Writing about World Music

Section F, Fall 2016

Month: October 2016 (page 1 of 3)

Live

I’ve noticed that over the past few years I have come to particularly enjoy the music of certain artists after experiencing them in person.  After seeing someone live in concert, I tend to listen to their music so much more than I previously had. It appears to be a consistent trend starting with Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne tour back in eighth grade and most recently Rae Sremmurd performing a free concert at the University of Houston last year. It has also happened with a couple other artists along the way.

My good friend from school had invited me to see the Jay-Z and Kanye West concert at the Houston Toyota Center with him. Of course I knew of these artists and previously heard and liked their music, but I had never religiously listened to either of their music let alone their collaboration album.  I only knew their most famous songs from the album at first, but after experiencing Watch the Throne for myself, everything changed. I learned to love that whole album and to this day I still think it’s one of the best complete pieces of work Kanye West has put out. That’s an awfully biased opinion, but every time I hear a song from the album, It just brings me right back to their encore performance of playing the same song four times in a row and the whole stadium going nuts. They even released a music video filmed at the Houston concert for their most popular song off that album.

It’s the same thing with the Rae Sremmurd concert I saw last year at UH. I knew so little about this music group that I thought Rae Sremmurd was just one person. I was shocked to find out they’re a duo. I only knew about two or three songs from them but regardless I wasn’t going to pass up a free concert. The concert was a lot of fun, full of energy, and my friends and I had a great time. I instantly became a fan. Shortly after that experience I started listening to this music group a lot and also started following their careers. I began eagerly awaiting SremmLife 2 which came out this past summer.

What got me thinking about this subject was that I stumbled upon a song by Flosstradamus the other day as I was going through Spotify. He was the first show I ever saw at a music festival. After rediscovering this artist, I quickly found myself blasting his music throughout my dorm room and have continued to do so for the past few days. It must be the nostalgia.

Music Friendships

My orchestra teacher in high school, Mrs. Ida Steadman, emphasized the culture of small ensemble playing as part of our orchestra curriculum. Every spring we would have “T-Bird Festival” (the school mascot was the thunderbird) where everyone had to participate in an ensemble—trios or quartets all of the same instrument or different instruments. My first year I participated in a violin quartet and the year after that in a violin trio. Mrs. Steadman emphasized the importance of ensemble playing and how it was something fun to do with friends and something you could do even when you were old. I, however, did not get the sense of comradery and “fun thing to do” from the groups I was in. There was this one group, however, that seemed to embody what Mrs. Steadman meant. It was a quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—and, in contrast to my groups, they had played together three years in a row already, having met freshman year. This group had it all—the best players in the school, they were all friends, and watching them was fascinating just in how they fit together, how they flowed as one with the music. It was my junior year that I stopped admiring from outside and actually had the opportunity to be part of this experience. As the festival grew close, the second violin of the group became ill and was going to be unable to perform. As my ensemble had not qualified for the actual festival, Mrs. Steadman asked me to join the group as the second violin. I remember being very nervous and insecure about my playing level compared to those of the other players in the quartet and practicing extra to try to play at their level. With hard work, I am proud to say, I was able to learn the music well. However, this was not what I considered my most valuable gain. Attending all the practices that the quartet held gave me the opportunity to experience the sense of group and togetherness that Mrs. Steadman had talked about. I developed friendships in this group that felt different from other friendships I had and I could also see the kinds of friendships the other players in the group had with each other—grown over three years of practicing and playing together. In a cliché way you could say, they were people joined by music.

My senior year I did not participate in the orchestra and thus did not take part in the ensemble festival. This group, however, stayed together and performed “one last piece before parting ways”, in the words of the quartet’s violist. Although I was not part of the ensemble this time, I attended many of their practices and furthered my friendships and connections with them. The connections expanded beyond playing as I no longer played yet still somewhat formed part of the group.

Confessin’ the Blues with Jackson Allen

Every now and then, when an easy opportunity presents itself, I like to explore different musical genres that I haven’t listened to before. Sometimes, I’ll hear a connection or gain an insight into my usual music that I normally wouldn’t have noticed. Even now, through taking this class, I have been exposed to a great variety of music from around the world. Through Jackson Allen over the last few weeks, I’ve also become acquainted with a domestic style of music (but still rather foreign to me) called the Blues. You see, not only does Jackson have an immense collection of harmonicas, he also has an amp and a microphone to make sure everybody on our hall can hear him. I’ve been interested in Jazz for a while, but after hearing Jackson practice regularly, I think I can say that I am Interested in the Blues now too. As a result, I’ve decided to tune into as much of Jackson’s radio show, “Confessin’ the Blues”, as I can. Even though its only for one hour per week, 15 or 16 different songs are played, and for the most part from different artists. I think that the term “artist” carries significant weight here, because as I’ve listened to these songs, I’ve noticed something different about them. Sure, while the melody, rhythm and chord progression may be very different that what I’m accustomed to, I can sense a unique air of authenticity in the music. In other words, I can tell (and you will certainly understand what I’m talking about if you decide to listen to Jackson’s show) that the people who perform these songs truly love their genre. Whatever your opinion on the music is, I think there will be a general consensus that there is real emotion, heartbreak, and happiness behind each and every one of these compositions. Sometimes, popular music just doesn’t give off the same vibe. Sure, it may sound more familiar, but at the same time it also sounds scripted and rehearsed whilst the Blues sound natural and genuine. So I’d recommend that you give them a listen, and tell Jackson what you think.

The Artistic Advantage

What are the benefits of learning to play an instrument? Some would argue that being able to play an instrument in itself is a benefit but playing an instrument can also increase the capacity of your memory among other advantages.

Studies have shown that regularly playing an instrument will advance your spacial-temporal skills by a significant amount. This is due to a rewiring of the brain, making new connections in order to memorize different notes and finger placements. Combining these motor and stored memories with reading music at the same time forces our brains to become more efficient in order to play songs in real-time. The ability to combine these skills allows musicians to organize musical and non-musical information more efficiently than non-musicians. This improvement in organization also allows musicians to remember information more quickly than others.

The connections between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of our brains are also strengthened and send signals at a faster rate in order to integrate the creative side with the analytical side. All of these changes in the brain allow musicians to reap multiple benefits in real world situations from problem solving to social situations.

But are those who listen to music just as likely to reap these benefits? Unfortunately, no. Those who only listen to music and are not actively engaged in the creation of music are not able to see the same benefits from music. It is the integration of motor, analytical, and creative skills that allow those who play instruments to incorporate new pathways in their brains. While music does engage the brain, it is not enough to found the same pathways.

If it is the integration of motor, analytical, and creative skills then it seems reasonable that other artists and even sports players should have similar connections as musicians. This has not been found to be the case though. Playing an instrument ignites special regions of our brains to allow for musicians to have special skills and abilities.

So what are you waiting for? Go pick up an instrument and start learning! It doesn’t require you to be a master at the guitar or trumpet in order to better yourself and your brain.

Political Rap Music

Today, during the visit of one of my roommates high school friends, we broke out some old school rap. We were all bumping some Biggie and Tupac just thinking about the progression that rap music has undergone. Back in the day, rap was primarily a way to vent about certain political events, think Tupac and the Black Panthers for example. Then during the early 2000’s rap music changed and went primarily to talking about women, money and cars. What I find particularly interesting is the resurgence of political discussion in rap music that we are seeing today. From practically everything written and rapped by Kendrick lamar to Narcotics by Denzel Curry to Fu*k Da World by Ace Hood, there are striking political discussions contained within these songs. Although I’m not educated enough to comment as to why this resurgence has come along, nor am I in a position to speak about the life experiences of these rappers who compose these songs, I find their messages nonetheless intriguing and challenging to the status quo we have in america. 

The amazing fact is that this trend is not just a couple rappers who just happen to have really good flow, and good life stories but extends to rappers that I consider create more of “party tunes”. To me, this is almost to say that this trend is not something that is a fad, but something that is much more tangible and concrete. I would also like to consider the political environment of late as a contributing factor to the change in rap music. Perhaps it has been the increasing instances of riots nationwide or how divisive this political cycle is that is fueling the hate, anger and sorrow that is contained within the rhymes and flow of recent rap music. Of course there are songs that are not political in nature, but the frequency with which they are appearing is unnaturally high. My question is how closely do the recent events affect the content of rap music? Of course the obvious answer would be a lot, but these same events that may or may not have been prompting the shift in rap music have been happening for a long time. I don’t know.

Music in Sporting Events

After writing about my past experiences with music, how my personal taste has developed, and how music has changed me, I’ve been having some trouble coming up with a new idea for a new post. After thinking ling and hard about this, I decided to move away from my posts being so personal (for the time being at least) and discuss two of my favorite things: music and sports.

Sports and music are two different industries that are often associated with each other. Music at sporting events is extremely common. When you think about it, music is part of some of the oldest traditions in sports events. Likewise, there are several songs that are popular because of their exposure at games and matches. Everything from “Take me out to the ballgame” when referring to America’s pastime to “Sweet Caroline” at any sporting event in Carolina shows just how far music in games reaches. Those are just the well known songs in the middle of sporting events. One of the best parts of the sporting experience in the eyes of some is the beginning of the game when the hype music played. This could be just when the players go out to warm up or when the teams are ready to take the field, court, pitch, etc. The music is played usually to get the athletes hyped up to concentrate or get “in the zone.” It can come from a large range of genres and it, sometimes, can get the crowd just as hyped to watch the game. People in the stands will be ready for everything from a corner kick to a last second clutch field goal.

And it doesn’t just end with the music they play through the stands; the people in the stands produce their own music. Different combinations of chants and stomping are a constant act of participating as a fan at the games. This, even though it can get somewhat wild when too much of certain liquids are consumed, can actually be constituted as music and can actually surprise you sometimes with how good it actually is.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up occupations that involved music at sporting events. After searching, the only thing I could really find were the DJs that played at these events, and even that was hard to find information for. The area between the music and sporting industries is one not heavily sought after apparently. For me personally, the DJ job is not really for me. I would rather be sitting in the stands enjoying the sports and the music then having to stress and worry about which song would be best for the coming situation.

To end the post, I have attached below a song that many of you will recognize when you hear it. It is extremely popular in almost any sport and you will most likely hear it if you go to any kind of pro sports event. Please enjoy, and try not to tap your foot or nod to the music when listening to it.

A New Old Take on Homemade Instruments

In blues and roots music, instruments such as the washboard, washtub bass, cigar box guitar, and jugs have long been used. But until recently, there has been a decline in the use of homemade instruments. However, some people have started to use exclusively CBG’s or other homemade instruments, such as Samantha Fish and Justin Johnson. Here is a video of Justin playing a three string shovel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9-ltPsbw9g

And here is Samantha Fish playing Bukka White’s classic Shake ‘Em on Down.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx7FDGpZQsQ

Aside from just being really cool, these artists are bringing back the idea that music can be made without fancy instruments. Spreading this idea around could give people that otherwise can’t afford mass produced Strats the means to play music and return to the roots of American popular music.

The Fluidity of Music

Last week, I commented on Madeleine’s post about how I also could not study and listen to music at the same time. Ironically, however, I am able to memorize things better when I make them into a song. Throughout my education, I constantly had to listen to or create songs that would help me memorize facts.  One of the most memorable was one I was taught in the second grade. It was about the fifty states and their capitals. Throughout the song, the singers would imitate accents from each state. Two still stand out too me today: the “nasally” Boston accent and the long drawn out Texas accents. I can still hear that southern woman singing  about how Austin, Texas is the capital of Texas.

1280px-us_map_-_states_and_capitals

I find it weird how I am able to remember these things through song, and yet cannot focus while a song is playing. Whenever I study and listen to music, I focus on the song, not the work I need to get done. Maybe that is part of the reason I am able to remember things in song format. Song lyrics have always been easier for me, and most likely anyone, to memorize than something like the periodic table. In part, I think that might be because of the different tones that I hear within them. When you memorize a sheet of paper, it gets dull fast. Nothing on the paper changes. It is an object without any fluidity. However, songs offer contrast. There is difference from one stanza to the next. Listeners to music may have heard the same song a thousands times, however, they may still be able to notice certain arrangements for the first time. I think that it is easier for us to memorize things from songs because songs are simply more interesting than paper. When information is put into song format, it is able to keep us interested, but still allow us to retain information.  Paper does not change, however, songs can change every second. This might explain why it is so hard for me to focus on work while I listen to music. The reason might be just as simple as songs are much more interesting.

14laac_periodic_table_iib

From this, I have learned that music is not just a form of entertainment, or for some background noise for studying. It can be used as a study tool all by itself. I had forgotten this until writing last week. I had spent so much time trying to separate music from study, when in fact it may have been better to try to intertwine them more. I may have memorized that Periodic Table better if I had made it into a song. Really, what I am trying to get at, however, is that music should not just be looked at as simply a form of entertainment. It can be used for many things: worship, study, entertainment, etc. Music is fluid enough in that it can morph into anything, and still fit in with just about any context.

Music and Religion

Over fall break I participated in an Interfaith trip to Washington D. C. where we visited different houses of worship. The majority of the services had some musical component to them but three in particular were largely musical–the service in a conservative Jewish synagogue, the mass in a Russian Orthodox Church, and the festival in a Hindu temple.

The service in the Jewish temple was one of my favourites as it was very peaceful and very beautiful. The service was given in Hebrew for the most part and involved the recitation of the Torah in a melodic manner; other parts of the service were also sung. Although I did not understand the words recited, the atmosphere created by the sounds surrounding me was soothing and matched the religious mood of the service. I the singing throughout the service very beautiful and experienced how it untied the people not only spiritually but physically as, looking around, I could see people swaying and matching the melodic recitation. Through this service, music provided further veneration of the texts and the meaning of the service.

The Russian Orthodox Church was similar in its serious deliverance of the mass and also in that it was predominantly musical. The service was delivered melodically in that the priest hardly spoke normally but rather intoned the words. The choir was constant in the background, occasionally playing more when actually performing a song.  As a result, the service was hard to follow, as we were unaccustomed to it, since the words were not clear. The architecture of the church also created echo and trapped in the sounds making it harder to understand. Despite this, the atmosphere created felt sacred and made you feel at peace. The music and the intonations of the priest combined into a single music to create a sensory experience that provided a perception of more than just the words of the service. In this service, the music also emphasized the veneration of the whole mass and of what it represents to the believers of that faith.

The experience in the Hindu temple was very different from both the synagogue and the Orthodox church. We visited for the celebration of the festival of Navratri and it was very lively. They had us sit down on the floor on thick rugs and a group of two or three men played music as the people filed in. The two performers I remember were two men, one playing an accordion-like instrument and the other keeping a beat with the drums–both instruments were traditional Indian instruments. The man playing the accordion was also singing as the people in the temple, sitting all around us, clapped along. This immersion that we experienced into this culture made me think of the contrast between cultures, Western and non-Western, as the music was drastically different from what we had listened to in the previous services. The services themselves seemed to differ on the role that music played although in reality all three served as veneration of the subject of the service and in all three music was present during the whole service. What I thought was really different was the atmosphere created in the different services as the Jewish and Orthodox services were serious and peaceful while the Hindu service/festival was lively and exciting. The music in the Hindu service was very upbeat–faster paced and lighter singing–while the music in the previous services was somber and slower.

Music in the different religious services served a similar purpose of veneration through more than words and was also essential in creating a fitting atmosphere that allowed the people to better connect to the service.

mUsiC AnD emOTiOn

I want to briefly discuss the connection between music and emotion. First of all, I know very little theory or science behind this connection and can only speak from personal experience and observation. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that there is no connection between music and emotion.  Any listener of music has probably listened to a song that evoked happiness, regret, sadness, thoughtfulness, nostalgia, admiration, inspiration, loneliness, pity, exuberance, energy, or motivation, to name a few.  Why is this? How can music, which does not “feel” express a “feeling?” I believe it is because we associate certain musical forms, rhythms, melodic phrases, or harmonies with emotions and the way we perceive music is crucial to interpreting an emotion. If I “brainlessly” listen to an EDM track I probably will not get the same emotional reaction as I would if I listen to a song I am interested in, or a musical style I am particular struck by, such as Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque or The Seal Lullaby (https://youtu.be/0j2JRcC6wBs/// https://youtu.be/kxTghSZupv8). So, the perspective the listener adopts as he or she listens to music is one part of reacting in some emotional way to a song. The listener’s perspective is not the only factor, though. The performer’s skill, the location where we hear the music, and the music itself are also factors that hold some agency.

On a phycological level, we relate what we hear with emotions. The volume of the music, the harmonies, tempo, use of instruments, melodic form, dynamics can be manipulated to characterize an emotion. I don’t need to spell out which types convey which emotions; I mean, its probably obvious that slow, minor musical pieces tend to convey more reflective or sad themes than major and upbeat songs do.

Just the idea that the listener can “get an emotion” is what makes music exciting to listen to. There is a depth of emotion when we listen to certain songs. I am listening to https://youtu.be/Rak_rJLG49k as I write this blog. When the song reached the second minute and 31 second I was inspired and in awe at the musical genius and beauty of what I was listening to and that made me want to write something inspirational. Music has the capacity to leave the listener with a powerful impression (of which there are many). Often times I try new music because I want to be surprised by some emotion. And I listen to certain music depending on what my perspective or goal is. Music and emotion is connected in a powerful way, and when we tune into that, our listening experience can be richer and more meaningful.

 

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