thoughts on music, design and literature

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Quote By David Geffen

"The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content. Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it's no longer about making music, it's all about how to sell music. And there's no clear answer about how to fix that problem." - David Geffen

There was a time when the consumer could righteously declare that they hated the economics and questionable business practices of the record industry. Since the advent of filesharing, however, that moral center has shifted back against the consumer. Every year, the record industry is seeing a 15% drop in profits--soon it will implode. While that may level the playing field and herald the dawn of the indie era, at the same time it's killing creativity on all fronts: musicians are spending more time worrying about how they're going to make a living in the industry, and less time on actually making good music. And what's causing all this? Piracy.

Geffen's right to say that the soul of the major labels has been forcibly removed by piracy--their very own lives are at stake, and they no longer have the luxury of focusing on releasing good music. Instead, their focus is simply on survival: meaning, focusing on selling music, not on making quality music.

On the contrary, my focus with Calling All Dawns is in making as good of a product as possible, but at the same time, my greatest fear is that it's going to be financially disasterous for me. The mindset that kids these days have is that music is free--and while an artist like Christina Aguilera can afford to see her album sales cut in half, she'll still make a bundle of money on tour. Indie artists such as myself, however--particularly those of us who do complex, expensive orchestral/choral/world-music collages, are going to suffer first.

(Quote taken from New York Times article The Music Man.)

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Imogen Heap: "Just For Now" Live

Still not out of the woods on my tuberculosis/cold/SARS/bird flu/whatever the heck my cousin gave me.

In the meantime, here's another very impressive bit of work by Imogen Heap.

She's using an Echoplex, or some other live loop player. The way it works is pretty obvious from the video; you record a track, then set where it loops. Then it plays back that track while you add another....and another, etc.

What's great about the way she's doing it, though, is that she still managed to put together a very musical arrangement. So often with this style of loop-based improv it's easy to fall into the trap of just piling layer upon layer of loops, without introducing section breaks or varying the arrangement in any way. She does a great job of keeping it fresh the whole time, and cutting out elements whenever not needed. The "Get me outta here" section at 3:30 is a great introduction of a new idea, as well.

Off to my Tylenol Cold Nighttime-induced haze....


Monday, September 24, 2007

Insomnia (and Imogen Heap)

Still fighting a losing battle with my Cambodian-imported cold (see previous post). Part of that losing battle is sleepless nights, so what better thing to do than blog at 3:15 AM.

Had one of those flashes of inspiration today, and raced over to the piano to furiously jot down the chorus to my Irish song (for my upcoming album, Calling All Dawns), based on the 18th-century Irish epic poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghair. It's a homophonic, a cappella piece for women: what that means in plain-speak is that it's a song to be sung by a trio (or possibly quartet) of women, where the motion of the voices generally occurs all together in harmony.

What's my thought process behind this? The keen is a dirge for female soloist--generally speaking, a lament for her dead spouse. There's a call and response element to it as well, hence the need for the homophonic chorus. This configuration gives me the most intimate moment on the entire album--a piece right in the middle (it's slated for track 7 of 12) where we leave behind the rich orchestral writing and pare a song down to its basic elements: a melody, and a vocalist performing the hell out of it.

Though not quite Irish, here's the best example of an unaccompanied homophonic vocal I could think of. It's Imogen Heap's 'Hide And Seek':

Like I said, this song does it beautifully....that is, paring it down to its most basic elements: a melody, and a vocalist performing the hell out of it.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Warding Off A Cold (or maybe Tuberculosis...)

My younger cousin came to visit me for a week, but her timing couldn't be worse. I'm up against a deadline to deliver a score to an Icon Productions documentary entitled Another Day In Paradise (directed by three-time Oscar nominee Deborah Dickson and produced by, among others, Mel Gibson).

My cousin's been doing NGO work in Cambodia for the last eight months, and she brought me a little souvenir from her travels--a sore throat, cough, and general state of misery that seems like a common cold, but has the slim possibility of being something worse. In her travels and work in Cambodia, she was exposed to a fair bit of active there's the outside chance that what she has might be TB! In which case I might be the first film composer this century who was unable to complete a film because he contracted something as ludicrous as tuberculosis.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Downward Spiral Of The Record Industry

Columbia Records recently did a survey of youths, and the alarming consensus was that they don't consider downloading music without paying for it stealing. The majors aren't oblivious to this problem; they're trying desperately to figure out what to do about it. But while this problem is foremost on their mind, everyone's going to suffer in that every label's primary goal these days is not to make good music, it's to make music that will *sell*. When a record label's livelihood is on the line, they won't take chances--instead, they'll just rely on what they can do to make money. So what you're going to get is a downward spiral--the labels are just going to continue to churn out product that they know will do well, at the expense of doing something bold and new. Ultimately this will wear down the consumer, who will become disillusioned with what gets put out there, and will stop paying for music altogether.

Add to this the problem that is created by the iPod; now, your entire music collection is at your fingertips, and it's easy to maintain music collections of thousands and thousands of albums. In the past, whenever you got tired of listening to your latest CD, you went out and bought a new one. Now, with every album you ever bought at your ready access, it's a lot easier to satisfy your craving for new music by simply listening to OLD music that you bought back when music was still bought.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Estrella Morente: Volver

What is there not to like about Penelope Cruz? She's delicious in Almodavar's Volver. But the scene which made me truly fall in love was when she lip-syncs the title song of the film to the voice of flamenco sensation Estrella Morente.

From what I've learned, Estrella Morente is flamenco royalty--her father was Enrique Morente, perhaps one of the most influential contemporary flamenco artists, and perhaps one of the most daring and experimental.

People who know my music know that I'm a big fan of a great melody. The song 'Volver,' which means 'To Return,' is a great tune: it sputters, climbs, lurches, and after a downward melodic tumble, is finally given room to breathe in the chorus on the word 'Volver...' ...before collapsing upon itself again. Then that same melodic phrase comes in a fourth higher, as if it is given new life--again, it spirals achingly upwards (this is where Morente really shines) before descending once again. And in its final breath, it finds itself returning home.

(By the way, from what I understand, all these downward melodic gestures are characteristic of flamenco music on the whole.)

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Return Is The Motion Of The Dao

Just spent a fun evening with my friend Maura Dykstra, who's a PhD student in Chinese History at UCLA. Over ramen and tea, she educated me on a bit of text from Chapter 40 of the Dao De Jing. It reads as follows:

fan zhe dao zhi dong
ruo zhe dao zhi yong
tian xia wan su sheng yu you
you sheng yu wu

As much as it is possible to pin down a translation to such a cryptic text, these lines mean the following:

Return is the motion of the Dao
Yielding is the way of the Dao
All things are born of being
Being is born of non-being

Understood? Didn't think so.

I'm attracted to the Dao De Jing because of the core belief in the continual flow and movement of the universe--it fits in well with the themes that I'm exploring in my album (the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth). Ancient Chinese, however, is a very cryptic language, though, and every word can have a multitude of meanings attached to it. (Of particular delight is that the character for 'music' is the exact same as the character for 'happiness!') That's why interpretations of the text are many and varied.

Lao Tzu wrote the Dao at a time when the prevailing philosophical belief system was designed to maintain the status quo of an entrenched ruling class; the Dao, written with purposefully 'ugly' choices of words, was a rejection of that and a call for simplification of philosophical thought. (I mentioned that it reminded me of the Protestant Reformation, and the rejection of Catholic doctrine.)

The end goal of all Chinese philosophy is the attainment of peace. Everyone's striving for nothing more than a simple, balanced life.

Sounds good to me.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Audrey Kawasaki at Nucleus Gallery

I just got back from a gallery opening of a new favorite artist of mine, Audrey Kawasaki. She's an LA local and relatively young--late twenties, I believe--but already she's turning heads in the art world. She was featured in this past month's Australian issue of Vogue, and her work is in ridiculously high demand. She's definitely a rising star...and you can see for yourself why.

Here's an example of her stunning work. It's entitled 'Mizuame,' and as you can see, it's influenced by Art Nouveau and Japanese manga. But it's so incredibly sensual that it grabs me on a primal level. Most of the time, when I engage with art, I put on my art-history-minor analytical-contextualist hat and grapple with it intellectually. Here, I'm fully cognizant of why it resonates with me (childhood of love of Japanese anime, collegiete love of Art Nouveau and Viennese Secessionism)--yet I love it anyway. The beauty, the eroticism, the ephemerality....simply awesome.

I dragged my friends with me a full two hours before the show opened so that I could be one of the first in line to grab one of the prints she was releasing tonight. I came away with two purchases, which I will post here in due time. I'm sure this won't be the last time I blog about her.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007


I'm researching keening at the moment. I'm very interested in referencing this tradition for my upcoming album, as it fits in well with the themes that I'm exploring (life, death and resurrection).

Keening is a form of vocal lament performed at Irish wakes. The term comes from the old Irish word 'caoineadh,' which means 'to cry'--it's an old tradition dating back to the 7th-century, and though it's not performed much today, there are still examples of it to be found. One of the few recorded keens is this one, by Kitty Gallagher:

Essentially it's a song of lamentation, traditionally performed by the wife of the deceased--but often by professional mourners as well. According to various sources, keening had an element of call-and-response as well; the deceased would be laid to rest in his bed, the head keener would lament his passing at the foot of the bed, and the chorus would echo her cries.

One of the best known keens is the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghair, or the Lament For Art O'Leary. Composed by his wife Black-Haired Eileen over his death at the hands of an Englishman, it's a stirring 18th-century epic poem, and a powerful example of the mourning of lost love. An excerpt, during which she pleads with him to 'wake' from his death-slumber:

Mo chara thu is mo chuid!
A mharcaigh an claimh ghil
Eirigh suas anois,
Cuir ort do chulaith
Eadaigh uasail ghlain,
Chuir ort do bheabhar dubh,
Tarraing do lamhainni umat.
Siud i in airde t'fhuip;
Sin i do lair amuigh.
Buail-se an bothar caol ud soir,
Mar a maoloidh romhat na toir,
Mar a gcaoloidh romhat na sruth ...


My friend and my dear!
Oh bright-sworded rider,
Rise up this moment,
Put on your fine suit
Of clean, noble cloth,
Put on your black beaver,
Pull on your gauntlets.
Up with your whip;
Outside your mare is waiting.
Take the narrow road east,
Where the trees thin before you
Where streams narrow before you.

(Not sure what 'put on your black beaver means'....any ideas?)

(It's worthwhile to note that the myth of the banshee seems to have been derived from this tradition.)

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Eurovision Song Contest: Lordi

And on the topic of funny music, I'm reminded of a conversation I had in London with my old Royal College of Music buddies over dinner about a nice, pleasant Finnish band named Lordi that took home top honors at the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest.

For most Americans, we've never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest: basically it's an annual event where each nation in Europe nominates a song to represent their country, and all the performers of these songs duke it out on an internationally televised show. Every nation gets to cast their vote. The winner gets....well, I don't know. But judging by YouTube comments I've seen, the winning country at least gets bragging rights.

Usually the bands that get trotted out are the formulaic, bubble-gum teen-pop-idol variety. And many people I've spoken with often ridicule the show because of this fact. But in 2006, the Finns decided to buck the trend by putting forth a band called Lordi to do a song called 'Hard Rock Hallelujah'.

MONSTER ROCK! They won with MONSTER ROCK! I.....can't....stop.....laughing.....

They managed to squeeze in both "arockalypse" and "Day Of Rockening". GENIUS.