Category Archives: Amplified Observations

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: 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: Bob Dylan cautious of media in acceptance of Nobel Prize

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/10/bob-dylan-nobel-prize

The wind stopped blowing and we finally got an answer.

Following two long weeks of speculative silence, Bob Dylan acknowledged his Nobel Prize for Literature on Saturday in an interview with The Telegraph.

He is quoted saying he would “absolutely” accept the award “if it is at all possible.” Had he not, Dylan would have been the first to turn down the prize since Jean Paul Sartre in 1964 who did not want to be made into an “institution.”

Prior to Dylan’s acceptance, hundreds of news articles and think-pieces invaded everyone’s social feed and occupied several niches of the press: music, celebrity and the almighty cold case. Why isn’t he talking and what will he say?

Sure enough, in Dylan’s long-developed mannerisms, he let the public and press sweat for a bit with his thumb and index figure on society’s air-conditioner’s knob. Dylan has long been wary of acknowledging the sacred cows of civilized culture, including time-honored awards.

Perhaps his extended reticence also emerged as a reaction to the firestorm created by the initial reaction. One party argued Dylan’s selection did not follow the traditions of the Nobel Prizes in Literature, which include William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez and Hermann Hesse. The other argued for the songwriter’s cultural contributions through his lyrics and themes (even though Dylan is no Hesse).

I fall into the latter camp and I guess so do the Swedish people on the prize’s board.

Over his half-century career, Dylan has remained wary of public attraction toward publicity stunts and ratings-magnets. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature might have been awarded earnestly, or possibly with an angle. Either way, Dylan let the medal cool down before reaching out for it.

But along with avoiding controversy, Dylan also caused “irritation and anger” among the selection committee. Perhaps he reminded them of the emptiness in their validation of him, which could have meant more to someone whose message had not yet been received clearly by the public.

To accept an award of elite validation is to give power to the validators, which is ultimately a personal choice. Dylan eventually accepted the award, but only after exposing the hollowness and vanity of the whole process.

And aside from a knighting by the Queen, music honors only look to confirm or validate what an artist already knew, especially one around as long as Dylan. The only one that seems honest in judging quality and innovation is the Mercury Prize.

With his silence, Bob Dylan intentionally or unintentionally showed that awards do not make us more human or more real than anyone else. Awards are nice, warm validation, but no one lives in a higher or lower state than anyone else because of them.

Committees and opinions would make it appear so.

Amplified Observations: Long songs need structural, conceptual support

http://www.thepostathens.com/article/2016/09/are-long-songs-better-than-short-songs

Long songs are like suspension bridges. If there’s not enough support they collapse into troubled waters, taking with them everyone on board.

But if the cords manage to hold and the concept and engineering is strong enough, the bridge delivers its travelers safely to the other side.

Songs that indulge in themselves must be engrossing enough to the listener as to dispel the feeling that the listener is wasting precious time crossing a bridge to nowhere. They must make a connection to the listener, through storytelling, relatable experiences or stirring riffs and chords. Sometimes one of these is enough and sometimes it takes all three.

This primarily applies to rock songs ranging from seven minutes and longer. Since most jazz and classical works rely on movements and improvisation, they’ll have to wait in traffic until this column is over. There’s no way to establish movements or improvise without taking your time, but things could easily fall apart just as well.

Storytelling, the simplest of these three methods, captures the audience using narrative suspense like in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Everyone enjoys a good story and if the tale draws us in, we usually find out what happens in the end.

Other artists use powerful phrasing and relatable sentiments to hold attention for long stretches. My Morning Jacket’s “I Will Sing You Songs” and Yes’ near 19 minute opus “Close to the Edge” achieve this effect quite well.

But it’s most impressive when these two techniques are combined with a display of sheer musicality. When the melodies are memorable and the riffs are rockin, no one will want to tap the right double arrow.

Examples include Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls on Hoboken” and, of course, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Sometimes musicians cheat a little bit and stitch two compositions together into one long track like Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But whatever you call it, the changeup is effective at shaking off boredom and listener fatigue, a pitfall to song length.

It’s difficult to recall specific songs that fall apart after a certain point, probably because culture forgets them or they lack inventiveness. But it would be accurate to say that sometimes boring riffs go on for too long and lyrics sound uninteresting and soulless at a certain point (“Revolution 9”). Not every song has to be as long as Sufjan Stevens’ 25 minute album closer “Impossible Soul.” I would prefer if they weren’t.

But long songs tend to be worth the effort, even if some might bring wasted time. They have more space to convey a moving atmosphere and make a sonic connection.

It’s all about staying in the slow lane of that suspension bridge and enjoying the scenic view. It’ll distract you long enough to realize that you’re already on the other side.