Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Instruments of Mass Destruction

One of my wife's colleagues was passing through Toronto over the weekend, and had his bassoon with him. Apparently, traveling with a bassoon is not terribly common, as he reported later that the customs inspector at Pearson Airport was initially unconvinced that this odd collection of carved wood and tubing actually constituted a musical instrument. Eventually the bassoon was assembled and played, and the inspector was mollified -- although he inexplicably found the bassoon's sound to be "like a trumpet."

Now me, I found that story hysterical, but I wonder to what extent I'm in the minority on that. Music education being what it is these days, I don't doubt that someone would be mystified at the sight of a bassoon -- assembled or not. Nor does it help the ubiquity of recorded music means that for most of us, the musical experience is nearly invisible, as we usually see neither musicians nor instruments. Half the time we're lucky if we even see loudspeakers.

It wasn't always this way. Before mechanical reproduction took over, all music was live, and being able to play a musical instrument was fairly commonplace. Maybe the average concertgoer wouldn't be able to point out the bassoons in a band or orchestra, but they wouldn't be surprised to see one, either.

Were we better off then? On a global level, I think not. Technology -- whether in the realm of the recording studio or the possibilities posed by digital sampling and manipulation -- has made it much easier to get the sounds in one's head out into the world, and while there's much to recommend the technical skills required to master harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, there are also advantages to being able to conjure almost any sound or rhythmic fillip -- and not having to worry whether the bassoon can actually play that passage you've imagined.

And yet it pains me to see interest in musical instruments become a form of arcana, like knowing the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks. If only there were a place instruments could be borrowed, like books from a library! The closest I ever came to such a magical place was the band room when I was in school -- I still remember the excitement I felt when fooling around on a school-owned tuba or baritone sax. But that was before budget concerns deemed musical education unnecessary. After all, what's the point of exposing kids to bassoons or flugelhorns if they're going to grow up to become customs agents?

Monday, November 29, 2004

The 500

What I've found most disappointing in the commentary so far on Rolling Stone's latest list issue, The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is how predictable it has all been. One line of complaint runs, roughly, "How could this song be rated higher than that song, which any sane person knows is infinitely better?" Another moans that the list is too canonical, enshrining the greats of the '60s while ignoring the greats of today. Still another objects that the list is all too typical of Rolling Stone, and thus boring, pompous and out of it. A few writers even managed to stuff all three arguments into a single, eye-glazing rant.


It's as if they were concocted from formula, using a template that has been in place since Rolling Stone started publishing list issues over a decade ago. Moreover, the writers appear blissfully unaware that these list features are meant not as the final word on popular culture but as a means of selling magazines, and writing about the list -- even dismissively -- is effectively carrying the magazine's water. Yeah, give 'em free publicity. That'll show 'em.

Now, I probably should admit that I was one of the 172 voters whose input somehow generated the 500 (you'll find me right between Gail Colson and Elvis Costello). Unfortunately, I've since lost my list of what I voted for, so it would be difficult to compute my personal culpability, but suffice it to say that a number of my favorites -- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Without You," "Heart Like a Wheel" among them -- are not counted among the 500. And so what?

That said, the 500 Greatest Songs list does suggest an obvious question, and seeing as no one else is asking it, allow me: Why do they bill it as the 500 greatest songs when in fact what they're celebrating are great singles?

It's not as if the editors aren't aware of the issue; indeed, the introduction tries to finesse the point by explaining that "the word song refers to both a composition and its definitive recorded performance." Which, as I understand English, pretty much means they're talking about singles. Hence "Respect," which a songwriting list would credit to Otis Redding, is celebrated as one of Aretha Franklin's best, while "Walk On By," which ought to stand as a monument to the genius of Bacharach and David, becomes a paean to Dionne Warwick.

This is shortsighted on two fronts. First, it ignores the fact that part of what makes a song great is its almost infinite immutability. Whether "I Got Rhythm" or "Norwegian Wood" or "Bizarre Love Triangle," a great song shines regardless of who interprets it or how -- and, in return, provides giant-sized shoulders for the interpreter to stand on. Unfortunately for magazine editors, honoring the song means paying homage to the songwriter, and most readers really would prefer pictures of Elvis Presley to shots of Lieber and Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock") or Mark James ("Suspicious Minds").

Secondly, the RS500 approach ignores the distinction between songwriting and arrangement, and as such muddies the whole notion of authorship. If, for you, the list-topping "Like a Rolling Stone" is defined by the whistling, five-note organ hook that punctuates the chorus, then fuck Bob Dylan -- the guy you want to thank is Al Kooper, who came up with the part. And who, for what it's worth, doesn't get a songwriting credit. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that "Like a Rolling Stone" wouldn't work without that hook, but neither would I suggest it's entirely incidental. Which is why, for me, "Masters of War" is a much stronger Dylan song.

Arrangements often make the difference between a hit and a miss, and are every bit as important as the performance itself. When Badfinger recorded "Without You," it was a terrific song about heartbreak, but it lacked the air of majestic tragedy Harry Nilsson's version delivered. Some of that is vocal -- Nilsson pushes his tenor almost to the breaking point, which registers in our ear as tragedy (a trick opera composers have exploited for centuries) -- but most of it derives from the swelling intensity of Richard Perry's arrangement and production, which exploits everything from the echo of a piano in a big room (conveying loneliness) to the surging power of cellos and horns (representing the melancholy power of love). And it's worth noting that those qualities aren't necessarily transferable. That's why Mariah Carey's rendition, which draws heavily on Nilsson, fails; her voice, at its upper limits, sounds chirpy, not heartworn.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in Rolling Stone's myopia on this point is that, for once, the Grammys get it right. Record of the Year and Song of the Year are not the same thing, and for good reason. Now if only the Grammy voters had better taste...

Friday, November 26, 2004

Y Canada

In response to my first post, one of you wrote, "please explain to a fellow Torontonian what brought you to our city, fer chrissakes." And I have to admit, the whiff of incredulity curling around the question does seem quintessentially Canadian, partly in its modesty but mostly in its polite implication of "What are you, nuts?"

A reasonable question. Before moving here, I was in New York, living in Brooklyn and editing the CD review section at Blender; now I'm a freelancer in Toronto. Logically, most people in the rockcrit trade would want to move in the opposite direction. Nevermind that Toronto is a nicer place to live, with a saner government (both locally and federally), or that my overpriced current neighborhood (the Annex) is cheaper and safer than my overpriced former neighborhood (Park Slope). Business is business, and it's rare to find someone walking away from a good job at a good magazine. Lord knows, it wasn't easy.

I did it for two reasons. One was love. My wife Mary, a mathematician who had been teaching at Penn, was offered a job with tenure at the University of Toronto. Tenure isn't an option in the music press unless you're Jann Wenner, and the volatility of the business had driven home to me after my experience at Revolver. Besides, if you're going to freelance, may as well do it in a country with national health care.

The other was that I really wanted to live in Toronto. Not because being in New York when the World Trade Center came down traumatized me (it didn't), or because I can't bear the thought of being in One Nation Under Dubya (though it does give me the creeps). Basically, I've liked Toronto since I first visited in the late '80s -- the people, the weather, the topography, the Beguiling, the bacon ... just the overall feel of the place. And, yes, Canadian music, too. But I think I'll save that for a later post.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Oh Boy, Another Music Critic Blog

It's not as if the world has been crying out for more music blogs, after all. That's part of the reason I'd put off adding to the clutter. (OK, that and laziness.) If the masses have been clamoring for a Considine blog, it's news to me.

However, it'd be nice to have a venue for ideas which don't merit full stories (in the trad-journo sense) or are a bit too arcane for mass (read "paying") media. I miss having the sort of immediate access to expression I enjoyed when I was on staff at a daily paper. And blogging seems to be a great way to start fights with people, which Lord knows we critics surely love.

Hence Resonance. The name derives from what I consider a key aspect of sound -- the ability of objects to vibrate in sympathy. It's what makes musical instruments musical, what makes a good performance space, what defines our perception of sound as being lively or dead. It's also a great metaphor for the sort of emotional experience great art engender, the magical ability to feel another's emotions and take them as your own. If not for resonance, I certainly wouldn't have invested as much of my life in music, and if you're reading this, likely the same is true for you.

That's not to say Resonance will be 100% music-focused, as I'll probably blather on from time to time about other interests -- media, food, anime, life in Toronto, etc. Those will be digressions only, however; for the most part, I'll be writing about I or other people think about music. I seem to have a bit to say in that area.

Like any blogger, I'll promise to update regularly; like any blog-reader, you know that it likely won't be as regular as all that. None of us wants to look like we have *that* much time on our hands, right? With luck, sympathetic vibrations will outweigh the dissonance and noise, but no guarantees. After all, if we all agreed all the time, how would guys like me get any work?

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