Pavlov’s Snippets

This morning I woke up, walked downstairs, and turned on my JBL Flip 5 device to listen to some music. When I hit the on-off button, I heard the familiar chord and saw the button light up that tells you that you’ve got power, and then when I hit the button that syncs the device with my iPhone, I heard the happy-sounding, rising three-note snippet that told me that the syncing had worked and it was time to make my selection–which I promptly did.

Then I went to my computer, turned it on, and went through the steps of the multi-factor authentication process. When I completed the process, I heard another bright three-note snippet that confirmed I had successfully connected to the system, and I mimicked the tiny fragment of music as I started to look at my email.

These are just three examples of the little snatches of music that often accompany the basic electronic activities of our lives. Virtually every device–from computers to smartphones to refrigerators to video games–uses some combination of music, lights, and text as multi-factor messaging to tell us about our successes or failures. We want to hear the three happy notes that signal accomplishment, rather than the thud of notes that tells us we didn’t do things right. What’s more, we get to the point where we react to the musical cues without a conscious thought. Play the right sequence of notes for me and, like some modern combination of Pavlov’s dog and Nipper, the RCA pooch hearing his master’s voice, I’ll immediately feel the urge to go to Outlook and open up my email.

I like these little snippets of music, which add a little welcome color and dash to our rote daily activities, and I salute the unknown composers who came up with them. I guess I don’t mind that these brief tunes have burrowed into my brain and are effectively urging me to take steps A, B, and C. I do wonder, however, whether the unconscious reactive impulse on hearing these sounds is permanently imprinted on my synapses. I haven’t played Tetris in years, for example, but I can still distinctly remember every note of the Slavic-sounding song that played while you were trying to position the blocks correctly. When I’m in my dotage, if I hear the right three notes, will I still think “it’s email time”?

Lennon’s 80th

This month marked the 80th birthday of John Lennon. The founder and one of the cornerstones of the Beatles, and the writer of so many great songs as part of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, was born on October 9, 1940. He’s been gone for 40 years, after being shot on the streets of New York City by a disturbed person, but for many of us the loss of this special man is still fresh, and stinging.

I’ve written about the death of John Lennon before, from the standpoint of a creative life interrupted, to question whether his killer should ever be paroled. I still have that question, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come for focus more on being grateful for the fact that Lennon lived at all, and made the contributions to my life that he did. So many of the tunes from the Beatles songbook and Lennon’s post-Beatles work are lodged in my head, and come naturally to mind at specific times. I feel especially tired, and the first few notes from the lone guitar that begins I’m So Tired from the White Album come unbidden from the memory banks, and I start singing the words. Who hasn’t thought of the song Rain on a rainy day? Who hasn’t thought of the song Help! during a difficult period? Who hasn’t been to a wedding reception that started slow — until the DJ played the Beatles’ definitive rendition of Shout, knowing that John Lennon’s screamed vocals and the chunky guitar chords and the ashcan drumming would be absolutely certain to get everyone with a pulse out on the dance floor and singing the words?

I’m sad that John Lennon was murdered, and am curious about what this witty, creative, interesting observer of life would be saying about our weird modern world had he had only had the chance to experience it. I wonder about what he would have done during his second 40 years — but am so glad that he had those first 40 years, for the musical and emotional contribution those 40 years have made, and continue to make, to my life. Happy 80th birthday, John Lennon, and thank you!

Virtual Everything

Last night we had a special treat:  listening to the opening program of the 110th season of the Austin Symphony Orchestra.  It was a wonderful performance that kicked off with Handel’s The Music for the Royal Fireworks–featuring our favorite Principal Oboist playing my favorite genre of classical music, baroque–followed by Benjamin Britten’s Les illuminations, and closing with Aaron Copland’s beautiful Appalachian Spring.

It was an excellent program — but like pretty much everything else these days, it was of course strictly a virtual experience. The performances were videotaped and recorded, and we watched and listened to them on a laptop.  It was clear that the orchestra had taken great care to avoid any potential pandemic transmission problems, including having the conductor and all string players wear masks, and separating the horn and wind players from each other by plastic dividers.  And Mela Dailey, the soprano who sang brilliantly as the centerpiece of the Britten work, wore a contraption that looked a lot like a beekeeper’s headpiece.  Amazingly, the device did not seem to interfere with her dynamic voice, so a tip of the cap to whoever has spent the last few months designing COVID-safe devices for classical music singers.

Of course, a virtual performance is lacking one thing that is an important part of the live music experience:  the audience.  There’s a definite energy generated by a concert crowd, whether it is the subdued, pre-performance murmurs, the immediate hush when the conductor enters, the thunderous applause and shouts when each piece concludes, or the standing ovation at the end of the program.  I’m sure the performers miss that energy.  The ASO tried to emulate a live performance by having an intermission, but that’s difficult to recreate virtually, too, because during intermission the crowd is the performer–filing out, getting a drink, and talking excitedly about the first part of the performance.  Last night the ASO tried to fill the intermission void with recorded performances by the principal harpist and the principal tubist.

So we’ve now had our first virtual concert.  It wasn’t the same as attending a live performance, obviously, but it was nevertheless hugely enjoyable to listen to some beautiful music and support one of America’s many deserving cultural and arts organizations, all of which have been hit very hard by the pandemic and need the support.  A virtual performance may not be quite as terrific as the real thing, but virtual music is better than none at all.

Uneasy Rider

I was saddened to read about the recent death of Charlie Daniels, who was an iconic American musical figure.  In 1973, he recorded one of my favorite protest-type songs:  Uneasy Rider.  It’s still on my playlist, nearly 50 years later.  I’ve linked to a YouTube clip of the song, with lyrics, above.

Uneasy Rider tells the story of a long-haired hippie type who gets a flat tire while driving through Mississippi and interacts with locals who aren’t exactly enamored of his hair or the peace signs on his car.  It’s got a catchy, countrified tune, but the real reason it is so memorable is that it is light and funny.  Sometimes the best way to make your point is with humor, rather than heavy-handed and ponderous pontificating.  Uneasy Rider strikes that chord.  (There are other examples of early ’70s music that, like Uneasy Rider, managed to combine a good tune and deliver a message with some humor — like Cover of the Rolling Stone, by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, which deftly lampooned the pretensions and money earned by rock bands of that day.)

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the ability to make a point with a light touch these days.  In my view, we could use more protest songs along the lines of Uneasy Rider.

Rest in peace, Charlie Daniels.

Skullcandy Indy

I don’t often plug products on the blog, but it’s such a pleasure to find a well-conceived, well-designed product that delivers what it promises that I feel I need to say a few words about my Skullcandy Indy wireless headphones. 

I like listening to music when I take a morning walk or work in the yard.  Previously, I used the standard iPhone earbuds that would connect to my phone with a cord.  After a while they started to bug me, for two reasons.  First, it was hard to keep them in your ears.  And second, if wasn’t unusual to snag the cord on something and yank the earbuds out of your ears, which was supremely annoying.  And don’t even talk to me about the issued posed by cord connection with you’ve got a leaping, oblivious dog in the vicinity.

So I decided to go cordless and wireless.  But, what to buy?  I’d heard good things about Skullcandy products, so I decided to buy their “Indy” product.  It turned out to be a great decision.  It’s easy to sync the earbuds with your phone, even for a technophobe like me, and the product delivers great sound quality.  You charge up the earbuds in a little charging station and remove them when you are ready for use.  They turn on automatically — with a great, authoritative “Power On!” statement delivered by a female voice with a faint accent that I inevitably try to mimic — and have a kind of foam insert that allows you to place them securely in your ears to prevent slippage.  And best of all, there is no cord to be tangled.  They are ideal for walking, gardening, or otherwise sitting outside and listening to your favorite music.

I admit it:  I’m a Skullcandy fan.

In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.

John Prine And Roommate Music

I was very sorry to read of the death this week of John Prine, one of the great songwriters of his generation, from complications of the coronavirus.  At the same time, thinking about John Prine, and how I first heard his music, took me back to some happy memories.  I think John Prine probably would have liked that.

John Prine on campus of Georgia State College - November 12, 1975I first heard John Prine’s music in college.  My college roommate was a huge fan of John Prine, and in our apartment John Prine songs were an inevitable part of the playlist.  Sam StoneIllegal Smile, and Please Don’t Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground (which is probably not the actual title of the song, but is how I remember it) and a bunch of other great songs with great lyrics were all in the rotation.  John Prine was a good example of how actually going to college (as opposed to attending virtual school, which is what people are now forecasting might be the future) had the effect of broadening the cultural horizons of college students in those days in the long ago ’70s.

My roommate and I each had an extensive record collection, featuring both albums and 45s, and they fit together almost perfectly, with virtually no overlap — well, except for the Beatles, because everyone had the Beatles albums.  He had a lot of John Prine, Creedence, and every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as some great 45s from the ’60s, and I had a lot of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, jazz, and classical stuff.  We played it all, and quickly came to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.  When the college days moved behind us, I still listened to all of it, and even now, 40 years later, still think automatically of John Prine lyrics that suit the situation.

And the real acid test is:  what songs of an artist do you sing in the shower?  For me, that’s John Prine’s Bad Boy:

I been a bad boy
I been long gone
I been out there
I never phone home
I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been
I’ve been a bad boy again

I got a way of
Fallin’ in love
With angels that don’t shove
You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round
In a real fog
I was your best friend
Now I’m a real dog
I never thought that now
Would ever catch up with then
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy
I sung a wrong song
I took a left turn
I stayed too long
As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t
Just like all other men
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

RIP, John Prine — and thanks to my college roommate for allowing me to make your acquaintance and enjoy your music.

For What It’s Worth

People in German Village are getting pretty creative with their messaging. Or, perhaps, they’re just really bored after weeks of work at home and are feeling a need to get out and do something . . . different.  Either way, we’re seeing more interesting forms of public expression around the ‘hood these days — like this effort, which uses the help of a standard issue stop sign to quote some of the lyrics of the Buffalo Springfield ’60s anthem, For What It’s Worth.

You remember that song, don’t you?  After a few bell-like guitar notes, the lyrics begin:

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear . . . .

Apt lyrics for these strange and interesting times.

Changing Lyrics

As I prepared to take my walk this morning, I had to make my music selection.  I decided to go with my “UAHS Rock” playlist, featuring songs from my high school years.  The songs on it are old, obviously, but they are still great favorites.  Who doesn’t still relish the songs from their youth?

When I walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the first song on the playlist began:  Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run, which was a huge hit during my high school days.  For those who can’t remember them, the lyrics begin like this:

band-on-the-run-labelStuck inside these four walls,
Sent inside forever,
Never seeing no one
Nice again like you,
Mama you, mama you.
If I ever get out of here,
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity.
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get outta here
If we ever get outta of here.

It’s safe to say that I reacted to  those lyrics in a different way this morning, squinting into the bright sunshine as I carefully maintained my “social distance” from everyone else who was walking and jogging outside,  than I did hanging out in the basement of the family home, with the cheap all-in-one stereo unit down there cranked up to intolerable levels, in 1975.  And a few songs later Stevie Wonder’s Superstition came on, and I had a similarly different reaction to this line:  “Very superstitious; wash your face and hands.”

One of the great things about music is that the listener always brings something to the experience, with songs reminding you of high school prom or hanging with your college chums or making you think about this or that.  I wonder how many other songs are going to be thought of differently, forever, as a result of the Shutdown March of 2020?

All Together Now

As I’ve taken walks around Schiller Park over the last few days, I’ve noticed that people are interested in publicly expressing their collective community spirit.  The above sign appeared in the window of the Hausfrau Haven, and I’ve seen similar messages chalked onto sidewalks — like “#RallyColumbus.”  It’s all part of an effort by the common folk to show some mutual support, and let their fellow citizens know that we’re all in this together, and that together we will get through our coronavirus trial.

I’m confined to the German Village area, of course, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the signs and sidewalk messages I’ve seen here are just the very small tip of a much larger iceberg that can be found across the country.  Americans have a way of coming together during difficult times, helping each other out, and working to lift each others’ spirits.  Our political representatives might fight like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but the people stand together during the tough times — and messages that express that sentiment in a tangible way, for all to see, really help.  And, of course, there’s a lot more that we can’t see publicly that also reflects a fighting, mutually supportive spirit, like texts among groups of friends and co-workers and e-mail chains and virtual get-togethers and Facebook memes.

The attitude of toughness and resiliency makes me think of one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and video snippets, which appeared at the end of the Yellow Submarine film — All Together Now.  Let’s hope that we can maintain that ‘tude, and it will carry us through. 

Schiller, The Poet

I walk around Schiller Park every day.  I’ve gazed in appreciation at the heroic statue in the middle of the park, and know that Schiller was a poet who was so admired by the German immigrants who initially settled in the German Village section of Columbus that they chose to erect a statue to him in the park.

But that’s about the extent of my knowledge, regrettably.  And since I think we should always be interested in broadening our horizons and learning a bit more about the places where we live and work, I set out to learn a bit more about Herr Schiller.  And with the aid of Google, it wasn’t difficult.

Friedrich von Schiller, who lived from 1759 to 1805, was a poet, playwright and philosopher who was a major figure in the European Romantic movement.  He was immensely popular during his life and has been described by a biographer as a “pop star of his time.”  He was passionate, apparently personally unkempt, and had a tumultuous love life that saw him fall in love with two sisters.

But here’s the most impressive thing I learned about Schiller:  he actually inspired Ludwig von Beethoven.  One of Schiller’s most famous poems was Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music, in modified form, in the final, chorale movement of his Ninth Symphony.  That’s a pretty impressive testament.  No wonder our predecessor German Village residents erected a statue to this guy!

You can read the entire, translated Ode to Joy here.  Here’s the first verse:

Joy! A spark of fire from heaven,
Daughter from Elysium,
Drunk with fire we dare to enter,
Holy One, inside your shrine.
Your magic power binds together,
What we by custom wrench apart,
All men will emerge as brothers,
Where you rest your gentle wings.

The Hip Headphone ‘Hood

My old iPhone headphones gave up the ghost this week.  Or, at least, one side of the headphones did.  First the sound out of the right earbud became intermittent and filled with static, and then it stopped producing any sound whatsoever.  That’s pretty annoying when you’re trying to listen to music in the morning and you can only hear one part of the total effort.  Mozart orchestral works just don’t sound the same with only left ear input.

I attempted the tried-and-true method of repairing a broken, self-contained electronic device:  banging it several times on a hard surface in hopes that something on the interior had become dislodged somehow and would be restored to its former working status with a few hard jolts.  (Plus, giving the broken electronic gizmo a few brisk knocks makes me feel better and exacts a kind of revenge against the device for breaking down in the first place.) Unfortunately, that method didn’t work — although it was enjoyable, admittedly — so the only option was to go out and buy new headphones.  

Surprisingly, the local cellphone store doesn’t sell earbuds that are connected to your phone by a wire anymore.  As a society, we’ve moved beyond that benighted technology!  The only options it offers are those little wireless ear fittings that look like shunts for a kid’s ear infection.  I’ve got to have my music in the morning, so there really was no choice but to buy them. 

I was a bit resistant to it, because I associate those wireless ear buds with consciously hip posers who strut around airports and other public places talking in  overly loud tones, and I don’t particularly want to be associated with that ilk.  This was an understandable reaction, but an odd one, because the ear bud cord could be a pain, such as when it gets  snagged on something like an unexpectedly leaping dog’s paw, and yanks the ear buds out of my ears.  At least I won’t have to worry about that any more.

No dog cord snags, in exchange for association with the consciously hip crowd.  Life has a way of presenting choices like that. 

The College Of Musical Knowledge: Self-Edited Genius

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognized pieces of music in the world.  The first few notes — da-da-da DUM, da-da-da-DUM, supposedly reflecting “fate knocking at the door” — are known to pretty much everyone.

45270796_303Recently I heard an interesting broadcast on how hard Beethoven worked at the Fifth Symphony.  (You can read about the creation, and the critical reception, of this ground-breaking symphony here.)  Beethoven wrote it over the course of four years, from 1804 to 1808, and during that time he experimented with a series of different approaches to the different parts of the composition.  His notebooks and papers include “sketches” of some of those efforts that Beethoven tried, tinkered with, and ultimately rejected. 

In the broadcast, the host and a small orchestra played some of the efforts that ended up on Beethoven’s cutting room floor.  Many of those efforts were beautiful, and would have satisfied, if not delighted, most composers — but Beethoven wasn’t just any composer.  He was constantly searching for improvement, and when you hear the first drafts and failed forays compared to the finished product, you’re glad that the man was a perfectionist who was always driven to come up with something even better.  

Those of us who aren’t musically talented tend to believe that talents like Beethoven’s genius for composing are just a gift that comes naturally and without much effort — like Mozart’s character in Amadeus jotting down finished music, without edits, as he bounces a ball around a billiards table.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds pure and seamless, like something that came to him as a package in an inspired dream.  But the reality for most prodigious talents, like Beethoven, is different:  they had to work hard to bring their talents to full flower.  And that’s where there’s a lesson lurking for the rest of us.  We obviously aren’t as gifted as Beethoven, but we can still apply ourselves and self-edit our work to come up with something better.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have observed that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an example of that.  The next time you hear those familiar opening notes, think about the sweat that went into their creation, and I think you’ll appreciate that wondrous piece of work all the more.

What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.