Category Archives: Amplified Observations

Amplified Observations: Birds and musicians share purposes in the world

Link: http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/03/birds-and-musicians

When a bird sings during the dawn chorus or later in the sunlight, the tones and phrasing emerging from its beak repeat in a hypnotic and often moving way.

Nature granted male birds the ability to create beautifully pure-tone sounds to attract mates and assert personal territory. Some female birds, like the mockingbird, can also sing for the same purposes of courting and defense.

But to most humans, the singing of birds sounds more like a form of emotional expression, a joyous hymn from a sparrow or the reflective lamentations of a robin. This common, even subconscious, interpretation paints birds as nature’s purveyor of art and song, an idea embraced in a similar manner to the role of the artist or musician in society.

Whether in John Lennon’s somber “Blackbird” or Bob Marley’s elated “Three Little Birds,” songwriters have incorporated birds as not only a symbol for freedom but also instinctual expression. With their effortless flight and carefree songs and chirps, birds embody the life for which artists strive, one full of creation untethered by the tedium of constraint. Among recent relevant works, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” idealizes and supports this image of escape and autonomy.

For the artists, music or any other form of creation can feel like a natural impulse than a choice. Birds have no choice but to sing for their life’s fulfillment, artists have no choice but to create in the same passionate and legacy-building way. And both musical expressions — merely sound arranged over time — possess a deeper, abstract meaning about the capabilities of absorbing life’s strange gifts of song and practically inexplicable aesthetics.

Had I not mentioned birds sing for mating and territory, their songs might seem wholly spontaneous. But in either humans or birds, nothing comes from true spontaneity and is always devised deep in the neural firings in the mind before being brought forth into existence.

Although, in songs of all human and non-human languages, biological or sensical meaning is not necessary, only reaction and emotion. What matters more than words are deeper feelings of melancholy, joy, loneliness or alienation.

On Mount Eerie’s new album A Crow Looked At Me, which deals with the death of artist Phil Elverum’s wife, the words hold great impact in their obvious catharsis of death as a reality. But the true sadness of the album comes from listening to Elverum’s inflection of melancholy and thinly-masked despair.

Like the namesake crow, the songs with titles like “Real Death,” “Raven” and “Crow” deliver a reproduction of the power of earthly suffering, reaching from the same rawness of black metal music. And despite the modern references and exploration of social constructs, A Crow Looked At Me is appropriately named as a crow or nightingale could encapsulate the music’s message perched on a willow branch, lamenting in solitude and pain.

Of course, bird songs can also carry the essence of more hopeful music, such as Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” or The Shins’ “New Slang.” Only their compositions are interspersed with more noticeable silences, less structure and little temporal rush.

But perhaps the most important art and music deal not with content but with the act of loss and discomfort. Cheerful songs only act to distract while requiems heal. And although birds might not sing specifically for the dead, the right sounds from a black-feathered avian might give an unmistakable impression.

Like a bird’s haunting lament, the songs like Phil Elverum presents on A Crow Looked at Me or, for that matter, Sufjan Stevens sings on Carrie & Lowell regarding lost love and worn-out territory feel just as much a part of nature expressing itself as anything in the forest.

Songbirds fly among us and experience the same reality as humans. They are simply less aware than us but often more truthful. With attention, one might find the full spectrum of terrestrial emotion from the throats of both the robin’s beak and the broken heart.

Amplified Observations: ‘Every Breath You Take’ encapsulated the good and sinister of love and loss

Link: http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/03/every-breath-you-take

The Police released no singles that matched the popularity and longevity of 1983’s “Every Breath You Take.” It marked a high-water mark in the group’s career, despite the circumstances surrounding it.

Accompanied by a solid b-side, “Murder by Numbers,” and a clean and ageless music video, the band’s four-minute signature song creates a tender atmosphere that dives straight through the chest and into a place of deep vulnerability reserved only for inner-monologues.

Sting’s ambiguous and heartfelt lyrics find safe haven behind Andy Summer’s steadily uncertain strumming, two components the song that would earn the band two Grammy awards and an endless flow of royalties.

But for all the acclaim placed on “Every Breath You Take,” the song’s meaning — or rather multiple meanings — is not typical of a record with such a level of popularity. Unlike the generally straightforward contemporary pop songs by artists like Adele or Ed Sheeran, Sting’s relaxed composition suggests multiple interpretations with a narrator who is either exceedingly devoted or exceedingly obsessive. And the only way to discern among the two possibilities is by the recipient of the song’s message.

Each time the “Every Breath You Take” plays on a classic rock radio station or in the background of a restaurant, without fail someone comments on the creepy, stalkerish undertones within Sting’s lyrics. In interviewers, Sting himself has called the song “sinister” and “ugly,” despite initially intending to write a love song.

However, this question is the entire draw. The narrator reaches into a gray area of love and loss that only makes itself known within the level of the subjective psyche. Is it worth trying to hold this together, is it no longer love but jealousy, and when is it time to let go?

Sting wrote the track in the Caribbean between a divorce with his ex-wife and a blooming relationship with his future wife. Writing in the same space that Bob Dylan did for 1975’s Blood On the Tracks, Sting inhabited a strange limbo of emotional loss and newfound affection. Knowing this position, it is difficult to decipher which person the song is more directed toward.

Perhaps the residue of the former relationship lingers in the narrator’s mind, stalking him with curiosity. But it’s also possible that the narrator simply wants to give his new lover the attention that he feels she deserves, giving notice to her every move out of pure affection.

The lyrics simultaneously contrast endearing love with what we mistake for love after it has left.

Additionally, the song might also apply to the sort of relationship between a government and its citizens. The government loves its citizens so much that it needs to monitor their every breath and every move, which adds to the “sinister” aspect of surveillance whether by authority or a former partner.

With the syntax of such simple statements, Sting manages to leave enough ambiguity in the song to keep people wondering about its real meaning, which is undoubtedly in human nature to do.

If anything, “Every Breath You Take” exemplifies that great works of art can arise during times shrouded with domestic unraveling general tension. It shows that, if harnessed correctly, energy from the lowest point can lead to success and recognition.

Certain truths and revelations can only be expressed by those engulfed by them, and the expression in “Every Breath You Take” is not one from a commonly explored space, but one that manages to encompass the full spectrum of loving and loathing.

Amplified Observations: New vinyl records, a luxury in college, sometimes worth the impulse

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/vinyls-luxury-impulse

College students and luxury are often at ends. For everything wanted, there is something else needed.

As much as many of us consider music a need, some aspects of it unfortunately fall into the wide umbrella of want. And the best case to illustrate this problem is the internal debate of buying vinyl.

Undoubtedly, vinyl records have a certain charm and charisma attached to them. Hearing sound created when an intricate needle falls into their ridges not only looks cool, but will also give you credibility to guests who will “ooh” and “ahh” over the rare and magical sight.

But despite the spectacle, vinyl is inedible and will not propel a car to go forward nor pay the landlord. Coupled with the relative cost of records worth buying, people that have not started careers yet and find themselves weighed down by schoolwork rather than paid work hardly have the spare $20 for a new record.

Of course, with the possibility of used records, which nearly every record store carries, bargains come into play. A $3 Yes record might be plucked from the dusty back shelves with money left to buy accompanying beverages for the first spin on the turntable.

At the same time, bargains for well-known used albums usually trend in the opposite price direction. To buy a $60 press of Blonde on Blonde, Led Zeppelin’s IV or any post-1964 Beatles record is such a reckless indulgence on a college budget that a Spotify subscription almost seems like an objective responsibility. It’s cheaper, but not the same.

With the modern availability of music, any vinyl purchase over even $5 feels like an indulgence, an undeserving luxury that can be bypassed through other, more frugal methods.

Yet, like many material things, the authentic atmosphere that vinyl albums exude cannot be quantified in a given dollar amounts. The true nucleus of vinyl records’ likeability comes in the element of interactivity.

Clicking play on a computer is now such a mindless act with little significance, but taking a record out of its artistic gatefold, checking it for any scratches, adjusting the volume levels of speakers and watching the black, intelligent disc spin ad infinitum is something that can only be experienced firsthand. Not to mention, the carefully engineered and signal-processed bass reproduction sounds warm and feels unmatched in hearing it on anything else.

When buying vinyl, you don’t pay simply for the music like in the 1970s, you now pay for the process of exclusive enjoyment. Sometimes hearing the bleeps and bloops of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn is worth shelling out $30 on impulse. It all depends on where a limited amount of money means the most.

At some point in post-college financial stability, vinyl will most likely stop feeling like a luxury and more like a casual trip to the record shop. That day will both be welcomed and dreaded because it means the end of a certain sacred regard I hold for something that’s as simple as a grooved circle in a cardboard sleeve.

Luxury might become standard, but I suppose it’s all matter of perspective.

Amplified Observations: Music might soon require us to become listeners, readers and viewers at the same time

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/02/music-combines-listening-viewing

Stephen King has hypothesized that his readers do not return to him for action but rather for a voice.

Artists, whether musical, visual or literary, function like a font that surfaces from underground streams of individualized and undiluted ideas. The clearest examples of these distinct voices also happen to be the easiest to name: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Richard Wagner, Bob Dylan, Jane Austen and Langston Hughes.

Despite some great artists focused solely only one type of artistic expression, others have expanded their voices into other mediums to present more comprehensive works that speak to the eyes, the ears and the psyche.

In 1849, Richard Wagner popularized a German aesthetic term called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which translates to “total work of art” or “comprehensive artwork.” The phrase looked to blur the lines between different mediums and artistic tasks into one conceptual statement made up of all its parts.

The idea continues to float underneath the brim of pop culture with Jack-of-all-tradesmen like Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, who paired his music with his paintings, and David Bowie, whose final work Blackstar included an off-Broadway play titled “Lazarus” after one of the album’s songs. In every way, Bowie’s last release followed the carte blanche, combinative tradition Wagner pioneered in his operas.

In the present age of digital storage, more and more artists have released visual compositions about the creation of their albums or as a companion piece, such as artists like NothingMGMT and recently Flying Lotus. Musicians are no longer one-dimensional in their expression, and technology has facilitated their access to honing and mastering mediums other than their primary one.

Perhaps the two releases that have most mirrored Wagner’s method are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Both 2016 albums arrived with visual stories interlinked with the music rather than added as an extra feature. At the same time, Ocean also published a magazine called “Boys Don’t Cry” featuring an explanatory project details and a silly, witty poem by Kanye West. 

Regardless of the quality of the albums, their use of mixed media, including print, is unprecedented in their professionalism and personally-crafted sheen. But full-length album films are not the only way to expand on an album’s meaning. Artists include things in releases that are often overlooked.

On my wall hangs a poster that came with the vinyl for Archy Marshall’s moody hip-hop album A New Place 2 Drown. Although the poster is only made up of different patterns of black and white lines and the album’s name, it provides another object to contemplate the deeper feelings behind abstract sounds. It gives the album a visual backdrop.

Prior to dropping the group’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead sent cryptic postcards to its mailing list complete with appropriately-paranoid lyrics and a painting related to the album.

A gesture as simple as a poster or postcard that differs from the album’s mandatory cover artwork can give listeners a better idea of which stream of human emotion the artist filled his or her canteen.

An artistic concept should not be confined to one area of expertise but rather allowed to flourish in many different forms. Artists are moving forward in releasing more comprehensive works from the viewpoint of music rather than the traditional mixed medium of film.

And as long as the voice remains strong and present throughout the work, the listeners, readers and viewers will always return for more. And more and more, those three separate labels of consumption apply to one person engaged with one work of art.

Amplified Observations: Musicians have written music to fit the seasons since the 18th century

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/01/music-for-when-the-weather-changes

It is a dark and stormy night … and the needle creeps down onto the ridges of a Nick Drake or Jenny Hval record, setting the haunting ambiance for the long autumn hours ahead.

The temperature is cool but the warmth of the ceramic mug pressing against your palm makes shivering unlikely, except from the lonely and introspective notes and words that echo out of adjacent speakers. Everything seems to have fallen into place.

In times like these, music requires a certain amount of thanks. Not only do musicians reflect the emotions and trials of the human condition but also the surrounding world. Depending on taste, different weather and different seasons bring to mind songs that inexplicably fit, whether in a wrathful darkness like tonight or the cheerful sunlight of tomorrow.

Each of the four seasons and its distinct weather patterns call to mind the sonic equivalent left by artists who channel the lusciousness of summer to the bleakness of winter, the slow fade of autumn to the gentle rise of spring. Rain, wind, thunderstorms, cloudiness and sunshine have all found places in music’s atmosphere, and not always in unintentional ways.

Kurt Vile, one the present’s most creative rockers, described his first studio album Childish Prodigy as having “a fall kind of feel” in a 2009 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes. It’s hard to put a finger on what that means but at the same time the feeling seems almost obvious. My Morning Jacket, The Microphones and some Pacific Northwest bands embody this description, as well.

Likewise, a number of jazz standards evoke the impression of seasons not only in sound but also in title. “Spring Is Here,” “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves” stand among the most popular standards with musicians from John Coltrane to Roger Williams to Frank Sinatra all taking advantage of the songs’ relatable reach. No one alive has not enjoyed the awakening of the springtime or the crunch of November footsteps.

However, other works are less intentional and seem to adopt a place on the calendar or the weatherman’s forecast by themselves.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s now-classic LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea holds the most power in the dead cold of winter when its fiery melodies melts the ice that keeps the mind snowbound. Likewise, the swirling, spacey guitars of Explosions in the Sky and other post-rock also feels appropriate like colorful lights shining across the tundra. And for the darkest days of winter, a certain type of music from Norway might be fitting.

But when the weather breaks and thaws, the rain-filled afternoons of spring and the heat of summer call for another aura.

How many times have you heard the phrase “song of the summer”? Pop music is practically built around a season with a slew of hooks about summertime sadness, meeting someone in the summer, walking around in summertime clothes or having the summertime blues. Summer is undoubtedly the most commercialized season probably because it holds the greatest chance of love and happiness. Spring, on the other hand, builds up to the days of the June solstice, signifying awakening and rebirth.

And I suppose I cannot write about weather and seasonal music without mentioning Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (Le quattro stagioni). Published in 1725, the composition illustrates length of time that his idea reaches into the past, revealing that the world around us is something we all share and experience.

The four seasons and their accompanying weather inspires art and music created to replicate their intangible, indescribable aspects. And when these works strike eardrums, it rings an internal chord that causes the mind to perceive an undercurrent of harmony, even in the heaviest rain.

Amplified Observations: Searching for a song by melody sends listeners on an unexpected quest

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2017/01/music-obscure-finding

At a time when the answer to our most biting questions rests as near as the stitched denim of a jean pocket, few mysteries go unsolved. Smartphones have become an indispensable resource in daily life, ushering in a new approach to problem solving.

And when it comes to identifying music, an area of knowledge that once relied on sharp attention and wide familiarity, the challenge has now been reduced to simply opening apps like Genius or Shazam. Punch in a few words echoing around in your head or let Siri take a brief listen and in seconds you will arrive at an instantaneous answer. The power to decipher anything in earshot is a luxury exclusive to the 21st century. Could you imagine having to learn the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Chopin off top?

But limits to this technology exist. For instance, what happens when a bliss-inducing song ends and exists only in the mind’s eye, or rather, ear?

Until tech developers start drilling into our noggins and implanting devices that recognize tunes based on thought, some mysteries will remain. A bluesy riff, a spiraling vocal melody, a crisp drum fill or an arresting chord sequence might stay shrouded in uncertainty, so much uncertainty that you might question if you heard it all in the first place.

Simultaneously, these unrecognizable fragments lodged into the abstract parts of our brains tend to hold the most value because they succeed in causing listeners to retain them. Passing through the hammer, anvil and stirrup, the strength of imprinted melodies, playing, delivery and even theory sticks in the mind for a reason. The decisions the musicians made worked and resonated despite embodying an enigmatic presence.

The journey to uncovering these evasive song titles is one of the last remnants from an era prior to the silver spoons and resources of today. Not only does identifying an unknown song deliver a feeling of sleuth-like satisfaction, but the labor leading to the discovery opens doors to more newfound artists and styles. An odd jazz song leads to finding bossa nova. A sample in modern hip-hop gestures back to ’70s funk bands. With enough in mind, it only takes a bit of research and legwork to reach an entirely new realm of creativity in the shadow of popularity.

Not to mention, this search changes the role of the listener from passive to active. To locate a song from memory requires listeners to ask him or herself what made the song so memorable in the first place? What sections or features stood out? Who does this sound like, if anyone? Why do I like this?

Maybe innovators in the 22nd century will find a way to identify songs straight from memory and take away any trace of human error. But for now, music’s mystery and magic still floats around in the subconscious awaiting the eventual moment of clarity and reemergence.

Amplified Observations: It doesn’t take headphones to listen to music while running

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/11/exercise-music-running

I still run some days, but I used to run more.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, the hill-covered terrain offered an ideal place to cleanse my mind by pushing my body farther and farther. It felt like an experiment of focus and perseverance in addition to a self-mandated penance.

But the sanctity I attached to the activity did not come without struggle and tough decisions.

Looking back, the form I took in my early days of three-mile long jogs would now cause me to recoil in embarrassment. Even some of my friends who ran long distance gave me pointers of how to improve my posture. Luckily, I have made improvements since then, at least in that area.

However, another aspect of running that I still think about today continues to puzzle me, as I sway back and forth with no clear answer on the question of listening to music.

Advice I’ve read and heard in my time suggests that music and its changing tempos diverts a runner from his or her natural patterns and rhythms. Unless all the songs on a playlist are set at 90 BPM, then it will, in some way affect pace and performance.

On those carefree days when I took to the local pavement, I made a point not to listen to music.

As much as I love both music and running, I sensed the two conflicted, competing for my attention and drawing my mind away from adjusting my form for the better. Back then, before I felt the weight of creating a career path, I preferred to listen to my unfiltered thoughts. And I must admit that listening to one’s mind while running is analogous to spontaneous shower-thoughts after the subsequent cool down stretch.

I understand that running without music might come across as a nightmare to some runners, but for me, it marked the only path and opened my eyes to a new experience.

I recall entertaining the idea that running doubles as a kind of music in itself. The heart offers a steady bass drum while the repeated striking of track shoes act as sharp snares. Melody rises from the surrounding ambience: the wind, the rustling leaves, the hum of cars, the sound of rain. Each runner is a composer, shaping a natural symphony.

The tension of muscles and deteriorating strength only brings more significance to the experience, an underlying challenge that gives purpose to the whirlwind of noises.

I felt like I was in the midst of a live field recording and I remember the music well.

Nowadays, I find myself listening music while running on Ping’s third floor atrium. For shorter distances, music by Vince Staples, Ty Segall and Japanther add an extra energy and confidence to the body that only the most determined runners can achieve unassisted. I’ve found that lighter, more mellow music like Beach House or Yo La Tengo function as a great complement to cool down stretches, after all the intense leg work is done.

Ultimately, the choice of music while running is an individual’s to make, but there are advantages to both songs from a digital device and songs created by the world around us.

After all, music is simply sound arranged over time.