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.