Tuesday, November 27, 2007

We are not critical listeners.

During Symphonic Band rehearsal today, whilst watching student conductors (attempt to) strut their stuff at the podium, this thought struck me: "we are not critical listeners." Upon further contemplation, I realized that this would be a great topic to explore on this delightful yet oft forgotten blog. Until now, I have only written concert reviews, but as I am in a music school and encounter music from all different angles daily, there's no reason for me to continue to limit myself.

When I say that "we are not critical listeners," I am referring to everyone I encounter on a daily basis: musicians and non-musicians alike. This is something that we all need to take into account if we are truly serious about music.

So, first of all, what do I mean by "critical listening?" To me, critical listening is essential, yet, like this blog, often overlooked. The thought came to me for two reasons. The first reason was that during a close listen to The World/Inferno Friendship Society's "True Story of the Bridgewater Astral League" album, I picked up on things I'd never heard before. Voices, sound effects, instruments, that may as well have not existed before. Of course those sounds have always been there, I just haven't been perceptive enough to accept them into my preconceived aural notion of the music. This tells me, personally, that I haven't been listening critically enough.

The other thing that perpetuated my thoughts on critical listening was that the student conductors of my band could easily conduct, keep a beat, and attempt to get what they wanted from the ensemble, but they couldn't act in real time and adapt their actions to the response they were getting from the musicians. From personal experience, I'd say that this is close to impossible for me to do. I understand that this real-time correction requires great experience, familiarity with the music, and flexibility. But, let me pose this question: When a conductor gets on the podium, is he or she truly listening to and being affected by the sound the musicians produce, or is he or she just accepting what they hear and assuming that it matches the sound in their head?

One final example of when the inferiority of our listening skills is highly evident is when my Aural Skills class takes dictation from the piano. We are handed the information on a silver platter--key signature, time signature, starting pitch and number of measures--yet somehow we all get tongue-tied every time, simply can't follow the pitches and patterns of the piano. If we had been listening critically for our entire lives, this activity would be a cinch.

For musicians as well as music lovers, this lack of critical, and creative listening, can be crippling when it comes to understanding and appreciation. So, how then, can we hone in on our listening skills and fix them?

The easiest and most practical solution is, as teachers and parents, to begin incorporating critical listening from an early age. This is an essential part of the Suzuki method, in which students are constantly exposed to music and then asked simple questions, such as those regarding instruments and dynamics. To get children's minds to think like this from such a young age will incorporate it into their thought process much sooner. I didn't even think about the instrumentation on pop and rock records until I was in high school. Imagine listening to music for 14 years without consciously realizing that yes, there is a bass guitar, yes, there is a drum set keeping that beat steady. At a higher level even, we do close listening to period-exemplifying pieces, paying close attention to sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and growth.

Of course, for most everyone reading this, it is impossible to go back in time and readjust how you were introduced to music. So, I present to you some simple listening exercises that can help you become a more active and critical listener. The first thing that you can do is take a piece of music that you are sure you know inside and out, and listen to it closely, challenging yourself to find something new about it. With each new thing you discover, you'll find that you have deeper understanding of the music. Another way to understand the music more deeply is to pause it mid-song and see if you can continue to sing the prominent line. If it's a piece you know well, you can continue to sing it as you know it, but if it's something that you aren't familiar with, just try to see if you can imagine where the thread of the melody is going. This will give you a better understanding of functional harmony, melody line, and the tonic.

To be quite honest, I just thought up those two exercises on the spot, as I have to be at my next class in just a few minutes, but they are things I am anxious to try myself. I hope this was at least a little bit insightful...happy listening!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

That was Whack

Oftentimes I leave shows with a headache. Maybe someone's amp was way too loud or the singer couldn't carry a tune. Tonight, I drove home with a headache because during Whack's set, the mosh was so sick that my brain literally rattled around in it's cage.

Tonight the WESPAC in White Plains hosted an array of bands, but the stand out act was clearly Ardsely, NY's Whack. Their driving, original instrumentals kept the entire room dancing-not to mention drenched in sweat. The space is small and personal, and boy did we all get up close and personal. Moshing turned to dancing turned to skipping in a circle for no reason at all, and then back to mosh again. What a crowd.

The six-piece group is celebrating the release of their new CD, Angel Hong and the Diner Punks (Tapeworm), and commemorated the release by playing the album in its entirety. The night was full of fun surprises, not limited to: Will McAndrew stagediving off an amp (while wearing a dress), pinatas filled with candy and musical instrument treats, and a moment of calm for Max Gordon's organ interlude. The Wall of Death at the end of the show was definitely a highlight, and I'm glad that Drew Mollo was on my side. I, for one, can say that I have never danced so much in my life. This show reminded me what it is to love and support a thriving local punk scene, and realize that I'm not too old for it yet.

Silly me, I've gotten this far and hardly said a thing about the music. The band boasts a classic line-up (guitar, bass, set, keys) and some less traditional, but indispensable additions, saxophone, accordion, and sometimes xylophone. Every song is a tour-de-force wall of sound, the accordion adding infinite depth to the mix. Their song titles are clever ("I've Got Miles of Davis," "Cosine Me Up") and their sound is unique. I'm actually having a really hard time with this. I don't usually include my inner monologue in my posts but I need to explain what I'm going to do. I'm going to make a list of all of the things that meld together to make this band what it is. Ready? Go. Punk, ethnic influence, minor keys, organ, breakdowns, fun, circuses, coffee & cigarettes, spontaneous combustion, bass amp stage dives, danceability (yes, I made up a word), and pure passion. Tell me guys, do you think I got it right? You'll all have to hear for yourselves.

Angel Hong and the Diner Punks, Whack's full-length, is out now on the wonderful Tapeworm DIY label. Those boys do such a nice job, don't they? Actually as far as I know this is only Tapeworm's second release, the first being Men Who Lunch's Discography (confirm/deny). Please go to their myspace, come out to a show, and keep this wonderful scene going.

Whack's Myspace
Upcoming show schedule:
6/15 - St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church - White Plains, NY
6/23 - SNRF Benefit - Liberty Park - White Plains, NY
8/3 - Wespac - White Plains, NY
8/10 - The Backdoor - Nyack, NY

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wind Ensemble Emotes and Delivers

Tonight's Crane Wind Ensemble concert was nothing short of extraordinary. Although a classically trained clarinetist, I've never found refuge in art music like I have in rock and roll. Tonight has blown that norm out of the water.

The highlight of the night was easily Roshanne Etezady's "Anahita," an explosive, programmatic, three-movement piece. It encapsulated her reactions to a mural that has since been destroyed, but used to adorn the ceiling of a prominent Albany building. Based on mythology, it features vivid images of the "terrifyingly beautiful" goddess Anahita and the horses, or "Night Mares," as they are so aptly titled. The piece was frantic at times, simply explosive at others. The amount of energy in the piece was phenomenal, and it was absolutely humbling to have the composer present. The final movement was so very delicate and serene. It featured four cornet players scattered through Hosmer Hall, representing the last hearkening of angels.

Conductor Brian Doyle was certainly on his toes, especially for his first concert since his emergency room trip. The amount of passion and effort he puts into the ensembles he works with is nothing short of admirable. It is refreshing to see a conductor and teacher who cares so much about the quality of the group's performance as a whole as well as the needs of his students.

The other new piece, "Interior," by Kristin Kuster (also present at the performance), was less accessible as far as expressionist art music of the 21st century is concerned, but when paired with the composer's notes, could begin to paint pictures in one's mind, of the very unique things that happen within the walled confines of where we live and work. The piece tackled human interaction and emotion very well.

The ensemble as a whole had a way of blending--passing solos from one woodwind to another--that is hard to come by. The horn section ripped out some heart wrenching chords. The two tuba players and string bass held the entire ensemble up on their shoulders. The percussion section, as always, held the group together with its intensity and determination.

Everything about tonight's performance--the refreshing 21st century pieces blended with more traditional literature, the intensity and extreme focus of the performers, the conductor's passion, and how it all came together--absolutely blew me away. Bravo.

Monday, April 09, 2007

In case you missed the joy

Or you want to watch it again.

Bruce Springsteen and Friends performing "Rosalita"

Sunday, April 08, 2007

My First Inferno Show

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to writing about seeing The World/Inferno Friendship Society. They played at Fastlane (next door to Asbury Lanes) in Asbury Park, NJ on March 25. Since then, I’ve just been letting it sink it. Seeing this band live was a long time coming, but absolutely worth it.

Pre-show consisted of waiting outside with a ton of kids and I just stood and absorbed. People from all walks of life: self proclaimed “punks” with piercings and back patches, men in full suits with ladies in dresses, kids wrapped two to a sweatshirt to battle the wicked shore winds, hats and hairstyles.

The venue itself was perfect for this show. It was big. All of the Infernites could mill about and socialize at the back half of the room. Everyone knew each other. I had no idea that the scene was this close-knit until I got to this show. I spent most of the time that the opening bands played meeting people and socializing with people who I’d just met. We went up front to hear The Ergs! The Ergs! are an incredibly tight punk rock trio out of New Brunswick, NJ. The last time I heard them was two summers ago, so it was overdue. The Ratchets and Hunchback also played. Hunchback had an interesting stage show, and I situated myself for Inferno. After a lot of um…drama…played out, the full band finally came out.

From the first bass drum kicks of “Tattoos Fade” I was transported. The band was absolutely enthralling. They have enough stage presence to knock all of Broadway off its feet. Jack sang right to the crowd. The crowd knew every single word. It was amazing to watch Jack, Sandra (their absolutely stunning bassist) and the saxophone section from the very front. It was interesting to see Franz’s intensity playing the accordion and keys; he was so into the show, never missed a beat (does he ever?) and had a whole new level of electricity to him than when I saw him with The Steady (not to downplay what a terrific performance that was as well). “Tattoos” is played at every show, but it felt special to know that it was my first time hearing it live. Semra, Jack, and the drummer (who’s the drummer now?) all playing made it triply intense. The set was a great mix of songs from Just the Best Party (my first Inferno album), Red-Eyed Soul (brilliant), and the Peter Lorre song cycle. I didn’t know the Lorre songs at all and didn’t hear the demos and bootlegs until after the show. “Fiend in Wein” was definitely phenomenal to hear live. “Heart Attack Waltz” was incredible as well. I wish I’d had the guts to dance with someone…well, there’s always next time. “Only Anarchists are Pretty” was a terrific encore. And if there's any song I love that they didn't play that night (mostly "Your Younger Man"), I rest assured in the fact that I'll hear it sooner or later.

After the show my eyes must have been bugging out of my head. The band blew me away. It was great to see all of the ladies and gents of Inferno come out and mingle with the fans. I finally got to meet Franz formally, and we had a chat about his groups, and some upcoming shows, as well as his Moondog piece that has clarinet (that I want to play sometime). Rich and I jetted after that, as he had classes the next day. I did hear that a bunch of kids took a dip in the ocean afterwards.

Possibly the best thing to come out of all of this was the great people I met, and the warm welcome I received from the scene. In hanging out around the Inferno board for the past week or so, it’s been nice to interact with these people who I’ll hopefully be seeing again soon. The Inferno bug did bite for a few days when I lost sleep over researching the Bridgewater Astral League and The Master and Margarita. Thankfully that died down a little, but here’s to more fun in the future.

The World/Inferno Friendship Society's latest full length, Red-Eyed Soul on Chunkasaah Records is available at a record store near you. Don't be a bum, go pick it up and support the cause.

World Inferno's Official Website
Inferno Myspace
Pictures taken by Brainy

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lost in Fog and Love and Faithless Fear

Last night, The Hold Steady burned a hole in the stage with their ROCK at Syracuse University. From the opening ("Stuck Between Stations") to the phenomenal encore ("Citrus," "Killer Parties"), the entire room was electrified. Craig Finn-sporting a new beard-twitched, spazzed, spit, shouted, and testified his lyrics to the sold out room. Franz Nicolay, my true hero, dressed in a vintage tux and combat boots, had just as much character, shouting and dancing around-doing jumping jacks, even-while playing everything note and cue without missing a beat. The band was extremely personable, making eye contact with all of us often and going as far as blowing kisses (at Meredith) and throwing dollar bills ("I don't really need these..."). There's chemistry between the Hold Steady and their audience that is unmatchable. Despite the tomfoolery of the security staff before and after the show, it was a truly explosive experience from beginning to end.

"Rock and Roll means well, but it can’t help tellin’ young boys lies." Craig Finn's lyrics don't do anything but capture this vivid, exciting, and sometimes crushing teenage/twentysomething life. Sounds pretty true to me.

On Wednesday, the Hold Steady released the music video for their next single, "Stuck Between Stations." They also announced the limited release of a live, acoustic EP on April 17th on Vagrant Records. The recording is from an in-store appearance at L.A.'s Fingerprints record store. The EP will only be carried by independent distributors listed here. I've embedded the new video below. Enjoy!


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