Other Music playlist, 1-29-12

Last Other Music show for January already? Time is flying...

This Sunday, I played:

National Anthem (Radiohead cover) - Vernon Reid - Other True Self
Chorume da Alma - Pig Soul - Chorume da Alma
Tziidall Raszhisst - Koenjihyakkei - Angherr Shisspa
Lovely It May Seem - Make A Rising - Rip Through the Hawk Black Night
When the World Comes to an End - Dirty Projectors and Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca
Tendon - Igorrr - Nostril
Sleep is Wrong - Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Grand Opening and Closing


Philip Gayle - Babanço Total

If I were grading recent submissions on a curve for weirdness, Philip Gayle's "Babanço Total" would set the top of my curve. This is a record that immediately demanded my attention and cut its way to the front of a long review queue with its uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable soundworld, gently described as a "one-time exploration of the voice and body soundscape" in its press release.

The first track, "sleep rain," got me thinking that I was listening to an album of layered avant-garde vocals, in the spirit of albums like Mike Patton's "Adult Themes for Voice" or Maja Ratkje's "Voice," or Jaap Blonk's work. Overall, that is indeed a good starting point for "Babanço Total," and I suspect that if you like those records, you'll want to track down a copy of this album. Most tracks are built of many, many layers of overdubbed voices producing an impressive variety of textures and rhythms. But by the third track, "esa peko peko pah," I was considering how "body soundscape" presumably refers to sounds originating from more than voices, which is articulated slightly more explicitly in the album's subtitle on the back cover: "Improvised bodily functions, etc."

Gentler readers, how to say it?--you might hear some eructation, emesis, lower-body peristaltic themes and variations. I don't want to make too much of it, as "sounds from the bathroom" are a small percentage of the overall recording, but there are 3 or 4 tracks on which burp-ish, fart-ish, or puke-ish sounds may come to your attention. If you're inclined to be irritated or upset by that sort of thing, there's your fair warning. I can deal with it in the context of this music, though I must admit that my less mature side is quite amused by a mental image of this album being partially recorded at SugarHill Studios in Houston, the self-proclaimed "Abbey Road of the South." I'll bet these were surprising sessions for the engineers there!

Philip Gayle's previous solo efforts have concentrated on layers of mostly stringed instruments overdubbed in what amounts to a kind of free-improv solitaire, focusing on textural and timbral aspects of sound design. I went back to his 2005 "The Mommy Row" album in search of context for "Babanço Total." It's a great record that alternates between sections of long-tone, mostly bowed drones punctuated with Asian-sounding percussion, and fast skittering acoustic strings playing lines that remind me of early Eugene Chadbourne. Some tracks like "Cow People" use a lot of liquid pouring/bubbling sounds that form a great timbral bridge between the two records. Both records are dense with overdubs, which remain fairly independent from one another rhythmically, proving that free improvisation can happen via overdubs instead of ensembles.

That's not to say this music is created quickly or carelessly: in the case of "Babanço Total," recording started in 2000 and wasn't completed until 2008. The tracks flow freely within themselves, but there is a clear sense of prior deliberation toward framing out the boundaries and approaches unique to each piece. And postproduction plays a role in many pieces, like the tremolo-like rhythmic voice clusters undulating beneath most of "feral basil pesto," with quick fade-up articulations before each iteration, or sped-up speech patterns comprising much of "falling off brain like i told myselves," which pleasantly remind me of Renaldo & the Loaf. Even the potentially juvenile burping sounds tend to be used in unexpectedly "mature" ways, like those in "naked brunch" that essentially become long drones oscillating beneath scrapes, breaths, and almost horn-like quick sounds whose origin I can't quite identify. "agnes unknown" uses long belchy sounds, too, but they're more foreground than background on that track. Especially effective for me was the album's closer, "pajama turtles," which features long quasi-microtonal chorale overdubs on shifting vowel sounds, all supporting a frenetic sped-up sounding solo munchkin freakout.  I really liked "feral basil pesto," too, which for me evokes some kind of Muppets-meet-zombies aural opera.

The packaging for this disc deserves a mention, too: Houston artist and musician John Cramer's work is featured in color on the front cover, and four more panels of his drawings are found inside. All depict creatures made of heads fused together in various ways, an eerily perfect visual analogue to the music found inside.

As mentioned earlier, this record is a one-time exploration for Gayle, whose plans for the immediate future are focusing on a guitar-based record. He also plays guitar and mandolin for more conventional acts, including a recent tour on guitar with singer/songwriter Ember Schrag. But he certainly brings a set of interesting ideas to the table with "Babanço Total," and considering how few weirdovocal albums are released, let's hope he returns to the form as time and inspiration allow.

--first published at Killed in Cars


Words On Sounds, home edition

This blog functions primarily as a place for music and book reviews, and essays on music, art, books, and our society. On occasion, though, a "housekeeping" update makes sense, especially when it relates to music and the stuff in the essays.

On reviews: I've been getting a few submissions directly to me through this blog, and Paul from Killed in Cars is keeping me quite busy with submissions from his direction. Because I try to write relatively detailed reviews, they can be time consuming--I listen to the album being reviewed dozens of times, research the career path(s) of the artist(s), listen to relevant related albums for context and comparison, and generally immerse myself in the music, sometimes even contacting the artist(s) for clarification. I may be doing it as a labor of love, but I take it very seriously. As a musician myself, I know how gratifying it is when reviewers "get it"--and how irritating it is when they miss the mark without even trying very hard. I may not always make that magical mark, but it won't be for lack of effort.

So do keep submissions coming, but bear with me as I catch up on a fairly impressive backlog:

My own musical efforts: As noted in a previous Technology and Humanity post, I'm slowly recovering from a personal creative valley in my life. I'm letting things happen organically, so it's taking some time, but I'm coming out of my funk slowly but surely. I've taken my own advice in simplifying things to avoid the Paradox of Choice by selling off what I decided were unnecessary guitars and effects and the like. As part of that critical thinking exercise, I took a very detailed look at what specific needs I have for guitars I'll actually be excited to play regularly, and I've decided to focus my efforts on playing only 2 particular guitars for the foreseeable future (quite a feat for a fellow that's used to keeping around 10 guitars ready to play). They're guitars with more of a shredder pedigree than a lot of avant-art folks would be "proud" to play, but in being honest with myself, I find them comfortable and flexible to be used in the wide variety of approaches I use (which do include some technically challenging stuff on occasion). They're both S-series Ibanez guitars, a 6-string and a 7-string, with very thin necks (which I further sand and refinish with a light tung oil), and the relatively new ZR tremolo design with a ball bearing pivot instead of the knife edges of the old Floyd days that wear out. It also has countersprings to maintain tuning stability through unison bends and string breaks, stuff that didn't exist 12-ish years ago, which was the last time I was actively buying new guitars. They're very elegant instruments that I've started practicing on with a goal of getting so comfortable with them that they simply "disappear," and I can make music without having to think about switching guitars for different approaches or sounds. Baby pictures, for those who like looking at guitar pRon:

It's been a long-term goal of mine to put music of my own on this blog, linked for free download. That's still my intention, but of course I wasn't producing anything to download during my musical hiatus. For the immediate future, I'm finishing a couple of projects that have been sitting around, and whatever I finish of my own will appear as a free download available here. Relating to some of my thoughts about music production and analog versus digital issues that I've mentioned here recently, I'm considering what I might do toward making a small batch of recordings available on vinyl. Maybe I'll just pay for very small runs of 50-100, or perhaps I'll look into Kickstarter campaigns or something like that. It's premature to get too involved with those concerns, but if you're a person who'd like to spin some vinyl someday, I'd appreciate the feedback. While I'm getting new things completed, I'll be posting a set of Shinyville demos and a project called Dr. Squarewave that was finished for release a few years ago but ultimately remains huddled on my hard drive. Look for those soon.

Large books update: I wish I could say that I've had great success diving into all of those Giant Books mentioned a year ago, but it's been slow going. I've read a ton of stuff in that time, but only one Giant Book has made the cut so far: JR by William Gaddis, instead of his Recognitions that was included in my list. And I haven't even finished JR yet, though I LOVE what I've read so far. It really is difficult to integrate the reading of huge tomes into life, at least for me. But I still want to do it, maybe even need to do it on some level. I've got to figure that out.

Lefty's is awesome: one thing that hasn't changed for me is the strong desire to listen to massive amounts of music, new and old, every chance I get. Doing music reviews has been a fun way to turn that listening time into an even more interesting exercise. Sadly, over the last few years, all of the "legit" record stores in my area have closed, at least if you're looking for new releases. When even my favorite used vinyl store in town shut its doors last winter, I got pretty bummed out. But things have vastly improved since late summer/early fall when Lefty's Records opened up. It's a small store, but the selection (mostly vinyl) is seriously better than I've found even during visits to big cities. I've found things there that one simply never sees in Midwestern record stores: Zorn, late-era Zappa, Snakefinger, Gong, Material, Henry Cow, and more. Record stores are places that really help me feel like I'm living in a place that appreciates "culture," for whatever that's worth, and Lefty's has made me feel like the cultural value of Lincoln has actually gone up since August! Cheers for good record stores.


Ergo Phizmiz - Things To Do and Make

Perhaps the Ergo Phizmiz phenomenon is better known in England/Europe, but I hadn't heard of him until a promo copy of "Things To Do and Make" landed at KiC headquarters. A quick online search reveals the rich career of Mr. Phizmiz over the last decade, who looks to be a well-admired fellow working as a multimedia composer, artist, and sound art archivist. If you're interested in exploring his work, he releases a substantial portion of his output directly to Archive.org and Free Music Archive, where just a few clicks will yield many hours of Phizmizian glory.

While most of his previous work focuses on plunderphonics, collage, and bizarre cover arrangements, "Things To Do and Make" is what he considers his first recorded foray into pop music. It's an incredibly catchy album that I've found myself playing many times over. In its way, though, its brand of "pop" belongs to your eccentric great uncle. Ergo's "pop" manifests through deep influences from vaudeville music and late-era Tin Pan Alley arrangements, while his lyrics and even his accent deliver the project with a whimsical attitude redolent of the Canterbury scene of the late 60s. Phizmiz also reveals himself to be a capable multi-instrumentalist, using a wide range of acoustic instruments with confidence (and occasional electronic supplementation from drum machines/synths/samplers). Many string and keyboard instruments are featured, and I also hear a lot of wind instruments, from clarinets to low brass to tinwhistles and slide whistles. While a lot of songs are very short--half of the album's tracks are around 3 minutes or less--many of the longer compositions feature well-played instrumental passages.

Ergo is a great vocalist, too, and he's filled many of these arrangements with layers of satisfying overdubbed vocals. Vocal melodies generally move quickly, creating rich layers of bizarre vaudevillian rhymes. The straight mid to uptempo rhythms found through most of the album sustain the carnival atmosphere, but harmonically, Phizmiz stretches out with experimentation closer to the Canterbury vibe: half step motion like that of the verse endings in "Busby Berkley," or the meandering faux-Baroque falsetto lines of "The Dapper Transvestite," wouldn't have been common in the early 20th C. pop this music expands upon. Some songs seem to come from more of a 50s or 60s rock & roll approach, like "Dirty Shower Honk Stomp" and "Late," but my favorites point toward older influences. Homemade instruments and junk percussion frequently appear, punctuating a lot of arrangements with toy squeaks, jaw harps, and slippery low-tuned plucked strings.

One doesn't hear many people this far North of Syd Barrett continuing to expand on the potential of vaudeville songwriting, but Phizmiz has proved to me with this record that there indeed remain "things to do and make." And I'd highly suggest exploring Phizmiz's many online recordings, as they're clever and beautifully conceived on their own, while also contributing to a rich overarching career quest toward music that can be both touching and fun. Related to his pop music efforts, one can find similarly chimerical instrumentals in excerpts from his music for operas and plays, and amusing "utility music" applications of his pop music made to solve problems like repairing or comforting household appliances, or musically addressing irritating neighbors. The next Phizmiz pop release looks to be titled "Look, Do and Listen," which seems to have been released last year. I don't see any ordering information for it online, but if anyone knows of a way to locate this record, feel free to mention it in the comments--I'd love to give it a workout on my turntable.

--first published at Killed in Cars

Edit: per Care in the Community Recordings, the followup to "Things To Do and Make" will be released around the summer of 2012, and the title is now simply "Eleven Songs." Looking forward to it!


Some of my favorite records of 2011

While I'm making lists, I want to make sure to post a list of some of my favorite records of 2011. These aren't in any particular order, but they're all releases that I know I'll be listening to a lot more in coming years. So without any further ado:

Capillary Action - Capsized
Skeletons - People
Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Dead Kenny Gs - Operation Long Leash
Garage a Trois - Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil
Extra Life - Ripped Heart
Inzinzac - Inzinzac
The Show is the Rainbow - Tickled Pink
Jeremiah Cymerman - Fire Sign
Travis Laplante - Heart Protector
Cock E.S.P. - Historia De La Musica Cock
Kayo Dot - Stained Glass
Tartar Lamb - Polyimage of Known Exits
maudlin of the Well - Part the Second (jeez, Toby Driver--crazy good year for you!)
Giant Claw - Midnight Murder
Beach Boys - Smile
Pet Bottle Ningen - Pet Bottle Ningen
Son Lux - We Are Rising
Dixie's Death Pool - The Man With Flowering Hands
Alicia Hansen - Fractography
Lakookala - Songs For ZeMean
Les Rhinoceros - Les Rhinoceros
Nat Baldwin - People Changes
TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light
YACHT - Shangri-La
yMusic - Beautiful Mechanical
ZA! - Megaflow
Bjork - Biophilia
Pak - Secret Curve
Ruins Alone - s/t
John Zorn - Nova Express
Psyche Bugyo - Psychedelic Judgeman Comes, He Has the Cherry Blossom on the Shoulder
Man Man - Life Fantastic
Magic ID - I'm So Awake/Sleepless I Feel
Kronos Quartet - Uniko
Frank Zappa - Feeding the Monkeys at Ma Maison
David Lynch - Crazy Clown Time
Gary Numan - Dead Son Rising
Ohgr - Undeveloped
Atari Teenage Riot - Is This Hyperreal?
Jane's Addiction - Great Escape Artist
Mori/Parker/Laswell/Nauseef - Near Nadir
Praxis - Profanation

I know I'm forgetting some worthy releases, but that's a solid year of good music to keep in mind.

Some Other Music playlists

Hopefully I'll get weekly playlists back on track as weekly updates--they make for long posts if I get behind, but the holidays have kept me away from the blog. I like to post these so that artists can see when they're getting a little airplay, and so that my faithful readers can get a taste of what they might hear when they tune into the Other Music show, every Sunday from 10-midnight Central Time. In case you haven't seen the info before, you can hear the show on 89.3 in Lincoln, NE, or you can stream it anywhere in the world via http://www.kzum.org. You can also "like" our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/OtherMusicOnKZUM and get occasional updates about the show--sometimes we have interviews or in-studio performances in addition to playing music from the Beautiful to the Bizarre. Anyway, here's what I played for the last month:

12-25-11 Christmas show!
Tennessee Ernie Ford - Children Go Where I Send Thee - Christmas
Squirrel Nut Zippers - Winter Weather - Christmas Caravan
Richard Schultz and the Miracle Men - I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas - Homeless for the Holidays
Bert & Ernie: Christmas - audio from Sesame Street's "Christmas Even On Sesame Street" special
John Lennon - Happy Christmas (War is Over) - John Lennon Collection
Ren & Stimpy - We Wish You a Hairy Chestwig - Crock 'O Christmas
John Zorn - The Christmas Song - Dreamers Christmas
Fear - F*** Christmas - F*** Christmas EP
Flaming Lips - White Christmas (Demo for Tom Waits) - It's a Cool, Cool Christmas
Tom Jones - Holiday - Mr. Jones
The Island of Misfit Toys - Rudolph soundtrack
Austrian Death Machine - Jingle Bells - A Very Brutal Christmas

Other Music 1-1-12 show (some tracks from favorite 2011 albums)
Capillary Action - Methheads and Mormons - Capsized
Colin Stetson - Fear of the Unknown - New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges
Dead Kenny Gs - Melvin Jones - Operation Long Leash
Extra Life - Elegy (Cartoon Piano) - Ripped Heart
Inzinzac - 71 - Inzinzac
Pet Bottle Ningen - Cherry Blossom Scandal 34 - Pet Bottle Ningen
Son Lux - Rising - We Are Rising
Dixie's Death Pool - A Return to Science Fiction - The Man With Flowering Hands
Alicia Hansen - Under Hypnosis - Fractography

Other Music 1-8-12 show
Ettrick - Sky-Bellower - Feeders of Ravens
Gestalt Et Jive - Successful Gardening Begins Here - Nouvelle Cuisine
Kevin Kastning - Utazas - Triptych
Zao - La Soupe - Z=7L
Karlheinz Stockhausen - Brucke Nach Aries - Sirius
Nat Baldwin - Weights - People Changes
Mary Halvorson - Mile High Like (No. 16) - Saturn Sings

Other Music 1-15-12 show
Mono/Poly - Punch the Troll in the Neck - Manifestations
Lakookala - Without You - Songs for ZeMean
Les Rhinoceros - Choo Choo! (4 on the Door) - Les Rhinoceros
TV On The Radio - No Future Shock - Nine Types of Light
yMusic - A Paper, A Pen, A Note to a Friend - Beautiful Mechanical
Za - Bomboklat #2 - Megaflow
Bjork - Mutual Core - Biophilia
Frank Zappa - I Wish Motorhead Would Come Back - Civilization Phaze III
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Two Against One - Rome
John Schneider - Scenes from Nek Chand: III. The Sinuous Arcade With Swings and Arches - Just Guitars
Les I - A.B.C.T. - Dans L'Hemisphere Nord
Songs for Tony - Movement 1 - Michael Nyman - Philip Glass & Michael Nyman, Works for Saxophone Quartet
Yochk'o Seffer - Ofek - Neffesh Music

Other Music show, 1-22-12
Jeremiah Cymerman - Touched With Fire - Fire Sign
Michael Nyman - The Kiss - The Kiss and Other Movements
Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica - Replica
Benjamin Stapp - Negative Space - Ecstasis


Technology and Humanity: making healthy music

New Music and popularity: is it the mastering?
A former classmate of mine, who is now a (very good) composer, performer, and educator, recently posed this question on a social media site: “Why does classical music insist on using an antiquated poor recording process?” He went on to explain that he was annoyed by the wide dynamic range used in classical recordings because it makes for long passages of very quiet audio playback with only occasional louder sections. This makes listening to classical music difficult in less-than-optimal situations, like during long car commutes, for example. 

In contrast, pop recordings have been mastered at ever-hotter levels in recent years, and also compressed (some call it “hypercompressed”) to make the volume difference between loud and soft passages negligible. This difference in how the music “pops” in a car or on the radio, my friend observes, might be one factor contributing to small audiences for classical music, simply because the recordings are produced to be effective in listening environments most folks simply don’t have any more like "hi-fi" rooms dedicated to careful listening.

Much has been written in the last decade about the “Loudness Wars,” happening both at mastering houses and again at radio stations, but this was the first time I’ve heard anyone have a distinctly positive attitude toward heavy compression of recordings. Personally, I have been irritated by too-loud recordings that sound harsh and brittle, rather than letting the music breathe with actual dynamics. While I still listen to a lot of music, I have found myself experiencing the “ear fatigue” often mentioned in connection with Loudness Wars.

It’s true that classical albums with a huge uncompressed dynamic range don’t fit nicely into the routines of those who might listen to music on a long car commute. It would be interesting to see data on how many people listen to music on long(ish) commutes to work or school by car. I’m sure the numbers are higher in sprawling car-centric places like Los Angeles and Denver, but I suspect that the numbers would be much less significant in big cities with better mass transit like NYC and Chicago (and the dynamic range issue doesn’t seem as pronounced for ear bud listening on trains), or in places with smaller populations and short commutes.

Perhaps “radio mixes” could be made available for those who might prefer them for practical reasons. It couldn’t hurt to give the idea a try. But the “traditional” mixes should remain available, too, for reasons I’ll go into below—and I don’t think dynamic range is a primary reason behind New Music’s lack of popular acceptance.

The resurgence of vinyl
The effects of ear fatigue in my own music listening routines have led me to a much-renewed interest in vinyl. I used to buy vinyl when it was the only available format, or when the used price was too good to resist, but in the last several years I’ve been buying new music on vinyl whenever it’s available. I have discovered that I can listen to records more deeply and for much longer stretches than I can handle with new CDs or mp3s. I notice myself becoming distracted or even irritated with digital formats. I think that was probably happening for a long time, but I couldn’t articulate precisely what was bothering me until I started finding articles about the Loudness Wars and ear fatigue. The contrast between formats seems to have increased in recent years, and indeed CD mastering has been pushed to the limit over roughly the same span of time.

Consider the seeming resurgence of vinyl: “the kids” who are downloading mp3s aren’t buying CDs anymore—but they are buying some vinyl. It’s a small market, to be fair, but it’s also a growing one. Many indie/weirdo bands have reached a point where records are more desirable than CDs on merch tables. And one of the biggest differences between CD and vinyl is a reduced dynamic maximum in analog media—that is, records are “quieter” than CDs. In spite of physical playback limitations to volume, vinyl mixing/mastering jobs tend to take fuller advantage of the available dynamic range, certainly in comparison to the brickwall radio pop mixes we’re getting lately.

Some have been cynical about the uptick in vinyl sales, dismissing the purchases as consumer totems of hipsterdom, but many vinyl junkies describe the sound of records as being better than CDs. I’ve grown to agree. In spite of pops and crackles on older/used records, I’m finding that vinyl almost always sounds better to me. More precisely, it feels better in a way that is difficult to quantify but is easily experienced when you’re immersed in the sound. What vinyl lacks in terms of added self-noise, possible clicks and crackles, narrower stereo field, or decreased dynamic and frequency ranges, it somehow compensates for with that ever-elusive concept of “warmth,” often described in comparison to digital playback as more “natural.” 

I notice this difference less on older, quieter, or less compressed CD releases, but once you’ve focused on the distinction, there is almost always a little more of that “warmth” on vinyl. I don’t think of myself as either a hipster or a retrogrouch, but I do think I’m experiencing something that amounts to more than just an aesthetic difference—there is a subtle difference in mood. While I see validity in the possible utilitarian need for more compressed mixes, this phenomenon points to an issue of health/wellness that forces me to lean hard in the other direction where my own listening needs are concerned.

I'd already been thinking about the idea of music and health/wellness from another perspective--tuning and temperament. I'm not sure precisely what got me wondering about tuning systems lately, but I've been reading a lot about the history of tuning and temperament and seeking out recordings made outside of the equal-temperament tradition. A quick definition of "equal temperament," for readers who aren't familiar with the notion: the octave is divided into 12 equal intervals, allowing for easy transposition and modulation on instruments like the piano and the guitar.

I remember briefly touching on systems other than equal temperament (ET) in music school, but it was more for the sake of trivia. As compositional practices in the West leaned increasingly on modulation, the ET compromise was the only practical solution, making everything sound the same in all keys. But at what cost? I wonder how much communicative potency we lose in our music when pure intervals are compromised, or even if modulating heterophonic musical approaches communicate with less depth than more centered tonal approaches. I want to write music that is effective, communicates clearly, and is "healthy," for whatever that's worth. To that end, I think it's worth taking a serious look at alternative tuning and intervallic systems.

The talk around alternatives to equal temperament gets quasi-mystical at times. It's all vibrations. Frequencies are made of standing vibrations, art is essentially using a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to (hopefully) communicate or "resonate in consonance" with others...but it's impossible to dismiss biological components to hearing and our responses to auditory information. Music is indeed made of powerful frequencies that become even more powerful in harmony, and the vibrations from music and other sound stimuli do effect skin, bone, and body resonance. Perhaps these subtler contributions to hearing are themselves sensitive to particular shifts in tuning/temperament, or the difference in waveforms (analog) and close approximations (digital). And maybe the subtle differences become more substantial in combination--for example, is the difference more obvious when comparing a raga record to a hypercompressed pop CD?

I've long been attracted to contrapuntal music. In counterpoint, one is focused primarily on horizontal listening (melodic phrases and their interactions), rather than vertical implications (stacks of chords supporting one melody at a time). While counterpoint doesn't solve the problems of tuning and temperament, it does take a lot of the emphasis away from vertical sonorities. And in musical moments where phrases stop and focus on a given chord, wide vibrato can serve as a way to both impart emotion and to blur "true" pitch, letting listeners' minds do the tuning. 

In my own writing, focusing on melodic lines intersecting instead of writing "chords & a melody" heterophonic musical textures, and frequently ending phrases with wicked vibrato, seems to have protected me from the most acute intervallic problems introduced in equal temperament. But I would like to incorporate "pure" thirds and fifths into my music whenever I can, and I'm also interested in exploring the changes in different key centers' "moods" in other systems like just intonation and well temperament. Because there were small intervallic differences between key centers in non-equal temperament, we see historical descriptions of particular keys having different "moods." The effect is a variation on the basic major/minor duality and the subtler emotional/communicative distinctions introduced by the modes of major/minor scales. I'm excited to have more potential forms of compositional nuance available, so the idea of keys-with-moods is appealing.

Cultural values and music
These tuning/temperament issues were incredibly important in ancient China. The Chinese shared an underlying philosophy that musical forms--and their tuning--could represent the relative health of society, or even contribute in some way to social decline by falling "out of tune." To the extent that music written in equal temperament wouldn't meet their requirements for real consonance, let's look at the value placed on music in our society as viewed through the times and places in which it is performed.

When wondering about the lack of popular appeal for New Music, there is always an elephant in the room that must be acknowledged: with few exceptions, this kind of music has never had popular appeal. Performances of New Music, or "art music" as it's sometimes called in delineation from music that appeals to more commonly-shared aesthetics, was mostly heckled when presented to concert audiences in the early 20th Century. It continued to evolve in small salon performance formats, mostly sharing the music between people who made it and wealthy patrons supporting it for cultural cache. Larger concert audiences have never taken much of this music to heart, and it continues to evolve mostly within the protective walls of academia. Performance environments of salons and universities meant that New Music never had to succeed in terms of popularity.

I share the desire to bring this music "to the people." I believe it has much to communicate and express to non-academics and non-musicians. And it's worth exploring every possible method to help that mission succeed. However, I think that success will be more likely if the effort is based on a realistic understanding of this music's (non) relationship with the general public. An honest analysis of the situation must acknowledge long stretches of anti-public, anti-popular activity by the ranks of the avant-garde, New Music, academia, etc. Fortunately, many friendly and open communication-based vehicles for bringing this music to wider audiences are already at work: ensembles playing in non-traditional venues, group performances/improvisations that invite audience members to collaborate, and the act of teaching itself, staying in contact with upcoming generations of musicians.

Public Performance
Club gigs almost always start late in the evening and end in the middle of the night, later than most folks can justify being out if they take their jobs seriously. The establishments hosting these shows mostly rely on alcohol sales as their primary revenue stream. The economic context of shows-at-bars points to some form of musical devaluation in the sense that audiences at these shows must have as much or more interest in intoxication and potential hookups as they do music. Consider also the deafening room volumes at most club gigs, largely necessitated by the many conversations happening throughout the audience. The result is a sensory overload experience in which subtler musical detail is lost.

The low cover charge at the door has generally stayed $10 or less for decades at most clubs, explicitly placing a pretty low value on the music. Bands playing small and midlevel clubs have long been lucky to merely break even on tours with tiny $50-$200 payouts after many gigs. Now that albums themselves are ubiquitously available free online, even merch sales are tumbling, save for vinyl enthusiasts and t-shirt sales. At least you can't download shirts.

More famous bands and commercially successful jazz and classical artists still play swankier venues with earlier start and end times and much higher ticket prices. The continued success of these musicians and venues, mostly still solvent even in our current economic troubles, is a positive sign that at least some forms of music continue to enjoy a stature of social value. And outside of performances, the massive popularity of illegal downloading in the last decade, and the growing popularity of streaming catalog sites like Spotify, last.fm, and Rhapsody, show that people still love to hear lots of music if the price is low or free. But the ticket prices for big shows have increased very, very rapidly--returning to the ancient Chinese perspective, it could be argued that the decline of the middle class in our country is mirrored in musical performances, as music is made by and for the extremes of the wealthy and the working poor, with less and less content in the middle.

Insights from art movements
Early 20th. Century art movements, particularly Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism, generally started among enclaves of "outsider" intellectuals, and as they declined as organizations, many of their techniques and ideals were preserved among academic art traditions. But there was a period where those art movements worked very hard to attain prosperity and stability within their societies. They weren't simply making weirdo art to exchange among one another; they were socially and politically engaged, doing their best to support the working class, especially in the case of the Surrealists. Their best work is rich in collective human experience and largely in opposition to bourgeoisie ideals of their day, which they were already observing as contributing to a certain hazy disconnection that ultimately matured into the postmodern detachment of television culture: lowest common denominator stuff, but with a self-referential and self-congratulatory laziness instead of consonance with basic archetypal building blocks that communicate more substantial collective values.

I first saw the communicative potential in avant-garde forms of creativity while reading "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" in middle school. Wolfe's descriptions of the Pranksters' colorful clothing, exuberant style, and willingness to talk to anyone struck my young mind as a beautiful and effective way to show the public new forms of art while nurturing collaboration and community values. In retrospect, the mood of change present in the culture-at-large gave them certain advantages of time and place, but their activities still reveal valuable ideas for artists who want to share their work beyond cultural boundaries, real or perceived: make it fun! It can be easy to lean toward negativity and observe that our culture has largely grown apathetic, lazy, and not particularly thoughtful, consumed by consumption itself. One artist or a group of artists won't change that course alone, but we can all make meaningful strides. Through our actions and our art, we can show that learning, thinking, and feeling can be fun and rewarding--that a well-considered life is an enjoyable one. We can take care of ourselves and each other, sharing our values and aesthetics at the community level, and in doing so we will empower and inspire.

Living thoughtfully
So I don't have all of this stuff worked out. I think all of these issues are interrelated, or at least they are in my work and life, and after wrestling with most of them for what's staring to add up to decades, I'm not waiting for a singular epiphany to part the waters. Reconciliation of the whole is a long process that continues to unfold as I grow and experience more. For me, the core value is living thoughtfully, participating in an open-ended process in which you first strive to understand yourself, and from an individual position of health and stability you can communicate more effectively with others and nurture your community. 

Of course there are many ways to live thoughtfully and assess yourself, many combinations of personal growth and getting ideas and strength from those close to you. Some choose to describe the process in spiritual terms, and that can be helpful. For its simplicity and directness regardless of spiritual/religious leanings, I'd recommend "Tracking the Gods" by James Hollis as a resource for organizing self-growth plans (and thanks to Brian Alt for introducing the book for a book discussion group several years ago). It's a short book drawn from Jungian principles--simply put, it lays out the concept of archetype as a way to identify issues of growth and renewal common among individuals of cultures throughout history. You can establish what amounts to a "personal mythology" built on cultural and individual values that resonate with you, from which you can draw strength and purpose while knowing you're on a journey which will continue to evolve and amaze you through the years. What I especially like about the concept is how it lends itself nicely to the creation of common ground at the community level. You can apply it to particular spiritual/religious practices if you choose, or you can look at it as secular common ground--the value to the human condition, individually and collectively, is preserved either way.

As I try to comprehend the connections between these issues of music, art, culture, and community, I'm trying to listen to my body while also addressing the more intellectual implications. I often struggle to achieve a balance between the cerebral and the visceral in my own life, but the effort is more than worth it. I want to enjoy music that is healthy for mind and body, encourage others to experience it, and make it myself. Looking back, I think that a lot of my musical efforts over the past decade focused on social critique, highlighting the negative aspects of control systems, addiction, consumer culture, fanaticism, etc. Rather than continuing in that direction, I intend to make music that can be part of a steady diet of healing, growing, and togetherness. This is only one aspect of living thoughtfully, which in my case has led me toward choices like bicycle transportation, eating healthier with a focus on local, organic foods, and avoiding most television/cinematic products as forms of entertainment. I think it's important that artists try to participate in thoughtful living in their lives and work, toward individual and societal health. When our new creations resonate with people, new lines of communication open, and creative acts move us all forward.

To 2012!

I'd love to see this post turn into a discussion--please feel empowered, even obligated, to add your thoughts in the comments. Anonymous comments are fine. Sometimes the anonymous ones get pulled into the spam filter, so don't be alarmed if yours doesn't show up right away. I'll look for those and move 'em over as needed.