bptm-morocco

Last week I opened up my blog by boasting about a Tinder date that I went on. I truly meant this only to be an attention grabber before I launched into an exploration of the decline of melody in music. Yet it appears that people were much more intrigued by my date than my musical musings. The overwhelming response to my blog post about the disappearance of melody in music was this: “how was the Tinder date though?” Well much like Fauzio, I aim to please, and so I’m going to indulge your thirst for a vicarious experience of NYC Tinder life and tell you about my date.

I had an incredibly pleasant time with a beautiful young Irish woman who was charming, upbeat, humorous, and delightfully outspoken. Our plan was to meet up at The MoMA, view some art, chat over coffee, and then part ways. Yet after the MoMA we had dinner together, and after dinner we went to a bar, and after the bar we went for a walk, and after the walk we met up with a friend of mine and chatted at a cafe, and after the cafe, we took the subway to my house and watched some Game of Thrones. And no, this was not a “Netflix and chill” kind of situation— get your mind out of the gutter people. It was just wonderful evening filled with really good conversation, laughter, and flirtation.

The truth is I’m not actually telling you all of that because I want to grant you your wish of peaking into my romantic life— (as usual) I have a larger point to make. Believe it or not, me going on that Tinder date, has everything to do with me fighting for the presence of melody in music. That’s right fools! I’m not abandoning my discussion of the decline of melody in music. Stay with me now…

What is melody? The technical definition of melody (per dictionary.com) is “The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.” But more generally what is melody? It is an active statement; it is the part you can sing; it is the part you remember. If you think of a musical composition as a story, as many composers throughout history have, melody is the dialogue and action that propels the plot. Harmony and Rhythm would be more like the setting and pace of the story. And yet if it is such an important part of the musical story, why then are more and more composers in jazz, film, and popular music abandoning clear melodies?

The simplest answer is that it is easier to not write a melody than to write a melody. While the simplest answer is often the correct one, I believe that there is also something more poisonous at play: on some level most everyone wants to be cool, and at some point melody became uncool. I can express this easier with a musical example. Listen to any or all of both of these pieces of instrumental music: Serenade no. 13 in G Major by Mozart and Lizard Point by Brian Eno. One has a very distinct memorable melody throughout, and the other doesn’t really have a melody. Which do you think is cooler (not better, just cooler)? Because it is much more mysterious and abstract I am going to guess that most people think that the Eno tune is cooler. A melody is a clear statement, and a clear statement is rarely going to be perceived as cooler than something more oblique.

We could think of it like this: a melody is like looking up and saying “I love how the sun beams through the trees in Central Park.” As nice and true as that statement may be, it is simply not as cool as just staring off at the trees, silent and expressionless as you smoke a cigarette. Certainly the latter is cooler, but is it better? No way. First of all, smoking is bad for your health. Secondly, you are not communicating anything to anyone else by staring off into space. You’re just living in your own cool, insular, lonely world. And yet we are all victims under the oppressive tyranny of the cool— nobody wants to be considered uncool, and yet nobody knows exactly what it is to be cool, thus many people simply avoid making statements (verbally or musically) for fear of being uncool.

So what the hell does going on a Tinder date have to do with writing a melody or being cool? Well, on Tinder I’m a perfectly cultivated cool guy. I have pictures of me holding a guitar, laying on a raft with sunglasses on, effortlessly posing with a real live butterfly on my shoulder, and an equally cool “about me” write-up to boot. Given the extra time to think up responses I’m also far more clever and witty in Tinder text message conversation than I am in real life. Thus, I could have contented myself to stay at home and just be a cool idea of a person, but I chose (as did she) to actually go meet up with someone and expose myself as a real, flawed human. In person, you hear my goofy laugh, you witness me fumble with words sometimes, and you sense my subtle nervousness and excitement about being on a date. I’m not as cool in person, but I am much more real— I’m someone you can actually connect to. It doesn’t matter how cool someone is on paper, the only thing that matters in romance is how well you connect with someone face to face, and the only way to do that is to get out of the house, go on a date, and put yourself at risk of being uncool. Thus, the acts of writing a melody and going on a Tinder date are both mini rebellions against the tyranny of the cool.

And even the coolest people can rebel against the tyranny of the cool. My friend Epiphany Morrow (musical artist, rapper, public speaker, philanthropist, and entrepreneur) is by all measures a very cool dude. This week Epiphany released his long awaited Legacy Project. Billed as the world’s first “living album,” The Legacy Project is a smartphone app offering an interactive music and video experience which draws users into a unique world of Piph’s creation. You most certainly should download it (just search “big piph” or “the legacy project” in your app store). Despite the fact that many would undoubtedly consider Epiphany a cool dude, the best part about him is that in The Legacy Project and in so many of his other endeavors he too routinely and unapologetically puts himself at risk of being uncool. For it is not because I think that he is cool that I respect and admire Piph (in fact I know him well enough to know that he is actually a closet-nerd)— no, I respect and admire him because he is incredibly genuine, disciplined, and creates art that has true perspective and substance behind it.

You may not see it, but I do: the acts of going on a date, releasing an app, and writing a melody are all important rebellions against the tyranny of the cool. Certainly nobody wants to be uncool, and yet the only actions or statements that have any meaning or weight behind them are those that do put us at risk of being uncool. And here’s the liberating truth: there is really no such thing as cool. When Miles Davis gave birth to the cool back in 1957— he gave birth to a phantom. Cool is simply a figment of our collective imagination. Love is real, beauty is real, laughter is real, and cool is not real. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we’ll being to really live.

 Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio 2015
Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio
2015

Yesterday I went on a Tinder date to the Museum of Modern Art. There’s no real reason for me to tell you that I was on a Tinder date except for the fact that I probably just won a few more readers who are titillated by the phrase “Tinder date.” And now, despite the fact that I keep repeating the phrase Tinder date, I’d like to direct your attention more towards my experience of the MoMA and less on the Tinder date. I confess that at the MoMA I felt a lot like how my German friend Dierk feels feels when he watches a Richard Pryor standup comedy special: “I don’t get it!” (please imagine a deep-voiced German man saying that). I could chalk this up to the fact that I am not well-educated and up to date on the trends of modern visual art, but I actually experience this same feeling when listening to some modern musical art (a field in which I’m at least relatively well educated and up to date). The truth is that some art and music is simply more intelligible than other art and music.

For instance, I had a wonderful experience of perfectly intelligible music last Saturday at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. At the classic venue, looked after by a suspender-clad waitstaff, I saw the one and only Bill Frisell play alongside Petra Haden (vocals), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums). With his trademark reverb-laden telecaster tone, Bill and company played arrangements of classic film and television music from their album When You Wish Upon A Star. They put a haunting and spacious twist on classic movie songs like You Only Live Twice, The Windmills of Your Mind, and the theme from Psycho. Yet for all of the unique character that they infused in each song, they never sacrificed clarity for the sake of novelty. I walked back to the subway feeling uplifted, whistling the tunes that I had just heard.

Conversely, on Tuesday night I took a stroll to a new venue called Nublu— this is likely a stretch but I wonder if the phonetic pronunciation of the club (“new blue”) is an intentional nod (or perhaps even a jab) towards the long-standing Blue Note. Nublu, with it’s darkly lit industrial aesthetic, glowing bar, and psychedelic tapestry of light projected onto a large wall, was clearly much more modern than the Blue Note. As I watched the band tune up and prepare to play, I realized that this was one of the most talented collections of musicians I would ever see perform together (Dave Binney-sax, Chris Potter- sax, Adam Rogers- guitar, Matt Brewer- bass, Craig Taborn- keys, and Justin Brown- drums). Between the sleek setting and incredible musicians, I had a giddy sense that this was one of these “only in New York City” kind of moments. And yet after thirty minutes of hearing them play relentless, high energy, complex, and sometimes atonal music, I was ready to leave. There was no doubt of the skill onstage with each performer playing blistering solos— there was simply little for me to latch on to and enjoy. I left with nothing in my head that I wanted to whistle.

“What ever happened to melody!?” This was a question my film scoring instructor Chris Hajian asked me this week in our lesson, and a question I was asking myself after the show at Nublu. For the past couple of decades or so (and probably much longer), whether in jazz, or film scores, or pop music, the importance of melody has undoubtedly waned. For example, what’s the billboard number one song right now? Don’t worry I’ll look it up— ok it’s a song called Closer by the Chainsmokers. Now I just really hate this song already, and I’ve only heard it once, but let’s identify what is important and prominent about this song: the beat, the timbre change from the male vocals to the female vocals, the distinct intentionally lo-fi sound of the synth, and of course the corny, cliché, stupid ass lyrics. It is certainly not the melody that is important. The melodic moments are short, simple, and repetitive— this is certainly not a hit song because of the melody alone. Ok now then what was the number one hit on this day in 1996? Oh no, it was the Macerena! I was hoping to prove that 1996 was more melodic than 2016, but that is not a great example now is it? Ok we better go even further back in time… on this day in 1976 the number one song was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Whether you like this song or not, you’ll have to admit that the melody plays a much more prominent role in it than in most of the hit songs of today. There’s strong contour, momentum, and variation in this melody. Indeed, unlike the song Closer, the main reason that If You Leave Me Now was a hit is because of it’s melody.

And now, straight out of the blue, it’s time for me to stop being pretentious and start getting real. I’m abruptly signing off of this blog post, because I have a laundry list of other things to do including film clips to score, guitar solos to transcribe, and Westworld to watch. But are you still wondering why melody has diminished over time? And do want to know how my Tinder date went? And is this a complete cop out ending the blog post like this? Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion next week as these and many other questions are finally answered!!

DisplaySomaLucas

Disclaimer: I’m late with this post. The following events refer to last week.

Sunday morning I woke up feeling like a crumpled piece of notebook paper— four hours of sleep is not enough to relieve the effects of a night of steady debauchery. Yet at the sound of my 9:30am alarm I dutifully unfurled my limbs and stood up to prepare for my solo guitar gig at the Afterthought’s Sunday Brunch. During my performance, I focused intensely on the music, and performed with a loose, expressive, nuanced delivery — yet I also made a handful of stupid mistakes (missing familiar passages, dropping the tempo, blanking completely, etc…), undoubtedly a result of copious amounts of shenanigans the night before. I do regret perpetuating the stereotype of the partied out musician, but sometimes I just like to cut loose with my friends. I disagree, however, with the myth that musicians play or write better when they are drunk or high; and I reject the romanticized image of the freewheeling artist who sleeps, eats, drinks, smokes, writes, performs, travels, and has sex simply whenever the spirit moves him. Believe me, I’m as attracted to this picture as anyone, but it isn’t real. Life lived in an unbroken stream of creativity would be incoherent— musicians (like everyone else) benefit from structure and routine.

With this fact in mind, monday morning I woke at 6am, loosened up with a chi-kung routine, drank a cup of tea, and practiced Jazz guitar for an hour and a half. I ate breakfast and then worked on the drum and guitar tracks for a Pop-Rock song I’m recording. After Lunch I took a long siesta, and then drove to River City Coffee to drink a cup and begin writing this blog post. Lastly, I enjoyed a pleasant dinner date with a pretty girl I met on Tinder (I’m not ashamed). On paper, this was my perfect work-day: I woke up early and engaged in the art (recording), craft (practicing), and critique (blogging) of music before some relaxing social time. In reality, I wasn’t all that effective at any particular task; I went through the motions during practice, didn’t record any great guitar tracks, and wrote a grand total of four sentences of this blog (easily distracted by fellow coffee shoppers). Overall my brain was sluggish from little sleep and I was creatively uninspired, yet I am happy with this day because I made myself do the work that I’ve set out to do. I know that I can’t practice only when I have a gig to prepare for, or write/record only when I am inspired, or blog only when I’ve had a great idea or experience. If I wish to make a livelihood out of the art, craft, and critique of music, I must make a habit of practicing these things.

Tuesday morning I woke again at 6am and repeated my morning routine of chi-kung, caffeine ingestion and practice (this must be a habit now right?). After breakfast I worked on this blog post, writing most of the previous two paragraphs. I ate lunch, took a nap, and then gave three guitar lessons in the evening. Done with work for the day, I went to Allsopp Park to play basketball and workout with my roommate Read (insert shameless plug for Read’s awesome new composting business here). I finished off the night by drinking beers and admiring the full Strawberry Moon with a fond friend. Another perfect day.

Wednesday morning I meant to wake at 6am again, but instead I pushed snooze a thousand times and slid out of bed around 10am, disappointed in my lack of willpower. I did some chi-kung, journaled, and ate breakfast while talking about the stages of life with my other roommate John (insert shameless plug for John’s awesome music here). I reluctantly practiced classical guitar for an hour and had planned to work on this blog, but my practice session flowed into a songwriting session instead. After finishing the song, I ate lunch, took a nap, and then gave a guitar lesson. I finally worked on this blog post starting around 9:30pm. Thus, I didn’t follow my routine. I was slow-witted and weak-willed all day, easily distracted from my work by internet articles and endless Tinder swipes. But ultimately, I did everything I set out to do: I practiced/taught (the craft), wrote a song (the art), and worked on this blog (the critique). I may have been disappointed in myself during the day, but ultimately this is a positive step. It offers nothing for me to be disappointed in. I am here to build habits, and even when my schedule gets thrown off a little, I know that if I am working on the art, craft, and critique everyday, then my work will bear fruit. Good job, Lucas

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” As I sit here and congratulate myself for my efforts at being a good musician, I can hear this quote spoken by Terence Fletcher in the brilliantly unnerving film Whiplash. While I don’t ascribe to Fletcher’s brutal motivational tactics (if you haven’t seen the film, here’s another quote demonstrating Fletcher’s pedagogy: “Nieman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drumset.”), I do understand this sentiment. To stop and congratulate yourself at any moment, especially early on in your musical development, is to lose the edge that could make you great. The combination of desire for mastery and awareness of where you need to improve will lead to growth. By contrast, contentment with your skills and ignorance of your shortcomings will lead to stagnation.

I had a wonderful guitar teacher at UALR named Michael Carenbauer who approached this point in a more humorous mood than the surly Spencer Fletcher. When I arrived at UALR I thought I was pretty good at the guitar— I could play fast and people seemed to like how I sounded. Yet in an early lesson Mike described what our goal was for learning any Jazz tune: be able to play the chords/melody, know what scale to use for improvising at any moment in the tune, and don’t get lost, all without looking at the music (things I couldn’t yet do). He said that “when you can finally do all of that, you suck.” There I was, a 19 year old who had been playing guitar for nearly a decade, being told that I wasn’t even good enough to suck yet. I was below the suck level! Up until that point, I had always been told I was really good at the guitar, and I think it was no coincidence that I never really practiced very hard either. Determined to at least suck, I consequently practiced and practiced until I could accomplish those tasks. Yet what I learned in the process of practicing hard, is that there is always something else to learn; there’s always something I suck at. This is what is beautiful and frustrating about music: the journey is never over. This is what leads some musicians to such great heights and makes others give up completely. I know that I couldn’t give up music if I tried, thus the only way I can be satisfied is to be conscious of where I can improve and continue to take on the next musical challenge.

I began this post thinking it was going to be about the importance of routine, and it would have been had I kept it up. Having lost my focus and abandoned my routine, I am obviously in a better position to write about how much I suck. The awareness that I suck is after all what compels me to wake up early and practice. What is often unacknowledged is that all great musicians, artists, and writers sucked at one point. Bob Dylan sucked, Aretha Franklin sucked, Picasso sucked, and Shakespeare sucked, but they all stuck with their craft long enough to become great. I suck too, but dammit I’m going to stick with it.