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Monthly Archives: January 2012

taken from LemonNinja at deviantart.com

Some nights I’m awakened by a cringing sound that churns through the walls of my bedroom. When I slip out of bed to languidly follow the sound that is reverberating throughout my living space, I end up in the bathroom, and within the shower walls remains the incessant chugging and slamming. It sounds as if someone has thrown a metal rod into a gear system–a major disruption. The sound eventually stops and I crawl back into bed and it’s silent, though the brightness from the bathroom light and the foreboding clatter of the shower always leaves me awake and staring at the ceiling.

My shower, which is on the verge of eruption, could be classified as noise. Simon Reynolds, in his essay “Noise,” might agree, since he claims that the term is “best defined as interference, something which blocks transmission, jams the code, prevents sense being made.” Within music, listeners divide noise from the sound spectrum as music’s opposite, but there is a fine line between the two, and Reynolds’ definition creates a different idea for what constitutes music, and opens up a whole new range of possibilities for what music can be.

However, definitions have never stopped artists from pushing the limits.

John Zorn is one artist who has never known limitations. In his group Naked City, he created a plethora of sounds derived from a combination of influences in jazz, punk, rock, grind core, blues, and funk, among other styles. Seeing that music these days is judged based off of adaptability to certain situations, such as driving, exercising, partying, or making love–or all at the same time if one were so bold–I would assume that Naked City, perhaps, is not ideal listening material, and can be categorized as noise.

I will not deny that the song “Hammerhead” is noise; however, it is constructed noise. Zorn and the rest of the members of the group created these sounds together, and the song has order to it; it is a cohesive piece.

In modern, colloquial language, noise may be considered displeasing to the ear, but it does not make it any less musical. Music itself is a collection of carefully controlled noises. Some musicians follow the rules to create beauty and harmony–and to have hit records–while others, like Zorn, bend the rules to explore new possibilities. This does not mean that following the rules of harmony to create pleasant compositions inhibits one’s creativity, but that exploring outrageous ways of creating music allows the composer and the listener to understand what is possible within the limitations.

The annoying rumble of my bathroom shower is something no one can control. It involuntarily starts its chugging and slamming, and creates unorganized sounds. That, to me, is noise. But when I think about it, the garbage cans out on the curb also make a lot of annoying sounds in the distance. People knock them over, or crash into them with their bicycles, or sometimes there is a trashcan medley coming down the street as the garbage men make the rounds.

Whoever thought the crackling sound of trashcan lids could be music?

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taken from KORD 102.7 FM

One time I was asked how it was possible to listen to a rectangle. But it was a subtle way for a technologically illiterate baby-boomer to pry into my life, and then feel compelled to tell me his “back in my day” story about vinyl records. Like most old people, he pretended like I was not aware that music existed before compact discs and MP3 players, and gave me a brief history of the phonograph record. “To listen to music we had to drop a needle on these fragile, black discs,” he said. “Try to wrap your mind around that.” Once he believed that I understood the concept of a needle and a groove, he listed the groovy records he once owned: Rubber Soul, Tower of Power, Tapestry, My Favorite Things–the list seemed never ending.

What was more important, however, was the role vinyl played in his life. Every album had a story. Sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno had a peculiar way of explaining this role, and claimed in his essay, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” that “records are possessed like photographs,” and become “herbaria of artificial life that are present in the smallest space and ready to conjure up every recollection that would otherwise be mercilessly shredded between the haste and hum-drum of private life.”

Album art for "Odessey and Oracle" by the Zombies–taken from mental_floss

I would agree with Adorno’s statement. The old man told me of the time he first heard the White Album. He said his father overheard him listening and they got into an argument over long hair. Then he explained what it was like ripping the plastic from a new album: the cardboard cover was firm and glossy, the paper sleeve was crisp and white, and he was always reluctant to play the record because the virgin black vinyl was always spotless; no dust, no scratches. There was something else about an album that he didn’t feel admirable about later in life. “My friends and I used to roll our marijuana joints on the album covers,” he said. “But everybody did that then.”

Liner notes for "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis, written by Bill Evans–taken from Big and Strong

It became clear to me then that a record was not just, as Adorno would say, an “acoustic photograph.” Although records are material possessions that have the power to conjure up recollections from our boring lives, they also add a new dimension to the listening experience. Along with music, there’s the visual feature of the album art, and the literary aspect of the liner notes–a complete artistic package. A record in its complete physical form can produce more than just a memory; it brings aesthetic pleasure.

When I look down now at that rectangular device that contains all of my music, I wonder of its significance in my life, and Adorno’s thoughts are possibly more meaningful in our time. How meaningful is the listening experience when music is merely an mp3 file on a hard-drive, that we then transfer to an iPod, and then attach to our arms before we run on a treadmill? Music is influential as it is, but as a possession I believe it is necessary to own a physical copy of an album, even in CD format, or else songs on an iPod may only become “acoustic photographs.”

Recently, however, recording artists have been releasing vinyl copies of their albums along with a free, one time only, mp3 download of the album. This is a good idea because one can buy the complete, aesthetic package of an album, and then do as they wish with the mp3’s. Perhaps iTunes could one day add an option to receive a vinyl copy in the mail with every full album purchase, rather than a digital album booklet.

Until then, enjoy this:

taken from the San Francisco Sentinel

Lately I’ve been watching HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and at this moment I don’t believe there is anything cooler than seeing Enoch “Nucky” Thompson unload the magazine of a Tommy gun into a grandfather clock, turn and explain to the Irish Cause that he wants whiskey for guns, and then slide a Lucky Strike in between his lips and slowly take a drag. Like most shows on HBO, it involves swearing, nudity, and drug use–the good stuff–but what separates it from most of the other shows currently on the network, is that its components also include cigarettes in every scene and an awesome soundtrack. With jazz music and cigarettes being an integral part of American culture during the early twentieth century, it got me to thinking of the current relationship between the two: are people thinking of particular songs while they’re smoking, and are there songs that are making people thinking of lighting up?

While a good portion of scenes from Boardwalk show the characters reveling with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other, all while some hot-jazz is being played from the bandstand at a night club, I view the combination of cigarettes and music from a sentimental perspective. I picture relaxing in a dim club, with the blue haze of smoke lingering in front of my eyes, as a trumpeter leads his group slowly through a tune.This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t smoke to upbeat music, but a ballad definitely invites smoking and gives the listener more room to do so. Listening to the quick, convoluted improvisation of someone like John Coltrane in songs such as “Countdown,” one can become lost within the sheets of sound emanating from the speakers, and later find that his or her cigarette has burned down to their fingers. However, Coltrane knew when it was dirty-nasty time, and more often than not he played sentimental tunes, like “I’m Old Fashioned.”

But regardless of who plays what in whatever style, I like to sit in bed a lot, and when I sit in bed I enjoy listening to music, and the type of music that satisfies my taste for when I’m sitting in the dark are medium to slow-tempo ballads–ones that can potentially get down and dirty. These songs often make me feel like going to the nearest corner store, buying a pack of cigarettes, and smoking them all in one sitting.

From these medium to slow-tempo ballads, here’s what I believe would make a good list of top songs to sit in bed and smoke cigarettes to:

1. “For All We Know” by the Nat King Cole Trio

2. “‘Round Midnight” by the (first) Miles Davis Quintet

3. “Bethena” by Scott Joplin

4. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” by Cliff Edwards

5. “Just a Gigolo” by Thelonious Monk

I’d be interested in knowing some other people’s choices for which songs make them want to light up a bogie, in any musical style. Comment your thoughts.