Glenn Vanderburg

: Blog

6 of 6 articles
Art Bugs
Thu, 21 Aug 2003 (15:46) #

Yesterday was our wedding anniversary, and one of the gifts Deborah got for me was Little Worlds, the Flecktones album I blogged about last week (even though I forgot to publish until today).

It takes a while to assimilate three discs of new material, but so far it's excellent. I'm particularly fascinated, though, by the introduction. Pop disc one in the player and it starts straight in with music. But then hit the reverse-scan button and keep going past (that is, prior to) the beginning of track one. Keep going until you've rewound to the -2:40 point and let go. There's a humorous introduction featuring David St. Hubins and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap.

The booklet inside the CD case explains that not all CD players support that "feature". Ours at home does, but (as you might expect) the one in my laptop doesn't.

I don't know much about the CD format specs, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that such things are documented features of the way the CD format is supposed to work, and not just bugs found in many CD players. Still, though, it feels like exploiting a bug -- or at least a quirk -- in a particular medium for art's sake. (Or maybe it's just entertainment.)

It's cool, and funny, but it leaves me with a very strange feeling. I'm old enough to remember vinyl LPs all too well. From the very beginning, CDs were appreciated for their physical durability, and also because the digital recording didn't degrade. It's nice to know that those CDs will still sound pristine after quite a few years, and it's also nice to know that (copy protection measures aside, which is a different debate) I can convert the music and it will continue to be viable after media has changed and CDs have become obsolete.

Except, it seems, for the intro to Little Worlds. I've ripped the CDs into iTunes (and thence to my iPod) but the intro is missing. Even if that feature really is a documented part of the CD-audio spec, it's a quirk that's not likely to be duplicated by future media formats. I rarely play physical CDs anymore, but if I want to hear that intro again, apparently that's how I'll have to do it.

But anyway, like I said: it's cool, and funny, and leaves me with a very strange feeling. I have a sneaking suspicion that Béla and the band would love that reaction.

What are the odds?
Tue, 12 Aug 2003 (10:14) #

I enjoy the music of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. This past weekend, Greg Vaughn mentioned Fleck to me in passing (he was listening to some old tunes by New Grass Revival, Fleck's older band). Today I remembered that and realized that it has been about three years since the last Flecktones album I knew about, Outbound. "I wonder if they've released anything new since then?"

Off to Google! There's the site ... yep, they have one new studio album, a three-disc set called Little Worlds. Release date: August 12, 2003. Hey, that's today!

Uh ... yeah, I knew that. I was keeping up. :-)

Teach me to see
Thu, 31 Oct 2002 (05:12) #
This morning, as usual, I listened to Morning Edition on the way to work. Bob Edwards was interviewing a Norwegian singer named Sissel about the release of her first U.S. album. Sissel has sold a lot of albums in Europe, but is virtually unknown here. (Selling a lot of albums doesn't necessarily impress me, but touring with The Chieftains does, and what I heard of her music this morning sounded pleasantly accomplished and eclectic.)

She spoke about one of the songs on her album, "Lær Meg Å Kjenne," which is an old Norwegian hymn. Translated, the title means "Teach me to see your pathways." The story behind the hymn is of a man coming home from a pilgrimage to find his house burned down and his family killed. He falls to his knees, and the hymn is his prayer.

Bob Edwards said, "And you sang this at a wedding?"

Sissel replied, "Well, yes -- it's a song of trust, of knowing that there's a plan."

From what I heard of the song, I'm with Sissel. A wedding is joyful, of course, but the joy comes from the binding of two lives together, as much to stand by each other through the hard times as to share the joys of the good times. In a ceremony that contains the words "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part," a song like "Lær Meg Å Kjenne" has a place.

There's an English hymn with a similar history. In 1873, Horatio G. Spafford received word that his family had been lost in a shipwreck. His response? The magnificent hymn "It Is Well With My Soul." There is certainly sadness in it, but also calm assurance, as well as triumphant joy:

My sin -- oh, the bliss of this glorious thought --
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, oh, my soul!
Beginning the Day ...
Fri, 18 Oct 2002 (16:12) #
(via my O'Reilly blog)

A month ago, I wrote about "TechnoPop: The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music", Rick Karr's series of reports running on NPR's Morning Edition. This morning I was listening to part 5 while driving to work, and I heard Karr say this:

Over the past decade, all this technology making modern music has gone digital.

Those of you as old as I am might recognize the middle of that sentence as a near quote from Rush's 1980 masterpiece, "The Spirit of Radio". That little touch put a big smile on my face.

Thanks to the magic of iPod, I had the song close at hand. So I popped my cassette adapter into the slot in the dashboard, plugged in my iPod, and had a listen. And I was struck by just how appropriate it was for Karr to quote from that song, which was a scathing attack on the music industry.

The first part of "TechnoPop" made a rather pointed reference to the current conflicts between the music industry and their customers (and, for that matter, the artists), and there've been hints that the series will come back to that issue in its final installment next week. So far, the series has covered the phonograph, microphones and electrical recording, magnetic tape, LPs, and multitracking. At each stage, the theme has been clear: technology inevitably changes not only music itself, but also the music business -- often over the protests of established players in the industry, but usually to the long-term benefit of the music industry as a whole.

One still likes to believe in the freedom of music, but even the illusion of integrity that Rush sang about has vanished. The gift of music that radio brings to us, far from being beyond price, seems firmly in its grip.

(via my O'Reilly blog)

This morning, listening to Morning Edition on NPR, I heard a wonderful piece that dealt with the ways early recording technology changed popular music. It's the first part of a six-part Friday morning series called "TechnoPop: The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music." After describing the birth of recorded Jazz and the impact it had, the reporter drew some interesting parallels to current events in the music industry.

Part One is online now as a RealAudio stream, and the page for the series gives pretty clear indication that "TechnoPop" will continue in a similar vein. I'm looking forward to hearing the next five segments.

The greatest pop song ever recorded
Sat, 14 Sep 2002 (20:37) #
I usually scorn statements like that. When people ask me about my favorite movie, for example, I usually can only narrow it down to 3 or 4, and my favorite song or band depends on my mood. But today, eating lunch in Jason's Deli, I heard Rikki Don't Lose That Number, and I was reminded that I believe it to be greatest pop song ever recorded.

On first listen -- and second, third, and beyond -- it sounds like a catchy pop song, and little more. But I've been hearing it for 25 years now, and I'm still hearing things in it that I've never heard before. It's simple in structure, but complex in the details and in its influences (e.g., its quotation from Horace Silver's Song for My Father). I've never heard a song so perfectly crafted, where everything -- the words, the music and the arrangement, the singing, and the musical performances -- all work together so seamlessly to support each other and tell the same story. Even the guitar solo is whiny, bitter, and desperate, for pete's sake.

The lyrics are typical Steely Dan: skeletal, allusive, cryptic and ambiguous. It's just one side of a conversation. But the music fills in the gaps. We hear the anguish, the backpedaling and saving face, the desperation and the pathetic attempts to hide it, the heart in the throat, and the frightened anger. And at the end, we hear the door slam and the deflated resignation. It's all there, and it's a whole package. It's so perfectly disguised and devoted toward the service of the song that most listeners never notice.