Archives for posts with tag: music

Sooooooo this is awkward.

It has been months since I have posted this blog for several reasons.  One reason is that I now blog at my day job and it has stolen away some of the magic.  But the good news for you is that I’ll now be blogging for my night job too!

Over the past few months I have been writing, arranging, and rehearsing with the very talented Dan Howler in Kitchener, Ontario.  On November 30th we head into the Sound Distillery studios for six weeks of recording sessions.  Me and my partners on this project will be writing on the Dan Howler Blog all about the good times and the bad as we record Dan’s Debut album.  Want to see what I’ve been up to?  Follow me at:

http://www.danhowlermusic.wordpress.com

Dan Howler band

Picture this.  You’ve reached a rough spot in your life.  Things aren’t going the way you’d like them too.  Maybe there’s been a crisis.  Maybe someone close to you is in trouble.  In this time of need, you confide in a friend.  This friend listens to your problems and gives you a piece of advice: don’t do anything.  When life gives you lemons, leave those lemons alone.  The best way to solve a problem is to ignore it!  Now consider:

When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom:

“Let it be.”

What kind of wisdom is that?  Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  but Paul McCartney says “Nooooo.  The world is a tough place but just let it be.”  If you try to separate the idea from the pretty song and the soothing diction it’s pretty awful advice.  It’s the opposite of the Trooper’s didactic masterpiece Raise a Little Hell which teaches “If your don’t like what you’ve got why don’t you change it?  If your world is all screwed up rearrange it!”  Paul McCartney would say “If you don’t like what you’ve got let it be.  If your world is all screwed up let it be.”  You see Mother Mary’s wisdom starts to lose its value when you apply it to problems.

Be weary of music.  Pop music is complicated.  It’s a multimedia art combining sounds and poetry.  Just because the sounds are nice doesn’t mean the poetry is any good, and just because the poetry sounds pleasant doesn’t mean the message is good or true.

Modernism in art is sometimes described as the moment when the artists and painters break away from the general population.  To this day, people debate whether or not abstract art is art at all.  The artists have no such debate.  The same can be said of literature: during the modernist movement, writers like T.S. Elliot wrote poems so complicated that no-one but a literary critic and a scholar of latin and greek could understand them.  Charles dickens wrote before this period .  He is both highly respected and was widely popular.  Today, the literature that is respected by critics is almost never the literature accepted by the masses.

But what about music?  Have we passed over into the realm where good music and popular music are in opposition?  Think about the period of music from the 30s to the 60s.  The great jazz artists of the 30s, Glenn Miller,Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, they were all chart toppers in their day.  We still celebrate the contributions of those artists.  It’s true right up to the 60s.  Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Beatles, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, all musical heroes in their respective Genres.  It seems that record sales line up with our impressions of musical skill at least until the 60s.

What about the 80s?  Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, A Flock of Seagulls, do we consider these artist great musical geniuses?  I’ve heard people talk about Michael Jackson and Prince in these terms but usually people qualify their statements somehow to fit inside the pop genre.  There are 80s artists who are truly celebrated as musical geniuses: people like the Clash, Elvis Costello, and New Order.  These are artists that had limited popular success in their own time and have enjoyed critical success ever since.

What about today?  Pink, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Pitbull top the charts.  Do you think these artists will be considered musical geniuses for generations to come?  Somehow I doubt it.  Somehow I suspect the musicians who will be remembered as great artists are selling a lot less records than these people.  To make sense of this, we have to identify the difference between pop music and everything else.

For me it’s an easy definition: pop music is music designed to be popular.  It’s the McDonalds of music, the starbucks of music, the Stephenie Meyer of music, the ikea of music, the Bose audio of music, the Chevrolet Malibu of music.  It’s a product designed to appeal to the maximum number of consumers.  There’s nothing wrong with this mindset but it’s not art.  Art is by definition not an economic endeavor, it’s created to be celebrated for its beauty or emotional power.  Therefore if you think music is art, popular music is bad music.  If you think music is a consumer product, popular music is the best music.

This paradigm was on display a couple years ago at the Grammys when Arcade Fire beat Justin Bieber in the “Album of the Year” category.  We who follow alternative music know that Arcade Fire are one of the most established and celebrated bands in the world today.  To compare them to Justin Bieberat all is embarrassing, yet the Beliebers were outraged that these nobodies were recognized.  Esperanza Spalding was also scorned her win over Bieber though she obviously has more talent than Bieber, Kanye West, and Jay-Z combined.  Just because beauty is subjective doesn’t mean more popular things are more beautiful.  Taste is subjective also.  That doesn’t mean burgers are better than caviar or bud light is better than single malt scotch.

Of course the reason this concept rubs so many people the wrong way is because it sets up the idea of a sort of musical intelligentsia who knows what’s good and what’s bad.  This isn’t necessary.  The difference again is intent.  If you listen to music for enjoyment, pop music may be what you enjoy and thus is the best music for you.  If you listen to music to find the best artistry, the most creativity, and the freshest ideas, pop music will definitely let you down.

I really believe that quality and popularity have become polarized in the music world today.  Only in the world of alternative music do I see musical artists recognized for the quality of their work, and only on occasion.  Rufus Wainwright can point out that Lady Gaga can’t write worth crap and it’s hard to disagree even though she sells way way more albums than he does.  It’s just the world we live in.  Just like you wouldn’t take a vote to find out which painting in the museum is the best or most influential, nor would you accept a vote on what architect is the most brilliant, album sales and general popularity no longer indicate who’s got the musical talent.  Only delving into great albums, studying them, and appreciating the musicianship will tell you that.

What do you think?  Is popularity or record sales a measure of musical artistry?  Or is pop music a mass produced product and the real musical artists are in the shadows?

My whole life I’ve been told that a great musician can make great music with any instrument: that musical genius is not contained in a guitar or an amplifier or a microphone but in the mind of a musician.  I think this is a beautiful ethic that I’ve carried with me my whole life and applied to everything I do.  It’s easy as a musician, a photographer, or even a writer, to get caught up in and even define yourself by the tools you use.  Guitarists collect, compare, and covet expensive guitars, photographers cameras, it doesn’t matter what you do.  The world is trying to convince you that your value is determined by your possessions.

But it’s not.  Play the blues without soul on a five-thousand dollar guitar and I’ll tune it out but if you play sweet soulful licks on a crappy old guitar you’ll have my attention all night long.  A piece of sublime poetry is no less sublime if it’s written in red crayon on the back of an old receipt.

However.

Sometimes a tool can inspire.IMG_1296This is my favourite camera.  I’ve had newer and better cameras, cameras with more capabilities and features, but this one is my favourite.  It was my mom’s camera from when she worked on her high school newspaper, right through my childhood.  Now I use it and take care of it.  But why on earth would I choose this one if I have better cameras that take better pictures?  Simple: this one makes me excited to go out shooting.  I have the most fun with it.  I can’t even tell you quite why it is but It’s a strong impulse.  What I see through the viewfinder of this camera seems closest to what I see in my imagination.

For me it’s the same with guitars.  Some guitars just make you want to play.  If the guitar that inspires you is out of  your price range that’s too bad for you but if it’s dirt cheap then that guitar will make sweeter music than anything else out there.

It doesn’t matter what it is.  For me it’s an old camera, a beautiful guitar, a moleskin notebook.  For you it might be your favourite running shoes, the baseball glove that fits just right, an old hammer with a beautiful old wooden handle.  Love your things.  Care for them and use them until you’ve squeezed all the use out of them.  Just do it because they inspire you and not because you want your stuff to bestow some kind of genius or status upon you.  The genius comes from within; the tools just help you get it out.

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