Friday, December 16, 2011

The Jonathan Effect

So you’ve heard about the Mozart Effect. Supposedly, Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 improves the listener’s ability to perform certain mental tasks known as spatial-temporal reasoning.

On the outside chance that listening to the sonata will help you concentrate on what you’re about to read, here is a performance of the piece selected nearly at random from YouTube that you should start… now.

But enough about Wolfgang. He’s not the topic of this post. Instead of the well-documented (but oft disputed) Mozart Effect, I’d rather discuss the as-yet undocumented (but indisputable) Jonathan Effect. Yep, Mr. Roadrunner himself, Jonathan Richman. Let’s get straight to the point with a definition of the Jonathan Effect:
Ten minutes of listening to Jonathan Richman’s music puts joy in the soul of the most hardened thug, causes lions to lay down with lambs, leads to breakthroughs in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and creates new constellations in the night sky shaped liked puppies and smiley faces.
Perhaps that is an exaggeration. But the point is, Jonathan’s brand of calypso-rockabilly tunefulness draped over playful lyrics populated by little dinosaurs, dancing lesbians and Paris apologists is the closest audio equivalent to love in the springtime that I’ve yet encountered.

And lest you think that this is simply a fan boy raving about his love for a singularly gifted recording artist (it’s that, too), don’t underestimate the power of this effect. Here’s an experiment: Next time your car/girlfriend is stolen, your job is shipped to Abu Dhabi or your roommate brings home a copy of Lulu, listen to Jonathan (Modern Lovers or post-ML) for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes. See what happens and report back here, though I suspect I already know the answer…

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Holiday Season, Why Not Mingnog?

So Charles Mingus had a killer eggnog recipe, apparently. I will enjoy making it while listening to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and I will enjoy drinking it while listening to Mingus Plays Piano. Here it is:
1.  Separate one egg for one person. Each person gets an egg.
2. Two sugars for each egg, each person.
3. One shot of rum, one shot of brandy per person.
4. Put all the yolks into one big pan, with some milk.
5. That’s where the 151 proof rum goes. Put it in gradually or it’ll burn the eggs.
6. OK. The whites are separate and the cream is separate.
7. In another pot— depending on how many people— put in one shot of each, rum and brandy. (This is after you whip your whites and your cream.)
8. Pour it over the top of the milk and yolks.
9. One teaspoon of sugar. Brandy and rum.
10. Actually you mix it all together.
11. Yes, a lot of nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg. And stir it up.
12. You don’t need ice cream unless you’ve got people coming and you need to keep it cold. Vanilla ice cream. You can use eggnog. I use vanilla ice cream.
13. Right, taste for flavor. Bourbon? I use Jamaica Rum in there. Jamaican Rums. Or I’ll put rye in it. Scotch. It depends. See, it depends on how drunk I get while I’m tasting it.
Click here for more info.

Holy cow! With a recipe like that, you can't help but feel good will toward man this season. Drinkus up!

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Beacon of Hope

Rate Your Music tells me that Cloudkicker’s album “Beacons” is an example of a musical genre known as mathcore. Wikipedia tells me that mathcore is “a rhythmically complex and dissonant style of metalcore.” Let’s just assume that metalcore is some kind of thrashy, driving brand of metal. I really don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that “Beacons,” an album available for free (with suggested donation) here, is excellent. My relationship with metal began in about sixth grade and ended around eighth grade, with occasional dalliances thereafter. I think what eventually turned me off to metal was the not the music, which tends to pack in as much drama and tension as possible (good!), but the ridiculous lyrics (not good!). Let’s face it; devils and blood and mayhem get old pretty quickly. In my mid-teens I found myself losing interest in the metal aesthetic as my tastes turned toward rootsier, folkier stuff on the one hand and abstract freak-edelic gonzo-osity on the other. I have reconnected with metal in recent years by listening to Norwegian black metal, which has the savage beauty I enjoyed in the first place without the distracting lyrics. Oh, there are lyrics, but I cannot begin to decipher what these satanic he-banshees are shrieking about, so it doesn’t bother me.

And that is why I was overjoyed to discover the wordless “Beacons.” As far as I can figure, the album is a musical depiction of a fighter pilot going down down down and what he does to stay alive after a rude landing. I won’t bore you with a song-by-song analysis, but believe me when I say that the tracking is brilliant. The album simply doesn’t work for me on shuffle. The narrative of the music is filled with peaks and valleys in all the right places, creating a coherent, seamless vision of a bleak scene for our doomed flyboy.

Another thing I want to point out is the interesting interplay between the melody and the rhythm. On some tracks such as “Here, wait a minute! Damn it!,” the complicated beat seems to be most intense when the melody is descending, while the melody is most prominent as the beat gets softer, then the whole thing repeats again. Of course, one repetition takes place all of about one second, but the effect is startlingly hypnotic. I found myself getting pulled in by the calculated audio arithmetic unfolding between my ears. Wait a minute… calculated?!? arithmetic?!? Eureka! Now I understand why it’s called mathcore! Satori!

Alright. Go listen to it. Be enlightened. Leave comments.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Devil Went Down to Venice

Screeeeeeeeeeeech! Shreeeeeeeeee! Scraaaaaaaaaatch! That’s not noise, that’s music-making at its most diabolical. Literally. Giuseppe Tartini’s four-movement Devil Trill Sonata is a sonic nightmare (again, literally) prompted by the restless nocturnal wanderings of a mind gripped by the dark side of Catholic doctrine. Let’s let the maestro tell it:

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the ‘Devil's Trill,’ but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me."

So he didn’t quite capture the tune he heard in his dream, but Tartini shouldn’t have been so hard on himself. What he did manage to produce is still a gripping piece of music. The opening notes set the scene; the composer is consumed with longing and perhaps a dash of melancholy. The mood brightens briefly, suggesting the beauty that Tartini may have experienced in his dream. But just when you think things are looking up for our musical narrator, Skreeeeeeeeeeeee! That’s right; this work is a skreeeeeeee-for-all in its early stages.

But the twists and turns don’t end there. The battle between wistfulness and optimistic beauty – as suggested by frequent shifts in tempo and major/minor notes – rages on with no clear winner. In the second movement, we’re treated to a jumpy little theme as the notes pile up, producing a textured sound that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Before long, we find ourselves running at break-neck speed along a rocky path with an every-shifting terrain beneath our feet. Where are we? Is this…? Could it be…? Are we in H-E-double hockey sticks? Yes we are. It may have a bad reputation, but from a sonic standpoint, it’s not so bad here.

Eventually, we find ourselves back on more solid ground. The mood once again turns melancholy, then snarky, then melancholy, snarky, etc. Finally, the trilling (this piece is called the Devil’s Trill, remember?) becomes too fast, too furious and too spooky. It all breaks down in the end and we’re left with echoes of the themes from earlier in the piece. Thank you for the strange trip, Tartini. It was fascinating. But next time, you may want to pop a No-Doz when you feel the urge to sleep. I’m not sure I can handle many more musical side effects of satanic visitations.

There are plenty of performances of this piece on YouTube, but the one I’ve been listening to is from here. To my untrained ear, it is technically flawless and emotionally charged – necessary skills for such a demanding and personal piece. This site is great, by the way. Old classical musical performances that are too old to be copyrighted. Check it out.

Recording notes:
Composer: Giuseppe Tartini
Works: Devil's Trill Sonata
Performer: Gerhard Taschner (violin), Unknown (piano)
Year: 1949

Monday, April 25, 2011

Striking Gould

In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t really know much about classical music. It is a recent interest of mine and, while I dig it, I think my appreciation of it is still very superficial. This blog, therefore, is me learning out loud. Now, I have no business comparing myself to Glenn Gould, so I won’t even try. But I will say this: I believe his interpretations of the classics are also an example of learning out loud. Or possibly teaching out loud. His somewhat mechanical style is a very precise, technical way to explore the music he’s performing. It doesn’t always click with me on a deep, spiritual level, but he certainly had the capacity to illuminate a work on a nuts-and-bolts level. He was very interested in discovering the “architecture” of music, and as such, listening to his playing is a great way for a novice enthusiast like me to become acquainted with the structure of the composition without pesky sentiment and romantic notions getting in the way.

That being said, there is plenty of soul-nourishing goodness to be gotten from Glenn Gould’s Bach Recital: Italian Concerto, Partita No. 4,Concerto in F Major, Toccata in E Minor. I checked this CD out from the library in my neighborhood several months ago, and I believe it is my favorite Gould recording at this point. Here’s why: as always, the unparalleled precision and tonal separation that draws attention to the counterpoint is there in full force (he’s the greatest henpecker who ever lived), but I believe some genuine, honest-to-goodness emotion sneaks through. It is this striking balance that I find satisfying on a psychic plane. Something no other Gould recording has yet accomplished.

Maybe he was in a good mood that day. Maybe the recording technicians had just gotten a raise. Maybe a lot of things. All I know is that this is Bach at his most technically demanding and Gould at his most laid back. It’s as if, confronted with the daunting task of tackling the partitas especially, Gould decided to take the path of least resistance. He doesn’t argue or fight with the music before him, he surveys, he accommodates and eventually, submits to the piece. He’s powerless to improve upon it. This frees up the Canadian wunderkind to approach the music honestly and openly, resulting in a reverential performance that is free of pretense and full of loving nuance. Baroque music always has a sense of forward motion, but rarely – in my limited experience – has the journey been so stirring. I think, at his best, Gould shows us a very good way to approach Bach. It doesn’t need adornment, it just needs clarity.

Recording notes:
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Works: Partita No. 4 (BWV 828), Concerto in F Major (BWV 971), Toccata in E Minor (BWV 914)
Performer: Glenn Gould

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sightseeing with Beethoven

The office in which I work is located within smelling distance of Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. Every day, while walking from the train station to the office, I see (and tower over) tour groups of retirees stepping off of enormous busses as they are about to be led through a maze of stalls selling tuna, knives and other implements of culinary destruction. Who is leading them, you ask? This woman:

Courtesy of St Stev

Or another very much like her. These women tend to be informative and able to paint a pretty picture of the area they are showing. After having listened and re-listened to Beethoven’s sixth symphony for a few months now, I’m convinced that he could have been a terrific flag-wielding tour guide, you know, if the whole composing thing didn’t work out for him.

Before I even knew that this was his “pastoral” symphony, the pastoral nature of the work shone through, clear and bright. Rarely has music created such vivid images in my mind and I can’t think of a single example when the images matched up with the expressed intent of the composer so thoroughly. The maestro thoughtfully included scene settings for the score to inform musicians and listeners about what he was imagining while composing:
  1. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country): Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Szene am Bach (Scene at the brook): Andante molto mosso
  3. Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Happy gathering of country folk): Allegro
  4. Gewitter, Sturm (Thunderstorm; Storm): Allegro
  5. Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gef├╝hle nach dem Sturm (Shepherds' song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto

    I appreciate the notes, but honestly, they are scarcely needed. Even without them, I had the feeling from the very first swell of the strings that I was descending into a flowery meadow. It was really quite remarkable. The “brook” movement is flowing and contemplative. The “folk” movement is, well, folksy and merry. As advertised. The storm changes the mood dramatically and, for my money, really and truly sounds like a storm. Finally, the clouds lift and the mood because simultaneously joyous and reverent. The country folk from the third movement are thankful for the passing of the storm, and they know exactly how to give it up to God.

    With every listen, there’s something new to discover (birds calling, thunder pealing, peasants dancing) but the terrain remains the same. Not only does this symphony transport me to another place, but another time. In an age of ubiquitous first-person shooters, take some time to relax and become a first-person country hiker. Beethoven, flag in hand, will be glad to show you the way.

    Find out more about the sixth here. This article does a good job explaining why this symphony is considered to be pastoral. The performance I am listening to (and am insanely in love with) is available here at

    Recording notes:
    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
    Work: Symphony No. 6
    Conductor: Bruno Walter
    Performers: Columbia Symphony Orchestra
    Date: Jan. 13, 15, and 17, 1958

    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    What's Cheapskate Mozart?

    Truth be told, I started a blog once before, but it wasn’t sustainable. I had trouble writing insightful, engaging content about the subject of that blog – wine – due to budget and time constraints. Also, I’m pretty much over wine as something to obsess about. I still love the stuff, but I’ve found I’d rather drink it than write about it. Taking these factors into account, I’ve decided to start another blog based on something that I never have and never will tire of – music. And going one step further in order to negate financial considerations, I will only blog about music available for free on the Internet or from the libraries in my area. It’s a simple idea that also seems practical. No wine buying involved except as a mood enhancer.

    At this point, my natural tendency would be to write several more paragraphs about the ins and outs of what kind of music I’ll likely cover here (hint: it won’t be Mozart-centric) and what I plan to do with this blog in the future and why I like to write in the first place and… and… Stop! You don’t care yet. So I’ll leave it here and hopefully, we can gain some insight into music and deepen our appreciation together. Comments are welcome and appreciated.