you to do is to be

Chorus (2:26 – 2:56) My Love. (By the way, I’m guilty of really liking this song.)

Bridge (2:56 – 3:46) different style / theme / type of singing. This part’s pretty cool. It’s roughly twice as long as the verse.

Pre-Chorus (3:46 -4:02) Girl, you amaze me. Ain’t gotta do nothing crazy. See, all I want you to do is to be My Love.

Chorus (4:02 – 4:05) Subtly different this time, an indication that the song is ending.

Outro (4:05 – 4:06) Just a quick fade-out so the ending isn’t too abrupt.

2.) Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (I-VC-VC-BC-O) (2005) This is generally considered “left-field” pop; i.e. not played very often on the radio, but music videos are still made for the hits, and the albums still go gold/platinum (100,000 / 1 million albums sold, respectively). Music that has a “following” [3] is generally in this category: pre-1990s Metallica, Bjork, and Iron Maiden are good examples.

Intro (0:00 – 0:11)

Verse (0:11 – 0:56) Chorus (o:56 – 1:19) Four lines, half the length of the chorus. Awesome hook, though, and it’s not repeated. Way to be a rebel!
Verse (1:19 – 2:04) Chorus (2:04 – 2:26)

Bridge (2:26 – 2:54) Melodically/thematically different, leads to the final Chorus (2:54 – 3:17)

Outro (3:17 – 3:44) Repeats the chorus and ends with a short melody that references the intro.

3.) Matisyahu – King without a Crown (I-VC-VC-S-BC-O) (2005) Hasidic Jewish reggae from Texas. Popular in its own right, rather than produced/written/overseen by industry insiders. Nevertheless:

Intro (0:00 – 0:46)

Verse (0:46 – 1:26) Chorus (1:26 – 1:46)

Verse (1:46 – 2:37) Chorus (2:37 – 2:57)

Solo (2:57 – 3:37)

Bridge (3:37 – 4:07) Chorus (4:07 – 4:27)

Outro (4:27 – 4:40)

The only unusual parts are that the intro’s a little longer and the first half of the last chorus doesn’t have any singing in it, both of which are probably idiosyncratic and due to the fact that it’s a live – and therefore imperfect – recording.

Pardon the excessive examples (and there will be more), but I feel it’s necessary to make a point of how ingrained this paradigm is in popular music. Part of that is a function of the corporation-artist relationship [4] that is necessary to bring the music to a sizable audience in today’s society, but I feel that the corporation-consumer relationship [5] is just as relevant. After all, we buy the music. We actively listen to it. We follow the trends on MTV, willingly vote for the Top Ten Videos on TRL, download the singles from iTunes. And that’s not to say that popular music is the only “genre” of music that uses the V.C.P., just that we as consumers whole-heartedly buy into what the corporations are selling, and what’s more, we won’t stand for anything else. There’s a reason that hundreds of popular artists have sold millions of albums despite the sameness inherent in said albums, after all, and that reason is two-fold. Us and them. The consumer and the corporation. We want it, and they’re selling it.

The Paradigm has infiltrated into many other types of music, through constant social exposure of the Paradigm to new generations. Musicians that grew up with 60s and 70s pop, and later on MTV, are now producing progressive rock, death metal, synth-pop. [6] It’s still got that good ol’ inevitable sameness, though, and you can listen to it and siphon out the V.C.-ness yourself:

( These songs all rock, by the way. They’re worth listening to a priori)

Freezepop – Stakeout (I-V(PC)C-V-B(C/PC)-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second chorus, it goes right to the bridge, and then when the chorus comes in it’s overlaid by first the bridge, and then on the second iteration, the original prechorus. They also play the intro melody between some of the segments.

Nile – Lashed to the Slave Stick (I-VC-V2-C-B-V2-V2-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second verse mirroring the first verse’s structure, they introduce a different one (chords instead of fast picking). It’s about the same length. The bridge is the *really* fast part, and then they go back to the second verse style for twice as long as before. The outro is a repetition of the chorus (Lashed! To! The Slave Stick! *screaming*), then part of the chorus in reverse. It ends abruptly.

Dream Theater – 6:00 (I-V(PC)-V(PC)C-S-B-S2-V(PC)C-O)

Variations: The intro is lengthy and encompasses several themes. Because they are progressive, they don’t get to the chorus on the first iteration – the second verse kind of interrupts where the first chorus would have been. There’s also a second solo section – it’s after the slow-motion bridge, and features wah-wah guitar. The outro is a crazy guitar solo.

_____________________

Granted, these are significant variations, and certainly you’re not going to hear them (the songs) on the radio any time soon, both for stylistic and commercial reasons. I can analyze their forms w/r/t the V.C.P., however, which indicates that whatever revelations or unique ideas that are brought to the recording studio are still subsumed under the all-powerful and ubiquitous Paradigm. The fact that I can point out verses and choruses, and that you can hear them without too much mental conditioning, is proof enough. The question remains: why does the V.C.P. persist?

POINT TWO:

There’s a definite tendency among the non-artists in society to just not give a shit about art, one way or the other. A classic layman’s “critical” response to a Jackson Pollock or Rothko that we’ve all heard refers to the so-called critic’s child and said child’s questionable artistic talents, and questioning as to whether or not critic’s child’s artwork’s merits might be better than or equal to the Pollock’s. So it goes. The problem is that the meaning behind the art isn’t in the execution, anyway, but in the concept or intellectual drive behind it. To wit:

“I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else… I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko, Conversations With Artists, 1961

In popular culture there tends to be an equivalence made between a piece’s technical aspects and its inherent value. We place value on artists for their abilities to paint photorealistically, on musicians for being divas or blow-your-mind guitarists, on movies for their special effects or theatre-quality acting. Much ado is made of the technical in today’s society, and the creators suffer. Why else would the identity of the writer of a pop tune be consciously hidden, and the performer lifted to great financial and social status? Whatever concepts lie behind great art and music are lost to the average listener. This isn’t to say that the technical has no place in great art; just that the technical aspect plays second fiddle, is a level of abstraction below. Art is built upon technique, but art is not equivalent to technique.

The point is this: Listeners aren’t interested in being intellectually challenged or forced to interpret something new. The point behind a song’s creation is not relevant – only the sounds that create the song matter. Aesthetics over intellect. And as far as aesthetics go: the average listener is interested in one thing, and one thing only. Entertainment. The uterine stasis of pop music is, above all, aesthetically pleasant. The V.C.P. persists because it is pleasant and familiar. Broken down into symbols, the V.C.P. is nearly as simple as possible: A B A B. Verse Chorus Verse Chorus. It’s pure aesthetic hedonism – someone who is pretty singing about something that is pretty within a context that is predictable and repetitive. Or if you’re a rebel – someone who is angry singing about something that is awesome within a context that is predictable and repetitive. That’s what it is, anyway. Music-as-business is business-as-music. Sell people the thing that sells: conformity.

The necessarily intellectual and conceptual approach to music-as-art is being threatened by the overwhelming presence of music-as-business and its attendant Paradigmatic form [7]. So much of non-mainstream music is based upon the V.C.P. that it’s hard to tell where the long arm of the market ends and the artist’s ideas begin. These days, if you use the V.C.P. you’re buying into the status quo, and if you avoid it, you’re subtly making a self-conscious reference to the fact that you’ve chosen to eschew it. This isn’t to say that music is dead, only that its growth is becoming increasingly limited by society’s penchant for surface-level diversions. See also television. Don’t confuse great entertainment for great art.

 

 

[1] Guess how many of the songs on Britney’s debut album were actually authored by her? That’s right, none. Twenty-seven million copies sold, though, as of this writing. See here for specifics.

[2] Did you know that Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and several notable actors all originate from the cast of the 1990s Mickey Mouse Club cast? The M.M.C. is the Skull-and-Bones of the entertainment industry.

[3] (= bands that have been around for 8+ years but haven’t really declined in popularity, the superficial temporary fixation of the public eye notwithstanding)

[4] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what has sold in the past, and actively leads artist’s hand down said path, and artist’s willingness to co-opt the so-called artistic vision leads to a cornucopiac career, full of televised performances, royalties, and name-recognition, I mean come on.

[5] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what consumer has bought in the past, and actively kind of stagnates on this one thing that the consumer likes, viz. understandability [5a], prettiness (both music- and musician-related), repetition.

[5a] can you name any pop tunes that aren’t about love, sex, having a good time, friends, or some negative consequence of the above (divorce, violence, breaking up, drug addiction)?

[6] The Beatles wrote in the V.C.P. So did Buddy Holly. So did Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (both the songs they wrote and the songs that were written for them.) The beginning of the V.C.P. is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s related to the growth of the music industry as well as the schematics of both the blues and pre-Romantic classical music. I’ll get to it at some point: it’s a fascinating subject.

[7] Also, don’t get me wrong: there are other paradigms and other forms, as well as great new music that succeeds in exploring interesting conceptual space. Tune in next week for a spicy discussion.

Productivity is King

September 16th, 2007

Prozac and Adderall are popular drugs. They both have one thing in common; they are behavior-altering medications which are designed to help the user more easily conform to what’s perceived as a Perfect Person, viz. happy and hard-working. Prozac “fixes” anxiety problems and general malaise; Adderall “fixes” short attention spans and disinterest in working.

The obvious question here is why do the drugs exist in the first place?

Joe’s been writing poems for a couple years, as he finds the act of creation rewarding. Chances are that Joe is a little disillusioned, here. He’s unhappy with society as society doesn’t reward poets. His friends like to watch football and Wheel of Fortune – his wife’s always at the office. The work he does at Intel is bland and unfulfilling, there’s no end to the data entry/office gossip/editing of software, and he’s neither recognized nor rewarded for anything above and beyond the eight hour grind. Everyone at work grumbles about Mondays, looks forward to drinking on Friday night, calls Wednesday “Hump Day”. He feels stuck in a pattern that treats him as a pair of eyes and hands, faceless, valuable only as long as he shows up at nine, useful only insofar as he is used. Even worse: there’s a second-level realization inherent in Joe’s drudgery. He knows that everyone is unconsciously buying into the Workaday Paradigm. There’s no questioning, here, no second-guessing. This is the way it is. There’s nothing better, nothing to be wished for, nothing to be sought. No change. Everyone – his wife, his friends, his co-workers – are playing a part in a complex play, their actions and hobbies and likes and dislikes all predictable and socially safe, a play within a play, people walking and talking and acting and working like they think they should, everyone doing what they’re told, everyone coloring within the lines. A functional system, to be sure. There’s no place for introspection in this system, no place for poetry. Joe doesn’t fit. He’s broken. He cries a lot but has a hard time explaining why. Everything seems hopeless. Everything seems wrong.

Joe: “I can’t sleep at night. What’s the point? Every day is like every other day. I suppose I’ll eventually get too sick to work. Then what?”

Naora almost failed out of high school her senior year. She was taking College Prep English and there was a term paper due, a term paper that had to be completed. It was on Hamlet or something, a Shakespearean play. She didn’t hand the paper in on the due date – she didn’t even start the paper or attempt to read the play. When asked about it, she’s hard-pressed to come up with a reasonable excuse. “I don’t know. I had enough time to do it. I finally forced myself to start, finally sat down to start writing it at about midnight the night before it was due, but I just couldn’t do it. I bought the play, fully intent on reading it, and I was sitting at my computer, and I just couldn’t start. It seemed pointless. I sat there and stared at the empty screen, my fingertips lightly resting on the keys. I just stared at the screen, frozen almost, just waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. I felt so stressed and so useless that I couldn’t think straight.” She eventually typed up something over the next four months, because she was faced with the possibility of having to repeat her senior year due to one mistake. She couldn’t face the social consequences. She didn’t want to be left behind.

Naora hands in the term paper on the last day of school. She gets a sixty percent in that English class – a D minus. Her GPA for her senior year is barely a 2.0. Failing, failing, no reason, really no reason at all. She gets into art school but withdraws after a couple years, due to poor grades and several incompletes. She moves back home and gets a job at the local supermarket, never goes back to school. She works and works and gets sadder and sadder. She stops reading and writing, buys digital cable.

Naora: “I knew this was going to happen. Some stupid shit always comes up. Oh well. That’s life, I guess.”

Sari works in construction these days. She gets paid 15 dollars an hour and is a member of a local union. Her main job is to turn those signs from Slow to Stop and back, controlling the flow of traffic past various construction sites. She majored in Women’s Studies at the local community college, but dropped out her junior year. She’s slept with a couple guys, but she thinks she’s a lesbian now. Or at least bisexual. Her parents basically stopped talking to her after she dropped out. Most of her collegiate friends have graduated and left town. She has a couple friends from high school that she still keeps in touch with; every couple weeks they get together, smoke pot, and watch Family Guy or The Big Lebowski or Office Space and laugh so hard they start crying. She’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Sari: “Women’s Studies just wasn’t going anywhere. It was interesting on like an intellectual level, but I couldn’t see a future in it. What am I supposed to do, just stay in school forever? It just seemed like a waste of money. I feel like a failure sometimes. My parents went to college, you know. Blue-collar work is a total drag. I feel ignored, as if I missed some important meeting and I’m permanently stuck in a waiting room somewhere.”

Context and Concept

July 23rd, 2007

Summary: It makes no difference how well you can sing if you don’t have anything to say.

Well, I’ve put this essay off for a good while now. I wasn’t looking forward to writing it, as it’s 1) not an easy topic to discuss in clear terms and b) it ties together several high-level concepts about art. Nevertheless, it’s come down to the wire. No more beating about the bush. It’s do or die. It’s high time. Let me give you a piece of my mind. Warning: this writing presupposes some basic familiarity with music notation.

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First, a lengthy example. Take any old string, or just imagine a string, which will probably work better. Stretch it and pluck it. It makes a certain tone, which varies as a function of the length of the string (shorter:higher::longer:lower). We’ll give this tone a name: Note I. Now cut the string in half, and pluck one of its halves. This will make a higher tone, which we’ll call Note II. The ratio of the frequencies of II:I will always be 2:1, because the fundamental frequency at which a string resonates is directly related to its length. In turn, the human ear perceives frequencies that have this ratio as octaves, or the “same note”. A higher note with the ratio 4:1 will be perceived as two octaves higher, for example.

Now take the original string and cut it into three parts of equal size. Pluck the new note, Note III. It follows, logically, that the ratio of the frequencies of III:I is 3:1, and the ratio of frequencies of III:II is 3:2. The ratio of 3:2 is the next simplest ratio besides that of 2:1, and is perceived by the human ear as a perfect fifth, another pleasantly consonant sound. (Play a C and a G on a piano for an example of this.) Some other simple ratios are 4:3 (the perfect fourth), 5:4 (the major third), 6:5 (the minor third), 5:3 (the major sixth), 8:5 (the minor sixth), 9:8 (the major second), & c. You get the idea.

Now, back before Bach, Western scales were based on these intervals. Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Machaut [1]; basically anytime before the 16th century, these ratios appeared in stringed instruments and the like. Pleasant sounding? You bet. This intervalic kind of tuning is called, appropriately, just intonation. As music became more and more complex, however, this approach became a problem. To wit:

C D E F G A B C

This is Western notation for a major musical scale. The C on the right is twice the frequency of the C on the left. I’m representing an octave here, after which the pattern repeats, ad nauseum. G is the fifth note, so the ratio of a perfect fifth is G:C, or 3:2. A perfect fourth: F:C, or 4:3. You get the idea. So, for example, what’s the ratio between E and G?

It is G:E, or (3:2, a perfect fifth):(5:4, a major third), or 3/2 divided by 5/4, or 3/2 multiplied by 4/5 (remember high-school math?) or 12/10, which reduces to 6/5. So G:E is 6:5, a simple ratio. G:E is a minor third (see above).

Now, what is the ratio between F and D? You would expect it to be a major third or minor third. Let’s find out. The ratio between F and C (perfect fourth) is 4:3. The ratio between D and C (major second) is 9:8. So take 4:3 divided by 9:8, or 4/3 multiplied by 8/9.

The answer? 32/27. And that’s not reducible. In decimal form 32/27 is representable as 1.185, repeating. A minor third (as in G:E, or C:A) is 6/5, or 1.2. A major third (as in E:C) is 5/4, or 1.25. The ratio of F:D in such a framework would sound strangely dissonant (slightly ‘flat’, as the musical parlance goes), and that’s not the only interval with a non-reducible fraction. The result of such tuning problems meant that when an instrument was tuned for a particular key, it sounded a little off when playing in all other keys. Quite a challenge for the musician with a large repertoire.

The solution: Equal temperament tuning. But first, a short aside!

In Western scales, *all* (yes, all) the notes are representable in this framework:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

The # key means that the note is ‘sharp’, or above the frequency of the lettered note indicated [2]. So, if I’m in the key of C, then the F is a perfect fourth above the C, or five semi-tones above the C (count ’em! C#, D, D#, E, F. Five tones.). If I’m in the key of G#, then the perfect fourth would be C# (five semi-tones: A, A#, B, C, C#). Hopefully that makes sense.

Now, it also makes sense that if such a pattern is transposable across the Western scale, then the ratios between the intervals must also be transposable. And that’s where equal temperament comes into play.

The interval between the octave and the fundamental frequency is kept the same, at 2:1. The rest are divided equally. There are 12 semi-tones separating the two octaves, so the ratio between adjacent semitones must equal the twelfth root of two. This way, the ratio between different notes becomes an abstraction, and unrelated to the actual key chosen, or the type of instrument played. All scales can be played on a single instrument. Progress [3]!

It also follows, logically, that there are many other systems of tuning. A brief overview from Wikipedia follows:

“Many systems that divide the octave equally can be considered relative to other systems of temperament (Writer’s context addendum for the reader: 12 tone equal temperament is often referred to as 12-TET, of which there are many others). 19-TET and especially 31-TET are extended varieties of and approximate most just intonation intervals considerably better than 12-TET. They have been used sporadically since the 16th century, with 31-TET particularly popular in Holland, there advocated by Christiaan Huygens and Adriaan Fokker. 31-TET, like most non-12-tone temperaments, has a less accurate fifth than 12-TET. It has been used in Indonesian music.

There are in fact five numbers by which the octave can be equally divided to give progressively smaller total mistuning of thirds, fifths and sixths (and hence minor sixths, fourths and minor thirds): 12, 19, 31, 34 and 53. The sequence continues with 118, 441, 612…, but these finer divisions produce improvements that are not audible. The explanation for this curious series of numbers lies in the denominators of fractions that approximate the logarithm to base 2 of the frequency ratios of the consonant intervals.

In the 20th century, standardized Western pitch and notation practices having been placed on a 12-TET foundation made the quarter tone scale (or 24-TET) a popular microtonal tuning. Though it only improved non-traditional consonances, such as 11/4, 24-TET can be easily constructed by superimposing two 12-TET systems tuned half a semitone apart.”

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Okay. Deep breath. The point of all this exposition is to display the many forms of tuning available in Western music. Is equal temperament less “true” than just intonation because it uses a power series to determine the frequencies of its constituency instead of a set of simple ratios? No, of course not. Each of these systems of tunings came into being because it has a function. The just intonation tuning is convenient for harmonically simple music and easy tuning. The 12-tone equal temperament tuning is convenient for harmonically complex music, as well as music that changes keys constantly. For more subtle melodic possibilities, perhaps a 24-tone equal temperament tuning is called for.

And I haven’t even considered non-Western tunings. A popular Indonesian scale, for example, uses a 7-TET scale. No perfect fifth, no melodies or harmonies that can be directly understood by Western ears that are used to Western scales. What about a scale that uses unwieldy ratios like 10/9, or a 15-TET tuning that only repeats every two octaves? To say that such a scale is wrong is as silly as saying the number 12 is better than the number 13. After all, any scale or system of tunings can ultimately be reduced to mathematical relationships; and anyone having heard African or Indonesian music for the first time can attest to difficulty of “learning to hear” the novel relationships between frequencies.

The type of tuning used in a particular piece of music is part of the context surrounding the piece. The type and number of instruments, the electronic or sound effects used, the length of the piece, and the use or lack of use of certain melodies and harmonies are also all context. Ultimately all sound can be reduced to a waveform, anyway, if you want to get really reductionist, and who’s to say that my waveform is intrinsically better or worse than yours? They are equivalent, valueless. Context has no inherent meaning or value; it is a system of choices that frame the concept, the intellectual drive behind a piece, the reason for its existence.

The concept exists as an abstraction, apart from the piece of music. It also exists separately in the mind of the listener and the composer. For example, take Cage’s notorious 4:33. The context is not important – it can be played in a concert hall full of listeners, or by oneself in a forest grove. The only context, it seems, is that of intent, that the piece is indeed going to be played.

The concept in Cage’s mind (from Cage’s Silence, 1961):

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. They are also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer’s explanation, especially as to being able to hear one’s own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound, for example. Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

The concept in my mind:

Fascinating. A treatise on the nature of what music can be. How many notes must one take away before the piece performed ceases to be music? 99% of the notes? Leaving just one note? Leaving no notes? The sounds of the other listeners/performers consist of breathing, rustling of clothes, shifting of feet. The play of my own heartbeat against a bird’s cry and the flag slapping against the flagpole in the high wind create an interesting rhythm, syncopated and dynamic. I close my eyes. A man and woman having a conversation grows and lessens in intensity. Still the bird calls. The flag has grown silent. And now a new player enters the piece. What is it? What is it? Ah, the muted percussion of a far-off helicopter. Perfect. This piece perfectly encompasses the serenity and tranquility of nature, the inestimable value of just listening.

—-

Naturally this is an extreme example, but the idea holds for all art. The context exists only to serve the concept. As a drummer, my physical skill and endurance exists meaningfully only as a function of the concept of the piece I’m playing. Does it matter whether I can play a double bass roll faster than 150 bpm? Only if the concept requires it. Does it matter whether I manage to not drop my stick or whether my cymbals are new, or whether my tom-toms are in tune? Only if the concept requires it.

Does it matter whether I can accurately describe the feeling of nostalgia, or happiness, or destitution by playing my drums and writing my songs?

Only if the concept requires it.

—-

CONTEXT IS NOTHING CONCEPT IS EVERYTHING

—-

Footnotes.

1. Ah, Machaut. The most well-known composer of the 13th century. What? You haven’t heard of him? Who cares! Seriously, though, if you’d like to know more, here’s a piece by him.

Quant es Moy – Machaut

2. Granted, the Western major scale can also be represented with ‘flats’, or notes below the lettered tone (where b = flat): C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C. Db, for example, is the same frequency as C#. Whether a flat or a sharp is used is dependent on the context of the melody or harmony: it isn’t important.

3. The 12-TET is not a bad estimation by any means. A perfect fifth, represented by the ratio 3:2, can also be represented as a decimal, 1.5. The seventh twelfth-root of 2, or 2 to the seven-twelfths power, is 1.498. Pretty close. Similarly, a perfect fourth in just intonation is 4/3, or 1.333. In 12-TET, it is 1.335. (I still like just intonation more, not that it matters.)

On The S/O Dilemma

July 11th, 2007

First and foremost: you’re going to want background, as this entry is partially a rebuttal of and continuation regarding both this post (read first) and this post (read second). Otherwise I doubt that what follows will make 100% sense. Do as ye will.

There are what seems to be two schools of thought regarding the nature of art and how it informs both the artist and the intended audience. One school is neatly summarized below, and is taken verbatim from Paul’s blog (first link), who in turn quotes Michael Chekhov’s To The Actor. The other school I’ll be getting to shortly. Chekhov states (apologies for the length, but it is relevant):

The great German director Max Reinhardt confessed, “I am always surrounded by images.” Charles Dickens wrote in his journal, “I have been sitting here in my study all morning, waiting for Oliver Twist who has not yet arrived!” Goethe declared that inspiring images must appear before us as God’s children and call to us, “We are here!” Raphael saw an image moving within his room that later became the Sistine Madonna on his canvas. Michelangelo complained despairingly that images pursued him and forced him to sculpt in all sorts of materials, even solid rock.

How can we question the beliefs of these master artists and writers that their imaginative life came to them from outside themselves? And would they not scorn the narrow conception of creativity that relies solely upon personal memories and efforts? They would undoubtedly feel that today we deny our communication with the objective world of imagination, in direct contrast to their free excursions into it. The creative impulse of the masters was an expansion toward the world beyond them, while ours is often a contraction within ourselves.

The old masters of European and Asian culture might even shout to us, “Look at your creations. They are not confined to reproductions of our petty, personal lives, desires, and limited surroundings. Unlike the artists of today, we forgot our individual selves in order to be conscious and active servants of otherworldly images. Truly, we did not want to be slaves to these unguided visions. But in our work, we incorporated them like an unexpected blessing. Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions? Is it not simply because you are too concerned with yourselves alone and not your art?”

The conviction that there is an objective world in which our images lead their independent life widens our horizon and strengthens our creative will. Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and to understand his or her talent. One of those new conceptions is the objective existence of the world of the artist’s creative images. What is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of imagination? They free themselves from the constant pressure of their too personal, too intellectual interference with the creative process, the greater part of which is intensely personal and takes place in the sphere that lies beyond the intellect…

Poor indeed is the imagination that leaves the artist’s mind cold, and poor indeed is the influx of wisdom to such an artist, when one hears him say, “I have built my art upon my convictions.” Would it not be better for an artist to say that he has built his convictions upon his art? But this is only true of the artist who is really gifted. Haven’t we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his “convictions” and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?

My good friend Ted (second link) holds that imagination is necessarily subjective, and therefore – effectively – Chekhov is full of shit. More on this in a second. Chekhov additionally implies two paragraphs above that beauty is objective and the standards of beauty are universal, by saying: “Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions?” He is clearly willing to go out on a limb and not only say that he thinks a given piece of art is ugly, but also that it is universally ugly. He goes on to say that this ugliness stems from self-centered creation, i.e. creation that is based on personal idiom and experience, rather than the preferred “otherworldly images” from the “objective world of imagination”. I’m going to touch on the difference between art as a concept and art as a craft, as well as what this has to do with beauty and ugliness, in the next installment. Let’s turn now to the nature of imagination.

The Subjectivity/Objectivity Dilemma

Chekhov believes imagination stems from an objective, exterior world, full of imagery that comes to the artist unbidden; Ted believes that imagination comes from the inner workings of the mind and is based on subjective personal experience. So which is it?

Let’s take a huge conceptual leap back and look at it from a purely biological/neurological perspective. I have thoughts. Surely you agree. These thoughts are necessarily correlated to the triggering of neural firing pathways (read: symbols) in the brain; if I’m thinking of a dog, the symbol for “dog” is active. If I’m thinking of “dog covered in cottage cheese”, the symbols for “dog”, “covered”, and “cheese” are all active, in addition to a host of related ones. You get the point. (I’m thinking the symbol for “gross” would be appropriate here.) There are basically two cases that cause thoughts to be triggered, as I see it; actual and hypothetical. Let’s cover them in detail.

Case One: Actual. I’m walking down the street and I see a stray cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. The neurons in my eyes send information to my visual cortex, which undergoes a significant amount of processing to present my conscious with the qualia of the visual field; colors, shapes, patterns, textures, movement. A split-second later, the symbol-processing area of my brain (central cortex) receives the qualia and categorizes the raw data based on my previous experiences. Since I’ve taken walks on sidewalks before, and am additionally expecting to be walking on a sidewalk, the data corresponding to the surrounding environment is instantly identified and decided to be unimportant. The data corresponding to the cat is identified as a cat (face it, I’m highly familiar with cats), the cat-symbol is triggered, and I have a name for it and a reaction in place before I’m really even aware that I see it. Everything up to this point is non-conscious processing. Finally, the conscious mind is presented with the information: “Everything’s usual, except there is a cat.” I like cats, so my decision is informed by my previous pleasant experiences with cats: I walk up to it, let it sniff me. I pet it. You get the picture. Literally.

Case Two: Hypothetical. I’m walking down the street and I imagine a cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. No qualia this time; my sensory apparatus does not actually perceive a cat. No abstraction of lower-level signals necessary. The symbol for cat is activated directly, this time by a higher-level process: conscious imagination. There’s no pre-conscious processing. I imagine a cat, imagine my interaction with it (in turn activating my self-symbol) and daydream about walking up to it and taking it home. It has brown fur, blue eyes, one of its paws is white. Its tail is crooked. So cute!

Moving back to imagination and the S/O dichotomy: Imagination is the same as hypothetical thought, which in turn is nothing more than interaction with symbols and systems of symbols that have no external trigger. Let’s assume for a moment that the trigger for these symbols is wholly external and objective: some alternative world, be it spiritual or just non-detectable, is activating various symbols directly and effectively showing us, the artists, an objective and alternate reality of symbols which all art and beauty originates from. Just to be clear: this is the same as assuming that hypothetical thought is caused by external forces instead of conscious control. Moving on.

The obvious caveat: our system of symbols is necessarily a personal one. Suppose I’ve never seen a cat before, not even one of the jungle cats. Would I have a symbol for the visual representation of a cat? Of course not. It’s silly to posit that humans have a full complement of symbols from birth. This is easily verified by observing human children who have never seen a cat before refer to cats as dogs, before they are corrected by their parents. What would a “full complement of symbols” even mean? It makes sense that children are birthed with a rudimentary set of symbols (like a symbol for “me”, for “nipple”, for “food”, & c.) + the ability to create and map novel experiences onto new symbols. Anything above that just doesn’t follow.

It is, quite logically, also possible that the external trigger doesn’t presuppose our knowledge of cats; that’s admittedly kind of a silly idea, anyway. So there could also be a completely and wholly external pattern of symbol triggering that isn’t based on specific symbols or systems. Sounds good. I’m an agnostic, but I’m willing to accept that spirits or other non-physical beings (read: God) could be causing this triggering. I have no problem with that.

The really obvious thing now, of course, is that if you agree

1) that symbols come into being through interpretation of novel experience;

2) that everyone is going to have different symbols;

then it pretty much follows that any symbol-triggering, even from an outside source, is necessarily going to be unique to each person (everyone has different symbols) and based wholly and completely on their experience set (symbols come into being through novel experience), and therefore 100% unavoidably subjective. Q.E.D.

“Art is necessarily informed only by personal values and experience.”

Beauty and Novelty

July 5th, 2007

Apart from letting you, the reader, know that I like the mountain, the phrase “The mountain is beautiful” really contains no additional information. The word beautiful is just a placeholder for a type of personal value, i.e. “The mountain has personal value [to me]”. This implies a couple of things, not least of which that

1. Beauty is not inherent.

This one is easy. Most everyone is familiar with the proverb Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ll elaborate: to a blind man, a mountain can never be beautiful. Nor a crevasse, cirque, pretty kitty, & c. At least in a visual way. This doesn’t mean that beauty exists independent of the blind man. (It’s not that he can’t see the beauty; the beauty isn’t actually there. More on this in a second.) It additionally does not mean that a blind man can never perceive beauty. The way that the blind man’s 1920s blanket feels, with its warm woolen folds and worn tattered corners, is beautiful to him. Likewise the softness of the cat’s fur, the way it purrs, the way he can hear it padding across the soft shag carpet in the living room. Not that he can explain it to us, the non-blind. The blind brain is necessarily wired in a qualitatively different way than a seeing brain, so the perceptions he assigns personal value to (i.e. beauty) are of course totally unique and novel. Everyone has perception, so I’m going to go ahead and start using the word qualia, of which Wikipedia has this to say: “Qualia” is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”. They can be defined as qualities or feelings, like redness or pain, as considered independently of their effects on behavior and from whatever physical circumstances give rise to them. In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences.

In what might be an intuitively easier definition to process, qualia is sensory information; information that can only be described accurately if the person reading/listening to the description has experienced it before. There is no way to describe the color red to John if John has never seen the color red. The experience of seeing red is qualia. (Granted Ted’s blog[1]; even though you are not blind and I am not blind, our brains interpret qualia in a different way. My red is a little different than your red, or maybe even completely different; however, we are in definite agreement that society’s name for [the qualia that is red] is in fact red, so we can still talk about it in a meaningful way. It’s the experience of seeing red that can’t be explained in a meaningful way to someone who’s never seen it; that’s my point.)

2. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from our perception of it.

There is an unnamed mountain on the planet Pluto which no one has ever seen. It is composed of iron and granite and layered with frozen methane and carbon dioxide, which gives it a traditional snow-capped appearance. It is, in all respects, a perfect visual copy of Mount Rainier, which resides in Washington State. Go look at a professionally-taken picture of Rainier real quick here. Isn’t it beautiful? Maybe you don’t find it beautiful, but you can at least agree that someone living on the planet Earth, probably quite a lot of people actually, find Mount Rainier’s icy and foreboding visage nothing less than breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. Face it. People like mountains.

Anyway, let’s call Pluto’s faux Rainier by the name of Rainier-P. Is Rainier-P beautiful? I would argue NO. It isn’t beautiful because no one has ever perceived it. The qualia for Rainier-P simply doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind. It is the qualia, the conscious perception of qualia, that makes a thing have beauty. Beauty is by definition a type of judgment placed on qualia. And the qualia doesn’t exist apart from perception, which reveals what I feel to be the thrust of this whole article. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from perception. So we aren’t actually judging a mountain to be beautiful at all. We’re the ones that are beautiful. It is our perception – something completely non-differentiable from our ego – that creates that wonderful awe-struck feeling that people call beauty.

3. Unless [the qualia of a perception that is beautiful] has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain [what it is like] directly to them.

The two phrases in brackets are effectively identical, which I’ll call X. Unless X has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain X directly to them. This is where novelty comes into play. Suppose that there was a genetic mutation in one of your chromosomes which allowed you to see infrared light in addition to visible light. How would you go about explaining this novel visual perception to the world? “It’s redder than red?” There is literally no way to do it. No matter what is said, no one will ever be able to understand what infrared light looks like unless they see it themselves. Likewise a host of effectively identical questions can be posed, unanswerable all: What is it like to be blind? What is it like to be a cat? What is it like to see Mount Rainier-P? What is it like to be channeling this idea about beauty and novelty into a blog post? [2]

4. You can only explain personal beauty with metaphor.

Obviously things can be beautiful in different ways, all unexplainable because it’s a value judgment on qualia. My girlfriend is beautiful in a different way than Glacier National Park is beautiful. Many of you have seen my girlfriend so in some small way you can understand the first four words in the preceding sentence. Plus, even if you haven’t seen her before, you can analyze that statement with metaphor: surely sometime during your life you’ve seen someone that is beautiful. So you can just map that feeling of personal value that you had onto the feeling of personal value that I have. It’s probably a bit more accurate if the beautiful person you have in mind is someone that you know personally; better still if it’s a girlfriend of your own. You can see what I’m getting at. There’s no way to directly know what I really mean by the statement “my girlfriend is beautiful” unless you’re me; you have to parse it by comparing my experience with an experience of your own. And of course I wasn’t specific in my statement; is she just visually beautiful or is the beauty part of the whole personality package? You could ask and create better and better metaphors; maybe through some stroke of luck your comparison is so close that you can actually understand what I mean on some deeper, pre-linguistic, intuitive level. But that’s besides the point.

The second half of that statement is a little harder: Glacier National Park is beautiful. Most of you have never been to Glacier, which is why I picked this statement. If you’ve seen GNP before that’s a pretty big help. The next best thing is having been to a mountain range in the West before; you can just roughly map the awe that you felt when you saw that mountain onto my statement, and siphon some meaning out of it. If you’ve never seen Western mountains before, and thus lack the qualia for that experience, it’s a lot harder. You could look at a picture on the internet and try to imagine yourself actually seeing what’s in the picture instead of just looking at the picture, but that’s like looking at a picture of a banana to try to approximate what someone means when they say “Bananas sure are tasty.”

What I do know, however, is that the feeling of seeing Glacier can be explained without specifically talking about Glacier. [The experience of being to Glacier] feels complete, like part of me was always living there and I never knew it until now, and I’ve finally been rejoined. Now you can get at it, make something of it. Perhaps a first kiss made you feel complete. Perhaps finally finishing Nanowrimo and knowing that you did a damn good job made you feel complete. Perhaps buying your first car and going somewhere on your own did it for you. The point is, by generalizing to an emotional state [3], I can phrase my value judgments in a way that you can parse, by then comparing my emotional state to a similar state that you’ve experienced.

You can’t ever know what it’s like to be me in the places I’ve been, but you do know what it’s like to be you in the places you’ve been. And with metaphor, we can talk about it. No author ever says “The mountain was beautiful.” No one would understand.

The mountain is a girl with red hair whose short skirts tantalize and promise an unending era of sleepless nights. Now we’re talking.

G

[1] Ted states: “But I digressed from the main point that there is black. It exists as a concept or a descriptor of a certain state of events rather than a physical thing—in fact, describing the lack of a physical thing (photons). It’s really a matter of perception. Some people are going to see less photons, and so their version of “black” might be different from someone else’s version of “black”. Besides all that, there’s no way to know what colors anyone else sees. Everyone calls the sky “blue”, but how do you know that someone else’s blue isn’t what you call red? You know the sky is blue because that’s what everyone else calls that particular color, but you can’t ever be sure that you’re not the odd man out.”

[2] I have a bunch of these. What is it like to eat an orange? What is it like to eat an orange with your eyes closed? What is it like to eat an orange if you’re also blind? What is it like to eat an orange if you have a cold? If you’re high? If you’re tired? If you’re retired?

[3] This whole thought process was brought on by the endless questioning of family and friends: “What’s Montana like?” Sure, it’s beautiful and there are tall mountains, but what does that mean? Montana is sleeping in after the alarm’s gone off. Montana is a burger that is so tasty that you’re willing to take another bite even though you’re quite full. Montana is a brand new computer before you’ve even personalized the fonts and the desktop pattern. Enough!

thirty one daps

May 19th, 2007

Yes, you read the title correctly. It’s thirty one daps. Not thirty one days, as in a descriptor for a member of the set {January, March, May, July, August, October, December}. Thirty one daps can also be rendered 31 daps, and backwards as Spad 13, which is the name of an obscure World War I fighter plane:

This is not a coincidence. Spad 13 is also the name of an ongoing musical project named by my esteemed brother and colleague, E. Michael Woolley.

What is Spad 13, might you ask?

Spad 13 is a musical concept, label, and genre that spits in the face of typical music production. Insofar as music is “good”, Spad 13 could be considered “bad”. My brother’s first Spad 13 project was a sampling of voices, household noises (like a phone ringing), and simplistic 909 beats and unaccompanied melodies. His second Spad 13 project consisted of three tracks, each roughly twenty minutes long. The first track consisted of silence. The second, a drum beating in 4/4 time. The third, static. Here are the track names:

1. qwertyuiop

2. asdfghjkl

3. zxcvbnm

Hopefully you’re starting to understand the concept. E. Michael’s third Spad project was a noise album, which I quite like.

In any case, spad is the new black. I don’t use the word avant garde, but people who frequent art museums may or may not find this term apt. “That’s so spad, Margaret.” I had wanted to contribute to the Spad project for some time, and only recently came up with an overarching album concept that I felt was appropriate for the Spad label: overlapping sound. Ever been in a hallway with at least two adjoining rooms, and had a stereo playing a different song in each room? What if this overlap was approached in a semi-controlled manner?

The Rules

1. The songs chosen for overlapping must be of equal length.

2. The songs may not be manipulated in a temporal way (i.e. they cannot be artificially shortened, lengthened, or otherwise reorganized).

3. If the volume is changed, or any effects are added, they must be added to the song as a whole.

With the help of iTunes and Audacity, I made seventeen of these overlaps (hundreds, thousands are possible!) and ended up using eleven. Unfortunately, due to unnecessary conscious decisions on my part the songs ended up being way too musical to truly deserve the Spad 13 label. I decided to revert to my electronic pseudonym, Scion Eidolon, and “release” these tracks as my own personal idiom. “Thirty one daps” is my homage to Spad, and for this idea, I thank you. Here is the album, the tracklist, and the music I used to create it. (The track names are created from editing together the names of the original tracks.)

scion eidolon – thirty one daps (Found HERE)

1. how everybody’s little (4:27)
2. c/viet eno (4:39)
3. leyton over the rue (6:39)
4. rettic rigby (2:07)
5. vogrradhostibns (4:51)
6. heartopian (5:19)
7. new exciting pinomernans (alternate take) (5:08)
8. hexagon sunbath (5:07)
9. puleiris falls (8:33)
10. my one hand, my meta wish (5:40)
11. pigs pigs (1:25)

Tracks Used (it’s best to listen to the album before looking at this, to avoid preconceptions and better appreciate what the project is getting at):

1. Little Fluffy Clouds – The Orb, Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime – Yann Tiersen, How Can I Tell You – Cat Stevens
2. C/Pach – Autechre, Vietnow – Rage Against the Machine, Eno Test – Boards of Canada
3. Rue Over The Whirl – Boards of Canada, U.F.O.’s over Leytonstone – Squarepusher
4. Rettic AC – Autechre, Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
5. Gratis – Prefuse 73, Vordhosbn -Aphex Twin
6. Univearth – DJ Krush, We Have A Map Of The Piano – Mum
7. Exciting New Direction – The New Deal, Pinocchio – Miles Davis, Pinocchio (Alternate Take) – Miles Davis, Gwely Mernans – Aphex Twin
8. Turquoise Hexagon Sun – Boards of Canada, Bath – Bjork
9. Pule – Autechre, Iris – Miles Davis, Shpongle Falls – Shpongle
10. My Wish – Dark Soho, I Can’t Feel My Hand Anymore, It’s Alright, Sleep Tight – Mum
11. Pigs On The Wing (Part One) – Pink Floyd, Pigs On The Wing (Part Two) – Pink Floyd

The nature of choice in music design has always interested me. While I was limited to picking combinations of songs based on their length, and was not allowed to modify them in many ways, the choice of song and the song’s volume was ultimately my choice to make. Also, I was limited to the songs I have on my computer, which is a factor of my taste in music, my hard drive space, and the artists’ respective abilities to advertise. It really is quite an interesting mash-up of systems and choices. It raises several valid, overarching questions. What is the role of choice in music? What is the role of desire in music? What is the role of the artist? My selection of tracks and their place in the soundscape is exactly the same decision that a guitarist makes when he decides to play an E major chord, that a composer makes when he decides to write a sonata for English horns, that a sound programmer makes when he decides to use the 909 for his beats instead of the 808. The E major chord, the English horn, the 909. Cat Stevens.

A totally new waveform, new combinations of sounds hitting the eardrums, partially controlled by me, and partially controlled by the artists I used and my taste in music. On one level, I wrote these songs.

I have a lot of idiosyncratic ideals concerning morality, religion, and society, and while they exist in a prelinguistic mash-up of unadulterated meaning that takes up residence in a network of neurons in my frontal cortex, I’ve never really laid them out in a codified and straightforward manner. I find that my ideas come to fruition only when I’m discussing them with someone else, so I pick you, Internet, to hear me out and set me straight.

1. God

God is not a man. God is not self-aware and as such, cannot make decisions. God does not have a physical form and cannot influence the physical world. There will not be a judgment day and the concept of sin was invented by man. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, various medicine men from primitive societies, monks, Pentecostal devotionees, and many other religious followers all spontaneously experienced the same qualitative state of mind which is commonly termed a “mystical” or “peak” experience, and is so far removed from normal experience that it is meaningless to try to describe with language in an objective way. “I saw God. I became one with the universe. I experienced all times. The observer-object dichotomy was destroyed: I am everything; everything is I.” Typical messages that filter out of this transcendent state are messages of love, peace, understanding, and respect for all life, and it is from these concepts that prophets teach, and religions and dogma slowly grow.

God is an event; it is what happens when the ability to differentiate between your self and everything that is not you is lost. God is a temporary state of mind that influences one’s life permanently. The event of God literally transcends life – it is awareness without consciousness. Many people have reported that they have experienced their own death during such an experience.  “A blinding white light.” By perceiving life without consciously living the true value of life is revealed. What this may or may not imply about an afterlife is not possible to prove.

Lesser forms of God can be experienced easily. “I found myself. I lost myself. I was at peace.” Examples: climbing a mountain, suddenly “getting” a mathematical equation, falling in love. These lesser forms are realizations that underscore human frailty, the existence of life beyond conscious intent, revelations of the impartiality of nature or the true powerlessness of a single person.

Because a human is a pile of meat and neurons, and nothing else, it follows that it is possible to induce this state of rapture chemically, which has been proven time and time again with accounts ranging from LSD psychotherapy to starvation to meditation to near-death experiences to just smoking copious amounts of weed. It is of interest that DMT, a potent psychedelic, occurs naturally within the body. It is possible that spontaneous religious experiences are induced via chemical pathways within the body through release of this chemical. Once again, the implications are vast and unprovable.

I am an agnostic.

Next time: Part 2, Perception and Interpretation (probably)