musician.educator.musicologist

10 Deserted-Island Recordings

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I posted this list on different website last week, but thought I should also put it here ... (I have actually changed a few of my choices, and I think this is a better list.)

Here are my 10 deserted-island albums, in no particular order: 

  1. Kid A by Radiohead
  2. Music for Airports by Brian Eno
  3. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys
  4. Jordi Savall/Ton Koopman's recording of Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord
  5. Yo-Yo Ma's 1997 recording of Bach's cello suites
  6. John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists' recording of Mozart's Symphony No. 41
  7. Post by Björk
  8.  Hunky Dory by David Bowie
  9.  ( ) by Sigur Rós
  10. Odelay  by Beck

I am well aware that this lets most of my biases show. Be that as it may, this is what I would take with me if I was forced to leave today. 

Cuyamaca College Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble performing Abbey Road

Added on by Taylor Smith.

As most folks know, I direct the Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble at Cuyamaca College (in addition to wearing a bunch of other hats). Our most recent concert was on April 29; we played Abbey Road from start to finish (plus a few extra songs from 1969). I am not much of a bragger, but the band sounded really good. You can have a listen/look below.

 

Enjoy.

On Using an iPad for Everything

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I did something kind of drastic two weeks ago. With all of the “newness” that goes along with Christmas and the beginning of the year, I got caught up in rethinking a few things. One of the things that I thought about was my computer/technology situation. I have had a 13" MacBook Air since August 2012, and it has been a great computer, probably the best computer I have ever owned. But, in thinking through how I work, and the type of work I do the majority of time, I realized that I didn’t really need that computer anymore. Most of what I do on a daily basis is writing, research, and reading; in each of these cases, my MacBook was overkill.

With this realization, and a bit of old-fashioned American consumerism, I decided to get rid of my MacBook Air and my iPad Air, and replace them with an iPad Pro. In selling both of these devices, I was able to raise the funds to buy an iPad Pro without actually spending any new money (which was my hope, of course). Since I am always interested in “downsizing,” I liked the idea of swapping out two devices for one. If I ever ended up in a situation that I needed something more powerful than an iPad Pro, I figured that I have an iMac both at home and in my office, and if I needed something really powerful, I could always use the recording studio at the college—heavy multi-track recording is the only that comes to mind that might require lots of horsepower, and I would rather go into the college’s studio to do that anyway.

I’ve told a few people, extended family members included, that most people don’t need anything more than an iPad. The overwhelming majority of the things we all use computers to do, can be done just as well, sometimes better, on a device like an iPad. So, I decided that it was time for me to “practice what I preach,” so to speak, and do the majority of my computer-ing on an iPad. Now, since I was replacing my laptop, I felt that I should probably go with the highest-end of the iPad family. Thus, the 128GB iPad Pro.

Just about everything I write into the foreseeable future will be done right here, on my iPad. Ditto for all of my research, reading, and other day-to-day stuff. I am already finding things that I like better about working this way.

Intercultural Music Conference - 2016

Added on by Taylor Smith.

UCSD is hosting the 2016 Intercultural Music Conference on February 26–28. I just got word that I will be presenting a paper. So, if you are really bored, you can come hear it ... though you would have to be REALLY bored to want to, as my presentation is likely to be pretty boring (for most) as well. Here is the abstract:  

 “Sweet Trinidad:” Imitation and Representation in Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America

Some six years after completing his first album, Van Dyke Parks released Discover America, a collection of cover songs. More specifically, Discover America consists almost entirely of songs originating from Trinidad and Tobago. And, the majority of the songs’ lyrics revolve around descriptions of the United States and American culture, through the eyes of Trinidadian songwriters from the 1920s, thirties, and forties. Thus, Discover America is an American musician’s interpretation of  various Trinidadian musicians’ representations of the United States. As such, Discover America is an exploration of cross-cultural pollination in both topical and stylistic terms. Parks’ arrangements show a sensitivity to Calypso’s intricacies, though they are rarely simple re-orchestrations of Calypso tunes.

This paper examines Parks’ imitations of Trinidadian music alongside the lyrics’ representations of American culture. Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements seem to be an attempt at representing the original artists’ ideas about America juxtaposed against his own interpretations of Trinidadian culture. Though Parks is clearly a fan of Calypso, his orchestrational choices reveal underlying assumptions about the style and region. This paper investigates the ways Parks portrays Trinidadian music (and, thereby, Trinidadian culture). Additionally, special attention is paid to the ways Parks reacts to the original songs’ descriptions of American history and culture. In short, this discussion is an exploration of intercultural (mis)understanding and representation as presented in Discover America.

____

You can get more info the conference itself by visiting their website

____

Even if you won’t come to the conference, you really should listen to Discover America. Like most things Van Dyke Paks, it is great.

Checking In ... Oh, and David Bowie

Added on by Taylor Smith.

It has been quite a while since I have had much to say around here. I wish it was otherwise. It is kind of strange, but this is my first semester since finishing my dissertation, but it feels like it has been the most stressful in a few years. Maybe all of the “other” stress I was kind of setting aside during my research/writing is now fully present. Maybe I am more present now, and am seeing/feeling things I wasn’t before. Whatever it is, I have been having a hard time keeping much afloat, beside my teaching, since late-August.

So, do I have anything big to say right now? Not really. I do find writing to be kind or therapeutic, and I have some ideas of stuff I’d like to put “out there,” but I am not quite ready. Mostly, I just have a few loose ends to tie, after which I hope I will be able to post some interesting things.

But, something far more exciting is coming up in January ... David Bowie is releasing a new album! This, this, is something truly worth getting worked up about. Blackstar is scheduled for release on January 8. (Which just happens to be his 69th birthday. 69! At 33, I am not half as cool as David Bowie, and he is pushing 70!) So, here is a “teaser” for the new album. You can pre-order now in the iTunes Store. Enjoy!

Album Review: The Phosphorescent Blues by Punch Brothers

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Magically, I don’t even remember how, Punch Brothers’ album The Phosphorescent Blues (January 2015, Nonesuch) fell into my consciousness. I kind of remember seeing the album cover, and thinking that it was pretty interesting looking, though I am not sure if that was the first time I came into contact with the album. Whatever the circumstances, once I sat down to listen to The Phosphorescent Blues, I was truly awestruck.

I was only vaguely familiar with Punch Brothers before finding The Phosphorescent Blues, though I was a bit more cognizant of Chris Thile. Still, I wasn’t all that familiar with Thile’s old band, Nickel Creek; I knew of them, but that was about it. I haven’t really taken the time to listen to Punch Brothers’ back catalog, so I can’t really speak much to The Phosphorescent Blues’ placement within their œuvre, but if this album is any indication of what I would find, I really should find some time to listen.

(Some of ) The Pieces

The Phosphorescent Blues starts with a sweeping, ten-minute piece, called “Familiarity.” This one song sounds like five, changing tempos, grooves, keys, and overall affect at least half-a-dozen times. Except for the fact that “Familiarity’s” orchestra consists of mandolin, violin, banjo, acoustic guitar, and double bass, it sounds like something straight off of a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis album smashed together with Pet Sounds. I don’t care much for prog-rock, generally, but anything that even pretends to imitate Pet Sounds is bound to catch my attention. (Remember how I wrote my PhD dissertation on Brian Wilson?)

It seems like most bands with as many chops as Punch Brothers can’t resist the temptation to turn their music into nothing but a “shred fest” (hence, one of the reasons I am not so into prog-rock), but Punch Brothers largely avoids this. “Familiarity” comes with an abundance of virtuosic flair, but it is never simply virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake.

One of my favorite moments in this song is when the band imitates a tape or digital-delay effect. The players hit a chord and repeat it precisely, dropping the volume each time. On the third repeat of this figure the banjo breaks form and plays a repetitive melody; on the fifth repeat the mandolin enters with an intricate muted rhythmic groove. Not much later, Thile et al. break into a gorgeous a cappella section, one that sounds somewhere between The Beach Boys and Palestrina. Really, it is stunning.

At 6:00, “Familiarity” turns into an entirely different song: a subdued ballad featuring Thile’s (mostly) solo vocals. After the first verse-chorus, there is a lovely, sensitive violin solo. The transition between this much slower, softer portion of the song and the wilder stuff before it happens via a nice, long, drowning reverb tail. But, I am not sure why this isn’t a separate piece altogether.

Another standout track is “I Blew It Off.” This one is probably the most “radio friendly” of the lot. What’s great, though, is that it starts out like a Steve Reich piece (or at least something Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois). At the chorus, it breaks into a straightforward folk-rock feel. In the bridge back to the verse, the violinist (Gabe Witcher) sneaks in a great solo—his judicious use of vibrato here is perfect … I wish more fiddlers would follow suit.

Though, it’s not as windy a path as was “Familiarity,” “I Blew It Off” still packs a few surprises. Each chorus adds more vocals, simply harmonies at first, followed by some more polyphonic layering.. The changes in texture serve as nice palette cleansers throughout the song.

“My Oh My” is another great song. This one is one of the first really bluegrass-sounding moments on the album. It doesn’t start that way, though. It is only when Thile et al.’s blues-inflected vocals move into the song’s bridge that that Appalachian flavor really shows up. As before, “My Oh My” is a bit restless, the chorus calms down considerably, first supported only by Thile’s mandolin, with the others players entering at various points. The final verse is fully-orchestrated, and the vocals are full, complete with soaring falsettos. A great moment comes around 3:45. The two vocal parts dip below their ultimate note and swoop up to it, both staying perfectly in tune throughout this portamento. Impressive. The band’s use of dynamic contrast is also impressive in this piece.

True to the group’s crossover leanings, The Phosphorescent Blues includes two arrangements of pieces from the late-19th-century: a version of the Passepied from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque and an arrangement of Scriabin’s Prélude in C minor, Op. 22, no. 2. Though I want to love the Debussy (because, really, what is not to love about Debussy?), this arrangement isn’t great. The Scriabin is a little better, but it’s nothing earth-shattering.

The album’s closing piece, “Little Lights,” is a gorgeous ballad featuring more of the now-familiar vocal harmonies. (Curiously, Thile grew up in Carlsbad, CA … maybe that is where he picked up his penchant for Beach Boy harmonies.) The song slowly builds to a rousing, sing-along, Coldplay-esque (in the best way) repeating chorus. Given the chops these guys have, it would have been easy to let this one get away from them. There is so much crescendo, both in volume and texture, that it would be a lesser-calibered band’s cue to dig in and show off; Punch Brothers stops short. The song ends even more softly than it began, which is perfect.

Conclusion

Seriously, this is an amazing album, and you really need to hear it. Force yourself, if necessary. I promise it will be worth it.

9/10

On Tuning My Bass in Fifths

Added on by Taylor Smith.

The short version

I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths, an octave lower than the cello (CC-GG-D-A, from bottom to top), for about six months. This creates some challenges, but not as many as you’d think. There are also some advantages. The biggest advantage is that, at least with my instrument, it sounds much more open and direct—like a big, honkin’ cello. Like everyone else’s, my bass always sounded kind of tubby and un-violin-like. Now, it sounds really good, better than I have ever heard it. I also feel like I can play in tune with myself better … something about the overtones, I s’pose. The hardest part is that I have to think extra hard sometimes, as stuff isn’t where it has been for the last seventeen years.

Bottom line: I am really liking this change. I think it might be permanent.

The long version

For some reason, I can’t seem to just play the bass according to the way your “supposed to.” I didn’t have a proper teacher until I was eighteen (two years after I started), and we never really got into nitty-gritty technique. He was (is) a phenomenal jazz player (the guy played with Miles Davis … how much more legit can you get?), and the few lessons we had revolved more around constructing good bass lines than technique.

Then, when I got to BYU-Idaho, there wasn’t a bass teacher. I was a music major, attending on a jazz bass scholarship, but I was left high and dry without a teacher. (Despite the fact that I was required to take private lessons as a music major.) So, they stuck me with one of the best student bassist there at the time. He was a good player, but not a good teacher. It didn’t help that I had virtually no “classical” bass experience when I got there.

Finally, halfway through my sophomore year, a new cello teacher showed up, and he was fine with taking on the two or three bassists that were scraping by without a teacher. We didn’t really work out of the Simandl method, but that was, essentially, how my lessons went: no third finger below thumb-position; always keep you thumb behind your second finger; come back to first-position whenever possible … stuff like that.

The university hired an actual, for-real bass teacher the following year. He was into the Rabbath stuff (a little bit). We worked out of the George Vance repertoire. I was allowed to use my third finger once I got up to (Rabbath’s) third position (thumb at the heel of the neck). I was also “allowed” to do these pivot-shift things, which made the fingerboard feel a little more manageable.

Still, I was experimenting with all sorts of weird stuff. I stuck frets on my bass for a concert with the University Baroque Ensemble. I played in a DD-GG-D-G tuning for Cello Suite No. 1. After my recital (which was in solo tuning, as I played the Hindemith Sonata), I started playing in a “drop D” tuning most of the time.

After I graduated, moved to back to California, and was playing in the Pomona College orchestra, I decided to take the Rabbath thing a step further and bought a bent endpin. I wasn’t quite ready to go all the way and drill a new hole and all of that, though. My last bass teacher at BYU-Idaho was a German-bow guy, so that is where I ended up upon graduation. The trouble is that the whole bent-endpin thing is pretty tricky to pull off with a German bow hold. I didn’t have a French bow, so played with a French grip on my German bow for a few years (until I could afford to buy a decent French bow … and sold my German bow).

Finally, I stuck with this setup for about ten years. No more monkey business. Then, last fall, I got the crazy idea to try to play a piano/cello duet by Webern for a faculty recital at the college. And, that was really only possible if I could tune the instrument like a cello. So, I bought a set of fifths-tuning strings. Along the way, I came across Tomoya Aomori’s website, and absolutely loved the way he sounded. Obviously, a big chunk of why he sounded so amazing is because he is he, and the reason I don’t sound that good is because I am me. Still, he had some comparison videos and information that convinced me to really give this wacky thing a try.

So, since last November or so, I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths. I like it. A lot. I feel like my instrument sounds better; I feel like I sound better. I don’t detest playing my bass quite as much as I used to. When given the choice, I would almost always choose to practice viol over bass. Now, I kind of like playing bass again. I always felt like (and was told, repeatedly) that I had a really good-sounding bass, but now I think it sounds better than it ever has.

Most people think that this tuning means you have to shift a lot more. My experience has been that it is only a little more, if at all. Firstly, I am now using all four fingers, instead of three, which means I have a pretty good range of notes under my fingers. Secondly, since so many bass parts are really just cello parts, they tend to “sit” better with the instrument tuned in fifths … like a cello. I also feel like I can hear myself (and my intonation) better with this setup.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still a pretty lousy bass player. Still, I am a lousy bass player that now sounds a little better than he did at this time last year, if for no other reason than the fact that his instrument sounds better.

On The Beatles' Influence

Added on by Taylor Smith.

See the following article: Billboard: Rap’s Impact Outweighs Influence of The Beatles, Says Scientific Study.

Obviously this article is really just “click bait” aimed at baby-boomers, but I must admit that I actually agree with it in part. The “scientific” methodology sounds pretty spotty to me, especially when they are attempting to “measure” something so not-very-measurable. I am, however, always interested in contrarian views on topics like this, especially ones that I think have some merit.

So, here is where I agree: I think that the Beatles get more credit than they deserve. Maybe not a lot more, but I am not sure they deserve all of the deification and praise that has been thrown at them since 1964. I also think that George Martin gets less credit than he deserves. Certainly portions of Sgt. Pepper’s, probably significant ones, are his doing. The same goes for the musique concrète and aleatoric stuff on the White Album.

Malcolm Gladwell has this whole chapter in Outliers about The Beatles’ supposed 10,000 hours of experience that accounts for their greatness. Though I don’t disagree that this preparation (I do question the math involved, however) made them better at what they did, I think this discounts the simple dumb luck of doing the right thing at the right time, of being in the right place at the right time. Especially since The Beatles’ influence has very little to do with their playing ability (what those 10,000 hours of practice would have developed), and everything to do with songwriting and record production—which, again, have a lot to do with George Martin.

There you go. Time to burn me at the stake.

Not that kind of doctor

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Oh yeah ... I passed my dissertation defense last week. No recommendations. No revisions. Done. So, I can demand that people call me “Dr. Smith” now. But, I won’t.

Album Review: The Dream Chase by Sydney Blake and The Misters

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Sydney Blake has gone through quite a few personnel and band-name changes over the past five years or so. She fronted Hedley Lamar back in 2011, went by the name Polaroids and Petrichor for a while in 2013, and performed as part of a duo called Jester James on and off around 2010 ... plus whichever ones I might have missed. In each of these incarnations, Sydney proved herself to be a talented and unique vocalist and songwriter. She has a knack for writing infectious but unpredictable melodies; her voice carries an air of cheerful naïveté (in the best way possible ... think Nina Persson from The Cardigans) which is aided by a subtle, quirky inflection in her diphthongs.

Sydney’s new band, The Misters, consists of Sydney on lead vocals and ukulele, with a guitarist and drummer as backup. The EP has quite a bit of extra instrumentation, the most charming of which might be the glockenspiel parts in “Sad Songs.” In general, the new orchestrations are well written and arranged, though the “production value” is less-than-great.

The Dream Chase is Sydney Blake and The Misters’ first CD, a self-released, five-track EP. The band released the EP back in August 2014, but I think they have full-length album due for release very soon. I have been listening to the EP off and on since last October. Initially, I listened to the album a dozen times or more within the first three or four days. As time has passed, I have “moved on,” though only because new things came along, stealing my attention away. Listening again, I still find the album as nice as I remember it being during those first few weeks.

 As I said earlier, one of Sydney Blake’s strengths is her gift for crafting memorable yet fresh melodies. There are a few great examples of this on The Dream Chase. The chorus in “Stick to the Plan” might be the best example.

 There are really two distinct sections in the chorus. The first one starts with a descending, then ascending scale set to syncopated rhythm. This is a nice, catchy melody. It “feels” like this is the song’s “hook” (which is a word a hate but it has fallen into such wide use that I feel like I have no choice any more), and it would be a great one. But, the next phrase features a very different, equally “hooky” melody. This one is more static than the first. The lyrics here, “‘Cause it feels my mind keeps me up all night,” are great, and the accompanying melody, though kind of static, is perfect. Then, just when you think Sydney has arrived at the chorus’ main melody, she jumps back to a variation on the first one, then a repeat of the second one, plus  a two-bar extension. All of this combines to make what would have been an awkward fourteen-bar phrase sound perfectly fine, great even.

Another nice surprise shows up in “Sad Songs,” where Sydney toys with some mode mixture. At the end of each verse, the song lands on a minor chord where there should be a Major chord. Put into music theory terms, she throws a iv where there should be a IV, at least according to everything before it. 

 This is a perfect example of Sydney’s talent for throwing just the right curve balls at us, but without over doing it. Plus, at least in “Sad Songs,” she keeps everything perfectly sing-a-long-able and catchy.

Though “Supernova” is clearly the EP’s strongest “single” (I think it is bit over produced), my favorites are “Sad Songs” and “Dreams” (though I do wish, so, so much, that the strings weren’t fake … especially the pizzicato stuff). “Dreams” is just a nice song with well-thought orchestration. The melodies are trite, with a lot of empty space.

As mentioned before, The Dream Chase’s weakest elements are the obviously-less-than-real orchestrations. This is especially obvious with the string parts. I think the producer, Adam Sisco, made the mistake of trying to make the strings too big, as if he had an entire symphony at his disposal. The parts are right for that, and, had he access to an orchestra, they would sound great. But, the “orchestra” comes across as kind of cheesy instead. Still, one can hardly blame the group for their ambition to fill out the band’s sound with a lush string section … I do like what Sydney /Adam did with the percussion—the glockenspiel parts in “Dreams” and “Sad Songs” are near-perfect and the chimes in “Midnight” add just the right amount of levity to the chorus.

Overall, I am thoroughly impressed with The Dream Chase. It shows so much potential and inventiveness. Sydney’s grasp of melodic writing, and her sweet, almost vibrato-less voice is just beautiful. While writing this review, I’ve listened to the EP half-a-dozen times (or more) over the course of two days, and I am not tired of it in the least. Those cute, slightly unpredictable melodies have a way of bouncing around in my head, which is something I welcome.

7.5/10

Mark Your Calendars ...

Added on by Taylor Smith.

So, if you aren't busy, you could come to my dissertation defense, now officially scheduled for May 26, 2015 at 11.

 I am more than happy to raise my expected attendance ... 

I am more than happy to raise my expected attendance ... 

Dissertation ... done.

Added on by Taylor Smith.

It only took six years, but my dissertation is finally done.

 My wife and kids gave me this t-shirt, in good faith, a little less than two weeks ago. I promised them that I wouldn't wear it until it was true.

My wife and kids gave me this t-shirt, in good faith, a little less than two weeks ago. I promised them that I wouldn't wear it until it was true.

I sent an email, with a link to download my dissertation, to the three members of my committee sometime around midnight on Sunday night. About two weeks before that, my committee Chair and Dissertation Advisor told me that I should send my dissertation to the the others "immediately;" I really did do everything possible to send it as soon as possible—I have the extra gray hairs and saggy, blood-shot eyes to prove it. Unfortunately, I was either being too picky or simply wasn't as far along as I had led myself (and my advisor) to believe, and the earliest I was able to get it sent was on Sunday night. Two weeks late.

It is already too late to graduate in the Spring, 2015 semester. The deadline for having everything done, including the dissertation defense, was April 3. I have applied for graduation during the Summer term. Technically speaking, the degree will show up on my transcript as soon as all of the requirements are completed; a "Summer" degree simply means that I missed the Spring deadline—I could have the degree in hand before the Spring semester has ended (in theory). But, since it took me so much longer than my advisor had asked, I may be too late for a Summer degree as well.

My advisor spends most of the summer teaching in Budapest every year. She is leaving on May 28, but will also be out of town for about a week between now and then as well. So, receiving the degree during the "Summer, 2015" term means that there is a two-or-three-day window that will have to work for everyone in order for my to graduate during this academic year. (Oh, and they'd all have to cooperate on my behalf  ... that might be the bigger challenge).

I am not incredibly concerned about graduation in the Summer vs. the Fall, save the fact that a Fall degree means I will have to register and pay tuition for the Fall semester. That's another few thousand dollars that I would rather save. Also, unless I have a PhD listed on my official transcripts by July 1, my employer won't recognize it until the following year (the 2016–2017 academic year). That's an extra $7,000 I'd rather earn this next year as well.

This, too, shall pass

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Lots of things are difficult right now, most things. I am trying to find comfort in the idea that suffering is part of existence, and without it, we can't really learn or become better.

This, too, shall pass. I hope it is soon.