Tag Archives: MusicMonday

Music Monday: Rap is art

Some of you will hate this video, but you should watch it anyway.

I do need to point out that hip hop and rap usually contain references to violence and strong language. I’m not condoning the content of the lyrics. But the artistry of the words — that’s impossible to deny, especially when it’s presented this clearly.

I’ve said for a long time that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be hanging out with street artists and rappers, because they handle language the way Shakespeare did, with an incredible understanding of the beats in the syllables and their effect on the ear. (And let’s be honest—Shakespeare’s content is pretty bawdy in places. I don’t think these albums would make him blush.)

Seriously, tho. Watch this. 


Music Monday: Beyonce made more than Lemonade

They say true love’s the greatest weapon
To win the war caused by pain, pain
But every diamond has imperfections
But my love’s too pure to watch it chip away
Oh nothing real can be threatened
True love breathes salvation back into me
With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became a remedy

~”All Night Long,” Lemonade, Beyonce

I didn’t expect to be absolutely floored by Beyonce’s album Lemonade…. but I was.

More precisely, by the film, which was the first way I encountered the music. You’ll have to search the dark underbelly of the internet to find a free stream; legitimately, sign up for a free 1-month trial of Tidal and make sure you cancel in time.


Beyonce created an album I’ll be listening to for years. Why?

Because ultimately this album isn’t about infidelity. It’s about forgiveness. Restoration.

I don’t really care so much about the swirling cloud of questions – did Jay-Z cheat on Bey? is this a breakup album? is it just a story? – because nobody has those answers. Story truth is sometimes more real than the actual truth, to reference Tim O’Brien, and in this case, the arc of anger and betrayal in the album melts into a sober-faced reconciliation.

Along the way, Beyonce explores what it means to be a black woman in the USA. I’m not a black woman, so I watched and learned. The mothers of slain black boys hold photos of their sons. The lyrics take us sometimes into the workaday life of a woman trying to hold everything together, or a little girl scarred by the hardness of her father.

How can I watch Lemonade? Did Jay Z cheat on Beyoncé? Who is ‘Becky with the good hair’? Are Jay Z and Beyoncé even married? It’s not too late to catch up

Source: Beyoncé’s Lemonade album explained, from beginner to ‘Beyhive’ | Music | The Guardian

Musically, the album is interesting, fostered by collaborations with a huge variety of artists (ranging as far as Jack White) and plenty of cool samples (including Led Zeppelin’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break”). It would help if you’re a fan of hip hop, or at least capable of appreciation.

But even if you aren’t, find a way to donate an hour toward the film. It’s rough at parts, cutting at parts, raw most of the time, but also honest and beautiful and worth your time.

Music Mondays: hxc blue

I dunno what the rest of y’all will think of this post. Here we go…..

I don’t know why it feels juvenile to admit that sometimes I just want music to be melancholy.  Songs that would emit shades of grey rather than shimmering color; songs that taste sour with a bitter tang.  I’m not often in a “bad mood,” though I move through seasons of irritability and dissatisfaction.

But surely we all have those days when nothing quite fits, when the wrongness of the world rubs up against the brokenness inside my heart, and I’m drawn toward introspection and a dark acknowledgement that we live as broken people in a broken world.

A lot of people mock hardcore and emo music for being immature, overly dramatic, and too dark. Those criticisms are warranted. But when I am looking for a playlist for a less than perfect day, I end up here, with a mix of music from several genres but mostly hardcore.

So here. If your day is crappy, and you need to commiserate instead of pretending to be happy, here are songs to make you un-merry:

“Sowing Season,” Brand New
This is my go-to song for when I feel like nothing I’m doing is making a difference. Yeah, anyone who works with people knows what that feels like.  Sometimes this mood drives me to write poetry, but it’s easier just to pop in this album, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, and let my thoughts follow their words.

Is it in you now,
To watch the things you gave your life to broken?
And stoop and build them up with worn out tools. (lyrics)

(if you’d prefer to watch a great LineRider video while listening, here ya go)

“How to save a life,” The Fray
I don’t consider The Fray to be hxc or emo at all, but this song fits this list, at least for me. I don’t know how to save a life, but I’m wired to “care”: a paradox which often leaves me melancholic and disappointed that I can pour love into someone else but it doesn’t mean they’re going to care or get better.  “Where did I go wrong / I lost a friend / Somewhere along in the bitterness / And I would have stayed up with you all night / Had I known how to save a life.” (Wiki)

And as a close runner up, I really appreciate their song “You Found Me,” which is a pretty honest look at the problem of evil as we encounter it in our daily lives. (Wiki)

anything by From Autumn to Ashes
I mean, the band’s entire catalogue is downright depressing. Some great guitar work. Check out The Fiction We Live or Too Bad You’re Beautiful for several greatly depressing songs.
Also, the guitar opening on “Sugar Wolf” remains one of my all-time favs. Oh, and their drummer sings while he plays as a second vocalist. WHAT?!

“The Leaving Song,” AFI
One of the first “emo” bands I ever encountered, AFI is a granddaddy in the genre. This entire album (Sing the Sorrow) remains in my top playlist. I often listen to it en toto when doing design work, because the tunes are familiar and therefore comforting, despite the fact that the lead vocalists is kind of whiny (if we’re being honest) and this is a slightly embarrassing music selection to admit to my adult reading audience. lol

“In the End,” Linkin Park
I sometimes find their songs like this one or “Breaking the Habit” to help me let off steam when I don’t want “chill” music. Old Linkin Park is da bomb for exploring a crappy day in a crappy week in a crappy month. “In the end / It doesn’t even matter.” Yeah, some days are like that.

“War all the time,” Thursday
War sucks, whether it’s the real thing or a metaphor for the battles we face. This world is a messed up place, and this song captures that (for me). And Thursday is a good example of hardcore without much screaming.  Musically, I like the drum + bass lines in this song, and the simple but effective guitar work. And it’s a good example of musical responses to 9/11 that aren’t country music.

“9 Crimes,” Damien Rice
And now for a genre entirely different….I mostly just like the song itself, apart from the lyrics…. But for our purposes here, it’s not cheery and the slow quiet melody seems to sap energy rather than giving it.  Love lost makes for good melancholy. And disembodied heads are weird, so this video pushes all the right buttons…. lol

“Hurt,” Johnny Cash
I think Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s song (written originally for a Nine Inch Nails album) is stunning. When I first saw it as a music video, I literally stopped and stared at the screen. The piano pounds its way through my soul in the second and final choruses, while my emotions feel the weight of the lines: “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel.”  “You can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” I see it as an honest statement of failure more than of intent, but I think we twisted humans swirl them both together as we batter our way through relationships.

This video got a lot more attention since it was released not long after Cash lost his wife, and I’ve always associated the imagery of the video with the deep sadness he must have felt. “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” He died a few months after this was filmed.


Most of us aren’t too open about our melancholy days. I’d love to hear about where you turn for musical commiseration.  Comment with song recommendations if you’d like. 🙂

Maybe we need to do “classical music” differently?

I’m concerned. 

This world of popular “classical music” performance is dying.

Despite the awesomeness of performance, of MSUIC, that I wrote about last week — I don’t think it matters how many scholarships we give to kids to hear the symphony play, or how many piano performance students graduate from the local liberal arts college, the market for classical music performances is aging.

I’d say ⅔ or more of the audience at my chorale’s performance last Friday were grey-headed retirees. Sure, they brought some grandchildren with them. Some middle-aged business owners showed up to enjoy the fruits of their sponsorship or watch their spouses sing or play.

But I’ve learned something about marketing (in the general sense) in the past couple years, and if classical music walked up and asked to be one of my clients, I’d whistle low under my breath.

I think the classical music “scene” — the civic chorale or orchestra along with its revenue model based on individual and corporate sponsors and government money — is evaporating.

Does it matter that the market for classical music is greying?

One could argue that this situation is not as bad as it looks. In fact, perhaps the audience demographic on Friday was exactly what we should expect: as people get older, they recognize the value of the cultural arts and buy in, usually through attendance at theater and concerts, and perhaps patronage or sponsorships. Maybe so. Maybe classical music is now primarily the music of old people.

But the world has changed. Music is so much more accessible now. If someone is lucky enough to get music education in school (all but destroyed by the testing culture now), he or she might crave the raw experience of seeing “masterworks” played before a live studio audience instead of satisfying that urge via the sterile perfection of a CD recording or high-fidelity .mp3.


But I’m afraid that classical music as an industry is in trouble.

What’s wrong with the current model?

Where do we start? With the greying audience? or financial challenges of supporting an expensive performance culture (where all 50-100 orchestra members plus the conductor plus the soloists are getting paid for every performance)? and how that drives up the price of tickets so that a classical music performance costs more than live theater? and how that keeps working class people out of concert halls?

And I’m not the only one to notice. Just this past weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the challenges facing the New York Philharmonic, including renovations to their building and shrinking capital resources, shifts in audience preferences and habits, and the pressure of a digital music industry.

As it grapples with its transformation, the Philharmonic is facing many of the same financial stresses and changing audience behavior that have challenged other American performing arts organizations — from the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, to the Metropolitan Opera, which is cutting costs after running a $22 million deficit last year. The Philharmonic has had deficits every year for more than a decade; its shortfall dropped to $2.1 million last year from $6.1 million the year before partly because it spent more of its endowment. And, like other institutions, it must learn to adapt as younger generations shun the multiconcert subscriptions that were long the bedrock of sales.

from New York Philharmonic’s Challenges Go Beyond the Music

And I’m no expert, but I think we’ve got another problem: classical concerts just aren’t much fun for the audience members. 

Wait, am I saying classical music is boring?

Well, no.

While the culture of popular music has undergone seismic shifts in the past 100 years, classical music culture – the “liturgy” of experiencing what we collectively label the “masterworks” of “serious music – hasn’t.

What’s it like to attend the delightful performance of Bernstein, Brahms, and Beethoven that GAMAC provided last weekend? First, you had to buy a ticket, so this demands at least a little fore planning (a lost art in the age of cellphones and Facebook event “maybe’s”).  Second, you had to dress up, because even if there isn’t a dress code, everyone who’s attending is going to dress like there is.

Next, you can expect to sit perfectly still and perfectly silent for 90 minutes (save 15 minutes to rush to the bathroom or stretch your legs). That’s still and silent.

And there are rules. In addition to being silent (so don’t even think about pointing out that lovely alto line to your neighbor), you have to know when to clap. And especially when NOT to clap — not between movements of the same piece, not between pieces that are part of the same song cycle, and not before the conductor drops his hands unless the music is just rip-roaring good. (The crowd on Friday were on their feet before the last notes of Beethoven stopped ringing. It was a good second half.)

Contrast this with, say, a rock concert.  Is the virtuosity any less? I’d say no. A great violin solo or a great guitar riff – I enjoy both just as much.  Is there less enthusiasm among aficionados? Again, I’d suggest not. I think the old man bobbing his head along to the choral fugue in the Beethoven’s 9th was having a ball, just like the big kid who stood next to me at the most recent prog-metal concert I attended and danced (badly) with reckless joy and abandon. But wait….

See the difference? 

My fellow metal heads (or fans of John Fogerty or Mumford and Sons or Rhianna or whoever gets you in line at the ticket booth) know what it’s like to move to the music, to dance with all four limbs, to let the energy explode into kinesthetic appreciation.

I think we’re losing our next generation of classical music fans because we’re too caught up in the idea that Classical Music Is Serious Business. So stop wiggling, stop tapping, stop engaging. Just listen.

I don’t think Gen Z or whatever we’re going to call them are going to stick with classical music for the 50 years necessary to get old enough that sitting still for 90 minutes sounds like a blast.

A few suggestions (since all whining and no solutions makes for a bad blog post):

  • Commit to subsidizing art / music / theater / dance / etc both as a public good (i.e.: with public money) and as a significant private investment (i.e.: something businesses, foundations, and individuals should be incentivized to support). We need to invest in what would be individually very expensive (those ticket prices!) so that collectively more of us can afford it.
  • Extend that commitment into free public art events for kids as much as possible. Give kids tickets to symphony performances and theater and dance and everything else. Get them hungry for the beauty and power of the Masterworks.
  • Bring classical music into the streets. Get musicians out on street corners and at festivals to play and sing. Let the public hear more and more music live so it gets into their ears. This means some musicians should volunteer their talent for free, or at least be willing to consider it.
  • Break the traditions on purpose. Do concerts in radically different spaces. Let people listen and [*gasp*] even talk quietly or move around. Not all performances should be dead quiet. It’s ok to win people over with the power of the music, even though it irritates us musicians when we aren’t the center of people’s attention.
  • Bring back the Lyceums. In 1800s America, educated people in the cities recognized that most Americans were pretty culturally ignorant. So they hosted learning experiences for people in their community. They taught folks to sing, taught them about famous classical works, read literature aloud, discussed art. They made a concerted effort to educate the general public for the general good.  This “school for culture” in each town was called a Lyceum.
  • For the love of all that’s holy, threaten to burn things down if our state government cuts any more funding from the arts in schools. The kids need truth, goodness, and beauty or their souls will shrivel into little hard lumps. We can do this. America has the resources.

I want classical music to thrive. I really do. I want Bach to resound through a concert hall followed by something by Pink Floyd and capped off with Mahler.

We can do this, people.

The music is in the making

On Friday, I had the privilege of doing one of my favorite things. I stood on a stage with about 100 other singers plus a full orchestra and sang like everything.

It was the spring GAMAC Masterworks concert, “Brought to you by the letter B”: Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, and Beethoven’s 9th (the final movement).

Brought to you by B Now, this might surprise some of you, but I really love this stuff. Not so much just listening to it, though I have days when it’s time to set aside the Led Zeppelin or the prog metal or the Bon Iver and really soak in the genius of Rachmaninoff or Bach.

Mostly, though, I prefer to be a participant in the process of making music, and preferably for others to enjoy. I’m glad the audience folks get to enjoy the cool tunes. But I think I get the better end of the deal – a deep acquaintance with brilliant writing, an insider’s view of the process, an ingrained familiarity that comes only through repeated exposure.

Take, for example, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. I’ll be honest, I’d never even heard of this piece before Don announced it would be on the spring concert slate. I didn’t go listen to it either; I figured the read-through would be it’s own cool experience. So I just showed up, started sight-reading…. and 20 minutes later collected the scattered bits of my psyche from the floor.  What stunning music this was!

Four months later, Bernstein has taken up residence in my brain. I can’t concentrate during meetings because the 7/4 rhythm of Psalm 100 is beating away in the back of my mind. As I’m drifting off to sleep, I hear the solo from Psalm 23 or the final haunting notes of Psalm 131.  I mutter to myself as I walk around at work, reproducing the turbulent tenor/bass lines of Psalm 2 “Why do the nations rage?”  churning below the soaring, lovely melody in the women’s parts as we sang the rest of Psalm 23, “Thou preparedst a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

It’s this insider knowledge, this intimate awareness of the interlocking choral fugue of Beethoven’s 9th or the stunning sense of key and tonality woven throughout the Brahms, that keeps me coming back year after year to sacrifice three hours every Monday night to the dull work of banging out notes, learning parts, repeating difficult sections again and again and again until I’m sick of them. Getting bored with the parts I already know, getting bored with other sections that I might just find boring.

Knowing that a powerful alchemy is at work: the emergent reality that will arise from the union of the conductor’s baton, the energy of an expectant audience, the tense pause in the chorale before we hear opening notes. Making music.  On the spot. In the flesh.

I confess. I had a better time at that concert than you could have. I really did.

Music Monday: A Metal Show

WHAT? Hold on, you’ll have to speak louder. My ears are still ringing.

About once or maybe twice a year, I find myself packed into a small venue around sweaty people tense with anticipation. We all know why we’re there. We know what’s at stake.

Like last night, when a friend and I headed to Asheville to see the first show in a spring tour by the prog metal band Between the Buried and Me. We had a young padawan in tow, a show newbie. Showing him the ropes.

The house lights dim. A soft blue-red glow illuminates instruments on a stage. The crowd roars as 5 men walk to the front (and once in a while, a woman – still too rare a sight in live performance) to pick up their tools of creativity and violence.

A pause. A coiled spring of anticipation.

A hand plucks a string, a man grabs the microphone and growls.

And sound explodes from two dozen speakers hanging from the ceiling or stacked on the sides of the stage, the crowd explodes with them.

Arms flailing, heads flailing, bodies crashing into one another. The chords throb with energy and passion. Someone shoves into his neighbor in a friendly, universal gesture of “let’s open up a mosh pit!”

Join in our get out of the way. The room writhes with fans bouncing into each other like overenergized molecules in a beaker. No chemist can illustrate atoms’ movement as well as a 15-year old flinging himself again and again into the pile of moshers in the pit. 

Call me crazy if you want, and there are days when I think, “Man, I’m really getting to old for this,” but nothing beats the experience of hearing music live, loud, and smashed into the dozen people around you all jumping up and down at the same time.

It’s loud, sweaty, hot, a little gross (byproduct of “sweaty”), a little dangerous (but not really – people are actually quite nice). You’ll reach for the Advil when it’s over, and if you’re smart, you’ll reach for a set of earplugs before you head in. (I never remember mine.)

Most of all, it’s an experience inaccessible if your music stays locked into your headphones, if every concert experience you enjoy involves sitting in a chair reservedly nodding your head.

Yup, that's us last night at The Orange Peel before the show. So no one looks too exhausted yet from all the prog awesomeness of hearing BTBAM in person
Yup, that’s us last night at The Orange Peel before the show. So no one looks too exhausted yet from all the prog awesomeness of hearing BTBAM in person

I often do a concert review after I’ve been to a show. Here’s the compressed version from last night:

Opening band: The Atlas Moth.  Garden variety Scandinavian-style death metal. *yawns*  They were good at what they do. Just not my thing.

Headline band: Between the Buried and Me.  Setlist opened with Selkies (omg! omg! omg! still love hearing that 7/4 introduction live) and also included Sun of Nothing (Colors), Disease, Injury, Madness (from The Great Misdirect) and several songs from the newest pair of albums (Parallax I & II), plus a new single from the upcoming album.  Encore was White Walls, of course.   A little disappointed that they don’t play anything from their first 3 albums anymore, really, but that’s what CDs are for.

Postscript:  It may be that a live concert featuring metal bands is the perfect activity for a teen boy. There’s energy, lots of noise, socialization, and plenty of aggression (but not directed at other people.)  Violence without harm or anger. Intense emotional release, a communal sacrifice of calories and sweat and joy. Is your kid into metal? Calm down. It’ll be ok. 🙂

Music Monday: Soundtrack to my life

Like most people, I can write a biography from the songs that have accompanied my journey on this green orb.

Sweet tones of a guitar form some of my earliest memories. I grew up on my dad’s acoustic versions of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr, plus his collection of records and 8-tracks for performers like the Nashville Brass and Jim Reeves. Dad played both the guitar and harmonica, self-taught. He owned a beautiful powder blue Fender electric guitar and amp which he sold for money shortly after losing his job.  At the time, I didn’t realize just how sad that was. Anyway, his trusty acoustic served for the Cash and Hank Williams covers, providing companionship for his low tenor.

Country music and church music were the staples of my upbringing, with classical piano music squarely at the center of my piano lessons …. plus whatever music entered my head from listening to WCVI radio in the mornings as the household got up and got moving.  WCVI is the epitome of the local small-town radio station. The DJs had thick local accents; the news was shocking only to the extent that you probably knew the people being mentioned in the crime reports; the music generally hit the Top 40 mix, like this gem from my middle school memory:

My parents weren’t Fundamentalists. They were just truly “old-school.” My dad loved 40s and 50s pop music, so he listened to the one station in the area that defined “oldies” older than any station I’ve ever encountered.  As a man in his 30s when the Sexual Revolution of the 60s upended everything familiar, rock music just wasn’t where his heart felt at rest. For him, it was taste.  Michael Jackson’s brilliant moonwalk provided a curiosity rather than an offense, but he still wasn’t impressed.

My half-brother nearly sent my dad into apoplectic fits with his KISS records in 1979. Since Dad married into fatherhood of two teenage boys in the mid-70s, and since that whole transition was a wee bit rocky, I think Ed took the chance to rattle Dad’s cage. Thumping bass and squealing guitar riffs shook his end of the house (which was literally across a 2 foot hallway from my dad’s bedroom door). Inevitably there would be a lot of arguing and a lot of shouting and some door slamming.  Thus I was introduced to hard rock. (Metal, maybe? KISS seems so tame now!)

Confession: At 4, I thought Ed’s music was pretty cool.  Plus he had these awesome blue and orange lights hanging in his room. It was dark and interesting and loud. LOUD. Very loud.  “Stan’s music” I was told. The pentagram and makeup confirmed it. I guess my dad was influenced by the Christian vibe around him after all. And I  grew up in a world with nothing but piano and organ hymns on Sundays and country music on the weekdays, punctuated by angry sermons about the evils of rock and roll.

College is often a time for expanding one’s musical tastes. Since I went to Bob Jones, where rock music was Satan and anything more exciting than Yanni was banned (actually, Yanni was banned too for being “New Age”) my musical tastes didn’t expand by much there either. My roommates introduced me to soundtracks for films I’d never seen (Man from Snowy River) and films that I loved (Patrick Doyle’s soundtracks for Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing), and others that didn’t stand up to repeated listening (Gettysburg).

I encountered most pop tunes and mainstream rock as a matter of daily life until my move to BJU. Though I went home in the summers during my undergrad years, grunge wasn’t on my radar (except that all the Korean kids at college were wearing flannel that looked like they’d slept in it, so BJU made a rule banning “Grunge” clothing). By the mid-90s I had fallen into a deep cultural black hole.  For me, watching I Love the 90s is an educational endeavor.


We crawled out of Greenville and into a new life around 2002, and as my conscience unwound itself from the strictures of Fundamentalism, we began to explore the radio dial.  My students were listening to pretty much everything, so I mounted an expedition into Top 40 to figure out what was going on. I don’t think Matchbox 20 or Dido counted as “edgy,” but one must start somewhere.

Not usual in the life of a teacher, my students became my guides through music both on the dial and off. I met plenty of hip hop and country and mainstream pop, but the fireworks really went off when someone played me an album by From Autumn to Ashes, a hardcore emo band. The “emo” part of the music wasn’t particularly appealing, but I loved the sound: driving drums topped with guitar riffs and a tenor vocalist, punctuated by screaming. It took a long while to acclimate, but that’s where I found my taste for metal/hardcore.

Later, thanks to friends with excellent musical tastes, I also discovered Radiohead, (old) Muse, the Chili Peppers and eventually excellent but lesser-known acts like The Bad Plus and Snarky Puppies.

And that explains why a 2013 list from last.fm of my “top artists played” looked like this:

This was last updated in 2013, I think

Don’t laugh, but I didn’t listen to truly great bands like Zeppelin until well into the 21st century. *looks ashamed* Maybe my cultural malnutrition serves as the drive to experience and enjoy the best of what’s out there.

It’s definite that if you  start talking while “Stairway to Heaven” is playing, I’ll shoot you a dirty look and probably consider disowning you as a friend if you can’t shut up.

And this doesn’t take into account what we’re all able to discover now on Spotify or iTunes radio or the stuff I track down on YouTube. Like right now. (Currently listening to the Hyperlight Drifter soundtrack. It’s great.)

And really, that brings up the question, In this world where music is all around us, seeping into our lives on every front and every moment thanks to radio in the car, earbuds at work, iPhones in our pockets, what challenges us forward in our musical tastes? 

Are we stuck in the trenches of our favorite genres? Locked into whatever the music services decide to shove into our ears?

I still have so much to learn (but at least I’ve picked up some knowledge of classic grunge).  Like ….Jazz. I need to learn more about jazz…..  Our resident musician loves polyrhythmic, progressive stuff ranging from Periphery to Tigran Hamasyan.

I’ll even begrudgingly acknowledge now that not all Christian music sucks. Just most of it. A post for another day.

It’s pretty amusing to look back at my own musical biography.  Maybe you’re still listening to the classics of your childhood. Thanks to our 2015 world, we can put our hands on playlists built by mood, geography, genre, or friends’ preferences.

We consumers live charmed lives blessed by technology and access.

Get out there and listen.