Saturday, September 19, 2015

Seeing Some Results: My Brightest Diamond

Since her birth, I have blogged a lot about developing my Little One's musical tastes. This has been staged mostly as a monologue, with me presenting music to her in a structured way and recording her reactions. I have spoken less about her own emerging musical tastes, though, mainly because this blog is meant to transcribe my own listening habits.  She staked a claim around her own identity earlier his year when she got into Let it Go, but increasingly there are points at which our musical tastes converge. There are several albums that I am currently listening to that she has favorite tracks from. It has been interesting and revealing the way that she describes these songs to me after the fact.

For example, she asked me one day if she could listen to a song called “I try to do it all right,” and initially, I had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to describe it further: it was the “one that had the music like you play” in it. This only further obfuscated matters, but I became determined to figure out what she meant. Finally, she tried to sing it, and I was able to recognize the “pre-chorus” from Pressure by My Brightest Diamond.

Lead vocalist and songwriter Shara Worden only sings this line twice in the whole song. I thought it very interesting that she keyed into this relatively minor part, but it is a section in which the instruments fall away, leaving that text somewhat unaccompanied.  I was still unclear, however, as to what role she thought I was playing on the album. When we listened to it together, however, she pointed out a high flute part in the introduction that sounded, with a little imagination, like a shakuhachi, which I have played for her on an off at bedtime throughout her entire life.

Both of these descriptors were intriguing. In the first instance, she had a very clear recollection of a short, identifying piece of a relatively complicated song that she held in her memory. She used this as leverage into the structure of the song in its entirety, which she now knows pretty well (although she is being creative with some of the lyrics). The second descriptor was even more fascinating. It is normal to hear music as one big sound, so to pull a specific sound out of context as an identifier makes me kind of excited to imagine how she might be perceiving music.

Her interest in this song is particularly good because the whole album is really fantastic. It was brought to my attention quite a while ago by an ex-student (who also suggested Now, Now’s excellent Threads). It was on my radar for quite awhile, but the clincher came when I discovered that Earl Harvin was a contributing percussionist. I was pondering his incredible career arc as I was revisiting Ten Hands’ classic Kung Fu….That’s What I Like earlier this year, and his potential contributions made the album particularly alluring. His vigorous, distinctive drumming is immediately noticeable in Pressure, but also throughout the entire album.

Which is amazing. This is My Hand is complex and layered enough to keep my interest upon repeated listens, but also accessible enough for capture my daughter’s attention. My wife, on the other hand, has connected with the poetic nature of the album’s lyrics. She likes several tracks from the album, but in particular the title track.

So clearly, This is My Hand has emerged as not only one of my favorite albums, but as a family favorite. It’s now a standard listen on road trips. I’m sure to the outside observer, watching us listen to the album in the car would probably look exactly like you would expect, with lots of singing and worked-out choreography. Currently undocumented, of course, to protect our dignity to the public eye.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Wolverine and 13 Assassins

We enrolled the Little One in music classes this summer. She was very apprehensive and nervous at first, but after a few weeks, she really took to them. We learned some songs to sing around the house, and she got better acquainted with musical instruments. By summer’s end, it was one of her favorite things to do. After her last class for the summer, she asked me to come in and show her teacher some of the superhero songs in my phone, starting with Wolverine.

In my last post, I said that the Little One, inspired by The Superhero Squad Show, had acquired some favorite Marvel heroes and I used this interest to expand the Superhero Theme playlist. I gave the first two of these characters, the Scarlet Witch and the Silver Surfer, themes that were already sort of in a holding pattern, waiting for assignment. Her favorite, however, was Wolverine. I thought that, with all of the movies in the X-Men franchise, I would be able to easily find something from one of the soundtracks that would layer well with the character. Like the Matrix soundtracks, however, all of them were too incidental to give the sense that they could stand alone as a concise, memorable theme.

An admission: I think that Wolverine is a bit overrated in the Marvel universe. In my view, he was a late comer whose popularity resulted in some pretty serious retconning to other established characters. I do like him a lot, however, and I did not want to haphazardly assign him a theme, especially since the Little One had taken a liking to him. I began beating the streams again to find something that made sense.

Quite famously, Wolverine is Canadian, but his fictional history places him at intersections with Japanese culture. Just as a place to begin, I researched in Asian cinema for his theme. It did not take me too long to come across the soundtrack to 13 Assassins.

I saw this movie when it was in theaters a couple of years ago and it stands as one of my all-time favorites in the genre. Its dramatic and unrelenting tone certainly matched Wolverine’s character, but I could not recall anything specific about the movie’s soundtrack. My concern was that it would be too identifiably “Japanese,” perhaps using shamisen and shakuhachi music as its central instrumentation. Although that would certainly be to my personal tastes, it wouldn’t work as a representation of Wolverine.

I was pleased to find out that the soundtrack is almost entirely string ensemble with pronounced percussion. The only other theme that I used that employed this kind of instrumentation was Hawkgirl’s, but the execution on 13 Assassins stood in sharp contrast to her noble, gliding theme. Many of the tracks were too melancholy to be effective as Wolverine’s theme, but the tenth track, which is simply named Juu on its YouTube posting, caught my attention.

The melodic and harmonic components of this composition are fiery and vivacious, and its aggressive rhythm imbues it with a wild, primal energy. It evoked a very clear visualization of Wolverine running through the woods, senses ablaze. I was sold when its format included a thematic recapitulation that very clearly provided a beginning, middle, and end to the piece. When I paired this track with the Wolverine image, I felt very confident I had made the right choice. Although I am very fond of all of the tracks I added to the playlist in this recent expansion, this one is probably my favorite.

I became so enamored of the track that I special-ordered the full 13 Assassins soundtrack from Japan. Looking at the case, I don’t know that the track is actually called “Juu” (Japanese for “ten”), but I can’t read kanji well enough to tell what its actual name might be. Regardless, the soundtrack is absolutely outstanding throughout. I have not revisited this movie since I saw it a few years ago, but its soundtrack coheres incredibly well and stands on its own as a musical statement. I think that a live performance of the 13 Assassins soundtrack would be extremely satisfying to both audience and artist. I would certainly attend such a concert, and you can bet that I would bring the Little One along to watch her cheer and dance.

Which she would do. Undignified for a samurai, I know.

To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
To go see the next one, click HERE.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Near Misses and Coincidences: Beauty Pill's Apt Description

Sometimes I put albums to my Amazon list as a reminder to do more research on an artist. I think that this was the case with Beauty Pill. I don’t remember what prompted me to add their album, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, to the list, but when I was finalizing my summer CD order, it cost almost the exact amount I had left in my budget.  Without ever listening to a single note of the album, I ordered it sight on scene.  It ended up being an excellent purchase.  Its deeply lush, astoundingly well-performed, and layered approach to art-pop has been a continually rewarding listen.  The lead single, Steven and Tiwongeone of the most elegant, haunting, and subtly political singles that I have heard in a very long time.  Pretty lucky to have stumbled across it.

But was it luck? Some say that there are no coincidences, implying that everything happens for a reason.  By extension, this idea might suggest that we are fated to collide with people and events in our life that propel us to our end. The philosophical argument against this kind of “fate,” as it were, is that it robs us of free will. This is an uncomfortable conclusion, to be sure, so I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of a coincidence-free existence. I think that there are coincidences, but I also think that they are far from meaningless. I think they matter. Surely, each of us have had enough happenstance events and near-misses that there seems to be some master plan behind the veil pulling the strings.

Our “plan” doesn’t seem to be a straight line with a predestined end, though. It branches off into multiple outcomes, with only a couple that result in our optimal path. We have responsibility in the way things turn out. I think that we can be guided along this path, however, if we keep our minds open and listen.

I was recently reminded of this when my wife and I struggled with a terribly difficult decision as the school year started up. Throughout the Little One’s life, we have been very fortunate with our child care situation, but circumstances recently forced us to seek out a different venue. Nothing to worry about, of course, because we had planned ahead. For several months, we had outlined plan “B,” and it looked great on paper. The reality, however, was much different. After two days of chaotic classrooms, disengaged teachers, and unprompted reports from her of friends that “don’t listen or share,” it became very clear to us that it wasn’t going to work. We pulled her before the first week ended.

But then we had a real situation. School was in session, and we were reporting to our own jobs. We were anxious, desperate, and without a solution. I had an urge to beg the powers-that-be for an answer, which would traditionally have been gently worded in my mind as a demand alongside a hollow promise for some sort of improvement (if You do this for me I' know the rest). Through the years, however, I have developed the sense of how misguided this sort of transcendental deal-making is.  I shouldn't expect a solution to be handed to me without taking on the responsibility of finding the answer.  So I awoke in the morning and, before I had a chance to formulate a negative thought about our situation, I told the universe that if there was a plan out there, I would keep my eyes open for suggestions.

The night before, I stumbled across the website of a small Montessori school with very positive reviews whose front doorstep was exactly halfway between my front door and the front door of my school. I drove by and, to be frank, it was not much to look at. My first instinct was to drop the idea, but I promised that I would keep an open mind. I called them later in the afternoon and set up a visit.

Despite its humble exterior, when we walked in, all the kids there were happy, welcoming, and well-mannered. We sat down with the director to talk, and noticed that there was a string of decorative Indian elephants hanging from the door of her office. The Little One has a similar set of elephants that hang by her bed (pictured at left), and she often plays with when she goes to bed at night.  Hm.

We liked the school, so later that day we brought the Little One back by the campus to visit. The elephants were the first thing she noticed. Then one of the students volunteered to show her around and she went on to have fun for about an hour before we had to go home for dinner.

By the evening, we narrowed our choices down to a couple of acceptable options, but none of them were clear.  I was apprehensive about the shift to Montessori’s open-ended pedagogy, but we were faced with a very big decision that needed to be made quickly.  Of all things, I could not stop thinking about the elephants, so I did a bit more research on the school.  I discovered some reviews and was flabbergasted to find one of them was written by a good friend of mine from the Fletcher days. When he relocated to Austin a few years ago, he enrolled his daughter there.  In fact, when we made our visit, we had missed running into him there by an hour.  He spoke highly of the school, and if the elephants weren’t enough of a sign, his advocacy certainly was.

We enrolled her, and I am happy to say that there was a night-and-day difference in the Little One’s attitude after the first day at her new school. In contrast to her exhausted, overstimulated state when she came home from the “puppy mill” (as her gramps called it), she has been happy and talkative about her days. I am incredibly happy and satisfied with our decision, and am looking forward to her progress this year in the new environment.

I would not have seen the positive atmosphere of the school if I had not let go of my initial judgement of the physical space. Additionally, I would not have been able to talk to my friend about his experiences if I had not paid attention to the little details. By getting out of the way and seeing things as they are, though, rather than through the lens of my expectations, I think that we are where we need to be right now.

Oh, yeah, and by the way. Beauty Pill.  This is the Little One's favorite:

The whole album is well worth your time.   It will probably be a top 10 album by year's end.  Check it out - maybe it'll lead you somewhere.