There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

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Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

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Tuning system geekery

If you’re a guitarist, you may have noticed that it’s hard to get your instrument perfectly in tune. This is not your imagination. If you tune each string perfectly to the one next to it, the low E string will end up out of tune with the high E string. If you use an electronic tuner to make sure the individual strings are tuned to the correct pitch, they won’t sound fully in tune with each other. It has nothing to do with the quality of your instrument or your skill at tuning: it’s a fundamental fact of western music theory. This post attempts to explain why. It’s very geeky stuff, but if you like math (and who doesn’t?) then read on.

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Blues for the Jews

December is always a complex month for half-Jewish mutts like me. When pressured to self-identify, I usually just go with “Jewish” for the sake of simplicity, but this is in spite of not having being bar mitzvahed, not knowing any Hebrew, having only the vaguest idea what all the holidays and rituals mean, and having no relationship whatsoever with God.

My mom is Jewish, so that’s enough for the tribe to have welcomed me as one of their own, but it’s a complex question as to what that membership means. Wikipedia has two separate articles for Judaism and Jews, to distinguish the religion from the ethnicity, and I definitely belong to the ethnicity more than the religion.

My most significant personal connection to the tribe, aside from family Passover seders and Seinfeld appreciation, has come through music, specifically klezmer music. I may not know my way around the Torah, but I know my harmonic minor modes inside and out.

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Capturing sound

I was doing a frivolous Google search for the Simpsons episode where Bart, Nelson, Milhouse and Ralph form a boy band. They’re in the studio singing, and they sound terrible, until the producer pushes a huge button labeled “studio magic.” Then suddenly they sound like the Backstreet Boys. While I was digging through the Google results, I came across a book called Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by Mark Katz. He references the Simpsons gag as an example of how recording technology has undermined our notions of authenticity in music. There are a couple of chapters of the book online, and it’s great stuff.

It’s hard for us now to imagine a time when recorded sound was a wondrous technological novelty.

Those gathered around the phonograph were experiencing music in ways unimaginable not so many years before. They were hearing performers they could not see and music they could not normally bring into their homes. They could listen to the same pieces over and again without change. And they ultimately decided what they were to hear, and when, where, and with whom.

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Tales of an Apple fanboy

I’ve now had a couple of opportunities to play around with an iPad, and to surreptitiously watch other people use it. I have strong and mixed feelings. The touchscreen interface is pretty wonderful and I have no doubt that it’s going to send the mouse the way of the floppy disk. But the walled garden aspect disturbs me. It smells a little Microsoft-y. As long Apple’s products are so delightful, I guess I don’t care that deeply what their business philosophy is. But not everything that Apple makes is equally delightful, and gorgeous though it is, the iPad gives me some qualms.

A little background. I got my first Mac exposure in 1988, eighth grade, back in the days of System 6 and Pagemaker 1.0. It was love at first use. The mouse interface is old hat now but then it was a tremendous improvement on typing arcane DOS commands.

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When The Levee Breaks

The drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is the perfect embodiment of The Awesome Majesty Of Rock.

John Bonham

What makes John Bonham’s drums on this track so staggeringly heavy? Partially it’s his playing, and partially it’s the innovative production. Bonham’s performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns in Headley Grange, a Victorian-era poorhouse in England. Bonham played a brand new drum kit at the bottom of a big stairwell. The microphones were placed at the top of the stairs three stories above. The stairwell created a huge natural reverb, making the sound both big and powerful, and oddly diffuse and distant. To make the drums sound even more humungous, the band slowed the tape down a little, lowering the pitch and giving the track a thick, sludgy quality.

Zeppelin only ever played “When The Levee Breaks” live a couple of times. On the recording, the tempo is seventy beats per minute, which is a tempo more usually associated with ballads. It’s very hard to maintain a heavy groove when you’re playing that slow. Also, it’s impossible to replicate the timbre of the pitch-shifted drums acoustically. It’s as if “Levee” was meant to live purely in the electronic realm. Continue reading