a past in notes

Although I’ve never been reticent in sharing my opinions, random blatherings, or whatever curious sparkings off the brain pan happen to be coursing through my cortex at any given moment, it occurs to me that if I’m truly to be “self-indulgent” and fulfill the terms of the Bloggers’ Credo, I’ll have to do much more actual talking about myself than I’ve done. Because really, I haven’t done that very often.

So, because it’s probably the longest-lived and most important aspect of my character, I’ll spend a few words here talking about my history with music. I really can’t remember the proximate cause, but I know I took piano lessons from an early age, possibly inspired by my cousin, with whom I was close and who took piano lessons beginning at age 4 or 5. I started a bit after that. My other earliest musical memory is that my parents had purchased a copy of Beatles VI, and I listened to it incessantly. I remember that they also bought a copy, shortly afterwards (and therefore probably shortly after it was released) of Sgt. Pepper. I have the vaguest memory of my mom saying that I might like this because I liked Beatles VI but that it was very different. In fact, while I liked parts of it, “Within You, Without You” and “A Day in the Life” rather frightened me at that age. While like most kids I never liked practicing assigned pieces, I enjoyed playing, and apparently from an early age had a pretty good ear, because I was always learning to play my favorite songs (generally without benefit of sheet music – which, I quickly discovered upon getting some for some of those songs, was ridiculously inaccurate anyway: I remember seeing an alleged transcription of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” which put it in 3/4 time). When I was about 12 or 13, I made up a piano version of the overture from Jesus Christ Superstar (I actually found my hand-written score to it recently – I won’t vouch for its absolute accuracy, but it’s pretty close, actually… Also, the tedium of physically writing out music is something I’ve always felt…).

As might seem evident from that last item, in my early teens I became enamored of prog rock, particularly the music of Yes – and it was around that time (I’m thinking 1974 or 1975) that I received my first cassette tape recorder as a birthday or Christmas gift. Back then, it was presumed that one would be using a tape recorder to record music – so the cassette deck had microphone inputs and either came with microphones, or I got some later. My parents had an old solid-state amplifier – and I am very surprised it survived my youthful experiments with sound, because from an early age I was fascinated with noise and electronic sound: I’d plug the mics into the cassette deck, press record, and simultaneously turn on the monitor switch on my parents’ stereo – a combination which in lesser stereo beasts would instantly fry the speakers, since it created a feedback loop – but somehow that system survived, even though I then went around the living room where the speakers were with my microphones, putting them right up next to the speakers (and, curiously, near electrical outlets, which altered the sound in a way I’ve never quite understood). Around the same time, I was reading lots of books about music: I can’t remember the title, but in one I read about Charles Ives and his colliding marching bands, and Harry Partch and his bizarre new instruments. I also found, at my local public library, a copy of Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, which I really should re-read one of these years. It was, I think, immensely influential, not only on my musical taste but in other ways: I’m pretty sure that it was the description of Jefferson Airplane’s “(Re)Joyce” in this book that led me to want to read Joyce’s Ulysses (which I eventually did – checking it out of the public library in 8th grade, leading the librarian to look at me suspiciously – a suspicion no doubt strengthened when I lied and said I’d been assigned to read it at school). This was also the book that led me to one of my all-time best used-record purchases (one which, had I been aware of it, might well have been worth a great deal…): at my younger sister’s grade-school fundraiser, I spotted LP copies of Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, the Fugs’ Tenderness Junction, Fifty Foot Hose’s Cauldron, and Timothy Leary’s Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. (All of those were, I believe, at the time out of print. I lost the Leary album – which, if I recall, featured him speaking and anonymous West Coast musicians providing a generic psychedelic “Eastern” backing – but kept the remaining three for a long time – and have repurchased Baxter’s and Cauldron on CD when they were reissued.)

I was smart enough to recognize that my parents maybe wouldn’t want to look too closely at these albums – I’d already amassed a fairly large collection (built on proceeds from my paper route), and the more risky records were buried amongst the “acceptable” items, and I listened to them only in headphones. I remember picking up Zappa’s Just Another Band from LA…and realizing immediately upon first listening to it that there was just no way I could ever risk playing this one out loud with my parents in the house! I also remember noticing that my favorite record store at the time – a longish bike ride over to the neighboring suburb of West Allis, to about 67th and Lincoln, a store called Record Head – often, uh, smelled kinda funny.

The two main strands of my musical interest that might be extracted from the above items – an interest in sound and texture for its own sake, in experimentation in various musical elements, but also a strong love for melody, harmony, and songs generally – are already legible, I think – and to this day they remain the poles that define much of the music I like. At various points I favored one aspect or the other – the flashier aspects of texture, color, and experimentation sometimes led me to stuff that was otherwise fairly musically thin, while a certain tendency toward the more obvious forms of musical accomplishment led me, for example, to sorely misjudge the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat when I first heard it in the early ’80s…as a mess and poorly recorded waste of time. I couldn’t hear anything then but tuneless bashing – and in a way, that’s surprising for a kid who used to love to make feedback by putting a live microphone in front of a stereo speaker. It’s true: I could have recorded Metal Machine Music before Lou Reed did…

I kept playing piano, although I became more and more disenchanted with lessons and having to practice (even though I know now that I could have been a much better player if I had practiced more). I joined the school band, starting on trumpet, moving to baritone when the band director decided my lips better fit that instrument, and switching to trombone on another band director’s suggestion. And some time in high school, I decided to learn to play guitar. Like many, many guitarists, this was motivated less by a desire to learn the instrument than by the observation that this guy who sang and played guitar at school concerts received quite a bit of attention from good-looking females. Uh, that never actually seemed to work for me – probably because I kinda came across as a broody loner for several years but never quite managed the necessary dark good looks to make that work. Anyway, I hacked away the guitar for quite a while before realizing that if I really wanted to get any good, I’d have to practice quite a bit – as I’d noticed that my main weaknesses were technical, in particular the sort of microrhythmic accuracy that often subtly differentiates the really good player from the merely adequate (or merely not so adequate) guitarist. (This is still a weakness.) My ears, at least, were better than my hands.

In college, I wrote a few songs…and tried to record them, sans any decent equipment, by building multiple tracks of crap nylon-strung acoustic and vocals using two home tape decks in my dorm room, playing the earlier recorded tracks back via speaker and layering the new stuff on top. It did not help that one of the two tape decks (which belonged to my roommate Peter) ran slightly fast…which meant that as I layered, the pitch was gradually rising. Around this time I took one of only two college-level music courses, this one a sort of composition course for non-music majors taught by contemporary composer William Albright at the University of Michigan. I’m still extremely proud of his comments on a short piece of music I composed in that class: he commented that the chordal movement in the beginning and end of one piece reminded him somewhat of Olivier Messiaen (Albright’s teacher, and one of my favorite composers). Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do with the middle of that piece (I don’t remember it – but the intro and, sort of, the outro I still remember…and may yet make use of them in a recording project).

The technique issue is interesting: when I played piano, like a lot of piano students I occasionally played in recitals and competitions of various sorts, and I was usually praised for musicality (I was never one to try to take on excessively challenging pieces in terms of technique: I knew my weaknesses!), and that actually ended up shaping my musical tastes in some ways. A close friend at the time was nearly the opposite: he had astonishing technique, and was such a powerful player that he nearly ruined one of the school’s pianos…but he utterly lacked any sort of subtlety, and at times his taste was a bit suspect. And so I was rather primed to appreciate the music and ideas of Brian Eno when I encountered them: I had always felt that my brain and ears were the more relevant organs of musical production, rather than my fingers. (As an aside: my youngest brother also took piano lessons as a child, as I did and as our two sisters between us in age did also. Perhaps motivated by the need to overcome that “baby brother” tag, some time in the latter years of high school and early years of college, he decided to practice the hell out of the bass guitar – and became, as a result, a very, very good bass player – so much so that in the mid-nineties, famed producer Butch Vig asserted that Greg was probably the best bass player in Madison. Greg reached the peak of his commercial visibility as a musician in a couple of records he did with Pachinko released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label – he still plays, but touring is out of the question now, since he’s married with two kids these days).

After that minor spate of ultra-amateur college recording, I gave up for several years. I played guitar strictly on a living-room basis for years, and it wasn’t until a few years back, with the advent of digital recording, that I dipped my toes back in those waters. My first efforts were entirely sample-based – by which I mean bits stolen from CDs, and a spoken vocal recorded with a cheap computer microphone: the first recordings credited (eventually) to Monkey Typing Pool, a collection of spam e-mail subject lines assembled into a tribute to the Fall, “Tinsnip Idol Mandate,” recorded in 2002 or so. Shortly afterwards, I bought a Yamaha keyboard and a fairly decent mic (still the core of my recording, uh, equipment, along with a crap acoustic guitar) and recorded my first 21st century song in 2003, with everything except a few samples and poorly recorded, badly executed vocals coming from the Yamaha keyboard – my R.E.M. homage “Study Rain.” I picked up the guitar again, gradually incorporating it more into those Monkey Typing Pool recordings (the rest of whose story you can follow, should you be foolhardy enough to do so, at the appropriate link near the top of the page). I still don’t practice – I spend too much time typity-typing away at this other keyboard. But there you go, if you cared –  a brief musical history.

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2 Comments

Filed under indulgence, noiselike

2 responses to “a past in notes

  1. Interesting history, and promisingly attainable-seeming. I’m hoping to start my sons on piano lessons (well, synthesizer lessons) at age 4 or 5; my elder son already enjoys mashing around on the keys and futzing with the sound envelopes, so i hope that will prevent him from hating practice TOO much. If the Wii would release Synthesizer Hero anytime soon, that would help.

    I started piano lessons at 16, which turned out to be way too late to reprogram my fingers for that kind of subtle and speedy co-ordination. After three years of increasing frustration, I gave up. I spent the next 16 years air-drumming busily along with the most complex pieces of music around until I finally decided two months ago to buy a set of electronic drums and see if I could play. Turns out I’m unexpectedly talented, and may well progress within couple of years to the drummer equivalent of where your brother Greg is now: locally known, too old to tour. Since Sgt Pepper’s my favorite Beatles album anyway, why _not_ rush to the homebound, groupie-avoiding part of the career? …

    If and when I get a band (I’ve likely found a bassist), perhaps I can talk them into covering “Study Rain”. Given its origins, it could probably handle a guitar part okay.

  2. Gil

    Great post – I really enjoyed reading it, and was also surprised as to some very similar trajectories our musical paths have been on ,esp. the Just Another Band From LA vs Moms!

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