"Music Appreciation" - the art of Steve Hanks
For some time now, Friday night has been "music appreciation night" in our home.
It can be all too easy to let a television be a distraction. Some time ago my wife suggested we make Friday night a night for turning off the TV, putting on some great music, and just listening and talking. Our young son loves it also. So much to discover...
Whenever my little guy wants to play Daddy's piano, I need to remind myself that I have also grown up with a love of music, surrounded by people who supported me, and encouraged me to stick with piano lessons as a boy even when I felt I was being "forced" to learn. With eager young ears reaching out to hear new things, it would be cruel to not indulge him.
I love the picture accompanying this post, of a young boy fascinated by the strings of a guitar. So new, so intriguing, such a source of fascination.
This fascination is something to be indulged, and never forgotten.
This is a performance I've always loved. The particular version I listen to most often is the Mandolin Rain / Black Muddy River Medley performed on the "Here Come The Noise Makers" (Live Disc 2) album. A sample of a recent live performance of the medley from YouTube appears below. Why do I love this track? To begin with - Mandolin Rain.
I love the simple melodic intro to this track, piano, organ, followed by stripped back pad synths and simple piano as the first verse begins.
There's something about the longingness in the voice and the feeling behind the lines "Listen to the tears roll down my face as she turns to go" and "Listen to my heart break every time she runs away" that get me every time. Simple and heartfelt.
The references to the rain will always hold a special place for me. The rain is one of those sounds and atmospheres that I just love
In this medley the feeling winds down after around 5 minutes in, as the segway to Black Muddy River kicks in around 5:48. The response from the crowd is testament to the feeling this segway creates. Black Muddy River was originally performed by The Grateful Dead. Perhaps this will lose me kudos with some, however I prefer Bruce Hornsby's
particular take on this track. It is more stripped back and emotionally bare which for me seems to work better with the lyric. "
When I can't hear that song for the singer A
nd I can't tell a pillow from a stone"...
"I will walk alone by the black muddy river
Sing me a song of my own..."It is just such a reflective, bare, and heartfelt performance. The clip below provides a glimpse, however the live version on
"Here Come The Noise Makers" (Live Disc 2) is the version which really moves me. Enjoy.
The Music Machine
I recently read this fantastic post from The New Yorker - "The Song Machine: The Hitmakers Behind Rihanna
It was an excellent read, albeit lengthy, so I want to share some of the main points I took away from it:
- Perhaps showing some ignorance for the hit machine approach to pop music, I had never heard of Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, the team of Norwegian writer-producers known as Stargate. These guys have written the music behind some of the biggest tracks in recent pop / RnB including "Rude Boy" ("Come on, rude boy, boy, can you get it up / Come on, rude boy, boy, is you big enough?") and “S&M” (“Na-na-na-na-na come on”) from Rihanna, "Irreplaceable" from Beyoncé, and Katy Perry’s "Firework".
- Stargate are one of a relatively small number of highly successful hit maker producers, who write the backing tracks to many of today's Top 40 songs. However the vocal lines are generally composed by an almost exclusively female group of "top-liners".
- The top-liners listen to the music created by the producer and within a short amount of time come up with the main melody, lyrics and the general "catchiness" of the songs we end up hearing. The outcome of this is a demo track which is then shopped out to keen stars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga.
- Importantly this helps explain why so much Top 40 and commercial radio music is so same-y, familiar, and to many (including me) - mundane. The music is not drawn from a planet full of inspiration but from a very small pool of highly efficient producers and top liners, a small pool of professionals who survive by churning hits out quickly.
- Because of this, sometimes the musical output on the charts can be too similar. In 2009, both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson had hits (Beyoncé’s "Halo" and Clarkson’s "Already Gone"). Both were created from the same track from producer Ryan Tedder. Clarkson wrote her own top line, and Beyoncé co-created hers with Evan Bogart. Tedder didn't mention to either artist that the other was working with his track, so both went to market and both were hits. Crazy.
- Successful top-liners include Makeba Riddick, Bonnie McKee, and Skylar Grey - none of whom are household names like the performers who make their work famous. However it is pointed out that creating the hit melody does not mean the top-liner wants (or deserves) the fame of the stars we know - after all, the Rihannas of the world are the ones everyone looks at when they walk into the room, dealing with manic publicity and touring, and needing to produce live what people come to expect from a highly polished studio album.
I enjoyed reading at the end of the article the reality check felt by these hit-making producers, especially in the wake of the monstrous success of Adele and her huge single "Someone Like You". The emotional lyrics and raw acoustic accompaniment in this track are nothing like the digital, arpeggiator-created, effect-laden music typical of the charts and these producers.
With an arsenal of studio equipment and production hours, it is still not possible to formulate a timeless "classic" that will really connect with people.
When the power to the machines is switched off, all the samples and pre-programmed loops are lost and all you have is your talent, what do you bring to the table?
This is a recount of two of the coolest places to listen to music I've ever been to.
Years ago I was in a band with a guitarist who, for a short time, had a girlfriend whose parents were quite well off, living in a huge house in a suburb by the lake. Miraculously her parents never seemed to be home. Great times...
Due to the size of the place and the type of people we were back then, this home made for a great party venue. At the end of one of many wild nights, I found myself falling asleep in a very large downstairs room, a very wide open space only interrupted by a couple of plush, single-seat, white leather recliners.
The walls of the room held rows of stylish CD racks. The kind you used to find in record stores where they displayed the top selling CDs - stored in horizontal rows showing the full face of the CD artwork. Very cool.
Of course, this room was replete with a gorgeous surround sound system which was just perfect to listen to as the night drew to a close and sleep set in...
The other room I remember vividly was a completely different experience. Some friends of mine a couple of years back were in the process of house-hunting. On one of their explorations, I joined them for a brief inspection of a rather old home, adjacent to thick bushland, with none of the opulence of the aforementioned property.
One room in this place could only be described as a "listening room". It was a fair sized room, not overly large, but certainly not cramped. In the middle of the room was an old, single-seat, dark green leather chair. The chair was perfectly placed among the surround speakers of a magnificent stereo system. There were no other decorations or distractions in the room. No coffee table, no vases, no other chairs. Just a seat among the speakers.
This place has stayed in my mind for several years now, though I was only in the room for a minute at most. The scarcity of objects in the room highlighted a dedication to its purpose - listening, without distraction.
It was not a "media room", a "cinema room" or a "home theatre". It was just a seat among the speakers. And I loved it.
A few years back I read Daniel Levitin's "This Is Your Brain On Music" and have recently turned the last pages of his follow-up "The World In Six Songs". Both are excellent, deep but easily digestible books balancing science and personal experience to provide insight into how humans and music have evolved.
Towards the end of "Six Songs", Levitin mentions several tracks which have had a resounding impact on him. I will not revisit each here, rather encourage anyone interested enough to read the book to absorb his thoughts in context. However, I do need to confess prior to this I had never heard the music of one artist he mentioned - Alex De Grassi.
I'm sure some readers of this post will be amazed by this, as I have since given myself a quick education and learned that De Grassi is a Grammy nominated artist who has been recording since 1978. Crikey, how did I miss that...?
I recently listened to his 1998 album The Water Garden, which fortunately for me was perfectly accompanied by rainy weather as I drove earlier this week. A perfect combination.
If you, like I, had not yet heard Alex De Grassi, I recommend doing so.
Especially if it's raining...
Last weekend the world saw the Eurovision 2011 final. Overall, I found the artists this year entertaining, but I didn't really connect with any of the performances.
Some people may find the idea of connecting with any Eurovision performance laughable, but this year's event got me thinking back to something very memorable from a few years ago.
In 2009 I was in love when I saw Iceland's Jóhanna Guðrún Jónsdóttir
. At the age of 19 she performed an incredibly strong song with confidence, power and a stand-out level of emotion. She was pitch-perfect, nailed the dynamics and just owned the arena. The stage backdrop and visual effects were tasteful, appropriate and relevant. And of course she looked gorgeous. It's astounding she didn't win.
The purpose of this post is simply to share my impression of how much I enjoyed that performance. Eurovision is often treated as comical fodder in the Western world. There are of course some great artists who perform on that world stage - though many, such as Jóhanna, don't seem to achieve recognition worthy of their talent despite such massive but fleeting exposure.
If you find a connection with a performance on any scale, spread the word. Let the artist know. Let others know. There are many undiscovered gems the world over.
I grew up learning to play on an old upright grand piano. Around 10 years ago I remember asking my great Uncle, who is now in a nursing home, if he knew how old the piano was, as it had been in the family for well beyond just my lifetime. To my surprise he stood up from his chair, and as quickly as if you'd just asked for a glass of water disappeared into another room, rummaged for a moment, and returned with the original receipt, dated 1923.
Amazing. That piano had some history.
As I grew up, the location of that piano shifted. From the front room in my early childhood house, to our next door neighbour's garage while that house was being rebuilt, to the back room of the rebuilt house, where it has stayed loyally for well over two decades.
A piano is not a very transportable thing. I once saw a busker towing an upright grand by bicycle in Sydney's Martin Place, but this is somewhat off the chart... When I moved out of home, that old piano was left behind. I started playing in bands, using synths and samplers, and after some time fell into a groove with music which demanded a wide range of sounds to be on-call, but piano was always passable from a 76 note synth which felt more like an organ to play than a piano.
Sure, I had a digital piano for a while there, which recreated some of the feel. I've recently upgraded my gear to once again include a great-feeling, great-sounding digital piano. But it's just not the same.
When you play a piano, you feel the vibration of the instrument through your fingertips. You feel the sound in your foot as you touch the sustain pedal. It makes the whole room sing.
That old Beale piano still lives in my childhood home. I've known it since I was too small to reach up to the keys. Some of the hammers don't strike the way they used to and the tuning has found its own way here and there. But with my parents currently overseas and a trip to the old house planned, I can't wait to make that back room sing with its sound again.
It is only February and I have already been approached several times this year to compose music "pro bono", "for credit", "for the passion"...
There is a long-standing cliche of the "struggling artist". Is it any wonder that artists struggle when the effort they put in is rewarded only by the comfort that they are supporting someone else's passion?
If you're a musician, or another creative type, or indeed anyone in a service industry of any kind, you probably already understand what I'm saying. Think about it.
People contact you to provide a service, in my case, they want original music. That music does not magic itself up, but is the result of many hours of careful preparation and execution - and I'll be the first to admit it very rarely comes out right first time! Equipment must be turned on, pad and pen at the ready, many hours of nutting out ideas, finessing and polishing the creation, adding multiple layers of audio to make the song sing loudly and to the full, mixing levels to achieve an ideal, hitting record to commit and then master the output, and finally - sometimes days later - sending the track to a client.
Earlier this week I was a approached by a US-based prospect, a passionate professional in the food industry. A draft video clip of a film capturing the business's passion was sent for my review (footage complete with BMW after shining BMW driven by the business partners...).
The music composition budget? Non-existent. The presentation of the business otherwise? Immaculate.
Is it because music is a non-tangible asset that there is sometimes a perception it should be created and distributed for free?
You wouldn't go into a restaurant, discuss how much you enjoy eating and then ask for a meal for free! Time was taken to peruse the local market, carefully select ingredients, plan a menu, tend to every boiling pot and simmering pan, plate the meal with precision and deliver it to your table with pride.
Though you can't see music, it is feeding you every day and is a valuable part of what makes you who you are.
"If music be the food of love, play on" - Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 1602.
When I was growing up, it would be rare to hear a song on the radio without a guitar solo in the later half somewhere. It was an opportunity to convey emotion, energy, technical proficiency or all three and for me personally it was always welcomed!
In more recent times it seems the guitar solo has been overthrown. By either nothing at all, or even worse, the vocal / rap break. Oh dear. Yes, it may be argued that this is just a sign of the times, a changing of the guard, and that the modern equivalent is the vocal break. But really – while sometimes there is technical proficiency or novelty in the rhythm of the vocal, it seems more often than not this “art” is lacking the energy or emotional element that made guitar solos great.
As I type I’m reminded of the brilliant sax solos of the decade prior, a staple of the 80s pop sound. Give me a burning sax solo or rocking lead break over an autotuned “here today, gone today” vocalist any time.
It’s not every day a founding member leaves a band you’ve been listening to for more than half your life.
Mid way through today I saw a post on Twitter referencing Mike Portnoy’s departure from Dream Theater. Just didn’t see that one coming. After being a driving force in the band for more than 25 years, and from all accounts visible to the fans a pretty controlling band member, he announced his departure today
via his website.
I always thought Dream Theater would continue to produce powerful music as a seldom-changing 5-piece for many years to come, until perhaps one day linking arms as a band and announcing their final studio album and farewell tour.
They have already announced in their press release
plans to continue after Mike’s departure – on the one hand I’m happier to hear this than if the group disbanded completely, but it’s going to be a big change.
The drum intro in the opening bars to 6:00
from 1994′s Awake album will always be one of the strongest musical memories I have. I hope the connection can continue with whoever picks up the sticks next. It’s a big kit to fill.