Graceland

I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.

I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.

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What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

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Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

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Another devastatingly simple groove.

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Bach and Paul Simon

Since it was Easter yesterday, Anna wanted to listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while we pottered around the house.

A certain passage grabbed my ear, a hymn called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” — in English, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

This beautiful tune was immediately familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Anna says she’s sung it many times in church. Bach didn’t write it; the text is an older Latin poem translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, set by Johann Crüger to a secular love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” by Hans Leo Hassler.

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Here comes the sun

Today in the NY Times there’s an article about NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory. Check out this amazing video of the sun in action.

The sun was on my mind today anyway, it being so nice and cloudless outside. But days like today also cause me anxiety. I’m a fair-haired sunburn-prone type, and my dad died from skin cancer, a combination of Scandinavian genes and long hours as a young guy on a ladder helping Grandpa paint houses, plus many more hours on boats and beaches with no sunblock. I stick to the shade, wear hats and generally play it very safe, but still, I feel some dread about the amount of radiation I’m getting from the great thermonuclear reactor in the sky.

My dread does have an upside. It’s fueled a lot of fascination. The sun is a bottomless source of interest if you’re a science geek like me. Continue reading

Mashups as micro-mixtapes

Back in 1966, Glenn Gould predicted that recorded music would become an interactive conversation between musician and listener. He described dial twiddling as “an interpretive act.” He was wrong about the dials, but right about the main point, that technology would make listening to music more like making music. Anybody with iTunes instantly becomes a DJ. It doesn’t take much more software than that to produce your own electronica. Some copyright holders and their lawyers are feeling a lot of anguish about this development. For the rest of us, I think it’s an exciting new opportunity, a chance to restore music to its rightful and natural state as shared property, a dynamic conversation anyone can be part of. Continue reading