A few interesting links

Here are a few articles I’ve been interested in over the last few days:

  • The delightfully scathing Guy Trebay analyzes Lady Gaga’s fashion choices.  I like the comparison to mashups.
  • JDub and Nextbook announce a new partnership.  Interesting for young Jews who like Jewish things that aren’t kitschy, and for me given that both of the artists that I’m using as case studies for my thesis have been nurtured by JDub (note, I promise to discuss this at some point–I’ve been spending so much time on the research itself that I don’t ever feel like writing a blog post about it.  But blog I must.)
  • Check out this NYT lookback at how the rules of the music business have changed over the last 10 years (including an amusing story about the author’s first MP3 player, in 1998).  It’s a bit strange for me to read things like this, as my (and my peers’, of course) musical coming-of-age has coincided with all these crazy and unprecedented changes.  My preschool had a record player, which I used a lot, mostly to listen to Mahalia Jackson and Chubby Checker (!); after that I just rocked out in Suzuki violin training for a while until I developed musical tastes of my own in late elementary school or so.  In between, I was at the mercy of adults’ musical picks (from my 4th-grade teacher’s Concrete Blonde albums to my 5th grade teacher’s inexplicable love of 98 Degrees to my parents’ Paul Simon and Motown) and technological knowhow.  By the time I figured things out a little bit, iPods were ubiquitous (though I did have a well-loved Discman for quite a while).

Announcing the Philadelphia Sher Project

After a long hiatus while I finished up my semester (my second-last at Penn!) I’m back at eartotheground.

On Sunday, I had the privilege of playing in my synagogue’s klezmer band for the début performance of the Philadelphia sher at our annual Chanukah party.  The sher is a traditional Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish social dance in 2/4 time for four couples, with an accompanying set of tunes. Eastern European Jews who came to the United States brought it with them, and by the early twentieth century, Philadelphia had its own characteristic sher medley, as did New York and other major cities.

The sher was hugely popular at weddings and other social events and quickly became beloved by the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond, eventually becoming the preeminent American sher medley. Unfortunately, widespread performance of the sher died out by the 1960s due to the pressures of Israeli music and dance, assimilation and suburbanization. It is kept alive in klezmer circles at events like KlezKamp, but not often performed at everyday parties and events.

Over the last few months, the Simcha Band, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann and the Religious Life Committee of Kol Tzedek, and I put together a grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Kehillah of Center City to fund an exciting community-based project built around the sher–and we received $2200 from them for this project and a concurrent prayer leader training program!

Sherri Cohen, the Simcha Band’s trombonist, and I have been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in Philadelphia’s Jewish music scene, and learning the sher.  Naomi Segal, a member of Kol Tzedek, re-learned the sher (which she danced as a kid growing up in Philly) and taught it to the congregation on Sunday.  People had a great time dancing it and the band (featuring Susan and her mom, fantastic drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts) certainly had a great time playing it.

Right now we’re recruiting volunteers from Kol Tzedek, the Philly Jewish community, and beyond to help with this project.  Community members can get involved in any number of ways:

  • Coming to Kol Tzedek events where we will be performing the sher (TBA here, or if you get in touch with me)
  • Learning how to perform it with the Simcha Band
  • Volunteering to learn the dance and teach it to others in the area
  • Getting involved in the historical and archival research on the sher and on klezmer in Philly that I’ll be conducting beginning next month
  • Conducting oral interviews about Philly’s Jewish music scene with members of the Philly Jewish community
  • Designing the final web archive, where we will be storing educational materials, video, audio, sheet music and historical and ethnographic information about the sher

By April, we hope to have:

  • Published (online and in hard copy) the sher music, recordings, performance notes, video of events at which it was performed, instructional video, and a history/ethnography of the Philadelphia sher.
  • Performed and taught the Philadelphia sher medley at area Jewish events and simchas, along with a short historical presentation.
  • Established a foothold for the Philly sher as a meaningful, living, breathing part of Philadelphia Jewish life, and self-sustaining methods for its transmission to future generations of musicians, dancers and partygoers.

There might also be a documentary film somewhere in there, depending on how things go.  Stay tuned for the launch of the official Philadelphia Sher Project blog within the next week or so, with photos, video and audio of this year’s Chanukah festivities!  Drop me an email or comment here if you want to get involved with this project at any level.

Tuesday links

  • Finally, a music magazine that isn’t self-absorbed!  I love reading music magazines, but at least once per issue the entire enterprise gets on my nerves.  Here’s an article about a new publication, the Journal of Music, that appears to be trying to cut the fawning hyperbole and provide intelligent music news, analysis, and history that takes a more panoramic view than most publications.  I’ll let you know how it is after I check it out.
  • Jay-Z takes down Bill O’Reilly and O’Reilly flounders around for a comeback. Click through for an amusing clip at The Source.
  • Racialicious thinks about the transcendent power of Michael Jackson’s dancing abilities and ruminates on his approach to race.
  • Hooray, something having to do with Woodstock that isn’t mistily nostalgic and overblown!
  • The Walrus checks out Rip! A Remix Manifesto, a new documentary on copyright laws and why and how they’re a mess in the digital age.  It’s inspired by the work of Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law prof and intellectual property revolutionary extraordinaire (and a Penn alum whose book my year was assigned for our freshman reading project), and mashup artist Girl Talk.  Oh, and you can watch the film for free or cheap.  Click the first link in this paragraph for instructions.

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.

Quick hits: Motown, Barack and media theory

  • The women of Motown had fabulous style.  Too bad when 2009-era white women try to pull it off the result looks like this.  (Please note, I love Amy, but you have to admit the look could use some tweaking.)  At some point, I want to write a post exploring the impact of eyeliner on pop music.  I bet there is something to be analyzed there.
  • I haven’t heard either album in full yet, but both the jazz-hip hop fusions discussed here look amazing.  Here’s one of the tracks:
  • Finally, for a touch of meta, here are two recent NYT articles on the blogosphere (doesn’t that word sound like a relic of some now-discredited ancient Greek astronomical system?) and how researchers are trying to track the internet zeitgeist and who contributes to its formation.  Pretty cool.

Asperger’s and iPods

We all know that music is an important way for people, especially teens, to form their identities and to share those identities with other people.  The Philadelphia Inquirer had a new spin on this concept last week, detailing a recent study where researchers gave iPods to kids with Asperger’s syndrome to help them socialize better.  The iPod content was varied; many kids loaded it with music, which had a calming effect, and some kids also had instructional videos on daily tasks with which they had trouble, or recordings that prompted them with conversation topics.

We often think of music helping with socialization in other ways: people hearing traditional music and connecting with a cultural identity; people hearing liturgical music that creates a common religious experience; people bonding over a genre of music that they both like, etc.  But here is a concrete example of music (loosely defined here as human-organized sound in order to include the instructional recordings) that is being used as a direct agent of socialization for people who seem to have trouble in this area.  Perhaps sound is more integral to this process than we ever realized.

Quick and dirty addition

My friend Zachary Levine, the swashbuckling sports journalist, proposed an addition to the quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery that I thought was apt:

9) Subscribe to the New Yorker even if you understand every third word and every fourth cartoon. This is good because it doesn’t require too much effort to impress your friends–leave it lying around on your coffee table (better yet, your bedside table or desk) and they’ll think you’re great.  Don’t feel obligated to actually read it most of the time; after all, that’s what online media is for: to disguise your lowbrow reading habits.  Just read the occasional Malcolm Gladwell or Alex Ross article to keep up cocktail-party impressions.

Disclaimer: If you subscribe to the New Yorker, I think you–wanting to avoid cultural snobbery in favor of being cultured–should read it (and I think Mr. Levine would agree with me).  I’m not advocating using it as a weapon of highbrow superiority.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

What I’ve been listening to lately

This is a busy week for me so I’m being lazy and sharing what’s been in my ears lately.  Hopefully I’ll have time for a more substantive post tomorrow.

1)  The Dead Weather, “I Cut Like a Buffalo” from Horehound, which came out last Tuesday.  I rarely buy albums on the release date but I love just about everything Jack White does (except for the Raconteurs, for whatever reason) so I picked this up right away, by which I mean clicked “Download” because waiting in line at a record store is old school and expensive.

2) The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song” from Hazards of Love because I was cleaning out my wallet and found one of those cards from Starbucks that gives you a free download.  I like the Decemberists but their historicism gets in the way of their music-making, I think.

3) Gossip, “Dimestore Diamond” from Music for Men, mostly because Beth Ditto is, famously, having a moment and I wondered if the music would be affected, and also because Rick Rubin produced this album and I’m always interested to see what he does with a group’s sound.  I think this track is better than the single “Heavy Cross.”

4) Dirty Projectors, “Temecula Sunrise” from Bitte Orca.  I was in Temecula, CA over spring break, celebrating Purim at the local Chabad House with a great group from Penn Hillel.  After the service we had a really amusing discussion with the rebbetzin about vegetarianism–she thought it was totally nuts, essentially because she likes meat.  Chabad has interesting views on vegetarianism anyway…

5) A lot of Socalled as part of my research (more on that later this week).

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