Things I used to be good at: Timpani

I have no idea why my percussion teacher had such faith in a relative beginner at Duke, but I wound up playing Elliott Carter’s March at my senior recital after only two years of instruction.

I did not, however, play it as fast as this guy, who’s impressive but omits the fun switches from the heads to the butt end.

This guy uses each end of the stick, and he gives some commentary to explain how he goes about it.

He must have an unlimited budget, because he talks about experimenting with his sound in a concert hall. At Duke, we had three timpani in the rehearsal hall and three in the concert hall, and we had to take the big one back and forth on a grassy slope.

He made his own timpani mutes. So did I, in a sense. I used socks.

Also, when I turned up on recital day, I found all my stuff had been moved from the stage because the jazz guys had set up for a concert at night. Glad I got there early enough to switch it.

The piece uses rhythmic modulation, a complicated concept that would make Rush, Yes and the math-rockers that followed King Crimson break out a calculator. The idea is this — play for a while in a particular tempo, then play something that hints at a change, and then change the tempo so that, for example, a dotted quarter note in one measure is as long as a quarter note in the next.

This video takes you through the score so you have a visual. The piece starts at 105 beats per minute (unless you’re playing at light speed like the guy in the first video) and modulates at the 30-second mark (dotted quarter becomes quarter) to 140 bpm. At the 55-second mark, it gets freaky — the eighth notes in a 10/8 measure become quintuplets in a 2/2 measure. Then you have some measures in 14/16 before the dotted dotted quarter has the same value as a half note.

Of course, the performer can take liberties with all this. My teacher encouraged me to pause for a bit on the quarter note after the monster section (2:05 mark) to emphasize the change in mood.

Generally, such experiments lead to some unlistenable music. Even in March, the listener isn’t aware of all these tricks. I nailed this piece when I performed it, and the audience didn’t know the difference. One person who came out to listen said, “You played, and then when you put your sticks together, we clapped.”

But rock musicians sometimes sense a challenge to make things as complicated as this is. And that’s why you have Dream Theater, a band that’s more fun to analyze than it is to hear.

Count ’em — 108 time signatures (well, some time signatures are repeated, so it might be more accurate to say 107 time changes):

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My favorite songs of 2018

This list doesn’t feature songs released 2018. I’m a little slow. Some of these songs are from the 90s, and I’m just now catching up. Some of these songs were ever-present in my CD player in my young adulthood, and I’m re-discovering them.

(Yes, I made a Spotify playlist.)

Let’s hit it …

The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon 

Gord Downie was considered a national treasure in Canada, and the Hip’s farewell concert was a major television event.

When Downie passed away, a vigil was held in Bobcaygeon, a small town about 160 kilometers from Toronto. Downie had no particular tie to the town, choosing it for this song because it rhymed with “constellation,” but the band later performed there even though it’s not a big town that attracts a lot of touring bands as big as this one.

It’s a simple, beautiful song propelled by Downie’s wonderfully expressive voice.

Video

The Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster

A sprightly little tune about survivors’ guilt. Must have been one hell of a nasty breakup to compare it to the sinking of a German ship in a World War II naval battle that few people survived.

As with Bobcaygeon, it’s a repetitive melody, but the rhythm is unpredictable, and Downie builds the drama with his authoritative delivery.

This is one of the songs they performed on Saturday Night Live when fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd (neither the host nor a cast member but appearing in several sketches to prop up a disastrous season) pushed for them and did the intros.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons – Green Eyes

There are a few perks to being a fan of a relatively obscure band. I had interacted with Angela on social media a few times before I saw them, but I figured she couldn’t possibly remember every fan she meets online. Then I went to Hill Country BBQ, where I was the only person sitting on my half of the front row. (Attendance was rather spotty, mostly a few curiosity-seekers who wandered downstairs from the restaurant, but they didn’t seem to mind.) I looked up after they took the stage and saw her smiling and waving. I looked behind me, thinking she couldn’t possibly be waving to me. She was.

Afterwards, I chatted with her for a bit, posed for a selfie and got a big hug. I also talked with bass player Billy Zehnal, who has kids around my kids’ ages.

Her songs are often about young love. Dandelion Kisses, which they stretch out with an atmospheric intro in their live performances, is a bittersweet tune in which the protagonist knows the man she’s with is in love with someone else and will eventually win her over. (I often find myself yelling at no one in particular: “Angela, you deserve better than that!”) This one is a little less complicated.

Check out the solidly produced “Stereogram Session” or check out the fun live version.

Nicole Atkins – Listen Up

I’ve also interacted with Nicole a bit on social media, especially when she was hosting a show on SiriusXM. I’m not sure she knows who I am, but she high-fived me on the way out of her concert at The Barns. And this happened …

(I didn’t say that I was so startled that I let out an awkward “Hi!”)

For some reason, she just happened to start and finish in the right aisle where I was sitting, taking advantage of the acoustics to sing sans microphone. At the start of the show, she walked through — starting right next to me — singing the wistful Neptune City, which was recorded with a lush arrangement but sounded great with simple guitar chords. After her set, she once again headed into the aisle and sang an a cappella Over the Rainbow, then strode down the aisle to leave. I had my hand up to wave, and she high-fived me.

Yeah, I’m a 48-year-old fanboy. So sue me.

I wish she’d sung a couple of my old favorites — the foreboding Vultures (one of the songs I practice on drums) or the fun Girl You Look Amazing (which had a video that would’ve been a hit if MTV still played music) — but her new stuff is good as well. For this one, she did another entertaining video.

I’d say she should do comedy, but I wouldn’t want her to waste that gorgeous voice.

PJ Harvey – Man Size

Not sure why her breakthrough album Rid of Me popped back into my head after 20 years or so, but I’m glad it did. She skewers gender stereotypes throughout with raw guitar and some odd time signatures (11/4 here, which is a lot of fun to play on drums).

I think 50 Foot Queenie was the bigger hit, and I’m listening to that one, too. But I flipped a coin and chose this one.

Our Lady Peace – Starseed 

I associate this one with my drives back to Duke when I found too many excuses to go back and visit my friends. It’s back with me now because it’s a terrific drum part that I plan to pitch when School of Rock does its adult session. The drummer, Jeremy Taggart, was 18 years old when he recorded this — the Wikipedia entry for the album says recording was delayed for his high school graduation.

Video

Metric – Dressed to Suppress 

OK, THIS is a new one. I’d worried that Metric had fallen off a bit since their brilliant album Fantasies, but Art of Doubt is a powerful return to form. Emily Haines adds subtle inflections throughout that aren’t just for show — they highlight and illustrate the point.

Video

Belly – Mine

They’re back! And the new album matches up pretty favorably with the two they released in their 1990s heyday. WHFS would’ve loved this one.

Drummer Chris Gorman is also an artist, and he’s made intriguing videos for this one and Shiny One, in which Tanya Donelly sings about parenthood over a rumbling bass groove and soaring guitars. The Shiny One video seems to be paying tribute to their hit Feed the Tree, for which the video was set in a forest.

And check out the live version of Mine, which is more ragged here than when I saw them live, but it captures Tanya’s joy at being back on stage with her band as well as bassist (and cancer survivor — let’s keep Obamacare, OK?) Gail Greenwood’s propensity for cool rock-star poses.

Screaming Trees – Dying Days

Not sure I heard this one way back when it was released. I mostly knew Screaming Trees for Nearly Lost You, as I think most of us did, as well as All I Know. This one was a reflection on all the tragedies in the Seattle music community, but I actually find it uplifting somehow.

I’d recommend not watching the video for this, which is just contortions of a grotesque bit of album art, but put it on in the background and listen.

Or just listen to …

the full Spotify playlist! It also includes a few extras, such as …

Heart, Barracuda — Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has a girl who can sing this. That’s some serious talent.

The Mars Volta, Cotopaxi – Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has musicians who can work their way through the crazy time signatures here.

Rush, La Villa Strangiato – The School of Rock Rush show director has challenged the gang to play this one.

Chris Stapleton, Midnight Train to Memphis – I don’t listen to a lot of country, so I’m going to call this “roots rock” instead. Great voice, and I have fun playing this one with the snare drum tuned way down low.

The Stone Roses, Love Spreads – I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with …

Motley Crue, Dr. Feelgood – Another drum-workout track.

Rancid, Rejected – Believe it or not, School of Rock has a bass player who looks like a shy, studious girl who can play this part.

Throwing Muses, Sunray Venus – Tanya Donelly’s stepsister, Kristin Hersh, is still going strong, and she’s had the same trio now for a couple of decades.

The Cardigans, I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer – A perennial. That’s my jam, period.

And I’ve included some comedy. Enjoy.

 

 

Second hits by alleged one-hit wonders

Saw #NationalOneHitWonderDay trending on Twitter and figured I would spot several bands and musicians unfairly labeled as such. Ever since I saw a TV special label Suzanne Vega a one-hit wonder just because one of her songs was bigger than the many great ones in her catalog, I’ve taken this a bit personally.

I’m not going to argue Crash Test Dummies or Rednex (all together now — “if it weren’t for Cotton-Eyed Joe …”). I won’t even argue Thomas Dolby, Modern English, Kajagoogoo or even The Buggles. Not even Bobby McFerrin, who is best known for one of his worst songs. But some of the nominees just show our short-term memory.

I’m not going to post the tweets, but I’m simply going to list those I spotted and name other songs/albums that were certainly in my consciousness and others.

And before checking, I’m going to bet that someone says a-ha.

Here goes …

Tiffany: Could’ve Been (hey, I’m not saying I LIKE these songs) went to No. 1.

a-ha (yep, second one I spotted): The Sun Always Shines on TV and a JAMES BOND themes, The Living Daylights

Rick Astley: Sure, all his songs sounded the same, so I can’t think of any other titles. But they existed.

And this tweet was funny:

Flock of Seagulls: Seriously? Space Age Love Song and Wishing hit the Top 40 and got steady airplay on MTV.

Sinead O’Connor: Won a MTV Video Music Award for You Made Me The Thief of Your Heart. I thought The Emperor’s New Clothes was bigger than it apparently was.

Cyndi Lauper: You know what’s funniest about that tweet? The hit they mentioned was She Bop, which was neither her biggest hit nor the song most people will remember if you mention Cyndi Lauper to them.

‘Til Tuesday: This is a tough one. Aimee Mann has had such a great career, even if her songs didn’t hit the Top 40. Not even Save Me, which is ingrained in public consciousness (and perhaps proves how irrelevant the “Top 40” really is).

Toto: No. Just … no. Just because Africa is going through some sort of hipster revival doesn’t mean Rosanna, Hold the Line and their late-career ballads didn’t exist.

Falco: Tricky one, because Der Kommissar got as much attention for the English version (recorded by someone else) as for the original German.

Katrina and the Waves: Do You Want Crying hit the Top 40, but it’s admittedly pretty far behind the one big song. What was that called again?

The Cardigans: My Favourite Game did pretty well. And while it wasn’t a hit in the USA, I have to toss in this terrific video, which does have 928,000 views on YouTube.

Baby you’re foul in clear conditions, but you’re handsome in the fog …

OK, where was I?

Devo: The tweet shows them playing Satisfaction. Shape it up. Get straight. Go forward. Move ahead. Try to detect it. It’s not too late. To …

 

 

 

 

 

 

gniksam sdrawkcab fo noitanimaxe nA

Two posts this month, each one a reaction to an Ultimate Classic Rock post. Maybe I need to diversify my reading?

This one is on backwards-masking. Remember that? Remember when millions of kids played Led Zeppelin backwards and grew up to worship Satan?

The post includes several amusing videos, including one of a very earnest mulleted and mustached man speaking with a televangelist and basically hypnotizing the audience into thinking Stairway to Heaven is one extended backwards love letter to the devil. It also includes Weird Al’s absolutely intentional “Satan eats Cheez Whiz” message.

This, of course, made me think of the classic B-52s moment in which they urge people not to play their records backwards:

That’s included on a roundup of the funniest backwards messages in music, featuring Bloodhound Gang, L7, Pink Floyd, Soundgarden and, again, Weird Al.

To be fair, sometimes I can hear the supposed backwards messages. Sort of. In this funny video examining a few songs, I can actually hear a few snippets of what we’re supposed to be hearing. But I’m being primed to hear it because the alleged messages are on screen. (I probably should’ve listened without watching the video.)

The funny thing, though, is that some of these might mention Satan (or “Snn” or “Saaaaayna” or whatever we actually hear), but even if you believe all of the alleged lyrics, you wouldn’t conclude that the message is pro-Satan. If you think merely mentioning an entity is supporting it, try going to your local fundamentalist church and playing Dear God. Or God Save the Queen, which would probably be funnier.

Just goes to show you — human capacity for self-delusion in the name of a cult is boundless.

Wikipedia has an extensive list of supposed backmasked songs, but we really can’t let this go without hearing from The Rutles (at 1:46 mark).

 

Neil Peart through the ages

Observe how Neil Peart plays a particularly tricky passage of Tom Sawyer around the 3:05 mark in this video from the early 80s:

Now see how he did it in 2011:

Looks like he’s using two hands to do what he used to do with one.

My guess is that’s a pretty impressive adaptation to a natural decline in hand speed. Or maybe just more ergonomically correct.

(Yes, I know I need to be blogging at MMM more. I still love this blog.)

On race, bias, identity and other grad-school bullshit

Last night, Jonathan Coulton opened for Aimee Mann on the first night of their tour in Washington, and this happened:

JC: This is a song about a giant squid who hates himself

Crowd: Whooooooooooooo!!!

I laughed. Then something hit me.

This is really, really “white.”

And suddenly I felt a little guilty.

Ridiculous, right? Just because the crowd is about 95% white (I scanned after this feeling hit me and saw one African-American woman along with a handful of Asian people) doesn’t I should feel bad about being there. Right?

I may have been a little more defensive because I had just read, along with everyone else online yesterday, the profile piece on Rachel Dolezal, who managed to pass for “black” for a while before some investigative journalists found that she was not.

A couple of lines deep in the piece struck me:

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice.

and …

Perhaps that itself was the secret to the power of the Dolezal phenomenon—the overwhelming whiteness of it all.

As I read this, I started to think the writer meant “white” as an insult. “Oh, I can’t be mad at this arrogant, condescending woman (Dolezal). She can’t help it. She’s white.”

But was I correct in thinking that way? I wasn’t so sure.

So I did a little experiment. I posted the link on Facebook and Twitter and asked people to give me their reactions before I countered with mine. I didn’t want them to be influenced by what I had to say, and I wanted to see if anyone saw the same thing I did.

The short answer: No. No one did. The bulk of the reaction: “This is brilliant.” One right-leaning Twitter respondent countered that the story was 10 minutes of her life she’d never get back. On Facebook, someone else (who is not writing from a place of white privilege) called the writer “really annoying.”

All of the feedback was good. I don’t know how that happened. That might be a first on social media.

And we had a few interesting thoughts on entitlement. Dolezal felt entitled to choose her race, and she still feels entitled to compare her experience as “black” to the experiences of actual black people.

white-choice

So what we could say is that Dolezal isn’t necessarily representative of all whites. But the mentality she has is uniquely white — or, at least, unique to people who don’t experience appearance-based discrimination unless they seek it out like a tourist.

Of course, it’s tricky because racial labels are slippery. Many years ago, I read a piece from a writer traveling in Brazil who found that people who would be considered “Latin(a/o/x)” in the USA and elsewhere considered themselves “white” in Brazil. I also found myself in a conversation recently in which a fellow Person of Likely European Descent (PLED, a perfect acronym) was accused of seeing a relatively harmless issue through the lens of “white privilege,” and others piled on, saying we needed to listen to the accuser because she’s a “person of color.” She’s Asian-American, and while I don’t know too much about her, I know she went to very good Boston-area colleges for undergrad and law school. My Starbucks barmate, an African-American man who’s old enough to have seen some shit, got a good chuckle out of that.

That’s not to deny that Asian-Americans have ever had it tough. Rosa Parks isn’t part of their experience, but WWII internment and other atrocities are. They’re simply different experiences. Not all “persons of color” have the same circumstances, just as not all white people do.

“White privilege” is real — in certain contexts. A Trump child and a poor kid from a meth-addicted family in Appalachia may not have much in common other than the fact that they’ll never face discrimination based on the color of their skin. But that one thing in common is huge.

And, as the person in our discussion insisted, “white privilege” isn’t inherently evil. It just is. It’s just a blind spot. We have them when we’re driving, and it takes a lot of effort to see what’s there, and even then, we don’t get the best view. And we all have those blind spots, whether it’s from race, class or whatever.

One of the people in our Facebook discussion argued that I should try to consider that the author was writing this “to and for other black women.” I took issue with that. Then I second-guessed myself again. Here’s why:

I’m surely a little defensive this week because I’ve been shredded on a message board (and elsewhere, but the message board is pertinent here). This message board is by and for lesbians. Years ago, when I noticed it was sending me a lot of traffic and people were discussing my work (at the time, a nice even split of appreciation and criticism), a couple of people from the board reached out and asked me not to identify the board. I agreed, and I agreed I would never post to it — even though it’s anonymous and no one would know.

Over the years, that message board has gotten a bit more hostile. I know several people who no longer participate. They hate me, and they hate most women’s soccer journalists. But they also hate each other, so we shouldn’t take it personally.

It’s also become a classic “bubble” in which false narratives and fake news take root. People on that board accused me of taking money from the Washington Spirit to write a blog post that devoted most of its words to criticizing the Spirit but defended the club on two counts most important to them — the “homophobia” charges against the owner and the Ali Krieger trade. (Not the scant return on that trade, just the notion of trading her in general.) And they accused me of other unprofessional conduct as well.

The way it works on that board is this:

  • Post A: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe falsified evidence.”
  • Post B: “Yeah, he’s a jerk.”
  • Post C: “Yeah, can you believe he falsified evidence?”
  • Post D: “Yeah. I bet he’s also cruel to animals. That’s just typical for someone who falsified evidence.”

The flip speculation becomes the “truth.” It’s as true on this board as it is in any obnoxious community of wingnuts who start blaming immigrants and liberals for everything in life.

All a valid concern. But was I incorrectly applying it to this piece on Dolezal? I think so. The target audience may have been “black women,” but it’s out there for all to see. There’s nothing false in it. And others who’ve read it don’t believe that it props up any unfair stereotypes of white people. An intelligent person isn’t going to read it and think all white people are like Dolezal. Anyone who does read it that way … well, that person probably brought a few issues to the table already.

And there’s value in having a community. A piece that’s written “for black women” (or for Hispanic men or Scandinavians or whatever) isn’t inherently feeding a malicious bubble. For one thing, there’s no barrier to entry. Nothing stopped me from reading that piece. If something had been factually inaccurate (and I didn’t see anything of that sort), nothing would stop me from being able to point it out.

That piece may be “for black women.” But not in any discriminatory sense. Anyone’s welcome. (Now, if a white person tried to pretend to be black … well …)

And that community brings me back to the Aimee Mann/Jonathan Coulton show. Should I feel guilty that I was in a theatre in D.C. watching a show in which we white people joke and write sad songs about how much our lives suck? I don’t think so.

lame

It did occur to me that there’s some “white privilege” at play in the sense that most of the people in the theatre live relatively comfortable lives in which they can afford to make fun of their own lameness. It’s not exclusively white, of course, and there are surely plenty people of color who can relate to Coulton’s sad/witty take on suburban ennui and isolation:

And I don’t think people would want Coulton writing about the African-American experience, at least not with any pretense of living it first-hand. That would make him … Rachel Dolezal.

But the important thing about communities like the one at the concert or the one reading the Dolezal article isn’t who’s there. It’s who’s welcome. Singing or writing a piece that’s going to resonate mostly with people of your own skin color isn’t inherently wrong. Telling people they’re not welcome — that is wrong.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, the Internet seems to be splitting into communities that refuse to converse with each other. It might be some alt-right race-baiting site. It might be a message board that slanders people in ways that can be Googled, then tells them to quit reacting on Twitter, let alone coming onto the board to try to reason with anyone. We’ve seen the havoc that such things can wreak in politics. And I have to admit it’s been getting me down on a personal level. It’s tough to find a place where we belong. Sounds odd coming from someone with more than 1,000 Facebook friends and more than 7,000 Twitter followers (most of whom signed on years ago when I was one of USA TODAY’s first Twitter users), but that’s where we stand.

Not sure what to do about it. If I were as brilliant as Aimee Mann or Jonathan Coulton, maybe I’d write a song about it.

But the Internet’s not all bad. It allows me to write long self-examinations that prove that I engage in long self-examinations. (And if the colleague who accused me of never doing that is reading — hi!)

And Jonathan Coulton has released a lot of songs under a Creative Commons license, so you can enjoy this or several other animations of a song about a zombie trying to convince his co-worker that it’s simply not “big picture” of him to try to keep the zombies from eating his brains: