Category Archives: Columns

All of my columns, compiled.

Amplified Observations: The essence of rock and roll dates back to ancient Greece

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/rock-themes-date-to-ancient-greece

The spirit behind rock and roll came into existence long before the electric second half of the 20th century. The music’s central purpose of challenging social normality and inciting ritualistic debauchery has been recorded in art by humankind as far back as the Grecian age of antiquity.

In a 1980 interview with late-night host Tom Snyder, Iggy Pop, now a sacred cow of rock and roll, described his unhinged music and self-destructive stage performances as being “Dionysian.”

More specifically, Pop said this in reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy, which expressed the philosopher’s views on art. Nietzsche divided art into two categories “Apollonian” and “Dionysian,” and he regarded ancient greek tragedy as the highest art form because of its combination of these two qualities through aspects like stage dialogue and a rowdy, impulsive chorus.

Apollonian art describes the act of construction, that is building a statue or shrine or something with the purpose of standing for time immemorial, reminding onlookers of a certain virtue. Dionysian art, however, is much swifter and exists more in the moment. It refers to an event of destruction or tearing down social constructs in a sort of cathartic cleanse of our base animal nature.

The choruses of early ancient greek drama exemplified Nietzsche’s idea of Dionysian disorder and revelry in a similar way to the drinking, dancing and sometimes fighting of 20th century rock shows especially with bands like The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Nirvana, the infamous G.G. Allin and more modern acts like Death Grips.

The more I consider this comparison of rock and roll to the ancient Greek god of wine and debauchery, the more it makes sense. I can almost picture Dionysus (Bacchus, if you prefer Roman mythology) rolling on the ground and screaming lyrics into a microphone with a backing band of demigods providing abrasive instrumentals.

Like classical tragedies and satyr plays, rock and roll emerged as an art form used for primal pleasures and only grew wilder throughout its siege of popularity. And for the most part, rock music possesses an underlying sense of instinctual aggression and a hypothalamic origin.

The Velvet Underground did not necessarily give a Dionysian live performance but the content of songs like the sadomasochist anthem “Venus In Furs” and the self-explanatory “Heroin” undermine cultural normality. Most of the group’s songs, “European Son” for instance, sputter into dissonant chaos toward the end much like the work of successors like Sonic Youth or Big Black.

What’s more, many rock artists have echoed the jarring implications of Sophocles’ Oedipus complex such as Iggy Pop in “Sister Midnight” and Jim Morrison on the bridge of “The End.”

Conversely, classical music and jazz sought to build up a composition from nothingness, whereas most rock looks to return to that raw and aggressive realm of energy and instinct. And when it becomes too Apollonian, as it did with progressive rock in the 1970s, there’s always a countermovement like Punk to return rock to its infinite perpetuation of vulgarity and vice.

The ideas behind rock and roll are meant to challenge and not to compliment. Like a painting by Caravaggio, rock is meant to show the reality of individuals and destroy perceptions of the ideal and the beautiful.

In a 1983 interview given by Dead Kennedys, lead singer Jello Biafra comments, “The original spirit of rock and roll … was meant in the form of an attack.” And it’s evident by looking at the band’s concert footage that its performance can be called anything but Apollonian. With band and audience sharing the stage, as with many performances, it beckons back to the early Greeks who cared not for sophistication but for fun.

The Greek gods and goddesses might not have delivered guitars, drums and amplifiers to the acropolis of Athens, but like fire, they first gave society the urge to destroy through the act of creation and that urge has never really gone away.

Amplified Observations: New vinyl records, a luxury in college, sometimes worth the impulse

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/vinyls-luxury-impulse

College students and luxury are often at ends. For everything wanted, there is something else needed.

As much as many of us consider music a need, some aspects of it unfortunately fall into the wide umbrella of want. And the best case to illustrate this problem is the internal debate of buying vinyl.

Undoubtedly, vinyl records have a certain charm and charisma attached to them. Hearing sound created when an intricate needle falls into their ridges not only looks cool, but will also give you credibility to guests who will “ooh” and “ahh” over the rare and magical sight.

But despite the spectacle, vinyl is inedible and will not propel a car to go forward nor pay the landlord. Coupled with the relative cost of records worth buying, people that have not started careers yet and find themselves weighed down by schoolwork rather than paid work hardly have the spare $20 for a new record.

Of course, with the possibility of used records, which nearly every record store carries, bargains come into play. A $3 Yes record might be plucked from the dusty back shelves with money left to buy accompanying beverages for the first spin on the turntable.

At the same time, bargains for well-known used albums usually trend in the opposite price direction. To buy a $60 press of Blonde on Blonde, Led Zeppelin’s IV or any post-1964 Beatles record is such a reckless indulgence on a college budget that a Spotify subscription almost seems like an objective responsibility. It’s cheaper, but not the same.

With the modern availability of music, any vinyl purchase over even $5 feels like an indulgence, an undeserving luxury that can be bypassed through other, more frugal methods.

Yet, like many material things, the authentic atmosphere that vinyl albums exude cannot be quantified in a given dollar amounts. The true nucleus of vinyl records’ likeability comes in the element of interactivity.

Clicking play on a computer is now such a mindless act with little significance, but taking a record out of its artistic gatefold, checking it for any scratches, adjusting the volume levels of speakers and watching the black, intelligent disc spin ad infinitum is something that can only be experienced firsthand. Not to mention, the carefully engineered and signal-processed bass reproduction sounds warm and feels unmatched in hearing it on anything else.

When buying vinyl, you don’t pay simply for the music like in the 1970s, you now pay for the process of exclusive enjoyment. Sometimes hearing the bleeps and bloops of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn is worth shelling out $30 on impulse. It all depends on where a limited amount of money means the most.

At some point in post-college financial stability, vinyl will most likely stop feeling like a luxury and more like a casual trip to the record shop. That day will both be welcomed and dreaded because it means the end of a certain sacred regard I hold for something that’s as simple as a grooved circle in a cardboard sleeve.

Luxury might become standard, but I suppose it’s all matter of perspective.

Amplified Observations: Music might soon require us to become listeners, readers and viewers at the same time

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/music-combines-listening-viewing

Stephen King has hypothesized that his readers do not return to him for action but rather for a voice.

Artists, whether musical, visual or literary, function like a font that surfaces from underground streams of individualized and undiluted ideas. The clearest examples of these distinct voices also happen to be the easiest to name: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Richard Wagner, Bob Dylan, Jane Austen and Langston Hughes.

Despite some great artists focused solely only one type of artistic expression, others have expanded their voices into other mediums to present more comprehensive works that speak to the eyes, the ears and the psyche.

In 1849, Richard Wagner popularized a German aesthetic term called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which translates to “total work of art” or “comprehensive artwork.” The phrase looked to blur the lines between different mediums and artistic tasks into one conceptual statement made up of all its parts.

The idea continues to float underneath the brim of pop culture with Jack-of-all-tradesmen like Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, who paired his music with his paintings, and David Bowie, whose final work Blackstar included an off-Broadway play titled “Lazarus” after one of the album’s songs. In every way, Bowie’s last release followed the carte blanche, combinative tradition Wagner pioneered in his operas.

In the present age of digital storage, more and more artists have released visual compositions about the creation of their albums or as a companion piece, such as artists like NothingMGMT and recently Flying Lotus. Musicians are no longer one-dimensional in their expression, and technology has facilitated their access to honing and mastering mediums other than their primary one.

Perhaps the two releases that have most mirrored Wagner’s method are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Both 2016 albums arrived with visual stories interlinked with the music rather than added as an extra feature. At the same time, Ocean also published a magazine called “Boys Don’t Cry” featuring an explanatory project details and a silly, witty poem by Kanye West. 

Regardless of the quality of the albums, their use of mixed media, including print, is unprecedented in their professionalism and personally-crafted sheen. But full-length album films are not the only way to expand on an album’s meaning. Artists include things in releases that are often overlooked.

On my wall hangs a poster that came with the vinyl for Archy Marshall’s moody hip-hop album A New Place 2 Drown. Although the poster is only made up of different patterns of black and white lines and the album’s name, it provides another object to contemplate the deeper feelings behind abstract sounds. It gives the album a visual backdrop.

Prior to dropping the group’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead sent cryptic postcards to its mailing list complete with appropriately-paranoid lyrics and a painting related to the album.

A gesture as simple as a poster or postcard that differs from the album’s mandatory cover artwork can give listeners a better idea of which stream of human emotion the artist filled his or her canteen.

An artistic concept should not be confined to one area of expertise but rather allowed to flourish in many different forms. Artists are moving forward in releasing more comprehensive works from the viewpoint of music rather than the traditional mixed medium of film.

And as long as the voice remains strong and present throughout the work, the listeners, readers and viewers will always return for more. And more and more, those three separate labels of consumption apply to one person engaged with one work of art.

Amplified Observations: Musicians alter reality, create excitement through canned reactions

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/01/music-uses-canned-effects

Lifting the natural reaction of an audience and applying it to a different situation is often a harmless production technique used to liven up a song.

But in some cases, canned applause and laughter can manipulate reality in a way that encourages reflection. Outside strictly commercial numbers, the practice takes a more cynical approach to analyzing what responses are and are not accurate in reality.

The best place to start talking about this technique is with the artistry of Marvin Gaye, perhaps the biggest purveyor of this technique, who used it in both an earnest and ironic way.

Dating back to the early ’70s, Gaye created party atmospheres in songs like the disco-tinged classic “Got to Give It Up,” and on songs of more serious subject matter, like the Vietnam-era “What’s Going On.” In both, friendly chatter gives the tunes a sense of communal unity, despite the latter being set in a time of great underlying tragedy. While “Got to Give It Up” uses voices in celebration, “What’s Going On” uses the same technique to mask a sort of collective melancholy.

Four years before “What’s Going On,” The Beatles incorporated a canned audience, much like the sitcoms of the time, into the group’s 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The actual audience had been lifted from a recording of a British stage show called “Beyond the Fringe.” Will we ever know exactly what the audience had been laughing at?

Using a canned audience on the polished sheen of a studio-recorded track, aside from possible cynicism, adds a certain aura of unscripted excitement, and The Beatles were amongst the first to arrive at this realization. The laughter and chatter on the album’s opening track are now just as important to the song’s sound as the lyrics and chords.

In the ’90s, Sublime included voices on the intro to “Badfish,” and Weezer famously included an obvious party talk on “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Although, like “What’s Going On,” “Undone” takes an ironic tone contrasting a fun party against the search for personal stability in the face of unraveling.

The inclusion of sound effects for criticism has continued in different forms since its development. Father John Misty, who will release his third albumin March, used canned laughter to highlight the not-so-funny problems he sees in modern America on his track 2015 “Bored In The USA.”

A month after Misty’s song, the most recent widespread use of this practice emerged on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly. The album version of the song “i” differs from its clean-cut single release and features a live performance followed by a socially-charged sketch cutting short its runtime original. The concept of giving a theatrical performance to the song and then following it with a speech diverges from the traditional use of an audience on a non-live album, which offers yet another bit of innovation from a deeply layered record.

Controlling an audience’s reactions in the studio is a tool that artists can employ in both earnestness and irony. Musicians like Gaye used it in both contexts, making it an undeniably versatile technique honed by those who understand the wills and wants of the masses. Its subtlety makes canned applause and laughter almost subliminal because of the culture’s exposure and receptivity to being told how to react to certain things — as if we cannot decide for ourselves.

With this assumption, the technique sometimes traps us in conformity but also delivers us into potential realization. It presents a reality we perceive to be accurate, but one of which we can never be sure is really there.

Amplified Observations: Musicians have written music to fit the seasons since the 18th century

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/01/music-for-when-the-weather-changes

It is a dark and stormy night … and the needle creeps down onto the ridges of a Nick Drake or Jenny Hval record, setting the haunting ambiance for the long autumn hours ahead.

The temperature is cool but the warmth of the ceramic mug pressing against your palm makes shivering unlikely, except from the lonely and introspective notes and words that echo out of adjacent speakers. Everything seems to have fallen into place.

In times like these, music requires a certain amount of thanks. Not only do musicians reflect the emotions and trials of the human condition but also the surrounding world. Depending on taste, different weather and different seasons bring to mind songs that inexplicably fit, whether in a wrathful darkness like tonight or the cheerful sunlight of tomorrow.

Each of the four seasons and its distinct weather patterns call to mind the sonic equivalent left by artists who channel the lusciousness of summer to the bleakness of winter, the slow fade of autumn to the gentle rise of spring. Rain, wind, thunderstorms, cloudiness and sunshine have all found places in music’s atmosphere, and not always in unintentional ways.

Kurt Vile, one the present’s most creative rockers, described his first studio album Childish Prodigy as having “a fall kind of feel” in a 2009 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes. It’s hard to put a finger on what that means but at the same time the feeling seems almost obvious. My Morning Jacket, The Microphones and some Pacific Northwest bands embody this description, as well.

Likewise, a number of jazz standards evoke the impression of seasons not only in sound but also in title. “Spring Is Here,” “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves” stand among the most popular standards with musicians from John Coltrane to Roger Williams to Frank Sinatra all taking advantage of the songs’ relatable reach. No one alive has not enjoyed the awakening of the springtime or the crunch of November footsteps.

However, other works are less intentional and seem to adopt a place on the calendar or the weatherman’s forecast by themselves.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s now-classic LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea holds the most power in the dead cold of winter when its fiery melodies melts the ice that keeps the mind snowbound. Likewise, the swirling, spacey guitars of Explosions in the Sky and other post-rock also feels appropriate like colorful lights shining across the tundra. And for the darkest days of winter, a certain type of music from Norway might be fitting.

But when the weather breaks and thaws, the rain-filled afternoons of spring and the heat of summer call for another aura.

How many times have you heard the phrase “song of the summer”? Pop music is practically built around a season with a slew of hooks about summertime sadness, meeting someone in the summer, walking around in summertime clothes or having the summertime blues. Summer is undoubtedly the most commercialized season probably because it holds the greatest chance of love and happiness. Spring, on the other hand, builds up to the days of the June solstice, signifying awakening and rebirth.

And I suppose I cannot write about weather and seasonal music without mentioning Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (Le quattro stagioni). Published in 1725, the composition illustrates length of time that his idea reaches into the past, revealing that the world around us is something we all share and experience.

The four seasons and their accompanying weather inspires art and music created to replicate their intangible, indescribable aspects. And when these works strike eardrums, it rings an internal chord that causes the mind to perceive an undercurrent of harmony, even in the heaviest rain.

Amplified Observations: Searching for a song by melody sends listeners on an unexpected quest

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/01/music-obscure-finding

At a time when the answer to our most biting questions rests as near as the stitched denim of a jean pocket, few mysteries go unsolved. Smartphones have become an indispensable resource in daily life, ushering in a new approach to problem solving.

And when it comes to identifying music, an area of knowledge that once relied on sharp attention and wide familiarity, the challenge has now been reduced to simply opening apps like Genius or Shazam. Punch in a few words echoing around in your head or let Siri take a brief listen and in seconds you will arrive at an instantaneous answer. The power to decipher anything in earshot is a luxury exclusive to the 21st century. Could you imagine having to learn the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Chopin off top?

But limits to this technology exist. For instance, what happens when a bliss-inducing song ends and exists only in the mind’s eye, or rather, ear?

Until tech developers start drilling into our noggins and implanting devices that recognize tunes based on thought, some mysteries will remain. A bluesy riff, a spiraling vocal melody, a crisp drum fill or an arresting chord sequence might stay shrouded in uncertainty, so much uncertainty that you might question if you heard it all in the first place.

Simultaneously, these unrecognizable fragments lodged into the abstract parts of our brains tend to hold the most value because they succeed in causing listeners to retain them. Passing through the hammer, anvil and stirrup, the strength of imprinted melodies, playing, delivery and even theory sticks in the mind for a reason. The decisions the musicians made worked and resonated despite embodying an enigmatic presence.

The journey to uncovering these evasive song titles is one of the last remnants from an era prior to the silver spoons and resources of today. Not only does identifying an unknown song deliver a feeling of sleuth-like satisfaction, but the labor leading to the discovery opens doors to more newfound artists and styles. An odd jazz song leads to finding bossa nova. A sample in modern hip-hop gestures back to ’70s funk bands. With enough in mind, it only takes a bit of research and legwork to reach an entirely new realm of creativity in the shadow of popularity.

Not to mention, this search changes the role of the listener from passive to active. To locate a song from memory requires listeners to ask him or herself what made the song so memorable in the first place? What sections or features stood out? Who does this sound like, if anyone? Why do I like this?

Maybe innovators in the 22nd century will find a way to identify songs straight from memory and take away any trace of human error. But for now, music’s mystery and magic still floats around in the subconscious awaiting the eventual moment of clarity and reemergence.

Amplified Observations: It doesn’t take headphones to listen to music while running

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/11/exercise-music-running

I still run some days, but I used to run more.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, the hill-covered terrain offered an ideal place to cleanse my mind by pushing my body farther and farther. It felt like an experiment of focus and perseverance in addition to a self-mandated penance.

But the sanctity I attached to the activity did not come without struggle and tough decisions.

Looking back, the form I took in my early days of three-mile long jogs would now cause me to recoil in embarrassment. Even some of my friends who ran long distance gave me pointers of how to improve my posture. Luckily, I have made improvements since then, at least in that area.

However, another aspect of running that I still think about today continues to puzzle me, as I sway back and forth with no clear answer on the question of listening to music.

Advice I’ve read and heard in my time suggests that music and its changing tempos diverts a runner from his or her natural patterns and rhythms. Unless all the songs on a playlist are set at 90 BPM, then it will, in some way affect pace and performance.

On those carefree days when I took to the local pavement, I made a point not to listen to music.

As much as I love both music and running, I sensed the two conflicted, competing for my attention and drawing my mind away from adjusting my form for the better. Back then, before I felt the weight of creating a career path, I preferred to listen to my unfiltered thoughts. And I must admit that listening to one’s mind while running is analogous to spontaneous shower-thoughts after the subsequent cool down stretch.

I understand that running without music might come across as a nightmare to some runners, but for me, it marked the only path and opened my eyes to a new experience.

I recall entertaining the idea that running doubles as a kind of music in itself. The heart offers a steady bass drum while the repeated striking of track shoes act as sharp snares. Melody rises from the surrounding ambience: the wind, the rustling leaves, the hum of cars, the sound of rain. Each runner is a composer, shaping a natural symphony.

The tension of muscles and deteriorating strength only brings more significance to the experience, an underlying challenge that gives purpose to the whirlwind of noises.

I felt like I was in the midst of a live field recording and I remember the music well.

Nowadays, I find myself listening music while running on Ping’s third floor atrium. For shorter distances, music by Vince Staples, Ty Segall and Japanther add an extra energy and confidence to the body that only the most determined runners can achieve unassisted. I’ve found that lighter, more mellow music like Beach House or Yo La Tengo function as a great complement to cool down stretches, after all the intense leg work is done.

Ultimately, the choice of music while running is an individual’s to make, but there are advantages to both songs from a digital device and songs created by the world around us.

After all, music is simply sound arranged over time.