Saturday, August 31, 2013

copernican revolutions

Every day, we must experience a Copernican Revolution. As I see Greta and now Clara coming to world-expanding revelations each day, I'm putting my finger more and more on how important it is.

How long did we stare at the sky before realizing that the stars don't just move as a field across the sky the way the sun does? How long before we realized that there were wanderersplanets, in Greek — among them? And then, one day (what would you give to be there) some person looking up at stars and looking down at numbers and charts finally comes to an inescapable conclusion: we are on a planet. Earth is a planet.

We learn it in school as a drill; but that's not how it arrived. That fact arrived as a vision-changer. You look and look at the cartoon of an old clown and suddenly, click!, your brain resolves the picture and you see a Victorian child. Can you possibly imagine that the first person to make that switch, to realize that we are standing on one of the wanderers we see, that de-centrifugalizing moment — can you imagine that that person didn't lose his balance a bit?

We refer to the moment we realized we're not at the center of this stately swirl as the Copernican Revolution, but Copernicus only re-discovered what the Greeks knew, and possibly the Persians before them. It probably goes back to Göbekli Tepe, or before.

Yet we needed it again: we needed Copernicus, because that knowledge got put on a shelf, destroyed in war or by religious fervor or political convenience or ignorance. We, who perpetually destroy our Alexandrias, need him still.

Yesterday, I was holding Clara in front of the mirror, and she was delighting as she always does at seeing me in the mirror and in person, looking back and forth and back with growing glee: all these Daddys, magically multiplying! Then it happened: she looked at herself, just as I was toodling her nose with my finger. And I think — I think — she got it. That person in the mirror is me. When I wave my hand, so does my ... what? What's the word for reflection?

We still need Copernicus today, and we'll need him tomorrow, to tell us once again that we aren't the center of the universe, to teach us to see ourselves as planets, wanderers, rocks, dots. We're sometimes orbited, but we are orbiters always; we see others so easily as peripheral, but we need constant reminding that we are too.

Sometimes we don't like the news any more than Copernicus's bigwig detractors, those irreligious religious leaders who couldn't imagine that the God who pitched Christ to Bethlehem would ever situate Man in this Bethlehem of galaxies. Their voices, relegated to the dustbin in history, still speak in our hearts, though, until we decide, anew, every day, to listen to what the mirror in front of our face is telling us.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

21st-century baptist envelope

Baptists of a certain age might appreciate this:

Thanks to my always witty brother Paul for the wording, which came along in a hilarious conversation we had about iPads in church.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

my pear madeleines

I sliced up a pear for Greta to eat. After a while, she brought it in to have me slice the skin off the pieces, so she could just enjoy the flesh. Just as the flesh of a pear has a grittiness that offsets its buttery smooth texture, the skin has a grittiness too. Somehow the grittiness perfectly complements the flavor of a good ripe pear.

I've noticed over the years that when a pear is just the right size and just the right color (deep yellow), and has just the right amount of blemishing, and is just the right softness, it brings back powerful memories of my grandmother, my mother's mother. In our old house she lived on the other side of the same block, just a couple of houses down; in a neighborhood with only some fences around back yards, it was easy to navigate through to her house, even at a very young age.

I'd go over there and dig with her little red wood-handled shovel, perfectly proportioned for little men. I'd see her paintings, smell the turpentine smell of her house, work in my laboratory (the upstairs middle bedroom with the salmon-pink silk duvet, from which I could look out and see impossibly far: the Joske's Department Store, the odd swoop of a car dealership's big sign).

She'd fix me food, sometimes whipping up mashed potatoes, sometimes a special treat of raisin bread with icing, and sometimes a freshly cut pear. Slicing the skin off the pear today, I could see her apparition, in a blue polyester dress that looked stylish on Megan Draper in 1969 but looked grandmotherly on her in 1972, sitting there at her breakfast-and-tea table that looked out onto her backyard. She always got a patient, methodical look on her face when she was preparing food. I've seen that same look cross Greta's face when she does something like cook or draw or build.

I picked up the slim shavings, all grit and no butter, and as I tasted them I wondered what Greta and Clara will carry with them from their grandparents: will the taste of mint ice cream (Catherine's parents) or applesauce (mine) in just that certain bowl bring tears and memories of long-gone balcony people, the first people they loved?

And will an interesting, odd man, forty-six years old in the year 2124, long after the death of Grandmother Greta or Grandmother Clara, find himself wracked with love and loss, weeping in the living room, shoulders heaving, weeping like he never did at her death, the great pageant of time before him like a Treasure-Room of Requirement that only opens when the sky decides to turn around above him and reveal the blessings of a thousand generations?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

delicious irony or the end of civilization?

This is a picture from a site that's advertising a handy new service called SUMS.

SUMS — because who wants to actually read?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

can't talk about this without that, part 4: ethyl

It's inevitable that when you discuss an issue you're probably leaving out some vastly important factor. Counting everything that really counts is so hard, you're bound to miss something. But sometimes it's glaring: no discussion of a piece of music can be complete without at least acknowledging the elements of rhythm, harmony, and melody. (I'm lookin' at you, Rolling Stone.) Sometimes you just have to say you can't talk about this without that.

Crime, for instance. Miles of books have been written about the great rise of violent crime in the US starting in the late 50s, reaching fever pitch in the late 60s and early 70s, rising even further till the late 80s, and then subsiding as dramatically as it rose.

Pages on pages of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point are devoted to just this topic, with all sorts of theories put forward about why the sudden drop in crime happened, just when we'd assumed that big cities like New York and Chicago were permanent cesspools of ill behavior and that the complete breakdown of society was on the way.

What most folks don't mention is ethyl.

Fill 'er up.

If you're in your mid-40s or older, you remember that that was a kind of premium gas you could get. The three varieties were Regular, Premium, and Ethyl. Ethyl was gas with an additive of tetraethyl lead, a formula invented by GM in the 20s that prevented pinging. In the poswar era, people used more and more of it, until, in the 70s and 80s, catalytic converters and gas prices and environmental awareness made it so people used less and less. I remember feeling a bit sad when Ethyl was no longer available. (Later, I was older and less sad when Regular was no longer used, and the three choices were Regular Unleaded, Super Unleaded, and Premium Unleaded.)

This article leaves no doubt: they've researched it intensively, corrected for all sorts of variables, tested it nationwide (areas where the use of lead in gas was higher or lower than other areas) and worldwide (when and how did other countries start and stop using the stuff), and it's the only variable that makes sense. Whatever other explanation you may have had — population changes, educational philosophies, economic fluctuations, prison growth or reform — just can't explain the situation. All over the world, there was a swift rise in violent crime starting around 20 years after it was in the air breathed by babies and children, and then a swift decline right around 20 years after it stopped being in the air breathed by babies and children.

All those old men complaining about "kids today," while driving their Gran Torinos. Ironic.

Further, just for those not convinced, the receding tide of this lead particle in gasoline has meant that lead's presence in other things like old-fashioned paint is more noticeable and measurable, and, sure enough, correlates exactly to violent crime (as well as other interesting things like intelligence and teen pregnancy).

This is all important because of course it should be part of our conversation but often isn't. Any discussion about crime and punishment, especially if it's being conducted by people who came of age during that strange blip in history, is going to be way off-kilter unless this major cause is taken into account. If someone argues that we should be building more prisons, for instance, they need to stop and realize that probably a reduction in prisons would be a better idea, as the decades-long prison sentences that began in the 70s and 80s come to an end. (In relation to violent crime, remember.) Meanwhile, maybe a systematic removal of lead from places where it was deposited (soil in some urban areas, leaded paint in old buildings) would be a better way to spend money that would hasten the demise of lead-influenced ills.

The solution to this puzzle has now been presented to us, with beyond-all-doubt proof. What will we do with that knowledge?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

clara planking

Sunday, August 11, 2013

rest in peace, Eydie

I just heard that Eydie Gormé died.

Most people of my generation remember her only in her late career — and many dismiss her because of it — but get hold of something she did at her peak. For instance, "The Gift," from Blame it on the Bossa Nova. A radiant performance: she's simply perfect, and the sparkling arrangement sets her off like a jewel.

Listen to the way she navigates the tricky melody: right there with it, swooping in and out stylishly as the need arises, with that clear enunciation and a wide variety of American Eastern Seaboard Rs. Girlish, sophisticated, utterly musical. The album is highly recommended, and (with the exception of its title track, very obviously demanded by some pinstriped executive who wanted a Sandra Dee-ish hit) a breezy corrective to those who only know her from her rather turgid Carol Burnett Show performances.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

keyboards and velocity

The first keyboards weren't sensitive to how hard or soft you struck them. They played one note, and played it at one volume. To get louder, you could add more notes, or get two or three or several sets of pipes or strings to be triggered by the same key. But timidly pressing down an organ or harpsichord note doesn't make it softer, and slamming it with a hammer doesn't make it louder.

Those George Crumb recitals always give good value, though.

Then they started making keyboards that directly responded to how hard you struck the key. A player could go from piano to forte, just like a guitarist or horn player. They called the first ones fortepianos for that reason, then they started calling the next generation pianofortes. Then just pianos, because I guess we always shorten words for things we like and use a lot.

"Horseless Carriage? Tee-hee! Oh, Papa, someday we shall call this a 'riage."

Bach didn't like them. He must've felt like it was weird, like a car — sorry, horseless carriage — that goes up and down based on your posture. Folks of his generation liked the evenness of a harpsichord or organ, and saved the force-sensitive instruments (like clavichord) for home.

Now we're in the age of digital instruments. Though I count myself fortunate that a number of clubs and venues I perform in have nice pianos, that's something of an anomaly. Most towns are full of places that expect keyboardists to tote their own electronic instruments around and set them up for the night. (This is entirely the fault of keyboardists, who in the 70s and 80s began showing they'd rather haul around an electric piano or digital keyboard than play the perfectly good one the club provided... till clubs took the hint and stopped bothering.)

Thank you, fellow musician, for literally turning your back on a grand piano that won't be there next year.

The thing is that keyboards, even when set to a piano or EP sound, aren't triggered by force. They're triggered by velocity, which is different. They can only measure how fast the key gets pressed down, and not how hard or soft the pressure is. Over the years there've been some abortive tries, but nothing convincing or lasting. Velocity is it.

The fact that digital keyboards don't have any way to respond to force has always been a sore spot for musicians accustomed to real pianos, which of course do respond to force as well as velocity. The different finger-strokes that classical musicians learn can't pull anything meaningful out of a digital keyboard, even now.

On a piano, when you strike a key harder, it doesn't just sound louder: the tone becomes edgier. The hammer, which is wood covered in felt, acts differently when it strikes with different force. Just think of how Silly Putty behaves: you can pull two pieces apart gently, drawing out a taffy wingspan, or you can abruptly pull, and break it in two. So the chemistry of wood and felt and metal wire acts differently, too, when it all comes together softly or quickly or slowly or forcibly or some combination.

In the digital olden days (by which I mean more than a decade ago), when processing power and memory were limited, they just filtered the sound on a curve tied to velocity — muffling a softer note, and making it brighter when it's louder — so you're just using one (single) sample. In fact, in the 80s and 90s, they used one sample for several notes, simply because they couldn't fit more samples on the computer. When you play a C, then, it's a digital recording of a real piano playing a C, but then they use the same sample slowed down a bit to create a B and a B-flat and an A, and sped up to create a C-sharp, D, and D-sharp. That way you only need several samples for an entire piano patch. If you listen closely to a Korg M1, for instance, you can hear the break between the (slightly midgety) high note of the sample's range and the (slightly sludgy) sound of the next note, which is the low note of the next sample's range.

Now that things are more powerful, they use not one but several samples for each note — recordings of a real piano played soft or hard — which can give the nuanced sound of each of several attacks. Then they just blend between them to create a smooth continuum.

And now you know about keyboards and velocity.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

baby in a basket

Thursday, August 1, 2013

how modern pop songwriters work

The way that music gets written is part of what it means to us, I think.

It means something that Frank Sinatra, a great singer, took the compositions of Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, great writers, and had Nelson Riddle and Axel Stordahl, great arrangers, put together big-band accompaniments for them, played by great musicians and recorded by great engineers, to create products that seem like a pinnacle of 20th-century civilization: teamwork, expertise, each person doing what that person does best.

Then again, it also means something that Dar Williams forges lyrics from her own personal experience, applies them to melodies that she comes up with, and sings them herself while accompanying herself on guitar — these complete gemlike works of art all arising from the same heart and put forth with a sincerity that can't be duplicated. People who grew up listening to the Beatles and James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac can't imagine that a song could be real if it didn't come from the soul of the person who performed it for the world. (Elvis Presley's producer went so far as to make sure that he got listed as an author for most of his songs even though he didn't write them: the illusion of authority [whose root word is, after all, "author"] is that powerful.)

And I think it means something that we're now in an era in which it's expected that the best artists will choose to sing the best songs written by the best songwriting teams: people with names like Dr. Luke, or teams with team names like Stargate. Both Dr. Luke and Stargate are responsible for zillions of dollars' worth of pop songs in the past several years.

It occurs to me, though, that the process by which these songs come to the market isn't really known by most people. It's a story worth knowing, especially because of the way that its practitioners have navigated the waters of American copyright law. As you know, a chord structure can't really be copyrighted, but a melody can, and lyrics can. An arrangement can, but it's not considered part of the composition. So, for instance, the Police's hit "Every Breath You Take" is credited to Sting, because Sting wrote the lyrics and the melody. But the creamy arpeggiating guitar part, the thing that immediately triggers our reaction to this song, was done by the guitarist Andy Summers, and he gets no songwriting credit (or royalties) for it. So, when Puff Daddy used the melody and a sample from the recording as the basis of a song in the late 90s, the resulting song is still animated by Summers's beautiful arpeggiating riff, but all the royalties go to Puff Daddy and Sting. Yuch!

In an age in which a song is known not only by its melody and lyric but by its distinct sound, maybe a prominent riff or the presence of a unique texture, this is madness. But there are ways around it.

One of the best is to agree on a credit structure that gives credit to the arranger as well as the lyric writer and melody composer. Just think: if everyone did this, then Nelson Riddle would get royalties for that infectious "Ba-dump! Ba-dump!" at the end of each section of "The Way You Look Tonight"; Dave Davies would get royalties for his catchy guitar riff on "You Really Got Me," one of the great guitar roles in rock music; Andy Summers would get royalties for his beautiful guitar texture in "Every Breath You Take."

But that's hard to do. When you're Andy Summers or Dave Davies, you've got to convince Sting or Ray Davies to share royalties. When you're Nelson Riddle, you've got an even more impossible task, because Jerome Kern isn't going to suddenly start sharing royalties 20 years later.

Here's one solution: for the arranger to come up with the arrangement, and then get the melodist and lyricist on board, having already agreed to an even split. This means that the one person who isn't protected by copyright law gets protection by initiating the process. Dicey, but if you have the clout it's fantastic.

That's exactly what these people do. Realizing that what makes a pop song a hit might be the snaky bass line or the unusual drum beat or the guitar riff, many modern pop arrangers record the backing tracks first, then send them to their favorite "top line writers" — that is, those who compose the melodies and lyrics and hooks, the top line as it would be notated on a page — to play with and write a song over.

Much of what you hear on the pop music station is done exactly that way. Singers like Rihanna or Kesha or Kelly Clarkson or Beyoncé (this method of compiling songs seems to preference showy female voices as much as the typical rock-n-roll method preferences gritty male ones) now do lots of their recording on the road, in rented studios or hotel rooms or even touring buses during off-hours, following a demo that's been sent to them by the arrangers (with the top line often recorded by its writer, doing a decent imitation of the targeted star) and then it's all put together later on by the producers and engineers.

It all sounds terribly artificial (especially because most of the instruments are computer-generated), but it's no more artificial than the Frank Sinatra method of a few generations ago. And the results are gobbled up by a hungry public, at least for now. (Another swing of the pendulum might bring on another singer-songwriter era.)

So. Take a few minutes here and listen to a couple of songs. Try to hear the separate elements: the vocal performance by a dazzling vocalist, the lyrics and melody written by a top line writer, the underlying tracks by what used to be called the arranger — but now, of course, that person or team isn't arranging a pre-existing song at all but rather putting forth a bedrock of sound on which the composition is written. The elastic term "producer" is what we now call that person.

First up is Beyoncé's "Halo," released in January 2009.

Lovely performance — an affirmation of this way of doing things, bringing together people of disparate strengths to create a product that has real emotional punch.

Next is Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone," released in August 2009.

Whew! Another affirmation of the collaborative process of modern pop. In each case, the singer herself is listed as a co-writer, and in each case the producer, who wrote and recorded the backing track, is Ryan Tedder.

So we can see where one person's work leaves off and another's begins: Tedder's two tracks have the same tempo and are in the same key, but these are two very different songs, songs that showcase the emotional and vocal characteristics of two very different singers.

In fact — did you listen closely to both? Go back and do it again, completely blotting out the melodies and lyrics, and correcting for different mixes: in one, the strings may be more prominent, in another the piano more prominent. ... but ... folks, the two tracks are very similar. Different chord structures, but it should be no surprise that the same mind is behind both, at the same stage in his career.

Tedder sent out this track to two different artists, something that producers sometimes do, knowing that not everyone will bite on every song. These two artists then went their different ways with it. Clarkson, when she noticed the similarity, was horrified, thinking people would think she was just ripping off Beyoncé, a performer she has great respect for, and tried to get it removed from her album (which came out months after Beyoncé's). Nope, the bigwigs kept it on. She tried to keep it from being released as a single. Nope, the bigwigs insisted, and it was released. And, nothing. No one cared that these two works of art had very similar chord structures, tempo, instrumentation, riffs, the same sweeping crescendos, even the same distinct beat.

"Halo" reached number 5 in the Billboard Hot 100, and number 2 in the Mainstream Top 40; "Already Gone" reached number 13 in the Hot 100, and number 5 in the Top 40. Among other things, we can say confidently that Ryan Tedder is doing something right. (We can also say he'll probably never do that particular thing again anytime soon, given the bruised egos and flurry of accusations behind the scenes.)

And, among other things, we can also say that the public gets something that the law doesn't get and that sometimes the artists don't get: these really are two different pieces of music, and they really did each speak to the public in a powerful way, and they independently reached the top of the charts, and, though Tedder gets two separate sets of co-writing royalties for two efforts that didn't diverge that much, that's entirely fair because they're two well-painted backgrounds used in two different ways. That doesn't take away from the power of that background at all, nor does it take away from the necessity of it — would either set of melody and words have been as big a hit without Tedder's beats and claps and busy string parts and agile piano?

Interesting times we live in, and an interesting form of economic justice we've arrived at, for a part of the music industry that often operates without recognition.

It all serves as an interesting window into the processes of our modern-day Gershwins and Porters, who provide the soundtrack to our lives.