Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Believer: Eighty-Second Issue: The Music Issue: July/August 2011

The Believer: Eighty-Second Issue: The Music Issue: July/August 2011
Featuring a CD of new work by contemporary composers, among other interesting things like words from David Mitchell, Nick Hornby, Martha Wainwright, and David Byrne

Anyone who wants to tell me that a magazine shouldn't count toward Cannonball Read has clearly never read The Believer. Most of the images are small and hand-drawn, and the reading is usually involved. That's not say it is humorless — sidebar lists like "Members of The Decemberists with Unusual Feet" attest to that — but it's certainly not like cracking open Spin or People, not to mention there's considerably less advertising. I don't have a subscription to The Believer, but I've purchased the music issue for the past three years. What can I say; I'm a sucker for publications with a free CD.

Let's talk a little bit about the CD first. I have limited knowledge of classical music — and by classical, I mean the composers we've all heard of like Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, etc — and I know very little of contemporary composers, outside of some who are known for movie scores. It's not my field of expertise, so I welcomed the mini-education the CD provides. Being a former cello player and a former dancer, my listening was less emotional and more physical. Either I could feel bow movements, or I could picture potential choreography. There's so much potential performance in many of these songs.

Tyondai Braxton's "Uffe's Woodshop," the disc opener, is mechanically ordered, yet chaotic in a good way. There's so much going on with all the electronic looping and orchestral noises, but I liked it a lot. From there, we immediately calm down with Sarah Kirkland Snider's "Nausicaa," taken from her Penelope. YouTube is not all that forthcoming with many of the songs from many of the composers, but this is in a similar vein to "Nausicaa:"

Shara Worden's vocals are just gorgeous, and I'd gladly take a whole album of this music. And speaking of interesting vocals, Erin Gee's "Yamaguchi Mouthpiece" (part 3) recalls Björk's Medulla experiments.

Owen Pallett's "Scandal at the Parkade," which combines impressive violin-playing with looping pedals:

And then there's "Save My Death," which stems from this:

TIMBERBRIT is a full-length opera starring fictional versions of Britney Spears and her erstwhile lover Justin Timberlake. In an alternate pop universe, Britney's latest breakdown has propelled her into her final hours. Justin learns of her imminent demise and rushes to her side to profess his undying love. The music of TIMBERBRIT is inspired by incredibly slowed-down versions of Britney's own songs. Composer Jacob Cooper stretches the tempo to its breaking point, infusing the familiar pop structures with a deranged, nightmarish intensity. Breezy tunes about teenage crushes become statements of mortality and supreme love, much like those common in traditional opera.

That is both ridiculous and awesome, and I love it. Other highlights from the disc include Ted Hearne's "Snowball" (jazz with strings), Jozef Van Wissem's "Aerumna" (atmospheric and meditative), and Nicole Lizeé's excerpt from "King Kong and Fay Wray" (ominous, brief).

Probably my favorite from the collection is Bryce Dessner's "Lincoln's March." Filled with french horns and other muted brass, it reminds me of some of the stuff I used to play in orchestra. Dessner is the guitarist for the National, a band I keep hearing is brilliant, but I've yet to check out. I wish YouTube or Vimeo had this song.

About the only song I just flat out did not like was Daniel Padden's "Ship Sarangi." I sort of understand what he's doing with non-traditional sounds and instruments, but it trips all the wrong switches in my brain and just feels like noise. It's not for me. I'm not super crazy about Tristan Perich's "Momentary Expanse" either, but I like the title, and if I'm in the right mood, I keep listening when it comes around. Overall though, this Believer disc is well worth the cover price even before one gets to the magazine content itself.

And what of the magazine content? Listen, as soon as I saw that David Mitchell was involved, that was enough for me. The few interviews and one book (so far) I've read have made me hopelessly literary-enamored with him. And he's cute, and sometimes I am shallow.

He talks to Brian Eno, a musician I find interesting, even if he's more of a background figure in some of my listening. They talk about the evolution of ambient music, inspiration from dreams and otherwise, the variables involved when a person listens to music, how they interpret and feel connected to it, depending on their environment. It's lovely and fascinating, but this might be my favorite bit:

DM: Novels are palimpsests written over earlier versions, red herrings, wrongly barked-up trees, and still somehow contain the ghosts of the novels that didn't get written in order for this one, the finished one, to emerge. In a not-dissimilar way, one senses the thought behind an Eno composition — all the paths not taken to find the uncluttered path that is taken.

When I do listen close and hard to your work — as opposed to writing to it — I feel watched. I don't know where this is going — a confession of paranoia, perhaps! — but your music has a particular hold on its listeners, and we hanker to know why.

1. Fiction writing is often rearranging ghosts, yes — of other books/stories and our histories.
2. The act of listening closely is a bliss that rivals the joy of finding great music to which I can write well.
3. He said the word "hanker." I thought I was the last person on Earth to use the word "hanker."

Much like myself, The Believer is fond of lists and bringing together seemingly disparate things together under one theme. There is a whole article about songs that feature the telephone, either conversations on or the noises associated with it (busy signals, dial tones, etc.). As someone who has made lists of songs that all have the same title, or songs that feature clapping, I am familiar with the undeniable categorization urge.

Lists carry over into Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading," which have thankfully made a return to the magazine's pages. For those not familiar, he lists the books purchased that month, and then the books he read. Sometimes the two lists overlap, sometimes not. This time, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester were both purchased and read in the same month. I've read his collected volumes of columns, and together they do end up flowing together nicely, in a way that I would imagine a lot of people who write books for a living would manage to do. The trouble with reading a standalone column is that I just end up wanting to read more.

There's also a great longer article about the unloved bassoon, "The Farting Bedpost." Writer and former bassoon player Eileen Reynolds wonders and researches how the bassoon became the go-to stand in for clown-like noises and its place as the "Rodney Dangerfield instrument." Having played in a full orchestra quite a bit, I was aware of how a bassoon could sound outside of "dopey pet food commercials," but I'd never given it much thought before. Then I remembered that I used to refer to my strange sounding '88 Volvo car horn as "an out of tune bassoon."

David Byrne's conversation with Brazilian musician Tom Zé is fascinating, even if I suspect I might not like all of Zé's music. Now, don't hold me to that, as I have yet to investigate, but maybe with my noise sensitivities, I tend to be a bit leery when it comes to someone who has used a floor polisher as an instrument. However, I definitely respect innovation mixed with tradition, and that is something with which both Byrne and Zé are familiar. They get a little technical at times, discussing musical theory and things like "integral serialism" and "radicalize the twelve-tone method," and I admit it went a little bit over my head. Still, their enthusiasm is infectious, and I particularly liked this exchange:

DAVID BYRNE: Is music taught in secondary schools in Brazil? What kind of music is taught?

TOM ZÉ: Music education has not been a requirement in Brazilian schools for many years. This year it will be reinstated. Some schools already included music in their curricula. For example, the Colégio Construarte, here in São Paulo, has an elementary curriculum for students up to nine years old who receive musical education. They learn about the use of one's own body to make sound, voice as an instrument, the practice and recognition of rhythms, the identification of rhythms with corporal movement, and the recognition of sounds produced in nature and by instruments. In 2011, musical education will be restored in all schools.

DB: This is great news! Sorry if it is a surprise to be asking about music education — it fascinated me at the moment. Art and writing and other creative endeavors seem to be getting let go of here and in the U.S. at the moment; there are big cutbacks going on. I think it's particularly sad, as I think it turns us into a nation of art, music, and writing consumers, as opposed to creators. It turns us into passive beings who accept the assumption that others can always make better stuff than you can. Encouraging students to flex their creative muscles doesn't mean they necessarily have to be artists or musicians, but it opens up neurological pathways — ways of thinking that are useful for all sorts of careers. That's not a question, I know, it's a rant. I'm glad to see Brazil is more enlightened in that respect.

Every time I read about the decline of music and arts education in the U.S., it makes me so glad that I have moved back to a school distract that values it. Both of my kids are very creative in their own ways, and I'm glad to know that some form of both music and art are still requirements for students here, all the way through high school. Part of the reason why I played viola for three years, and then cello for four, is that I didn't want to be in choir. It's not that I disliked singing — I just didn't enjoy many of the songs they ended up having to perform. But kids had to be in choir all the way through 8th grade if they didn't want to be in either band or orchestra, and once high school started, there were a certain amount of fine art credits one had to acquire, but there were a variety of choices that were not solely music-based. Between those requirements and vocational requirements, I feel like kids in the Great Falls School District get a more well-rounded education compared to districts that cut these classes. That's not to say that they do not experience cuts around here, but the fine arts classes do fare a bit better on the whole and the community is likely to support those efforts.

I also enjoyed Greil Marcus' column "Real Life Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects," as well as the interview with Trey Anastasio. I'm not much of a Phish fan, but I find the culture and dedication surrounding the band interesting, as well as Anastasio's thoughts on creative collaboration:

BLVR: You guys have interwoven music into social life.

TA: I have. I think that's the truest thing that has been said in this interview so far.

BLVR: There's no on and off switch.

TA: Yeah, but that can be dangerous. People in my immediate family think I'm losing my mind because I don't know how to turn it off. I really don't. As a matter of fact, I've been encouraged by my wife and those around me to, on New Year's Eve, hand over my phone for a month. This is actually something I've never talked about before. This what I've done to my life. Anybody who comes into my life, I start collaborating with.

To a milder degree, I am married to someone like this. Or at least, to someone who has a million projects in mind.

Just when I think, "Yes, I have covered all that I really liked about this issue!" I remember something else. Martha Wainwright is also interviewed in this issue. My dad was a longtime fan of both her mother and father's music, and I bought several of her brother Rufus' albums before her first album came out. Musical families fascinate me, and despite a chaotic upbringing, I think it's great that they've all been able to perform together at one time or another. Martha talks about her mother's death from cancer, the effect it had on her pregnancy, and the difficulty of writing songs without being able to call her. It's a lovely, informative interview, and it just serves to remind me that I have some catching up to do when it comes to owning her music.

Is that it? Is that all I have to talk about with The Believer Music Issue 2011? Have I spoiler-ed it plenty already? Have I made you want to buy it and further investigate its content, as the content inspired me to further investigate its subject? Yes? Good.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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