Monthly Archives: October 2007

A Bead of Words

A little meme from Word beads on Sentence Strings:

For some reason that defied all logic, Stan chose to seclude himself in his workshop each Sunday afternoon. He would spend hours immersed on the internet, each keystroke part of an elaborate scan for that single byte of information that would provide him with clues on how to successfully rewire the mechanism of the entire crazy universe.

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Welcome to the Undertown

Undertown (n): Like the bottom part of the wave that actually moves all the water (and can do all the damage), that beneath the surface pulls you in and gives you an appreciation of the ocean, the undertown is that part of any place that provides a glimpse into its true meaning — beyond the lip service, hypocrisy, glib acceptance speeches and polished recordings. The undertown is where you find the literal and figurative prisons of a place, its dark secrets and hidden longings. You find what a place truly wants to be, and people willing to stand up and do what is necessary to make it happen.

In a musical context, the Undertown is what doesn’t get played on the radio. Music that doesn’t have a face on MTV, VH1 or CMT. It’s music with a connection to personal roots, an absolute absence of disposable music – reverence and relevance where it is due, and iconoclasm where it is required. Bluegrass, folk, Appalachia, Western swing, hillbilly, hick, redneck, rural, Bakersfield, Austin, midwestern, plains, poor, downtrodden, spiritual music. The music that represents the America you don’t see except out your front window, if you bother to look. The America that doesn’t require (or for that matter, appreciate) reality programming.

The Undertown is then, more or less, a battleground. A place where a war is constantly raging; not of flesh and blood, though that too may be consumed in the struggle. No, it is a battleground of the spirit. What is the struggle? In the words of e.e. cummings, “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

For many years, I have been a citizen of Undertown. That experience has resulted in a number of different poems and songs, like this:

Late at night it slows a little:
that slow burn right down the middle,
turning progress upside down
and into the sad streets of undertown;

Where nothing’s likely brewing,
and the only thing worth doing
is to swim or else you’ll drown
beneath the current in the undertown;

You think I’m joking? Look around.
Welcome again to undertown.

There is no use in speaking
out against the darkness leaking
into everything that’s found
its way here to the heart of undertown,

and no sure way of knowing,
not much of a good thing going
when they shut the sidewalks down
and turn the lights out here in undertown;

It’s hard to find your way around
Here after dark in undertown.

Outside there’s the sound of thunder;
how long will it last, I wonder?
’til the lost have become found
and take the road that leads from undertown

where there’s no light left burning
to prove that the world’s still turning
any way but straight and down
to bury itself here in undertown.

It may sound funny, but I’ve found
just one way out of undertown.

07 FEB 2007

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The Musician Label III

I’ve been involved in the business (and to some degree, the art) of music for over 30 of my 42 years. I’ve traveled it, studied it, played it, written it and in the process I hope have learned a little about it. I’ve traveled, studied and written other things as well; but underlying everything that I do and what I’ve become in the process is inseparably tied, at its roots, to music. All kinds of music.

I’ve read a lot about music over the years, too. Reviews, criticism, social commentary and theory that ties in psychology, anthropology, history and religion. My feeling is that sometimes you discover a thread, and sometimes its just a theory of knots. Super-strings, perhaps.

For me, regardless of the genre I play or am enamored of at the moment, I always end up playing my own kind of “seven degrees of separation” where the glue at the center is the music I grew up with and around. If you subtract the Beatles (even though you could in fact trace from them back to Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, the Cookies, Little Richard and Elvis, among others) and the Stones (with their direct line to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and so many more), the music I listened to growing up was American music: rock and roll, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, dixieland, big band, soul, rhythm and blues — and all its combinations and permutations. I studied classical music, because when you learn an instrument formally, that’s usually the genre for most of the instruction. The rest was what people now call “roots music.”

My roots? Hell yes. My paternal great-grandfather on one side was an itinerant fiddler. On the other side, both greats, I understand, traveled the Mennonite church circuit demonstrating and teaching yodeling from their native Switzerland. My father and uncle played “Hawaiian” guitar and accordion, respectively. My brothers, sister and I each were responsible for learning three instruments – a woodwind or brass, an orchestral string, and piano. I added guitar (and eventually a number of other things) to my repertoire.

I’ve written at least one song in the style of every record that I’ve ever heard. From madrigal to musical comedy to mosh pit; from polka to pop to punk; from reel to rap to rave-up. From Bauhaus to Beethoven to Bill Monroe to Billy Bragg to Irving Berlin and back.

I’ve never really found a source of information that covers that range of Americana. That cares about all of Americana. My definition of Americana, that is. Music that describes the profundity, the complexity, the often confusing amalgamation of styles that encompass the soundtrack of these United States, through time and space.

Particularly from a musician’s point of view. But then again, it seems to me these days that musicians (and all artists for that matter) are becoming more and more like physicians. Gone are the days of the General Practitioner. Everyone’s a specialist. That’s where the money is, I suppose. Learn your specific narrow genre – what styles it takes, what it’s audience will tolerate – and never move beyond those confines.

That’s not for me. That’s someone else’s definition of a musician. As a bard (in both the Druidic religious sense, and the musical sense) I have both an innate need, and some might suggest a spiritual duty, to understand the entire cultural spectrum of my time, and its history as well.

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The Failure of American Public Schools

The failure of the American public school system is that while we have emphasized the importance of those skills that “get things done” or that provide our children with the technological tool set to “compete” on a global scale, we have neglected to teach them the reasons WHY one should avail themselves of that technology. In addition, by eliminating the arts, we have removed the one source of study that provides insight into how all these technological skills fit together, how they construct a culture, how they inform an intelligent community, how they make life worth living.

When I look back at what I learned from the fine arts in school (back when they were part of the school curriculum), I wonder why they are not mandatory education.

From music (both instrumental and choral), I learned history, foreign language, mathematics, literature, geography, ratios, fractions, timing, physical and mental discipline, team dynamics and collaboration, listening, posture, breathing, improvisation, balance, poise, public speaking, and self-respect.

What I didn’t learn from music, I learned from art: proportions, composition, construction, optics, chemistry, preservation, creative visualization, theme, and color theory.

And what both gave me was a healthy introduction to religion, philosophy, anthropology, marketing, psychology, communications, politics, self-criticism, self-discipline and logic.

Only one or two of those things I learned in P.E. or playing sports. And while math and science as individual subjects may provide greater depth into some specifics, they certainly are pretty dry when you don’t have something meaningful to do with them.

The arts are not an elective.

Not for a culture or society that hopes to survive its technology. Not for a culture that wants to do better than just “survive”.

They are, and should always be, mandatory education.

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The Musician Label II

The definition of “musician” is given as:

1. a person who makes music a profession, esp. as a performer of music.
2. any person, whether professional or not, skilled in music.

Interestingly enough, the definitions of pianist, guitarist, bassist, flautist, etc. are not, as I would have expected “a musician whose instrument of choice, or expertise, is…[the piano, guitar, bass, flute, etc.]” or even “a individual who produces music using a … [piano, guitar, flute, etc.]”.

There is, however, no direct connection between being a “musician” (with of course, no specific venue or outlet identified) and a specific occurrence of a musician type.

Instead, a guitarist is “someone who performs on the guitar”. A flautist is “an individual who plays the flute.” Now, maybe I’m a little dense, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to define WHAT is being performed or played. Is it MUSIC? Alas, only a skilled critic would have the temerity to say.

That would seem to infer … and I have in fact seen it happen … that while some musicians may be guitarists (for example), not all musicians are guitarists nor are all guitarists musicians.

And who determines, using the dictionary definition above, whether or not one is “skilled” in music? What exactly does that mean?

Music, in fact, is a broad subject that covers a multitude of smaller subjects. Besides the obvious areas of music theory, counterpoint, composition and orchestration, there are the lesser aspects: foreign language, history, philosophy, physics, mathematics, audio dynamics, group psychology, teamwork, balance, physical training and discipline, communications, space relations, poetry, breath control, posture, memorization.

To be truly “skilled” in music is to know quite a bit, huh?

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The Label of Musician

To call me a musician is to miss an important point. There’s a certain convenience to the label, sure. But labels have a way of limiting their objects, of glossing over the inconvenient details in an attempt to simplify the classification of the whole. There’s a laziness about that kind of thinking. A desperation, almost, that stems from needing to explain something bigger than yourself in a way that doesn’t make you work too hard, or make you feel so damned small.

I AM a musician. Like Einstein was a scientist, or Yeats was a poet. You might argue about the company, but the point remains – the label seems just a little too small.

You could argue that Einstein approached everything in his life scientifically, or that Yeats lived poetically. Likewise, there is a certain musicality about my life and work. But to label us respectively as scientist, poet or musician on that basis alone, and have that label work, requires a different understanding of science, poetry or music. Different, that is, from what you might acquire in a textbook, or from a PBS special.

I had a friend once who said they could understand me as a poet so long as they did not also have to understand me as a musician, an artist, a philosopher. I understand the need to separate reality, to subdivide the infinite into manageable segments. One of the chief tenets of successful project management is to separate the work into small, concrete and achievable chunks in order to reinforce ongoing decision-making and ensure delivery of meaningful, and measurable, milestones.

But there are few projects that fall under the watchful eye of a manager whose span is an entire lifetime.

And what does it mean, anyway, to be called a musician? Is the title applied to amateur as well as professional? Does it mean someone who has spent a lifetime mastering a single instrument, as well as someone who has learned just enough, combined with other entertaining skills, to impress an audience? Is a person with expertise in only a single genre the same kind of musician as one who is versatile in many?

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