Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

12 APRIL, 2012

How to Listen to Music: A Vintage Guide to the 7 Essential Skills

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“Respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet.”

Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?

From the wonderful vintage book Music: Ways of Listening, originally published in 1982, comes this outline of the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, which author and composer Elliott Schwartz argues have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.

  1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
  2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
  3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
  4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
  5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

    Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

    […]

  6. Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

    […]

  7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.


    There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.

Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.

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30 MARCH, 2012

Why Creativity Necessitates Eclecticism: Nick Cave’s Influences and Inspirations

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What Dostoevsky has to do with the hunchback of Notre Dame, Muhammad Ali, and dandelions.

As a firm believer in combinatorial creativity, I’m always interested in the ecosystem of influences and how we honor those who inspire us. Reader Will Shaw points me to this handwritten note by music icon Nick Cave entitled “More Things to Remember…,” courtesy of Melbourne’s Arts Centre, in which Cave lists some of his influences. Will writes:

It is clear that Nick Cave was only able to reach his significant artistic heights through appropriating ideas and aesthetics from his heroes and influences and melding them into something uniquely powerful.

I agree, and am delighted to see such a diverse tapas bar of influences spanning multiple disciplines, genres, and eras, including Brain Pickings staples like Alfred Hitchcock, Vladimir Nabokov, Orson Welles, Muhammad Ali, and Moby-Dick, sprinkled with such wildcards as Saint Theresa of Avila, Popeye, dandelions, and baboons.

No doubt designer Paula Scher, author William Gibson, and artist Austin Kleon can all relate to this eclecticism implicit to and, they might argue, necessary for creativity. I certainly do.

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27 MARCH, 2012

William Gottlieb’s Beautiful Vintage Photographs of Jazz Legends, from Billie Holiday to Louis Armstrong

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Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mister, Billie Holiday’s dog, too.

In the 1930s, a young reporter by the name of William Gottlieb set out to cover the boom of the jazz scene for the Washington Post, only to find the paper didn’t care to dispatch an official staff photographer. So Gottlieb, a self-taught photographer armed with his Speed Graphic and an ample supply of flashbulbs, took it upon himself to photograph the subjects of his interviews. Between 1938 and 1948, he documented the jazz scene in New York City and Washington, D.C., and created what eventually became some of history’s most iconic portraits of jazz greats. The Golden Age of Jazz gathers 219 of those, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (who would have been 88 today), Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk, along with original text from the photographer contextualizing the images and their subjects.

On February 16, 2010, Gottlieb’s photographs entered the public domain and are now available online, courtesy of The Library of Congress, who also have rare footage of Gottlieb speaking about his photos.

Sarah Vaughan, Café Society (Downtown)(?), New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Joe Thomas, Pied Piper, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Nina Simone performing, Town Hall, N.Y., 1959

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Lennie Tristano, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Ernest Tubb, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., Sept. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Charlie Ventura, William P. Gottlieb's home (table tennis room), N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Henry Wells, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Jan. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Josh White and Mary Lou Williams, WMCA, New York, N.Y., ca. Oct. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Cootie Williams, New York, N.Y.(?), between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Louis Armstrong, between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Tex Beneke, ca. Jan. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Gracie Barry and Dick Stabile, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Sy Synclair

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Joan Brooks and Duke Niles, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Vivien Garry, New York, N.Y., Dixon's, ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Mary Lou Williams, New York, N.Y., ca. 1946

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Dizzy Gillespie, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Buddy Rich, Arcadia Ballroom, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947

Photograph by William Gottlieb

June Christy, 1947 or 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

Louis Jordan, between 1938 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

William P. Gottlieb, WINX, Washington, D.C., ca. 1940

Photograph by Delia Potofsky

Mister (Billie Holiday's dog), New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

Photograph by William Gottlieb

At once a time-capsule of cultural history and a stunning treasure chest of visual micro-narratives, The Golden Age of Jazz is a fine addition to other rare glimpses of the jazz scene at its peak, including W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project and Herman Leonard’s photos of jazz icons.

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07 MARCH, 2012

How Iconic Album Cover Illustrator R. Crumb Brought Comics to Music

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What Janis Joplin has to do with rediscovering yesteryear’s forgotten masters.

Alex Steinweiss may be the father of the modern album cover, but Robert Crumb is its favorite weird uncle. Though best-known as a pioneer of the underground comix movement, the subversive artist had long been fascinated with the music of the 1920s and 1930s — jazz, big band, swing, blues, cajun — so when, in 1968, Janis Joplin asked him to design the cover for her album Cheap Thrills, it was the beginning of R. Crumb’s prolific second career illustrating hundreds of covers for artists emerging and legendary. In fact, Crumb’s covers for yesteryear’s forgotten masters were so influential in and of themselves that they spurred the rediscovery of many of these old records in the 1960s and 1970s.

R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection captures Crumb’s quirky, beautiful work and his enduring legacy in 450 vibrant four-color, black-and-white, and monocolor illustrations that exude his love of music and his love of art in equal measure. Accompanying his unmistakeable record covers are also posters, calling cards, advertisements, and stand-alone portraits of icons like James Brown, Frank Zappa, Gus Cannon, George Jones, Woody Guthrie, and more.

In this narrated short, Crumb, who eventually learned to play the uke, banjo, and mandolin himself, talks about the convergence of his two passions:

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