Friday, November 28, 2014

Discovering the Shakuhachi: Aikido and Ethno

When I began practicing aikido in earnest in 1998, I was fortunate to walk into a tight-knit community of Texas dojos that stretched from San Antonio to Denton. I remember taking every opportunity to practice at a new dojo in a different town. While I certainly had personal reasons for starting to practice in the first place, this sense of community often kept me going. Since then, teachers have retired and passed on, and I would love to be able to say that we, as a body of practitioners, have navigated these losses gracefully, but this has not been the case. Instead, due to the egos of individuals who feel entitled to some sort of authority and recognition, the organization has splintered. Perhaps Western culture just isn’t ready for the kind of lesson that O-Sensei was trying to teach with aikido.

Aikido practice, however, also generated a personal interest in Japanese culture. When I finished my ethnomusicology degree, it dawned on me, perhaps too late, that my martial arts experience might dovetail nicely into Japanese music studies. Clearly, if there was any culture in the world I really wanted to “immerse” myself, it was Japan. Towards the end of my research, I began to think about ways to use instruments as a lens to view culture. For me to continue on this research path, it made sense to adopt a Japanese instrument.

I started to look into traditional Japanese music. One of my favorite recordings I unearthed was the Nonesuch album Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music by the Ensemble Nipponia. It represents a remarkable variety of traditions, but it’s also unified by the outstanding musicianship of the ensemble’s members. While all of the performances are remarkable, the shakuhachi performances really caught my attention. The track Edo Lullaby, which is an original arrangement of a traditional melody, singlehandedly convinced me to adopt the shakuhachi.

I procured an instrument and was very fortunate to find an experienced teacher. I took lessons for nearly two years with the intent of focusing on the shakuhachi in a PhD program. I have not entirely given up on this research agenda, but life has put the immediacy of doctoral work on hold for the time being. Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music, however, remains, and has evolved into a personal and family favorite. Both my wife and daughter enjoy the album beyond its merely exotic exterior (I think). As I revisited it earlier this year, I found that The Little One particularly likes Ozatsuma for its angular, frantic energy.

My genuine appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of this music assures me of one thing: my ethnomusicological degree broadened my horizons. It gave me an irreplaceable experience that permeates the breadth of my musical experiences. When I finished my degree, however, I found myself back on the path that I left. I ended up with a challenging and rewarding job as a band director at a title one school to begin paying off my student debt. I genuinely enjoy what I do, but I sometimes wonder about the meaning of my studies, not with a sense of regret, but rather with anticipation. I suspect that their true worth has not yet been revealed.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2014

Aside from the Superhero Theme Project, the blog has lain somewhat fallow this year. I make no apologies: life is busy. Still, I don’t want to give the impression that all I have listened to this year has been the 23 compositions on that playlist. In fact, quite the opposite – the playlist has only occupied a small ratio of my listening habits. It has, however, been pretty easy to write about. Aside from my attempts to program the Little One with an ear for orchestral music, a lot of fabulous music has passed through the player, resulting in an all-new, largely undocumented top 20 for 2014.

As I outlined a couple of years ago, inclusion in the year-end top 20 is not confined to 2014 releases. In addition to being musically outstanding, a top 20 album has to be somehow emotionally or episodically associated with the year of its release. Some of them are from artists that I discovered this year, while others are albums that I have had for awhile that, for one reason or another, never connected with me.

Actually, an unusual number of this year’s albums have been new releases by old favorites. While I started the year in a soundtrack and pop music phase, there was a decisive turn back towards progressive and experimental music about halfway through the year. While this temporality is not expressed in the top 20, it does seem to skew the results towards a specific style.

Presented below is the second half of the top 20, with the top 10 being announced at the end of December.

20. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7: I received this album as an act of kindness from my wife and became so excited about it that I convened a neighborhood listening party around the album. While certainly more accessible than Replica, its 2012 predecessor, R plus 7 is an intellectually stimulating foray into the boundaries current electronic music.

19. Billy Bottle and the Multiple – The Unrecorded Beam: A uniquely creative recording that sets the words of Thoreau to jazzy Canturbury style progressive rock.  O Nature has risen as one of my favorite tracks of the year. -

17. Opeth – Pale Communion: Opeth fully commits to the progressive rock paradigm with spectacular results. Pale Communion boldly and confidently strides into areas where Heritage tread lightly and cautiously.

16. Nakoi Sato – Space Battleship Yamato OST: In retrospect, I am not exactly sure how I was fortunate enough to stumble across this outstanding soundtrack. Fans of melodramatic science-fiction music should immediately take steps to add it to their collection.

15. fun. – Aim and Ignite: As I filled in Nate Reuss’s timeline between the first Format album and Some Nights, I found a lot on fun.’s first album to like. There is a broad variety of musical styles represented on the album, held together by good, if sometimes inconsistent, songwriting and the devastating strength of Reuss’s lyrics.

14. Imogen Heap Sparks: No doubt about it, Imogen Heap is a 21st century musical whiz kid, much in the way that Peter Gabriel was when he was in his prime. Her musical restlessness gives the sense that she is on a quest, with no real idea where it will end, only that there are steps to be taken to get there.

13. LITEPhantasia: As fate would have it, I received 2008’s Phantasia as a Christmas gift, only to find that a new album, Installation, would be released in Feburary, 2014. Although both albums boast the LITE’s characteristic flurry of interlocking rhythms, Phantasia’s raw energy won out as LITE’s representative.

12. Wild Belle – Isles: This great suggestion turned out to be just the right mix of whiteboy reggae and indie songwriting. It avoids exoticizing the former by delivering the latter with equal parts seduction and buoyancy.

11. Pink Floyd – The Endless River: In the big scheme of things, Roger Waters' conceptual contributions to Pink Floyd’s nearly 50 year legacy are undeniable, but they are only one aspect of the band. At their best, Pink Floyd was a band with a distinctive instrumental voice, and that is what is on full display on the Endless River.