Saturday, January 23, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: David Bowie's 1969 Eponymous Album (later rereleased as Space Oddity)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

Not the original album cover, but still of interest

One of the neat visualizations that is made available when you purchase a digital album through Amazon shows the popularity of certain tracks with an orange bar next to the title (popularity, I assume, that is derived from how often that track is selected by those who have purchased the album digitally). For example, when I bought the remastered version of David Bowie's 1969 album (originally titled David Bowie, later rereleased as Space Oddity), I learned that one track is pretty clearly the winner:

Now I am not currently planning to buy all of the albums in Bowie's discography, only those that I find have tracks that I really enjoy and that I would choose to listen to outside of this tribute oeuvre review that I am doing. However, one track on this album really caught my attention and contrary to pretty much everyone who has bought this one digitally, it was not 'Space Oddity.' This is not to say that 'Space Oddity' is subpar or anything. It was Bowie's first hit, it's a classic song, it brings up the theme of space and what the concept of space beings (Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, whoever is living on Mars) symbolize within the context of Bowie's works. But it wasn't my favorite this time around while listening to this album. Maybe I've heard it too much--it is one of the very few tracks of Bowie's that gets general play at places like your local Whole Foods (not a random example, this is based on my personal experience). Who knows.

I will ardently defend my choice of best track on this album, which is 'Cygnet Committee' (and also what I would call my early David Bowie cover band, were I to create one). 'Cygnet Committee' is a nine-minute ode to the kind of passionate anger that I associate with youth, a track that ends with Bowie in a near-scream declaring 'I WANT TO LIVE' over a martial rhythm in the band. It is glorious. It is the song that you wanted that night when you were in your early 20s and you were all mad at your friends about something and maybe you were somewhere between tipsy and fully drunk and you just didn't know what to do and you were just angry and frustrated you wanted to express your feelings and possibly Drama Ensued. Bowie did that for you. Bowie wrote your early 20s tipsy anger anthem. If it had a disco beat, it would rival Donna Summers' 'Macarthur Park' in its grandiloquence.

'Cygnet Committee' is ostensibly about Bowie's disillusionment with an attempt he made to reach the youth through an organization called the Arts Lab and how that didn't work, and his reaction about feeling drained and used and abused by these youth. But that actually doesn't matter, not even one iota. This is a song about sentiment, not about a situation (in my head, I made up a credible interpretation of this song as a representation of Charles Manson which does not even make sense in terms of chronology). Because everyone, at some point, feels put out by someone or something in life that is draining and uses you and to some extent, abuses you. And that is what this song is. It sounds like the prototype for the final track on Ziggy Stardust, 'Rock and Roll Suicide,' which captures an equally dramatic sentiment, but in one third of the time.

Bowie accomplishes this through the most traditional of means: his harmonies are almost major, but never quite. There are even hints of a descending tetrachord, a favorite device of Baroque composers (composers who also sought to capture sentiment above all). Dominant sevenths prevail in the vocal line and are not always resolved, adding to the feeling of melancholy throughout (around 6:11, there is a whole bunch of vocal line singing the flattened seventh of a dominant chord, but it never quite reaches the resolution). The opening veers between a major/dominant chord and its minor resolution, but it doesn't sit on either one long enough to firmly establish where we are. But juxtaposed with this are sections that sound like traditional rock, such as the one at 2:05 starting with 'Who praised their efforts to be free,'  with the guitar hits as the section goes on, only go to back to the more stark major/minor opening. When we finally think we have reached a major key at the end, as Bowie repeats the line 'I want to believe' in various transformations, we suddenly shift over to the martial minor conclusion as he switches unflinchingly to 'I WANT TO LIVE.'

If you have never heard 'Cygnet Committee'--and unless you are a die-hard Bowie fan, it's likely you haven't--I would very much encourage you to give it a shot. This song is quite a contrast to the album's most popular track 'Space Oddity' and its faux-calm sentiment (belying the dramatic subject of its text). There is nothing calm, faux or otherwise, about 'Cygnet Committee.' Instead, it is a delightfully dramatic venture.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: David Bowie's 1967 Eponymous Album

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

David Bowie (1967)

Before I begin my discussion of David Bowie's debut album, I should probably state my credentials for conducting this evaluation of Bowie's entire output. They are relatively paltry. I was not a person who grew up enamored of his music; in fact, it wasn't until the past year or so that Bowie really attracted my attention. But attract my attention he suddenly did, with an entire month spent listening to Ziggy Stardust almost every day and stretches where I couldn't hear enough of 'The Man Who Sold the World.' So I am excited to embark on this endeavor because I am looking forward to filling in my own knowledge gaps about Bowie and the vast scope of the music that he produced.

That being said, on my first couple of listens to his debut album, I found myself quite underwhelmed by it. It's a hard one to characterize today as it does not quite fit standard tropes. Instead, it was viewed as a 'novelty album' (at least according to a BBC documentary that I recently watched), at a time when Bowie was dabbling in all kinds of novelties, including a tour across Britain in a show called 'Pierrot in Turquoise.'

Pierrot in Turquoise with David Bowie as Cloud
'Pierrot in Turquoise' is pretty much everything that you think a late 60s mimed commedia dell'arte tribute would be, including the climax, which occurs when a mannequin, serving as a proxy for Colombine, is beheaded. Bowie, in the role of Cloud, provides the songs and sits up on a ladder for a while (Bowie and the actor playing Pierrot have some pretty Ziggy-ish hair, as seen above). One of the songs that he wrote for the show, 'When I Live My Dream', would appear on his debut album. The fact that a song from a mimed commedia dell'arte show is on this album gives you a sense of its overall ambiance.

I was about to write this post in the vein of 'Not much here,' but then I started to wonder what I thought I would find on here. A proto-Ziggy? The early seeds of 'Let's Dance'? There is a bit of Ziggy, perhaps, in songs like 'She's Got Medals,' but you have to listen pretty carefully. Then I reminded myself that history is not a teleological endeavor; indeed, if any one artist reminds us to eschew the notion that an artist's biography should be structured around progressively improving stages, it is Bowie. Instead of improving, he transformed time and time again.

Until this morning, this post would have been a short one talking about the experimental nature of this album and how it was more of a curiosity than a masterwork. But I woke up with the melody to 'Little Bombadier' in my head (of course I would remember the waltz!) and realized that, improbably, these songs had taken a light hold in my mind. They still have the inventive melodies that will inform Bowie's subsequent works, a point that I will undoubtedly raise often. These songs are not quite what you think and certainly not quite what you would imagine. David Bowie served as a good start to this project because it reminded me that the goal is not to uncover a trajectory throughout Bowie's career, but instead to pay tribute to his works in their widely varying and engaging forms.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Honoring a composer's intentions when he's not dead yet: Indie band San Fermin as musical albatross

So I saw the indie rock band, San Fermin, last night in Ann Arbor.
Their concert was one of the first live indie rock concerts I've attended in a looooong time. In fact, it had been so long since I'd gone to hear an indie band play that two thoughts entered my mind as I stepped into the venue last night to hear San Fermin perform:
1. Would attending this concert garner me some pretty intense street cred among hipsters?
2.  Am I, in the words of Lethal Weapon character Roger Murtaugh (forever immortalized by Danny Glover), officially too old for this shit?

Time will tell on point number one. I'm pretty sure my 19-year-old brother thinks I lack all street cred of any kind. I'm probably irredeemable. A hopeless case. It's time to place my lifeless corpse on a pyre, push it out into the floating waters, and set it on fire. 

But I didn't *feel* too old at the concert. Living isn't just for the young, after all! I can actually leave my house on a weekday evening and do something other than watch Netflix. AMAZING REVELATION.

But the most fascinating part about attending the concert was realizing that all of the critical questions that I think about when I write about classical music - questions that excellent musicologists have trained me to ask, questions that strike right at the heart of contemporary debates about authenticity and performance - were firing off in my brain when I heard this octet perform.

A little background on San Fermin before I go any further:
A motley octet of musicians (trumpet, strings, saxophone, guitars, keyboard percussion) that started performing together in 2013, San Fermin sounds like a mix of Sufjan Stevens, the National (seriously: the male vocalists sound indistinguishable from one another sometimes. It's kinda crazy), and Grizzly Bear. One of their most popular songs is "Sonsick:"
But my favorite by far is "Parasites" (listen with headphones on! You need to get into that bass line!):
They're an indie rock band, yes. But I think that the reason I started questioning what I was hearing so much stemmed from the publicity surrounding the band. People describe San Fermin as a classical music/indie rock hybrid. The term "baroque pop band" gets tossed around pretty fast and loose in descriptions of them and their music. Moreover, much of the band's "classical music" cred centers on the main person who writes their music, Brooklynite Ellis Ludwig-Leone:
Composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone

A graduate from Yale's School of Music where he majored in composition, Ludwig-Leone is the brainchild of San Fermin, and earns praise as the band's "composer."

It's that "composer" label here that I want to start picking at. It's what led me to listen more critically to what I was hearing last night. Why do people use it in their descriptions of him? Why don't we apply the term to all songwriters? Because what's the difference, really, between Ludwig-Leone and other famous songwriters of rock/pop/r&b/rap music (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Kanye - yes, even him)?  

Obviously, his classical music training or, rather, his sense of belonging to the classical music world empowers Ludwig-Leone and others to call him a "composer" rather than simply a "songwriter." Indeed, part of his big revelation that he could be a "composer" in an indie rock world came during college, when he decided to try writing music for rock instruments: "It was like a big step forward when I realized that those two things [rock music and classical music] could be in same room together," he said in an interview with the Washington Post. Inspired in part by the grand, orchestral scale of Sufjan Stevens's album, Illinois, Ludwig-Leone uses a mix of instruments (violin, mandolin, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and so on) to create indie rock, like many other musicians (Andrew Bird comes to mind).

But unlike Andrew Bird or Sufjan Stevens, Ludwig-Leone doesn't sing on his records. He is entirely dependent on his octet (of which he is the keyboardist) to perform his music. In fact, if one were to listen to the album without knowing about Ludwig-Leone, one might assume that the two singers in it - Allen Tate and now Charlene Key - were the original generators of the music. Because that's how a lot of rock and pop music has functioned, hasn't it? The singer is usually the main songwriter!

Which leads me back to thinking about the role of the composer in contemporary indie rock music. What role does the composer here serve? What challenges or problems arise in the relationship between the composer and the performer in a contemporary indie rock band? Who should get credit for these live performances?

Musicologists offer much insight here. Through their research on the history of performance practice in classical music, we've come to learn that by the early 20th century, performers and listeners were invested in performing a piece of music "as the composer intended." The sense that one should try to divine the composer's intentions has greatly shaped the history of classical music performance in the 20th century, too. There was (and remains for many) a real sense that one could perform a Bach invention or a Mozart symphony authentically through close musical analysis and historical investigation. One could, in other words, reconstruct a musical event or recreate the musical object. 

And here's the kicker: we've tended to see the performer's role in the recreation of a musical work as a servant to the music, an obedient musical worshipper whose sole job is to dogmatically pursue the composer's orthodoxy and implement the composer's musical design. The performer daren't think about wavering from the piece of music, about steering off course, about creatively altering the piece in any way. To alter Beethoven's music would simply be heresy!

But (and many of you see this coming)! Musicologists have taught us to push back against this. In the 1980s and 90s, Richard Taruskin and others came to criticize the Early Music movement, for example, for their attempts to create an authentic early modern musical performance. The more that Early Music folks tried to painstakingly recreate a musical work, the more they revealed their own ideologies and subjectivities in our contemporary world. What are we doing here in trying to honor a composer's wishes, Taruskin and others started to ask. What does it say about us and how we understand classical music today? To many people, these musical orthodoxies were proof that a strict canon of music had been set in place, and that the concert hall had become what Lydia Goehr calls "an imaginary museum of musical works." We go to the concert to admire these sacred musical works but not really to experience them, to be moved by them.

But to take things further - and to get back to thinking about San Fermin - some musicologists began arguing something even more controversial in the 90s: there is no such thing as a musical work. Not really. The only thing that exists at all is the performer! It is the performer entirely who determines what a musical moment will sound like. So why do we spend so much time obsessing over the composer when really all of the power lies in the performer's hands?

Freeing yourself from the composer's intentions is all well and good when the composer's dead. Do whatever you want. You want to make a Mozart sonata slightly more atonal? Go for it. Do your thang, girlfriend.

But what if the composer is alive? And is your friend? And you're in a band together?
Allen Tate, the lead male singer of San Fermin and BFF of composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone

At last night's concert, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable/fascinated by two things:
1. For the first 45 minutes of the show, the composer never revealed himself. He never said that he was Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the composer of all of this music that the band was performing. If he hadn't said anything, one would have (rightly) assumed that the two singers were the leaders of the group.
2. After Ludwig-Leone did out himself as the composer, all of the performers praised him repeatedly as the sole creator of this music. They called him "the creator of all of this music," as if they had no say in it.

But that's not true, is it? The performers are the creators, too. Through moments of musical improvisation and good old-fashioned jamming, they made the music sound like it did and brought it to life. I doubt, for example, that Ludwig-Leone told singer Charlene Kaye to perform that specific vocal melisma at that specific time in one of the songs. I wonder who first suggested that saxophonist Stephen Chen create that basso ostinato in one of their closing numbers: Ludwig-Leone, who as far as I know doesn't play the saxophone (or not nearly as well as Chen), or Chen, who might have been fiddling around on the instrument during a jam session and came up with a cool musical pattern? Who is the originator here? And even if Ludwig-Leone had suggested that Chen play that ostinato bass line, it's Chen's act of performing it that brought it alive during the concert, and who made it fun by bouncing around on stage while performing it.

I really wish I could ask the performers at what point are they in control of their own music-making? At what point are you all pursuing Ludwig-Leone's wishes?

On the other hand, different performers have left the group over the years. The band is now on the third female lead singer:
Charlene Kaye (a University of Michigan alum! Go Blue!)

Clearly the composer's music has continued to resonate with his audience in spite of who might be singing it.

Musicologists studying Western art music have taught us for some time now that the relationship between the performer and the composer is way more complicated, messy, and blurry than we might think. Who is the agent of a musical experience?

I found myself asking the same question last night when I heard San Fermin perform, a band steeped in the world (and perhaps rules!) of classical music while also supposedly being free from many of these debates surrounding authenticity, performance practice, and musical orthodoxy as an indie rock band.

The band has embraced the composer label pretty fiercely. But how do they live with its power?