Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

July 29, 2004 (link)

10:47 PM

Odd. (Scroll all the way to the bottom.) I'm not entirely convinced that these posts (which are a known phenomenon on weblogs, journals, etc.) aren't some sort of practical joke, played by the mischievous and bored. (I've even been tempted, now and again, to leave one myself.) But maybe not!

In other news, I now eat cereal with water sometimes. And now, when I do so, other people -- namely my co-workers -- react with disbelief and vague distaste (both of which I can, obviously, understand). Things change, no?

9:08 PM

Jesper F. asks:

i'm working on achieving perfect pitch and can probably identify any tone played on a piano by now (with a blank mind, like in the morning). but i feel nowhere near close to be able to identify the key in a song on the radio! do you think i can make it, and if so do you recommend any method? at least give me some encouraging words to motivate my training =)

Well, first of all, if you "can identify any tone played on a piano...with a blank mind", then it strikes me that you're most of the way there! I mean, answering a question like this, I'm in a bit of an odd position, in that I can't really speak to the experience of "learning" perfect pitch: I was born with it, it basically seems to be a hard-wired part of my musical consciousness, and I've actually participated in a couple genetic studies about it. But it seems like what you describe -- being able to recognize and name a pitch, without previous musical context -- is exactly the thing that typifies perfect pitch: in other words, if you can do that, you basically already have perfect pitch, or something very close to it.

The flip side is, having perfect pitch is only a very small part of training your ears. I'd be lying if I claimed it didn't help -- it does, definitely -- but nearly everything else that's involved in having a "good ear" is the product of hard work over long periods of time. Maybe saying "hard work" is deceptive...when I've spent time on improving my ear, it's almost never felt like hard work, because I was doing something I wanted to do. Whenever there was something I couldn't unravel by ear, it felt like a puzzle, something I wanted to solve and master.

But it definitely takes time and effort -- even if it's time and effort freely and gladly given -- whereas for me, having perfect pitch was necessarily the most effortless part of the process. I remember my older sister G., who also has perfect pitch and is a pianist, deciding to test out my ears a bit (she knew I had perfect pitch) when I was around 10 or 11. I could name pitches, and I could tell the difference between a major chord and a minor one, but I couldn't differentiate between augmented and diminished chords -- to me, they both just sounded "dissonant" (that's not the word I would have used at the time, though I don't know what word I would have used), and my ear wasn't developed enough to tell the difference.

I think, for me, the process of (ahem) "making the pitched aspects of musical space more intelligible" (!) revolved more than anything around my jazz education. I used jazz and jazz-rock albums to train my ears, listening to them repeatedly until I could identify and reproduce exactly what was going on. This wasn't just pitch, of course, it was also rhythm: early in my jazz studies, I remember having an argument with M. about Coltrane's "Equinox", arguing about whether the opening riff was on the beat or syncopated. (He was right, I was wrong.)

Later, I remember listening to "Ave Maria Stella/Andromeda" on the Winter Consort's Road album, and thinking to myself, How the hell can I figure out what time signature that is? It keeps changing! Yet after a while, I realized it was just a matter of counting -- 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-1-2-1-2 -- and got to the point where I could listen to it, and pieces like it, and quickly figure out, "Sure, that's 5/8 + 7/8 + 9/8".

But anyway, going back to pitch, I remember it as, in part, almost a process of chord-by-chord acquisition. By this I mean that there were chords that made me think to myself, "Why in the world would somebody ever want to use a chord like that? It sounds so terrible!" The funny thing was, it wasn't as if I were a total musical conservative at the time -- I had grown up listening to Stravinsky, to Pink Floyd, to things like "Chushingura" and "A Saucerful of Secrets" -- but I hadn't, in some sense, gone through the history of music in my own mind: in other words, by recapitulating the historical development of these chords, I could make them intelligible to myself. For instance, there was a point, maybe a year or two into my jazz education where the augmented chord didn't make any sense to me -- again, my reaction was something like "When exactly would someone want to settle on such a dissonant, wrong-sounding chord?" But then, I remember one day looking at a lead sheet for a Coltrane ballad -- "Dear Lord", maybe? -- and seeing the chord progression:

A7 | A+7 (A7#5) | Dmaj7

And suddenly, I understood that the augmented 7th chord represented, in some sense, a piece of frozen voice-leading -- in this case, taking the inner voice "E - F#" and chromatically elaborating it to "E - F - F#" (actually "E - E# - F#" if you want to be precise about it). From that point on, I had a context in which the augmented 7th was intelligible to me, and by internalizing the prepared form of the dissonance, I could now make sense of the unprepared version. (Again, this is a process that has happened throughout music history: Monteverdi is often credited with the introduction of the unprepared 7th chord, basically reasoning that, if people can make sense of a progression from a G chord to C chord in which one of the voices goes G-F-E, then couldn't one elide the initial G, skipping the preparation and going straight to the "juicy" chord?)

Anyway, without knowing much about your prior musical training, it's hard to guess why your pitch-recognition ability hasn't yet extended to other parts of your ear; questions I might ask include: Can you read music? Can you identify what key a piece of music is in by looking at it? Can you read a piece of music and identify some of the chords it uses? Do you have a solid grounding in music theory?

If you can't do any of these things, then in a way, that's encouraging, because you've got some clear options you can try to encourage your ears to grow in new ways, and the more theory and music reading skills you have, the stronger your ears are likely to be. But assuming you can do all these things, then it's trickier for me to offer a suggestion. One thing I might suggest is doing transcriptions -- it's something I suggest to everybody, actually, as I think it's one of the absolute best and most concentrated ways to grow as a musician. Start with simple melodies -- a folk song, or the vocal melody of a simple rock songs -- and, as you're able, gradually move to transcriptions of more complex material, like jazz improvisations and short, sparse, atonal pieces (like Schoenberg's early piano music or Webern's chamber music). If you can do that stuff, I find it hard to imagine that you wouldn't break through this plateau!

One more thought: there are certain songs, and certain sounds, that have a strong association with particular keys -- not just for me, but I suspect for many musicians. One simple example is the sound of a violin's open strings: listen to enough violin music, and you'll know when an open G, D, A, or E is being played. Or take a song like "The Laws Have Changed", by the New Pornographers: the sound of the jangly guitar, an E chord played in first position, so idiomatic and so instantly recognizable -- everything about it screams "this song is in E". If you can get that kind of thing in your bones, you'll be a long way towards instant identification of keys and chords.

I hope some of this is helpful, to you and to whomever else it might be useful. Good luck, and let me know how your ear training goes!

Current music: Tony Scott - Music for Zen Meditation

(Comments for July 29, 2004) (2 comments so far)

July 25, 2004 (link)

8:57 PM

"And if the original didn't do that, it should've": crap, I heard it tonight (on, um, Cold Case), and it didn't! Yet another song where the memory proves more interesting than the reality...

Current music: Robert Wyatt - "Last Straw"

(Comments for July 25, 2004)

July 18, 2004 (link)

12:59 PM

Did the book enrich you?
I would say the book enriched me.
Can you prove the book enriched you?
No, by no method I know can I prove the book enriched me.
Then I can only conclude that the book entertains
in the manner of, say, a television program.

-- "In Defense of the Book", Matthew Byrne, Antioch Review, Spring 2004, p. 333

11:37 AM

On the other hand, earlier in the same Jackson essay (on p. 197) is a passage that doesn't ring true to me:

New release versions of films or DVDs with cut scenes restored by the director years later change nothing about our experience of the original; each is one other version of a story that has to be experienced and evaluated on its own terms. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalpyse Now Redux (2001, 202 minutes) is not just 49 minutes longer than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalpyse Now (1979, 153 minutes). It is a different film. The new scenes...don't just add narrative elements, they significantly alter the characters themselves.

I don't think this argument accurately reflects human psychology, though of course there's some truth to it. I recently saw the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, and was surprised to find that, for the most part, the original editing decisions had been the right ones: most of the footage was heavy-handed exposition that added nothing, dragged down the narrative, and was better omitted. (Exceptions: a little bit of extra footage in the scene where Isildur loses the ring; the additional scenes at Lothlorien; and especially, the extra footage in the battle scenes in Moria and Amon Hen, which help both to clarify the action and to add more depth to certain characters, particularly Merry and Pippin).

But I think that this1 may be the exception that proves the rule. I'd argue that most people have a tendency, when confronted with two versions of a work in which one is longer than the other, to assume that the longer version is "more complete" and therefore the real, more authentic one; certainly, I've seen more than a few people express that opinion about the Tolkien DVDs. In some cases, it's very difficult to fully disregard the additional information one gets from an extended version of a work one already knows; that doesn't apply to the Tolkien films, since there's already an (ahem) ur-text, but I certainly felt it when comparing I Sing the Body Electric with Live in Tokyo 1972, discovering that so many of those magnificent, cross-cut, stop-on-a-dime transitions were actually edits.

Or, maybe a better example -- I've read that, in the DVD of Buckaroo Banzai, there's commentary that explains the watermelon (which I alluded to below). That's fine, but imagine if the DVD had restored a deleted scene in which, shortly after the watermelon episode, Reno had explained, "Oh, by the way, the watermelon was for..." Having seen that, would it really be possible to ever look at the original the same way again? (Answer: maybe, but it'd probably put the damper on the joke at least a little bit.)

Jackson acknowledges this when he talks about altering the characters (described in more detail in the original essay) -- when one character is a "killer...turned into a surfer buffoon", and another is given a "long romantic subplot", how can that possibly "change nothing about our experience of the original"? I haven't seen the Redux, but I can't imagine that it would be easy for anyone who knew the original well not to have it changed by seeing the extended cut.

It's interesting, though...when we read Kafka's "The Burrow", and subsequently learn that there was a completed version (burned by Dora Dymant) in which the story "had been concluded...with a 'scene describing the hero taking up a tense fighting position in expectation of the beast, and the decisive struggle in which the hero succumbs'" (Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, p. xi), I'm not sure that necessarily has a major impact on our (my) experience of the story. Then again, Kafka's stories aren't really about their plot points -- and for that matter, I think it's somehow easier to handle something like an alternate or restored ending: we see it as a forking path, a "what might have been" that doesn't affect what is. But other things -- a character transformed, a joke explained, a tantalizing fragment elaborated into a banal whole -- aren't so easily dealt with, I think.

1(i.e. the fact that, for me, the original cut of the film feels like the "real" one)

11:11 AM


One reason Vonnegut has written an anti-novel is his feeling that people read conventional fiction and then try to "live like people invented in story books. That was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books" (210).

-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Stanley Schatt


Another important difference between real life and fiction is this: in real life what seems to have happened nearly always is what happened. We're guided by probability, you and I, because on the whole probability works very well. But in movies and popular novels, what seems to have happened is often just obscuring what "really" happened, and the task of the hero is getting beyond the deception of the obvious. [...]

I tell you all this because I think criminal trials are far more like the world of popular fiction and primitive thought than the world of everyday life. Prosecuting attorneys try to bring the jury to a place where everything, every apparent fact, must make sense, must have been deliberate, must be connected to something else. Defense attorneys do the opposite: they try to convince juries that the prosecutors' narratives don't really hold together after all.

Claims by judges and attorneys notwithstanding, a trial is neither a search for truth nor a search for justice. A trial is a search for victory, and all the participants know it. What goes on in the trial is the development of a narrative internal to the courtroom. The judge doesn't tell the jury to decide what actually happened out there, but rather to answer this question: "Has the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt?" The jury is asked to evaluate a narrative. In a trial the truth of the narrative matters far less than the plausibility of it.

-- "The Real O.J. Story", Bruce Jackson, Antioch Review, Spring 2004, p. 198-99

Current music: First, Alfred Brendel playing Mozart's Piano Sonata in F major, K533/494; then, via Scott, MP3s from Treewave

(Comments for July 18, 2004)

July 13, 2004 (link)

11:38 PM

Everybody was kung fu fighting -- and then, they listened to a song-poem:

"Ripoff USA", lyrics by Dan Moon, sung by Kay Weaver. (Note: the MP3 section of the ASPMA appears to be down, which is a real pity; I'm putting in the link above in case it ever comes back.)

Thanks to JB, I have a readymade transcription of the lyrics (which saves me a lot of time, though these lyrics are admittedly pretty clear), and I'll interpolate a few of his thoughts (in red) in my analysis. Here we go:

Right from the beginning, you can tell this one's going to be a little different: the recording's clean, the tempo's relatively quick, and by song-poem standards, the musicians are playing with a great deal of energy -- even, dare I say, enthusiasm. The piano player stands out especially, in part because he's mixed the loudest, but also because he seems like a pretty solid rock pianist, playing in a sort of "post-Joplin, pre-Hornsby" style. He starts out the song with a dense, percussive set of block chords that I still can't quite parse -- I think it's basically a pair of parallel major chords with added seconds and sixths, but I'm not sure of the exact voicing. Bottom line, we're in A major, or A Mixolydian really (and quite a bit sharp of A 440, as it happens) (I wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't fired up my keyboard to see if I had the correct voicing).

Besides the piano, we've got drums, bass, steel-string acoustic guitar. The bass and guitar have a nice little pattern in the first couple bars, too -- a simple but effective bassline. Actually, I think the first two bars are probably my favorite part of the song; there's something about them -- an offbeat, insistent quality -- that diminishes a bit once Kay Weaver comes in:

Reno is the place to go
Reno, watch your money flow

If you hadn't heard this song before, and didn't notice the title -- say, if someone had given you a disc of MP3s, and you'd put them on random play -- you might think to yourself, "Hmmmm, I guess this is a song about how great Reno is, but the singer sure doesn't sound happy about it!" Here, Kay Weaver's channeling Grace Slick at her most strident -- think the end of "White Rabbit", but without Slick's trademark Mystere des Voix Bulgares microtonal grace notes.

Pretty girls and twenty-one
Pretty girls say you're the one

You'd think that rhyming "one" with "one" would seem odd, but in this context, with Kay Weaver's rapid, clipped delivery, it works fine. Interesting, possibly self-aware, structural device here, starting two lines with "Reno" and two lines with "pretty girls": as we'll see, it's obvious that the author of this song-poem has a serious grudge against Reno --

Liberal slots and blackjack say
Come on, come on and lose your pay

-- but it's interesting to speculate how much of that grudge comes from bad experiences with women, and how much from gambling. (My guess: thirty-seventy, give or take.) I'm not 100% sure about "liberal" in that line, but I think it's about right.

All the day and night-time long
Hear the barkers sing their song

The image of Bob Barker beckons to me, asking me to make a tenuous connection -- but it goes ignored, and disappears with a vague wheezing sound, à la Sickly Sam. Meanwhile, the rhythm section is staying solid under all this, with no typical song-poem glitches or twitches; now the vocals drop to half their previous speed (or phrase-length, anyway):

We don't care should you go broke
The money we make could make you choke
Biggest little city, is what they say
To me it's the biggest ripoff USA

And now we get a long instrumental break; one might've hoped for a bravura piano solo, but much as was the case with a certain other song, the pianist just keeps comping through the break -- probably because he can't comp that way and improvise at the same time, plus he's been playing so much that if he were to start playing a standard solo, it'd feel like the bottom had dropped out. So, he tosses in a few Floyd Patterson slides, but no Oscar Peterson runs.

In any event, when Kay Weaver comes back in, it becomes apparent that the instrumental break was first and foremost a way of filling time...

Reno is the place to go
Reno, watch your money flow
Pretty girls and twenty-one
Pretty girls say you're the one

...because we're fresh out of lyrics! In your average song-poem, they have to slip in a spoken-word section just to fit all the words in, but not here. In a way, I suppose that speaks well of Dan Moon!

Liberal slots and blackjack say
Come on, come on and lose your pay
All the day and night-time long
Hear the barkers sing their song

JDB: I'm still not quite sure why I like it so much. Partially because the song is written from the moral high ground, but is so obviously written by someone who's lost a lot of money gambling, and partially because it's sung so forcefully, seemingly ignoring that various parts of the song are reported speech -- so the singer comes across as a (wo)man who's very bitter about his/her lack of success, but can't drag themselves away -- which is quite impressive for such a brief song.

We don't care should you go broke
The money we make would make you choke
Biggest little city, that's what they say
To me it's the biggest ripoff USA

What an angry song this is! You wonder what became of Mr. Moon -- after penning this song, did he get gambling out of his system, once and for all? Every time he was tempted to go to the slots, did he cue up his turntable instead, using Kay Weaver's growling pipes to remind him to steer clear of Reno and not fall prey to the "biggest ripoff USA"? Speaking of Kay, she does little James Hetfield/Scott Stapp extra syllables at the ends of those lines -- "say-uh, USA-uh".

And just in case twice wasn't enough, we repeat one more time:

Reno is the place to go
Reno, watch your money flow

JDB: It's hard to tell whether it's "flow" or "blow".

Pretty girls and twenty-one
Pretty girls say you're the one

And, as we head into the fade, we're left with the biggest question of all:

Liberal slots and blackjack say
Come on, come on and lose your pay
All the day and night-time long
Hear the barkers sing their song...

"Yes, Mr. Moon, I understand...your song is nice, though it's a bit short, at only two minutes long...but I have to ask: if you despise Reno so much, what must you think of Las Vegas? Or, is it only Reno? Was it a girl, then, whom you met there? Was it in the summertime? And -- forgive me, but I must say it -- was her name Email?"

(Comments for July 13, 2004)

July 4, 2004 (link)

10:17 PM

What's been on my playlist lately?

  • Hatfield & the North - "Son of 'There's No Place Like Homerton'":

    I'm lucky enough to have two versions of this, one from the self-titled studio album, the other from a bootleg of a live concert in London in 1974. The best part of the studio version is the Northettes' ethereal, pure-voiced vocals, singing complex shifting harmonies perfectly in tune; it's such a nice payoff that it's almost a disappointment when the song continues after the cadence at 7:35 or so. Surprisingly, the Northettes are also on the live show, and sing very well there too, though the effect isn't as angelic as it is on the studio version. Live, however, the track is wonderfully raw: the instrumental sections -- which, for all their invention and twists and turns, tend to seem a bit too polite on the studio version -- are here played with fire and abandon. (The difference is especially noticeable in Pip Pyle's drumming, which is far more prominent and aggressive in these live cuts, all the more so once the band goes into "Aigrette"; insert "putting the 'rock' back in 'jazz-rock'" comment here, ha ha.)

    (Also glad to see I'm not the only person to whom this connection suggested itself. Don't know if I agree that the bluegrass part is that important, but then again, I wouldn't have agreed on the Grateful Dead comparisons until I heard Blues for Allah -- though I still suspect Zappa is a far more proximate influence on them...)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Symphony No. 41:

    Not knowing this piece until recently, I did a double-take when I heard that chord sequence in the last movement for the first time: with its root movement in tritones, it sounds almost like "Le Gibet"! Easy to forget how wild Mozart could get (was he the first composer to use multiple simultaneous key signatures?). I like the fact that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all have, in certain pieces, passages that sound remarkably like modern music, and yet those passages don't necessarily stylistically overlap because each of them is the outcome of a different expressive force -- a different part of the envelope being pushed, as it were, reflecting each composer's particular compositional concerns and drives.

  • Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse:

    OK, this is a bit of a cheat, since I only just got this and haven't even listened to all of it yet -- but still, what a pleasant surprise this is! I don't know why my expectations were low, particularly; in any event, this album seems full of what I like best about Sonic Youth -- the unexpected harmonies and voicings, the gorgeous chiming/howling/squalling guitars -- and the way it's recorded is very much to my taste. Plus they have a song called "New Hampshire"! This would be a good record under any circumstances, but for a band to put out a disc like this as their nineteenth record...I can't think of anyone who's come close to matching that.

  • Silver Apples - "Program" and "You and I":

    I was wrong, sort of: it's true that I still don't find myself much inclined to listen to either Silver Apples or Contact straight through -- it feels like too much of the same thing (though as I said to M., that may just be a consequence of the fact that they have such an unusual idiom: do their songs really sound any more self-similar than your average jazz or blues album?).

    But I missed the boat by not picking up on these two tracks right away. "You and I" is a brilliant, strange song, built from bleeps and squeals and microtones and a rhythmic change-up I still can't quite parse after repeated listening. But this is the tricky part: the Silver Apples made from these materials a strong, propulsive song, one in which the microtonality and off-kilter oscillators are the fabric of the track, rather than being an accompanying gimmick. Some of the most powerful moments in the history of music are those times when someone manages to come up with a radically new musical vocabulary, embodied in a work that seems to be the ideal expression of its potentials. Stravinsky was uncanny in that regard, writing pieces like Le Sacre du Printemps that contained entire musical epochs, mined so thoroughly and so perfectly that, at the end of the piece, it felt like there was nothing in them left to say that hadn't already been said. It's not on the same scale, but "You and I" feels a little bit like one of those moments: it's not astonishing merely because no one had ever done anything quite like it before, but because no one had ever done anything quite like it before and it worked, brilliantly.

    For the most part, "Program" is much more straightforward -- it's got chords, it's in a definite key, the rhythm is simpler; one might hear it as something midway between "You and I" and, say, "Tomorrow Never Knows". (Actually, now that I think about it, it's pretty tempting to hear the Silver Apples as carrying on where "Tomorrow Never Knows" left off, at least in part. I wonder if anyone has ever made that observation before?) Low did pretty well with their cover of "Program", at least based on the live tapes I've heard (I don't think they ever did a studio version); they were able to capture something of its sense of ominous, singleminded warning. What their approach didn't reproduce, though, was the song's driving, jumping, "you-could-practically-mix-this-into-a-DJ-set" beat (heh, again, like the Chemical Brothers used to do with "Tomorrow Never Knows"!). Thirty years later, Stereolab pulled off the same trick on "Contronatura", but if anything the beat here is more potent and, well, danceable (at least if you're on a wood floor, anyway).

  • Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, and Andy Sheppard - "Crazy With You" from Songs With Legs:

    So simple, so gorgeous. I first heard this live version about four years ago, looking for Night-Glo on Napster; I quite liked it, but -- stupidly! -- deleted the MP3 after discovering it had major glitches. I kept meaning to track it down again, though I was concerned that my memories of it were a bit rose-colored -- but when I got it on Sunday from M., it was as good as I'd remembered, if not better: I think I played it four or five times in a row. As a composition, "Crazy With You" is like a textbook on how to break symmetry in a beautiful way; this performance gives it far more air than it had on Night-Glo -- Swallow and Bley stick to fairly strict accompaniment, giving Sheppard the foreground -- and the added space brings out the song's quiet, meditative aspects. Good stuff.

Current music: Stereolab - "Surrealchemist"

(Comments for July 4, 2004)


Current reading:

Euripides II, ed. Richmond Lattimore and David Grene

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J. K. Rowling

Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner


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