Monday, March 5, 2012

Three Meals from France

Breakfast: The first movement in Debussy's famous work for orchestra, La Mer, is entitled "From Dawn Til Noon at Sea." For this particular Monday morning, that felt like the perfect place to be. The music truly feels like you are experiencing the transformation of night into day while sitting by the oceanside. This album also includes Debussy's Rhapsody for Saxophone, a piece that makes use of an instrument that is much more common in jazz than it is in classical music. But the pairing of these two great works on this album go together like a great cup of coffee and a buttery scone.

Lunch: The band Air is a French duo that composes their own genre of music. It is probably most frequently coined as electronic, downbeat or ambient music. Whatever you want to call it, I'm a fan. And after a hearty breakfast of Debussy, this band was the perfect light lunch that I needed. This album is called Pocket Symphony. I often find this record playing while I'm doing yoga as it has a peaceful yet energizing quality to it. A great combination.

Dinner: This last pick of the day seemed rather obvious to me as I went through my record collection. Try putting on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix during your next party. For those who haven't heard this Grammy winning album, they will certainly take notice. Music can completely change the atmosphere in the room. It is as much a compliment to a given situation as pairing the right wine with a particular meal. If you get it right, everything falls into place. If you get it wrong, the entire experience is compromised. Music, even when it's not the focal point, is still of great importance.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

International Flavors

There is an analogy between music and food that has been frequenting my mind lately. In recent years, the food industry is enjoying popular trends like farmer's markets, local eateries, local breweries and a variety of health conscious movements. Most of us think about what we eat more than ever. People are unknowingly creating identities around their diets. Eating local food or being a weekly shopper at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's is as much a part of our personalities as the clothes we wear. In this sense, food is a new form of fashion. And like fashion, we are all trying to keep up with the latest trends.

With food we have becoming willing to explore. We are trying food from all over the world with a variety of different ingredients. And from the looks of it, most of us are finding it rather enjoyable. We are benefiting from healthier, more nutritious meals that taste fresh, new and interesting. Why is it then that so many of us stick to the same radio station, the same songs, same albums and same bands so frequently?

I want to see the world explore music the same way that we are currently exploring food. It's time that we put aside the stereotypes that have come with certain styles of music and start exploring it instead. Like a healthy diet, you will find a world of benefits that you had no idea existed.

Have you tried listening to a great symphony while you let your mind wander into the deep, creative corners of your mind? It might just solve that problem at work that nobody else can figure out. Have you tried listening to music from India after a long day as a way to relax. It might lead to more productivity during your evening hours. What about cranking some Jay-Z while working out? You don't have to be a college student at a frat party to enjoy hip-hop.

Sure, we all have our favorites. There are bands and songs that I have listened to hundreds of times and will listen to a hundred times more. But if we don't explore music, we are truly missing out on a very important part of our lives. There are cultures who depend on music to bring about joy and happiness in their lives. I think we often take for granted the easy access we have to music these days. Music is sacred and should be treated as such.

My call to action is this... Let's stop treating music like a fast food restaurant. It deserves more attention than a quick listen before skipping to the next song. We have been willing to acquire a taste for healthy food and spend a little extra time making sure we feed our bodies the best. It's time we give music the same kind of attention. Go explore all the flavors the world has to offer.

Incase you don't know where to get started, I'll be serving up some internationally inspired dishes this week. The first album, Koop Island, is from a Swedish band called Koop. The second album is comes from the English mind of Seb Taylor. Of his many different projects, this one is called the Kaya Project the album is entitled Elixir.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Long Walk To Never EP (Jaymay)

Jaymay Music 2010

I was a bit bummed that only two songs were nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards this evening. Why aren't more musicians being approached by filmmakers to write original songs for their films? 

Compilation soundtracks are great. Using existing music to enhance the images on the screen is an art all its own. And scoring a film is the ultimate form of music in the movies. I'm just left a little bit dumbfounded that only two original songs were deemed worthy enough to warrant a nomination.

To remedy this, I'll offer you my own suggestion for best original song in a film, albeit from 2010. The film Happythankyoumoreplease is a small independent that won the Audience Award for Best Drama at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. It featured 14 original songs by Jaymay, a well-known face in the New York anti-folk scene.

During a poignant montage about halfway through the film, her song, "Never Be Daunted," plays throughout. The song is perfect for the moment and almost becomes a character all its own. The lyrics convey the thoughts of every character while the music depicts the mood. It's not a flashy Hollywood moment, but rather a simple and very human moment that we can all appreciate.

You can check out the song by watching the film (I recommend) or hear it on this 5 song EP (also recommend). Enjoy the Oscars!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend)

XL Recordings 2008

Music is fun. Nobody goes to a concert in hopes of having a terrible time, or buys an album thinking it will make them miserable. We often listen to music for no other reason than for our own enjoyment.

It's for this reason that I get annoyed by people who feel it's okay to debunk other people's favorite music as second rate, incoherent nonsense. Even if the music is exactly that.

I'm all for debating the quality of music. I could do it for days on end. There's lots of music that I am passionate about and there's music that I have yet to develop an ear for, and may never find worthwhile. But I think it's important to try and treat music like you would food. At least give it a shot. Don't judge it by what it looks like. And keep in mind that you may develop a taste for it the more you are exposed to it.

I bring this up because Vampire Weekend has been on my list of bands to check out and I finally did so about a month ago. I know, I am way late coming to this party. And after doing some reading, it looks like some people have already came to the party and left. But no matter what the cirques reviews are, Pitchfork ranking, or anything else might say, I am really enjoying this record. And for me, that's all that matters.

So try and not be genre-bias or hate a song just because it's popular with teenage girls. Of course, by all means, feel free to hate it if you really think it sucks. Just remember, it's somebody else's favorite song.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nina Simone Sings The Blues (Nina Simone)

RCA 1967

Have you ever felt like some music seems to follow you around? Maybe you first notice a song on the radio. Then you find it playing again at your favorite bookstore. You might shrug it off as coincidence. But then, as if the music is begging you for a first date, you come across the music for a third time and your curiosity is finally peaked. That's how I discovered Nina Simone.

In the vast landscape of incredible female vocalists, I'm not entirely sure how well known Simone would be recognized. From a musicians point of view, she is incredibly talented. I put on this album one evening, had a couple bottles of beer and was completely captivated. The mix of a classically trained pianist and deep roots in jazz and blues makes for a killer combination.

Musicians that have studied a broad range of musical styles, I find, often create some of the most interesting music. Of course, there is a lot to be said for those who study one particular style of music and become virtuosic in the performance of it. I very much admire this talent. But I find I connect more with those who are more all over the map. Their music seems to push creative boundaries and have an urgent sound that is raw and imaginative like an expressionist painter. Maybe this is just my current mood talking but this probably holds true the majority of the time.

Too often musicians become labeled. Fans come expect a certain "sound" and that is really too bad. Musicians evolve the same way that you evolve throughout your career. Just as you might search for a new job, musicians often search for a new sound or influence.

I'm all for the brave explorers of the world. I admire the person who travels many roads, be it a musician of many sounds or a lawyer turned novelist turned ship captain.

So, in the end, I'm glad the music of Nina Simone found me. If you need a little variety in your life, this album will give you a little bit of everything and a whole lot of great music.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Axis: Bold as Love (Jimi Hendrix)

Track Records 1967, Album Art by David King, Roger Law and Karl Ferris

The first time that I heard Hendrix was in the seventh grade. It might be the only vivid memory I have from seventh grade, and thank god for that, but this particular moment was a life changer.

I was on a school bus, in route to a basketball game where I would inevitably be sitting on the bench, essentially wasting a perfectly good evening. As we made our way to the opponents school, a teammate, and one of the few real friends I had on the team, handed me his Discman. He told me a had to listen to this guy playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on his guitar.

The Star Spangled Banner? You mean the song we are going to hear again in about an hour, probably sang by a prepubescent boy going through a voice change? I didn't understand why I was being asked to do this, but I took the headphones from my friend and pushed play.

I was transported to Woodstock, 1969. On the final morning, Hendrix took the stage and performed a truly unique version of the U.S. National Anthem that was the immediate target for both enormous revere and incredible scrutiny. Using only the voice of his guitar, he created a powerful rendition that has become a timeless masterpiece. The music creates stunning visuals in your mind of the "rockets red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." A tapestry of beautiful music to some, horrendous noise to others. Either way, a honest expression of music.

As for me, I was floored. It was the first time I ever felt high, and there were no drugs involved. I actually had a physical reaction to the music. It changed my mood and mindset. Endorphins were released at an alarming rate, or at least I'm guessing they were. And there I was, an ugly 14 year-old boy, now a hopeless addict of music. I've been a junkie ever since.

If I can offer the thought that occurred to me while re-listening to this great album, I think we all need to think a bit more like Hendrix. I'm not, of course, suggesting buying a guitar and tripping on psychedelics. I'm suggesting creating your own honest, fearless voice. It will be loved by some and hated by others. I think striving for this helps us to continue to learn, grow and enjoy the entire life journey. But maybe that's just my endorphins kicking in again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Shape of Jazz to Come (Ornette Coleman)

Atlantic Records 1959

I love listening to jazz on a rainy morning. The two just seem to work well together. It's like I'm suddenly transported into a black and white film and have to resist the urge to stay at home and enjoy this unexpected serenity. Maybe it's the music, but jazz makes me feel all the more spontaneous.

Jazz is a spontaneous music. This album portrays that as well as any. There are no melodies to hum or memorable tunes that you'll recognize. No, this album requires a deeper listen. It's not unlike a great novel or film. It requires a little bit of thought and effort on your part if you want to really enjoy it.

What I like about music that requires thought and effort is that it gives thoughts and ideas back to you. When I'm in need of my creative side, I listen to music that might challenge my ear a bit. No matter how many times I listen to this particular album, inevitably, something different stands out to me. And I think that by focusing my thoughts on something other than the particular problem I am trying to solve, I am then able to find answers that may have otherwise eluded me.

It's also interesting to dive into the life of the artist you are listening to. Sometimes you can find parallels between your life and that of the musician's. Most of us are constantly at some kind of crossroad and looking for answers to our questions. And just because you will never be a famous musician doesn't mean that you can't learn a little something from one.

Coleman was often regarded by his pears as someone who played between the notes of the scale. Some accused him of playing "out of tune" and it was for this reason that he had a difficult time finding bandmates. But his unorthodox playing style revolutionized jazz and left a lasting mark in the history books.

Coleman played the music that he heard in his mind. Now, as much as ever, we need innovators just like him in all types of different fields. It's an exciting time of change and opportunity. So put on a jazz record, feel the spontaneity, and go make a difference.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (Bright Eyes)

Saddle Creek 2005

There are some days when I come home from a long day of work and need music to play the role of my therapist. Strange, I know, but I've found that spending ten bucks to download an album every once in awhile is more cost effective than committing to a session of awkward conversations with someone who doesn't know me any better than the voice singing through my stereo. This is just my opinion, however, nothing more.

I keep a long running lists of bands and albums that I want to check out. On nights like these, when I feel like I need a new voice to talk some sense into me, there are a variety of ways I might choose my new music of choice. Tonight I decided to go against the advice of my elementary school teachers and judged the book by its cover.

I'm a sucker for great album art. And this one fit my mood for the evening. Maybe it's the muted colors, the uniquely colored rising sun, or the brownstone houses. I don't know, it just works.

The more important news is that the music is working too. This doesn't always happen, but it sure is nice when it does. It's indie rock meets Bob Dylan meets Nick Drake on a good day. And I'm sure I've heard more good advice in this album than I would have received from a therapist.

A long day is always worth lasting a little bit longer when you've got a good album to listen to. Again, this is just my opinion.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Live One (Phish)

Elektra 1995

Phish has made a career out of relentless touring and original performances since 1983. They rose to fame without the aid of a hit radio single or a highly touted album. Instead, it was the ability of the four band members to improvise as a collective whole, creating an ever-changing sound, that gave them a fan base that follows their every move.

Each Phish performance is an original piece of art that is best experienced in the moment. The music, from beginning to end, is an adventure of storybook proportions. Concerts are like a real life Dr. Seuss book with their eclectic mix of characters, whimsical scenery and unpredictability in the music. Appealing to some, a source of confusion to others.

Improvisation is not always understood by the casual music fan as it's not widely heard in popular music. But this spontaneous approach to music is very honest and open to flaws. When watching improvising musicians, the stage becomes a playground where new musical ideas are discovered. Some are accepted while others get rejected. It's like a never ending game tag as each member runs with a musical idea until something new is discovered and then runs all over again looking for the next bit of inspired music.

Musicians who improvise often times talk about getting out of the way and becoming a channel for the music. This may sound abstract and drug induced to some, but it's actually a far more serious statement. The best moments, whether in music or in life, often happen when, instead of forcing our will, we focus our intentions away from ourselves and find outside sources, be it the other band members or the entire world around you, to guide your inspiration and find something greater than your own ego.

In life, we have to improvise on a daily basis. More often than not, things don't go as planned. Consider that some of your best moments happen because of spontaneous and improvised ideas. Our ability to improvise create unexpected happenings that are almost always more genuine and thrilling than planned events.

So am I saying that improvised moments, be it in music or life, are always better than a well crafted studio album or a planned dinner for two? I wouldn't go that far. But I do think that there needs to be a greater appreciation of the talents of musicians who are great improvisers. The music may not always be concise or perfect, but it can be incredibly exciting.

As for this album, A Live One is a compilation of performances from Phish's 1994 summer and fall tours. If you are fan of the band, you know these performances by heart. If you're not a fan, this is a chance to give improvised music a shot. There are many great moments that could never have been composed and recorded in a studio. So sit back and enjoy the spontaneity.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sibelius Violin Concerto (Hilary Hahn)

Deutsche Grammophon 2008

We've all heard classical music at some point. Whether it's the opening notes to Beethoven's Fifth or the film score to Star Wars, classically composed music is much more prominent in our lives than we may actually think.

Despite this, we currently live in a world where classical music is slowly moving towards the endangered species list. True, it will never go away completely, but it would be hard to argue that classical music is gaining a new and passionate fan base that will help it thrive for years to come. Orchestras around the world are struggling to make a lasting connections with potential fans. As a former employee of a major US orchestra, I have seen this first hand. 

So why should this change? Is it even important that it does change? We live in a world where a variety of things are constantly battling for our attention. It can be difficult to focus on any one thing for an extended length of time. We tend towards the familiar and the simple. Classical music, for most, feels time consuming, unfamiliar and complex. And it doesn't appear to fit in with our fast paced way of life.

I guess all of this is true. But classical music, and music as a whole, offers us an opportunity to escape to a more humane place. It's more important than ever to stay connected to something other than our phones and computers. This is not a knock on technology. It's more a call for balance in our lives. Our daily triumphs and struggles fill us with emotion. And we can explore those emotions through music.

Classical music is storytelling. Every piece of music is a journey from the beginning to the end. The score is no different from a well written novel. But you don't have to understand the language of music to appreciate it. You already do understand it because music is about feeling more than anything else. 

Listening to classical music can be more than just about the music. It can be your form of meditation and relaxation. Maybe it's the backdrop while you cook a meal. Art doesn't have to exist only for the sake of art. But that doesn't mean it isn't important to explore the great art form that is classical music. It offers the priceless reward of helping you connect to the amazing world that we live in each and every day.

I had the pleasure of watching Hilary Hahn performing the Sibelius violin concerto about five years ago. It always sticks out in my mind as one of the best musical experiences in my life. As you listen to this, or any violin concerto, think of the violin as your own voice. Listen to the emotion that is expressed through the instrument. Listen to how the orchestra provides the backdrop for the story that is being told. You'll find that the interaction between the instruments are not unlike human conversation. And somehow, without words, there is lots of meaning to be found.

In the end the old saying is still true... The more of yourself you put into something, be it classical music or anything else, the more you'll get out of it. If you haven't already, I hope you'll consider giving classical music a shot.