Archive for the 'Music' Category

Bob Brozman allegations update

A while back I mentioned the disturbing allegations that guitarist Bob Brozman (who killed himself in April) was a child molester. These allegations existed almost entirely in the comments sections of various blogs and music news sites – there was no formal article exploring them. However, now has a piece entitled “The Dark Side of Genius.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make much headway in figuring out the truth of the matter. But at least the conversation is out of the shadows, so to speak.

Here’s a bit:

Because Brozman was only 59, and a much-loved figure both locally and in the global guitar community, many people who knew him latched on to the story that chronic pain from an automobile accident in 1980 had worsened and left him suicidal, in fear that he would no longer be able to play. It seemed a possibly credible motivation, even for a man who had reportedly been making rehearsal plans just hours before his death.

But it wasn’t. In fact, it appears that the story actually originated not from Brozman’s friends or family, but from a Guardian reporter who misinterpreted what he had been told in interviews, and reported it in his obit as fact. Though Brozman did complain of pain in the years before his death, the story that it led to his suicide took on a life of its own, circulating through the local, national and international media. Several people I interviewed immediately after his death related it to me, but in retrospect it appears they had gotten it second-hand, either from the Guardian story, one of the subsequent obits, or someone who had read or heard one of them.

Shortly after the Santa Cruz Weekly cover story on his death hit the streets, a much more sinister possible reason for his suicide came to light: there were accusations of child molestation against him.

The cost of music

Time magazine (it’s a famous mag you may have heard of) notes that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is pulling some of his music from Spotify. Essentially he feels he’s getting gyp’d by the streaming service (as many do.) This section in the article caught my eye.

Reports from acts like Damon Krukowski of Damon and Naomi, folk artist Erin McKeown and cellist Zoe Keating indicate that independent acts make around half a cent per song stream on Spotify. That’s a pittance compared with the 7¢ to 10¢ an artist can expect to earn from a song download on iTunes and even further removed from what artists earn from physical CD sales.

However, that’s a something of an apples to oranges comparison. A single stream on Spotify covers a single listen whereas if you download a song you can listen as often as you want. Crunching the numbers here and it seems 20+ listens of a download would actually mean the artist is getting paid less than they would were the listener launching Spotify for each listen.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that downloads on iTunes do not cost 7-10¢ – they’re generally around a dollar. So where is the rest of the money going? According to this the label gets the big cut, Apple gets a about a third and the rest goes to the artist.

Without getting into a debate about the fairness of these numbers, I can’t see how this can be a sustainable model to encourage the creation of music. I think right now there are still a lot of people creating music because of the “glamour” associated with it (myself included.) But if musicians are eventually understood to be idiots doing a lot of hard work for nothing, that glamour will fade.

As a side point here: I actually dug up some of Radiohead’s music on Spotify last night. (The band’s music is still there; Yorke only pulled some solo and side band material.) I’ve never really dug them despite the fact that many herald them as the Jesus Christ of music. I listened to some selections from their “OK, Computer” album and… it wasn’t bad. Not the greatest thing ever, but certainly something I’d listen to again.

Fish video

There’s no denying music just sounds better when accompanied by imagery. As such, I’ve been trying to augment some of my instrumental tunes with visual imagery. I’ve just started going through some of the existing free sources for video and created this short piece using some old music of mine.

Fish are the most inscrutable of animals.

Bob Brozman child molestation allegations

I’ve mentioned Bob Brozman in my writing (maybe even here on this blog.) He was a phenomenal blues/Ragtime/country/world music guitarist who had a storied career until he committed suicide in April. When I first discovered Brozman through some videos on YouTube, I was greatly impressed with his raw musical ability. But as I watched interviews with him, I became equally impressed with his thinking. He had a lot of deep thoughts about what music is, what music performance is, and how musical styles are born.

The story, as I originally heard it, was that Brozman committed suicide because he was suffering from residual pain brought about by a car accident that occurred decades previous. His fear was this was eventually going to take away his ability to play his instruments. As someone who has dealt with similar problems, I was quite sympathetic.

I was so impressed with Brozman that I began working on an eulogy article on him for the finest website on the planet e.g. I was about 800 words into this article when I came across some disturbing allegations about Brozman. Several people have come forward making claims that relatives of theirs were sexually molested as children by Brozman. They say that criminal proceedings were about to commence, and this is why Brozman killed himself. There’s no formal article on the web addressing these allegations (at least not right now) but you can see a detailed and richly debated back and forth about the allegations in comment sections here, here, and here.

I, of course, have no idea what really happened. And I’m unsure what to do with my in-the-works article. At this point, I don’t think one can bring up Brozman’s name without addressing the controversy. And, from what I’m reading, this is a controversy that may never be resolved. Obviously Brozman will never offer a defense of himself, and with him dead, it seems unlikely we’ll see the results of a criminal investigation, if there was ever one performed. Having said that, my sense from what I’ve read is that several people close to Brozman, including famed acoustic instrumentalist David Lindley, believe the charges to be true.

I find myself emotionally… perplexed by the whole thing. Brozman was one of those rare musicians who could really combine two things I greatly admire: virtuosity and intellect. He didn’t just play music, he thought about music. But if he was guilty of these charges, it pretty much negates his whole existence.

Should we listen to less music?

I am a huge lover of music, both as a producer and consumer of it. As a teenager I can recall having love affairs with music compositions; periods where I had to listen to a certain song over and over.

I still love music, but I have to concede that I burn out on it more easily now. I find myself not intrigued with much of what I listen to. I also find myself more and more aware how a certain song sounds quite a bit like some other song (often I find myself humming a melody from song A over song B.) It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real musical “crush.”

Nestled in away David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” is his acknowledgment that he doesn’t listen to a lot of music. I think he mentions listening to music while doing the dishes, and going out to see live music a couple times a week, but that’s about it. And he describes being annoyed — as I am — at the constant onslaught of background music numbing your ears when you go out to a restaurant or coffee shop. (I’ve pretty much sworn off Carl’s Jr. because they now have these video screens that blast awful music videos or incredibly stupid pop-culture shows.)

It seems a little weird for a professional musician to imply that we should be listening to less music. But as I concede that I’m constantly burning out on music, I’m wondering whether I should give this idea a try.

When you think about it, our access and exposure to music has increased dramatically over recent centuries. Imagine living in Europe around 1750; in that world, seeing a symphony or opera was a big deal. You probably spent weeks looking forward to it and, when you went, the music absorbed your attention. Additionally, aside from such events, you wouldn’t hear much music in your life; maybe just people humming, or the playing of musicians in your family. It was probably common for some people to go for months on end without hearing musical instruments.

That lifestyle didn’t change much until the advent of radio. Suddenly music was being pumped into your house. Of course, radio had its limitations. The sound quality could be meager and you had to listen to what the radio played (which wasn’t always what you wanted to hear.)

Now we’re at a point with Spotify, YouTube and music piracy that you can pretty much hear any song you want immediately. There are very few barriers preventing you from scratching your audio itch. And it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing some music blaring out of cars, being played in restaurants, in the background of TV shows.

Many people have noted that over the past 10 years the barriers to creating and distributing music have substantially decreased. And as a bedroom music producer myself, I freely concede a lot of good has come from this. But I also think it’s decreased the shelf life of music. It used to be that a genre of music would emerge from the primordial soup, percolate within a certain subculture, eventually break into popular consciousness, and finally become passé. But that process would take years; nowadays, it’s much faster. A couple months ago I became really aware of dubstep music and within a couple weeks heard it being used in something like a Bank of America commercial. It’s now much easier for a song or genre of music to have a thrilling sudden ascent and achieve worldwide popularity, but it’s also much easier for people to burn out on that same product. Music is becoming more faddish, easily consumed and easily disposed of.

I’m thinking the solution — at least for me — is to follow Byrne’s advice and limit how much music I’m exposed to. I’d like to maintain the philosophy that listening to music should be an event, not something occurring in the background of my consciousness. If I can’t give music my attention, then I shouldn’t be listening to it.*

*I’m aware that there are forms of music — ambient electronica or Erik Satie’s furniture music — that are expressly designed to be played in the background.

Sometimes a cigar is just a penis

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about using visual images to serve as the template for pieces of music. For instance, I might take a scene of a bunch of houses and represent them musically. If I was describing a tall mansion made out of brick I might using reaching melodies that go up into the sky (illustrating tallness) and perhaps a series of quick, dense chords (illustrating the tiny, hard units that are bricks.) Similar processes could be used to illustrate other houses in the group.

This is, of course, what a lot of movie soundtracks do: describe or augment the visual with the musical. And often what the music is describing is a person’s inner state – anxiety is illustrated by manic violins, calm denoted with long smooth tones.

To explore this idea I need to clearly define the term object. As I use it, the term can describe actual physical objects – cars, animals, stars etc – or mental units – thoughts, feelings, perceptions.

The idea here is that we correlate different types of objects with other objects. We understand that the slow cadence of a walking elephant has a correlation with a down tempo series of tuba honks. We understand that the overwhelming onslaught of emotional stress can be captured in a single large painting of vibrant red. We understand that an image of a wide peaceful lake correlates to the calm sensation of a peaceful mind. In a weird way elephants ARE tubas, stress IS red, lakes ARE peace. In a psychological/perception sense these objects are interchangeable.

I was just reading about Freud’s theories about dreams. As you probably know, he posits that a lot of things we see in dreams represent something else – e.g the peacock is really your vanity, the bellowing walrus is your obnoxious uncle, the cigar you place in your mouth is really a long, hard, sweaty penis. Freud was basically making the same point I am – that objects can be correlated to each other.

Visual culture versus acoustic culture

I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.

Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…

Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.

I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.

McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.

Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.

We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”

With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…

… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.

Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.

… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.

After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.

McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.

I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.

The meaning of art

I’m continuing my reading of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and find myself in an interesting section discussing amateur art. He runs down a lot of theories past and present about what makes art “good” (always a lively debate.) At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.” Carey’s fundamental point is that high art was considered high because the elite class says so, not that these forms or art have some built in magic.

And I generally agree with that; I would have strongly agreed with that a few years ago (though I reject the sort of punk rock/populist counter argument that “street level” art is great merely because it’s not high art.) But are objects totally without meanings? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m reminded of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who argues that the brain seems to associate reactions to certain types of objects. For example, a big spiky sculpture made of steel can’t help but seem fearsome. A painting of pillows can’t help but seem safe. If you want to call those reactions “meanings” (and when you think about it, the exact meaning of the word meaning is rather ethereal) then objects do have meanings in so much as these reactions seem built into the brain. We could revive the whole tabula rasa debate and question whether you’re born with a fear of spiky objects or rather it’s something that gets built in early on, but it probably doesn’t matter much.

David Byrne on the decline of MTV

Like a lot of people, I recall how, during the 90s, MTV played fewer and fewer music videos while ramping up production of horrible reality TV shows. My presumption at the time was that the music television station simply decided this was what “the kids” wanted. However, David Byrne, in his new book “How Music Works” claims to know better. He states on page 247…

Some decades ago… the big record labels decided that the commonly held idea that MTV was providing free exposure for the labels’ acts wasn’t acceptable anymore. They began to see MTV reaping profits while the record labels were providing all the network’s content for free. So the labels made deals with MTV to continue providing music videos, but now at a flat fee. The labels said they would then funnel some of the considerable income back to artists, but I don’t think they ever did. Eventually MTV played fewer and fewer music videos, turning instead to cheap reality TV shows. Part of that change had to be motivated by not wanting to pay record labels for content.

Interesting… frankly I can see the network’s argument… nobody wants to create content for free. Having said that, it doesn’t seem like their bickering really helped the labels or the music business.

When I consider MTV’s heyday, I always gravitate to memory of a teenage evening spent watching the network. That night I saw a video for a song called “My Boyfriend” by a strange group called The Cucumbers and it’s stayed stuck in my mind decades later. Thanks to the magic of youtube I just dug up a 120 Minutes segment on the band which features the video. (Interesting trivia: I once stood in line at a coffee shop in Seattle with the show’s Steve Martin-esque host, Kevin Seal.)

Who writes the songs that make the whole world sing?

I’ve long had issues with the conventional, legal view of song authorship. This view hold that a song is essentially a melody atop certain chords. This made sense 100+ years ago when the way a song was sold was by selling a lead sheet people would use to play the song on their instruments. But it doesn’t make much sense now. Sometimes the best part of a recorded version of a song is the sax solo or the timbre of the instruments – the kinds of elements that are completely unrecognized by the conventional definition.

I’ve been reading David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” and he gets into some of this, particularly the idea that in modern music-making the technicians – the producers and recording engineers – are integral to the process.

One could argue that these technicians were as responsible for how records came to sound as the composers or performers were. In effect, the authorship of a recording, and of music in general, was being spread around, dispersed. It became harder and harder to know who did what, or whose decisions were affecting the music we were hearing.

He recounts a situation were a particular drum part played on a James Brown track was sampled. The song’s author was reimbursed but because the drum part wasn’t considered part of the song (in the legal sense) the drummer was not. Screwy!