Monday, March 24, 2014

The Project is dead! Long live the Project!


The Great Listening Project™
July 15th, 2006 - July 15th, 2013

When we last spoke I was nearing the end of the Great Listening Project™. As you can see above, the Project ended exactly seven years after it started. Wow. Perhaps some day I will write some grand sweeping thoughts about the entire experience, but that day is not today. However, in order to get to the purpose of today's musings I must reflect a bit on how the Project changed me in an unexpected way. To wit, the Project changed my relationship with listening to music. (Come again Jubb?) One of the reasons for starting the Project was to break my listening habits. It was started at a time when I was commuting to work, and my car stereo was firmly locked on Morphine, Gnarls Barkley, and Kings of Convenience. All solid choices, but the scope of it makes me no different from an aging young rocker clinging to Bon Jovi with a soft spot for NKOTB. I take pride in the depth and breadth of the variety of music I listen to, and that just wasn't cutting it. Not only did the Project force me to re-evaluate all of the music I own, but it also got me interested in the idea of listening within parameters, which finally brings us to the point of this post.

For the month of February I only listened to Black Artists and Pop Records.

Black Artists should be fairly obvious, February being Black History Month and all, as for Pop Records, Harry & I decided to participate in the RPM Challenge (the idea being to record an entire album in the month of February) and we decided to make a Pop Record, the results of which can be found here. So, here are some of my findings.

In the category of "Here we have an entire country whose music I had no I idea that I loved:" Mali. Wow. Tinariwen, the Touré-Raichel Collective, Salif Keita, ... I can't express how much I love this music. I've done some minor exploration of African Music in general before this last month, but I was continually struck by the fact that I would be listening to something, wonder where it was from, and then discover that it was from Mali. It was a real "the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know" moment for me.

In the category of "Why the fuck haven't I been listening to this music all along!?:" Allen Toussaint, Nina Simone, Frank Ocean. Southern Nights stuck in my head for days, swimming in the beauty of Ocean's sounds, and Nina, dear lord Nina hits in all the right places. There's something that I love about the artistic expression of African-American suffering, a grace, a grittiness, strength. James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, Langston Hughes, Charles Mingus. These are artists that inexplicably resonate with me, and I'm very happy to finally be adding Ms. Simone to that list.

In the category of "Damn Nostalgia, how you doin'?:" early 90s hip-hop. Oh, that smooth hip-hop/jazz fusion and those sweet, sweet voices. Digable Planets, Arrested Development, Tribe, De La,... yes please! I had forgotten how much I loved and still really enjoy that music.

In the category of "What the Fuck? Am I seriously enjoying this?:" Giorgio Moroder. I blame Harry.

And the the greatest surprise of all, was Pop Music in general. I listen to so much Experimental Music (heck, I've got Dockstader & Myers on right now) that I forget how satisfying good Pop Music can be. I manage to isolate myself from being bombarded with too much mainstream music, so I'm afforded the opportunity to appreciate it on my own terms, but that also means that I don't often seek it out. I'm glad that I did. And this love of Pop Music has continued post-February; lately I've been hooked, HOOKED on Pharrell Williams' disc. Have you heard "Lost Queen?" Wow. So. Good.

These self-imposed listening restrictions helped be gain a deeper appreciation of some music that I might have otherwise overlooked. The pleasure in listening to a wide variety of music is actually LISTENING to the music. I said earlier that the Project changed my relationship with listening to music, and this is a small part of that. By creating different, focused restrictions I can explore music in a whole new way. Any suggestions?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Zappa

Almost seven years ago I started the Great Listening Project™. As of today (July 4th, 2013) I am almost done with Zappa. My goal, which seems so close now, is to finish the project on July 15th, the seven-year anniversary of the project. The journey has been a fascinating one, and hopefully soon I’ll write more about that, but today I’m here to talk about good ol’ Uncle Frank.

Zappa’s was easily the largest catalogue I tackled, listening to over 70 titles, some of which are two or three disc sets. Going into this stretch, I had a fairly sizable FZ collection (45 titles) but what really put this over the top is that Spotify has the entire collection of works released during Frank’s lifetime and a small smattering of the posthumous releases. I was able to listen to everything through Civilization Phaze III, a few of the later releases, and a few of the Beat The Boots series. All in all, quite a lot of Zappa.

So, what did I think about all of this music? To begin with, it’s fair to say that I have quite a respect for Zappa’s work, but this listening had the odd effect of both reinforcing and diminishing that respect. So, in true Listening Project fashion, let me begin all the way back at the beginning. (don’t worry, I’m not going to write about EVERY album)

I started with Frank’s appearance on the Steve Allen show. There are a number of things that are interesting about this piece. First is the fact that as a complete unknown he was bringing the music of the avant-garde into the living rooms of America. It incorporates tape music, free improvisation, and Cagean notions of noise as music. The other interesting thing about this performance is it showed that he thought he could become a “serious composer” in the same way one becomes a “pop musician”: by just doing it. Academia still to this day has a strong hold on the “right” to be considered a “serious composer” and very few artists have earned that label without the official stamp of academic approval. Zappa eventually earned that right, and did it his own way, but he had to sneak his crazy musical ideas into comedy tinged Rock music.

The Mothers were a truly great Rock & Roll band, and I could go on about the awesome power of the different combinations of musicians that came through that outfit, but I’m going to focus on just one work from that era: 200 Motels. This truly represents the best of what Zappa was all about. It rocks HARD, is filled with experimental tape music, and has plenty of dissonant orchestral writing. Zappa was never a great lyricist (more on that later) so we’ll ignore the lame penis jokes for now, but this was shining moment in a dense career. Sure he had other bands that had greater technical skills, but let’s face it, Rock loses something when it becomes too technical. And in this one instance he had it all, a band that rocked on one side of the stage, and an orchestra on the other. Power and skill. And when considering the movie as well, we get to add musique concrète passages, experimental dance, and (for the time) cutting edge video work. I wish there were more like this, but I’ll take the one.

Much of the Mothers material through the first seven years of the Zappa material continues to delight me in it’s playfulness, intricacy, and occasional insight. But then things start to take a turn for me after about 1978. While Zappa’s “lyrics” have always had an interest in sex acts and organs, this is when he really starts to go full blown into the Titties & Beer type tunes that would dominate his later Rock records. While his satire sometimes showed us some mankind’s flaws in a humorous way, it was also often misogyny thinly disguised as misanthropy. Again, these themes dominate his 80s output, which there’s a lot of in the form of many long live double disc sets. I found the Stage series to be pretty excruciating for this reason. Unfortunately, this material is often very catchy once you’ve memorized all the twists of words and music, so even as I thought about how wrong on so many levels some of this material is, I had that same music running through my head on a regular basis.

And then he dies, and we finally get a glimpse at what could have been. His work with both the Ensemble Modern and the Synclavier show us a version of Frank’s music that’s free from the necessity to play Rock music; or at least his perception that he needed to and his record company’s insistence that he did. And it retains quite a bit of humor, though usually not in a way that’s making fun of other people, except for maybe the American government or the American people writ large. But it’s here that the instrumental music fully comes to the front. This music, to my ears, really shows that Zappa was much better without the words. Of course, completely subtracting the lyrics from Frank’s work is impossible; I just wish the percentages were at least the other way around.

As I’m finishing this post it is three days after I started it, and I’m right this second listening to the very last entry for me, The Subcutaneous Peril from Finer Moments on Spotify. It’s an instrumental Rock number and it reminds me that no matter how high minded others or I can get about Zappa his main aesthetic was pleasure. Be it the delight in strange sounds, a solid groove to dance to, or laughing at the foibles of mankind, there’s a sense of pleasure that informs all of his work.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Clerical error in row 17

I've been picking up the pace a bit again in the Great Listening Project™ and the other day I moved on to a very personally significant album, Too Much Sugar For A Dime by Henry Threadgill. This was one of, if not the first avant-garde Jazz albums I ever owned, and it showed me a new way of hearing music. Not only that, but I heard it for the first time on WRIU and it was a definitive moment in drawing me to the station. It was even the sort of disc that I listened to twice for the Project. But then I noticed something awry. I looked ahead in the collection and saw that They Might Be Giants were up next. Wait, what? That's not how the alphabet works. The part that troubles me about this is that this must have happened years ago. However, on the plus side, not only does this mean that I get to move on to TMBG, but it also means that I get to listen to the Threadgill disc again!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Long overdue Project update

Well my friends, the Great Listening Project™ has been moving at a much slower pace these days however, I am pleased to announce that after one year, four months, and 21 days I am finished with the letter S.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Co-eds Darren, co-eds

So, for those of you who might not have heard, ol' Uncle Jubb is finally back in school. About two years ago I enrolled at URI's Continuing Education campus (or Old People's College as I like to call it) in Providence, but never got around to taking any classes. This August I proposed a show to a radio station in NYC but never heard anything back from them. Rather then sit around and mope about it I took that as the kick in the ass I needed to get back to school. Since I was already in the system from two years ago, all I had to do was register for classes and go. Pickin's were slim getting into the game that late, but I was able to get into four classes, some of which are actually pretty cool. I'll refrain from commenting on which classes I like and which I don't since this is a public forum and I have shared this blog's URL with some of my professors, but here are some thoughts on my experience so far.

First and foremost, I absolutely friggin' love it. I am so glad to finally be doing this, and maybe it took a long time for me to get here, but maybe this was just the right time. Not only am I more focused as a student, but I'm also more focused personally. I now have a clear idea of "what I want to do when I grow up." Radio. Period. Now that may take several forms or have different possible career outcomes, it's the clear answer for me. When I got back on the air a little over a year ago the on-air light in my head went on. And while URI doesn't offer a lot in terms of audio or broadcasting classes per se, it does offer me some very cool opportunities.

The most obvious is the radio station itself. As a student (as opposed to a community volunteer which I was before) I am eligible to be on the Executive Board and I have already secured the position of Production Manager. This means that I am in charge of our live room and ProTools equipped recording studio. In addition to that, one of my Communications professors has set up a Sound Lab for students to use which is currently a small room with four ProTools computers and some basic recording equipment. I am also manager for this Sound Lab, which means that I am basically the resident ProTools expert on campus. These two things will give me lots of opportunity to work hands on a variety of equipment and will look excellent on a resume. Oh, and I get paid for both.

So, that's the gist of what's going on with me these days. Now if you'll excuse me, this place is just crawling with college girls... o.O

Friday, September 17, 2010

Two days I waited ten years for

In 2000 I saw two bands I never expected to see again; Orchestra Morphine and Gil Scott-Heron. In early August I saw them both within the span of 24 hours.

Orchestra Morphine is the remaining members of Morphine along with members of Either/Orchestra performing the songs of Mark Sandman. At this point in my life I can pretty safely say that Morphine is my favorite band. No small statement. And to see this music performed live again is nothing short of mind blowing for me.

Russ Gershon has a tendency to send out emails about E/O performances mere days before a show. On a Tuesday morning I saw a notice he had sent out the day before about an Orchestra Morphine show the next day! I got on the phone and rounded up Kyle, Martin, and Linda and off we went. We get up to Boston with no problems, circle the block once and get a spot right in front of the club. To say the Lizard Lounge is intimate is to say Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player. Grab some seats, blah blah blah, they play. Oh. My. God.

These nine musicians both have this music in them and put themselves into this music. They are those songs. Which gives them  the ability to explore while they're playing. Because no matter how far out they take these, well, Pop Songs, they can still turn the train right around and lock it back in. And I dare you not to dance. Go on. Don't dance.

Then the next day:

Erica & I picked up Harry & Bill and we headed to NYC. Pleasant trip down the Merritt (Harrison, You Are Here) got into the city no problem, found $10 parking, went to the MOMA, had awesome salads on 125th, then headed over to Marcus Garvey park in Harlem to see Gil Scott-Heron. Hoe. Lee. Shit. 

Another group of excellent musicians, and at least from my perspective towards the back of the park, Gil looked fairly healthy. When I saw him in 2000, eh, not so much. I spent the oughts assuming I'd one day hear that he had died, so to see him perform live again is also mind blowing to me.

But the thing that *really* blew my mind was that fact that these two show were back-to-back. These are two of my absolute favorite artists, one of whom has been living with a crack habit for decades, and the other has been gone since '99. And they were both near perfect shows in every aspect that I can think of; personal importance of artist, performance, company, parking, over-all experience, etc ...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A listening crisis

I never thought I'd say this, but I think I might have too much music. I currently have three main modes of listening which roughly fall along format lines. There's the Great Listening Project (compact discs), research for my radio show (digital/internet), and what I simply want to listen to for pleasure (vinyl). There's overlap obviously, and primarily in that I'm buying cd's under the pretense of it being for the show, and then listening to them for pleasure.


I feel like I've actually hit a point where I have more music than I have time for. In other words, my addiction to obtaining new music seems to have gotten out of hand, and it's due to the confluence of three forces.

First, my re-discovery of the beauty of vinyl has led to an enormous amount of record shopping. A large part of that is because I work in a well stocked record store, but even beyond that I've picked the thrift store habit back up. And when I see a sign that says "Records: $1 each or 30 for $20" you bet your ass I'm buying 30. The result being that I still have several Randy Newman, Duke Ellington, and Enoch Light records that I haven't even touched yet.

Then there's the radio show, which I feel deserves the majority of my attention. In doing this show and focusing on Classical music of the last 30 years I've put myself in a position of presenting a music that I was not all that familiar with before hand. This means I'm constantly learning new names, listening to works on websites, buying new cd's, rifling though the library at the station, etc.. Just last week, for example, I probably loaded about ten discs from the station library onto my hard drive, set aside a dozen lp's to listen to, received one disc that I bought online, and contacted several composers asking for music for the show. Additionally, I'm planning on ordering two or three more discs this weekend.

Third is the temptation of the internet. It's far too easy to grab a discography of, say Slayer, simply for nostalgia's sake, but how long is that then going to just sit there un-listened to? And this extends to "research" for the show. Sorry, Famous Name Composer™ I need my fifteen bucks more than you do. (If it makes you feel any better, Famous Name Composer™, now that I have 27 of your discs on my hard drive I'm sure to play you on my show with some regularity.) But again, when am I going to get around to listening to it all.

Finally, (yeah, I know I said "three forces") for approximately 40 hours every week I'm forced to listen to pop garbage that I would even know existed otherwise. One of the results of that is I often sit in silence after work, cutting into what would normally be listening time.

And this isn't even taking into account all of the music that I would like to explore simply out of my own insatiable curiosity. The Rough Guide to Africa & Middle East that I have on right now as Official Project Listening is reminding me that I need to explore various World Musics, and every time I go downstairs and my roommate is listening to some wonderful piece of music I'm reminded of how vast the Classical Cannon is.

So there's my crisis. I have no solutions or potential answers, except maybe relinquishing all obligations (other than my show) and just dedicating myself to sitting in front of the stereo for ten/twelve hours a day. Which sounds like heaven to me, but I suppose I still need to eat.