Thursday links

  • I was pleasantly surprised to find out that composer John Adams has a blog (h/t someone who’s in my Google Reader, I forget whom but will link to you when I find out!).  Here he blogs from AirTran’s in-flight wifi and wittily takes down Glenn Beck (“a pudgy blond Middle American Mussolini”) and describes Adorno’s writing as “those serpentine sentences that smile at you, then curl around and bite your ass like a cobra.”
  • Hipsters, Lutherans and local food enthusiasts mingle at the Greenpoint, Brooklyn Lutheran Church of the Messiah, which has been letting local bands rehearse in its space.  Nice!
  • Despite some interesting new neuroscience findings about music and emotion, we still don’t really get what it’s all about yet (and thankfully, or else all of music academia would be out of a job).
  • Can Gestalt psychology explain why most people like modern art better than modern (European-derived art) music? (This and the link above h/t my partner, Matt.)
  • Rob Walker (of the NYT “Consumed” column) tries to figure out how Pandora Internet Radio knows what you might like to listen to.

Beatles documentary and music history contest

I generally don’t believe in endorsements or quasi-endorsements or ads on here, but this is for public TV, and y’all can win stuff.

A reader sent me a heads-up on the NYC public TV station THIRTEEN’s new documentary, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. In conjunction with its release, they’re having a contest–vote for the musicians that you think have had the most profound impact on history, and if your entry is selected, you’ll win various prizes including a 17-CD Beatles box set.  Check it out here.

Best search terms used to find this blog

I checked out my blog stats just now and was really amused by how some people get here via Google.  A few recent highlights include:

  • “is it true lady gaga got 2 body parts”: Why, yes, I’m sure she has several.  A cursory glance at paparazzi photos show two arms (complete with hands), two legs (ditto feet), a torso (with however many subdivisions you’d like to make with that), a head with everything in its normal place, and generally a bunch of weave.
  • “joan holloway extraordinarily competent”: After saving the British exec’s life post-run in with the lawnmower, I would say yes (assuming this is a question).
  • “what is a pig’s life cycle”: Listen to this and you’ll find out.
  • “the masculinity of the taqwacores”: Sounds like a good title for an early-20th century British novel.
  • “creepy whitye supremacists” and “talk radio xenophobia”: Seem to go together pretty well.
  • “coulter dominatrix”: I assume this refers to Ann.  How terrifying.
  • “jay z needs to be a role model”: You should probably tell him this, not me.

This could be a good recurring feature.

Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

Torture music redux

After a two-week hiatus, ettg is back!

Wayne Marshall over at wayneandwax and Ben Tausig over at Weird Vibrations have both recently taken up the role of sound in U.S. military and police operations.  While I checked out the role of music in torture a while back, these gentlemen are investigating another, potentially more-harmful phenomenon: the use of sound as physical force to control protesters and crowds–not to mention warfare.  Just as Joshua was able to bring down the walls of Jericho with ear-splitting trumpet blasts (see the incomparable Mahalia Jackson’s explanation below), the vibrations that are the essence of sound can cause severe damage at high decibel levels.

During the recent G20 protests in Pittsburgh, police used sound cannons (aka LRADs, Long Range Acoustic Devices) to disperse and control the protesters.  These weapons are capable of producing sound that is intensely focused and well above the human threshold of pain, thus running the risk of producing permanent hearing loss in those targeted by the weapon.  Weird Vibrations breaks down the questionable use of these devices:

This is something of a loophole in the ethical treatment of protesters – the human body cannot tolerate sound in excess, but exposure leaves no (visible) scars. Perhaps in a wiser moment, we’ll take stock of the emotional distress such conditions can produce, of the long-term hearing loss that can occur with misuse of the machines, of potentially dangerous levels of stress, and of the disturbing political asymmetry such technology facilitates between a government and its citizens. But for now, sound cannons are perfectly legal.

LRADs operate in the threshold between normal listening, where vibration is mild enough that we experience sound as essentially immaterial, and where we can readily pay attention to communicative and aesthetic content (music, language, texture), and extreme sonic exposure, where vibration is felt as a force throughout the body. The sound cannon is far enough along this spectrum that we react involuntarily to its painful volume, but not so far along that we lose life or limb. It’s pretty brilliant, in a mad scientist kind of way.

wayneandwax expands the conversation by reminding us that sound is an inherently physical medium, though we do not always perceive it that way under normal conditions–that extreme frequencies and decibel levels can pass right through us, moving us (and not in the metaphorical sense!) and shaking up our insides until we’re severely messed up.

These two concepts taken together–torture music and sound as weapon–will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to folks who think music is just about aesthetics and emotional expression: though we’d like to think some things are incorruptible and without inherent meaning, that’s just not the case.  Keep your eyes open for how music can be used in questionable ways–and bring a pair of these along to your next protest in case they bring out the LRADs.

Weekend links

  • A perspective from the NYT‘s Happy Days blog (which deals with how we stay sane in these bad economic times) on death metal and how it helped one Ira Gershwin fan get back on his feet after losing his job.  The standard music-scholarship line on metal is that it was born out of white working-class male frustration at the postindustrial lack of economic opportunity.  The fact that this guy was drawn to the sound after losing his job dovetails with that analysis  in interesting ways.

Improving classical music’s performance practices

I love (European) classical music; I’ve played it since I was five and think it can be one of the most emotionally moving and fulfilling things to do.

But it’s incredibly difficult to get me to go see a professional concert, especially a symphony concert.  Why?  Because the social etiquette surrounding the performance is so dull. And the program notes are often so pretentious.

Hence my amusement at this updated version of program notes from the New Yorker.  If the tone at classical performances were more like this:

The opening section, “From Dawn to Midday at Sea,” begins with the plaintive call of the oboe, announcing the rising sun. The English horn and the trumpet answer in a minor key, as if to say, “Thanks for the tip, asshole.” The flutes quickly change the subject, introducing the famous surging triplet melody. The theme bubbles and courses through the orchestra, constantly elaborated and ultimately recapitulated in a massive crescendo of horns and trumpets, at which point the flutes are totally drowned out and seem not a little jaded and you have to wonder if they regret having introduced the theme in the first place.

“The Play of the Waves” is often described as a scherzo, light and humorous, although, as in much of Debussy’s work, the laughs come at the expense of the violas.

…I’d be more willing to go!

What I’ve been listening to lately

1) Kim Kashkashian playing Hindemith’s viola sonatas. This is just one example; the rest are equally amazing.

2) “We Are Marching in the Light of God”–I spent the weekend hanging out at the church in West Philly where I’m doing fieldwork and sang this at a choir rehearsal on Friday.  The church’s version was, of course, more awesome.  Imagine this with gospel instrumentation and a touch step.

3) Babyshambles, “Pentonville.” I can never quite figure out what’s going on with the patois here–whether it’s a guest artist or what.  I don’t know how well it sits with me; but here’s the song, as it’s stuck in my head.

4) The Wailin’ Jennys, “The Parting Glass.” I am trying to bring back the custom of singing this at parties, starting with the one I attended on Friday night.  Mark my words, it will return.  This version isn’t quite the one you’d want to sing in a social setting, but it’s still nice to listen to.

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