Musical Space

Music festival season is already underway. SXSW 2016 has already happened, and by June we’ll be in full swing. 

Let’s consider Jon Benjamin’s piano playing on his provocative new jazz album “Well, I Should Have.” This effort follows the time-tested formulas of the genre: traditional arrangements, a world-class back-up band, and high production values. But Benjamin is a comedian, doesn’t like jazz, and, most importantly, doesn’t know how to play piano.

There’s a film documentary of the session; the interaction between his complete failure at the keyboard and the highly experienced and unsuspecting side-men is a bold exercise in confrontational comedy. But it also raises the question: Can a bad musician make good music?

I like it when I get a story from something I’m listening to. Sometimes the story is told by the lyrics themselves, like with a good country ballad. Even better, though, is when there is a backstory. It makes everything much more meaningful knowing, for instance, that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album was recorded while both couples in the band were breaking up, or that Beethoven wrote his latest and greatest works when he was completely deaf and could no longer make his living as a performer.

Western pop has occasionally flirted with the music of India; witness the rather faddish infatuation with the sitar in the 1960’s courtesy of rock stars like George Harrison. Indian music was exotic and mystical. It was also intellectually stimulating and beautiful, I must add.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the first musicians I discovered as a pre-teen. Imagine, though, how my younger self was horrified by the song “Hey, Joe,” when he sings, “I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady, You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man.” Then there was Neil Young’s line,  “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” Why would someone sing a song about killing their girlfriend? It wasn’t until later that I figured out Hendrix and Young were continuing the ancient folk tradition of the murder ballad.

Every community has a musical history. Most of the time, that history gets confused and hazy, but every once in a while somebody does us the favor of writing things down. Luckily for us, there was a Wichita native named Joan O’Bryant, a WSU alum who taught in the university’s English department in the 1950s.

Music vs. Loiterers

Feb 2, 2016

A while ago, standing in the lobby of a New York City train station, I couldn’t help but notice the incongruity of the music piped over the speakers. It was Mozart - a beautiful violin concerto - being blasted at a dance-club volume toward uncaring commuters. The reason couldn’t have only been for aesthetics; here classical music was being used to drive away would-be teenage loiterers.

fawm.org

Next month is album writing month, at least according to an intriguing website, fawm.org. This non-commercial site is designed as a dare for songwriters to write 14 songs in 28 days.

Old Dogs, New Music

Jan 5, 2016

Researchers for streaming service Spotify have found that 33 is the age when musical taste stagnates. That’s the age when people stop seeking out new music. It turns out most of the stuff people listen to is what they liked when they were 16-24. I’m a little distressed. Music shouldn’t just be nostalgia, and young artists shouldn’t get crowded out by hits from the 80s.

Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap is always up to something, like engineering her own albums and inventing musical gloves that allow her to perform using only body gestures. And now she’s taken it upon herself to fix the entire music industry.

Pages