Don’t Play It Again, Sam

I know this may outrage more than a few readers, some of whom are my friends, but I’m going to go out on a limb here. Loop music is stupid.

If you’re stupid and want to be a musician (or think you are one), then making music with sampled loops is great. You get to bask in the glow of having accomplished something or other, without the inconvenience of having to grapple with any of those nasty intellectual challenges. If you yourself are smart, but your intended audience is stupid, then again — loops may be an ideal solution.

But if you’re smart, and aspire to make music that smart people will want to listen to, then being seduced by the prevailing musical culture, which glorifies loops, would be a dreadful mistake.

Good music involves a dynamic interplay between repetition and change. Too much change, and the music will be incomprehensible. Too much repetition, and it will be boring. But how much is too much?

Ultimately, as an artist, the only thing you can trust is your own understanding of the materials you’re working with. And if you’re smart, you will have a great deal of understanding of musical materials — of harmonic and melodic relationships, of rhythmic interplay, of timbral color, of large-scale structure, and so on.

When you load up a few loops, you’re bypassing your critical intelligence. You’re failing to interact with the material. In fact, you can’t interact with a loop, not really. That’s the definition of a loop! Sure, you can ramp the filter cutoff frequency up or down. You can nudge the delay send or the distortion level. But it’s still a loop. It’s still stupid. At the point when you start interacting with the stuff inside the loop — cutting out a snare drum hit, changing a few notes in the arpeggio — it’s not a loop anymore. It has become interesting.

Making music with loops is seductively easy. You can make ten seconds’ worth of compositional decisions and let the music run for three minutes while you zone out on the groove.

That’s my definition of stupid.

The Good Stuff

Sometimes a memory drifts up out of the remote past, and you’re struck by how directly it speaks to today’s concerns.

In 1972, to begin this essay with what will turn out not to be a digression, I was working for a tiny outfit called GPI Publications, whose only product was a slim, low-budget magazine called Guitar Player. There were six employees. Jim Crockett was the editor and publisher, I was the assistant editor, and a fellow named Michael Brooks was the art director and also the ad director. The offices were in Los Gatos, behind a jewelry shop, and my desk was upstairs in a large room that was also the warehouse, as it was dominated by a large metal shelf unit stocked with unsold back issues. To reach this room you had to go up an outside stairway.

Sometimes, at lunch, Mike Brooks and I would sit outside on the roof and smoke a joint. Hey, it was the Seventies! And I remember a conversation we had. Somehow we got onto the subject of whether certain kinds of music were objectively better than others. I had studied classical music, and Mike was a blues/folk guitar player, so perhaps the difference of opinion was inevitable. I took Read more

The Age of the Lizard

I’ve been reading Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. Though loose in places, it’s fascinating reading. Berman traces some important parallels between the decline of the intellectual life in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the all too evident decline that we’re seeing today.

I’ve started to feel, however, that the parallel is less precise than he implies.

Consider: In Rome, the life of the mind never spread beyond a tiny upper-class minority. Most people were illiterate, superstitious, and dirt-poor. When the economic structure that supported an upper-class elite tottered and fell, nobody was left to pick up the torch of intellectual activity.

What structure remained was explicitly wedded to a dogma of revealed truth, a dogma that, significantly, had percolated up from the lower classes. I believe it was one of the early popes who, when asked whether a collection of scholarly books should be kept or burned, replied, “Burn them. If they contradict the Bible they’re heretical, and if they agree with the Bible they’re redundant.”

The dogmatically entrenched are still among us, to be sure. But they’re not the only or even the primary source of intellectual decline in the United States today. The decline Read more

A Joyful Noise

Community orchestras are a wonderful thing … sort of. Last night I played a concert with the Silicon Valley Symphony. Tonight we’re repeating the program. It’s a good orchestra, capable of tackling fairly challenging repertoire and bringing it home. But I see both the plusses and the minuses.

Playing in such an orchestra is enjoyable first and foremost because it gives you a chance (indeed, an obligation) to sit in a chair and pay close attention to a complex piece by Brahms or Beethoven for 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch. Being in the audience just isn’t the same: In the audience, your mind can wander. At least, mine does. And an audience member is unlikely to sit through the same pieces week after week, becoming more closely acquainted with them.

There’s some satisfaction in being able to do a good job. Also, the orchestras provide a welcome outlet for soloists who are very capable but are not quite ready to play a concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, and may never be.

On the other side of the coin are two issues.

First, playing in a symphony is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative activity. Someone hands you a stack of paper with little dots on every sheet, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in ways that match the dots. Years of training are required, so the activity is a little more sophisticated than being a ditch digger, but if it took years of training to be a ditch digger, the two would be quite comparable with respect to the scope one has for personal expression or meaning.

Beyond that, even the best community orchestras are not, in my experience, able to do truly fine performances. There are always rough edges. Someone in the bass section can be relied on to jump in early during a rest. The violins’ intonation is likely to be quite shaky during fast passages. French horn entrances are hit-or-miss. Once in a while, the conductor may even drop a beat; it’s rare, but it happens.

So the upshot is, I drive down to rehearsal on the freeway, week after week, in order to perform what is essentially a mechanical activity, for which I don’t get paid, and after the concert I find myself saying, “Well, that wasnt too bad.”

I’m not a candidate for a better orchestra. I make a few little mistakes from time to time too. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I just wish it was more satisfying.

Combat Readiness

Given the insane eagerness with which the U.S. government gets embroiled in ruinous land wars in Asia, I’ve decided that I support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. If the Army is kicking out gay soldiers, that will make the Army weaker, and a weak U.S. military is clearly a good thing — the weaker, the better!

The rationale of the policy is that having gay soldiers will weaken a unit’s combat readiness. I’m not sure why anybody thinks this. Maybe they’re worried that a gay soldier will respond to an enemy mortar attack by baking muffins or putting up new drapes in the barracks. The reality, of course, is that when the Army starts kicking out specialists of all kinds, from translators to computer technicians, the Army’s ability to run its operations is damaged.

In the interest of limiting the ability of the U.S. to invade other countries, I don’t think the policy goes nearly far enough. I feel the Army should start discharging soldiers who are too intelligent. They ask far too many inconvenient questions, especially about policy. And obviously we can’t have any atheists in the Army — an atheist will turn his fellow soldiers into cowards by pointing out that when you’re dead, you’re dead. Muslims, I don’t even need to explain that. Kick ’em all out.

And what about Hispanics and Filipinos? Their accents make them hard to understand, and in a dangerous combat situation, that could be fatal! Imagine talking on the radio with a Hispanic soldier, and having to say, “What? What? Speak more slowly!” while under small arms fire from insurgents.

If we work it right, we should be able to pare down the U.S. military by about 90%. We’ll end up with a lean, mean fighting force that will be too weak to invade any other countries — and that’s exactly what we need.

Three’s Company

An inspiring concert tonight — the Tilden Trio onstage at the Bankhead in Livermore. They played Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 3, the Dvorak F minor trio, and … well, apparently there was a chaotic scene last night at some hotel in San Francisco, where they played at a gala honoring Michael Tilson Thomas. The violinist’s sheet music for the third trio piece got lost. So they substituted a virtuosic violin/cello duo by Bohuslav Martinu. Wow!

Sometimes I think all I want to do is play, listen to, and compose music. Why bother doing anything else? I now have a keen desire to rush out and buy several CDs of music by Martinu. On the other hand, I have a box set of CDs containing all 14 Shostakovich string quartets, and when was the last time I listened to them? Heck, I have a couple of hundred LPs and a functioning turntable, and I can’t remember the last time I played an LP at all, other than to let one of my students hear Pablo Casals playing Bach.

I’m strictly an amateur pianist, but I keep at it. Over the last few years I’ve learned several Haydn piano sonatas. But when I don’t play a piece for a while, it falls apart. One of my goals for this winter is to expand my repertoire by relearning a bunch of piano music that I’ve learned and then set aside. Right now I’m working on the Haydn C# minor sonata. And lots of Bach. And Clementi, who was amazing.

The wonderful thing about playing the piano is that there’s an endless supply of great music that you can play by yourself, in your living room. I enjoy playing the cello too, but the cello is not Read more

Lingua Franca

So you’re describing the human species to a xenosociologist named Erbq, who comes from a planet somewhere near Aldebaran. You tell him (actually, Erbq is a him/2, but let’s not get into that) that we humans use tools and communicate using spoken words, which signify objects, actions, and relations. Also, we have a glandular system that releases chemicals into the bloodstream to stimulate quick action — emotions, in other words.

From this data, Erbq might reasonably conclude that humans will express their emotions by making sculpture and paintings. (I suppose we’d better tell him we have color-sensitive eyes too. That’s important information.) He might also be able to predict that in order to depict our social relations, we will tell stories, write poetry, and enact dramas, either onstage or in a film/video medium of some sort. All of this seems pretty natural, given the raw material of the human organism.

But would Erbq be able to predict the existence of music?

Music is a very odd art form. It’s almost entirely abstract, and yet it communicates. Music is a language whose words and sentences are, technically, meaningless. But somehow, the listener Read more