Cross Talk: Music Edition

Cross Talk is a regular feature, highlighting three to seven items on some discipline taught at the college. We should all know more about what our colleagues know, teach, and love. Lifelong learning, blah, blah, blah, and all that jazz.

UPDATE: Now with Pete Seeger. R.I.P.

~Take this awesome quiz to find out “how musical you are” as measured across four dimensions. It doesn’t take that long and it’s really interesting (h/t to Erica McCormack for the pointer–and I’ll never tell a thing about what she scored…oops!) Also, check out this tool for making your own music; (before you send out your demo, make sure it’s a hit!)

~Check out the secrets of learning an instrument and efficient practice (short version; full version); and one on why every ambitious person should study some music;

~Maybe it’s time to learn about hip-hop;

~On the meaning of Hick-Hop (by Tressie MC);

~Harmonicas are fascinating, and this piece is too;

~Learn about the new economics of music making;

~Get Bach!

~Meet the woman who signs for rappers (as in does sign language for musical performances) and learn a lot about both;

~Because music can save your life;

~A history of Rock and Roll winners: it starts with Led Zeppelin, working its way through seven installments to The Black Keys;

~Oral histories are big, too: here is the oral history of “Baby Got Back;” and this one on Tom Dooley is really long but awesome.

~Music education is changing–On rock bands in elementary ed;

~This is a great article on Kanye–whether you love or hate him, it’s hard to deny his pop-cultural importance. Also, this bio piece on Dylan and his very public privacy is great, if only for all the unverified stories about the man and his artful maintenance of and cultivation of interest in his private life as is this one on the campaign to get Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame;

~There are a mess of great interviews out there to check out. This one of Tom Waits, reads like a work of literature. A sample chunk:

When I was a kid I hung out with a gang of Mexican kids in a town called San Vicente. And in the summer, we used to go out into the desert and bury ourselves up to our necks in sand and wait for the vultures. The vultures weigh about seven pounds ’cause they don’t eat right. They’re all feathers. You wait for the buzzards to start circling over you, and it takes them about a half-hour to hit the ground. You stay as still as a corpse under the sand with just your head showing, and you wait for the vulture to land and walk over to you, the first thing they do is try to peek your eyes out. And when they make that jab, you reach out from under the sand, grab them around the neck, and snap their head off..

I’ll tell you, the best thing I ever saw was a kid who had a tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor and a guitar string. The whole thing was wrapped in torn pieces of T-shirt, and it fit in your hands just like a bird. It was one of the most thrilling things I’d ever seen, that kind of primitive innovation. I mean, that’s how words develop, through mutant usage of them. People give new meaning, stronger meaning, or they cut the meaning of the word by overusing if, or they use it for something else.I just love that stuff.

FT: When did you first get the impulse to write words and music of your own?

TW: Real young I heard Marty Robbins “El Paso” and the fact that it was a love story and that crime was involved really attracted me. [laughs] But it’s not like once you’ve developed the ability to write songs, it’s something that will never leave you. You’re constantly worried that it may not come when you want it to. It still comes down to this: you may like music, but you want to make sure music likes you as well. You sometimes frighten it away. You have to sit in a big chair and be real quiet and catch the big ones. Then try to get something you consider to be innovative, within your own experience. It takes a long time. I’m just starting to feel that I can take some chances now; I wrote in a very traditional way for a long time. Sat at a piano with a cigarette and a drink and did it in kind of a Brill Building style. I was always fascinated with how these guys could go into a room, close the door and come out with ten songs. You may think you’re doing good, but then you hear Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Reed, Keith Richards, or Mississippi John Hurt, and you realize that these guys are all blessed in some way, and when are you going to wake up with the golden fleece?

Or this:

TW: Yeah. And you know what makes you safe and you don’t want to be unsafe. Kathleen has helped me to feel safe in my uncertainty. And that’s where the wonder and the discovery are. After a while you realize that music – the writing and enjoying of it – is not off the coast of anything. It’s not sovereign, it’s well woven, a fabric of everything else: sunglasses. a great martini, Turkish figs, grand pianos. It’s all part of the same thing. And you realize that a Cadillac and the race track, Chinese food, and Irish whisky all have musical qualities.

FT: I heard that Duke Ellington sometimes used to give his musicians a description of something or somebody, rather than technical musical directions, to get them to play the way he wanted.

TW: Yeah, that happened in Chicago when we recorded the Frank’s Wild Years album. On “I’ll Take New York” they approached the whole recording like a Strasberg kind of thing [laughs] I said. “let’s go with Jerry Lewis on the deck of the Titanic, going down, trying to sing ‘Swanee'” I sang the song right into a Harmon trumpet mute and just explained that I wanted the whole thing to gradually melt in the end.

FT: You did that with quite a lot of songs on Frank’s Wild Years. I think you gave some of those songs a nervous breakdown. They were fairly conventional, written for the stage, and when you went to make the album, they got transformed.

TW: It’s a matter of pulling the play into the song; once I separated the music from the story. I felt compelled to put some optical illusions in the songs. Some were more susceptible than others, but I was trying to make them more visual.

I worked with great people. It has to do with the chemistry of the people that you work with. Mark Ribot was a big part of the thing ’cause he has that kind of barbed-wire industrial guitar, Greg Cohen is solid; he plays both upright and electric bass. Ralph Carney plays three saxophones simultaneously. Bill Schimmel doesn’t play the accordion, he is an accordion. They enjoy challenges. Michael Blair will play everything. He plays every instrument in the room and then goes looking for things to play that aren’t instruments. They all are like that, and it’s like a dismantling process-nothing carries its own physical properties by itself.

You can talk to them like actors, and they’ll go with the drug, and that’s what I like. You have to really know your instrument; you have to understand the power of suggestion to be able to do that. I can literally talk colors. I can say, “We want kind of an almond aperitif here” or “industrial hygiene with kind of a refrigeration process on this” and they say, “Yeah. I’m there. I’ll go there.” And that’s exciting. Like Mark Ribot – we were playing after hours in a club in Copenhagen(11) I think it was, and he knocked over a bottle of some foreign liquor; it was spilling all over the floor and he’s splashing around in the liquor, jumping up and down playing the guitar, yelling. “Play like a pygmy, play like a pygmy.” And everybody knew exactly what he meant. When you find who you communicate with on that level, it’s very exciting, because they’ll go anywhere with you.

And the whole thing is like that. Be sure to check out the footnotes, too. Other interviews you might dig include this one with Lorde that is funny and delightful adolescent; or this (short) one on Nikki Minaj; or this classic Lou Reed interview; or this one with Britney Spears; or this one on Johnny Cash (and Rick Rubin); or this one on Lyle Lovett; or this tribute to Earl Scruggs who died in 2012;

~

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