Monday, December 25, 2006

Deck the Apartment

This week I moved to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn, much less trendy and crowded than Williamsburg had become during the nine years I’d lived there. I finished my move on the last day of Chanukah, and my old landlady asked about the new place. She had never heard of Kensington, on the opposite side of Prospect Park. “Sounds like it’s in London or something,” she observed. “What kind of a neighborhood is it?”

“Pretty nice; working class. Mostly families.”

She eyed me meaningfully. “But I mean…what kind – ”

“Mostly Muslim, I guess…my landlord is Pakistani, with five kids.” I lugged an air conditioner out to the curb.

She raised an eyebrow. “Terrorists?” she asked with a smile, half-joking.

“Probably,” I grimaced, carrying out two African xylophones.

Later that evening I made my way home from Manhattan. It was one of those grotesque Christmas shopping days, and I unfortunately had been compelled to run an errand near Herald Square; the blare of holiday commercialism was frenzied and unrelenting, and the crowds moved with a manic urgency that bordered on mass hysteria. I ducked hastily into the subway.

Half an hour later, Brooklyn was an island of calm, like a distant universe. On the way home from the Q train, the soft, mysterious strains of the muezzin’s song floated towards me through the unseasonably warm air. My new landlord, Abdul, was in the vestibule, preparing to leave for the night; he drove for a car service from evening until early morning.

“Everything O.K. upstairs?” he inquired. It was still my first week; boxes and suitcases stood in disarray around my apartment, contents spilling haphazardly out onto the floor.

“Yeah, fine, thanks. I’m still getting organized.”

“I heard you playing music up there yesterday.”

My heart leapt unceremoniously into my gullet. “Too loud?” I shot back, automatically and defensively. Musicians in urban areas, myself included, can possess terrible – and often accurate – paranoia that our neighbors are conspiring to impair necessary noisemaking by imposing horrifyingly strict limitations on our creative outbursts. And the urban composer may adopt a bizarrely hypocritical mindset; we must be free to make as much sound as we want, yet those around us should exist in virtual silence, as their noise will bother us. What a conundrum of a profession!

And now the inevitable moment of reckoning had arrived; I felt the clear danger. But I had been through it before, and this time I felt prepared to fight back. I had taken pains to make Abdul aware that I was a professional musician; I had even specified which instruments I played, to ensure that there would be no ‘unpleasant surprises’. But of course, the best laid plans have little to do with reality. I steeled myself for the unpleasant and awkward conversation that I knew was forthcoming. It would begin with Abdul’s gentle ‘suggestion’ that I alter my practice schedule, and end in a full-scale assault on my music-making routine. I dug in my heels and took in a deep breath, waiting for his reply.

“Too loud? No, no, not too loud at all,” he smiled. “I like music. It’s nice to hear someone playing music around here.”

I blinked. “Oh.” I stared at him incredulously, especially since I had been memorizing John Adams’ clarinet concerto, practicing the same lick over and over, laboriously adding short musical segments.

“It must be a difficult life, making money from your music,” he ventured.

Still flummoxed from the virtual conflict I had constructed, I racked my brain to figure out what he was hinting at. “Well,” I began, choosing my words carefully, “it’s not so easy, but I love doing it. It’s nice when you love what you do for a living. Do you like driving?” I asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“It’s not bad,” he surmised. One of his kids ran up the staircase and hovered coyly nearby. Abdul muttered something kindly to him in Urdu, and the boy drifted a bit closer.

“I suppose finances are tough with five kids,” I offered.

He turned to me and smiled again. “Not so bad. And I like having these young ones around. There’s always a child somewhere nearby, do you notice? Never a dull moment!” He mussed the boy’s hair fondly, and the child ran downstairs to where his siblings were playing. “But really, I’ve never known someone who made music for their living. I admire that,” he said.

“Well, I’m glad you enjoy listening to it.”

“Yes.” Abdul hesitated, a bit nervously. “You know, my wife and I were talking, yesterday. About the rent. We were thinking…”

Oh, now here it comes, I thought.

“You know, I told that realtor guy – the guy who showed you the apartment – that I was willing to reduce the rent by two hundred dollars. But he wouldn’t go.”

“You did?” I exclaimed. “I asked him…” I trailed off. I had specifically asked the realtor whether the rent was negotiable, but he said that the landlord was insisting on the advertised price – no exceptions. Of course, I had known that the realtor was a shyster; it’s New York. Everybody’s out to make a buck. But why was Abdul telling me that he had been willing to lower my rent?

“I think he was just being a little greedy,” said Abdul. Really, we were willing to go down, but he wanted it higher. So I agreed. But now I think we did the wrong thing.”

I felt utterly unsure of what to say. “I see. Hm.” I looked at the floor.

“It’s not right, you see? So let’s change it. Let’s take off two hundred from the rent. What do you say?” He looked at me earnestly.

What do I say? To lower rent? In New York? Was he serious?

“Uh, no problem…” I stuttered. “I mean…sure, that’s great! That’s…that’s very kind of you…”

“No, not kind. It’s just fair. My wife and I talked about it already. So from now on, you pay two hundred dollars less, OK? And we’ll deduct the two hundred you already paid from next month’s rent.”

“Sure, thank you. Thanks very much,” I said, walking up the stairs, a little dazed, and feeling an unusual emotion. It wasn’t the feeling of getting a “good deal,” nor the feeling of being given a gift, nor even that of making a friend. It was a reminder that there is a rare kind of goodness in the world, a humanity that transcends the bounds of friendship or personal obligation. And as the song of the muezzin caressed the air on the last night of Chanukah, I sensed that this gentle Muslim man had brought a little Christmas spirit into the life of his new Jewish neighbor.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mos Def and Talib Kweli: Rhythmic Surgery

Craig and Wendy busted my chops for not posting in a while, so this one is for them.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli are from Brooklyn; the streets they mention on their tracks are just blocks away from where I live. It’s a happy coincidence that one of my favorite albums is their Blackstar (1999). I especially appreciate the technical and lyrical features of the tunes: ingenious rhythmic variation, vocal gymnastics and modulation, extended jazzy riffs that draw out the length of the cadences, thwarting of expectation at line ends.

Of all the rhymes, I find Thieves in the Night ridiculously compelling. I've listened to it hundreds of times. Even in the first few lines of the opening verse, it is clear that Kweli is evoking the enjambment and multi-syllabic rhymes characteristic of virtuosic wordsmiths such as Rakim and Chuck D:

‘Give me the fortune, keep the fame,’ said my man Louis; I
agreed, know what he mean, because we live the truest lie.
I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye
He looked at me, he thought about it,
was like, ‘I’m clueless; why?’
The question was rhetorical; the answer is horrible.
Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow
and so tomorrow coming later than usual,
waiting on someone to pity us
while we finding beauty in the hideous.

The hypnotic refrain uses as its point of departure a quote from the final page of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye:

“…we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not passionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.”

Mos Def and Kweli paraphrase the Morrison quote, trading off lines (Kweli’s words are in italics):

Not strong, only aggressive
Not free, we only licensed
Not compassionate, only polite
Now who the nicest
Not good, but well-behaved
Chasing after death
So we can call ourselves brave

Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice

(The last two lines are sung by both).

A quick time machine trip: back in the day (Three Feet High and Rising) De La Soul dropped unorthodox rhymes like Three is the Magic Number. Mase often begins a line with the final word (or even a flipped phrase) from the previous line:

Difficult preaching is Posdnuos' pleasure
Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart
Something that stimulates the music in my measure
Measure in my music, raised in three parts

Later on, Pos continues:

Focus is formed by flaunts to the soul
Souls who flaunt styles gain praises by pounds
Common are speakers who are never scrolls
Scrolls written daily creates a new sound

By echoing the last word of a line at the outset of the following phrase, Mase imparts a distinct quirkiness to the rhythmic flow. Back to the future: Mos Def recalls De La's quiet revolution, adding his own special twist. He initiates phrase after phrase using the same technique, but instead of an echo he manufactures a rhyme from the previous line (shown below in italics).

Most cats in my area be loving the hysteria
Synthesized surface conceals the interior
America, land of opportunity, mirages, and camouflages
More than usually; speaking loudly, saying nothing
You confusing me, you losing me, your game is twisted
Want me enlisted in your usary
Foolishly, most me join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright but the light rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won’t call it a slave ship
Strangeness, you don’t control this, you barely hold this
Screaming brand new when they just sanitized the old shit
Suppose it’s just another clever jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with
I find it’s distressing; there’s never no in-between
We either niggaz or kings, we either bitches or queens
The daily ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention plans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other niggaz secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery

...and so on. Then Mos Def tops it off with a mind-bending second chorus, illuminating a new species of rhythmic variation: an internally generated rhyme, one that expands from within. Even the most intricate of Rakim’s rhymes are embellished externally; they don't undergo such nascent development. Below, the original lines of the first chorus (the original, loosely quoted Morrison passage) are shown in regular type and the internally developed exegeses in italics:

Not strong, only aggressive, cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressor

Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing

Not compassionate, only polite; we well trained
Our sincerity is rehearsed and the stage is just a game

Not good, but well-behaved, cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do, or say

We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave
But every day next man meet with the grave
I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy
I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory
Like that y’all

Also, notice the manifold internal rhymes, including the mirror scheme in the first two verses quoted above: ABBA (no Swedish pun intended). You have to hear this poetry in motion to believe it; the page can’t do it justice.

Nerdy digression (beware!): Messiaen’s concept of non-retrogradable rhythms (outlined in his Technique de mon langage musical) is another example of rhythmic cells expanding from the inside out. The process – probably arrived at through his study of birdsong or via his odd brew of faith and numerology – often applies to smaller phrases. But Messiaen does employ it in larger sections; for example in the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (the piece, incidentally, which inspired me to begin composing) themes undergo internal augmentation, stretched across ever-lengthening time values as musical material is inserted.

I’d bet that close analysis of Cecil Taylor’s or Eric Dolphy's compositions and improvisations would yield similar internal motivic development. And these types of structures have elements in common with Theme and Variations form (e.g. Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann…). But Blackstar achieve their variation with words, revealing layers of meaning that set their accomplishment apart from purely instrumental works. Their particular brand of rhythmic surgery – slicing open the chorus and expanding it from within – is a novel architectural model for rap music, perhaps for any song form.

Do such innovations have wider implications for composers and creators? Yesterday I was discussing this rhyme with my buddy G-Spot out in L.A., and he made an astute observation: “The structure reinforces the message.” It’s true; the circular and internal aspects of the development so clearly evoke the cycle of despair and the patterns of behavior that Mos Def and Kweli strive to elucidate in the song. Any breaking of conventional barriers can encourage artists of all stripes – consciously or unconsciously – to forge beyond the familiar. Blackstar made only one album, but in doing so they upped the ante immeasurably; for that I shall always be grateful.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Calling Young Composers

Wow, I can hardly believe that Making Score is entering its seventh season. It has been a real odyssey.

In 1999 I met with Barry Goldberg, Executive Director of the New York Youth Symphony, to discuss the possibility of doing a workshop with orchestra members interested in composing. The idea developed into a full-blown program for young musicians, age 22 and under, who wish to explore the compositional process. For the past few years, my good friend Lisa Bielawa has been a wonderful cohort, helping the program to expand and mature. Jordan Stokes been an excellent and steadfast Program Manager.

The program consists of 10 seminars held throughout the season. We discuss compositional structure, form, harmony, rhythm, philosophy, and the many issues involved in putting musical ideas down on paper. At the end of the year, members of the Youth Symphony perform music by the program participants on a final concert at the Thalia Theatre (Symphony Space). All students are on scholarship; they pay only for materials + an application fee. The sessions are held at ASCAP, across the street from Lincoln Center.

The deadline for this season's applications is October 2. Application forms can be found here.

At each session, a guest speaker illuminates aspects of composition and instrumentation, and talks about their experience as it relates to the creative process. Our guests this year will include: Carol Wincenc, Midori, David del Tredici, Susie Ibarra, Samuel Adler, DJ Spooky aka that subliminal kid, Steve Mackey, and Chen Yi. I'm grateful to our wonderful past guests, who comprise an impressive list:

Michel van der Aa
Mark Adamo
Eve Beglarian
Greg Beyer
Lisa Bielawa
Michael Boriskin
Gerard Bouwhuis
Gerald Cleaver
John Corigliano
Jon Deak
Wayne DuMaine
Mariano Fernández
Michael Gordon
Wycliffe Gordon
John Harbison
Wiek Hijmans
Fred Ho
Heleen Hulst
Billy Hunter
Vijay Iyer
Jennifer Koh
David Lang
Tania León
Lukas Ligeti
Michael Lowenstern
Rudresh Mahanthappa
Jonathan Hart Makwaia
James Markey
Meredith Monk
Valerie Naranjo
Susan Narucki
Paul Neubauer
William Purvis
Steve Reich
Alex Ross
Daniel Bernard Roumain
Christopher Rouse
Mischa Santora
Keren Schweitzer
Fred Sherry
Samuel Z. Solomon
Stephen Sondheim
Andy Statman
Kathleen Supové
Julieta Szewach
Christopher Taylor
Craig Taborn
Karen Tanaka
Michael Torke
Michi Wiancko
Peter Wilson
Julia Wolfe
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Because I don't teach privately or at a University, Making Score is my primary outlet for working with young composers. The big secret is that it's a great learning experience for me. I'm heartened to see that many of our alums have gone on to make their mark on the contemporary music scene here in New York and elsewhere. Go! Go!

To download an application form, please click here. Spread the word!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Composing During Wartime

I sit at my desk with a pencil poised on the manuscript paper, trying to sort and sift ideas. I close my eyes, attempting in vain to keep my brain focused on the music, but I feel overwhelmed by the events unfolding around me. Back in February 2003, I marched through the streets of New York City, one of a million people who demonstrated to express outrage at our militaristic U.S. foreign policy. The entire East Side of Manhattan shut down; buses, taxis, and police vehicles were rendered helplessly immobile in a sea of people waving signs and chanting for judicious restraint. Now, three and a half years after the Defense Secretary predicted a quick victory that would take “a matter of weeks, not months”, American soldiers are caught in a bloody civil war with violence on the rise. 3,500 Iraqis died just this month, more than the total number of Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Our own military casualties will soon surpass that number as well. Each day, mothers and fathers – Iraqi, Afghani, and American – lose their children, and an endless war is raging, on my behalf – on our behalves as U.S. citizens.

In the wake of John F. Kennedy’s murder, Leonard Bernstein wrote "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before…Sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same.” This statement, an artist’s sincere and earnest attempt to find a response to national crisis, has been used to promote the notion that creating music is powerful enough to overcome violence. For artists, the notion that creative acts are a valid and equal response to destructive ones, is an attractive idea. At times it has helped me to feel heroic simply by going about my daily business of writing, playing, and generally making music.

And yet the violent acts continue. How can I continue to scribble sixteenth notes under those circumstances? Is it possible to respond to such violence simply by making music? How deeply is this war dehumanizing us all, little by little, hour by hour?

A friend recently bolstered Bernstein’s pronouncement by pointing out that if we all played violins continually, we wouldn’t be able to kill or inflict pain (unless, I suppose if we all played violin as badly as I do…). This is true, but as the fighting goes on, that hypothesis seems more and more irrelevant. I write and play music passionately; others wage war passionately. I pick up a clarinet; someone else picks up a gun. The two acts are essentially unrelated, yet unfortunately, in the end, the guns are more plentiful. It’s not only easier to learn how to shoot than to compose, it’s also cheaper (join the army!) and it’s the path to greater glory. Making music may have been heroic to Lenny, but to most Americans the soldiers are the heroes.

Of course, the very story of Bernstein’s life is a rejection of passivity. It is only the frequent citation of this statement in times of war that irks me. For it reveals a troubling implication about the American psyche: that we profess to conquer violence while refusing to acknowledge its deeper roots in cultural conflict, poverty, imperialism, and turf battles over control of natural resources. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was no accident; nor was 9/11. Both events were part of an opposition's calculated political agenda, and both events were responses – however unjust and cruel – to U.S. policy.

If therefore, as individuals, we abhor violence, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. Protesting it cannot be left to our elected representatives. The government will always indicate that our sole role is to 'keep living our lives', continuing to be productive taxpayers, ‘stimulating the economy’; in short, during a time of war we should do what we always did, only with more conviction and sense of purpose. Those who make music play more devotedly, farmers farm with greater fervor, bankers bank even more intensely. And of course, shoppers shop with renewed vigor and determination.

Remember how, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush commanded us to go shopping? That would be our victory over the terrorists. “Shop!” we were fitfully instructed, as if carrying out that sacred command would prove that we hadn’t given in, that our lives hadn’t been disrupted by terrorist tactics. Dubya suggested that we answer violence thus: “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In the meantime, the federal government would respond to the violence for us, with a brutal 'shock and awe' preemptive war. Bush’s spokesperson Ari Fleisher had an additional, slightly more sinister, piece of advice for us citizens: “Watch what you say.” Accept the collective response of war. And accept the costs, the priorities. Our government spends more more each day for the war in Iraq than we spend each year funding the arts.

What’s the difference whether we shop or make music? Either choice constitutes a pyrrhic victory if it is accompanied by political passivity. I worry that Harold Pinter uttered a great truth in describing America as “a salesman…out on its own, and its most saleable commodity is self love.” How can we be so smug as to believe that the proper response to cataclysmic events is to continue with ‘business as usual’? In a democracy, how can we be so unmotivated to excoriate the policies of our own government and the conduct of our elected representatives? Has our lexicon become so distorted by Karl Rove’s doublespeak that we actually believe that doing nothing is equivalent to taking bold action?

The question becomes not merely whether – but when and how – we should stand up and say ‘enough!' War is a confusing situation, because withdrawal seems as fraught as “staying the course.” As predicted by many analysts from the start, a civil war has now broken out in Iraq, and the situation is now far beyond our control. What remains is a hopelessly anarchic unrest, its graveness ignored by the warmongers of this administration, whose corporate and political interests benefited from the onset of hostilities. In all the hand-wringing over what to do next, it is easy to forget that the pretexts of self-defense under which we attacked Iraq have long since faded into the sunset. The only remaining excuse for continuing to occupy Iraq is to retroactively justify our misguided invasion.

I often muse over the complex and intertwined relationship between art and politics. I once brought a newly finished piano work to my very 'political' teacher Louis Andriessen. He looked at the dedication and grinned wryly.

"What's this?" He pointed to my inscription, which read, 'For Yitzhak Rabin.' It was the week after Rabin had been shot, and I felt pained by his death.

"I wanted to do something," I said solemnly, "to express something....about his death..."

"Did you know him?" he queried, amusedly.

"No..." I replied.

"Then you shouldn't use his name," he snapped. "This is silly."

At first I thought he was just being deliberate and contrarian, but now I think he was probably right (and he is Dutch, after all...). Our politics doesn't always belong in our art, at least not in that way. It's tricky.

One book that had a profound effect on me was Antonio Tabucchi’s novel ‘Sostiene Pereira’ (there’s also a movie version, with Mastroiani). The story begins as fascism creeps slowly into Portuguese pre-war politics. The protagonist Pereira is a middle-aged newspaper editor who begins to encounter violence more and more in the headlines; he finds his conscience torn, and one day he decides that he can no longer calmly go about his daily routine; he is drawn inextricably toward the only possible effective response – activism. Around the same time, in 1936, Llorca, the great Spanish poet and playwright, lost his life fighting with the Communists; his body was dumped in a ditch. Should he have balked at fighting for a cause in which he believed, and instead continued to write more and more beautiful poetry? Did he accomplish more through his ‘heroic’ death than he would have through his writing? It’s hard to know.

For who is to say that composing – or making music of any kind, for that matter – isn’t itself an act of violence? Why romanticize and tranquilize creativity? Composing, it seems to me, is largely about upheaval, about disturbing the status quo. The transfer of sensation, information, and emotion from one person to another may feel profound, even spiritual, but it is certainly not peaceful.

Artaud, in fact, was convinced that our most violent urges could be quenched and quelled by means of art. His “Théâtre de la cruauté” supposed live theatre to be the medium by which we might exorcise our antisocial instincts, returning home thereafter to properly behaved homes. In his world, art would not attempt to erase violence, but would instead serve as the catharsis by which violence could be experienced in a transformed – and physically harmless – form.

Being an artist demands a temperment that is sensitive to the joys and cruelties of the outside world. Ironically, artists sometimes seem desensitized to what goes on around them, but I believe that this remoteness – sometimes even manifesting itself in outwardly hostile behavior – can be a self-defense mechanism employed by extraordinarily vulnerable souls who decry injustice and tyranny.

In 1988, shortly before his death, Bernstein offers an eloquent – and now eerily prescient – rant against tyranny. In a New York Times essay he enumerates the dangers of fascism lurking within our own political system, especially during election years. “To call for war at the drop of a pipeline (while secretly dealing for hostages); to teach jingoistic slogans about armaments and Star Wars; to prescribe the weapons industry for the health of our doped-up credit card economy; to spend a dizzying percentage of the budget on arms at the expense of schools, hospitals, cultural pursuits, caring for the infirm and homeless – these are all forms of tyranny.”

The tyrant to whom he referred of was none other than George Bush the First.

One could argue that the ‘tyrant’ neocons have in fact taken a rather artistic approach to foreign policy, though it is played out in the theatre of war rather than the theatre of cruelty. They imagined a world as they’d like to see it, and they have been trying to fit the real world – our world – into that fantasy, inconsistencies notwithstanding. Or as the Downing Street Memo illuminated it: “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. Artists must likewise believe in the world that they manufacture out of thin air. When our faith wanes in the fabricated worlds of our making, the ‘vision’ is lost. So Dick Cheney, too, is a dreamer, albeit a tyrannical and authoritarian one.

At the end of his essay, Bernstein strikes a hopeful note. He writes: “I love my country – so much, in fact, that I am putting all my energies into seeing it to a better day, a more tranquil night, a shining and limitless future. And I abide by the words of that splendid liberal Thomas Jefferson that are inscribed on his monument in Washington: ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.’”

Time to write some music.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Say Aa

The apartment in Williamsburg where I've lived for nine years is quite unmemorable. Some have remarked that it has "personality" (isn't that usually a synonym for 'ugly'...?), but if that's true I've never noticed. There's wood paneling on the walls, a heinous blue carpet, a bed-room (New Yorkers will know what this means...), an elegant drop ceiling, and a blinding fluorescent light in the kitchen. Outside, warehoused trucks belching clouds of exhaust mix with the endless glockenspiel of the Kool Man ice cream truck and a pre-recorded faux-carillon of a nearby church, as the relentless jackhammers, bulldozers, and cranes drone incessantly, toiling to meet the impossibly bloated housing needs of this newly yuppified neighborhood. All this and more in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: the 'it' place to be.

My buddy Michel van der Aa, who hails from olde Amsterdam, loves New York. Michel is one of those composers whose music seems to be constantly seeking; it has a unique and pungent, often unsettling flavor, mixing acoustic and electronic components in unusual and highly personal ways. A few years ago, Michel had an itch to stretch his mind and his creative vocabulary. He decided to abandon composing for several months and study filmmaking in New York. I was living in Rome for the year, so he proposed renting my classy digs for a semester.

When I arrived back in the States that summer, Michel confessed (somewhat guiltily) that he had shot a 10-minute film in my apartment as a final thesis for his course at the New York Film Academy. He had written the screenplay himself, taken out an ad in the theatre magazine Backstage, and hired an 80-year old actor to play the lead - and only - role. He had then cleared much of my clutter into a corner, lugged cameras and lights up the steep staircase (Dutch folks are experts at negotiating impossibly narrow staircases), and sent my landlord into a panic by blowing several fuses while gathering footage inside my apartment and on my stoop.

Upon my return, Michel allowed me an exclusive V.I.P. screening (on my computer) of the film, Passage. Witnessing my drab apartment transformed into a cinematic backdrop was, to say the least, surreal. The protagonist's bizarre habits - capturing jars of steam from a kettle, dressing up for his own funeral, and freezing in one-eyed hallucinations - utterly transformed my habitual living environment. Suddenly my abode seemed to be a sinister, living presence, reminding me that I was living only one mundane life out of a million possible alternate existences.

Contemplating the multiple possible incarnations of my shabby apartment catapulted me back to my waylaid astronomy studies. The existence of simultaneous universes is inferred by M-theory (a theory that encompasses various realizations of superstring theory). The concept that our three-dimensional existence is one of an infinite number of posited 'shadows' thrown by an eleven-dimensional universe is in fact a very plausible - if mind-boggling - possibility to ponder.

When I was a kid, I was enthralled by those fascinating old TV shows in which Leonard Bernstein demonstrated alternate versions of the exposition in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. Bernstein had written out several realizations, each of which began with the famous opening motive. But they quickly moved in wildly different directions. And Bernstein would explain, "Now, see how Beethoven could have done this"... "or this"..."but Beethoven finally did this," the dramatically divergent incarnations revealing the endless possible versions of melodic and harmonic invention from which the composer chose.

In any case, I heartily recommend allowing a filmmaker (doesn't necessarily have to be a composer/filmmaker) to transmogrify your living space into an alien landscape. For me, familiar objects were suddenly objectified, coming to life with startling vigor. And a sense of spontaneity and mystery was restored to a space that had long ago been rendered bland, inert, and pedestrian.

A bizarre footnote: I hadn't thought about Michel's movie in a while, but last week the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble sent me their concert program for the summer. PNME is a group that was recently radically transformed by its new artistic director, Kevin Noe, into a group that presents multimedia works of all stripes. Lo and behold, they had unconsciously programmed my piece Tied Shifts on the same concert as Michel's infamous Passage. So on July 21, my music shall be reunited with the very rooms in which it was written; and the audience will have a chance to witness the haunting apartment-doppelganger through the twisted, nefarious lens of director Michel van der Aa.

Friday, June 30, 2006

False Cognates

During the summer of 1992, I spent four months in Northwestern Ghana studying the Lobi xylophone with Ngmen Baaru and Richard Na-Ile. The small village of Lawra was located in the northern corner of the Upper West Region, a two-day bus ride from the capital city Accra. In that part of the country the borders were porous; folks crossed to and from the ‘French Side’ (Burkina Faso), which was only a few miles away. I had a fellowship which allowed me to pursue an ‘independent study’ over the summer; the cash was just enough to get me to West Africa and back.

Having fallen in love with the sound of Malian music, especially the kora – a West African harp – I had originally intended to travel to Bamako. Unfortunately, Mali was in the throes of a civil war, so I decided that Ghana was a wiser choice. I called the magnificent percussionist Valerie Naranjo, who gave me Na-Ile’s address at the Lawra Ministry of Culture. Ministry of Culture? An African village may have dirt roads, mud huts, and no electricity or running water, but you can bet that it will have a healthy bureaucracy, thanks to its rich colonial history.

The Daghati people are split between three countries: Ghana, Burkina-Faso and Côte-d'Ivoire. Their main instrument, the ‘gyil’, is an ancestor of the Western marimba, and is ubiquitous in the society; it is played inside and outside, at festivals, funerals, ceremonies, and church services. Several times during my stay Baaru traveled on foot to a nearby river; there he gathered materials, which he later hand-crafted into xylophones with his nephews Kuulinsu and Maanibe.

The gyil has fourteen- (or eighteen-) keys and is constructed from tuned slabs of carefully carved mahogany wood, bound with animal hide to a sturdy wooden frame. Each gyil key has its own gourd resonator; crushed and flattened spider-webs are seared with rubber over holes carved in the gourd, creating a buzzing membrane as the keys are struck. The process of making a xylophone takes several months, because the wood needs to be “cooked” and dried. Matching gourds must be found for each key; they could be up to a foot in length.

In performance practice, two xylophonists play along with a drummer, and it is not uncommon for a gyil player to sing and play the same song for over an hour; phrases might be repeated twenty or thirty or a hundred times. The harmony is pentatonic, without octave equivalence, and with several of the notes falling "in-between" pitches of the Western chromatic scale. Throughout the piece a “dance beat” often surfaces in the high register of the xylophone, revealing a strong tie to the bell pattern and to the movements of the dancers. The link between dance and music is absolute; the two genres are inextricable, musicians cueing dancers and dancers signaling to musicians, back and forth.

The virtuosity of the players (and the dancers) is staggering, and their sheer stamina is extraordinary. In one of the most distinctive and challenging rhythmic techniques I learned from Kuulinsu and Maanibe, one gyil player mirrors the other's melodic improvisations one sixteenth pulse behind. Try it at home some time!

It took quite a while to get accustomed to their way of learning. I would bring my cassette recorder to lessons, then retreat for several hours to a hut to practice passages slowly on the xylophone, continually checking to the tapes. The gyil players in Lawra – most of whom were farmers during the day – found my “loner” approach amusing; they would stop by to watch as I practiced in solitude, fascinated to observe me learning in this bizarre way.

For them, learning was a communal activity and therefore took place in a social environment. In contrast with our TV-saturated generation, aspiring xylophone players in Lawra, Tumu, and other towns where I stayed – some as young as four – would quietly sit watching older musicians for hours. Only after the adults were finished playing would the kids reverently approach the gyil, tentatively grasping the thick, rubber-wound sticks. Instead of practicing specific licks slowly, determinedly, and in solitude – as I did – these young players stripped a melody down to its core, recreating simple, skeletal versions of the tunes, usually in strict tempo.

Learning the gyil was alternately inspiring and frustrating; misunderstandings abounded, as in any cross-cultural scenario. When I first heard the funeral song “Kukur Gandaa Bie, Kuora Gandaa Bie” I felt sure it was in 4/4 time, with occasional half-note triplets thrown in here and there. But one day, while practicing the tune on the xylophone, I noticed – out of the corner of my eye – one of Baaru’s wives dancing to the music; she was dancing in 3/4! This fleeting experience forced me to reconsider the building blocks of the music and to adjust my rhythmic orientation; what I had perceived as a broad triplet rhythm was actually the basic pulse.

Most of my initial mistakes stemmed from hearing the music as dependent on bass motion, when in fact the structure was rooted in the bell pattern. I was often seduced by hearing shifts in harmonic rhythm, a Western sensibility of hearing from the bottom up that was very difficult to shake. Because our ‘functional’ hearing is so grounded in tonality, it is hard to fully grasp music that is grounded on bell patterns. Those who like Salsa music might argue that Latin music is also based on cascára, but its Afro-European hybrid nature allows Westerners to hear its tonal grounding as primal. In a funny way, most of us probably hear Latin music 'wrong'.

West African music is most certainly bell-oriented, and on the xylophone those bell patterns manifest themselves as short melodies played and embellished in the upper register. If I had been more attuned to the bell pattern, I would have had an easier time intuiting the correct architecture of the music. For example, when I first began to learn “Luba Pog Nung Wa Da Bin Kobo” (“The Lobi Woman Bought Feces for One Penny [at the market, thinking it was food]”), I had no doubt that the melody began in the middle of the bar. Weeks later I realized suddenly that it started at the beginning of the bar. Once again, my sensibility became flipped on its head.

One day I sat down to play a string of songs in ‘Bewa’ style (including one of my favorites, ‘The White Man Cannot Eat the Green Leaf Soup’, the awful truth of which was revealed to me after several nights with a roiling stomach). After I finished playing, Na-Ile said to me: “You have done well. But, if you play more low notes, the people will enjoy the music more, and they will dance.”

I was confused; Na-Ile’s statement seemed to contradict what I knew about building energy in gyil music; from what I understood, higher pitches - outlining the bell pattern – were used to ramp up the intensity of the musicians and dancers. Perhaps I was wrong. “Can you show me?” I asked.

Richard sat down at the xylo to demonstrate, and played for about ten minutes (a short excerpt often lasted at least that long, which is why I requested demonstrations only when I had a burning question). I listened closely, but aside from the fact that he sounded much more fluid, Richard was playing much like I had. In fact, it seemed as if he was hitting more high notes – not low ones – than I had. I still felt puzzled as he handed the sticks back to me.

“More low notes, you say?” I confirmed uneasily, taking my seat on the tiny stool.

“Correct,” he said.

I began to play, adding abundant low notes. As I understood the Lobi aesthetic, low notes were generally employed to demonstrate virtuosity (rather like flourishes in the upper register in virtuosic passages by Chopin or Ysayë). “I can say that a master xylophone player shows his strong left hand,” the local truckdriver and consummate gyil player Borre had once remarked, commenting on Baaru’s mellifluous playing style, “He demonstrates his skill on the xylophone by the fine elaborations he makes with his left.”

So I laid off the top keys a bit and concentrated on adding more variations in the left hand, ornamenting bass patterns on the bottom several keys. Na-Ile listened politely, waiting until I had finished. He did not look convinced. “Let me show you again,” he said calmly, moving toward the xylophone. You are playing some nice melodies, but the people will not dance….”

“Then maybe instead of those bass notes, I should play the dance beat up on the high keys instead…?”

“Yes, play the dance beat, but play it low. Always low.”

I was flummoxed. “Low? I don’t understand. You taught me to play the dance beat with my right hand.”

“Yes, of course, you should play with the right, but always low!” he exclaimed.

“You mean you want me to cross my hands?” I asked confusedly. I had never seen anyone play like this, though I supposed it was possible.

“No, let me demonstrate,” and he played for another ten or fifteen minutes, the last few minutes looking at me intently while strongly accenting the dance notes in his right hand.

I fidgeted until he finished, feeling immensely impatient. “But you’re playing the high notes, with your right hand! I don’t understand. You’re not playing low notes.”

“But Mr. Derek, of course I am showing you the low notes! I can even say that I play them with more presence!”

“No, you were playing them high, up here…” and I pointed to the upper notes of the xylophone.”

He glanced where I was pointing, then back at me, smiling. “You say ‘high’, but you are pointing to the low notes!” he insisted, smiling, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice.

“Low? You call these…these notes…low? But these are the highest notes on the xylophone…” I was dumbfounded.

“Of course we call them low! How else can we call them?”

Then what do you call these notes?” I pointed towards the bottom few notes of the xylophone.

“Look at the xylophone!” He stared at me in exasperation, and a moment of complete incomprehension passed between us. “Those notes are not low. They are high. And deep,” he added.

“High…and deep?” I muttered, eyeing the gyil's wooden frame. The hugest keys, all the way on the left side, needed bigger gourd resonators, so the large gourds were congregated near the ‘deeper’ notes. The keys and frame of the xylophone therefore curved upward to accommodate the gourds, making the 'deepest' notes farther from the ground, or…higher.

I laughed. Of course. Our use of the word “high” is a description from physics, meaning (more exactly) “a higher frequency of sound wave cycles per second.” This association had trumped all my other possible descriptions of how a pitch might manifest itself as “low” or “high.” Na-Ile’s was a clear representation of height, in inches off the ground.

It all depends what your definition of “is” is. Perhaps if I played cello or bass, the high/low mix-up would have been clear from the start. Several cellist friends of mine have remarked that adult students generally encounter great difficulty with the downward direction of the hand’s motion as the pitch moves higher on the string, and vice-versa. Young children, less sensitized to the “high-low” verbal cue, make the leap with little problem.

When we consider how divergent vocabularies can be, it is no wonder that great discord exists in the world. So much basic comprehension is subjective and so many so-called ‘universals’ are culturally determined. It can be eerie to contemplate how terminology programs and transforms the fundamental facets of perception. In that sense we are prisoners of our cultural context and vocabulary.

Yet viewed through a different prism we are also transmitters of a unique cultural perspective, avatars of our own language in a particular place and time. That uniqueness is something to treasure and nurture. And in those rare moments of epiphany, when a wide chasm has been bridged, I have felt an overwhelming joy as a mysterious and evasive truth was suddenly, dramatically, revealed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Revisionist History

Rimsky-Korsakov insisted that the act of creation could not be taught. Bartók felt the same way, so fervently that - even when desperate for money - he declined an offer from Columbia University to teach composition, preferring instead to teach piano or undertake ethnomusicological research. Even Feldman, an academic himself, warned that composition departments were merely “teaching teachers to teach teachers.”

During my years in school, I often heard uttered the following refrains: "he/she is a lousy teacher" or "he/she doesn't know how to teach." Rarely did I hear "I’m a terrible learner." Dismal teaching is a cinch to lament, but the sorry state of learning is often overlooked. Ultimately the students - not the instructors - are the losers in this game.

So how can one learn better? A helpful mantra might be "ask not what your lesson can do for you, ask what you can do for your lesson." Intuition tells me that most artists are inherently cognizant of the problematic aspects of their own work. It is therefore prudent, before seeking advice from others, to delve into one's own works, seeking to identify the weak links and formulating our insecurities into clear questions. Sometimes just initiating this process leads to a solution, allowing more time to address more refined issues in a lesson. I had been composing for 10 years before I began ‘studying’ composition; after only a few lessons I began bringing a list of questions, which steered the conversation towards the compositional choices with which I felt most uneasy. For certain mentors, such a 'pro-active' approach from the student yields very fruitful results, bringing the teacher's instincts - as opposed to their pedagogical skills, to the fore.

About ten years ago, in Den Haag, I was chatting about the thorny process of revision with my friend Peter Adriaansz, a fellow composer whom I hold in high regard. "I am a chronic reviser" he said. "It's my curse; I'm never satisfied with a piece. I rethink and rewrite until I'm absolutely satisfied. It can take years. And some of my pieces I just won't release again until I make all the necessary revisions."

I thought Peter overly dramatic. "Why don't you just write a new piece, with these insights in mind?" I asked. I showed him an orchestral score I had written recently; the work had already been performed twice, and I still wasn't entirely happy with the last section. However I had decided to leave it unrevised, as a document of my compositional mindset at the time; I explained to him my feeling that returning to that piece and reinterpreting it within my current aesthetic would be anachronistic and untrue to the original conception.

Peter smiled. "I suppose you and I are just different kinds of composers", he murmured wistfully.

His pronouncement left me feeling unsettled. What did he mean, "different kinds"? Was he passing judgment? Sure I revised, a bit, here and there. But not obsessively. Not laboriously. What did that imply about my integrity as a composer? Peter’s words resonated with me, activating a nerve in my brain.

We composers can manufacture good rationales for choosing not to alter our works once they're 'finished' (or perhaps I should say abandoned); it can be fascinating to look back on individual works as markers in the timelines of our creative lives; thus the 'documentation' rationale. And there are dozens of other possible reasons not to revise – stubbornness; superstition; a reluctance to acknowledge weakness; a fear of the great unknown; laziness; depression. But those rationales are meaningless for the dissatisfied audience member who must endure hearing our work.

I like Bill Bolcom's terminology; he refers to a weak spot as a 'sag'. Be it tonal, temporal, formal, or spiritual, a sag is a sag. And whatever the reasons for letting those sleeping sags lie, we the composers must resist the temptation; we must train our ears to recognize and correct them. For it is we – better than any teacher or critic – who are uniquely equipped to identify where weakness lies in our own works. We alone know intimately our tendencies, our proclivities, the distractions which seduce us, the habits upon which we fall back.

Around the time of my encounter with Peter, I was writing a piano piece, which I called Turning. One reason I gave the piece that title was because I could sense my compositional process beginning to shift; I had determined that I was most satisfied as a chronic reviser. These days, to the chagrin of my publisher, I tend to revise after virtually every performance. I recall my encounter with Peter and I find it hard to identify with the composer I was then.

We live in an era of marketing makeovers, in which politicians deny their mistakes, change original rationales to suit the polls of the moment, and take credit for events and trends that have nothing to do with their own policies. If politics is rooted in appearances, perhaps art (with a small ‘a’, just to be safe), is the other side of the coin: truth-telling. Such truth-telling must of necessity start with oneself, and painful questions follow: Why write this? Is this interesting? Does it go on too long? Not long enough? Is it clear? Is it muddled? Is it pretentious? Simplistic? Someone else can – and probably will – answer those questions for us, but we only become good composers when we answer them ourselves, and then make appropriate changes.

Boulez writes about the study of composition, "teaching is only a beginning; it is teaching yourself that is important." One can provide a solid foundation for composers by setting forth the essentials - harmony, analysis, counterpoint, musicianship. But the actual process of composing itself is cloaked in mystery: it is a combination of seeking and heeding one's own inspiration and making painstaking, personal decisions. Few, if any, can teach that.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Thracian Echoes: a shadow of the music

In August 2001, I traveled to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to study the Thracian folk style with clarinetist Nikola Iliev. Thracia is a region in Bulgaria that stretches over the Rodopi Mountains and extends into Modern Greece. Nikola - the father of my friend Ilian, also a brilliant clarinetist - is certainly one of the great exponents of Thracian music. He founded a folk group called Konushenska, which plays Bulgarian wedding music and travels around Europe to play in folk festivals.

Each day in Plovdiv, I would spend several hours transcribing and memorizing the songs Nikola played. His nephews Emil and Misha would assist him by translating from Bulgarian into French or English.

Nikola began by teaching me the easy arrangements, ones in 6/8 meter like "Shinka Le". I copied a few of those dutifully down, but swiftly informed him that I had really been hoping to learn tunes in odder, more complex meters. He seemed thrilled to hear that I desired to tackle the really challenging stuff. So he started teaching me all sorts of traditional repertoire: Paydushko Xhoro (5/8), Mizhka Richenitza (7/8), Daychovo Xhoro (9/8), and Krivo Pazardzhishko Xhoro (11/16), Buchimisch (15/16), and various ones in compound meters (5/8 + 9/8 + 13/8, etc.).

Transcribing helped me to memorize and retain the music correctly. I notated everything musical that seemed relevant: the pitches and rhythms, the inflections, the improvisations and variations, the formal structure. I was also aware that Nikola might - at some point – want to use my versions as an aide to help him publish his original compositions in the West. Nikola, however, had his own copies of the tunes. His sketches looked more like jazz heads, without chords. The harmony was implied; all that was notated was a melody line, some ornaments, and the basic form.

One day Nikola informed me that he was going to teach me a special Thracian song called Elena Moma. We began the transcription ritual; he played and I wrote it down: six eighth notes and a sixteenth, adding up to 13/16 time.

Nikola was looking over my shoulder as I wrote. "Nye!" he blurted, shaking his head, and immediately began to dig through some of this papers. He fished out a worn sheet of music with the title "Elena Moma" in Cyrillic. His version clearly showed that the music was felt in 7. I started to play from his sheet, but he stopped me; I was holding the last beat too long. He played it again. It sounded to me like what I had originally notated, in 13/16.

"The same" I said in my pidgin Bulgarian, pointing to my notation.

He shook his head furiously, then snatched my pencil and music paper from my hand. He began to write out his own version of the song, again in 7. It showed 6 eighth notes, then a dotted eighth beamed to a sixteenth. "Seven!" he explained.

I shook my head. “Thirteen,” I said, and wrote it out for him as I had done before.

He played it again for me, slowly, and notated it his way.

"It's not right!" I said. "I must keep what I wrote down." I closed the book. I was a bit resentful that he was telling me how to write music down.

Then something unexpected happened; Nikola threw a tantrum. In a huff, he began putting away his clarinet. Noting that something was amiss, Emil had wandered back into the basement room and began arguing with him, but Nikola was clearly fed up.

"My uncle says he can't teach you any more today," Emil shrugged. "He's had enough. I think he's a bit emotional about this particular song."

I started to protest, but Nikola was stomping upstairs in a fury, muttering to himself out loud.

"My uncle feels that you two just don't understand each other when it comes to this song, and he doesn't want to work on it any more," said Emil apologetically.

I felt rotten about insulting Nikola, but also mystified. How could a musician with such a consummate, nuanced ear be unaware that he was notating his own music incorrectly?

Suddenly Nikola reappeared, with his coat on, at the top of the stairs and said something curtly to Emil. "My uncle wishes that you come with us to visit a friend of his, who will help to enlighten you about this song."

Minutes later we were back in his sporty red Fiat hatchback, whizzing through the outskirts of Plovdiv. "Trebant!" Nikola exclaimed gleefully to Emil, pointing out a boxy East German car parked carelessly on the side of the road. "Lada," he snickered, indicating an ugly Russian jalopy heading in the other direction. I had no idea where we were going. At the outskirts of the town center, gypsy horsecarts carrying melons plodded over bridges. We finally screeched to a halt in the parking lot of a large, unremarkable building, which turned out to be the Plovdiv Academy of Music. Soon we were sitting in the office of Lyuben Dossev, ethnomusicologist and kaval player.

"In one sense," Lyuben was explaining to me, "you are right. Elena Moma is in 13/16, as you have expressed. However in another sense - the deeper sense - you are wrong; it is in 7, as Nikola has notated.

"I'm sure it's 13..."

"No, it's 7. The gypsy drummer will always feel 7." Most of the drummers in these Bulgarian wedding bands - like Nikola's - were gypsies. The guys in Nikola's group would often crack jokes at the drummer's expense, but they regarded him with fondness and respect.

"But suppose a Western drummer is playing this song?" I entreated him. He will feel 13; he'll have to. Otherwise he'll play it wrong."

"No, he will feel 7. Otherwise he will be playing it wrong."

I was exasperated. I had spent years training my ear to hear and notate inflections and their rhythmic irregularities. I was trying to do be exacting in my notations of Bulgarian music, like Smha Arom had been in his exacting notations of Pygmy music. "What are you talking about? I'm right, but I'm wrong?"

"You're correct empirically, but deluded musically. Think about jazz - How can I write what you call 'the swing'? It can't be written, unless I write something that looks ridiculous, like ratios of 3:2 within divisions of 5. But no jazz musician would ever read that kind of silly notation, because jazz is not felt in subdivisions of 5. It's felt in subdivisions of 2, and swung. If I write it in 5, I may be empirically correct, but I am not conveying the feel of the music; in fact, I am betraying it."

Something about his argument felt solid and just. But what Nikola had written seemed so clearly wrong to me. Because I felt stymied, I took a slight detour.

"Well, I understand what you're saying, as far as jazz is concerned. But it's even more complicated than you've painted it. I mean, there's not one way to feel jazz. You can feel that 3:2 rhythmic ratio, but if you're swinging like Louis Armstrong the ratio will sound more like triplets - or even dotted rhythms - and if you swing "cool" like Stan Getz, it will sound much less pronounced, like 5:4, or virtually even sometimes."

"Well," he replied, "my understanding of jazz is quite limited, certainly inferior to yours. But if you go to Sofia or Stare Zagora or even nearby in Pazardjik, they will play differently from the style that you hear here in Plovdiv. The songs will be different, the meters will be different, the swing will be different too. Nikola may write what looks to you like a 3 + 1 dotted rhythm, but to him - and to any Bulgarian musician - it means long and short."

"Right, but I'm a Western musician, and I need to write down what I hear, not what Nikola hears," I said. "Otherwise I represent it falsely."

"No, you are thinking backwards," he said firmly. "You write it wrong when you write it for Western musicians to read. That would be as if you tell me you want to learn to speak Bulgarian language, but you want all the words written out in English transliteration. No, if you want to learn Bulgarian language, you learn Cyrillic alphabet; you learn Bulgarian spelling. And if you want to learn Bulgarian music, you must learn Bulgarian notation, not read a Western interpretation. When they play Elena Moma they must feel 7, not 13."

"But...." I began, feebly. I began to realize that I was fighting a losing battle; the cultural arrogance of my approach was weakening my argument. "Some of the musicians for whom I write won' able to read Bulgarian notation. Why shouldn't they be able to read transcriptions in a Western notation?"

His face hardened imperceptibly; "You write whatever you want," Lyuben said, getting up suddenly from his chair with a curious smile. "But those people reading your transcriptions will be playing only a shadow of our music."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reggie and Ludwig

After school I floated around for a while. Busked on the streets in Paris until my clarinet got stolen at a phone booth, then herded baby goats on a farm in Languedoc-Rousillon. Afterwards I headed to Israel to do ethno- research on Yemenite women’s vocal music and to study orchestration. One day I received the news that a close friend from college had died, and I decided to return to the States for his funeral. So at 22 years old, I found myself back in New York, lacking gainful employment.

After a few weeks of intensive searching, I landed a position teaching music to emotionally disturbed youths at a residential treatment center. One of the largest of its kind in the country, the center housed about 1000 boys. My duties were teaching the after-school music program and conducting the choir.

I was grateful to receive a steady paycheck, but the job was exhausting. These were not your average kids; they had graduated from the school of hard knocks. Many were already experienced thieves and drug sellers. The week I arrived, one of my students – home on a weekend visit – was arrested after midnight in Queens; he had been discovered in a stretch limo along with two prostitutes, carrying several thousand dollars in cash. He was 12 years old and sang 2nd soprano in my choir.

At this place you could never predict which and how many kids were going to show up on a given afternoon, nor in what mood they would arrive. So how do you plan an after-school program that might randomly consist of a 6-year-old, four 8-year-olds, a 10, 11, and 12-year-old, three 14-year-olds, and a 17-year-old? The answer is: you don't. You summon your most potent powers of improvisation, adjust to events as they take place, and try to weather the class period, as the clock ticks ever more slowly.

Luckily I had a seasoned pro as my mentor and cohort, the drama teacher Maxine. I had seen her wilt a youngster – and many an adult – with her glare, only to turn around and lavish effusive tenderness on another. She taught me the ropes: staying ‘on message’, maintaining consistency in my program, exuding a calculated aloofness, arbitrating squabbles with impartiality, setting realistic goals, and taking time for myself when I needed it. Above all, she emphasized the kids’ desperate need for compassionate discipline.

Reggie was one of the toughest boys at the center. His name wasn't short for Reginald. It was Reggie on his birth certificate; he had been born around the time the Yankees won the World Series, in the late ‘70s. Unfortunately he hadn't quite lived up to his namesake's reputation. He was a bully with low self-esteem, prone to throwing small children across the room and to emitting bloodcurdling screams in his sleep. The rumor was that he had set fire to his grandmother's house twice. At age 9, he had been removed from his home and sent here for rehabilitation. Now, at a venerable 13 years old, he would clearly never be adopted (the quixotic wish of most of these institutionalized kids), and this unspoken reality made him even more bellicose.

I had dismissed Reggie from my choir after he punched another boy in the lip, knocking out a tooth. Nonetheless, he came regularly to my after-school music program. At first I couldn't figure out if he was appearing of his own volition or if he was being dumped on me by other teachers frustrated with his tendency to pummel smaller children at the slightest provocation (or non-provocation). Either way, he did demonstrate a remarkable soft spot and a natural aptitude for music. Most kids gravitated toward rap or other types of pop stuff (I regularly held emcee contests in which I could sometimes be cajoled to participate - yo!), but Reggie was interested in melodies; he had stellar pitch and a formidable ear, an uncanny ability to hear tunes and sing them back immediately.

One day Reggie sauntered into my room a few minutes early, which irked me because he was using up my 'sanity-time' (i.e. my break). "I wanna learn this song," he announced.

"Which song?" I responded, not looking up from my book.

"It goes like this: na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-naaaa, na-na-na-naaaaa, na-na-na-naaa....." he intoned in a blasé tenor. It was several seconds before I recognized the tune.

"That's Für Elise", I told him, amused and slightly astonished. "Where did you hear that?"

"On a commercial. What did you say, fur and leaves?"

I smiled bemusedly. "It's Beethoven."

He stared at me blankly. "That's a man?"

"Beethoven is a composer; a guy who writes music. Like me. Or Michael." I nodded towards a kid in the corner who was improvising lyrics while a cliché beat emanated feebly from a mini-Casio keyboard.

“You know him? Beethoven?” Reggie asked.

“He’s dead,” I replied. “He’s been dead for more than a hundred years.” I waited for that fact to sink in; but it didn’t seem to mean much to Reggie.

"You can teach it to me?" he implored.

I eyed him skeptically, then turned back to my book. "I'm not doing any favors for you until you learn to behave in here."

"I can behave! I can behave!" he assured me unconvincingly, tugging at my shirt.

"Get off me. OK, listen," I ventured. "Here’s the offer. I put you in charge of keeping the other kids quiet. NOT by beating on them, but by example. If you can tone down your antics in here, then I'll spend five minutes at the end of each class teaching you Für Elise. But if you mess up… forget it, Buster. You can sit on the time-out couch, like your friend Lester." I gestured towards a sullen-looking kid parked awkwardly on a faded brown corduroy divan, his lower lip drawn into a pout. “Got it?” I asked.

Reggie smiled. For better or worse, it was a deal.

Maxine didn't particularly like Reggie. So I expected her to be skeptical when I informed her about the ‘deal’. But she seemed surprisingly pleased. She was impressed by his commitment to music. “He trusts you,” she observed. “Maybe you can teach him something. Just remember, these kids are badasses, every single last one of them. If he doesn’t behave, sit his skinny behind on that couch, and let him take a few minutes to cool down.” She lit a cigarette. “Some of them need a damn lifetime to cool down.”

At first I tried to teach Reggie notation, but he became exasperated trying to read the music. One thing would lead to another, and he would end up on the time-out couch, sneering. He gave up altogether on several occasions; but each day, Phoenix-like, he arose anew, ready to fight the battle again. Eventually I dispensed with the two-way torture of teaching him to read notes, and we started to make real headway. He absorbed Für Elise by ear, using a recording I had lent him. From his progress, it became clear that he was practicing on his own; one of the staff at the dorm even lent him a keyboard, which was promptly reclaimed after Reggie smashed another kid in the ribcage with it.

The sessions were difficult for me. I would get very frustrated with his inability to concentrate for extended periods of time; the most insignificant thing could distract him - another boy's voice, a bird chirping, a car honk in the distance - and he would be useless for the remainder of the session. Particularly annoying was his habit of wearing shirts too big for him; the cuffs covered the lower halves of his hands. At first I chalked it up to the kids’ general tendency to wear dramatically oversized clothes. But it was getting towards summer, so his insistence on dressing this way was starting to seem bizarre.

On one particularly stressful day, I lost my cool. "Reggie, you've got to roll up your sleeves." He kept playing, ignoring me. "Reggie, listen to me when I talk to you. Stop playing and roll up your sleeves. They're getting in the way of your fingers, and you’re making tons of mistakes."

"Na na na na na na na na naaaaaa…" he sang along with the music, willfully deaf to my entreaties.

"OK, we'll do it the hard way then." I grabbed his left arm, gently but firmly. He squirmed. I rolled up the sleeve. The music stopped. I gasped audibly. His arm was covered with what looked like a scabby, flaking rash of bright red and white circles. Shaken, I dropped his arm; it landed weightily on the keyboard in a chromatic cluster. Reggie was staring spacily over the piano, slowly plunking random notes with his right hand. The other kids were watching, hushed.

"Man, Reggie…” I was at a loss for words. “…I'm sorry. I really am," I said, as the bell rang, not an instant too soon. Reg bolted out, along with the other kids.

It was the end of the day. I shook myself, and headed up the stairs, angry and sheepish. In all these months, why hadn't anyone informed me that the poor guy had a disease, or scars, or whatever those marks were? I decided I would check his file to find out more. On the way upstairs, I ran into Maxine. She sensed my mood.

"What's up your butt?" she inquired.

I looked at her squarely. "What the hell is wrong with Reggie?" I asked.

"He's a badass."

"Yeah, yeah. Come on, what happened to him? Why does he have those-"

"Honey," she interrupted, "you need to chill out, take a day off, and stop worrying about that hoodlum."

"I'm going up to look at his file and see what happened to him."

"I wouldn't do that, D…” she cautioned.

"Why not? Why else are the files there? How am I supposed to teach these kids when I don't know where the hell they're coming from? I just embarrassed him in front of the whole damn class; you should have seen it."

"He'll get over it."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Maxine." I said, and kept climbing.

I had never actually examined the files before, though they were easily available for us to consult. Initially I had arrived at the center with great idealism, prepared to read all the case histories. “Don’t bother, Derek, really,” Maxine had insisted. “It will just wear you out. Too much information. With these kids, you need common sense, not facts and figures. There are much more important ways to spend your time than reading those stupid reports. Here, learn to juggle.” She tossed me three tennis balls. “It’s actually easier if you start with two…” And so Maxine taught me to juggle. She also taught me devil sticks, yo-yo tricks, and various card games, which would all come in handy on numerous occasions, especially when kids were bored or restless.

But on this day I craved information, not distraction. I stomped into the office, unlocked a metal filing cabinet, grabbed several dusty notebooks, and began rifling through the pages until I arrived at Reggie's folder.

First I found a bunch of mundane vital statistics, basic facts about his family and school. Then some grade reports. Not too good, worse and worse. Some police reports. Then a psychologist's evaluation from a group home where he had stayed for a few months. I removed the booklet and stared at the worn cover. For a second I felt ashamed, as though I was preparing to read a private diary. But Reggie had never kept a diary; his own viewpoint would remain unknown. I began to read: emotional abuse; physical abuse; continual sexual abuse; cigarette burns covering his arms and legs; found unconscious numerous times; head trauma; hospitalization for schizophrenia and psychosis reports: multiple hemorrhages, grafting, attempted suicide, detox, stomach pump, burned his house down.

So it was true. He had actually burned his grandmother’s house down.

I stopped reading. How could I possibly hope to teach a kid who had already experienced so much? Maxine had been partly raised in a detention center in the South; she could relate to his pain and alienation. I felt weirdly envious of her understanding of these kids' lives. I thought about calling her, but she would have just snapped “Shut up, D; I told you not to read those stupid fuckin’ reports!” Too much information.

Reggie didn't show up to my program for the next few days. I became worried that he had decided to ‘write me up’, reporting the incident to his psychologist as an assault. The month before, one kid had fabricated a wildly elaborate and violent fantasy about a staff member beating and tying him up. The accused was cleared of wrongdoing, but the whole story so besmirched his reputation that he quit the center less than two weeks later. ‘Resigned to pursue other interests’ was how it was worded in the monthly bulletin.

So I relived the Reggie incident in my mind to try and determine whether I done or said anything that could be deemed ‘abuse’. Maxine laughed at my preoccupation with the event. "D, you need to take a day off and stop worrying about that garbage. These kids won't write you up unless they hate you or unless you insult them on purpose. Reggie’s not stupid; you made him a deal, and he's gonna collect. No one else wants that pain-in-the-ass in their program besides you anyway. Trust me; he's got nowhere else to go."

I wasn’t convinced. But sure enough, in a few days Reggie began showing up at my program regularly again. Nothing was said; it was as though the incident had never taken place.

Steady progress was made on Für Elise. Soon Reggie had memorized the opening A minor phrase and began working on the subsequent C major section. One day he seemed unusually distant and unapproachable. Instead of launching right away into the ‘song’ (as he called it), his hands drifted restlessly around the keyboard, fiddling with hints of the melody. I watched him curiously as he experimented and decided to leave him on his own for a bit. Then I set off to encourage the wanna-be rappers, who were busy trying to adjust the volume on a cheap karaoke machine that the school had recently bought.

“Don’t go!” Reggie exclaimed.

I turned around. “What do you need me for?” I asked. He was holding down the damper pedal, trilling the opening figure in the lowest octave.

"Why you think he wrote this?" he asked.

"Who, Beethoven?"

"Yeah." His hands moved pensively over the keys. "I mean, like, do you think he was hearing it all the time and just kept writing the notes down? Or did he just make it up, on the spot, like, freestyle?"

I was about to reply, but hesitated. "What do you think?" I asked him.

"I, I think he was hearing it all the time, until he had the whole thing, like, in his head. Then he wrote it down, all at once.” He looked out the opened door onto the blacktop where the other kids were playing in the late afternoon light. “Sometimes I hear it at night, in my dream…the song…you know?" He looked embarrassed.

“Yeah.” I probably should have responded with something profound or authoritative - or at least humorous - but I was tired. And I had just noticed that the kids at the karaoke machine were starting to fight over the microphone, so I stepped in quickly to diffuse the situation. The bell rang and everyone ran out. Silence was a welcome relief.

About a month after the 'deal' had been struck, Maxine took me aside. "I've never seen Reggie concentrate on anything before. What you are achieving with him is incredible. What do you think about having him do a real performance for the other kids?" Her eyes sparkled. So we arranged to have Reggie perform for the entire school one afternoon, following the weekly assembly. The big show was to be in two weeks.

On the day before, Reggie and I were summoned to Maxine’s studio. She had prepared a wonderful surprise: a fake, glittery tuxedo made of shiny polyester, complete with tails and a top-hat. She fitted it on Reggie. "What a dapper young man!" she exclaimed.

He beamed. "Gotta go practice," he shouted and skipped off.

“Nice tux!” I said to Maxine and laughed. “Are you gonna have it cleaned?”

Maxine frowned at me; her mood had changed instantaneously. “These kids have nothing, Derek," she said deliberately. "Nothing. Remember that, okay? To him, that is a tuxedo.”

I was shamed into silence, remembering that Reggie hadn’t even gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Maxine was putting on her coat. "What other stuff are you working on with him?" she asked opaquely.

"Other stuff? What do you mean?” I asked, mystified.

"I mean, what's next?" she said, hanging up the tux.

"Why? You think he'll screw up?"

"You should be planning what comes next, that's all. Continuity, D. You ought to be working on something else, too. With Reggie." She walked wearily towards the stairs. "I'm going home; these kids are driving me crazy. See you tomorrow."

I stood there, peeved and resentful. Continuity? What was that about? I had sunk more time and energy into working with Reggie than with any other child. More time, hell. I needed to focus on other kids, many of whom had noticed that Reggie was getting more than his fair share of attention.

The big date arrived. All the kids were packed into the bleacher seats of the gym. Assemblies were always pandemonium; staff dashed around quelling fights, ordering misbehaving children back to their dorms or sending them to the director’s dreaded office. Reggie was excruciatingly nervous. Backstage, in Maxine’s studio, he paced around anxiously in his fake tux.

"I can't do it," he said. "I'm gonna forget the whole song. Everyone out there wants me to mess up. They all hate me."

"They don't hate you, Reg," I said. "They're rooting for you, and so are we. You’re gonna be great. Just take a deep breath before you start. Take two, actually. Be sure to do that, OK? Keep thinking, breathe! Hold that word in your mind as you walk out onto stage. And remember to take your bows. Show me your bow."

He bent awkwardly for too long, facing the ground, then sprang back up abruptly.

"Great. Fantastic."

"Wait, let me try again. I’ll do it better. Watch me, watch me!"

And so it went, until the drone of the director's announcements ground to a halt. "And now, we have a special surprise for you all."

Rumblings could be heard in the crowd. Some of the older kids knew about the upcoming performance.

Reggie was sweating profusely. Maxine gave him a rough kiss and practically pushed him out into the gym. We watched - not without trepidation - from backstage as he meandered foggily towards the out-of-tune upright piano and plopped down, stoop-shouldered, on the bench. Then he suddenly stood bolt upright. He had forgotten to take his bow. He looked back at us for reassurance; Maxine stared impassively back at him. Painstakingly he turned around and took his segmented bow. At this point, a couple of kids in the audience applauded sporadically, and it gave Reggie courage. He sat back down on the bench and, after what seemed like ages - maybe he was taking deep breaths? - he lifted his hands and began to play.

And play. He finished the first eight bars and took the repeat. Then he took took it again. And again. He would finish each time with a slight ritard, then tentatively begin the same opening phrase. It was minimalist Beethoven. I turned to Maxine. "He's stuck in a loop!” I whispered. “I can't believe it; we worked on this transition so many damn times!"

"Shut up!" she whispered back excitedly. "He'll get it. Don’t worry about it! These kids don’t know Beethoven from a hole in the ground." She was clearly enjoying herself, but I felt suffocated with empathy. With each repetition of the first phrase, the notes became more weighty and bedraggled. Rather than a light and effusive work, it began to sound like a dirge, the heavy keys pounding gloomily one after another.

After what seemed like endless iterations of the first eight bars, Reggie paused for an achingly long interval. And then, miraculously – instead of the trill – a heavenly sound ensued: three tentative upwardly rising notes, and the tonality changed – C major! Reggie had done it; he had broken the cycle! He had worked his way out of his first ever memory slip of his first ever performance. He began to gain confidence and started to play more relaxed and fully. Maxine and I could barely contain our glee. She squeezed my arm and smiled as we listened. "This is the best day of his life, you know," she said, regarding him wistfully. "The best day of his life, for sure."

Reggie finished Für Elise in an anticlimactic fashion; he stopped abruptly with hectic incertitude, then turned his head back towards Maxine and me, grimacing imploringly. His hands were still poised at the keyboard and he was trembling. The atmosphere in the ‘concert hall’ was charged with tension; at that moment, you could have heard a switchblade drop - from out of one of the kids' pockets. Luckily, none did. Maxine gave an almost imperceptible nod towards the audience. Reggie stood up awkwardly, turned to his colleagues, and bowed stiffly. The gym erupted in cheers. The kids screamed and hooted. Reggie stood silhouetted in the glare of the flourescent lights. He bowed again. He bowed yet again, looked back agitatedly, then turned and bowed again. The hoots had become a rhythmic chant and the kids were stamping their feet. “Reggie! Reggie!”

"Damn, I forgot to tell him how to exit the stage!" I blurted. So I dashed out into the limelight of the gym floor, grabbed his shoulder, and ushered him back to the studio. He was panting and dazed, but very happy. His heart was beating wildly. Maxine hugged and kissed him. The kids were already scampering out of the gym in an unruly mob, herded by the staff through the double-doors.

I hadn't see Reggie for at least a week after his grand success. He had finally been allowed home on a short visit, and hadn’t shown up to my program since he’d returned to the center. Two kids had been assigned to help clean up my room. The bell rang, and they instantaneously sprinted up the stairs and outside.

I hadn’t seen Maxine either; she had been busy making costumes for a new play. Before leaving, I stopped at her studio to linger a bit. She was busy knitting wool stockings for the show. “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Same as it ever was,” she said, without looking up.

I noticed the shiny tux hanging on the rack and chortled. “Man, I still can't get over that performance, you know? I’m just so proud of Reggie,” I said. "Where's the top hat, by the way?"

"Gave it to him," she said.

“Hey, I haven’t even seen Reggie once since the show! You have?”

“Once,” she said. “That’s when I gave him the hat.”

I feigned indignation. “Oh, so he came to your program! I guess now Reggie's too big a star for me, huh?" I laughed.

"Guess so," she said curtly. "Or vice versa, maybe." An uncomfortable silence welled up. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

She fixed her gaze on me. "Reggie's not coming back to your program. He's not coming back here. Period."

I was uncomprehending. "He went home…" I blinked. "You mean…his grandmother took him in? She wants him back?" That would have been a surprise, but anything was possible.

Maxine shook her head slowly and kept knitting. "They’ve sent him upstate. He tried to burn his house down. Again." She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Three strikes.”

‘Upstate.’ That was practically a swear word. Worse, actually. Around here swear words were more common than normal speech. But 'upstate' was a bad luck spell, an unutterable curse. It meant a juvenile detention center, in a new, faraway place, And it meant a rougher, harder, rawer cycle of institutionalized despair.

I stood frozen in the doorway, feeling an unfamiliar mixture of anger, irony, and impotence. I remained there for a while, staring vacuously at the glittering tux draped in faux-elegance over its wire hanger.

"Little badass..." Maxine grinned and shook her head, still knitting.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Someone else's music

Back in pre-Gulf War One times, I would trapse for miles through Jerusalem to André Hajdu's house for my composition lesson. It was practically an all-day affair. I'd arrive around noon, then we would sit in a very cold room, drinking tea and reviewing orchestrations I had completed during the past week: Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Debussy, Scriabin, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartók. Hajdu emphasized that individual composers' scores had a look as well as a sound: "and when you begin to recognize the look, then you are really getting somewhere." After correcting my orchestrations, he would analyze a work, removing from his shelf a dog-eared copy of La Mer that Messiaen had marked up, or a heavily-penciled score of the Rite. Later on, the conversation would switch to the subject of my music.

On one particularly memorable day, Hajdu leafed through a new score over which I had labored intensively. He muttered impatiently, "yes, some very nice sounds, but it's not you." Eyes closed, fist clenched tightly on his brow as if tugging at a thought lodged in his brain, he continued: "You are writing someone else's music, and they are annoyed. Go sit in a dark room until all sounds and ideas have left you. Then, when you finally begin to hear your own music, write that down. Develop it; but keep it simple and direct," he admonished. "Solo instrument."

The dour assessment of my piece wasn't exactly what I had hoped to hear, but I knew in my gut that Hajdu was correct, so I resolved to follow his advice. The following day I walked to the library at Har Atzofim and sought out the darkest possible room. The microfilm lab was empty, and I decided to make it my private composition studio for the time being. I shut the door and sat in the dark. Nothing came to mind. Or rather, too many things came to mind, but none of them felt "pure". I left after a half hour, somewhat dejected, and returned to the bare bunk-bedded dorm room I had been renting for 50 shekels a month.

The following morning I returned to the darkened microfilm room and remained for an hour, then another hour. Nothing new. I spent several days trekking to the library, waiting in vain. One day, at long last, I managed to achieve a kind of thought vacuum. No material entered or left my brain; it was a mental zone akin to meditation. After a seemingly interminable period during which the 'nothing' manifested itself, a sound wandered into my head. It was not what I had expected. It was a beat. I attempted to push it away, but it remained stuck in my consciousness. So I began trying to divine where the rhythm wanted to go, in which direction it tended to grow. It was in this moment that I began discovering my 'voice' as a composer.

Bartók certainly believed that composition couldn't be taught. But Hajdu - a Hungarian of the following generation - communicated to me a vital creative lesson: the necessity of listening in silence. Our perpetually distracted society doesn't place a whole lot of value on listening. We are asked to absorb information at a breathtaking pace, with scant time to subject it to processing and critical analysis. The highly networked information age may be wonderful for gathering materials, but it cannot help us to synthesize them and produce something substantive. To do this, we need time alone with only our thoughts, and maybe not even those.

Morton Feldman sums it up eloquently. Here's a poignant excerpt from an interview with Walter Zimmermann. The whole text can be found here.

FELDMAN: Who said it recently? I think it was Paul Valéry, that when something is beautiful, it is tragic. And I think the implication for me as I see it is that something that is beautiful is made in isolation. And tragedy in a sense is a kind of psychic flavor of this loneliness. And I don't think it's a reaction of some of the young people against art. And I don't think it makes any difference really what kind of art they make, or whom they follow. I think the reaction is against being lonely. And I think that the whole social change among young artists and their concerns for being together has a lot to do with this. They can't bear this loneliness.

ZIMMERMANN: I can very much imagine that you're lonely, because that's the basic aura of your music.

FELDMAN: I mean it just in a sense of divorcing oneself from just the kind of cameraderie and group spirit in the sense that the young people seem to share together ... Just the idea of just going into a room and having to work six or seven hours because he has to do what he has to do. That's the price we have to pay. And I don't feel they want to pay that price. And it has nothing to do with art. They're always on the phone. They're either here or they're there.

ZIMMERMANN: There's certainly righteousness in what you're saying.

FELDMAN: But God bless them, and good luck to them ... and all I could wish them in life is to be lonely.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Rakim: The Rhyme Got Rougher

The other day I revisited Eric B. and Rakim's album "Paid in Full". It brought back the moment I first popped the tape in my cassette deck, when my musical consciousness was permanently altered. Rakim led a revolution in rhythm, freeing it from the confines of the barline; what Stravinsky did for concert music, what Charlie Parker did for jazz, Rakim did for rap music. Over the years, the ripples of innovation from his first three albums have spread widely, first throughout the hip-hop scene, then throughout all popular music and beyond.

I often think of the history of rap music as being divided into two periods, Before and After Rakim. In the early days, I remember rap music from Harlem and the Bronx: Fat Back Man, Grand Master Flash, then Run DMC, UTFO, Kurtis Blow, Schooly D, and Stetasonic. New Ro was definitely on the outside fringes, but the echoes soon subsumed lower Westchester, spawning Heavy D and the Boyz, Pete Rock, & C.L. Smooth from money-earnin' Mount Vernon and our own Brand Nubian. Most of my friends on the track team memorized all the rhymes, so I did too; you had to know "Rappers Delight" and "White Line" by heart, later "It's Like That" and "Roxanne Roxanne", otherwise you would be mercilessly taunted on the bus.

1987 was an indelible year: Public Enemy released "Yo, Bumrush the Show!" and Boogie Down Productions came out with "Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hiphop". But nothing could have presaged what Rakim was about to drop. The incisive rhymes on "Paid in Full" surged forth in an infectious flow; enjambment manifested in a brand new way; Rakim strung 3- 4- and even 5-syllable rhymes across the 'barline', folded rhymes within eachother, displaced stresses, melted one rhyme into the next, all with a smooth and hypnotizing delivery that made it easy to forget a revolution was taking place. In this way Rakim's arrival mirrored the 'quiet storms' of Debussy or Meredith Monk, innovators who forged entirely new paths without hitting the listener over the head.

It is not only Rakim's rhythmic freshness, but also his ability to create and maintain a consistent language, that defines him as a compositional maverick. He fashions catchphrases, epigraphs, hooks, and metaphors to act as signifiers. He develops unusual syntax, morphs nouns into verbs, redesigns sentence structure to suit his lyrical needs. Rakim's innovations cannot be separated from his musical grammar; they are part and parcel of the same root system, presented in a constant, uniform, and logical way, defined by clear structural limits, parameters, and motivic cells. As in the music of many great composers, this clarity and consistency of language empowers listeners to make connections, to hear the music in larger phrases; it draws us - consciously or unconsciously - into Rakim's musical and metaphysical world.

Over the years I've noticed that much of the scholarship on rap music shies away from hard musical analysis. This may be because writers do not often possess the training to address music-theoretical issues, or it may simply be that they don't find such issues relevant or attractive to discuss. Of course, with most music (that which Duke Ellington refers to as "the other kind") it doesn't really matter, as the materials are largely imitative. However, the trend of ignoring analytical/theoretical issues does a great disservice to complex and thought-provoking rap music by lumping it together with all the rest. In saying this, I don't mean to dismiss the importance of culturally-based scholarship; I simply mean to emphasize that outstanding music transcends its cultural context, and this truism begs to be recognized.

Naturally, all music is created within a cultural framework, and the history of a particular music cannot be divorced from its context. But its influence, importance, and resonance most certainly can. Therefore when technical innovations occur, it behooves writers to acknowledge those innovations independently, rather than treating them as though they have little relevance outside the milieu in which they were engendered. Many of the groundbreaking discoveries in pop music during the last 25 years have taken place within the medium of rap music, but the one-dimensional lens of cultural contextualization tends to trivealize these innovations and marginalizes their importance.

A cursory glance at the history of jazz scholarship in America provides a sobering lesson. The great jazz artists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s - Ellington, Basie, Parker, Monk, Mingus, Dolphy, Coltrane, Evans, Davis, etc etc etc - are still relegated to one separate (albeit large) chapter in the history of American music. Why do serious technical discussions of their work, even today, remain largely neglected? I would chalk it up to a lack of engagement with profound levels of musical structure in these artists' work. During their lifetimes, there wasn't even a sufficient vocabulary to discuss their discoveries or acknowledge their achievements. I hope some of these issues will be resolved for rap music in the near future by a new generation of writers and thinkers who will choose to delve deeply into the rich and sophisticated technique of visionary artists such as Rakim.

Some groundbreaking rap albums in the decade following Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full":

Public Enemy (1988): It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Beastie Boys (1989): Paul's Boutique
Ice Cube (1990): Amerikkka's Most Wanted
Quest (1991): The Low End Theory
Pharcyde (1992): BizarreRide
Wu-Tang Clan (1993): Enter the Wu-Tang Clan
Common (1994) Resurrection
Nas (1994) Illmatic
The Roots (1995): Do You Want More?
Outkast (1996): Atliens
Mos Def and Talib Kweli (1998): Blackstar
Kook Keith (1999): Black Elvis/Lost in Space
Eminem (2000): The Marshall Mathers LP