What I’ve been listening to lately

1) Cake, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”–old school, but still awesome.  I want a machete that cuts through red tape and fingernails that shine like justice, among other things, but I think the outfit described sounds a bit too 1980s-power shoulders.

2) Sufjan Stevens, “Super Sexy Woman”

3) Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” Okay, so I’ve really just been on a woman-power (I am grown and therefore am not into this idea of being a “girl”) kick lately.  Which is fine.  Clarification: I’m on a permanent woman-power kick.  I meant a woman-power music kick.  Come on people.

4) Bright Eyes, “Classic Cars” Say what you will about Conor Oberst and emo-ness, but this is just a solid song.

Brian Eno on recorded vs. live experiences

The Walrus recently highlighted an interview with Brian Eno about his latest multimedia work, “77 Million Paintings.”  Here’s a clip of Eno speaking about the difference between experiencing a performance live and experiencing a recording of it.  He’s got a lot of interesting things to say about the pros and cons of each, and about how each observer/audience member processes any given performance in his or her own way.  It’s interesting to think about this as a commentary on how our cultural and communal experiences of listening to and thinking about music have changed since the invention of recording, and the popularization of the phonograph.

Random oddity: Madonna in Israel

All respect to Madonna for her groundbreaking stuff in the 1980s, but I’m kind of sick of hearing about her now.  And I’m also wondering why she is meeting with top Israeli politicians…she’s on tour there and everything, and has visited some Jewish sites (presumably as part of her dubious “kabbalah study” interest) but I don’t see what she and Tzipi Livni could really have to talk about that’s of import.

Quick hit: Breaking down gender and sexism in Lil’ Wayne’s music

Samhita over at Feministing describes work she recently did, helping kids analyze gender in pop culture and then having them blog about it.  She comes at Lil’ Wayne’s work from a feminist, gender studies perspective, but given that the analysis is with respect to music this works equally well as ethnomusicology.  Take a look!

Norteño music, south-of-the-border hot dogs

Yesterday’s dining section of the New York Times featured an article about Sonoran-style hot dogs: bacon-wrapped, smothered in beans, guac, tomatoes, onions, salsa of all kinds, mayo, potato chips, etc.

Despite the fact that I’m rather intrigued by this development–given that I grew up in the land of a thousand variations on cooking bratwurst, sausage culture nostalgically interests me–I valiantly tried to ignore the food part of the article so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try a Sonoran hot dog.  (Bacon+pork hot dog+dairy products=quite unfriendly to the quasi-kosher vegetarian who authors this blog.)

What really caught my attention instead was how the reporter deployed music to set the scene for his detailed descriptions of southwestern-U.S./northern Mexico hot-dog-eating life.  Check it out:

One Sunday afternoon, as a mariachi band played, an after-church crowd, half Anglo and half Hispanic, thronged El Güero’s outdoor dining pavilion.  Babies cried.  Teenagers table-hopped.  And parents argued that, rather than order a second dog, children should fill up at the salsa bar at the back of the pavilion, stocked with peeled cucumbers, sliced radishes and chunky guacamole.  Front and center at every third table was a Sonoran hot dog.

Doesn’t knowing that a mariachi band was playing help you taste the sliced radishes a little more pungently?

One recent afternoon, at one of the two Oop’s hot dog stands he operates on Tucson’s south side, Martin Lizarraga sat beneath a tent-draped ramada anchored on one end by a flattop-equipped hot dog cart, and on the other end by a minivan painted with a hip hop-inspired, anthropomorphic hot dog character.

As a tripod-mounted speaker blared norteño music into the street, and toritos–mozzarella-stuffed, bacon-wrapped güerito chiles–browned and then blistered on the flattop, Mr. Lizarraga talked of the days when he worked as a liquor salesman in the Sonoran capital city of Hermosillo, frequenting the “table dancing club” for which he named his two hot dog stands.

With his 14-year-old daughter, Abigail Lizarraga, by his side, he spoke, with great enthusiasm, of Hermosillo, where “every corner has a hot dog stand” and “the health department is not so strict” and vendors have the freedom to garnish a dog with everything from cucumbers in sour cream to crumbled chorizo.

Notice how different music is linked to each type of setting.  The family-oriented setting plays mariachi; it’s characterized by restraint, with parents telling kids not to get another dog, but rather to fill up on toppings if they need to.  The second cart both plays norteño and has a hip-hop-inspired logo.  The owner used to be a liquor salesman and enjoys the creative freedom his profession enjoys back in Hermosillo–the description of his business is characterized by more expansiveness and sensual joy.

The music evoked in each case is also a provocative commentary on U.S.-Mexican border culture.  Given the popularity of Sonoran hot dogs and northern Mexican musical styles in the southern U.S., along with many other cultural signifiers of course, what conclusions can we draw about border culture and the effects of immigration and colonization?

One easy way to think about the ethnomusicological approach is to think about both how music is influenced by its context, and how it in turn influences that context.  Both dimensions are operating here: how do you think about norteño and mariachi (whether or not you have ever heard either style) based on the settings the reporter evokes?  How do you think about each hot-dog-eating setting based on the musical descriptions that have been embedded in the story?

What I’ve been listening to lately

…on Wednesday this week instead of Monday.  Oh well.  The music is still good two days later.

I’ve been on a huge Irish music kick lately, so there’s quite a bit (some admittedly kitschy) on here.

1) Mary Black, “Paddy’s Lamentation”

2) The Dubliners, “The Fields of Athenry”

3) Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg, “The Rattlin’ Bog” and “Yula” from their EXCELLENT recent release Saints and Tzadiks.

Unfortunately there isn’t anything from the album on YouTube yet, so just go out and pick up a copy (or come over to my place and listen–I spin it gladly for anyone who’s willing to listen).  As an Irish Jew this is basically the story of my musical life though, so I love it.  I’ll write a longer review in the near future; in the meantime, McKeown is an Irish singer who does both traditional and contemporary stuff, and Sklamberg sings with lots of klezmer groups, doing a lot of Ashkenazi Jewish traditional music.  The album is kind of a mashup of Irish and Yiddish repertoire and somehow it works and works awesomely.

4) Talib Kweli feat. Norah Jones, “Soon the New Day”

Quick hit: My new best friend

Anyone who so eloquently puts Mozart appreciation in its proper place (that is to say, takes it down SEVERAL pegs) is all right in my book.

Quick hit: More about Paula Abdul

I’m catching up on a backlog of links I found over the past couple weeks so don’t hate on this one being late.  The NYT summed up some of the drama behind Paula Abdul’s contract negotiations (and their dramatic ending via Twitter–text message breakup much?) a few weeks ago.  If you were interested in the story when I discussed it earlier you might want to take a look.  Unfortunately the Idol producers don’t seem to have taken me up on my suggestion of Sarah Palin as Paula’s replacement…

Reincarnating the Beatles–and redefining musicianship in the process?

I know I’m late on this, but I had better things to do (such as make money!)…anyway, last weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a long article on the forthcoming game The Beatles: Rock Band which I think is worth looking at.

If you are an American between the ages of 15 and 30 and participate in any kind of social life with your peer group, you have almost certainly heard of Rock Band, even if you haven’t played it.  The standard version of the game allows you to select an avatar (usually wearing some ridiculous/awesome leopard-print outfit) and form a “band” with your real-life buddies’ avatars, and then you select various classic/hit songs to play using plastic instruments following color-coded music notation on the screen.  (Say that three times fast.)

The classic version of Rock Band allows you to pick any variety of songs–any artist, any style, any era offered in the game–to make a set list or to play one at a time.  While it attempts to recreate aspects of the performing experience, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: the point is to have a good time with your friends, not to earnestly make-believe that you’re a rock star.

The Beatles: Rock Band aims at a much more “realistic” experience (whatever that means within the context of a video game…).  The creators (along with Ringo, Paul, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono) are trying to re-create specific concerts, specific recording sessions, etc.  Yet at the same time they gloss over many of the difficulties the Beatles had toward the end of their career together, because they’re attempting to keep the real purpose of the game in mind:

“This isn’t an archival project, it’s a game,” [producer Giles Martin] said.  “It’s entertainment.  That’s what they [the Beatles] were doing here in the first place.  Later, people attached all sorts of significance to it, but they’d be the first to tell you that what they wanted most was to entertain people.”

The point Martin makes–that the purpose of Rock Band in any of its iterations is entertainment–is precisely why I, unlike a few musicians I know, don’t think it will hurt “real” music-making in the slightest, and might even advance the cause.  (The Times reporter more or less agrees with me here.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t play instruments (I’m including voice here) often have unrealistic ideas about what it takes to be a competent musician: depending on the instrument and style, they either think it’s really easy (guitar, pop vocals) or really really difficult beyond any average person’s ability (orchestral instruments, opera singing).

The truth is somewhere in the middle: most of the aspects of technique that go into learning any instrument are not that difficult.  The hard part is doing them over and over again until they become second nature.  Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people quit making music not because they’re “bad,” but because they can’t or won’t put in the time.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (which I haven’t read, but this trope has been making the rounds) expertise is achieved after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice of a certain skill, whether in athletics, chess, music, or what have you.  As a Suzuki teacher, this makes sense: according to the method’s founder, Shinichi Suzuki, the key to being a great musician is “practicing only on the days that you eat”–a tongue-in-cheek way of approximating this 10,000-hour rule.

Rock Band is like learning an instrument (albeit simplified): each of the individual techniques, such as pressing a guitar button, hitting a drum pad, etc., is not at all hard.  But getting them in the right order and at the right time takes practice.  In my experience, people who play real instruments aren’t inspired to quit because of Rock Band, and most Rock Band players who didn’t play an instrument to begin with aren’t going to be inspired to start because of their favorite video game.

The real benefit is twofold: musicians get a chance to unwind and play music for fun, instead of for a grade, a gig or an audition; and non-musicians get a chance a) to understand, in a small way, what it takes to be a good musician and b) to get a small taste of the satisfaction of rehearsing and the thrill of performing–why musicians do what we do.

And we’re back.

Once again I apologize for leaving you all without sociomusical commentary for the past week-plus.  In the meantime I have been teaching at a music summer camp and otherwise running around trying to get lots of things done.  Anyway, I’m back in my hometown, hanging out with family and friends and generally chilling–which includes blogging.  Expect a regular posting schedule from now on (until I get busy again, that is).

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