6 posts from October 2014

October 27, 2014

Distracted Listening

Andrew Dell'Antonio (University of Texas, Austin)

Structural listeners evaluate a musical experience grammatically. Just like we can’t fully understand a sentence or paragraph until we’ve read it from beginning to end, we can’t really make sense of a musical work unless we pay attention from start to finish. Because of this, structural listeners warn us not to become distracted or inattentive as we listen.

But sometimes we can make sense of a partial sentence from its context, if, say, we start listening in the middle of someone’s remarks. Sometimes single words or phrases can strike us as especially meaningful, even if that meaning goes beyond what the speaker or writer had intended. We might consider this phenomenon distracted listening.

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October 20, 2014

Structural Listening

Andrew Dell'Antonio (University of Texas, Austin)

If music is organized sound, then the most distinctive quality of a musical work or tradition is its organization—the patterns of sounds and silences that make it unique. And since music is also a cultural practice, musicians organize their sounds in predictable patterns so that their musical meanings might be shared and understood. This aspect of music is known as form, and we might call an approach that is especially focused on form structural listening.

In order for musicking to be effective as a shared practice, both performers and avid listeners have to understand the forms in their tradition. As a listener, you are likely familiar with the formal conventions at the core of your favorite songs or other musical works—even if you’re not directly conscious of them. If you’ve ever sensed the approaching chorus of a song you’ve never heard before, you know what it’s like to listen to music structurally.

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October 16, 2014

Rewind: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough

Music video by Michael Jackson performing Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. (C) 2001 SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT

Michael Jackson released his first music video, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," in 1979two years before MTV would go on the air with "Video Killed the Radio Star." "In 2014, it really doesn't look like much," writes Adam Clark Estes over at Gizmodo. "MJ's dancing like a champ while wearing a huge bow tie and cropped tuxedo, sleeves pulled up above the elbow. His socks are white. And that background. Wow. It starts strong with a hyperspace effect and transforms into what appear to be orange Jell-O cubes."

For The Avid Listener's first Rewind, watch MJ dance in front of gelatin; check out the rest of "Michael Jackson's First Music Video and the Birth of Green Screen"learn how to use a green screen for your own music video; and watch New York and San Francisco slide in and out of television and movie scenes in the segment below.



Stargate Studios 2009 Virtual Backlot Demo from Stargate Studios on Vimeo.

October 15, 2014

Jeff Tweedy: Crawling Across Cut Glass

Joe Fassler (Brooklyn, NY)

Sukierae—a collection of 20 songs written by Wilco’s frontman and primary songwriter, Jeff Tweedy—is not a proper solo record. It’s a collaboration with his 18-year-old son, Spencer, who plays drums on the album; many of the songs grew out of their exploratory jam sessions. Still, it’s the closest we’ve come to seeing what Jeff Tweedy songs sound like in their natural habitat. In a career that spans nearly three decades, Tweedy has never released music under his own name before now.

The album’s opener, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood,” is something of a head fake. Sonically, the leadoff track promises a return to nineties guitar rock, with snarled vocals and distorted power chords. While the album still feels heavy—thanks to Spencer Tweedy’s steady, forceful drumming, which, on tracks like “World Away,” references John Bonham’s playing—light instrumentation dominates, mostly strummed acoustic guitar and single-finger piano descants. The song’s title and belligerent words—elliptical, opaque lyrics that terminate mid-line and resist easy parsing—suggest a songwriter who’s done putting himself out there, tired of being scrutinized. And yet that’s not the Tweedy we hear on most of Sukierae, which is a revealing and confessional domestic portrait.

Paul McCartney’s early solo records are clear antecedents here: like McCartney and Ram, Sukierae has the spontaneity and intimacy captured best when it feels like no one else is looking. Those varied, freewheeling albums were stitched together with family photos and recorded at home, presumably on toy-strewn floors; we get family photos on this record’s sleeve, too, and the album’s 20 tracks are similarly eclectic. Even though Sukierae was mostly recorded at The Loft, Wilco’s penthouse recording studio in Chicago, it feels like a family affair—and not just because of the father-and-son team up. Songs like “New Moon” seem to explore marriage in its mature phase, and “Piano Idea” and “Nobody Dies Anymore” wrestle with the anxiety of losing loved ones. Through it all, it’s hard not to feel the presence of a third Tweedy close by—Susan Tweedy, Jeff’s wife. Sukierae, as Pitchfork reports, is her family nickname.

I asked Jeff Tweedy about the process of making the record, and how he felt going it alone for the first time. We discussed Sukierae’s writing and recording, his aversion to grid-based music, and why he feels aspiring artists should learn to get by on very little.

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October 13, 2014

Spiritual Listening

Andrew Dell'Antonio (University of Texas, Austin)

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,

how it sings of separation …

Whoever has been parted from his source

longs to return to that state of union.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, The Song of the Reed, Chapter 1; trans. Kabir Helminski

Islamic Middle-Eastern Sufi practice has long established at its core the concept of attentive spiritual listening, or samāʿ, which involves training the mind to understand music and movement as manifestations of divine presence—and as paths to spiritual union with the divine Beloved. Indeed, people all over the world use organized sound to enhance and even transcend the possibilities of language. This maybe comes too close to the notion that music is a “universal language”—a well-rehearsed truism, one that rings hollow in the context of the wondrous diversity of human cultures. But just as language is a trait all humans share, the ability of sound to intensify and surpass words and reason is a powerful resource for people all over the world.

This ability, however, has long bedeviled would-be guardians of spiritual orthodoxy. Listening is deeply personal, its effects tied to the sensuous experience of the body. Many religions have contrasted the boundless possibilities of the divine to the impermanence of human sensation, to the detriment of the latter. The bodily pleasure created by sound has been either shunned or reimagined as a mere conduit to the understanding of “greater” pleasures.

Medieval European singers created glorious melismatic plainchant (listen especially to the passage between 1’ and 1’20” on the linked recording, where more than one note rides on a single syllable) to reflect on divine glory for the Christian ritual. As that single-voiced plainchant evolved into the multi-voiced resonance of polyphony, conservatives were shocked by the sensuous distraction that new and increasingly complicated sounds could wreak on the sacred meaning of the prayer. Words, not sounds, carried meaning to God, they argued, and sonic ear-candy would doubtless distract the faithful from scripture. But those who champion musical novelty have long replied that words fly to the heavens with greater power when carried by the complexity, beauty, and intensity of humanly organized sound.

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For media inquiries and information about how to submit work to The Avid Listener, please contact Julie Kocsis, managing editor.

Norton Music

A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis

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