Sometimes you need James Brown to remind you how to dance. You're welcome.
Yeah, I'm still a little fanboy for Tigran. A year after having written a review/think-piece thing about Shadow Theater for Ethnomusicology Review, perhaps it only makes sense that I dig the new record. I'm still working my way through it repeatedly, but I can't say enough about this musician's humanness and dedication to his unique vision. This isn't stuff for everyone, but for those willing to spend time with it, Tigran's music is deeply rewarding. As evidenced by his repeated yelling of "Fuck!" during the rehearsing/recording process (as you can watch in the above video), this is challenging music. And, where Shadow Theater was a sprawling affair of shifting musicians, the limitations of the trio on Mockroot (with Sam Minaie on bass and Arthur Hnatek on drums) makes the aural soundscape even more remarkable. The boundaries of what three people might be able to do with their six hands and voices are, in Tigran et al's music, remarkably violated. It's not just proggy-chops-heavy music, though. It, like all of Tigran's music, sounds old, storied, and as much as it can be an exercise in counting, is melodic as hell. It's somewhere between moody film music, proggy jazz, old-world melodicism, and remarkable post-Keith Jarrett-ish (?) pianism. I'm pissed that I missed the tour in LA (was February 20 at the Bootleg) - won't happen again.
I've recently finished with course work and am overwhelmed with "free" time. Free time in which to plan scholarly domination of the read/work/read/work ad nauseum variety until they give me a PhD. Still, can't help feeling a little bad about the "free" time. Weird. For instance, saw Godard's Pierrot le Fou at LACMA today and, though it's a wonderful critical film and at least obliquely related to my project, I can't get over actually enjoying myself off campus on a weekday afternoon. Ha. Damned midwest work ethic.
It's rather common knowledge that Friedrich Nietzsche, in addition to producing his remarkable and vast body of perspectivist philosophy, was a composer of music. Playing a large part in his work as either a referent of poetic becoming, a manifestation of Dionysian and ephemeral polysemy, a stand-in for the Heraclitean nature of time and tricky aporias associated therewith, or as a method by which to take a society's moral and ideological temperature, music was a passion of Nietzsche's. The folks over at critical-theory.com have put together a nice collection of his musical works; more than I've ever heard. The Musical Equivelant of "A Crime in the Moral World," the Music of Friedrich Nietzsche, is a short but good read and a wonderful collection of music. I'm rather charmed - I'd never heard all of this stuff, really. I definitely prefer Nietzsche's moody Wagnerisms (Chopinisms?) over Adorno's moody Bergisms any day.
The relationship between thinkers and music is a fascinating one - just get me started conjecturing about it some time when we can get a beer or five and have a few hours to burn. To that end I'm sharing a link to a review of a book on the relationships between Nietzsche, Sartre, and Barthes with their pianos - a 2012 book review by Cynthia Peck from The Vienna Review, "Book Review: François Noudelmann's The Philosopher's Touch".
I hadn't listened to the aforementioned Music as Math tracks in a while. Just checked it our again, and I particularly like the first track of the EP, "Prfct". Give a listen. If you like this stuff, go ahead and download it for FREE(!) at Dropbox. Such good memories recording this stuff, you guys. YOU GUYS.
So, I used to spend a lot of time in Chicago with my good friends Chris Ploeg and Matt Ammerman. Chris lived in a huge loft (that Jerzy Kenar's famous Shit Fountan sits in front of), and he had this ridiculous home recording setup. I stayed there with Chris for a few months when I was homeless-ish between Chicago and New York, and we'd drink beer and play music. He'd set up mics, point to one of the thirty instruments littering the place and say, "Hey, go play that thing into that mic. Pick a key. Give me puzzle pieces." I'd do that. With saxophones, clarinets, flute, guitars, electric bass, synth, found objects, an electric drill on a guitar, bottles, cardboard boxes, whatever. He'd record it and then I'd go out dancing while he obsessed on turning those noises I'd made into workable song forms. Then he'd send them to Matt who would somehow write melodies and lyrics. Out of that came the Music as Math project. And today, Chris (he's a saint) has loosed this EP on the world. Check it out and buy at any of your favorite music services (or Amazon, for instance), or, should you decide that "hey, all art should be free, man," then download the songs free at Dropbox.
I miss Chris (now in Austin) and Matt (still in Chicago) like crazy. This stuff was fun to record. Maybe you'll dig a tune or two. Maybe you won't. Still, we made this and some of the tunes are stong. Really. Check it out. Write a review. Buy me a pizza.
I'm excited to be back in Los Angeles after having spent a few weeks running around Germany. I ate way too much bratwurst and drank way too much beer. But now that I'm back in the land of kale and diet vodka, I'm sure I'll drop whatever winter weight I put on. It's a new quarter at UCLA (where I'm in my last quarter of course work for my PhD), and I'm excited to be working with musicologist Bob Fink on questions of musical canons, philosopher John McCumber on the limits of the idea of Enlightenment, and as always with my advisor, the remarkable Dr. Roger Savage, on a philosophical hermeneutical reading of free improvisation and the relevance/vehemence of aesthetic experience. All this, and attempting to work toward a practical competence with German language. It's good work if you can get it.
Also, I found that Germany really was exactly like the description featured below. Happy New Year, y'all!
Last night I had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Price for about 90 minutes regarding Joe Farrell, jazz history, general saxophone nerdery, the New York and Boston jazz scenes for the past forty years, and so much more. If you're not hip to Tim Price, check him out. Heavy cat, wonderful educator, and generous human being.
This video is obviously the product of some really, really stoned conversations, performances, production, and editing. Thundercat + Adult Swim, Eric Andre, $5K, and lots of influence from the Tumblr-verse, 80s television production techniques, and Tim&Eric? I don't know, man. So weird, but if you can dig the 80s-style irony and banality of the video, the audio track is crazy rewarding. But at what point does this kind of self-reflexive irony eat itself, lose its efficacy, and fall into nihilism? Feels as though this kind of work is teetering on the edge of that cliff.
There's probably a lot I could be talking about in this blog other than this video. But damn, FJM is creating some startlingly great cultural criticism here. Damn.
Cross-posted from Ethnomusicology Review. Here I'm making something of an argument for incorporating new findings and research methods into our investigations of musical meaning. I might be wrong, but I'm intuiting that this stuff is going to be incredibly helpful in accounting for music's ability to move performers and listeners. It's all much more complicated and multi-tiered than I can imagine, I'm sure, but this seems important. Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts!
Modern scholarly attempts to account for musical meaning in the academy are roughly divided among musicology, ethnomusicology, and systematic musicology. Perhaps responding to Joseph Kerman’s call in 1980 to move beyond analysis and descriptive criticism as methodologies, musicologists have borrowed liberally from feminist studies, comparative literature studies, gender studies, and deconstructionism to impute historical and ideological meaning in the Western canon, pop music, etc. Ethnomusicologists use these methods, often with an additional focus on ethnography and Geertz-ian “thick description” to describe the import of musical activities in “othered” musics. Systematic musicology - depending which continent one is on or whom you ask - tends to focus either on empirically oriented study of music cognition to investigate music or, conversely, philosophical approaches to understanding musical meaning and affective power. While not neatly divided or without blind-spots, these disciplines and their methods have produced much in the interest of furthering a collective understanding of the relevance of musical phenomena and its role in building identities, histories, social systems, and economies. Still, some of the aporias of music studies can not fully be addressed by just one epistemology and its concomitant methodologies. To that end I’d like to offer an argument for the incorporation of some relatively new theories and methodologies from the fields of embodied cognition and neuroscience that may be deployed to offer new ways of describing and understanding the why, what, how, and so what of music, especially freely improvised music. I will offer below something of an introduction and literature review of recent material on embodied situated cognition and mirror neuron research with an aim to suggest their relevance to music researchers.
In jazz music, improvisation is commonly associated with ideas of freedom, the numinous, and cosmological significance as observable in the musics of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Steve Coleman among many, many others. Musicians and listeners alike speak anecdotally about their experiences with improvised music in terms of motion, space, euphoria, trance, identity, dilation of time, etc. While these experiences and the part they play in the jazz tradition have been addressed both anecdotally in magazines and rigorously in academic journals and books (Berliner 1994; Monson 1996; Jackson 2012), the question of meaning in regard to musical improvisation has not been sufficiently addressed. Mainly due to its consideration as primordial, improvised music is oftentimes stripped of social context, historically relevant means of production, structure, etc. From this perspective, musicians seem to embrace Eduard Hanslick’s epistemologically confused assertion that “instrumental music is music purely and absolutely” (15).* As Hanslick suggested in 1854, when we (attempt) to remove notions of “content” from our understanding of musical meaning (social elements, emotion, etc.) and recognize it solely as “tonally moving forms” (29), it still moves us. Neuroscience may be offering a new way of investigating and accounting for the mysterious embodied, pre-reflective elements of musical meaning so present in instances of musical improvisation.
Recent theories of embodied situated cognition and/or enactivism (Feldman and Narayanan 2004; Gallese 2003; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) describe humans not as body and mind, but social mind emerging from its physical embodiment; neither reducible to the other, but each mutually inflecting. Thought is therefore not an abstract, disembodied activity or thing, nor is it simply the brain. Embodied cognition recognizes cognition as something both empirically available but also socially constructed, and that the tools of language and abstract thought are not disembodied, but informed by our embodiment and social identity in the world (Maturana and Varela 1987; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991). Therefore:
… the proper locus of mind is complex, multilevel, continually interactive process that involves all of the following: a brain, operating in and for a living, purposive body, in continual engagement with complex environments that are not just physical but social and cultural as well … [w]ithout a brain there is no meaning. Without a living, acting body - no meaning. And without organism-environment interaction - no meaning. (Johnson 2007: 175)
Embodied cognition seeks the roots of concrete and abstract conceptualization alike in patterns and qualities of sensorimotor experience (Johnson 2007: 174). “Abstract” concepts are thus second-order, emerge from our first-order embodiment (Hampe and Grady, eds. 2005; Johnson 2007: 135-154), and pre-reflectively influence our understanding of ourselves in the world.
The import of the idea of music as embodied process is further enriched by theories from embodied cognition such as image schemas and embodied metaphors. Concepts created in one modality of experience are commonly mapped onto another. For instance, in music we speak of “high” and “low” sounds which are in fact neither high nor low. Rather, our understanding of “pitch space” is mapped cross-modally from experiences in the spatial domain. Our concept of melody, too, borrows from several domains of experience as we conflate spatiality, temporality, and goal-seeking metaphors to make sense of our perception of movement and direction in music (Johnson 2007: 235-62). Music scholars have begun to effectively appropriate these findings and methods to investigate the relationship of gesture and musical meaning (Godøy 2003; McGuiness and Overy 2011). Our culturally generated and understood gestures are tied to our embodiment and map visual and aural aesthetic experience onto our sensorimotor structures of knowledge about the world.
Embodied cognition theories suggest that our physical gesturing both expresses and plays an active role in constituting our thought, and also that our use of linguistic metaphor (including that employed in music theories) is based on embodied image schemas. We perceive others’ intentions and feelings through their bodily movement, and thus embodied interactions underpin our sense of self, our social relations and our capacity for intersubjectivity and joint action. (Clayton and Leante 2013: 194)
Music, then, perhaps even before understood as culturally situated by a listener, has bodily meaning potentially crossing several modalities of perception.
Also germane to the study of musical free improvisation and questions of communication and meaning is the relatively new study of the mirror neuron system. Discovered by Italian researchers in the 1990s, the mirror neuron system is a group of neuronal structures in primates and humans which mirror observed actions. Very simply put, these cells respond and fire when a subject observes an action performed by another just as if the subject were actually performing said action themselves. For example, if a subject witnesses another grasping a cup, the same neurons that would fire if the subject were herself grasping a cup “light up”. In observing others, we have virtual experiences that use the very same neural structures as if we ourselves were performing said actions. Research suggests these neural structures are deeply tied to empathy, affect, and associative learning. Even more explicitly relevant to investigations of intersubjectivity, feelings of movement, communication of affect, and emotional contagion in music studies is the finding that mirror neurons act multi-modally: experience of virtuality seems not to be limited to visual observance of performed acts. Studies show that simply hearing an activity performed activates the related neurological structures of performing said activity (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese 2001; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). This finding is remarkable as it seems that perhaps simply hearing can feel the same as performing said act. When we see musicians performing, we ourselves may have a virtual experience of performing. When we hear music without seeing it being performed, we may regardless have a cross-modal virtual experience of our own bodies performing; moving our limbs or position of bodies, moving in space.
These processes of cognition are constantly at work as we build our understanding of our world and our place in it. Perception of sound is inherently tied to sensorimotor experience in creating cross-modal, virtual experiences of movement. All of these processes are pre-reflective and, in effect, run in the background of our cognition. Music, it seems, is a multi-level, cross-domain activity which engages us on multiple fronts, e.g., biological, psychological, intellectual, social, etc. By recognizing individuals as neither disembodied minds nor the sum of their social attributes, we see that mind arises from embodiment; the social nature of mind is non-reducible. Returning to the mystery of the affectual veracity of freely improvised music, we can see how embodied situated cognition theory and the mirror neuron system are but two paths of study leading to an understanding of music as an engine of embodied, cross-modal metaphor and embodied, pre-reflective knowledge. Their study and incorporation into existing methodologies can only enrich our understanding of the why, what, how, and so what of music. As Christopher Small suggests with his gerund “musicking”, music, like cognition, is not a thing we have, but a thing we do.
*The notion of stripping a music of its context is fallacious as all music is necessarily produced and heard by socially situated persons. Improvisation, too, is necessarily a socially situated and intertextual phenomenon. For a rigorous discussion of the intertextuality of improvisation and its relevance to music cognition, see: Hogg, B. 2013. “Enactive conscience, intertextuality, and musical free improvisation: deconstructing mythologies and finding connections.” In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds, Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.79-93. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Berliner, P. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Clayton, M., B. Dueck, and L. Leante eds. 2013. Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford: Oxford.
Feldman, J., and S. Narayanan. 2004. Embodied Meaning in a Neural Theory of Language. Brain and Language 89: no 2 385-92.
Gallese, V. 2003. A Neuroscientific Grasp of Concepts: From Control to Representation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 358: 1231-40.
Godøy, R. I., 2003. Motor-Mimetic Music Cognition. Leonardo 36 (4):317-19.
Hampe, B.,and J. Grady, eds. 2005. From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Hanslick, E. 1854/1986. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution Toward the Revision of Aesthetics of Music. Trans. G. Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Jackson, T. 2012. Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Johnson, M. 2007. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kerman, J. 1980. How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out. Critical Inquiry 7, no. 2, 311-31.
Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Maturana, H., and F. Varela. 1987. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McGuiness, A. and K. Overy. 2011. Music, Consciousness, and the Brain: Music as Shared Experience of an Embodied Present. In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds., Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.245-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monson, I. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rizzolatti, G., L. Fogassi, and V. Gallese. 2001. Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of Action. Nature Neuroscience Review 2:661-70.
Rizzolatti, G,. and L. Craighero. 2004. The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27:169-92.
Small, C. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Varela, F., E. Thompson, and E. Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
I'm excited to be headed to St. John's, Newfoundland today to take part in the two-week Summer Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation at Memorial University. Seminars, lectures, performances, and a music festival; it promises to be a wonderful time.
I wrote a book review for the new edited volume, Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. It's up over at Ethnomusicology Review's blog. Here's the opening paragraph...
When investigating the phenomenon of music, scholars in the musicological tradition have approached music as a disembodied phenomenon; a text laid bare for analysis. The affecting, world-creating nature of music as relevant to performers and listeners cannot, though, be located in any score. By earnestly considering music as an embodied, socially situated performative activity, researchers in recent decades have begun to appreciate music in new ways while investigating its manifold significances. Questions regarding the significance of performance practice and nonverbal communication to musical performance and meaning, as well as development of methods by which to study said significance, fill the pages of the new edited volume, Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. It should be no surprise that the editors all share a disciplinary background in ethnomusicology, a discipline which explicitly values and investigates (among other things) the social situatedness and import of music. Ethnography, ethnomusicology’s calling-card methodology, plays a vital role in each of the nine chapters which comprise the volume. But, the research projects of each of the contributors ask questions which cannot be addressed by ethnography alone. It is only natural, then, that a turn toward interdisciplinarity is characteristic of the chapters which make up the work and the interest of the greater project alike.
Ethnomusicology Review's Sounding Board published yet another thing I wrote about Tigran Hamasyan's Shadow Theater. Apparently I really, really liked this record. Also, the school year's almost over. Let's drink beers, you guys. YOU GUYS.
Finally available in the United States, Tigran Hamasyan’s new record Shadow Theater is too much. And I mean that in the very best way. It is by turns melodic, lush, proggy, overwhelmingly complex, meditative, lamentful, disorienting, very old, very new, nod-your-head-so-hard-it’s-gonna-come-off rocking, and metal. What sorcery is this? What genre is this? It’s like Keith Jarrett, Sigur Rós, and Megadeth had a love child. In what world is this music possible?
One might ask: "So, how is this jazz?" Admittedly it’s problematic to categorize Shadow Theater as such, but useful still. Jazz outgrew the bounds of its earliest manifestations long ago. Not confined to swing rhythm or canonical instrumentation, jazz musicians have big ears and have been incorporating the world’s sounds into their compositions and improvisations as far back as can be memory can reach. If modern jazz began with bebop, we can point even to Dizzy Gillespie bringing in Latin rhythms and harmonies, and Charlie "Bird" Parker quoting Stravinsky in his improvisations. “Jazz” is more than an authorized history and a canonized collection of recordings. It is an attitude of approaching music-making that borrows judiciously from everything, moves within the bounds of its common compositional structures as long as is productive, values adventure, exploration, and the valorization of personal agency. Jazz as creative improvised music embraces the world of sound, all types of experimentation and risk-taking, borrows from all idioms, and above all else, has a very long memory. No other musical idiom serves as a bastion for human musics and the human spirits of incorporation and play as does the polysemous term “jazz”. This having been said, Shadow Theater is undoubtedly a manifestation of that attitude and practice.
As there’s so much packed into this record, rather than attempt to take it all apart I will restrict my commentary to just two tracks.
About fourteen minutes into the record we arrive at Drip. By this point we've already been through so much in the first few tracks that the respite of Lament (which immediately precedes Drip) was almost necessary as a rest before moving on. If the listener hadn’t already understood it by the time Drip begins, it should be obvious that Tigran’s influences cast a wide net. Beginning with chunky piano which sets up a dubstep wobble, a groove unfolds incorporating an old-world melody in the vocals (and samples?) and Ben Wendel’s Warne Marsh-informed tenor. There are so many layers here: traditional eastern European plus modern jazz piano plus clubby wub wub. Nate Wood (drums) and Chris Tordini (bass) somehow keep a huge groove on the big cycle of 4/4 happening in spite of the melody’s rhythmic deviations. Drip is so much fun. Tigran’s obviously been listening not only to the jazz canon and Armenian music, he’s well acquainted with dubstep, EDM, and chopped and screwed. Perhaps most important for this track (and the whole record, for that matter) is the large presence of vocals. Areni Agbabyan's incandescent vocal contributions embody a sinuous, powerful frailty that pairs extremely well with Tigran's. The huge presence of singing in Shadow Theater serves to humanize otherwise forbiddingly complex musical structures. These aren't just tunes or compositions. They're songs.
Showcasing Tigran’s more traditionally-oriented jazz piano chops is track ten, Pt. 2. Alternate Universe. Coming out of the dramatic urgency of Pt. 1. Collapse, the sonic space spreads out into a pulsing groove reminiscent of Hancock or Jarrett but uniquely Tigran in its melodicism and percussivity. Nate Wood’s ability to animate the vamp of the first few moments of the tune, imply mixed meters, and play free within complex structure before stopping on a dime for a through-composed section at 2:39 is impressive. Extremely impressive. This track exhibits Tigran’s compositional style which commonly chops up big grooves into re-arranged quanta that seem both familiar and alien at the same time. You’ll be nodding your head with the “big” beat while the floor drops out on your familiar rhythmic subdivisions. The effect is one of disorientation, but not of being lost. The driving melodies in Alternate Universe, like in all of Shadow Theater, offer a golden thread through the shifting sonic landscape. This music is big. It’s cinematic. It’s old, new, challenging, and wonderfully human. As Stravinsky challenged the world with the (then) shocking violence of Le sacre du printemps, the violent rhythmic bashing that closes Alternate Universe gives voice to elements of human experience which can be hard to listen to but bear representation. It’s so metal.
Tigran has created music that defies category but, for lack of better alternative, can effectively be categorized as "jazz". This is contemporary music which speaks from a place of multiplicity, which pushes at the borders of stylistic bounds, and as such, challenges listeners to recognize their own complex humanity. Do we not, each of us (as Whitman might suggest), contain multitudes? Are we not each of us wildly complex and, in our humanity, boundless? This music is ecstatic. It manifests a seemingly impossible transcendence within immanence and bears many, many repeated listenings. Bravo, Tigran, et al. Bravo.
There will be more to this review at Ethnomusicology Review’s Space is the Place subsection of Sounding Board (which I curate). I’ll be adding a review of his upcoming performance at the Alex Theater in Los Angeles. Stay tuned!
In the mean time check out this wonderful live performance of Drip.
Oh My Sweet Carolina0:00
So my lovely friend Lauren Frost (of Cake Batter fame) and I have decided to record songs we like from time to time. Just to hang, have a few drinks, and see how far we can stretch our collective GarageBand chops in a few hours. She's a singer. Like, a really good one. And I own lots of instruments. This time I tried lead vocals (and a faux drawl, ha) for Ryan Adams' Oh My Sweet Carolina. Me on guitar, vocal, bass clarinet, melodica, and claps. Lauren on vocal and claps. Pretty rad way to spend a Friday night, really.
This poem hit me in the face this morning. Beautiful reminder to get outside of my head and revel in the nonconceptual, in the embodied primary being of self. Thank you, Mr. cummings.
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
- e.e. cummings
this is important: http://thingsreplacedwithsloths.tumblr.com/