Category Archives: Columns

All of my columns, compiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Amplified Observations: Learning an instrument leads to creative freedom and deeper awareness

Everyone knows at least one “jack of all trades,” that person who succeeds in everything he or she strives for with seemingly minimal effort.

But for the rest of us, our daily supply of motivation is distributed amongst our few personal specialties. Whether it’s employing career skills, speaking a foreign language or partaking in a hobby, each day presents us with a set amount of time and energy to accomplish what we deem most important.

Although you might already be booked and restless, fitting one additional activity into your schedule proves worth the while by means of fulfillment and mindfulness.

Even if for five minutes a day, picking up any type of instrument and working toward its mastery offers a takeaway that hardly exists in the lives of many: creative freedom.

How much creative freedom is in your schedule right now?

Having what the French call carte blanche to do whatever you choose in whatever way you want is a liberating experience, especially in the company of an instrument.

Whether it’s a tenor sax or a tambourine, nothing feels off limits and nothing has to make sense to anyone but oneself. Just think of mistakes as a form of free jazz.

Creating sounds that would have otherwise not existed leads to an empowering and, at times, near transcendent state of mind. And since there’s an accessible instrument for everyone in spite of what the pessimistic part of the brain will say, no one is excluded from this opportunity.

Learning curves for some instruments are not as steep or intimidating as something like a lute. Bongos, a harmonica, a ukelele or a Chilean rain stick are all great entry-level instruments for those who don’t want to commit too much time. Although, the meaning of “too much” changes with skill level.

Learning an instrument is one of the loveliest expenditures of time because it gives you exactly what you put into it. You become aware of a new language with complex grammar and theory. And whether by sheet music, online tabs or by ear, understanding of how music works allows us a deeper comprehension of the natural world.

And when the natural world becomes too much, making music can act as an immediate comfort and distraction from the horrific goings on. There’s a meditative and therapeutic component to keeping a tempo or selecting a sequence of notes that blocks out the inner thoughts that wear away at one’s mind.

There’s a variety of different everyday escapisms to choose from, but music is one of the most constructive and purifying. Playing an instrument and taking part in this escapist pursuit is one of the few inherent solaces available to all humans, regardless of background or culture. On that basis alone, it’s worth clearing some time to give the glockenspiel a whirl.

Granted, every new endeavor comes with a certain resistance. But once you find yourself instrument-in-hand, I think you’ll find it difficult to not feel welcomed inside the doorway.

Amplified Observations: Professors might not like Wikipedia, but it is certainly useful

Wikipedia is the illegitimate internet child of academia and the nature of anarchy.

No professor will let you cite the free online encyclopedia as a legitimate source but they all know it’s a student’s first destination for every research paper. The site’s function as a non-frightening test into the waters of any given subject matter is the most streamlined route to knowledge.

So why is it necessary to ostracize such available information? Are truths less true if they’re behind the banner of scholarship?

Aside from its use for academic purposes, Wikipedia, free and accessible since its launch in 2001, can also function as a great reference for topics like music and musical culture, my foci.

In the past, lists of musical categories, movements, musicians or releases could only be recorded and referenced through written material and memory. An online reference guide like Wikipedia makes learning about music and musicians incredibly expansive and instantaneously accessible to the everyman.

The gripe many take with the validity of the site is that anyone can make changes to pages, supposedly tarnishing the usefulness of the entire site. I have been in the presence of someone writing an earnest entry onto a local topic and the process of editing for permanency is one that requires patience. Of course, accidental errors occur, but are often corrected to reflect the most accurate version of reality.

And the intellectual vandalism that does occur tends to be on hot-button issues and controversial topics, far away from objective lists like notable bebop jazz musicians or areas like historical information and science.

If you recall, Wikipedia stood up well to Encyclopedia Britannica in the famous 2005 study by the journal Nature. Although the non-traditional candidate wound up with slightly more errors per story, the study confirmed that Wikipedia’s model had been working as intended, according to founder Jimmy Wales.

As with many areas of study, Wikipedia provides ample resources to learn about music including artist and album details and a helpful cloud of genre labels. A band’s popularity can also be easily gauged by the inclusion of an entry on the site, as well. Are they “Wikipedia official?”

And for amatuer musicians, full entries on technical music terms and explanations are a godsend. The Italian translations help, too.

Furthermore, you can discover cool trivia and strange facts like that the vocals for My Morning Jacket’s first album were recorded in an empty grain silo. These details are bound to emerge with enough time navigating entries, especially if the “random article” button is involved.

If a professor mentions Wikipedia at all in class, it is usually to mention the academic or more official sources toward the bottom of each page. Sometimes, those links hold the chance of striking gold. But sometimes the gold is in plainview.

With the heavy majority of pages on Wikipedia backed up by deeper sourcing, to not use and trust it in any particular quest for information comes off a bit paranoid.

The truth might morph depending on our differing perspectives, but the general perspective of Wikipedia, based in goodwill and self-education, is one that has taught me a great deal about music and other subjects over the years.

With a mindset of common sense and skepticism, Wikipedia offers only a net gain of knowledge and yet fear-driven stigmas remain.