Monday, August 24, 2009

Vamping about Music
by David Gilfix

After leaving yet another concert early, I came up with a little chiasmus to explain why: Good artists use their instrumental technique to show off the music; mediocre artists use the music to show off their instrumental technique.

The guys were monster musicians: they could play anything, and they let me know it – every single piece. By the fourth piece I got bored and left.

Of course, certain music is created to show off the performer’s virtuosity, such as Van Halen’s “Eruptions” on guitar, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on banjo, and the “Orange Blossom Special” on fiddle. Such pieces exist in all styles of music, and they’re fun. However, most music was composed for musical purposes rather than to impress people about the performer’s skill.


A pig with lipstick is still a pig. Whoever coined that phrase should have been talking about song writing. Turn on the radio and listen to your local popular music station if you dare. Here’s what you will hear: great production, including vocals, instrumentals, rhythm sections, recording quality, and special effects. That’s the lipstick. Focus on the songs and usually you’ll hear a pig: inane lyrics, 5-note melodies that go nowhere, harmonic drivel.

But there is hope! While most of today’s songs might be lousy, you don’t have to listen to them. We live in an age where there is so much great music and so many great performers – in every style - that it’s a wonder why anyone wastes time listening to the pigs. My latest find, thanks to my Argentinean friend, Gabriella, are the following Latin musicians: from Brazil - Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso, considered the Brazilian Bob Dylan; from Argentina - Jorge Fandermole and Liliana Vitale; from Cuba - the pianist, Bebo Vald├ęz, and gypsy singer songwriter, Diego Jimenez Salazar (aka El Cigala). Gabriella describes Valdez and Cigala’s music as a “jewel,” “a mixture of tangos, and boleros with flamenco.”

Here is a very imperfect test to determine a good song: Take away the music and the lyrics should hold up on their own. Take away the lyrics and the music should hold up on its own. Put them together and both the lyrics and melody should enhance our perceptions of each other.

OK, I know there are scores of exceptions -- wonderful songs that succeed based on their lyrics or melody alone. However, most songs that have either inane, incomprehensible, or banal lyrics, or inane, incomprehensible, or banal melodies and harmonies are simply not good songs.

As Voltaire once said, anything that is too stupid to say is usually sung.

My advice

Here’s my own one word advice to high school students who tell me they want to go into music: “Don’t.”

Actually, that’s stretching the truth; I never give one word advice. I do say “don’t” to grab their attention. Then I tell them all the reasons they shouldn’t pursue music as a profession. I call this my “converting-to-Judaism” approach, akin to Rabbis traditionally turning away potential converts at least three times and then aggressively discouraging them – before proceeding with all the learnings.

You have to really, really want to go into music before making it a major lifestyle decision. From my observation, most university music professors rarely discuss the realities of a music career with students who are music “majors.” If they did, many students would switch majors, and more music professors would be out of a job.

And speaking of realities, according to a “60 Minutes” documentary, the president of Julliard Conservatory greeted freshmen one year with the following comment: “Look around you, ninety percent of the people you see will never earn a living as a performer.”

Less you think I am too negative, please note that I also tell potential music students reasons why music could be a wonderful, rewarding career for them. However, I usually include two pieces of advice: 1) don’t go into music unless you love teaching; most musicians make most of their income from teaching; 2) double major in the one practical field that you would consider if you ever tired of music; do that even if it takes an extra-year of college.

Listen up

Music that must be excessively loud to sound good is not good music.

Could it be that one of the legacies of late great guitarist/electric guitar inventor, Les Paul, is a generation with hearing loss? Today, as in my youth, teenage boys (and it’s usually boys) who believe that tolerating loud music in their rock group is macho are really confusing macho with ignorance – in this case about noise-induced hearing loss. If the loud music doesn’t bother them, it’s probably because they already suffer from permanent hearing damage.

Of course, it isn’t only boys who are at risk. According to researchers at the University of Florida, 17% of all children tested had some degree of hearing loss, which was likely due to exposure to excessive noise at an early age. A Lancet study conducted years ago also revealed that “significant hearing loss” was detected in students who had a history of attending popular music concerts. (Loud Music and Hearing Damage – Abelard)

In July 2009, ABC News ran a health story on hearing loss in which Steven Rauch, associate professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, claimed that 15% of all children have hearing loss by late adolescence, and “… the obvious source is music.”

In fairness to Les Paul, the electric guitar and popular music concerts are only partially to blame. A more pervasive source of excessive-noise exposure among youths and adults are headphones, especially the tiny “ear buds” that fit inside the ear and connect to iPods or other portable media players. A study conducted by Australian researchers indicated “a quarter of iPod users between 18 and 54 years of age listened at volumes sufficient to cause hearing damage.” (Abelard).

The good news is that this is all preventable. Simply turn the music down, pull out the ear buds, and wear noise-reducing earplugs when necessary.

A local audiologist recently told me that most of the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra wore special musician’s earplugs during rehearsals and performances. Isn’t it time that we required school band and orchestra students to do the same?

The Sounds of Silence

When I moved back to Boston from New York City, I was amazed that I could actually hear my own footsteps. I had forgotten what they sounded like.


Anonymous said...

David, like your piece but disagree that the performance and production are the "lipstick", its all one and the same. - - anonymous

David Gilfix said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks. I agree that the production and performance are critical. This is especially true with regard to the modern CD, which is really a creative artistic collaboration between the composer, performers, and producer/recording engineer. However, I would disagree that it is “all one and the same.” The production and the performance are not the composition, and no matter how brilliantly a song is produced it cannot turn a bad song into a good one.