Saturday, September 29, 2012

The new Dave Matthews Band album: To listen or not?

Disclaimer: This is not a review. This is an introspective look about how taste for a band can change over time. Or how the band itself can change over time. 
Note: As always, your comments are welcome.

Earlier this month, the Dave Matthew’s Band (DMB) released their eighth studio album, Away from the World. I’ve listened to the iTunes samples, but I’m not sure I want to buy the new album or even listen to it. Why? It’s complicated.

Classic DMB: the big three

Dave Matthews was an important part of high school for me. Classic Dave Matthews Band for me mean the first few albums, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), Crash (1996), and Before These Crowded Streets (1998, my favorite). I liked these albums mostly because the inventiveness and variety of the music. The best melodies were memorable, but that wasn’t always what made songs work for me. Lyrics and exiting riffs were a part, too. Here’s couple of specific examples:

1. “Drive In, Drive Out” from Crash. It’s the music that mainly gets me here, and I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. There is so much power in how this music is constructed, though everything fits into basically one riff and four chords. Although it’s a power song, our interest is kept alive throughout because there are so many variations of instrumentation and volume and texture until the music reaches the final unison section—maybe 6 or 7 unique sections that still preserve continuity in various ways. In preserving the interest, the electric violin and saxophone are leveraged to create effects totally uncommon in other pop music, and the cymbal and triangle work is pretty amazing, too.

2. “The Dreaming Tree” from Before These Crowded Streets. A totally different feel than “Drive in, Drive Out,” the lyrics are much more important in this song and are presented in verse instead of prose. Some of you know I’m a sucker for odd meters, and this one in 7 is no exception. Once again, each verse is a musical variant of the previous one, and the same is true of the simple riffs repeated between verse and chorus--they all have a musical direction and morph slowly. Strange pop instruments include bass clarinet, flute, bongos. It really keeps the listener’s interest for the whole nearly 9 minutes.

Both songs have interesting riffs (or a series of related riffs) that are varied throughout, really strive for new sounds, and have lyrics that connected emotionally in some way to the music.

Musical Decline?

Despite the success of these three albums, however, over the next three albums, most of the people I know stopped listening to new DMB material. Some people I know stopped listening at Everyday (2001) others at Busted Stuff (2002) Both these albums were just not as good as the classic DMB, I agree, but they were okay. The songs emphasized less those things novel to pop instead fixated on catchy melodies. Structures were more about repeating these catchy melodies instead of interesting variation. Even Dave’s voice was more neutral. Busted Stuff’s hit “Gray Street” is a good example of this: though the melody and riff are pretty memorable, the whole 5 minute song is basically one-and-a-half minutes of music repeated a few times, with some lyrical differences. While this is common for lots of pop music, this was not like Classic DMB (By the way, the disconnect between the dark, sad content of this song and the happy, dancing fans in the video is disconcerting. Is it the music’s fault, I wonder?).

But Stand Up (2005) was the final straw for me. I remember borrowing the album, listening once, and deciding to give up on DMB. I haven’t consciously listened to any new DMB since then (until this past week). Since that was seven years ago, I can’t remember exactly what made me actively dislike the album, but weird anti-piracy software aside, it was basically too predictable. The song forms (and topics) were stock, with quick sound bites recycled multiple times. The timbre was homogeneous, and you couldn’t even hear the electric violin anymore.  There were less novel musical experiences per song. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t decry something becoming pop-style, depending on how you define the word—I usually like high, sleek production. But it did seem that the DMB had sold out, meaning they had decided to stop producing quality music and instead produce simplified reproductions of the aspects of their music that they thought would sell.

Why the decline? The main theory is that their label pressured them into a new sound to sell more records. They did switch producers after the first three albums. Many support the producer-linked quality decline with Dave Matthew’s solo album Some Devil (2003), This album seemed more like the classic DMB albums, and the songs packed more variety and punch, though. “Are these what Matthews really would like to be writing, if he had his way?” people asked.

Or maybe, they realized they could stop working as hard and get about the same results.

Post breakup remorse—time to get back together?

Since Stand Up, DMB has produced two studio albums. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (2009, nominated for two Grammys) and the latest one, Away From the World, and both premiered at #1 on the Billboard album charts. But have they got back to the Classic DMB sound? I’m skeptical. I don’t want to get my hopes up to have them dashed. Steve Lillywhite, the same person who produced the Classic DMB three, is producing Away From the World, so that could mean something.

What do you think? What’s your DMB story? Are you still following them, or did you stop like me? Were you never interested? Have you listened to the last two DMB albums and love them or hate them? What other bands have disappointed you with new music that doesn’t seem to live up to earlier material?

Vocab: riff, pop-style

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Gangnam Style": Wait, there’s music involved, too?

Now that I’ve set forth the foundation for this blog, I’m going to turn to something more current (and fun).

The viral K-pop video just hit 240 million YouTube views and counting, and the artist responsible, rapper PSY, is riding on a wave of success into the US spotlight. The song’s success is more exceptional because the song is (mostly) in Korean.

Much of the media hype around the song focuses on the video, and there are plenty of factors there that make it a tantalizing YouTube hit: the hilarious dancing, the crazy characters, the random scene changes, the culture shock, and the over-the-top antics. Underneath all that, there is a layer of nuanced satire (for more about its background, see this AP article and this from the Atlantic). While the envy and distaste for the conspicuously wealthy might lurk at the edges of consciousness of our fascination, I think it’s safe to say that for the most part Americans are unfamiliar with the cultural issues behind the video.

But what very few people talk about is the music. Let’s face it, the video wouldn’t be viral without it. What about the music makes the music of "Gangnam Style" work?

A Chorus?

Pretty much all the media mentions about the music is the “catchy” or “addictive” chorus. What they probably mean is the “hey, sexy lady” section, perhaps because that’s all they can understand. To that, I say 1) that section isn’t really a chorus and further, I claim the song doesn’t have a chorus, and 2) that section is not what makes this song really work.

There are basically two sections to this song, which I’ll call A and B. A dominates the piece, forming the background of most of the music. This section has an infectious, danceable rhythm that captures the motion of jumping up and down. The electronic glissando (or pitch slide filling the space between notes) on the main beats really helps with the jumping motion. The rapping, the short “op, op, Gangnam style” sections, and the “hey, sexy lady” sections all can be classified under A. Although the song does an excellent job of varying each recurrence of A in interesting ways, there really isn’t much harmonic motion (meaning the chords don’t change much) during any of these parts. And sitting on A for a while, though fun at first, eventually becomes of boring.

In comes B. The harmonic motion picks way up (meaning the chords change). The rapper suddenly starts singing. This section builds in volume, and the phrases get shorter and shorter. Through this, the glissando jumps out of A and starts getting higher and higher in pitch. Finally, the phrase breaks down to simply quick beating, building the tension to a climax. And then, silence.

This section, B, is really the key to why this song works. Notice how the video imitates the tension of the building music. Notice that the silence helps accentuate the tremendous lift preceding it. I would argue that B is what songwriters would call a pre-chorus. Like a chorus, a pre-chorus has the same words each time it appears, but unlike a chorus, which is a goal in itself, the pre-chorus builds to a goal. With its harmonic movement, B really sets the song apart from most rap songs, which hardly ever depart from one chord.

Except what happens after the silence is not a chorus, but a return to the intro and verse beat, A. It’s a recovery, like the music is telling the listener “we’ve just gone a long distance, let’s rest awhile in this comfortable place. And dance while we’re at it.” The layering of “hey, sexy lady” onto A is then a nice icing on the cake, a varied repetition of A we haven’t heard yet. The song goes through the whole cycle again, and by the time we reach B again, the lift is even more effective because we’ve been through 4 whole repetitions of A without a break. The third time through the cycle, the song avoids B with a building version of A, perhaps either because B is so draining or because leaving B out leaves us wanting more.

Here’s a full map of the different sections in "Gangnam Style":

intro    A       A      B    A    A       A       A      B    A      A       A        A      outro
         rap1   rap2         op  sexy  rap1  rap2         op   sexy  build   sexy

Comedy in rap: a backdoor

One more note about the music: the comedy not only happens on the screen, it also happens in PSY’s satirical tone of voice, and this has an effect on the music. You can tell despite the language barrier that “Gangnam Style” is not your run-of-the-mill serious gangster rap; it's a completely different thing. Just the fact that a Korean’s doing the rapping creates some laughter-inducing cognitive dissonance for us Americans. By the way, other not-black people have gotten into rap by the same comedy rap backdoor. For example, Eminem, who did not hit the big time until he created his Slim Shady alter ego, a parody of lower-class whites. PSY could be the nerdy Korean’s answer to Eminem.

Would this song have made it in the US without the video? Probably not. But I don’t think the video would have made it without the backbone of a well-constructed song, either.

So, what do you think? Is there something in the music of "Gangnam Style" you like (or don't like)?

Also, check out this "Gangnam Style" Flashmob at the University of Michigan.

New vocab: harmonic motion, glissando, outro, pre-chorus

Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Gainfully Employ Music Vocab

Take it from an artist
Some of our music-specific vocabulary is borrowed from visual art. Notice on the vocab page how the flute’s melody is described as angular? Yet, music doesn’t really have angles. In this case, the term comes from someone looking at the printed notes and then visualizing what it would look like if lines were drawn between each note. Music isn’t really chromatic or dynamic, either, at least not in the same way as art. Some of the commonly accepted art music classifications, such as baroque, impressionist, or minimalist, come from art, too (and often don’t fit the music they label very well. But that’s a rant for another day). The point is that when trying to describe or label an abstract thing, visual art already has some good solutions, so why not steal them?

When writing about music, it’s good to follow the pattern of visual art reviewers, too. When they are writing about a painting, they don’t simply describe the art, for example: “It’s a painting of a clown with tears on its cheeks.” We can see the painting, after all. We want to know why we should care about the painting. Yet, having just encountered the bevy of specific vocabulary, in my experience, students new to writing about music do just that—say what they hear. A sentence might read: “The music begins with three flutes in duple meter in a polyphonic texture.” They might feel proud, and rightfully so, because they used new, difficult vocab. And while this might be a good description, the burning question is this: why do I need to know this? I can hear the music, can’t I? Descriptions like this don’t add meaning; they just are a written simplified replacement for the audio. A written description might also act like an arrow or a magnifying glass in art, drawing attention to some detail, but there should be some purpose for this.

Build from the bottom up

Art reviewers instead determine “Why does the clown have tears painted on his cheeks?” or “How does the artist paint the tears,” or “How does that effect the way I interact with the picture?” The descriptions, then, support general ideas. The same idea applies to writing about music. Instead of writing “It is a scary piece with pizzicato violas in triple meter,” answer a question such as “Why did the composer write the piece in triple meter?” or “How and why does the melody or accompaniment convey “scary”?” Then, use your handy written description to prove your claim. It’s almost never good to start at the beginning of a piece and describe what happens in each measure. Always work from a general concept and then give specific supporting examples.

As in art, the most interesting parts of an art object are usually the parts that are most different. For example, if a painting is mostly dark, the important part is probably where it’s light. In music, if there is a rhythm that recurs constantly for the entire piece except for one section, that different section must be important. “Why is it different,” ? There’s probably not enough time or space to write about an entire piece of music from start to finish, anyway, because often music is just too complex; a little music is as good as at least 10,000 words. Instead, find the interesting sections of music that prove your point.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Importance of Earnest Musical Vocabulary

Note: this post is loosely based on an article I wrote in the 2nd and 3rd editions of the BYU Honors department’s Why Write?

Writing about music: a square peg in a round hole?

Even if you have a lot of experience talking about literature, art, and film, writing about music can be particularly challenging. Music may be the most abstract of all the arts. Sometimes writing about music can be like forcing a square peg into a round hole. How do you translate into words something that you experience solely through carefully organized silence and vibrations, with no counterpart in the tangible world?

Many people writing about music take one of three paths:

  1. Concentrate solely on the context or the lyrics. People who are more used to talking about books or art might do this. It can be dangerous, as concentrating on lyrics or context at the expense of the music can lead to very wrong characterizations of the music. After all, just to mention one example, music has its own way of being sarcastic or ironic. And so much of a song’s message just isn’t apparent in the lyrics or context.
  2. The lazy route—simply giving qualitative judgments about the music: “it’s great!” or “it’s horrible” or “my girlfriend likes it.” While it’s okay to give these judgments, it’s much better to give some concrete musical reasons why you like it or not.
  3. The comparative path—people try to get off the hook by simply saying this music is like this other music. While this is preferable to the other two paths, it still does not mention exactly how the music is similar or how either music is behaving.
Try listening to or reading music reviews sometime. It’s amazing how many seasoned music reviewers or commentators take one of these three paths and simply avoid describing the music. Doesn’t it bother you? It bothers me.

A Better Way

The solution is cultivating musical vocabulary. Over the years, musicians have built up a vocabulary to conceptualize abstract musical objects. A useful tool for remembering the basic building blocks of music is the acronym SHMRF (kind of like Smurf, but with a lisp and without the vowel). Each letter stands for one of music’s five basic elements: Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Form. I’m going to throw out some quick music term definitions here, so hold onto your hats if you are new to this! Sound has several parts to it, including texture (how many distinct musical lines are sounding at one time), dynamics (how loud or soft the music is), and media (what type of instruments or voices are being used). Harmony refers to the vertical sonorities in the music, or how notes are stacked on top of each other. These stacked notes are called chords, and harmonic language hinges on how these chords relate to each other. Melody refers to horizontal sonorities in the music, or a string of related music notes occurring over time. Rhythm is the music’s durational pattern; Beethoven’s short-short-short-long in his Fifth Symphony is a famous example of a rhythm which drives a piece. Form refers to the larger structures in music, or how different melodies or sections of the music are related to each other (such as if they repeat or not). 

Usually in each piece some elements are more important than others. For example, some music has a lot of rhythm and very little melody, or lots of harmony but very little dynamics. Of the five, sound and rhythm are the easiest ones to write about, and you can say plenty about those things without needing to talk about the more esoteric elements such as form and harmony.

Back to where we started—writing. This music vocabulary is our tool for conveying what the music actually sounds like or makes it interesting. No need to re-invent the wheel when there’s this useful vocabulary ready to be used. Not using this vocabulary really limits what you can say about what you hear.

Problems with New Vocabulary

There’s a problem, though. We know about music-specific vocabulary, but what about the people who are reading our stuff? Do they know? Well, the answer usually is no, so that means that good writers also need to educate their readers what the new words mean. Although some people don’t like Lemony Snicket’s snide way of defining words, he’s a really good example of someone who uses vocabulary that works and then making sure his readers understand (if you haven’t, you should all read the A Series of Unfortunate Events).

The Vocabulary Box

You may have noticed a “featured vocabulary” box on the right side of this blog. I hope you find it useful. Musical vocabulary, it turns out, is really hard to define in just words, but I’ll try my best. I’ll keep adding music definitions to build a pretty good music glossary.

Next Week

Next week, I’ll be discussing how we use vocabulary once we know have it under our belt, so stay tuned! Tell your friends!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

So You Want to Read (and Write) about Music

Welcome to my blog, Signifying Sound and Fury. It’s a blog about music (its history, what’s compelling about it, its construction, genres) and writing about music (why it’s hard, common pitfalls, useful vocabulary).

The blog title comes from Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, from one of Macbeth’s soliloquies:

“Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard from no more: it is a tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This is Macbeth’s rather pessimistic view of life as it nears its end; Shakespeare would want us to believe the opposite, that life has meaning despite its brevity. The inclusion of “sound and fury” in a tale “told by an idiot” is Shakespeare’s jab at some forms of popular entertainment in his day, mirrored in our day in the summer blockbuster movie—entertainment that tries to make up for lack of content with effects, both special and emotionally manipulative. Yet behind Shakespeare’s critique, there is an assumption that sound can be significant, or in other words, sound can convey meaning. Music can manipulate emotions, yes, but it can also convey information, hide messages in code, symbolize culture, and bring people together. Hence, the purpose of this blog is part of a larger quest to pick apart the meaning of music, “signifying,” or trying to make sense of, the abstractness of what we hear.

The Importance of Music in Our Lives and Why We Should Think about That

Although the music industry is changing and adapting, its current downward revenue trend does not mirror music being less important in our lives. Just the opposite—music is becoming more and more an integral part of our lives. It’s there where we travel, work, and shop. And frequently, with our personal players, we take it everywhere else, too. Even when we don’t carry our music-playing gadgets, our brains decide to replay music anyway. Even today, music groups seem to spring forth spontaneously, even against the odds of receiving monetary compensation. Students still flock to music schools and university music programs, in spite of the glaring numbers telling them there probably won’t be a music job for them at the pipeline’s end.

With all this music surrounding us and forming a part of our lives, it makes sense that we should think critically about it sometimes; for example: Why is music there? Why is it compelling? How is it put together? Where does the music we listen to come from? Why do we divide it into genres, and how? Why do we prefer some types of music to others? Why does race or nationality seem to play such a prominent part in music taste? These are only a fraction of the questions that music scholars care about and that I will address in this blog.

Talking about Something Abstract is Hard Without Area-specific Vocab

In order to talk about music, however, it’s really helpful to know music-specific vocabulary. It’s relatively easy to pick apart and describe writing, because you can accomplish the critique with the same medium—words. Art is more difficult, but at least it stays put long enough for you to think about it. Music (and dance, too) is so ephemeral that even what we call the same art object changes every time it happens, and the only tool you have to examine the big picture is your memory, which usually only feeds the object back to you in bits and pieces.

In this blog, I will share vocabulary that musicians use to talk about music, mostly to make my job easier. I also will talk about the way we commonly write and talk about music, including advantages of some approaches and problems of others.

What Else I Will Do

Although I don’t want this do be a music review blog (which is what 90% of music-themed blogs are), I also plan to occasionally share my own music reviews of new and old music, focusing not only on quality (good, bad, or in between, in my personal opinion), but also on what the music might be communicating or trying to communicate. I may also include bits of my own more scholarly work from time to time.

All music will be considered, but I’ll lean mostly my specialties: popular, art, and traditional. I guess that’s most of it. So much for specialties.

If you have music-related questions for me, or if something of a musical nature bothers you, or there’s a musical issue you would like to hear more about, let me know!

How to Let Me Know