Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What I Listen For In Music

I am an educated musician, but I am also an avid listener and fan. Ever since I discovered pop music, one of my favorite pastimes has been buying a new album, taking it home and listening to it for the first time. Of course, what I look for in a record may be quite different from the average layperson. As is the case with many musicians, I am an active listener. There is no such thing as "background music" for me.
I also feel that actively listening to music can be almost as creative as the act of making music. Listening to a piece of music I love opens up new avenues of creativity. It challenges me to create something that will surpass it! For me, this is not competitive. It is an act of admiration for the artist and composer. When I hear a great piece of music by another composer, I want to understand how they felt when they created it!
Of course, there is also the possibility of seeing the seed of an idea in the work of another artist, and taking that idea further than they could have imagined. That technique reaches far beyond art, for it is the cornerstone of invention. Thus, active listening may at times fall under the category of "research."
Over the years, in my own acts of research as well as creativity, there are a number of things I have searched for. One of my goals, for instance, has been to push beyond the accepted boundaries of music. This is done in a variety of ways, but the following have been of most interest to me, both as a listener and a composer:
  • Fusion - Combining elements of different musical styles and traditions, as well as the use of nontraditional instrument combinations. This also extends to the fusion of artistic mediums.
  • Tonality - Modal, atonal, polytonal, microtonal music, or any other method of moving beyond the major and minor scales.
  • Challenging the traditional definition of Music - The genesis of this idea was in the work of the great John Cage, who was interested in stretching the boundaries of what can be considered music. The use of nonmusical sounds in composition has especially been of great interest to me.
  • Elements of Chance - This includes improvisation, as well as effects or overtones caused by note combinations (especially in drones.)
In other words, I am often most interested in music which thwarts convention in one or more ways, no matter how subtle.
Now, don't get me wrong, I still love a catchy melody, an interesting chord progression or riff, or a groove that makes you tap your feet. However, if you combine that with one of the elements in the list above, you have pure magic, as far as I'm concerned.
How about you? What do you listen for in music?
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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

10 Years That Changed Everything

As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, we're seeing the typical year-end and decade-end lists that tend to make the rounds. As I think back on the last ten years, I see it as a time of major change for the music industry. Here is my list of some of the changes I have witnessed in the past ten years:
  • Digital downloads surpassed CD sales
  • Independent labels became major players
  • Established artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails successfully opted to release their music independently, rather than sign a new record contract
  • The ever-shrinking major labels lost their mojo, desperately clinging to outmoded ideas and suing children, the elderly, and dead people
  • Numerous distribution avenues emerged, allowing independent artists to get their music directly to fans
  • Social media emerged, allowing artists to interact directly with fans
  • A new generation of music consumers emerged, ingrained with the belief that music should be free
I'm sure I could come up with many more examples, but we'll stop there. Feel free to post your additions and thoughts in the comments.
All of these changes have left musicians and music industry types wondering where we will be when the dust clears. How do we make a living? How do we "monetize" our product if the conventional means no longer work? In fact, what is our "product," if not our songs? Many have come to believe that the way forward is to think of the artist as the product or "brand."
Meanwhile, the major labels are floundering. Frankly, they have lasted longer than I would have anticipated. One lifeline for them has been the popularity of reality television. If you doubt that, just look at all the buzz around Susan Boyle with her recent album release.
At this point, it's anyone's guess what the future will hold. Judging by what has happened in the last ten years, though, I'm convinced it will still manage to take most of us by surprise!

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