Walking Dead, season 1

I just finished Walking Dead, season 1. I know--I'm behind. And while I'm probably the last one who cares to finally get around to watching it, there will be spoilers in this post.

I can't figure this show out. The dialog is cheesy, but earnest. The acting, especially the physical acting and fighting, is not even close (how many times will Rick block Daryl's attempt to murder someone with the swim move football players use to avoid being blocked?). I can't tell if it's plot driven or character driven. I think it's just script driven (i.e. x happened because it was in the script). For example, why did they park so far from the CDC? So that when it blew up in the next episode their vehicles wouldn't melt, obviously.

Bottom line? Zombies, I guess. Based on the show's popularity among friends whose opinions in these matters I respect, I was expecting something more well-crafted (i.e. Lost*, Breaking Bad). Oh well, maybe the future seasons will surprise me.

*I did like the shout out to Lost (if this was intentional) in how they find a single person in a hatch, who has been there alone for some time, and who only lasts about an episode.

Why does everyone hate opera?

Megan and I were talking last night about opera. She hates it (though she did really enjoy the one opera we've seen together--a BYU production of Le Nozze di Figaro). She doesn't like that style of singing. It's not an uncommon viewpoint among those of my generation and even the one before me. Seems that most people my age (who aren't musicians) don't like the high notes, the vibrato, the resonance of operatic (bel canto) singing. It is a little distracting for people who grew up with folk-derived music, with its more intimate, speechlike quality. My theory has always been that the rise of recorded music, with microphones and amplification, made the bel canto style obsolete. Bel canto ("beautiful singing" in Italian) was developed during the 17th century in Italy around the same time as opera grew out of more and more elaborate and complex art songs called madrigals.  The rise in popularity of opera led to larger venues that required louder voices (which were also needed to sing over the expanding orchestras).  The need for loud, powerful voices in large concert halls with large orchestras only increased with the demands of Romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler.

"Hey mister! I don't mean to be tellin' tales out of school, but there's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can."

-Oh Brother Where Art Thou

The microphone let anyone sing and be heard over instruments in a large hall without formal training (required by bel canto).  By the 1940s the most popular vocalists were crooners singing with the big bands.  A generation later amplified singing had acquired a diversity that made bel canto seem inflexible and outdated.  Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard all had unique styles.  Who among us can tell the Three Tenors aparts by listening? Just kidding... a little.

All this brings me to something I read this morning in book called The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul (Walter Everett, Oxford University Press, 2001).  Here's part of the excerpt from page 71.

...the solo singers of that time [the 1950s], spearheaded by Presley, make their expression as physical and individual as possible.  What was at the time frequently condemned as the product of a lack of training (in a fiercely fought generation-defined battle of tastes) might conversely be appreciated as a new interest in expressive ornamentation, comparable to the situation created by the introduction of the Nuove Musiche at the turn of the seventeenth century.

What was condemned for lack of training, rock and roll, has become so common a generation later, that bel canto is foreign and difficult to comprehend (even when sung in English).  Ironically, perhaps we've traded a condemnation of a lack of training for a condemnation of the pretentiousness of training.

10 Albums that Changed my Life

Here's my bloated version of the ubiquitous Facebook note. I wanted this list to reflect albums that actually had a major impact on my relationship with music, not just a list of my favorite albums.  These don't seem nearly as cool as some of the lists I've read.. oh well.

Nirvana - Nevermindnirvana_nevermind_cover

I was at a middle school dance when someone gave the DJ/PE teacher a new tape.  The DJ announced that this was a new song, and he'd never heard it before.  It's hard to describe my emotional reaction to the first four chords of distorted guitar and the nasally gravelly, indistinct voice that matched the guitar and created a sound we would call grunge or, ironically, alternative.  I guess it wasn't as new as I thought at the time, but most of the pre-Nirvana music was alternative, underground, and punk, none of which I was familiar with.  I've often bristled at the notion that Kurt Cobain was the poet of a generation and that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was that generation's anthem, but when you heard it, you felt the ground of pop music shift under your feet.

John Cage - Sonatas and Interludescage

This was my first exposure to prepared piano.  To prepare a piano, one places screws, paperclips, erasers, chains, paper and anything else between, around, and on top of the piano's strings.  The material used as well as the placement on the length of the string offers an infinite number of possible timbres.  Many have compared the overall effect to a percussion ensemble being played by one player on one instrument, and the first time I heard Sonatas and Interludes I did not suspect a piano.

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tourthe_beatles-magical_mystery_tour-frontal

This is the first of many on this list that may not be the most representative of a particular band, but happened to represent my first exposure to that band.  I was introduced to Magical Mystery Tour when I was in high school and it seemed refreshingly unpretentious compared to rock acts who tried too hard to be authentic.  The tunes were hummable, even kind of cheesy.  But, that seemed more authentic to me.  I liked "Fool on the Hill" and "I Am the Walrus."  But, I especially liked "Blue Jay Way"... maybe because my mom hated it.

The Beatles - The Beatlesbeatleswhite

"The White Album" blew me away when I finally heard it.  The Beatles I had grown up on had been grossly misrepresented I decided.  The Beatles I had known were the favorites of old people who listened to golden oldies on the radio.  I despised "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Love Me Do."  I wondered why no one had ever played "Helter Skelter" or "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."  I even loved "Rocky Raccoon."

Doc Watson - Ballads from Deep Gapdoc

Deep Gap is a small Blue Ridge Mountain community on US 421 just east of Boone, North Carolina.  It's where Doc Watson has lived all his life, and it's about 20 minutes from where I live now.  Here again, there are better, even Grammy-winning, examples of the genius of Doc Watson, but I bought this one because I liked the title.

Pearl Jam - Tenpearl-jam

This is probably my favorite album ever.  I learned to think about timbre by trying to figure out how they could make their guitars sound so many different ways.  They combined wah-wah with distortion and chorus to effectively hide the Who's strong influence.  They used flanger to sound like steel drums.  And Eddie Vedder's voice didn't sound like anything I was used to.

Michael Jackson - Thrillermichael_jackson_thriller-front

I cried when I was 6 or 7 and my parents wouldn't buy it for me. Whenever it was my turn to rent a video, I picked the making of "Thriller" even though it scared me to death.  I loved all of it, but especially "Human Nature" and "Billie Jean."  And "The Girl Is Mine" was my first positive encounter with Paul McCartney.  My favorite arrangement I've done is a marching band version of "Billie Jean."

George Crumb - Black Angels / Makrokosmos IIIcrumb

Black Angels taught me that contemporary music could be beautiful even if it wasn't always "pretty."  Before that I thought that composers were just trying to out-weird each other.



Radiohead - In Rainbowsin-rainbows

This is the most recent release on the list.  Fantastic, well-crafted songwriting.  Made me stop trying to pretend that rock wasn't sophisticated.. or maybe it made me realize that rock was a sophisticated artistic outlet.


Public Enemy - Apocalypse '91apocalypse-91-cover

You could say I was just another white kid listening to gangster rap in the early 90's.  I'm not arguing--but it did get me thinking about people in other situations.  The anger was intoxicating, and all the "Yeah, boyeeee"s were simply thrilling.


Bach - Mass in B minorbach

My first choral album.  It set far too high a standard for choral music in my opinion.



Led Zeppelin - "Four"ledzeppelin4

I think I used to listen to this on LP before we got the CD.  I'd play "Stairway" on the piano with the stereo turned up all the way.  Made me realize that even a pianist could play rock.  Plus I loved all the literary allusions to Tolkien.


Morton Feldman - Why Patterns? / Crippled Symmetryfeldman

Schoenberg talked about emancipating the dissonance, but Feldman, at least for me, emancipated the rhythm.  No discernible meter or patterns makes this music float with nowhere to go.  That's freedom.


Guns 'N Roses - Use Your Illusiongnr

Much more polished than Appetite for Destruction, this represented the last big push for the ill-fated band.  The perfect mix of Axl's industrial rock and Slash's sense for lush melodies, songs like "You Could Be Mine" and "November Rain" balance this double album. I know Appetite might seem more authentic without its orchestral arrangement, but Illusion had a bigger impact on me for that very reason.  At that time I thought the bigger the production the better.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones - Live Artbela

Electric banjo, drumitar, two saxes in one mouth, and bass.  What else do I need to say?



Bill Evans and Tony Bennett - The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Albumbennett-tony-bill-evans-86-l

Maybe not the most cleverly named album, but it says all it needs to.  Here is a singer singing like a instrumentalist and a pianist playing like a singer.  "Some Other Time," "When in Rome," "Young and Foolish" and of course "Waltz for Debbie" are the best examples.  I used to listen to this every night on my way to piano gigs in the hopes that it would rub off on me.

Collaborations Part I: Willie and the Wheel

Tomorrow night I'll see Willie Nelson with the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. I have a second row seat, and I couldn't be more excited. When I was a kid I remember listening to Red Headed Stranger on vinyl, but I don't remember being particularly impressed. In high school, one of my best friends regularly played "Whiskey River," turned up really loud. I remember thinking that his voice had some character, but I wasn't wild about it. Later, when I was in college, a co-worker lent me a Willie Nelson greatest hits album. If Willie's voice is an acquired taste, that's when I suddenly acquired a liking for it. Collaborations have always excited me because I get the sense that there is something more authentic about it. It's like a pick-up game between a couple of usually polished performers. One of the exciting things about awards shows, for instance, is the collaborations--Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Elton John and Eminem, etc. Willie has sustained an entire career as a collaborator.

(is it me of does Kris Kristofferson look like Tom Daschle?)

In the early 60's he wrote a string of country hits for other performers including "Crazy" and "Hello Walls." In the 70's he collaborated with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson in the country super-group The Highwaymen. Some of his collaborations did not seem very inspired, like his 1984 duet with Julio Iglesias, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (though it made the Billboard Top 100 that year).

His work in the jazz idiom has likewise seemed a little forced to me. That is, when he sings with a jazz band such as last years recording with Wynton Marsalis, Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center. In my mind, his versions of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and "Georgia on My Mind," are standards, but with the jazz ensemble, his intimate, soulful voice is forced to compete with a powerful, almost violent, din.

I think he found his best fit near jazz with the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. This is the depression-era music he says he grew up with. The Western swing style is to Willie what gospel was to Ray Charles. After working at the pinnacle of jazz, he is returning to his jazz-influenced roots. The dixieland and swing are unmistakable in the music of Asleep at the Wheel. I really didn't know much about them until this show came up, and after listening to some of their stuff I'm even more excited.

Covers, Part I: Where are they now?

I virtually ran into Chris Cornell the other day on the iTunes store.  I was looking for Alien Ant Farm's cover of "Smooth Criminal" and happened upon Cornell's cover of "Billie Jean" (long story).  I hadn't heard much from him since his Soundgarden days (except for the brilliant Audio Slave) and felt like I found an old friend.  Here's a video I found on YouTube.. this seems like the most legal way to share music (sorry about the cheesy pictures, etc.).

I've long considered Cornell's voice one of the most inspired in rock music.  And now I find he's lending his voice to inspirational music.  Enjoy Schubert's Ave Maria:


And now, so as not to be called a tease, here is a bonus: Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal"

Is Music Grading a Bad Thing?

Here's a blog post from composer Daniel Wolf regarding the Texas Board of Education's University Interscholastic League.  This is an organization that controls athletics and music in Texas schools.  For those of us in music education, the UIL governs a lot of what we do.  The North Carolina Bandmasters Association uses some of the UIL structure in its own concert festivals regulations.  Now, it may seem strange to combine scholastic sports with music.  Goodness knows the two seem to be in constant competition with one another.  I think there is something utilitarian and super-efficient about this Texan bureaucracy, and I think that's part of what has appalled Wolf.  We artists shun the notion of categorization (at least explicitly), and the idea that some group of jocks in Texas might somehow influence music education around the country is intensely offensive.  I'll leave it to the linked article above to explain the details of the UIL and how this influence is wielded.  I will say, however, that the North Carolina system does not govern marching band festivals, nor is it governed directly by the North Carolina Board of Education. I think there are obvious benefits to grading music for adjudicated festivals--mainly, it is necessary to divide bands by their levels of proficiency.  Comparing bands of greatly differing abilities isn't very useful.  Thus, the bands choose their music from a list that arranges a finite number of compositions by difficulty.  My middle school band is playing Grade I, the easiest because we're a small band with mostly beginners.  It wouldn't make sense to be compared with larger bands with more experience.

However, where I am most interested in Wolf's point is the idea that this set-up introduces bias into music education.  I agree wholeheartedly that it does.  The list is finite.  There is a procedure for adding other pieces, but I haven't looked into it.  The system makes it too easy to buy from the publishers and composers on the list.  I can't see why the list can't be evolutionary and infinitely expandable.  Sure, have a panel of conductors to review new music for difficulty, but not for anything else. There's no reason to exclude any new music; let the individual teachers decide what they want to play.

Not only is there an exclusionary bias inherent in having a list, there is also a bias in the band world against new music, and that doesn't help our students.  I am rehearsing Terry Riley's In C this semester in honor of the groundbreaking piece's 50th anniversary.  The piece has no meter, no key, no phrasing indicated, no dynamics, no parts, and not even any instruments indicated.  A typical adjudicator wouldn't have anything to judge.  But, the notion that music must have all these elements was discarded decades ago--at least outside the band world.  Inside the band world, these are the foundational elements of music.  I'm not suggesting we stop teaching students these concepts, but let's keep going.  Let's show them aleatory music, improvisatory, atonal, music.  That extended techniques and experimental timbres in the music of George Crumb are powerful.  And most importantly, that these new music concepts aren't novel or weird--that you can phrase Schoenberg just like you would Brahms... or Swearingen.

©2017 Joshua Harris