12.31.2015

Mumford & Sons Project

In between dissertation and fatherhood I'd like to keep this blog going by starting a modest project that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now. About five years ago, in the midst of a brutal Spokane, Washington winter, my wife stumbled upon the band Mumford & Sons in the form of isolated songs from their first album (Sigh No More [2009]) played randomly by Pandora. Each song resonated deeply with us, and since that time they have continued to resonate after repeated listening. The next two albums (Babel [2012] and Wilder Mind [2015]) are filled with equally stirring numbers that at various times have strangely impressed me in a variety of ways.

Photo from The Telegraph (April 2015)

I'd like to explore these songs. The thrust of this project is both analytical and interpretational: to turn my musicologist ear to a selection of songs by the band Mumford & Sons for the reason of exploring their musical attributes and nuances. My argument is that the music, both on its own and in conjunction with the words, functions in ways that carry the possibility of meaning, often complex or even contradictory meanings. The music in Mumford & Sons songs seems to communicate.


Before I get started I'd like to lay out a few ground rules:

  1. I am not a certified popular music scholar, nor am I someone who is particularly knowledgable of popular music. (It's actually a family joke. Jess finds my inability to correctly differentiate NSNYC from Backstreet Boys adorably pathetic.) So I will not be making statements about musical influences from or rankings with other popular bands or giving background information on producers, labels, or studios. I also will be using musicological terminology about which a popular music scholar or a fan might take umbrage.
  2. This is a project intended for the layperson. Analysis and critique that consist of torrents of technical jargon are ultimately an isolated and aggravating endeavor and I it is my hope that I can communicate clearly in ways that anyone can understand: the fan, the musicologist, or the curious listener. If I do end up using technical language, it will appear in [brackets]. [Musical hermeneutics should be fun!]
  3. This is not an unbiased analysis. As I've already stated, I have been cultivating a personal connection to this music for the past five years and because of that my analysis will not be free of personal anecdote or subjective interpretation. I am not aspiring to analytical objectivity; rather I seek to share my own thoughts and to reveal both how music can draw our ears into new ways of listening and how our listening can draw meanings from music in ever new and exciting ways.

There! I think this will be a pretty fun endeavor. I'm excited to have a side project that can help me engage with ideas that have been percolating for several years now. It should fit in quite nicely between translating academic German monographs and putting the baby to sleep. (Recently, Jess has discovered that little Penelope will go right to sleep as long as she's listening to Adele's new 25 album. Lights out in about 1.5 songs! #thepowerofmusic #teethingbaby)

Look out for more M&S Project posts in the next few months. The first one on the list is "Sigh No More" from the first album.

See you in 2016!

12.14.2015

Gaelic Advent Treats


My thanks to Daily Gaelic - Gàidhlig Gach Latha for a little season's cheer this year in the form of an emailed virtual advent calendar. There's something thoroughly enjoyable about an advent calendar, about the anticipation, the mystery, the big reveal. It's about unwrapping a present.

[Cue pivot chord modulation]

Orthography can be a bit like unwrapping a present. (See what I did there? :)) And sometimes that present seems to have been bound together with layers and layers of duct tape! The relationship between written letters and spoken sounds is not always straightforward even in English, and the rules of the game in other languages has the ability to cause quite a bit of consternation. Scottish Gaelic is notoriously baffling to the neophyte, owing largely to the fact that 18 letters are used to make some 60+ sounds (depending on how you count).

I found the  particular Gaelic advent gift particularly challenging and therefore all the more satisfying after unwrapping; I opened the virtual door to find these words: "Teóclaid teth". Here was my process in unwrapping just the first word.

  1. The "t" is next to a slender vowel "e" which means that it is pronounced like "tch" [tʃʰ].
  2. Because there's an accent over the "ó" the "e" is silent and we get a nice long "o" sound [o:].
  3. The "c" is hard [kʰ].
  4. The "l" is beleaguered by broad vowels on either side "ó...a" so it is technically a velarized alveolar lateral approximant, aka a sort of throaty "l" [ɫ] like in "Allah".
  5. The "a" is silent as it's only there to satisfactorily surround the "l" with broad vowels.
  6. As the vowel of an unstressed syllable, the "i" is a short, humble, little "i" like in "fish".
  7. The "d" is next to a slender vowel "i" which means that it is pronounced like the end of "fridge" [ʤ].
Put that all together and you get something like this [tʃʰo: kʰɫiʤ] or (since IPA tends to be just as confusing as Gaelic) approximately "tcho-klidge".

Now repeat it a few times.
"tcho-klidge"
"tcho-klidge"
"tcho-klidge"
...

Still need a hint? Look at this picture:


Chocolate!

Add "teth" ([tʃʰɛ:] or "tcheh") to the end and you've got "teóclaid teth" or "hot chocolate". I think there's something so satisfying about deciphering this mystery word. I found myself immersed in the raw musicality of the Gaelic language, riding the waves of half-understood orthographic rules, and found myself surprised by the recognition of the familiar in the midst of the strange.

In the midst of an all-too familiar holiday season, perhaps we could remember to accept the traditional as well as the unexpected. And we could have more hot cocoa! :)

10.05.2015

My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)

Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?

I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)


Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.

Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?

8.21.2015

Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.


Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".
Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.

8.05.2015

One Moment to Breathe

Today a year ago my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant. Forty-some weeks after that Jess birthed our sweet, little wonder, Penelope, a healthy, feisty, strong infant with bright, blue eyes. In the three and a half months since we brought Penny home, Jess and I have been privy to a constant spectacle of discovery: smiles, car rides, lip-quivering cries of fear versus ear-splitting cries for attention. Jess and I are both more exhausted than we have ever been and we are grateful to those who have helped us and stood with us through this challenging, life-transforming time.

I am hoping to have some time this summer to write more often. Penny's arrival came at the very end of a year-long battle with COMPS, and actually overlapped with me creating and presenting a "Music Appreciation" course for a summer session at UCSB. There hasn't been much time. :)

Next time I will be continuing my coverage of my adventures in parenting by talking about music for infants. What is its purpose? What type of music is preferable?

See you then.
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