February Point of Departure

From Point of Departure:

Issue 27 – February 2010

Page One: a column by Bill Shoemaker

Jemeel Moondoc + Muntu: a history by Ed Hazell

A Fickle Sonance: a column by Art Lange

The Book Cooks: Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II
by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones (The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press; Lafayette, Louisiana)
Creative Life: Music, Politics, People and Machines by Bob Ostertag (University of Illinois Press; Champaign, Illinois)

Far Cry: a column by Brian Morton

Moment’s Notice: Reviews of Recent Recordings

Ezz-thetics: a column by Stuart Broomer

Travellin’ Light: Michael Zerang

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Opinion: The Decline of the Music Review

At one point I wrote music reviews. However, about fifteen years ago, I became dissatisfied with doing so and stopped. However, for a while, I still read them. Today, I rarely do.

Today I think that the value of the music review is in decline.

Twenty years ago, back when music was relatively expensive, not only to buy, but just to find (it had a high acquisition cost), reviews had an important role. Buyers could read reviews, come up with a list of albums that they’d like to purchase, and then try to find these album in stores or via catalogs.

Today, when we are recommended music, it usually comes along with a sample that can be freely downloaded. Whether 30 seconds or a whole track, the sample is infinitely more valuable than the review, because you can hear the music and form your own opinion. And, music is fairly cheap. For a few bucks you can just download a whole album. At that point you don’t need the review.

That’s not to say that reviews are dead. Nor am I advocating that people should stop writing reviews. In fact, I think that vibrant reviews help the avant music ecosystem.

Perhaps my view on this topic is not representative of many, as one of the most popular topics on AMN is reviews. So, we’ll continue to link to reviews and review sites. Nonetheless, evolutionary forces have replaced reviews with something else, and that something else is often more useful.

The Music Industry isn’t Dead – It Just Changed Its Address

Rock Band
Image via Wikipedia

If you haven’t played Guitar Hero or Rock Band yet, you should stop reading this, and head out to invest in one of these game systems. Why? They allow a relatively talentless guy (like me) make, or pretend to make, real music.

Sure, right now the selections are mostly classic and modern rock. There’s no jazz, free jazz, classical or electronic compositions, and the instrumentation is limited. But aside from being a lot of fun, these games demonstrate the power of participation.

From the New York Times:

Both Rock Band and Guitar Hero have helped the ailing music industry by licensing songs and using online networks to sell additional tracks for gamers to play along with. Those tracks, which usually sell for around $2 each, are more profitable for record companies and musicians than iTunes sales.

MTV, which has focused more than Activision on selling additional songs online, recently announced that it had sold 15 million tracks, and sales are especially impressive for hard-rock bands. During the week in June when Motley Crue released Saints of Los Angeles,the first single from its new album, the song sold 14,000 copies on iTunes and 48,000 on Rock Band through Microsoft‘s Xbox Live network, said Allen Kovac, founder of the group’s management company and record label.

Perhaps more important, Rock Band is introducing young listeners to older bands they might not know. Mr. Kovac said that Motley Crue‘s exposure in the game helped it sell more albums because gamers spend significant time with the band’s music. “I credit Rock Band for bringing in the younger audience,” Mr. Kovac said. “The people who downloaded that song aren’tt just listening to it, they’re interacting with it.”

If this is where the music industry is heading, perhaps that’s a good thing. Now that the new or next generations of Rock Band and Guitar Hero allow gamers to compose their own music and share with others, how long will it be before bands release the unmixed tracks of their songs for these games? Players would then use their favorite artist’s songs as a basis for creating new music, and thus completely blurring the distinction between artist and listener.

Oh, and apparently the artists can make some money in the process.

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AMN Picks of the Week

Here is where I post, at a frequency of about once a week, a list of the new music that has caught my attention that week. All of the releases listed below I’ve heard for the first time this week and come recommended.

Note: I missed last week because I was traveling and didn’t get a chance to listen to a lot of music.

Bang on a Can – In C (2001, modern classical)
Dhomont, Francis – Cycle de L’errance (2000, electroacoustic)
Mitchell, Roscoe – Roscoe Mitchell Quartet (1975, free jazz)
Dolden, Paul – L’ Ivresse de la Vitesse (Intoxicated by Speed) (2000, electroacoustic)
Dixon, Bill – Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (2008, free jazz)
Ferrari, Luc – Didascalies (2007, electroacoustic)
Normandeau, Robert – Tangram (1994, electroacoustic)
Palestine, Charlemange / Tony Conrad – An Aural Symbiotic Mystery (2007, experimental)

AMN Picks of the Week

Here is where I post, at a frequency of about once a week, a list of the new music that has caught my attention that week. All of the releases listed below I’ve heard for the first time this week and come recommended.

Migraine – 52-Grasshopper (2008, avant-jazz, improv)
Daniel Carter – Chinatown (2008, avant-jazz)
Festin Sagital, Un – Pharmakon (2006, avant-rock)
Festin Sagital, Un – Epitafio a la Permanencia (2007, avant-rock)
Fulminate Trio – Fulminate Trio (2008, jazz)
Finn, James – Great Spirit (2008, jazz)
Controlled Bleeding – Golgotha (1991, dark ambient)
Taylor, Cecil – The Cecil Taylor Unit (1978, jazz)

Dave Douglas Releases Live Sets Virtually in Real Time

Dave Douglas is doing something I really like and expect to see a lot more of in the future from other artists. That is, releasing live recordings within hours of their performance.

Sure, you still have to buy them, but these “real time” live albums seem to be all the rage. It’s great for the artist, who can get his material out to a wide audience and maybe make a few bucks, and it is great for the fan, who can experience the shows they missed.

Scott Amendola has announced he’s doing the same, and the folks at Open Ears Music post whole shows of top-notch improv. And it’s free, not just in style but also in price.

These examples are only scratching the surface. The next generation of musicians will have the ability to record and release virtually every performance of their entire careers. Will the plethora of options make one’s ongoing search for great music easier or more difficult?

Time will tell.

Is Musicianship Obsolete?

Twenty years ago I held a disdain for music that was not created by people. I didn’t care to hear anything programmed, sequenced, or otherwise adulterated. Like puerile trials of manliness, music had to pass a sniff-test of authenticity. In this case it was the “made by humans” test. I suspect this was a backlash that I and my immediate circle of friends experienced and propagated in reaction to the pop music of the 80′s (a decade which I still think is a low point for pop music) where musicianship was de-emphasized over looks and marketability to an extreme, even for pop music.

Today, not only do I enjoy quite a bit of non-musician music, I can’t tell it apart from the real McCoy. Laptops and more traditional instruments blend in not just pop, but rock, free jazz, out classical, just about any genre. Live shows often feature a full or part time laptop / DJ / turntablist artist.

Electronic music is not new. It has been around in one form or another for 60 years or so. But now it is approaching a level of sophistication that has the potential to render musicians…somewhat unnecessary. Not unnecessary in that we don’t need musicians with strong technical ability at all, but that they are no longer necessary for recording sophisticated compositions.

Ah, compositions. This is the key, I believe. I used to listen to music to hear the chops. The busy drummer, the bass player adding elements of melody to rhythm, the great five-minute guitar solo. Now, I find myself listening to the compositions. The ability of software to bring these compositions to market without solely relying on human players, as well as the creativity of modern composers in figuring out how to do so has had a subtle yet profound impact on the evolution of my musical tastes.

Of course, one can argue that improvised music is composed “on the spot” and therefore real, live, carbon-based-form-of-life musicians are needed. Of course. However there are plenty of solo electronic artists who can do the same thing with their computers, pots and pans, and maybe a cheap keyboard. Sure, the results sound different, but the sounds are no less vibrant.

The direction this is heading? Folks like myself with little technical musical ability may eventually be able to record music that others will find enjoyable (or so I hope). There will always be room for musicians of great technical skill as the demand for live music shows no signs of abating. But a new frontier is available to anyone with an open mind and a willingness to explore. And a sign above the gateway says, “Musical ability not required.”

Beyond Free: Open Music

Forgot that, through DRM, the music industry has decided for us that we don’t really own the music we buy. Forget that artists and musicians have traditionally made their living (if they indeed were able to make a living on their music) through the use of copyright and other intellectual property rights.

In the 21st century this model is crumbling fast and taking with it the business models of the successful musician and major record label, or at least changing them. No matter how DRM’ed your music is, it will escape to the Internet where the world can download it for free. It is a basic fact and if you don’t realize that, then you’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

All this is old news. And with DRM-free music being sold online in at least a few places (eMusic, most EMI recordings on iTunes, etc.), the music world has finally seen the writing on the wall. Mostly.

But what’s next?

One of the coolest things about the Internet is that once you release content, there are no limits on the creativity that other people may apply to your material to morph, mash or otherwise change it. Greasemonkey allows users to modify the web pages they with additional information, such as overlaying crime or median income statistics on top of Google Maps. Many web services have opened interfaces to their databases to encourage this sort of creativity. And of course there is the whole open source programming community, that has developed software such as Linux, the Firefox browser, the Apache web server, and even WordPress, the blog software powering the site you’re reading from right now.

Mashing up, or remixing music is not new. One of my guilty pleasures is an overlay of the Doctor Who theme on top of a Green Day song (do a web search for “Dean Gray” if you want to find this banned material). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other releases are also available, including mixes of rap music and heavy metal, jazz and country-western…there are no limits. Many of these mashup artists owe a great deal to pioneer Jon Oswald, who has been splicing reel to reel tapes for years before the digital era. His Grateful Dead piece is my favorite output from the Dead, mashed or not.

Sampling of one artist by another has been around since the early eighties at least, but what I am talking about is the wholesale laundering of a piece of music. And it is a legitimate art of its own. Digital rendering and networks allow us to easily, copy, change, and distribute a work of art without damaging the original copy – this is more than the modern equivalent of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It the opening of completely new methods of expression.

Recently a number of artists have released to the world multiple tracks of their works for remixing. This list includes Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, (of course) The Dead, and others. I’d like to see this taken to the next level.

Either for free or for a modest price, an artist makes the tracks to a song or even a whole album, downloadable. With the price is an unrestricted license to remix, mashup or otherwise modify the tracks and re-release them as long as attribution is given to the original artist.

Any of us could easily and legally use, edit, change, and distribute this open music as we see fit. And as the software tools evolve, the limits are endless. Don’t like it where the vocalist goes out of key? Fix it. Hate the saxophone? Replace it with a guitar. Can’t figure out why your favorite band plays the same riff 16 times in a row with no variation? Cut it down to 4 times. Feel like a particular theme or motif should be explored for another 2 or 3 minutes? Do it. Ever thought to yourself, “this would be a great album if only…”? Now you can do something about it.

Newton admitted he stood on the shoulders of giants. Scientists use the research of their peers in their own research. Before the era of written music, songs were handled down and shared by ear, with each artist making his or her own personal variations. Today, copyright is essentially unenforceable. Perhaps the last 50 years of strict copyright enforcement will be seen as an anomaly in the history of music. And then the personalization of music will accelerate and blur between composer, performer and listener will lead to new forms of music.