If you’ve been keeping up with me on Facebook, you might know that I’ve launched an interactive video streaming website, called Emote CTRL. Emote CTRL is an online performance space that invites the audience to help determine the course of the show, live in real time. In my case, that means that the viewer tell me what songs they want to hear, and I create a mashup of those song on the fly. It’s fun stuff- I even got the amazing opportunity to debut it onstage at TEDx Orange Coast:
(Fun fact: the emcee of the TEDx conference that day actually knew me from my college days in Hartford; he purchased the house that I rented, and assisted with ridding the house of all my possessions when it became clear that I was in no rush to move out after my lease had ended.)
As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ll be broadcasting live on Emote CTRL every Sunday at 8pm EST. Of course, this being a New Year’s resolution, it is subject to the same risk of abandonment as resolutions from years past, but I’m really looking to stay motivated this time around. I think that live streaming holds enormous potential for musicians looking to connect with an audience, effectively providing the intimacy of playing a small room on a global scale . I’ve discovered a lot of new music as a result of these Sunday night streaming sessions, and its viewers have given me some really great ideas, such as this one:
(A tip for pianists that would like to emulate the “Nirvana sound” on piano, sans distortion: Focus almost entirely on roots and fifths played simultaneously in the accompaniment, and move them around. Part of Nirvana’s brilliance was their ability to make a lot out of a little.)
As an added incentive for me, the format of the show allows me take breaks as I see fit, and occasionally even eat a sandwich on air. You know- the stuff dreams are made of.
Tune in on Sunday(s) and hit me with your best song requests!
Perhaps more so than ever before, musicians today are burdened with the monumental task of reinventing the wheel. Having seemingly exhausted the possibilities of both tonal and atonal music, the only real innovations left to make deal with the channels of delivery themselves; as the saying goes, the medium is the message.
Even so, it’s still fun to explore the musicsphere and experiment with genres and ideas like they did in the good ol’ days. More importantly, there is still a demand for new sounds within a recognizable framework. Since I enjoy this kind of thing, I spend a good deal of time scouring the history of recorded music for new ideas. Although I would describe my own taste in music to be relatively mainstream, I find myself spending the most time pondering those genres of music that sprang forth fully conceived, existed for a brief time, and then vanished forever.
Evolution in art shares much in common with evolution in nature. In nature, certain adaptations are selected for while others die off; this is done so effectively that when viewing only the “through line” of selected adaptations, it is easy for one to mistakenly believe that nature produced such adaptations out of necessity, instead of passively allowing those most conducive to survival and replication to become dominant. In reality, most adaptations were evolutionary dead ends that simply faded away quietly. There exists an interesting parallel to this in art and music- the chief difference being that culture selects for certain artistic “adaptations,” which in turn shape culture itself. Of course, there is a bit of circular logic here, and this is what allows us to make the case for cultural “dead ends” as viable, if not obvious, sources for artistic development.
Instead of citing some universally accepted musical dead ends such as serialism, I want to take this time to explore some decidedly aesthetically unpleasant contributions in the last century. Let us first examine the strange case of William “Shooby” Taylor.
Shooby Taylor, the self-proclaimed “human horn,” dedicated his life to a quixotic quest of approximating the sound of a saxophone with his voice. In doing so, he created quite possibly the silliest and weirdest music known to man. A typical Shooby record consists of out-of-tune scatting with unusual nonsense syllables (most notably, “shraw”), juxtaposed over existing commercial records by Johnny Cash, The Ink Spots, and other famous artists. Take a moment to view http://www.shooby.com (it’s oddly entertaining, particularly the “lyrics” section that hosts painstaking transcriptions).
Although on the surface there is an abundance of unintentional comedy in Shooby’s output, further inspection actually reveals some interesting points to consider from an artistic standpoint. For one thing, Shooby is nothing if not unique– from the bizarre syllables he employs to his sense of phrasing, his musical vocabulary is entirely singular and self-contained. For better or for worse, NOBODY sounds remotely like Shooby Taylor. Another noteworthy element is his remarkable consistency – it is evident to the listener that he has honed this strange style for many, many years, allowing it to take shape over time. Even though his delusions provided the impetus for this cultivation, this does little to detract from the sheer creativity required to imagine a musical vocabulary that had never been heard before.
When considering all of this, the next logical question is if Shooby would have succeeded in his quest had he been a technically proficient, musically literate vocalist. Would he have shaped the genre of vocalese, inspiring younger performers such as Bobby McFerrin to adopt a saxophone-centric model of scat singing? Would he have broken genre lines, making it perfectly acceptable to scat jazz licks in the middle of a Johnny Cash song or a Bach Cantata? Sure, it is far-fetched when given the benefit of cultural hindsight, but the practice of beatboxing is not altogether dissimilar. Culture, however, “selected” for beatboxing, while relegating saxophone impersonations to the annals of fringe music. But is there any rhyme or reason for this selection?
As far as I can observe, cultural selection in music seems to be more of a matter of politics than aesthetics. Both “populist” (mainstream) and “statist” (critically-acclaimed) works manage to make an imprint on history, and anything that lacks either characteristic seems to be ignored. In some cases, a style of music can become so mainstream that it inspires enough of a backlash to effectively kill the genre. In other cases, a particular style favored by critics and academics can cease yielding interesting developments and immediately render itself lifeless. These are the styles of music that we learn about in music history class- but is it the whole picture? What about styles of music that never caught on at all? How important is the pre-existing taste of the audience when it comes to musical innovation?
Recently, composer Dave Soldier and artists Komar & Melamid set out to define contemporary musical taste in a qualitative setting when they recorded “The Most Unwanted Song,” based on survey results.
Some highlights include the opera soprano rapping over a tuba at 1:37 and the “Christmastime at Walmart” segment at 4:06 (for contrast, they also wrote and recorded “The Most Wanted Song,” which, to me, was far less inspired:
Of course, there is no REASON that we should find a rapping opera singer to be distasteful, but we do- even when we try to be objective and acknowledge that our personal preference in music is largely shaped by the culture in which we live. We can even readily imagine an alternate universe where the opera-rap hybrid thrives (perhaps even with saxophone-vocalese accompaniment!), but we can not seem to force ourselves to enjoy it. It’s a curious thing, and probably prevents us from exploring the possibilities of such a genre. For this reason, musicians that can successfully incorporate such left-of-center choices into their own work without sacrificing listenability are often heralded as “brilliant.” Actually, all that requires is an open mind and an understanding of audience psychology. The REAL innovators are those that conceive of ENTIRELY NEW, self-contained genres of music- almost always at the expense of listenability. Of course, as much as we say we LOVE it, true innovation in art isn’t always viewed in a positive light [as an aside, a search for 'Stockhausen' on iTunes yields two different artists- one is 20th century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the other a jazz-fusion band called Stockhausen. Guess which one appears first in the iTunes search listing].
The point is, our idea of what “works” musically is a bit illusory, because we are forced to look at the past to make such a judgment, and it’s all a bit arbitrary to begin with. Most creative ideas in music will result in dead ends for no good reason other than that they failed to gain a toehold in popular or critical circles—and that’s ok. It’s like that for non-musicians, too. You truly must enjoy the creative process—even if most of the time it feels a bit like fumbling around in the dark, trying to find the light switch. Even if sometimes, you wind up sounding like Shooby Taylor.
So, perhaps I’ve lacked the requisite diligence to keep up with my blog in the past. I like to think it was because I was too busy doing cool stuff this year to properly update it, but in truth, I should probably chalk it up to a combination of laziness and an attention span of Generation Y proportions.
My creative process for this undertaking began with research: I downloaded Nickelback’s Greatest Hits off of itunes, and each day, I would play Nickelback songs as I began my morning routine. Yes, this is true: I listened to A TON of Nickelback this summer. [As a funny aside: our bassist, Adam, had set his Spotify to automatically update his Facebook, which in turn would occasionally display Nickelback songs under the playlist title, "Research." I can only imagine that this provoked a raised eyebrow or two among his music school friends.]
After familiarizing myself with their work, I then decided to strip each song down to its essentials: melody and lyrics. I figure that, at minimum, these elements needed to be preserved- even (especially) lines like,
One of the most common responses I’ve received upon releasing this album has been, “So Nickelback’s songs are good- it’s just their performance and production that is bad.” I don’t necessarily agree with this- mostly, because the binary logic employed in such a statement is entirely subjective. Calling art “good” or “bad” doesn’t really mean much, since it has more to do with the tastes of the critic than anything else. Nickelback occupies an unfortunate position in the pantheon of musical taste, but perhaps unfairly so. As one of the top grossing acts in the world, they are necessarily going to receive more derision than a similarly styled, lesser known act. Clearly, they are excellent, seasoned performers. Certainly, their “corporate rock” production values will rub some people the wrong way, but they clearly aren’t concerned with critical acclaim, and I can respect that.