A playlist: A Male Experience

For those who do not know the details, my living situation is slightly non-standard. I live with my female partner (Generally referred to as “J”), J’s female partner Sigrid, and their two kids M and K. (I borrowed the naming system from Sig since it is simple and elegant.) Mostly my interactions with the kids are limited to a slightly ill-defined sort of live-in uncle relationship as I am not one of their parents. Primarily I only say something about their behavior when it’s really egregious and J and Sig aren’t close enough to do anything about it quickly, but I also get to corrupt their young minds with all sorts of silly ideas as long as I think it won’t get the three of us in trouble.

Anyway, as with most people, music is played while driving. J has an interesting but somewhat limited palette for music but Sig tends to be a bit more catholic in her tastes (note the small ‘c’) and so exposes the kids to all sorts of stuff over time. The other day the Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime” was heard and the kids really liked it. Now Sig doesn’t have a lot of Talking Heads, and other then that and maybe a couple of other tracks isn’t particularly interesting in looking much more into them so she asked me if I had a copy that I could burn to a disc for the kids so they could listen to it in the playroom. Oh, and maybe some other stuff too if I wanted while I was at it. Maybe some male stuff. Sort of. The conversation was both simpler and more complex then that as it was between two people who have been friends for years and living in the same space for just over a year.

As with just about everything that I enjoy, I am primarily a dilettante when it comes to The Talking Heads. I have a more then passing familiarity with their album catalog, as well as some enthusiasm for portions of it but without a lot of significant interesting in keeping up with the minutia. Translation: I’ve got the “Sand In the Vaseline” greatest hits compilation and one other album and that’s about it which was more then enough to get started with the request and it didn’t take me too long for the idea to catch and be interesting enough to ensure it got done quickly.

Starting with “Once In a Lifetime” presents quite a bit of opportunity to go in any number of directions, but the one that really caught my attention was the aspects of dealing with modern masculinity and social roles for men and after spending a little time digging through my music collection it was pretty clear that it’s a pretty universal sort of theme.

  1. Once In a LifetimeTalking Heads – Popular Favorites: 1976-1992/Sand In the Vaseline
  2. On The AirGirlyman – Little Star
  3. All Kinds of TimeFountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers
  4. Jump Through the HoopsMighty Mighty Bosstones – Question the Answers
  5. Harder Better Faster StrongerDaft Punk – Discovery
  6. Pushing Me AwayLinkin Park – Hybrid Theory
  7. Losing My ReligionR.E.M. – Out of Time
  8. My CountryMidnight Oil – Earth and Sun and Moon
  9. ChicagoSufjan Stevens – Illinoise
  10. What Do You Want From MePink Floyd – The Division Bell
  11. ShoutTears for Fears – Songs From the Big Chair
  12. Let’s Go Crazy (LP Version) – Prince – Purple Rain
  13. I Wanna Be a CowboyBoys Don’t Cry – Retro Lunchbox: Squeeze the Cheese
  14. ArmyBen Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
  15. ’64 AKA Go – Lemon Jelly – ’64-’95
  16. Blue Boat HomePeter Mayer – Earth Town Square

The initial version of the playlist was about four hours long, but I was able to cut it down to under an hour and a half pretty quickly by stripping it down to one track per artist. After a few arrangements for flow and tempo a narrative started to develop, and eventually ended up in this order.

The narrative can be divided pretty loosely into Consciousness (Tracks 1-4), Rising Bitterness (Tracks 4-8), Self Discovery (Tracks 7-10), Anger (Tracks 10-12), What Next? (Tracks 13-16).

Consciousness is the point where the nebulous character of the narrative, let’s just call him John (for “John Doe”), finally takes notice of his surrounding. It’s not something that happens to everyone early in life and from my own personal experience seems to happen periodically even, or perhaps especially, after you think you have everything figured out. Maybe it’s the first time John has noticed how the world expects him to be and how he feels about that. Maybe it’s the 10th time. It’s pretty much the same every time since it inevitably turns into…

Rising Bitterness, or maybe Growing Resentment, describes the internal dichotomy that represents the urge to follow on with what’s going on because it seems relatively stable and trying to make that fit with the knowledge that you don’t like what you are doing or who you have become, but you continue to strive because “that’s what guys do”. Right? At a certain point John decides that the problem can’t possibly be him, so he starts acting out against his loved ones (“Pushing Me Away”) and his habitual institutions (“Loosing My Religion”). I really wanted to put “Harder Better Faster Stronger” before “Jump Through the Hoops” since it fits the narrative flow better, but the the guitar intro to “Jump” just makes more sense after “All Kinds of Time”.

Self Discovery happens two ways: The habitual institutions are cutting it anymore (Religion = God, sex, beer, money, whatever); Someone finally says something to piss him off enough to snap (“My Country”). The little intro at the front of “Chicago” just felt like a light bulb going off in John’s head and the lyrics of the song are all about trying to remake oneself while still not quite over his previous life. Not having developed tools for real self actualization we end up with the despair and pain present in “What Do You Want From Me?” as we start with the shouty bit.

Anger is something that humans deal with, and some days I wonder if it isn’t something that males deal with more. Blame it on the testosterone or whatever, but my experience lived and observed indicates that women don’t as often have the spark of pure rage to battle when even the littlest thing goes wrong. This is a different kind of anger then the bitterness though, since it’s harder to externalize. John has finally figured out that he’s the problem and uses the power of the anger to drive him to finally try and figure things out.

Initially, the answer to “What Next?” is something infantile. If John is in his mid-40’s this likely involves a small, fast, red vehicle and/or a new sex partner half his age or younger. While I doubt we all wanted to be cowboys when we were young the basic form is pretty common. (I wanted to be an astronaut.) Or maybe he could just run away from it all? Join the military! After thinking through the possible consequences of that move and what is likely to come of it John finally somes to terms with the urge to just do something different (“’64 AKA Go”).

Peter Mayer’s “Blue Boat Home” isn’t quite the right ending for this narrative, but it’s mostly there because I know both M and K love the song and I wanted to make sure I anchored the disc with something else that they knew especially after something as long-winded as the preceding Lemon Jelly track. I’m not entirely happy with other bits of the order either. “Let’s Go Crazy” should probably be in Rising Bitterness. “What Do You Want From Me” probably the same. I wanted to be sure that there were a couple of peaks in the mix though. The Pink Floyd tracks makes for a really good low spot in the energy of the mix just about the in the middle of the disc then ramping back up to a peak at “Army” and a slow wind down to the end.

Anyway, I used the Bing music search to link to most of the songs and then linked the artists to the best info I could find for each of them. For those of you with Zune Passes, the Bing link has the advantage of letting you listen to most of the tracks. For those of you without it’s got iTunes and Amazon links as well.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the mix or the narrative or both. I don’t often have something that’s quite this cohesive, so it made sense to try and have it written down somewhere.

Free Music: Collective by Duwende

The a capella group Duwende has made their recent album “Collective” available for free download. I’m still working my way through the disc, but the four tracks I’ve heard are certainly worth the time if you like original a capella or pop music. (Found via Acapodcast episode #42)

Podcast episode recomendation: RadioLab – The Ring and I

I listened to Radio Lab‘s episode “The Ring and I” over lunch today. It’s all about Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it was really in a lot of ways a completely eye opening listen.

I really like classical/orchestral music but I have a really hard time listening to opera. Actually, I seem to just naturally be pre-disposed to like instrumental music much more than vocal music but while I quite like A Capella music in my personal scale of appreciation of vocal music, opera is somewhere near the bottom. Because of that there is actually quite a bit of really big important pieces of music that I’ve never heard because I can’t quite seem to listen to it.

To put it more succinctly, I’ve never listened to or seen any of Wagner’s operas. I’ve certainly heard bits and pieces here and there but I’ve never listened to any of it in the proper context of the complete work and it’s not something that I’ve ever been particularly happy about but attempts to rectify the situation did not succeed for a host of reasons.

I’ve really been enjoying listening to RadioLab since I heard it mentioned on an episode of This American Life and downloaded an episode. The content is exceedingly interesting and the presentation is amazingly similar to how it sounds in my head sometimes, if it had that much of an audio component anyway. The show’s focus is usually about science, or at least science related topics, so to get a podcast episode that was all about a very particular piece of art was interesting in and off itself.

Now I still haven’t heard or seen any of Wagner’s operas, but I really feel like I understand it a lot better. To be able to bridge that gap and condense such a work into a comprehensible and digestible work is honestly a piece of art in and off itself and really has to be heard to be believed. Amazing work and highly recommended for anyone.

Looking for more

One of the things that I like about the Zune is that it has podcast support that is more like how I really use them rather than the way they work with iTunes. It’s not perfect by any stretch (Why can’t I squirt a podcast?) but it’s generally very good. Good enough that I’m looking for more content to listen to.

I have two very different kinds of podcasts that I listen to for very different environments. I find that I can’t listen to people talking without having to pay attention to them, at least if I want to get anything out of it. This is just as true of talk radio as it is of audio books. I also find that after 45 minutes of people yakking I get really, really bored pretty quickly but I find items less than 10min long to not be worth the effort to fiddle with the player to listen to (Not perfect #2: Can’t put them in playlists). Which is really unfortunate since I otherwise would have a couple of really short items that I do like (The Engines of Our Ingenuity being a prime example).

So here’s what I’m currently listening to:

I also really used to love SpaceMusic, but that shifted to a paid subscription model a year or so ago. Though looking on the site now there does appear to be some free stuff again so maybe I’ll take a look at them again.

Any suggestions anyone?

The good with the bad

Microsoft launched the second version of their Zune hardware yesterday and their software today. For the most part I am really very happy with the progress that the platform has made, but I am also quite disappointed in a couple of choices that I do really consider a big step back. I’ve already commented in a couple of locations about the change to the ratings system from 5 Star to Heart/Broken Heart, but I just posted the following message in the Zune Forums about the lack of auto playlists:

As a software engineer I do understand that sometimes the process of creating software involves making trade offs and sometimes good features get cut for good reasons. Given that auto playlists seemed to function pretty well in the first version of the software, what was the design decision around not implementing auto playlists in version 2? I am really honestly curious.

I would have put this in one of the existing posts complaining about the removal of this feature but I really want to try and start from a position not of blame or anger, but one of curiosity.

Too be honest I am very disappointed since auto playlists is one of the features that I consider to be absolutely required for me to take media management software seriously. I have a really hard time thinking of any media management software that doesn’t have this sort of feature as significantly lacking. In many cases software in this market that does lack auto playlists at least have a compensatory feature of allowing some sort of extensibility to the application through plug-ins or whatever but that is also missing from Zune v2.

Thanks for the work that you have done in the software and the great improvements that do exist. I’m going to give it a serious opportunity to see how the software fits into the way that I consume my music collection but without something that I consider so fundamental to the way I perceive the ideal method of that consumption I have a hard time seeing how this can work for me in the long term which makes my monetary investment in the hardware seem like a really very bad idea.

I hope I get an answer, though I don’t expect the majority of the replies to keep the tone of the message too civil.

Sound memories

I’ve always found sense memories to be terribly interesting phenomena.

My most intense sense memory involves the texture and flavor of pancakes with butter and apricot syrup at a Perkins somewhere near what I think was Omaha when I was somewhere around the age of 7ish. I think we were coming home from a funeral for a great uncle and got caught in a plains blizzard on the interstate but in particular the warmth and sweet/tart/sweet/buttery flavor of those pancakes in a warm room at a table with my family is one of my most enduring and cherished memories. I often wonder if that is what I am trying to recreate when I go out with friends and family for dinner as an adult. There is something significant about the feeling of comfort, joy, and connection with my family in that memory that I can almost put into words.

While I have other taste memories (sweetbreads at Cosmos with Lauren) and certainly many visual memories (the synaesthetically “noisy” red backdrop to an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center with Heidi), many of the most emotionally intense sense memories are essentially audio cues centered around music. It’s pretty obvious to me that one of the reasons why music is associated with such strongly emotional memories is that for as long as I can remember I have always used music as a sort of proxy to structure my thoughts.

My brain, like almost anyone else’s as far as I can tell, is a fantastically active place. Thoughts do not occur in isolation so much as they occur in chains and groups alongside other chains and groups and emotion can be a component of those thoughts or sometimes more of a medium that the thoughts are moving through. When it is working well it’s a lot like a big pot of boiling pasta with the varying textures of the vaporizing water and the bobbling pasta shapes dancing around at the top of a startlingly clear medium that siphons off easily and quickly through my hands and mouth and body to manifest in the world. At it’s very worst it seems more like an impenetrable pool of magma that is painful to handle and flows exactly like the fire that it is. Searing and destroying everything in it’s path. Music allows me to sift the particulates in a cloudy medium and settles the roiling boil so that I can actually see what is going on rather than simply having to guess at the contents from the random stew at the surface.

My first music focused sense memory involves sitting in my dad’s car in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids on a cool fall day with the sort of intense sun that makes it impossible to keep at a comfortable level between baking and chilled. We had just arrived but we were taking a few minutes to finish listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the radio before MPR had separate classical and news stations. It was one of the remarkably rare times I remember my dad sitting with the car off and the radio on with the volume up. I don’t know why we where there that particular time, though at a guess it was almost certainly to visit one of his parishioners who was in the hospital for one reason or another.

That example aside, it feels like many of the music memories are related to relationships, and romantic relationships more often than not. They Might Be Giant‘s album “Flood“, the song “Birdhouse in your Soul” in particular, for the interminable week it took me to call my first girlfriend up for a first date. Public Image Limited‘s song “Rise” and The Godfather‘s album “Unreal World” punctuates everything about the relationships with old friends during the summer between high school and college and the implicit and explicit transitions that where happening. Enigma‘s album “The Cross of Changes” for the new friends found at college shortly thereafter. Morphine‘s album “Cure for Pain” as the intensely stereotypical soundtrack for the breakup with my girlfriend from college. Midnight Oil‘s song “Been away too long” and the rest of the “Capricornia” album when Betsy left me that also signaled ends and beginnings to so very, very many things.

I think I can count myself lucky that it has happened often enough that I actually come to recognize that the memory is being formed while it is happening. It’s not a conscious effort, it just seems to be something that I do. Since I use music to organize the screaming mess in my head it is a very natural event for me. This has the obvious upside of proving that I have at least a glimmer of self awareness but also has the accompanying stark terror of the absolute unknown since I do not know what will end up being frozen in that crystal of amber when the moment has completed.

Whatever this piece of amber will contain, it’s soundtrack is going to be Sufjan Steven‘s album “Illinois“.

The new candy store

At this point I think the inherent advantage of acquiring recorded music solely through the means of traveling to a brick and mortar storefront, perusing the incredibly over complicated system to locate likely albums that I might like to purchase, physically bringing the stack of shiny plastic to the cashier with my own hands and whatever other means I can come up with in the moment, watching as each barcode or price sticker is laboriously tallied, and finally handing over a suitable bundle of paper or small plastic card which may or may not be returned with a large bag containing the shiny plastic I took such pains to collect is that is is not an easy process. I have to have the time and energy to get the store. I have to have enough patience to be able to defeat whatever myopic intelligence designed the system to hide the items that I want from me. Most importantly I have to think about the entire process as I go through it which makes me more likely to think about things like, “Can I afford this?”.

It is that last bit that worries me the most with Amazon.com‘s new MP3 Download service. So far I’ve only purchased three albums and I wonder if that isn’t just the taste that I need to go wildly into debt if I don’t keep my wits about.

I have experimented with various music download services at various points and had highly varied experiences with the multitude of them. There is something about the simplicity of Amazon’s execution of the concept that has finally gotten through to me that this is really finally possible.

It certainly has it’s downsides. It currently only runs on Windows, not that I run anything else right now and by the same token it should not actually be too difficult for them to port their client application to just about any OS given how simple it is. Relatively small selection of “only” 1 million tracks (or there abouts) which sounds like a lot but really means that only a small number of the many songs that you might want to buy may be available. Still has a couple of quirks being fairly early in beta though there has already been one client update since release which fixed the only problem that I’ve run into personally.

About that problem: As I mentioned I have purchased three albums from the service. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “Motion”, Skalpel’s self titled album, and Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” which turned out to be my first and only cause to contact Amazon’s tech support. I initially sent an email message through their web interface but did not get any reply after 30ish hours so I used the web interface to have them call me (neat trick) and talked to someone very nice who couldn’t quite help me because the tech support for the download service wasn’t quite open for business at 7:30AM CST on a Tuesday. When I finally called them a half hour later a very nice person fairly immediately re-authorized the download links for me and I was able to finally get the album and I’ve been listening to the audio CD I burned immediately all day since. Turns out the new client was likely the reason why I could download the album this time, though neither I nor the tech support guy had any good reason why that might be so. I suspect it has something to do with the rather whimsical and extensive names given to the tracks of this particular album since they’ve been giving some of my other applications some trouble too.

Some of the people who might read this might think that having trouble with one third of my purchases so far is a good example of how new and untried the service is, but I would actually say quite the opposite. The first attempt was utterly perfect and gave me good reason to try it two more times. The client setup is relatively painless, even in Vista with UAC enabled, and the neat little touch of automatically adding the downloads to my iTunes library meant that I could start listening immediately without having to go look for what the client had done with the files. I’m a savvy enough computer user that really that isn’t actually a problem for me, especially given how difficult it can be from other services, but not having to worry about little details like that makes me really think this is ready for everyone, not just those who sometimes wander over near the bleeding edge.

Supposedly they are marking the downloaded files so that if the files show up on a P2P network later they know where they came from, but I’m not honestly worried about that since I don’t participate in any of that. Otherwise they are pure MP3 files with appropriately pre-populated tags and even embedded cover art. I can, and have, used them any of the multitude of places that I use mp3 files.

I honestly think this is finally it. Give it a try.

My horn

While I’m on the topic, I should mention the details about my horn.

A few years ago after searching for a few months I came across a used four valve front bell American Euphonium that was in decent shape (Lots of scratches, some dents, lacquer is very worn but largely intact) for a remarkably good price. The sound isn’t as good as the Yamaha YEP-321S I played in college but for less than $500 it is certainly good enough. Nicely wide though just a touch breathy.

Anyway, this morning I finally ran down the serial number (237531) and bell markings and I’ve found out that it is a F.A. Reynolds Contempora BR-06 4-Valve Baritone manufactured in 1967 in Abiline, TX.

I’m actually wondering a bit if some of the breathy sound may be from the mouthpiece I’m using right now, which is a Bach 6 1/2 AL. It’s a lot more like the Bach 12C that I remember playing on in high school than the shallow mouthpiece that came with it. I need to do some more research about the topic.

…and then he said, “We could start a Klezmer band”…

While we didn’t get to any actual gaming this last session, Shaun mentioned that he had acquired a clarinet and was was re-learning to play it after having a sort of relevatory moment at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. So I mentioned that I had acquired a euphonium a few years ago but had been horrible about actually getting it out and playing it very often (though I am proud to say it comes out at least once every six months, which is better than nothing) and Mark mentioned that he hadn’t played his trumpet in quite awhile.

So we can blame him when he also said something like, “We could start a klezmer band…” and so we are. I ordered a copy of “Easy Klezmer Music” while we were talking.

I’ve had a couple of chances to play my horn since then and I’m both stunned at how much I’ve forgotten and also at how easily some of it is coming back. It’s really nice to have that old brass smell around the house.

Last Train Home

I think I spent about 10 hours listening to live music yesterday. It might have been 11, but it’s hard to remember precisely at this point. There is one particular good, and one particular not-so-good observation I have from yesterday however.

Good: SPF30 sunscreen, applied early enough, does actually keep me from roasting my skin and repeating last year’s idiocy of getting a burn on my knees bad enough to make walking painful.

Not-so-good: The last run on the LRT from the Nicollet Mall station leaves at 1:18am. I had thought I had seen that the last train was at around 2:30, but it turns out that is the last train heading into town, not out. However cabs seem to be quite plentiful at even that time and are not actually hideously expensive when there is a good driver who doesn’t try any shenanigans and takes you exactly the route you would have told them.

After the great time I had on Friday, I was excited to get back downtown and I arrived in time to see the Apple Valley High School Jazz Ensemble 1 who seemed to be a pretty decent high school big band, but was not quite what I was looking for at that point in the day so as soon as I heard the main stage start up I headed down there and was quite glad that I did. Bill Crutcher and Work In Progress had started their set and played a great mix of stuff. I have to say that I have a weakness for good vibraphone playing and despite the only good seating available at this time being the acres of baking concrete in the hot early afternoon sun it was great to hear someone of his caliber playing. The rest of the band was also very good and it’s too bad they didn’t have a slightly better position on the schedule.

I stuck around for the MITY performance and was fairly impressed with a fair amount of it. In particular one of their pianists sounds like he might have a promising future, and already has a distinctive image with a wild mane of long curly hair. I popped back to the Dakota Foundation stage for the last half of the Kelly Rossum Quartet who is always good. I had managed to remember to get cash, so I got two of his CDs for a bargain price as well.

Then it was dinner at Masa on the street. I had the Puerco Veracruzana and a Mayan Margarita. The salsas served with the chips are exceptional, and the pork was very good, but the Mayan Margarita was very slightly disappointing in that I had been hoping for something a bit more understated and delicate than the seize-my-mouth-with-both-hands experience that I got. Toned down a bit I think it would be a great drink but as it stands it’s just too much. Or maybe I’m just pining for the only really truly amazing margarita I’ve ever had, at Chapultepec in Chicago a couple of years ago. Next time I’ll try the Sangria Blanca instead since that was the other option I had been thinking off. (While I’m talking about Masa, it is both great and a little strange to see a restaurant of that caliber with a To-Go menu on their website. Yet another reason to miss working downtown.)

Finished dinner in perfect time to get a good seat for Paul Stubblefield, who I felt kind of bad for. He’s obviously a pretty good entertainer, but the crowd just didn’t seem to be working for him. Though maybe my use of the word “Entertainer” is kind of telling since he did come across as a classic Las Vegas lounge act. That does have it’s place, but maybe not at a Jazz Festival at prime time. He did have a split set with 19 year old sax phenom Alex Han and I can’t help thinking that I’m not the only one who might have rather seen a full set from Alex in the first place. He’s intensity and improvisation skill had some of the crowd on their feet a couple of times and with Taylor Tanner, Gordy Johnson, and Kevin Washington playing rhythm they were a shoe-in for an encore that was fantastic.

After that it was a fairly quick setup for Charmaine Neville to come out and top it all off the right way. I had not known she could do that sort of Louis Armstrong impersonation, and she used it to pretty good effect. Not quite enough to make it a gimmick but enough to show what sort of range she’s got. Her band was absolutely stellar too, and I’m really glad that she has them warm up the crowd with a song before she gets on stage.

After that it was a quick walk up to the Dakota where I caught the end of Willie West and the festival jam session over an order of the really tasty french fries, which the Dakota serves with an excellent Bearnaise sauce. It was pretty obvious that people were thinking along the same lines I had been when the last combo on the stage included both Grace Kelly and Alex Han. After trading solos with the rest of the band for the first 20min, Kevin Washington finally goaded them into doing an improvisation duet that was exactly the kind of music I had been hoping to hear staying up for the jam. Trading licks like they did was a great end to the evening and the right note to go home on.

My armchair observation: Grace Kelly needs the polish that Alex Han has developed over the 5 years that he’s been playing to be a great musician, but Alex needs to work on the stage presence that Grace has already gotten to be a great entertainer. I’m fairly certain that All Grace needs is time to develop the polish, but I wonder if Alex will ever look really comfortable speaking to the crowd on stage.

Off to day 3, which should be full of really great latin jazz on the main stage.