Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cue the shivers

I don't play any instruments. I kind of doubt I have the talent for it but I've never made a concerted effort so I can't verify it one way or the other. My parents felt it was necessary to put my sister through the unwanted travails of piano lessons but never subjected me to it/gave me the opportunity. I suppose they thought that excelling in school was sufficient to get me through life, devoid of other talents, or some such thing. The more likely reason is that they just didn't care and I, in turn, didn't either.

But music became really important to me in my early teen years, in part because it was one of the ways that I could more easily associate with the older people in my classes in the process of skipping two grades. If we could all relate via music that we liked (and that our parents likely didn't), then we could all be part of a group, as opposed to Them and Me. But mostly because something in it simply, uh, sung to me. I could see and appreciate the energy and effort that went into it and that it consequently produced. I've met few people that can get through life without music at some time, but I found a need for it pretty much all the time.

I jumped into the music world with both feet, as I am wont to do with most things, and had music playing around me as often as possible. Worked with it, studied with it, slept with it. I began to learn things about the musicians that I was hearing and started noticing tendencies and styles and genres and techniques. I especially began to notice moments that simply worked for me; that I could pick out and remember even apart from the surrounding sound and almost cringe at the force or delicacy or precision with which it was played. Just as an example, here's Bitch from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers:

Keith Richards' counterpoint chord from the very beginning of the song is played in tight fashion, so the driving beat by Mick Taylor concentrates the energy and Keith releases it with those little twangs. It's at 2:10 where he starts one of the great solos in all of rock and 2:50 where he takes it to the next level. Both of those moments still make the hair on my arms stand on end. There was someone totally immersed in his craft and speaking volumes with one or two notes.

I became deeply enthused with the punk scene. It's what was "now" for when I was coming of age and the politics of the movement in general spoke to me. One of my favorites was Bad Brains because of the primal energy they retained in everything they did (even when they were just doing reggae.) In fact, for the famous "what one album would you have on a desert island?" question, Bad Brains may be it (or Mozart's clarinet, oboe, and bassoon concertos.) This is the track that pushed me over the top with Bad Brains:

Just the growl of Dr. Know's guitar at 38 seconds in makes my chest fill with energy because the band is about to explode with it, as well, and I can feel that. That's communication on a very basic but still very elevated level. They're letting you know that they're about to take you on a ride and you'll enjoy every minute of it, while H. R. yells at you about the loss of your basic liberties and how you're ignoring it.

Mozart's work is rife with little (big) messages of all kinds. For all that he's regaled for the technical precision of his work, Mozart was first and foremost a storyteller and often communicated through his work even when it wasn't accompanied by a libretto. The second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante that I spoke of a couple weeks ago is a perfect example of that, with the plaintive wails of the violin and the viola. But another favorite piece with what seems to me to be a constant driving message is the Rondo of the Haffner Serenade (no. 7, K. 250):

The lead violin (which was largely Mozart showing off, as serenades were traditionally supposed to be background music) propels the entire piece and keeps the listener rolling from one stanza to the next and at 4:20 briefly carries the tone to an even higher level that always keeps me hanging in anticipation (even though I've probably heard the piece a couple hundred times.)

I'm not much for country. I like a little bit of Johnny Cash and my stepmother was a big Jimmy Buffet fan when I was a kid so I have some of that imprinted on my brain (and I know he's not strictly "country" by most estimations) but it generally takes some blues mixed in to really find favor with me, be they Memphis or Irish. Steve Earle does the trick:

That's a piece sung with so much soul it could almost raise James Brown from the dead. You can hear him barking to the band when they come together between the verses because he's so immersed in delivering this story that it just bursts from him.

You may notice a dearth of whatever the current musical rage is (Lady Gaga, Glee, et al.) Despite the fact that I enjoy many types of music and just in the above have traveled from the 18th century to the 00s of the 21st (and the fact that I'm fond of many acts still performing in the last decade, such as Cake and The Crystal Method), I have zero interest in studio-processed crap that relies on the presence of programs like AutoTune to make it function. It has no soul. If you want to make music, make it. If you want to let the computer do it, let it. And get off my lawn.

By the way, while I was writing this, in addition to the tracks above that generate some kind of deep reaction from me, I was also listening to Mastodon's Blood and Thunder, Mos Def's Know That, The Orb's Toxygene, John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom, the flamenco theme from 3:10 to Yuma, Jimi Hendrix's Machine Gun, The Pogues' Sally Maclenanne, and Ice Cube's Wicked, among others. They all engender that same response from me: they're saying something and I know they are because some part of my body tells me that they are on a level that delves deeper than whatever lyrics may be present. If we could find a way to encapsulate that into words, the world might be a very different place.

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