Rock Band Art Man

I am playing in a rock band for the first time in a long time. I was in another band a few years back, but it was more of a folkish-country outfit, and I was the mostly well behaved seen-but-only-slightly-heard drummer (at least that was the job description! - here's a clip). I played in the bona fide 90s Indie rock band Trike for a time in, you know, the 90s (culminating in my drumming for Billy Dechand's solo album Pop Another Cork - here's the title track), and then in college I was in the before-its-time supergroup Toothbucket (no real weblink for that one!), and then in high school, the intelli-pop power trio Delayed Green Wait.  Amazingly, this last, oldest band, represents the last time I was a principle creative member of a band - as I shared songwriting and vocal duties with now-Seattle-based guitar wiz Lexi Stern. In retrospect, our apex came when we played a CBGB Audition Showcase in 1985, when CBGB was a) still open and b) still at least somewhat relevant. I was 15. I played another coupla non-audition gigs there with Trike, and that is the extent of my rock cred, I suppose. 

But now I am suddenly the principle singer and songwriter in a new band full of terrific talent (the oldest of whom was 1 when I played that first CB's gig). We are called Lovers of Fiction, and have been playing for just a little bit now. We even got a nice little shoutout in last week's Portland Phoenix - not bad for a band that's rehearsed 4 times (but stay tuned for deets about a show on August 17!). We exist because over the last couple of years I've found myself increasingly with the urge to return to my pop-song writing roots, and I've assembled a decent size set-list's worth of material. You can hear a few of the demos here, but note those are all me alone, with precious few real instruments, and were made before the existence of the Lovers

All of the above is a prelude to another kind of meditation I've wanted to attempt, this about the comparative experiences of being IN a rock band (and playing my own music) and writing chamber music for others to perform. I have very little experience playing actual chamber music. I never quite mastered an instrument with sufficient classical precision to put myself in that spot. Though I did play guitar for my Jarring Dances, drums for my old piece Mejdoub (pno., cl, e. gtr., accrdn., drms) and I'll be playing percussion in the upcoming premiere of my piece Takes One To Know One. In each of those cases, I wrote a part tailor-suited for my (limited, in that context) abilities. It's funny how now, all these years after being an active rock drummer, I can sit behind a kit w/ some bona fide skilled players and feel completely at home, while the prospect of sitting in w/ some serious chamber music performers and playing drums on my own piece terrifies me. Context is everything, as someone once said.

The creation process of rock band vs. concert music (the term I'll use today for music built upon the classical tradition of recitals, quiet concert halls, precise detail, and all that) - at least from the compositional perspective - is not very different. Most of my rock band stuff is demoed out pretty thoroughly, with multiple parts figured out - an arrangement, if you will. In my best moments I get a pretty close approximation of the sound of real humans - here's a decent sample (though the song is a touch closer to Billy Joel than I ever hoped I'd get!)

Making those recordings is not so different from sitting at my computer trudging away at Finale at some new chamber composition. In both cases I like to come up w/ a recording that comes pretty close to what a real performance would sound like - and I do spend a little extra time fine tuning the midi demos of my concert pieces. Here's an example of one of those - my yet-to-be-premiered piece 41 Fathead, for piano and percussion, in which both performers are asked to sing at the end of the piece. My friend Elizabeth Burd helped me out by demoing the vocal parts at the end with, you know, her actual voice. For what it's worth, I think this is probably my best piece of chamber music to date (and NOT the most recent...I finished this back in July 2011, so have had time to form at least something of an objective opinion!). This will premiered at concerts at Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine in late September, 2012.

The real difference is in what happens next. With the chamber music, I deliver written-out parts and score to the performers, and they will gather and attempt to capture my intentions to the most minute detail. Of course they will bring to the table their own styles and musicianship, and invariably, fine classical performers find things in my music - connections, ways of phrasing, etc. - that I didn't consciously put there. That said, though, they will be working towards something that's actually pretty close to the above demo - just with some LIFE added! Midi demos can be pretty convincing as long as they don't involve strings (the absolute worst of sampled instruments...even the high-dollar samples need to be extensively coddled to sound like musicians).

In the band, however, things go differently. I bring in my demo recordings, and even - in the luxuriously wonderful case of THIS band, where every member reads music fluently - written out arrangements of sections, but these are viewed only as starting points, even suggestions. It is understood that the band, as an organic entity, is going to find its own sound and its own way into this music. There is absolutely no preconception that our goal is to emulate what's on the "page" (and the "page" in this case - as w/ most popular music forms these days - is the recording, first and foremost). One thing that results from this credo is players play their best music - you know, stuff that's hyper-idiomatically conceived not just for their instruments, but for themselves as instrumentalists. In a band, the players are generally going to do what they do best, if given half an opportunity. That's not necessarily true in concert music - unless (as is ideal) there's been a close colaborative relationship between composer and performer(s), and ideally one with some longevity to it.

And when the band has some seasoned players, who have been through the ropes in several different genres, there's a great luxury of being able to pivot between different styles just with a mere comment - "let's play this like 70s Funk, and then switch to a more Zappa-like vibe"). In concert music, those effects would have had to be laboriously researched, internalized, and notated but just the one bloke at the computer.

Finally, in a band set to play all original tunes, the tunes will generally be learned completely before they are presented live. They will be perfected over weekly meetings, and only when the ensemble is truly kicking do they go out before the masses. This is often not the case with new concert music - where musicians' valuable time and scant funding often precludes truly adequate rehearsal time, and the prime moving force on when a piece gets performed is when the concert's been scheduled. AND, often the piece then doesn't get played again by the same ensemble. A band plays its music again and again, perfecting it further in live performance.

As the creative principle in both situations, there are things to adore about each. As far as concert music goes, as much as I love the electric and stimulating vibe of a great rock show, I also do love the notion of an entirely quiet audience, attuned to every detail of what I wrote - just as the performers, highly skilled and trained musicians, are lovingly and exactingly trying realize my vision. That is just a very, very good place to be. But in the band, I love the irreverance, the non-fetishism of the printed document, the notion that music is ever in flux, and what the composer thought at the time of inspiration is the beginning, not the beginning, middle and end, of the disucssion.

Oh. And I also kinda wanna be a rock star. Which you can do in each format to an extent, but probably moreso in, you know, the rock star genre.


Pitch is less important than you think?

Hey ho - time I checked in in these parts. Happy news today, as I put the double bar down on my new composition, which is called Takes One To Know One. It's a 10.5 minute single-movement piece for bass clarinet, cello, double bass, and percussion (floor tom and kick drum), and I will be playing the percussion part at the premiere on July 26 at the Frontier cafe in Brunwick Maine. As was the case with the last time I wrote myself into a piece, I imagine I may expend more blood, sweat and tears learning the thing than I did these past two weeks writing it. I suppose it is good to occasionally write myself into the hot seat, if only to feel the pain I so routinely inflict on others. For whatever reason, I was not born to write easy music. My pieces never just fall together like buttah, first reading. It's a haul each and every time, no matter how simple I think I've been. I think I said somewhere in this blog about turning 40 and embracing my limitations. Yeah. That.

Anyhoo, I got some nice composerly feedback from the last post, so I'm emboldened to throw my hat further into the ring on the whole Ima-tell-you-how-I-compose thing. I was thinking, in particular, of one of the items in my bulleted list.  I wrote that "pitch is less important than you think," and then I thought about that for a couple of days. In some ways - at least in my music - it's rather obviously not true. Pitch matters a whole heck of a lot to me. My music doesn't rely much on dramatic extended techniques such as multiphonics, and really does in fact tend to foreground pitch. I suppose it's more that I've reached a place in my own composing where I've decided I'm not going to worry about pitch anymore.

We composers go through rigorous training, and so much of it involves learning new and ever-more-complicated ways to think about and grapple with pitch. As a music educator, I am as guilty of extending this tradition as anyone. Ask anyone who's taken my Music Theory and Aural Skills 4 class, where poor undergraduates are asked not only to memorize ALL of the Forte set-class labels (ok...that's a JOKE, but I think to some it feels that way)...(you get the picture, it's taxing). So many of these methods, be it the tonal system, set-class theory, 12-tone technique, or what have you, seem to have at their core a fundamental mistrust of the composer's ear. Well, at least if they are being taught from the compositional perspective. In music theory classes there is something almost sinful about composing "by ear." That's not what we're there for! We're there to EXPAND the ear's capacity, to force ourselves to make music of strange, unfamiliar and even forbidding materials. This is, for the most part, good and proper in my book.

But so much of this thinking expands beyond the academy. And indeed - post-academic life (well actually, have I ever experienced THAT??), or rather post-school composing, seems for many to be a years-long process of shedding the accrued baggage, the ways of thinking and ordering and labeling that seem, while one is Ivory Tower-confined, to be essential. Or, for some, continuing to drink the Kool Aid. So many composers, when presenting their work, talk of the elaborate pitch schemata at play in their music, the synthetic scales, the set transformations, the large-scale key structures, and on it goes. Some of the music then turns out to be very good, so I shan't fault them. My old teacher Daron Hagen used to tell me, "whatever it takes to trick yourself into writing music," and I wholeheartedly agree.

But it occurs to ME that a good musical thinker, one with ears, one with years and years of jumping through these various pitch hoops, has much of this magic brewing within, on a deeper and more unconscious level, than can every really be ecompassed by theory-speak. There comes a time, I believe, when composing "by ear alone" is a necessity. This may seem simplistic or a truism, but I hope it really isn't.

I used to be worried about my pieces starting and ending in the same key. I also used to feel that my music suffered for not having the elaborate key architectures of, say, a Mahler Symphony. Who knows, maybe it's in fact true! But I don't worry that way any more. I have come to trust my instincts on pitch, both in the immediate, microcosmic sense (this chord to that chord), and in the grander, macrocosmic, structural sense. When I listen through to my work-in-progress, over and over, I have an inner sense of when the key (to the extent that there are, in fact keys - I use this term VERY loosely here) needs to change, where home is, if home can change, and how pieces need to develop in the realm of pitch. I've let go of the feeling - drilled into me during years of schooling - that pieces with tonal overtones all have essentially the same mission in this world. Much as I praised Schenker in my prior post, that aspect of his thought seems inapplicable to my own writing. I do believe my current pieces have very satisfying, logical, and complex journies in pitchspace - but I can't sit down and map them out for you. (I actually probably could, if I took the time, but I don't wanna).

Furthermore, I believe I've developed a sensibility about melody such that I don't really need to limit myself to particular scales, or to be aware at all times what labels I'm invoking with my melodic grasping. There's some kind of irony here, perhaps, because as a theory instructor and suriving dissertator, I can take my superman analytical gaze to just about anything and make some egghead sense of it. But I prefer to keep myself willfully in the dark when it comes to my own music, more and more relying on the logic of the ear, and a deep trust in my unconscious. It's basic stuff, but hard won in this case.

Of course, there are certain times in which theoretical chops just sort of kick in. Certainly in writing chorale-like passages, of which my new piece has plenty - my voice-leading sensibilities, honed over years of evaluating student counterpoint and harmony exercises - do tend to kick in. But even there, my thinking is about 99% voice leading, and only 1% about resulting simultaneities, which I prefer to evaluate and tweak...again...(don't get annoyed)...exclusively by ear. Also, I actually love the sound of 12-tone music, but for me 12-tone has always been a seasoning, sprinkled judiciously at just the right moment - never a core-defining grail. I think it's possible to write 12-tone or almost-12-tone music by ear, but it's a LOT quicker to make yourself a Babbitt Square!

So, pitch is NOT less important than you think. But THINKING about pitch IS! Obviously, my points extend to those composers who did NOT go through endless schooling. Though the sad fact is, they tend to have greater trust in their ears to begin with. For myself, it's about learning to really believe in my ears, and that they'll guide me through a complex web of pitch relationships each time out, as long as I listen carefully, and listen again and again to the whole piece (it's impossible to overstress that). I think this newfound trust is part of the reason I'm composing fast now. I make decisions quickly, and trust that the inner computer is working, guiding me in ways my theory-teacher brain never could.

Art Song/Pop Song (part 2) - a response to some comments

Greetings folks. It’s come to my attention that there may be something going on with comments. First off, I didn’t realize some were awaiting approval, because I didn’t get email notification. Now I know to check, and I’ll soon fix that. If you make a comment and don’t see it within say 24 hours, probably best to drop me a line and say what the eff.

My last post prompted some responses from songwriters/composers with quite a bit of cred, and I’m going to devote this post to responding, and in the process, further developing my thoughts on this matter.

First John C., who is a singer (both popular AND classical), actor, songwriter, composer, and all kinds of other stuff to boot. I’ll respond bit by bit.

John C.

I used to think that it was some quality of the composer that made something an art song... but now, having been a creator of both art song and pop song (and also feeling that some of my pop songs are greater works of art than some [see: most] of my art songs), I know that that's a load of bunk.

Yes – we agree here. It is not a question of a quality threshold, beyond which point all songs are granted art song status.

In class (not yours), I was taught that some element of the orchestration or the quality of the text made it an art song- I remember discussing at length whether or not a microphone could be used

Well, what if the recently departed Dietrich Fischer Dieskau were playing Yankee Stadium? He’d need a mic, and he’d still be singing art songs! But seriously, I think that's a very legitimate question (one which I will address more seriously, but not in this post).

(I still contend that Kurt Elling's "The Sleepers" is an art song- I mean, it's got a string quartet and the text is by Whitman!).

Here John’s raised two interesting qualities that we generally associate with art song:

1)    Orchestration and minimal use of technology.

2)    The setting of a poetic, or at least pre-existing text.

 I think both of these cut close to some core normative attributes of art song. To start with the second, in art song, the text is a “text” and not a “lyric.” In pop, whether the lyric is written first (as I often at least imagine the case to be with Tin Pan Alley tunes), concurrently with the music (which I think is common in rock) or afterwards (also common, I believe, in rock), it is conceived as a lyric, a bundle of words that is somehow incomplete until animated and elucidated (or further obscured) by musical setting.

In “art song,” I would say the normal condition is that the text exists first, either as a poem, a portion of prose, a cookie fortune, what have you. Sure there are the exceptions that prove the rule the Paul Bowleses and Charles Iveses (it is funny that both of my examples had to end in “s” eh?) that occasionally wrote their own art song texts, and we know not at what point in the process.

So then, is “Sleepers” an art song? I am new to the piece, but can form some quick opinions.

On first and a half listen, I would say no, not an art song. I remind you at this point that for me (as I believe, for John,) this is not a qualitative judgment. Let me see if I can quantify why it’s not (for me), and maybe that will get us somewhere.

Reason: There is a stylistic footprint here, and it belongs to another style, namely jazz song. Despite the presence of a string quartet, the rhythmic propulsion – straight four, lightly swung, tasteful jazz brushing on the kit, and the mellow crooning over some lush extended chords are what’s most important in this song. Though the string quartet hearkens to classical music, its use here is not classical – it’s too groove oriented for that. And the overall groove of the piece trumps the importance of the text, which bends more to it than vice versa. I will go out on a limb here and say that any percussive element whose function is strictly, or at least mostly to keep time and establish groove is inconsistent with art song style. Lastly, but importantly, the text is backgrounded to other elements in the mix, even to the singer’s vocal style.

I imagine of the vast multitudes reading this blog post, there is not unanimity of opinion on the above paragraph; I feel confident guessing that at least a slice of my reading populace thinks I’m twisted, possibly even evil now, and so be it. I would still like to cull from this example some art song characteristics, that can then be tested against future examples.

1) An “art song” can make references to other styles, but when those references become so dominating that they are no longer allusion but instead a genre inhabitation whole hog,  the song in question is not an art song. It is an x song (and for “x” insert “pop,” “jazz,” “rock,” what have you).

Of course this reason immediately crushes any possibility that a “pop song” can be an “art song,” and as such may need future refining, since that is actually the core question I’m investigating.

2) The text – its rhythms and meanings – is central to an art song. The rhythm of the song accommodates the text, and not the other way around. And the singer’s style is secondary to his or her clarity, and felicity to the sound and meaning of the words. The words in an art song, are ideally at the front of the texture.

 I’m just gonna let that one sit for a bit.

Back to John C:

 But while "respected" (whatever that means) poetry set to music is almost always automatically considered an art song, Bernstein showed us with La Bonne Cuisine that even recipes can make for engaging and witty art songs.

Great example, as I love those Bernstein songs (and they inspired my own The Art of Eating, which is not available on this site but probably should be - instead you can listen to my setting of the most ghastly recipe in human history). But certainly in contemporary art music there is no requirement of an art song text to be a poem (I would be disgraced were such a rule in place – witness my Detuned Radio, which IS available here, and has not a single poem in its pages).

So, if it's not the orchestration, nor the text, nor the background of the composer... what makes something an art song?

Good question. See my answers 1 and 2 above!

To me, the only qualifier is the same as that which makes any object art: intent. All of my songs are works of art, yet only a handful are "art songs." What makes them such? My having said so.

 No – I won’t buy that. Copout. Intent, in the long run, matters not a whit. I am far more sympathetic to the listener than the composer when it comes to sorting out the meaning and even the genre of musical artworks.

For the last little bit of this post, let me turn to my old friend and sometime collaborator Billy Dechand, St. Louis based composer, songwriter, producer, web-tv host, blogger, and much more who, like John C above, has plenty of experience in both the popular and artsy-fartsy domains:

Billy D.

Can pop be art? Yes.

I agree. Although, as I’ve stated several times, I distinguish “art” from “art song.” I think pop can most certainly be art, but I’m not yet convinced that pop songs can be art songs.

Can art songs be pop? Not by my definition. The label implies that A) they are too weird to be popular, or B) they are deliberately distinguishing themselves from pop by giving themselves that name.

This is curious. I do not think that the label “art song” implies weirdness – it just implies a particular style, as I’ve been arguing. I have the sense that Billy is talking here from the perspective of pop, and not the other way around. In other words, from within the pop tradition (so the “art songs” he is imagining or conjuring here are in fact written with more trappings of pop (instrumentation, commercial context, relationship to text, role of percussion, etc.) than art song.

If I follow Billy D correctly – I’ll note that “Pop,” by its very nature implies an appeal to the popular. Weird pop is generally disdained by most as self conscious, pretentious, or irrelevant. Of course, all of these might be arguments for such songs’ inclusion in the art song category, since ostensibly, the weirder they are, the further from the mainstream, the less inculpated in the “starmaker machinery behind the popular song.” (though this doesn't resolve the other stylistic requirements I've been setting forth). And that’s a thorny distinction between art song and pop song that needs to be made: it’s in a pop song’s very DNA to reach masses of people, to appeal to not just their musical sensibility but also their buying priorities. At some point, I will flesh out how that is at least in part true of even the weirdest, most erudite, esoteric and enlightened of pop songs. Meanwhile we’d like to think an art song’s imagined audience is Art itself – the God of Art or the Muse. It strives for Truth, yes? Though in reality there have always been commissioners, patrons, juries, etc. who were VERY important to please. Still, there's a substantial difference between those individual (wealthy) opinion-holders, and the platinum record public.

From this – perhaps my own discussion and potential misreading of Billy’s comment – I think I can cull one more normative value of art songs:

3) Art songs appeal to Art and Truth rather than to Popularity. At least they purport to. I realize full well what a can of worms this third value opens up, and rather than sort through those worms, I think I’ll stop here.  This value can seem to be making a qualitative statement - the one I've argued all along I'm not trying to make. But so be it for now... I will sort these things out in time.

Art Song/Pop Song (part 1)

It seems I have more to say about that Krugman blog post. So much so, in fact, that you'll note the "part 1" in my title here - there's no way I can fit it all in one post. I mean I could - but I'm told blog posts really aren't meant to be endless, as I like to make them be.

Let me jump in with this quote from Krugman:

And don’t let the trappings of pop performance fool you: many of these musicians are deeply sophisticated. Some commenters mentioned the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who brought lieder to a wide audience (and my mother was a Fischer-Dieskau fanatic!); listen to Feist for a while, and you’ll realize that what she’s writing are art songs, in some sense very much in the same tradition.

This question comes up often in my life: are pop songs, or rather can pop songs be art songs? In that Rorem article I referred to last time, he argues that the Beatles were essentially writing lieder (which is German for "songs," - but generally refers specifically to art songs when spoken in English (whether they be German art songs is another matter)). They were just Schuberts with moppy hair.

Joni Mitchell (a topic on which I have some cred) defiantly claimed, early in her career, that the critics who had her pegged as a folkie were all wrong, and that she was in fact writing art songs. And her songs certainly were extremely complex (though some art songs are extremely simple).

In each of these cases, Krugman on Feist, Rorem on the Beatles, and Mitchell on herself, the appeal to  "art song" status is an appeal for legitimacy, as if somehow an art song were more valuable than a pop song. In fact, I think many may take that as a near truism, and many others (pop fans) may take it as absurd (because art songs are unlistenable).

For my first entry on the matter, I simply want to argue that the difference between "pop song" and "art song" is one of style, and not one of quality. With a little thought this should be obvious. There are many bad art songs, and many good pop songs. And vise versa. There are probably relatively few art songs that are better than, say, "Hey Jude," but that doesn't necessarily make "Hey Jude" an art song. (And I'm not trying to be polemical by saying there are few art songs better than "Hey Jude." Fact is, 99% of all music written in every genre is bad. Take a great exemplar of any style, and it is better than, in relative terms, most other stuff in all styles, because most stuff is bad. It just is. Even most late 18th-century symphonies were bad.)

By saying that any pop song that is sophisticated ascends to the rank of art song, we risk completely missing many of the points of pop, and risk making some extreme euro-centric value judgments. Is "Sex Machine" a hopeless contender for "art song" status because it stays on I for a hundred-and-change bars (before crashing through to the subdominant when the maestro beckons "take it to the bridge!")? Are the song's brilliant polyrhythmic play, its incessant appeal to the body, its singer's gutteral and acrobatic wordplay (which makes any attempt to separate words and music impossible) all incapable of being elements of art? Or can we acknowledge that there is art here, if not necessarily art song?

And what of "Hey Jude" anyway? It flows on like a lied for its first half, I suppose, with essentially a piano-vocal texture and some elegantly functional chord progressions, but is it then disqualified in its anthemic closing section - as designed for mantra-like slavish repetition by hypnotized stadium-dwelling fans as any three-minute patch of sound ever was? Is there a similar passage of repetition in any art song? One that appeals so thoroughly to our innate need for the endless repetition of catchy melody as to bypass the intellect altogether? Or is the genius in the nah-nah-nah-nahs a wonderstroke of proportion in composition? Does it make "Hey Jude" a late Beethovensque symphonic movement? Even I am guilty of such appeals to legitimacy in my previous blog post (see my comment on Abbey Road).

I think this way lies madness. I think pop songs can be art, and art songs can be mindless, but pop songs are almost never art songs and vise versa. The question is, what separates these genres?

That's a question I'd like to think and blog on over the next little while, so I hope you'll stay tuned!