Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sarah Jarosz’s Undercurrent—solid effort with bright spots

[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, or octave mandolin not pictured]
[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, and octave mandolin not pictured]
One of my recent regrets is that I only discovered Sarah Jarosz last year, from an album that came out in 2013.* Because of this regret, I made sure to purchase her new album, Undercurrent, right when it came out in late June.

Jarosz is not only a great mandolin, guitar, and banjo player, but she has a very emotive voice and writes most of her material. She actually doesn’t even play the normal mandolin on this album, splitting most tracks between octave mandolin and guitar. 4 of the tracks are just her and a guitar. Most of the time, Jarosz is equally captivating with just a guitar or mandolin as with a band, delivering captivating intimate performances; although I think more songs with more instruments would have made this a better album.

The hands-down standout track of Undercurrent is “Green Lights”; from beginning to end, the songwriting and production transports to an optimistic place. The lyrics effectively mix the mundane and the cosmic, with long notes and phrases underpinned with driving rhythm. Jarosz makes the genius decision of making the first chorus wordless. “House of Mercy,” another standout, has the opposite feeling of “Green Lights”—instead of opening up because of relationship, the character is closing up, with short phrases, rhythms that start and stop, and a controlled-yet-angry vocal delivery. “Everything to Hide” (the track from which the album gets its title) also is notable for its unconventional structure and confessional, candid lyrics.

Some of the songs are more forgettable than others, short on nuance or number of ideas necessary to sustain interest. Then again, there is only so much you can fit in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. While I don’t think Undercurrent is quite up to the level of Build Me Up From Bones, it is a solid album and recommended.

*I mentioned in a previous post that it was a rare case in which Amazon’s suggestions worked, though the album was suggested over and over again before I actually tried it out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Artists want to reform DMCA, but is problem deeper?


Earlier this month, 180 artists sent an open letter to Congress in the Washington Post to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) stating the copyright no longer allows artists to earn a living. While there are multiple issues, the main complaint here is against Google and their company YouTube, which these artists feel are exploiting their creations at their expense. You can read a summary of these issues here at the Guardian, which mostly revolve around how advertising revenue is collected.

While YouTube could certainly reform their practices, there’s a bigger problem here that will be harder to solve. Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen Blog points the problem out after examining similar circumstance happening now in the publishing industry: “The fundamental contributor to the erosion of copyright is the expectation for 'free information.' This is an expectation the large technology companies have been happy to set and users have been happy to adopt.” In other words, in the past few years, people have been trained that writing, music, news, etc., should be given out for free. This feeling is understandable (of course we want free stuff!), but it is also doesn’t help the system that creates the art, especially the content creators lower down the pecking order. To illustrate his point, Anderson tells a personal story about presenting a new publication idea to a focus group. Here is what the focus group said about the new product:

"They felt even the rough prototype was superior to its competitors in the market, and they trusted us to execute to that level. The enthusiasm was palpable. When we asked them what they’d pay for it, they unanimously agreed they would not pay for it. They expected to receive it for free—somehow."
Now, I like getting free stuff, too. But it is deeper than that—we've been trained to think that beautiful, complicated, useful systems and products somehow pay for themselves by just existing. This type of free model, in various forms (for example, the "freemium" approach), might actually work for some companies, but obviously is failing for some markets. The real solution to shoring up the failing the artistic (and journalistic) economy is for us to cough up the money and pay for things that we use and like.

It’s that simple. It takes a lot of work to put together music and we shouldn’t expect to get it for free. Quality takes a lot of work and we shouldn't expect it to appear for nothing. I know, easy to say, but hard to do. But it is something that we all should just swallow—even celebrate—and content providers should expect it, too, and make the process of contributing easy. Otherwise, there's a chance that the stuff we enjoy will just disappear.

What do you think? How do you think we can change the expectations?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Birdsong and music

I hear these guys, called alternately a Brazilian, South American, or red-crested cardinal, outside my window every morning. Their song sounds like an ornamented descending mi-re-do. From Mike's Birds under a CC license.

As I've written about on this blog before, I personally love birdsong and often try and identify birds by the sounds they make (though I am not anywhere near as good as this guy). If you are also interested in birdsong and its connection with music, I recommend listening to this 30-minute radio program recently produced by the BBC and part of the series “The Listening Service”:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07gn6km

Although the title of the program (or should I write “programme”?) is “is birdsong music?”, BBC reporter Tom Service instead spends most of his time answering the question: “how has birdsong been used in Western classical music throughout the years?” Though it is not the stated question, it is also a good question, and of course Service does an excellent review on the music of Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer who spent much of his career translating birdsong in to concert music.

Personally, I’ve found Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired music difficult to listen to, somewhat because it was an attempt to take something we don’t understand and try to create some order on it without changing it too much, resulting in very static-sounding music. Birdsong, though, is something that humans often feel like we should understand, because it is all around us and has influenced the way we write music ourselves. But, as this program makes clear, we don’t know birdsong's purpose, and what’s more, we don’t actually hear it very well: “Birdsong is too fast, too high, for us to understand.” While I disagree slightly with the reasoning the program presents as to why this is the case (size or heartbeat really doesn’t make a difference; the speed of audio wave sampling is much more important), it is true that besides not understanding what birdsong means, we can’t even hear it or reproduce it very well.

Instead, birdsong “becomes translated by us” into music. I think this is why I, like Service, enjoy Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” even if it has very little to do with the actual sounds a lark makes—he uses bird-inspired sounds and creates a symbol of the peace and freedom of nature, but doesn’t try to re-create it.

When Service finally get the to the question (“is birdsong music?”) in minute 25, he hasn’t really analyzed the issue, or even defined the terms in the question, but just dismisses it as “false”, even when no proof has been made against at least some birdsong being music to birds (why wouldn’t attracting a mate be artistic?). Still, it is an interesting listen and I would recommend it, especially to anyone fascinated by birdsong.

One more caveat: While I don’t particularly like author Bernie Krause’s metaphor of the great animal orchestra, especially the comparison with taking the strings out of Beethoven 5th, I do understand what he’s saying about birds filling communication niches—animals using sounds to communicate have to differentiate from other animals, so that their message can get across. Which is kind of like orchestration, except formed by competition and instead of consonance. So, kind of the opposite, actually. (I don't think Service really likes the idea, either.)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Album Review: Oh Pep! Stadium Cake

https://www.amazon.com/Stadium-Cake-Oh-Pep/dp/B01FJWQ3EU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1466412325&sr=8-2&keywords=stadium+cake
Yes, Olivia and Pepita can see you.
Usually, if a music critic gives a review of an album or group you probably haven’t heard of, especially if they only review a few albums a year, it is probably a favorable review. After all, why would they bother reviewing it, then? However, that’s not exactly happening with this review.

I first encountered Oh Pep! through All Songs Considered, first in an episode and then in a NPR Tiny Desk Concert. After getting a taste, I was excited to listen to Oh Pep!’s first full length album, Stadium Cake, which is streaming this week on NPR’s First Listen series through Wednesday (6/22). What drew me to them? Mostly the song writing—interesting lyrics, fresh chord progressions, and highly-structured songs that aren’t the usual verse/chorus or ABABCB.

After listening to the album, I have to say that while I still think the songs are good, I have a beef with the production. It sounds to me like Oh Pep! is doing covers of their own songs. Or, to say it another way, they got in the studio and starting putting stuff in songs because “that’s what you do to songs in the studio, right?” I think this album would have been much better with less heavy-handed production, or maybe just different production.

For example, the bluesy guitar riff in “Seven Babies” messes up with otherwise might be a great song, like a greasy toupee dropped on the Thanksgiving turkey. “Tea Milk and Honey” would have worked so much better with a piano or guitar rather than the electronic instrument at the beginning; it’s definitely a relief when that instrument is replaced with Olivia's acoustic guitar as the song progresses. The group singalongs and layered vocals in "Crazy Feels" and "Wanting" both fall flat, too, along with other added synth sounds.

The album is it’s best when it focuses on the melody, lyric delivery, and acoustic sounds—like the atonal strumming “Bushwick,” the bi-tonal string hook in “Crazy Feels,” the violin riff in “Doctor, Doctor,” and the mandolin at the beginning of “Only Everyone” and "Trouble Now" (though some of the instrument solos could use some more virtuosic flare). Most other sounds get in the way, including the many of the layered vocals.

Despite the production missteps, the songs still come through, especially with “Doctor Doctor,” a poignant and emotional coming-of-age song about deciding whether to have an (unexpected?) baby, and a great example of how repeating the same lyric over and over again can be successful (this happens in other tracks; every lyric here is placed for a reason). Also, “The Race,” a lyrically genius track with melodies that accentuate the words, though this song also suffers from unsatisfactory production (mostly off-putting drum loops and too much change between sections).

I’m usually a bigger fan of the recording than the live set, but I’ll have to say that’s the opposite here. After listening to the album and then going back to the live Tiny Desk, the Tiny Desk set is just better. Just take the first song in the Tiny Desk set “The Race”—in the live version, Olivia communicates the words better, and somehow the accompaniment focuses the words, melody, and structure instead of distracting from it.*
Also, the album track seems to end suddenly, but the live version ends in just the right place. My theory is that the producer didn’t quite understand the radical song structures and so couldn’t quite sonically communicate them, while those structures seem totally natural in the live set. In these songs, just because something is repeated and at the end of a song, it doesn't mean it the "chorus" and should get the biggest instrumentation. Perhaps this production/structure misunderstanding is what happened to the “The Situation,” which sounds like the section and lyrics were loosely stitched together. "Only Everyone" actually has some good structure/instrumentation decisions, though still suffers from overproduction in the end.

So, in summary, I’m still not sure if I’m going to buy the album or just keep going back to the live Tiny Desk set. 


What do you think?

*I also think the tempos were slightly faster in the live set than the recording; or at least, the delivery seemed more immediate.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Program Notes for the Masses

A monument to Rheinberger in Liechtenstein, photo by Anke Jana

This coming Friday, April 29, I'm singing with the Oahu Choral Society as we present a concert of two masses, Bruckner's Mass in E minor and Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat (see the Oahu Choral Society's webpage for more details about the performance). I wrote the program notes for the concert and am posting them here, also, so that even if you can't come to the performance, you can enjoy the notes. Besides a brief listening roadmap, there's a short history lesson about the direction of Catholic church music in the 19th century, which I find fascinating.  

Masses are music set to fixed Latin lyrics, normally performed at weekly religious services. In Europe, the desire for new music for the frequent services led to an almost insatiable demand for more masses, especially in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many prominent composers registered their own submissions to the form, especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and Austria. Even Bach, though a Lutheran, wrote his own mass. In a compositional arms race, some of these masses became so complicated and required such large ensembles that only a very small number of church choirs were equipped with the means to perform them, relegating these compositions almost entirely to the concert hall.

Both Anton Bruckner (1824–96) and Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901) made their livings as Roman Catholic church musicians, Bruckner in Austria and Rheinberger in largely Catholic Bavaria. They are two of only a few great Romantic musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century who wrote music for church services, as many churches looked to the old masters for their weekly services while other contemporary composers sought fame in the concert hall or opera house. Bruckner and Rheinberger each composed at least a dozen masses of varying sizes and types; those on the program tonight are two of their most highly regarded. Both of these masses are written for double choir, meaning that two full choirs are singing antiphonally.

Behind the resurgence of older church music during Bruckner and Rheinberger’s time was Cecilianism, a popular musical reform movement in the Catholic Church that frowned on contemporary compositional practices such as word painting (having the music mimic the words), musical complexity that overshadowed the words, and heavy chromaticism. As you will hear tonight, Rheinberger and Bruckner were not fans of Cecilianism and sometimes went out of their way to raise the ire of its proponents.

Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat, op. 109, subtitled “Cantus Missae” (1878), was written shortly after Rheinberger was appointed the director of the court chapel for Ludwig II of Bavaria (of Neuschwanstein fame). What to listen for: 

  • The interplay of the choirs as they trade musical ideas
    The fugal section at the end of the Gloria
  • The drama in the Credo as Rheinberger paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music
  • The danceable Benedictus, perhaps inspired by the popular Viennese waltz 
  • The Agnus Dei, which starts slow and plaintive but soon transitions to a florid, rejoicing finale
Bruckner’s Mass in E minor (1866, revised 1882) for double choir and winds is probably the grandest of his masses. Written while Bruckner was employed as the organist at Linz Cathedral, the music was inspired by renaissance polyphony, but has more in common with contemporaneous Romantic music. What to listen for:
  • The layered a cappella opening section of the Kyrie, first from the women and then from the men, which returns later in the movement.
  • The fugal “Amen” section at the end of the Gloria
  • Again, drama in the Credo as Bruckner paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music, with a return of the movement’s uptempo opening theme at the end
  • The tightly contrapuntal a cappella opening of the Sanctus
  • The interplay between the men and women in the Benedictus, as they pass melodic ideas back and forth
  • The quiet, restrained Agnus Dei which caps the mass