School of Rock
A few weeks ago I went to my nephew's band's gig out in Arlington (Evenmark - it's Cody's band but my nephew, Yuri, is the drummer). It was at Phoenix Music Complex 3102 W. Division Street, Arlington TX (I put the address here because this is a most excellent venue for this sort of thing. They had something that I hadn't seem before in any hole in the wall rock joint. They had ........ space ...... to play into. Room for as many as hmmmmm 500 people ... easy ... about 200' by 50' by ~18' high ... and old garage type body shop, something like that ... and a nice long bar. The places in Deep Elem and elsewhere, that I've been to are way too small for such noise. This is as good a place as any to blow out your freakin' ears.
And that's just what they do. I am probably the only person in the place to do the sensible thing and put in earplugs. Ergo, I am the only person who can actually hear the music. Everybody else hears "noise fluctuations". We shall examine in depth the proper use of noise in the following. For the present, "our" band played very well. This time I could hear words and melodies and could distinguish between songs. They have a new lead guitarist who picked his notes well. I mean "selected" not as in "guitar pic" (although he pic'ed 'em good too). There was none of the hated "pig squeal" that pisses me off. Being an intellectual sort, I am offended when the lead guitarist just goes up to the high notes and tickles them as fast as he can without regard to compositional constraints ... in order to show off his "talent", i.e. his manual dexterity. I don't listen to rock music to hear dexterity.
I recall going to one of the Fifth Avenue churches in New York City back in '81 when I was on the street. I went there often to hear the organ recital (and maybe catch a few zeez). One day they had a quartet (bass, viola, cello, violin) playing some Baroque or early Romantic period music. The cellist got a "solo" and proceeded to wow the audience with her dexterity. This is actually two hundred year old "pig squeal" and I recognize it as suchk - select your own consonant). It is always offensive to me no matter who composes it or whatever style chosen. Hence I am offended by much of black female singing where the gal worbles a dozen notes all round the proper note in order to show off her vocal dexterity. I don't listen to music to admire the physical dexterity of the player. I listen to admire the intellectual dexterity of the composer ... which means ... making the intellect temporarily subserviant to emotion in order to ...
This is the legacy of Beethoven who was the first to state ... explicitly ... in music, that the composer's job is not to create ever more elaborate elevator music. Rather, it is the composer's job to do philosophy with notes. The composer is to show what is evil in his culture and what is the good ... and what one should properly feel when in the presence of good or evil.
You can see what I mean if you sample music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical to Romantic periods. The Romantic period begins ... explicitly ... with Beethoven's Eroica symphony. Renaissance music is orderly playing around with notes and primitive instruments ... trying to get out from under the wings of the church (I like the crumhorn). In Baroque, the music is still under the church's thumb but is getting stronger ... too strong in the case of Bach (my favorite all time piece of music is his Passacalia & Fugue in C-minor). In the classical period you get tentative stuff like Mozart and Haydn that ... almost ... make it ... but not quite. Then comes the new century and Beethoven says, "Fuck this transition shit. I'm gonna' light this candle." ... and does so with great facility. In fact, his Eroica symphony is fully formed ... like a woman giving birth to a grown man.
What does this have to do with rock & roll?
Well, as you may or may not know ... symphonic music is dead. There is only the old stuff left to hear ... over and over. There is no contemporary musical "philosophical voice" left on earth. There is only rock & roll. Though it most often falls on its face, it still gets up and tries to stumble forward as best it can. And occasionally, it succeeds. Of the gazillions of rock songs out there, there are probably several hundred that hold to the higher standards that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms would hold. And that is ... "to evoke feelings in the listener that I want them to feel because I designed it that way".
Energy that previously went into symphonic composition now has few outlets beyond rock & roll and movie soundtracks. The genre of "real" symphonic music has been co-opted by witless jerks and obscene critics who praise random notes made my breaking glass or silverware thrown on top of piano strings, i.e. "punk-symphonic". And because they are critics of the New York Times ... they get away with it and the society hounds lap it up ... the Emperor's New Food.
Well, I guess that's enough history and ... kiss my ass. I'd very much rather listen to Def Leppard's "Foolin'" than to anything at all by John Cage.
What can a band do to "make it to the top"?
Well, at the outset, you can only control 50% of your fate at the most. The other half is in the hands of lady luck and there ain't nothin' you can do 'bout it. So, whatever I say here is good advice but you ain't goin' nowhere without a lucky break. You can practice till your hands bleed and your arms fall off but it's not enough. You need a favorable roll of the dice.
The first thing to talk about is the freaking
What the hell is it there for? Why is it always there and who should give a shit anyway?
Music is made from only three variables ...
You use high volume to emphasize one part in a composition over the others. But that's not the problem. The problem is forced resonances in objects other than the instruments which are designed to suppress all but a select few resonances. This gives the instrument its distinctive sound. What happens when you jack up the volume and redline your amps? Answer: You force vibrations in the amp box as well as vibrations in the objects surrounding the performance like the freakin' walls and everybody's beer stine or metal table or the chandelier ... or ... anything with a hard, sonar-reflective surface. This creates white noise that drowns out the composition. Since it is the composition that defines the performance ... you are, ipso-facto, erasing yourself from musical existence.
Yet the audience may cheer.
Because most of your audience is ... stupid. The greatest part of any crowd is stupid. Stupidity is the love of one's own ignorance. They love to be stupid ... and torpid ... and unconsciousness. Can you get to nirvana on the backs of these stupid people? No.
They won't buy your records and they won't remember your performance. They are there to be UN-sober. They are there to have a good time ... by being unconsciousness and stupid and wallowing in same. To succeed in your 50% of success ... you must appeal to MY SENSIBILITIES ... not their's. And I demand that you have ... good compositions allied with excellent exposition. Which means that I must be able to hear your tune in all its parts, in all its failings and all its successes. In other words you must wager all on your personal abilities ... and take the consequences ... like a man. NO hiding behind a bunch of noise or the cheers of a mindless crowd of stoned monkeys who won't remember tomorrow and don't give a shit either. I do give a shit about how I spend my time. Hell, how much of it have I got left anyway (at 57)?
Impress me with your ability and courage to face the music and you've done your 50% ... then you can "roll the dice" and hope for the best.
Now, what's the good part about noise? Is it good for anything? Yes, it most definitely is.
Noise, in a musical composition, is exactly equivalent to a uniform glaze laid over the top of a finished oil painting. Here is an example. Observe the mess that restorers have made of the Sistine ceiling. Here Michelangelo Buonarroti has put up a garish work in plaster. By garish, I mean that the colors are much too bright and un-unified, i.e. they clash badly. It looks kinda' like somebody turned a jpeg file into a gif file ... the edges are hard. It's bad stuff. Why? Because he had to work in plaster, he put down a quarter inch of plaster with a trowel ... then ... before it dried up he had to paint a picture on it. What he did was make a tracing of the picture, then he put the tracing over the wet plaster, then he poked holes in the tracing so he'd have the painting sized correctly. Then he painted his ass off as fast as possible to get it done before the plaster hardened ... because the pigment must soak into the wet plaster or else flake off, if painted on top of dry plaster. There were severe time constraints as well as having to stand there with his head cocked back unnaturally. This guy had to take some pain for that ceiling.
Now, Mic knows that lampblack is going to drift up into and onto his paintings over time. They're going to have a uniform coating of black over them eventually but he's counting on this because the uniform coating will unify the colors in a way that he couldn't because he has no time to "work the paint" (Michelangelo has seen these effects a hundred times all over Italy). That is ... the dirt coating the painting ... is an intended part of his composition. So, the restorers dutifully removed all the dirt and put the ceiling in its pristine condition because "Michelangelo would have wanted it that way". Kiss my ass ... Michelangelo would have abhorred what they've done.
But wait a minute! A certain quantity of dirt is intended ... but ... too much dirt erases his composition from existence, i.e. it's covered up beyond anyone's ability to see. Now, if the restorers intended to put the painting back to square one (because nobody could see it) and start up again with the lampblack ... that would be understandable ... but they don't illuminate the Sistine ceiling with lampblack any more. They use incandescent lighting (or if they are intelligent - soft, controllable LED) and this does not supply the uniform coating in the future. Hence, the Sistine will forever be garish as Mic would not have intended. Hence, the restorers (by my reckoning) are stupid.
Now, you can see what to do about noise in rock music. Put in enough to unify the composition ... the instruments are the colors ... they don't exactly go together perfectly ... so blend them with some noise. But not too much ... or the composition will be lost. No one will hear it at all.
One should stay reasonably within the specifications of one's amps. If the box the amp is in vibrates, it's giving off noise. That box is heavy for a reason ... so it won't vibrate by reaction (Newton) when the lighter speaker diaphragm vibrates. The box is not designed to be musically active and should be as silent as possible while the diaphragm makes a controlled forced vibration in the air and the controller is ... the musician ... rather than chance. As for the rest of the building ... you're on your own. You have to judge that as best you can but if you stay within the amp specs, it should be alright and I will hear your perhaps embarrassing composition well enough to condemn it for being juvenile ;o)
The driving force behind all that noise is the struggle to please the crowd and the fact that the drums are a percussion instrument and not easily volume controlled so the other instruments are trying to keep up. But I'm beginning to think that the primary consideration is to fill the void as dynamically as possible to make oneself "important" to the crowd.
Fuck the crowd.
No band needs to impress the crowd until after it's famous. The crowd doesn't bring the record producer to the band ... a recommendation from someone ... who knows somebody's brother ... who knows someone else ... brings one guy to the gig to see what talent is present. He will have some experience and the job of any band is to impress that one guy with their genuine ability. If they haven't got it ... he will see through any amount of noise because he has been there before. If the band tries to impress him with noise he will tell them something like, "Gee, what large amps you have!" and will report to his higher-ups, "Just another noise band, don't waste your time with them" (or money).
I should think that this would be obvious, but I guess it's not. Or maybe there is no talent anywhere and everyone IS hiding behind his amps, eh? Well, if all you have is big amps, I guess your best bet in the short run is to simply "Kick out the jams, mutha fucka" (as the MC5 used to say). In the long run ... well, there is no long run ... just a few short runs and your guitar is for sale outside your garage ... along with the amps. You can always sell those high powered amps to the next sucker provided you didn't actually blow them out.
There is also the fear of rejection by the crowd ... but ... their approval is most often like the sound of one hand clapping. The band plays, the crowd drinks and smokes and everyone who's standing around is saying things like "What?" or "What did you say?" ... and the other one says "What? I can't hear you" and "Where is the craphouse?" or "Gee, you got nice titties" and "Bring me another brewsky".
A band that becomes famous, however, must impress the crowd because this crowd will be critical. They paid money to see a top band and if they see a bunch of stoned freaks who can barely stand up to perform, they'll boo 'em off the stage and riot for their money back. I never went to a Led Zeppelin concert but from the sound of their live stuff, I probably would have walked out on them. They suck in almost every live-recorded tune I've heard on the radio. Apparently, they were so popular they felt they just had to show up. Best on album, undoubtedly sucked live.
A professional musician always honors his audience by doing his best ... sober ... and ... put on some decent clothes. If you practice in dirty jeans and dirty T-shirt that's OK. At the gig, you put on clean jeans and T-shirt. We don't want to see uniforms anymore but ... do something different than you do at practice to honor your audience who paid money to see you ... even if you suck ... and even if they don't notice it (it's a successful frame of mind thing).
Apparently this is a no-brainer. I've yet to see any member of the bands I've ever seen who can't keep time. Everybody who gets a paid gig knows how to play his instrument ... often behind his back or while drunk or stoned and with great facility. The girl in the quartet who attempted to impress the audience with her dexterity probably went to Julliard's and her father paid a shitpile of money so she could develop great facility. Undoubtedly, he was duly impressed and felt that his money was well spent and then he probably went to Sotheby's and bought Post-Modernistic hurl job for fifty million pesos to grace the wall of his mansion's living room.
Well ... newsflash ... everybody has great facility. It's no problem for human hands to outstrip the mind's ability to process notes. Our brains operate at around twenty hertz ... that's it. The reason is that that is the time it takes for a signal to travel across the width of your head, i.e. to involve the entire brain. So, you can send about twenty commands per second to your hands. However, those commands can involve "sub-routines" that are stored in the brain stem. When you cut off the head of a chicken and toss it on the ground ... the body starts running all over the place ... but it falls over constantly because you've cut off its balance program which gets data from the inner ear which you cut off. Get it? Running seems complicated but the chicken doesn't have to send a signal to the feet every time it wants to move a foot. It just runs the routines it has already stored ... by means of repetition. Any experienced musician has sub-routines and if you cut off his head, he will play his guitar very well (pig squeal) but won't be able to follow the song itself because that would require info from the head.
Even I could make about four or five well made chords per second when I practiced guitar for a year or two back in the late sixties. Hell, anyone can play well with a few years practice and the people in the bands I've seen sleep with their instruments so they know them in every way possible including the Biblical sense. I'm not impressed with what anybody can do ... I'm only impressed with what few can do ... and that involves mainly composition. And that in turn involves mainly musical selectivity, i.e. cold intellectual competence.
No honest musician sends signals to his audience at a rate faster than they can process them. It's pointless and demands that they cheer for his "facility" rather than his musical interpretation. That is, he expects them to applaud him for what anyone can learn to do. You wouldn't see Vladimir Horowitz playing the minute waltz in under two minutes to impress the crowd. He was valued for his ability to interpret. While we're here at the piano, one ought to listen to some Emmanuel Axe to see what it's like to put notes to your audience at the proper speed. He's so regular that notes bounce back and forth inside your head at just the right rate so they seem to resonate your mind. The best artists control the crowd and give them a righteous experience ... they do not allow the crowd to dictate to them.
So, you can imagine why my reaction to real fast pig squeal lead guitarist fingering is chagrin. They are doing what anybody can do with a couple years practice (this means just about every musician on earth) without selectivity ... just sending commands to their hands for an endless repetition of mindless fingering sub-routines ... emitting maybe 60 notes per second or more and all blending into a pointless smear of noise, inability and dogshit. Slow down and think about what you are doing.
Is there a place for real fast playing? Sure. The crowd will roar approval because they are mostly stupid and you will be accepted as a great guitarist ... and ... best of all you will get lots of groupies and if you are really fast ... you can dispose of them quickly as well so you can return to practicing playing really fast and in time you will believe that you are indeed a great guitarist. Which all means ... no. If you exceed about twenty hertz, you are basically wasting my time. Well, there are grace notes I guess ... but not fifty grace notes in a row ;o)
Pitch (and Words)
The notes one selects reveal the state of one's soul. They are like words, but unlike words, they convey one's emotional state directly. Whereas, if you say, "Fuck you and the horse you rode in on", your brain must run that through a filter to test it for emotional meaning and context to decide if it means anger or just playing around.
Let me explain.
When you talk, you are actually singing. If this were not so, you would sound like a robot ... monotone. However, we don't speak in the standard 12 tone scale. It's either a 24 tone or 48 tone scale. The notes are much less noticeably different one from the other. Yet they are chosen by the subconscious to convey our emotional state along with the purely informational content of the words themselves. Hence, when talking, you are communicating with the other person explicitly in the information you are conveying by the words and implicitly in in the notes that convey emotional content. Thus, all implicit information is conveyed at the subconscious level. (That's what "implicit" really means)
Twelve tone music is emotionally explicit (for human beings - maybe not for dogs or aliens) because it can make us experience emotion without the usually attendant explicit worded information or even visual input. It's sort of like an emotional template, that, upon hearing, you can fit some sort of story line to it. This is why you can listen to the same piece of music over and over and over without tiring of it but can only watch the same movie 2 or 3 times before you've used it up. The movie shows a unique story along with its musical track whereas music, by itself, just makes a template to which you can fit a story of your own choosing ... and vision normally dominates sound so you can't easily turn off the vision and just listen to a movie's musical track imagining something else.
When you sing, you condense that 48 tone implicit info into standard 12 tone info and thereby make it explicit ... as a template. We are "ready to rock". The music takes you, i.e. puts you into a template and you can "feel" it and even imagine some scenario that would go with that template.
Now we come to the point of this section. Since your song has words ... the words must be as true and honest as you can make them. Then ... when you speak those words you are singing in 24 or 48 tone ... then ... you condense that stuff into its appropriate 12 tone analog and ... bodda boom badda bing ... you produce an integrated tune that everyone appreciates.
You can actually make a musical piece from spoken words and if the words are good and true ... the song will be perceived to be good and true. It rocks. If it fails to integrate ... it, of course ... sucks.
One can also fit words to music. This is somewhat easier and won't integrate quite as well because the music is a template to which you can fit a story. Your words can be of great variety and still fit the template, i.e. one template will hold many stories. But it won't hold just anything at all. You must still be selective. On the other hand, if you start with words, only one template (or very few) will fit right (because you're singing the words in 48 tone and condensing them down to 12 tone which doesn't allow for much variation).
What do young people pick up on in music? They say, "I don't listen to the words" ... and this is true. They just want the template to which they can fit their own personal experience ... because ... young people are naturally self-centered ... like babies, who see the world initially as a sphere with themselves in the middle ... and they need to be "rocked". But they do need the words ... they are looking for instructions on how to live. They look everywhere, even in music ... because they are naturally lost in a sea of complexity. They also tune out the words because most lyrics actually ... suck. 90% of everything sucks ... that's just the way it is.
Lots of music succeeds with poor lyrics ... but if you list all the greatest tunes you can think of ... they almost all have very explicit, well chosen words attending very well integrated notes. You get the whole package which makes for a fulfilling experience ... for which young people will actually pay money. Quality translates into success on the stage and at the bank.
Choose your words carefully. Don't spend fifteen minutes on the words and weeks on the notes ... you'll end up with half a piece instead of a blockbuster. Think about the movies you've seen where they spend $100,000,000 on special effects and 15 cents on dialogue and their movie tanks at the box office. Words are important. There is no civilization without words.
The instruments themselves
There are now only four instruments left in the rocker's arsenal. These are the drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitars. Why this "paring" down has occurred is fairly clear. The guitar family is homogeneous. Being of like type they sound well together, i.e. integrated ... none stands out from the other in wild contrast. And they produce copious white noise ... a blend of dissonances that serves to unify the sound in the manner I described further back. The drums are a separate matter. They are different but produce a "white" character that would go well with just about any other instrument (something like a piano which has no definite "color" of its own - no doubt I would get an argument about that). And ... music that is to appeal to the young must have prominent drums to replicate the beating of a mother's heart which is perceived as "safe" by young people not far removed from the womb.
[Yes, I know that rock music is supposed to be defiant but it's also safe, i.e. you can hide in it's wall of sound. If you don't believe it, watch the cars go by, driven by teenagers. They turn up the music loud to show that they are "powerful" and to wrap themselves in it's embrace to feel "safe" ... because teenagers are fundamentally scared ... they are scared of common things like parental disapproval and first day on the job, etc. They aren't afraid of global warming and nuclear war because they have no sense of such abstractions yet. They are much more provincial than an adult by reason of lack of experience. Teenagers aren't sophisticated despite their comical attempts to be seen as adult. They are simple people and easily understood and easy to manipulate. But they have the advantage of not yet being jaded. They are not yet "concretized" and hard wired for a "failure to comprehend". And therefore, there is hope for them. The can be set free provide that one knows where freedom lies. A real artist intends to show them the road to take. He has something to say. Teenagers are looking for guidance and new ideas because ... they don't know. They think they are smart and act like smart-asses but at the level of their souls, they know they are idiots. They're brains are overloaded and they are most often philosophically desperate. A true artist is a philosopher.]
And it's too bad that there are only four instruments left. This severely limits variety. I strongly suggest that a keyboardist be employed by all bands (or one of its members should be proficient at the device) ... because, with electronic patches, a keyboard can access all the world's instruments at a touch. There is the potential of unlimited variety if one but choose to utilize it.
Composition - Head music and Board music
It is possible to compose strictly from within your head. This is what Beethoven or Brahms would do. The advantages of this type of composition is that the your output will be extremely well integrated. That is, it will seem to be in keeping with a single viable living being ... not a hodpodge of "cool" machine noises. The work thus obtained will have a genuine emotional character, which is what the true artist is striving for. On the downside, if you work from within your head, you must use the contents of that head to form the elements of your composition. Those "elements" came from somewhere in order to be in your head. They came from other people.
So ... you will likely "steal" other people's music unconsciously. Or, you can steal it consciously if you like as Beethoven and Brahms did. No, not all of it ... just little bits and folk melodies here and there and they turned these poorly developed bits into things of surpassing, ageless beauty. That's why they are still played today, centuries later. Will anyone be playing Led Zep two hundred years from today ... hmmmm, maybe ... that endless sea of mediocrity will still be there no doubt. But note that popular music generally has a brief shelf life. What was wildly popular twenty years ago, now may seem trite and superficial. To be long lasting it must be "true to life". The false cannot endure.
You can also compose the words first ... then ... play those words over and over in your head till you hear the music you are talking. Remember, talking is singing. If you can hear the notes, you can transfer their 24 or 48 tone scale to 12 tone and make "music" that's well integrated with the words.
The other alternative ... board music ... is the general direction taken by most composers. In this style, you "fuck around with your instrument" and when you accidentally find something that "sounds good" ... you build on that ... and the other members of the band chime in with a few bits here and there and somebody puts a lyric to it and ... bodda boom badda bing ... you're number one on billboard.
The advantages here are that your music will have the greatest chance of being totally original (you won't be stealing) and you might be able to fudge the lyrics together to sound more or less sincere and honest. You can try. There will be a lot of machinelike noises. In fact, I've often thought that you could go straight to the horses mouth and see what he's singing, i.e. go to a manufacturing plant with a microphone and pick up your bass and drum sections right off the plant floor ... easy money. If you have parts to your tune, it's easy to fill in. Keep working at it and you can refine something excellent in a few days. How much time you spend on a composition is a matter of importance. In general, the more time you spend, the more likely you will pen a blockbuster. This isn't always the case but in horses, the race doesn't always go to the swiftest but that's the way to bet.
Some things I'd like to see
I would like to hear more great lead guitar licks like those in Stariway to Heaven (Zep) and Aqualung (J.Tull). This type of piece must be terribly difficult to craft as they are rarer than elephant scat in the Vatican sacristy. At the zenith are just the above two. Below them are second order pieces as in Sunshine (Cream)
Apparently, to craft such a piece, the lead guitar must "take over" the composition entirely ... not just augment the composition. Of course you keep the time and key ... but the direction of the composition is no longer in the hands of song ... it's something else entirely ... supportive of the song but going off independently and with equal merit in it's own right. I'd guess that the composers of the above two spent many a weary hour poring over the notes ... perfecting them. To produce the best, you can't just pig squeal your way to immortality. This is something different. This is serious craftsmanship. Someone is taking pride in his work ... not just trying to make a buck or get famous. He's doing it as a purely artistic, intellectual achievement.
I'd like to see a bass lead sometime. I don't even know if this is possible but I'd like to see an attempt. The bass would be severely limited when going into the domain of the lead guitar ... but ... I want to hear what a real smart ass can do here. Similarly, the lead guitar could do the work of the bass ... again, is it possible? I don't know. Certainly, I wouldn't want this as a steady diet ... just for variety.
Why can't the bass and lead play together without the other two for awhile. Or, the drums with the bass only. With four instruments you have six combinations taken two at a time - [B-L, B-R, B-D, L-R, L-D, AND L-D]. I want to hear all these combos sometime, somewhere.
The last thing ... I've been waiting to hear this for about 40 years but so far nothing ... maybe it's out there and I don't know about it .... I want to hear kettle drums. When are you young people going to get it? I know the timpani are ugly and big and clumsy ... but ... they have to appeal to kids. Why? Because they can best imitate the heartbeat in the womb. They have a muffled sound that the sharper regular drums don't have. They are richer ... and ... newsflash ... you can play notes on them (not much range in them, but notes!). There is a drum sequence in one to the Batman movies (I think it's the Batman with Uma Thurman in it). There is a party and lots of sweaty guys are pounding on drums ... real big drums. That's what I'm talkin' bout'. You can duplicate that type of sound nicely with kettledrums in a compostion ... and kettledrums could even solo (but not a twenty minute drum solo - those days are over - I hope).
And whatever happened to the girls? They don't participate in hard rock much at the performance level. Could it be that they just don't have the balls for it? Guess so. I'd still like to see a girl singer once in awhile ... just for variety. If you had one in your band that also played keyboards, you'd have a bargain. And she could make coffee too ... and clean up ... and load the instruments into the van.