Monday, August 15, 2011


Igor Stravinsky was and is an untempered orchestra of temperaments. He embodied and embodies the impassioned virtuosity of the concert master, the shrieking histrionics of woodwinds, the noble swagger of brass, and the thunderous acrimony of percussion. He was a prodigy, a protege, and a pariah. His music was entirely unique: Quirky scherzos, angular rhythms set against romantic waltzes, stubborn ostinatos, and mature subject matter. His music has retained much of it's effect throughout the years, and he is one of the few composers in standard orchestra repertoire whose music can be considered art and not art history. Musically, he was a radical, taking the traditions of Russian romantic music, neo-classicism, and serialism and perverting them into his own artistic vision. But as a human being, he was shockingly normal: He had a family, made many friends in the art world, took shots with Dylan Thomas in Los Angeles, and was generally described as "incredibly polite."

But he was also kind of a dick.

Stravinsky constantly contradicted himself throughout his career. He outwardly detested religion until he rejoined the Russian Orthodox church in his early forties. He had no reason for this conversion other than "why not." His goal for his music was to "send them all to hell." Coco Chanel said she had an affair with her while he was married to Vera. He hated serialism until he became a serialist composer almost immediately after Arnold Schoenberg, the father of serialist music, died. If you asked twelve different acquaintances of Stravinsky what kind of man he was, you would most likely get about forty different answers. However, his persona was not shifting as much as it was splintered: fifty different facets, a difference face for every occasion.

Of Montreal, and specifically their frontman Kevin Barnes, are not like that. Of Montreal are bouncy and joyous and obsessed with sex. All the time. It is hard to isolate a 30 second sample from either of Of Montreal's two most recent albums (Skeletal Lamping and False Priest) that has no sexual content layered over bubbly instrumentals. However, it never becomes redundant or tedious or even predictable.It simply becomes more and more impressive. Halfway through the album you expect them to run out of energy and peter out into some sort of Pavement-esque acoustic thing. But their specific brand of ebullience and libido spans the entire duration of both LPs. I would not be surprised if they were maenads. But underneath the Prince-gloss that all of their music is lacquered with, one can notice that their music is astonishingly complex and beautiful. Their songs are almost almost never specifically strophic: songs will switch keys and tempos with little regard for smooth transition. In many cases it's hard to tell what is a postlude and what is an entirely new song. The result is pure aural euphoria whereas all the fat has been trimmed.

Here is where Stravinsky and Of Montreal intersect in my mind: Stravinsky has been placed on some sort of intellectualized pedestal where everything he has done must be scrutinized as art, even though in many cases he was just having fun. Many critics of Stravinsky don't believe that there is artistic merit in abandoning intellectualism and just deciding to do something crazy. Of Montreal are vice versa: Although their image leads many to believe they are just making quirky chamber pop, they make very tasteful and complex music. Both artists lead to a very important question: Why can't art be entertaining, and why can't entertainment be art? 

Monday, May 9, 2011


In a departure from my usual pedantic ramblings, here's a cool picture of a piece of paper I wrote lyrics on in 10th grade.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought by Talib Kweli is arguably one of the greatest records ever made. It is arguably the hip-hop equivalent of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Seaand many people have argued that it (arguably) belongs in some sacrosanct vestibule paying homage to the greatest hip hop records of all time, tributes depicted in a medium somewhere between classical marble busts and abstract tessellations, featuring the likes of Nas' Illmatic, Biggie's Ready to DieJay-Z's Reasonable Doubtand Talib Kweli and Mos Def's Blackstar. Arguably. But the fact of the matter is that this album cannot be defended or attacked in a verbal argument: It's nigh impossible to explain exactly what makes this album so appealing. I have no idea how I'm going to approach this post because the only way to figure out if you love the album as much as the incongruous congregation it has garnered is to listen to the entire album, in it's entirety, about four times. Then one must not think about it for about a month, and then listen to it again. At this point, one will either scratch one's head wondering what all the fuss is about, or one will discover one of the most rewarding aural experiences they have ever had. But your proclivity to this album largely depends on a variety of factors that I have no control over. And I should be content with that. But the truth is I'm not. So I'm going to try my hardest to describe just what's so incredible about this album.

Hip-Hop is a many-limbed manic leviathan. There is no doubt that it is a hydra of an art, transmorgifying and transcending at an alarming tempo. The difference between hip-hop and most genres in the pop format is that it defies simple definition. The majority of my friends in this beautifully innocent, brazenly innocuous state of Indiana hate hip-hop. The main thing I realized about people that hate hip-hop is that they always have a very verbose definition of what hip hop is. They list off a set of horrifically patronizing stereotypes: Stereotypes directed not just at hip hop but at poor african americans in urban environments. They're not trying to racist or ignorant: They're probably more informed about these sorts of things than I am. However, the problem with this is that hip hop has no conventions. There is no box. With a genre like rock, if you want to listen to a rock artist that makes conventional rock music, you can listen to an artist like Kings of Leon, an artist that makes really well written conventional rock music. But there are no hip hop artists like that: Hip-hop is a collective of larger-than-life personalities that reside in limbo between labels. It's poetry. It's music. It's whatever you make it. Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought is a testament to artists that defy conventions in order to create their own brand of art that in turn influences the next generation of artists as they create their unique brand of art, and the idols they are informed by: Gil Scott Heron, Nelson Mendela, Lennox Lewis, Nina Simone, Langston Hughes, Fela Kuti, Maya Angelou, and more. It is not so much influenced by jazz as it is informed by it. The album avoids using easily identifiable samples and combines diverse instrumentation to create rich, unique textures- from the dense, polyphonic funk guitar of Soul Rebels, to the chopped and screwed grab bag of orchestral strings and wah guitar in This Means You, to the celeste(!) in Eternalists. And as far as lyricism goes, few are as intelligent or as passionate Talib Kweli was when he was recording this album. Here we see Kweli embodying a quartet of virtues. Soprano: The hunger. Alto: The intellect. Tenor: The confidence, and bass, the personality. Kweli presents himself as a man of many emotions, parables, and memories. It's not that either do anything particularly incredible. It's that the two are so unique, and that they work so well together, and they have such a clear vision of what they want for the album and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

To tell you the truth if you read that entire paragraph then you're a sucker. You should of just bought or torrented the album half a paragraph ago. I have said absolutely nothing significant  in the last 100 words or so. It didn't even have any of the forced Nabokovian wordplay that I throw in to make myself look intellectual sometimes. But more importantly than any of that, nothing I say about this album should change your viewpoint on this album. You are going to either (a) not bother listening to this album and go on to more important things in your life, (b) briefly listen to some of the links and remember you don't like hip hop or this specific brand of it, (c) you will procure the album and it will hide in the depths of the your library, or (d) you will enjoy the album on your own accord. And I should be okay with that. But I have a major flaw in my personality. I objectify people. Oftentimes I will think I love or respect somebody, when the truth is that I actually love or respect who I want them to be, which is always incredibly unrealistic. I'm not kidding myself: I'm never going meet somebody who loves all of the exact same music, art, film, or people I love as much as I do. But the truth is I will never realize that I have an unrealistic perception of who a person is until they call me out for it. And I feel horrible about it. But I'm trying really, really hard to be better. So don't think that I will think any less of you, or that you will be any worse a person, for not liking this album.  Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that my opinion in something is more valid than someone else's because of my experience in the subject. But the truth is I am a particularly supercilious cipher, in the nebulous cast of the strangers I have never acknowledged. There they are, in their living rooms, watching their Celebrity Apprentice and listening to  their Fela Kuti during commercials, writing their blogs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The World Inferno Friendship Society are a punk band, whatever that means. One may label them as enigmatic, but they are not so much mysterious as they are logistically impossible. The ensemble features an astonishingly tight saxophone section, including former members of Drexy's Midnight Runners(!). Their lead singer is Jack Terricloth, a mix of cabaret, charisma and Codeine. Their guitarist is named Lucky. The only thing anyone knows about him is that he has a cat, who is also named Lucky. At first glance, they look more like an impromptu circus act then a band. However, World Inferno write extremely likable and clever music. They can move through four or five different key areas in a single song. They are influenced by the Weimar Republic, klezmer, and Paul Robeson. Clearly, the members of this collective are extremely talented and well educated. But they also bring a certain jovial energy to everything they do that makes one wonder if they are ever discontented by anything.

In 2010, both Kanye West and World Inferno experienced the popular musician's worst nightmare: Both were planning on releasing a new album, and unfinished versions of songs from both albums were leaked to the public. However, the two artists had completely different, but equally impressive, reactions to the divulgence of demo tapes. Kanye West immediately flew back to his personal studio in Hawaii and, leaving his twelfth rib in Chicago, re-recorded the entire album. Many people believe that this album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is his magnum opus thus far. Few of these people realize that he did it twice (Kanye West has been a favorite artist of mine for a very, very long time. I plan on discussing him in a future blog post about the diaphanous-yet-diaphragmatic relationship between the artist and his or her art, and how it makes all of the difference in how the art itself is perceived). On the other hand, Jack Terricloth casually dismissed the leaks with his usual cryptic charisma ("Songs want to be free. Songs want you to whistle them!"). It was the naturally punk thing to do. In fact, the most punk thing about them is that they seem to want nothing more than to bring their genuinely eclectic music to the stage in euphoric bedlam. And they are embraced by the Brooklyn punk community, even though they do some very un-punk things.

At this point, the reader has probably inferred that I know absolutely nothing about punk culture. I listen to a lot of punk bands, in particular Bad Brains, Misfits, Cobraskulls, etc., and of course ska, like Streetlight Manifesto, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Rancid. But I have no idea what punk is post 2004. In the vein of the post-modernist movement, it seemed to start out as a rebellion against the structured intellectualizations and soulless virtuosity of prog music. But prog music is, for the most part, dead. The main themes of punk music that were retained and emphasized post-Fugazi are the crazed energy and the anybody-can-make-music sentiments. These are definitely points I can agree with. But the Brooklyn punk scene comes with it's own pretentions: To be a part of punk culture is to be immersed in it's philosophy. It goes beyond sewing the names of various punk bands into one's favorite studded leather jacket: One's rejection of more conventional forms of music and society is manifested in the sporadic desire to screw society and break stuff, a philosophy I could definitely get behind if it didn't feel so mandatory in context. The problem with the Brooklyn punk scene is this: Brooklyn punks, and by Brooklyn Punks I mean people who are really passionate about punk music and culture, are a dying breed. In their dying throes they have become more conservative in their definition of what punk music is in a world where punk music has evolved into so many different sub genres. Make no mistake: here is the esteemed tradition of rats in alleys, encapsulated in caveats and codexes. Here is the congressional body- As plebeian as the oligarchies of ancient Greece, but with as many furrowed eyebrows and suspicious eyes as the Duma-  that adores the World Inferno Friendship Society. And this makes no sense to me or anybody I know.

Make no mistake reader: A World Inferno Friendship Society concert attracts punks like no other event. I have seen it with my own eyes: An ocean of pierced lips and liberty spikes, with five skinheads (real, punk skinheads! No neo-nazis here!) standing in front of the stage, an oasis of flesh amongst leather blacks, neon reds and toxic greens. I too, climbed on stage and threw myself into this ocean (So this is the sign of a true punk concert: Nothing lubricious, no libations, just violent kinetics). But there is nothing punk about the musicians on stage. The members of this band are masters of songwriting in the pop format. They are formally trained in their instruments, and they even know a lot of music theory, which they apply to their songs in extremely clever ways. Here is a very un-punk thing that World Inferno does: At the end of their song Canonize Philip K. Dick, OK, The World Inferno Friendship Society actually canonizes a Philip K. Dick quote. It's clever, intelligent, and borderline pretentious- anything but punk. If anything, they represent the antithesis of the informed nihilism of punk icons like Boyd Rice. But the Brooklyn Punk community loves World Inferno, because world inferno shares their wanton and euphoric energy, and the dynamic between the band and it's fans in action is electric. Make no mistake, reader: The World Inferno Friendship Society are a punk band. Whatever that means.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I know everybody is going to hate me for this, but Thank Me Later by Drake was an excellent, genre-defying album. I wrote it off at first because I thought it was just a generic vapid pop album, but it takes pop hip hop, and R+B conventions (lyrics about clubs, patron, critics, etc.) and turns it into something really honest and introspective. Example: Fancy starts out as a traditional Swizz Beatz collaboration about women in the club. Commodious chauvinism? Not quite. Instead, it turns out to be a testament to strong, independent women with successful careers and confidence. I know it isn't on the intellectual level of a paper by Susan McClary or anything, but it's an honest, good intentioned statement. This introspection is reflected in the textures: What starts out as a bright, busy soul sampling club jam shifts abruptly into a compressed, mellow, dark wash of synths and lo-fi vocals. It's pop, but it's well thought out, it's musical, it transcends expectations, and I love it.

A common criticism of pop music is that it is soulless and stringently strophic; a series of calculated canzones calibrated to appeal to crass consumers, released incrementally to induce vapid excitement. And to some extent, its true: The music is a product. But is that not true of so many pieces of art music? Imagine the composer, all intellect and inhibitions, writing a piano sonata: That sonata will be filed into the ranks of a genre that contains literally tens of thousands of sonatas. How can one make their sonata more memorable then the thousands of pieces made from the same mold? Because the piece isn't an idiosyncrasy in the canon of western art music, it lacks emotional weight.  If the composer is afraid to draw outside the proverbial lines, his or her dear piano sonata will be forgotten quicker then the Thong Song, and our protagonist, Sisqo. If the snake does not molt it's skin, it will be ensnared in it and never grow.

Drake, however, has made an album of the kind of music that people will remember amidst the aural ocean moderated by the pop music industry. Therefore, if he can make an honest, introspective work out of a genre overcrowded with product, the composer can make an honest, introspective work out of a genre overcrowded with intellectualizations and exercises in borrowed processes. Music is not a product, but a passion; Not an aesthetic, but an art.

Friday, April 1, 2011


I have this nightmare. Actually, I have many nightmares, but this particular one is certainly the most memorable of them. It happens sporadically: sometimes it will occur three times in a row; Sometimes I will go weeks before I stumble upon it in the depths of my most placid slumber. By now I should greet it as an old friend. But every time it occurs it sends me into thralls of some of the deepest dread I have ever experienced.

In this nightmare, I am trapped in an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It's a large space, with pristine white floors and ceiling, void of chantonnes or chintzes. However, this space is completely encapsulated by glass. Here we are, thirty other starving individuals and I, as the denizens of some phantasmagoric otherworld. They ignore us, and frankly, why shouldn't they? We have nothing of interest to them. There's a pile of starved  bodies on the floor. And we're all ciphers because we don't want to appeal to the thousands of faceless projections that crowd the MoMA floor. But we just refuse to try to get their attention.

I am a freshman at the Jacobs School of Music, pursuing a combined performance and composition degree. And that scares the hell out of me. I, like my colleagues, am in this field because I can't see myself doing anything else with my life. But when we graduate, we'll be in a world that, for the most part, has felt alienated by the intellectualization of art music since the advent of process music in the twentieth century. We need to demand people's attention. We need to make art music exciting again. As an artist, I am terrified of making uninteresting music. I never want my music to be a curiosity that cannot keep somebody's attention with anything other than pretentious intellectualizations, the soprano singing inversion  this, the bass retrograde that.

I am not saying that process music is bad. In fact, some of my favorite pieces are by serialists. But a process is just that: a process. All of the theory we know is extremely important, but they're just tools, colors for our growing palette. A good piece of art is not explained in technicalities; it's explained in emotional impact and the statement it is trying to make. This blog is about music that appeals to me; from Brahms to Fela Kuti, to Talib Kweli to the Walkmen, to World Inferno Friendship Society to Alan Berg, to Bad Brains and so many more. This is not a blog about thorough analysis. This is a blog about music, and what makes it appeal to everybody.