Wednesday, March 28, 2012

RIP Earl Scruggs: Who Will Sing for Me?

I am so sorry to learn of Earl Scruggs' passing.

Feeling particularly blue this evening, I had just come downstairs to work on a hymn I've been trying to finish when I saw the update on Facebook. It prompted me to pull out some tunes and, in doing so,  I realize that what I love about bluegrass and Southern gospel is that they make me feel both at home and homesick at the same time. That feeling drives my desire to sing, to make a song my home, to put that longing into music.

May I sing for you, Mr. Scruggs? I keep trying.

Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
But when I am called
Who will sing one song for me

I wonder who will sing for me 
When I'm called to the cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me

When friends have gathered 'round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me

So I'll sing until the end
And helpful try to be
Assured that some friends 
Will sing one song for me

Monday, March 19, 2012

NPR's 50 Failed First Impressions


NPR's 50 Failed First Impressions.

"Debut albums are strange beasts. Some rocket artists to a lofty level of stardom that never seems to wane, making a permanent mark on the world of music. Others manage to attain a devoted cult status, but take years, maybe even decades, to do so. Even more go overshadowed by material the artist will eventually release. And there's just no calculating the countless number of debut LPs and EPs that get swept under the rug every year.

"Even though some artists just get it right the first time around, this mix is devoted to the ignored and under-appreciated debut. ..."

Let's say I'm a trained ballerina

Let's say I'm a trained ballerina (I'm not). If I then want to be a good salsa dancer, I take 6 months of classes, I ask questions, I watch others do it, I practice and get feedback from my dance partners. In all of this I develop my own skill and mastery of the style.

As a musician, my background is in classical. But I want to write music and perform as a singer-songwriter. So,  I approach songwriting and performing the same way. I want to develop my own vocal style, so I am taking lessons from a vocal coach who specializes in working with songwriters. I want to make use of orchestral instruments in my arrangements, so I am studying arranging/composition. I want to incorporate my French horn playing in my songs, so I'm busting out the Kopprasch etudes. I want to incorporate dance into my performance, so I'm brushing up on various dance styles. I want my songs to be heavy on percussion, so I'm studying drumline cadences and meeting with percussionists. I have no experience commanding a stage or a microphone as a solo artist, so I am starting to play open mics. I am miles away from where I want to be and I have a ton of work to do. This blog keeps me accountable and tracks the process.

In the contemporary classical world, there has been a notable rise (or rebirth) of the composer/performer in recent years. For the second year in a row the annual MATA Festival of new music by "young" composers from all over the world [full disclosure: I am MATA's publicist] will feature a composer/performer night called "Responsible Parties." (Performance on Thursday, April 19; roundtable discussion with said responsible parties the next morning, Friday, April 20.)

It's not exactly singer-songwriter fare. They've got video constructions, music for sheet metal, music for piano wire installation, part of an opera. Crazy interesting stuff. Often there's no singing at all = not songs. Lesley, Kate, and Matt's pieces are sung, so on that level are songs, written by song-writers.

Jacob Cooper, Triptych: II. Black or White
Cecilia Lopez, Mechanical Music for Sheet Metal
Kate Soper, Only the words themselves mean what they say
Lesley Flanigan, Snow
Matt Marks, sneak preview of The Little Death: Vol. 2 with Mellissa Hughes
Eli Keszler, Cold Pin

Still, within this greater movement there are those who more closely resemble singer-songwriters in that the music is primarily a) sung b) by the person who wrote it: Corey Dargel, Gabriel Kahane, to name a couple. Shara Worden fronts the band My Brightest Diamond as singer/songwriter but has moved into the world of composition.

One thing I've observed in my role as a publicist is that music which crosses multiple genre lines will, as a result, be received and evaluated by multiple and distinct sets of values, expectations, and reference points.

Case study: My Brightest Diamond released All Things Will Unwind in collaboration with yMusic [for whom I handled press via New Amsterdam Records] a few months back. ATWU is both an album by a songwriter-led-band (in indie rock terms) and a collection of short pieces for chamber ensemble with voice (in classical terms), and it was reviewed accordingly depending on the writer/outlet.

Sample review:  My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind
Peter Zimmerman,  Glide magazine (Peter has a classical/choral background)

Primary values/expectations by which "contemporary classical" music is measured:
  • Separation of composer and performer is usually the standard. (Unimportant/unexpected that the two be merged.)
  • Composer
    • Musical innovation / experimentation / originality (composition)
      • structure/form
      • texture
      • color
      • rhythm
      • harmony 
      • media/instrumentation
    • Reference points: Western classical canon of repertoire (development from Gregorian chant -->  Bach --> Mozart --> Mahler --> Reich --> contemporary movements/trends
  • Performer
    • Technical proficiency
    • Mastery of performance practice by style/period
    • Infusion of personal interpretation
    • Reference points: Past performers (e.g. Horowitz for piano); past recordings (comparison against "definitive" recording of specific works)

Sample review:
My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind
Amanda Petrusich, Pitchfork magazine

Primary values/expectations by which singer-songwriters/bands are measured:

  • Overall listener experience/mood trumps technical proficiency
  • Many elements of structure are (largely) assumed.
    • It's a song. Has words.
    • Melody is primary vehicle, voice is primary instrument.
    • Melody-dominated homophony. Instruments as ornamentation, accompaniment, setting of mood.
    • Short pieces (3 minutes); longer is significant.
  • Personal expression, authenticity trump "proper" technique.
    • Distinctive voice is imperative.
    • Story-telling (theirs or others)
    • Intimacy
    • Lyric-driven
  • Stage presence, persona.
    • Visual style, brand.
    • Use/command of microphone assumed.
  • Songwriter/band as icon, singing soundtrack for others lives. What does it sound like to be me/us now?
  • Reference points: Past artists (i. e. for songwriters -  Billie Holiday --> Woodie Guthrie --> Bob Dylan --> Joni Mitchell --> Sufjan Stevens), current rock trends.

All of this said, as artists should we care? I often hear from artists that genres and labels are super annoying, only for marketing, for people with tiny minds, or that they don't matter at all. "I write whatever I want," etc. Yes! Write that music! Write music because you have to! But what about performance practice? What about the ballerina who wants to be a successful salsa dancer? Does style/genre/label not matter then? If you're dancing salsa, does it matter to the audience or reviewers that you are accomplished en pointe, or does it only matter whether or not you 'bring it' with your salsa? And if you merge those two and become a salsa-rina, what will be your reference points and measures of success?

And music critics, how do you approach music that draws from multiple traditions, or that falls between genre lines? By what criteria and reference points and values do you measure that music? If you're reviewing a classically-infused album for a rock outlet, do you hold the album to rock or classical standards? Both? Meet halfway? If a rock musician composes a symphony, does it matter that s/he is one of the best rock artists of all time? Or does it only matter whether the symphony holds its own by classical standards? And if a conservatory-trained artist releases a singer-songwriter album, does it matter to you or the audience that that person can achieve great technical heights as a classical musician? Or does it only matter whether the album rocks?

[House rules are in effect. Be opinionated, be sincere, be civil.]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

lyrics: you're a rescue

do you want
some proof above your head
or sand below
whipping wind around instead?

you're a rescue
neck deep in water when i found you
you're a rescue
surrender nothing to get through

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / 

when the scenery came down 
I lost all four walls and ground

when the scenery came down
I lost all four walls and ground

- sk 2009