Thursday, May 21, 2015

Was I born to synthesize?

"Music makes one feel so romantic—at least it always gets on one's nerves—which is the same thing nowadays."
Oscar Wilde

Sometime over a year ago I somewhere read about a thing called a microKORG.  I do not remember where I came across it.  An ad in a magazine?  A reference in a music review?  A suggestion from Amazon?  I truly do not know.  What I do know is that I saw the word vocoder, and I thought, "ELO!".

So, of course, I bought one.

Now, I had nothing to connect it to (aside from a pair of headphones).  I had no songs brewing in my head that might be in need of vocoder-treated vocals.  And, perhaps most significantly, I had no knowledge whatsoever of what to do with a synthesizer.

I still don't.  Sure, I noodle around with it every now and then, enjoy the surprising results of turning this knob and pushing that button, but for the most part, all of the various controls and myriad possibilities of the thing remain a mystery to me.  I finally decided that I should do something about that.  Being me, the thing that I decided to do was read a book.  Since synthesizers are kind of old, I decided to read a kind of old book, and I ultimately arrived at Synthesizer Basics as a place to start.

The initial entries, with a bit of history and basic "what is synthesis?" stuff, were interesting.  I'm getting into the more technical articles now, and so far they, too, seem worthwhile.  And articles they are, for this book is "Compiled from the pages of Keyboard Magazine", as the cover tells me.  Looking at that phrase every time that I pick it up, enjoying the articles that I'm reading, I started to wonder if Keyboard Magazine was still around.

Turning to the Web, I found that, indeed, Keyboard Magazine is still around—and the current issue?  It's the Synth Issue!

So, synthesizers.  What do they mean to me?  They have been so much of a presence in my life that I'm not sure that I gave them a whole lot of thought until recently.  I've been a fan of science fiction movies and TV all my life, so I've never been a stranger to some of the more unusual sounds that synthesizers can produce.  In the 80s I was very much a musical Anglophile, so I'm well acquainted with some of the smoother, more pop aspects of synths, as well as some more experimental musical uses.

Roxy Music, Electric Light Orchestra, Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, Front 242, Orgy, Sigur Ros, Owen Pallett...when am I not listening to synthesizers?  In fact, synthesizers are so much a part of the musical world these days that I mostly don't notice them, specifically as such.  And that's okay.  Some of the more extreme "wow listen to what I can do with this thing!" sorts of tracks are fun, but so are pieces where the synth is just another instrument adding its voice(s) to the beautiful whole.

Reading about waveforms and filters and envelops is exciting my desire to experiment with my microKORG.  I'm sure that I'll make some exquisitely strange sounds with it.  The thing that will make me really happy, though, is when I manage to make music with it.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Power of Words Plus Music

"Everyone deserves music, sweet music."
—Michael Franti

One of the ways that "music" tends to be defined is as something like: intentionally organized sound that affects the emotions. I think that is a reasonable way to define it, as far as it goes. There can be no doubt that music affects the emotions—this is largely the reason that movie scores exist.

I seem to have particularly strong emotional reactions to music, at times. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the beauty of a Mozart piano concerto to move me to tears. Or for a Django Reinhardt tune to lift my spirits remarkably. And the first time that I listened to the three CDs of David Bowie's Sound + Vision collection—his first releases on CD—on the day that they were released...well, that was a day that I really could have related to the title of the Hidden Cameras song "Music is My Boyfriend", were it not for the fact that I would need to wait nearly two decades for that song to be released.

What music doesn't really do is convey any explicit meaning. Sure, if someone tells us that a certain piece of instrumental music tells the story of a doe lapping at a gentle brook, then hearing a sound and becoming tense, then fleeing for her life from some predator, we may agree that we can hear that in the music. We may be able to picture it perfectly in our mind, and that may be what that piece of music means to us from then on. But the music doesn't actually tell us that story, it just fits that story well, like a movie score may fit the scenes and moods of the film that it accompanies, well.

Words do convey explicit meaning, at least they try to. Sometimes they do a very good job of doing so. Sometimes the meaning that words convey evokes a strong emotional response. That's good, because as human beings we seem to find it very important to share our emotions with each other.

So what happens when emotive words are combined with emotive music? Well, you can get something very powerful. Very powerful indeed. Things like national anthems will generally aim for majestic and/or martial sounding music, and lyrics to match. If done well, they will evoke in the listener feelings of awe, pride, patriotism. The best love songs have music that, in and of itself, makes the heart swell, combined with lyrics that truly remind us of what it feels like to be in love. There are songs that have (to me) ugly music. Music of rage. Music of despair. When these tunes are combined with powerful lyrics, they can be devastating.

And some songs are beautiful and sad. I used to live with a guy named Joey—he's a wonderful person and a wonderful singer. He sings plenty of lead, but he likes to sing harmony. There was one song that we tried to sing together a couple of times—me on lead, him on harmony—that I really just couldn't ever get through without literally getting choked up. "Cranes Over Hiroshima" by Fred Small. The (true) lyrics are sad, and also hopeful. The music is melancholy, but also rousing. It still really affects me.

I'm grateful that people like Fred Small (and Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Michael Franti, and many more) write songs that are instructive, inspiring, important. Even if I can't always manage to sing them myself.

I'm glad that music can move me so. I hope it moves other people as much, or more, and I hope that it does so in positive ways.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An obscure road

“I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.”
― Igor Stravinsky

My friends sometimes ask me where I first heard or learned about a particular song or musical artist. The answer can be quite straightforward: from a friend, in a club, etc. But sometimes I don't remember, or at least cannot quite trace all of the steps that led to the discovery.


One such discovery is the album Ragnarök (1976, Silence Records) by the band Ragnarök. This is an album that I have not been able to stop listening to since I found it. Swedish instrumental folk prog rock jazz fusion. It is so good that I am actually afraid to listen to any of the band's later releases, which I've seen characterized as “harder”. This album is remarkable. The liner notes list the following line-up:
Lars-Peter SörenssonDrums
Stefan OhlssonDrums, Guitar
Peder NaboFlute, Guitar
Staffan StrindbergElectric Bass
Peter BryngelssonGuitars
Henrik StrindbergEl. Guitar, Flute, Sopraninoflute, Sopranosaxophone
Four guitarists—but note that only one is specifically listed as playing electric guitar. Guitars do dominate most of the tracks on the album, but not with any one sound. Some tracks sound almost classical, some sort of fingerstyle folk, some jazz fusion and some more progressive rock. Actually, there are few tracks on this album which I could easily characterize with any one of those styles, exclusively, but they all make their presence known, more or less. There are also two flutists, who likewise lend their talents in various moods.
There is little on this album which reminds me directly of any other band—maybe a couple of tracks could be cousins of some of the mellower early Genesis tracks, another might once have shared a drink with Gentle Giant, and one or two remind me a wee bit of Kamæleon, another band whose self-titled album rarely left my CD player when I first found it.

And in fact, Kamæleon is the first step back along the path that eventually led me to Ragnarök. Kamæleon are a Danish jazz fusion band from the late 70s. The only way that I was able to find the album was to download it from iTunes, unfortunately, and this included a cover image, but no liner notes. Discogs lists the band's members as being: Fini Høstrup, Jens Jefsen, Poul Poulsen, Steen Råhauge, Uffe Steen Jensen. I don't really know anything more about the band. The album is decidedly jazz fusion, sometimes edging over more towards rock than jazz, but mostly tilting jazzwards. How Kamæleon led me to Ragnarök is that I was searching online for more late 70s to early 80s-ish European jazz fusion, and that somehow led me to my new Swedish friends.
But how did I learn about Kamæleon? Well, that was the result of another web search, specifically for Danish jazz fusion. See, there was this album that had lodged itself in my CD player a couple of years ago: 20:33 (1981, Pick Up Records) by Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri were also a Danish jazz fusion band. Personnel:

Jorgen Emborgpiano, el piano
Bo Stiefel bass, piccolo bass
Bjarne Roupéacoustic guitar, el guitar
Ole Theilldrums
Palle Mikkelborgtrumpet
This is the most “jazz” of the three albums that I've mentioned, but definitely fusion. An album that I still always enjoy when I pop it in to play.

And how did I find Alpha Centauri? This is where the trail gets a bit murky. The beginning is clear, but I don't remember quite exactly how it led to Alpha Centauri. It started with a Danish coming of age film, Venner for altid (1987). There is a scene in which the main character is hanging out with one of his new friends, a rather pretentious boy who—while talking about astronomy, astrology, near death experiences and Chinese martial arts—puts on an LP and comments that he and a friend are going to a concert on the weekend. The track that plays is somewhere along the continuum from art rock to space music. It is instrumental and very repetitive, and for some reason I became immediately obsessed with it.

Now, I always read the credits of movies (and of TV shows, if they are large enough and move slowly enough that I can do so). But I examined the music and song credits for this movie in particular detail. As far as I could tell, the credits did not mention this specific track. Here's where the murk comes in. I never did identify that track, but I somehow came to believe that one of the artists in Alpha Centauri (Ole Theill, I think, but I don't even remember that for sure) might have been involved in its creation. And thus, by a process that I no longer recall the details of, I came to know 20:33, and ultimately Ragnarök.

So thank you, odd little Danish feel good coming of age film, for leading me—however it happened—to three instrumental albums which give me much joy.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

What am I doing here?

“Music is a whole oasis in my head. The creation process is so personal and fulfilling.”
— River Phoenix

I guess that I want to write about music. Or maybe it would be better to say that I want to write about my relationship with music. I am not in any way professionally involved in music these days, though I did work at music stores for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s—variously as sales clerk, singles buyer, shipping and receiving clerk and product manager/buyer. Those days will probably crop up here from time to time, but they will not be the focus. What I want to make the space to explore here is all aspects of my lifelong fascination with music.
There were two main impetuses which have led to the creation of this blog. I was reading Confessions of ignorance, one of the blogs maintained by my friend Seana (who I worked with not at a music store, but at a book store), and I wondered, “how does one leave a comment on this blogspot thing?”. I glanced at the top of the page, looking for a “Create Account” link, and instead found a “Create Blog” link. “Huh...” thought I.
The other impetus came from a book that I was reading. A book which is about neither music nor blogs, but rather is about—well the title itself says it most thoroughly: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo. I bought the Kindle version on a whim. I was not consciously feeling that I needed to tidy, but the book has inspired me to do so. The other thing that it inspired me to do (explicitly—this is an oddly wide-ranging book) was to look at what has been most important to me throughout my life.
When I pondered this question it became very clear to me that, apart from my family, the thing that I have always treasured and made a part of my life in some way is music. Here are some of the memories that came up:
- One of the earliest toys that I can remember having was a “record player”, which was actually a sort of music box. The records were plastic disks with raised nubs which plucked tuned metal strips in the cartridge at the end of the tone arm.

- The only specific memory that I retain of pre-school involves the class sitting on the floor around a piano being played by the teacher, singing a song about a frog on a log.

- The best part of going to Shakey's Pizza when I was a child was not the pizza itself, but was rather the fact that there was a live band. (Or was it just a duo? I definitely remember piano and banjo.) Best of all, I could go up and play the washboard with them. “Shave and a haircut, two bits!”

And the music-related memories come more fast and furious as I move closer to the present in my recollections. Some of those will probably end up here. But memories aside, there can be no doubt that at the current time I am in a period of increased fascination with music. In recent years I have purchased (and sometimes I even play) several musical instruments. I listen to music nearly every waking hour, and as I fall asleep. I am, for the first time that I can recall, reading a biography of a composer (I seldom read biographies at all).

So here I will put down some of my thoughts on music. Will they interest anyone else? That I cannot say, but I look forward to seeing where this takes me.