Category Archives: Music

Music Changes the Way

Hum the first two notes of “The Simpsons” theme song. (If you’re not a Simpsons fan, “Maria” from West Side Story will also do.) The musical interval you’re hearing—the pitch gap between the notes—is known as a “tritone,” and it’s commonly recognized in music theory as one of the most dissonant intervals, so much so that composers and theorists in the 18th century dubbed it diabolus in musica (“devil in music”).

Now hum the first few notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or, if you prefer something with a little more street cred, the “I’m sorry” part in Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” This is the “perfect fifth.” It’s one of the most consonant intervals, used in myriad compositions as a vehicle of resolution and harmony.

Is it possible that hearing such isolated musical components can change the way you think? An ambitious new paper recently published by Jochim Hansen and Johann Melzner in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology argues precisely that. The researchers brought pedestrians into a laboratory and played them a short, stripped-down piece of music consisting of a series of alternating chords. Some people heard chords including the tritone; others the perfect fifth. A couple other tweaks were also made: in the tritone condition, the chords were played slowly—only once every four-beat measure—while in the perfect fifth condition, the chords went by rapidly, sounding every beat. Further, a “reverberation” effect was added such that the tritone chords sounded like they were being played in a cavernous cave and the perfect fifth chords in a carpeted closet.

What the scientists found is that the simple act listening to either of these two chord sets changed how people processed information in a very basic way. For example, the researchers asked people to take a list of shopping items and organize them into groups. Think detergent and paper towels: same kind of thing, or different? Results showed that “tritone” people formed fewer categories than “perfect fifth” people, indicating that they were thinking in broader, more inclusive categories than their counterparts.

In a separate measure, the scientists asked people to imagine buying one of two imaginary toasters. These toasters varied in what is known as “aggregated” versus “individualized” information. Do you know how on you can learn the average star rating of a given item? This is aggregated information; it’s pooled from a wide range of sources. Individualized information, by contrast, would be the customer reviews that appear at the bottom of the page. Which do you pay more attention to when these give conflicting messages—when, say, the aggregated information is largely negative but there is a single glowing customer review? Turns out that people who are exposed to “tritone”-type music samples are more likely to be swayed by aggregated information, and “fifth” people by the reverse.

5 Years of The House Presents

Salon-style multi-genre music events have been cropping up across Dublin, following the lead of the enormously successful Kaleidoscope Night. Current trends are taking this model and moving towards not just multi-genre but multi-disciplinary events: Listen at Arthur’s on Thomas Street has featured poetry readings and video footage alongside its central musical performances; Phonica at Jack Nealon’s on Capel Street has combined experimental poetry and music; and Staccato in Toner’s on Baggot Street focuses on spoken word supported by music.

These events all have two things in common – their dedication to presenting a combination of acts not normally seen together, and their setting, usually small bar or lounge spaces without formal staging and with an ‘intimate’ atmosphere. The line between participants and spectators is softened if not dissolved. In this way, city-centre venues try to replicate the feel and closeness of a small community gathering or a local session.
Where the artist and the audience are equal
The House Presents, established in 2012, brings this same atmosphere out of the city centre to a smaller, closer community. Annesley House, the bar that has hosted these monthly events for the past five years in North Strand in Dublin, is cold and bare with bright, moodless lighting, a functional if pleasant drinking hall that does not feel conducive to intimate music-making; but go up the stairs – cold and smelling strongly of the open smoking area – and you step into a room that doesn’t seem so far away in mood from the Odessa Club (where Kaleidoscope began). Upstairs at Annesley House is an inviting candlelit space with cabaret seating, warm red drapes and a small corner stage, even a cabaret-style electronic sign complete with white light-bulb border.

A lighting installation, designed by Jane Daly and Matt Dee, accompanies each event, reflecting the acts performing, creating an atmosphere and preparing the audience for what they are about to experience. Audience experience is close to the heart of The House Presents. ‘We try to create something where the artist and the audience are equal,’ explains Paula Lonergan, one of the organisers of the events alongside Nathalie Cazaux. At one of the events, last October, the lighting installation was low-key but effective: hanging on the drapes behind the stage were small clear plastic boxes containing small sculptures, illuminated in bright colours. While they usually prefer to find some common thread in the experience acts are offering, Paula described this event as more festive – ‘a bit of a mish-mash’ celebrating their return after the summer break – which was reflected in these playful light-boxes.

While the mix of acts that evening was likewise colourful, their progression throughout the evening felt a little jarring and disjointed. With a kind of accelerate-then-brake pacing, the acts drew you in close and pushed you away in rapid shifts of tempo that could easily have been alienating. However, there was a kind of hypnotic fascination to this that kept me willing to stay on board.

Defense of Rebecca Black

There’s a pretty good chance that you are one of the 63-million-plus (and counting) people who have watched 13-year-old Rebecca Black’s video version of “Friday,” a three-minute pop number recorded in January and posted on YouTube earlier this month. Rebecca Black is a California middle school student, not a professional singer, and “Friday” was written by two men who own a vanity recording studio in Los Angeles where, for $2,000, Rebecca Black’s parents paid for a video of their daughter performing the song. The Black family expected friends and relatives to see “Friday” on YouTube, and that was about it.

Until a show about the Internet called Tosh.0 offered a bilious review entitled “Songwriting Isn’t for Everyone” on March 11, and Rebecca Black, in the manner of modern social media, went viral. Within days, “Friday” had been seen by hundreds of thousands, and then tens of millions, of viewers. Song and singer have been the subject of coverage in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Forbes, and innumerable other outlets. And like the nearly one million comments posted (thus far) on YouTube, the reaction to Rebecca Black and “Friday” has been almost uniformly hostile. “Friday” has been described as “hilariously dreadful” and “the worst song ever,” and one typical YouTube comment suggested to Rebecca Black that she “cut yourself [and] get an eating disorder so you’ll look pretty.”

I confess that I had heard of neither “Friday” nor Rebecca Black until they were well on their way to household status last week, but not wanting to be hopelessly behind the curve, I immediately tuned in. My immediate reaction was surprise—but of a slightly different order than the standard response.

“Friday” is a banal pop song which counts down the days of the school week until Friday which, of course, anticipates the weekend. Rebecca Black bounces amiably around various scenes—sometimes by herself, but usually not—and in the song’s only deviation from chronology, she is obliged to choose between sitting in the front or back seat of a friend’s convertible. The music is repetitive—the same notes, chords, and sequences are endlessly repeated at brief intervals—and Rebecca Black’s voice has been altered by Auto-Tune, presumably to stay on key. This gives her delivery a characteristically metallic quality which, combined with the song’s Twitter-quality lyrics (Fun, fun, fun, fun/Lookin’ forward to the weekend), has scraped a sensitive nerve in cyberspace.

Now, I would be the first to admit that “Friday” is not my kind of song, and whatever genre it represents is not my favorite music. I might also mention that, in my 61st year, I am old enough to be Rebecca Black’s grandfather. But while I am willing to accept the judgment of those who think “Friday” is dreadful—to each his own, no accounting for taste, etc.—I fail to grasp how it is self-evidently “the worst song ever,” or “bizarre,” and why this of all songs, and Rebecca Black of all pop warblers, have been singled out for universal Internet obloquy. Indeed, after the initial over-reaction, some observers (Entertainment Weekly, OK!) have conceded that, all things considered, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” does have a certain hypnotic charm.

No one would mistake Fun, fun, fun, fun/Lookin’ forward to the weekend for Cole Porter, but how much worse is it than Fun, fun, fun/Till her daddy takes the T-bird away? One observer of pop culture, whose opinion I respect, reminds me that the problem with “Friday” is “the totality. Note how completely literal the video is. She sings something as she does it.” And I cannot disagree. But no songwriter was more literal than, say, Irving Berlin (Oh, I love to go out fishing/In a river or a creek), and one of the traumatic memories of my own youth is the numbingly repetitive, multi-million-selling “Saturday Night” (1976) by the Bay City Rollers (Do it all, have a ball/Saturday night, Saturday night).

Remember Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell’s passing left me sad, and not just because I enjoy his music. Campbell was the first celebrity I ever met: Not only was our encounter memorable but it struck me later as an amazingly instructive lesson for how a person should conduct oneself when faced with an awkward situation.

The year was 1970, my aunt and uncle had just bought a camper, and they took my three cousins, my sister, and me on a trip to Colorado. I was 5 years old.

I remember little about the trip other than how bizarre I found it to be so high in the mountains that I felt cold in the summer and how much fun it was to sleep in a tent with the brood. And I remember meeting Glen Campbell, who at the time was not only a country music artist but also the host of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a popular TV show my family watched every week.

One afternoon I had an urgent need to go to the bathroom, so my uncle pulled into the next service station and I ran out, alone, to the bathroom. While I was standing at the urinal a wasp landed on my shoulder and I froze in fright.

The man next to me noticed it, too, and whispered to not move an inch while he slowly moved his free hand in position to make the kill.

Naturally, I immediately tried to shake the wasp off, which caused me to be stung just as Glen Campbell’s hand hit my shoulder, hard, right where I had been stung. I burst out in tears and I made a mess of the task at hand to boot.

Campbell went into parent mode (he had three kids at the time), cleaned me up and carried me in his arms to my aunt and uncle to explain what happened. The adults chatted for a couple minutes while waiting for me to catch my breath, my aunt took a photo of me with him that’s forever lost, and we went on our way.

The incident stuck with me not just because of the celebrity encounter; as I grew older I came to appreciate what an awkward situation it must have been to be alone in a bathroom with a screaming 5 year old, and how he handled it with grace and aplomb.

When we had children a few years ago I came to appreciate it as a good parenting lesson as well: As much as we might want to try, we simply can’t instruct our children on how to behave in every situation they may encounter: We have to give them a few lessons, instill some values, and hope that it’s enough for them to figure things out on their own.

The Last Beatles Concert

It was 50 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught…wait, no, that’s not right. What was 50 years ago on Monday was the last time the Beatles took to a stage to perform a concert. It might be argued that the January 1969 London rooftop jam session was the Beatles’ last public performance, but their final concert proper was held August 29, 1966, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the end of a U.S. tour that had been as stressful and unpleasant as it had been brief.

You can’t blame the band for wanting to get off the road. Touring had long been a well-known drag. After the Beatles had performed in Stockholm, for example, John Lennon was asked what he thought of the trip. “Fine,” he said. “It was a room, a car, a concert and a sandwich.” There’s the road in all its glamor.

The Beatles had reason to feel the road wasn’t just a bore, but a dangerous bore. The backlash in the United States when Lennon floated the notion the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was nothing compared to the angry reaction when, in July 1966, the lads seemed to snub Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. Having had a bitter experience at the British embassy in Washington back in 1964, the Beatles made it a point not to go to embassy events or other official shindigs. But when they didn’t show for a Manila palace lunch with Ferdinand Marcos’s wife (and 200 children who were her guests), things got ugly, fast. The Beatles escaped their hotel down hallways lined with staff shouting abuse at them; their transportation disappeared and when they did get a car to pack into, soldiers along the route to the airport kept forcing them off the main highway; when they did finally make it to the airport it wasn’t clear whether they were going to be let on the plane or just done in by a mob right then and there.

A few weeks after their harrowing escape, the Beatles were back on the gerbil wheel in the States, where they worked their way from Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland (where fans nearly trampled them), Washington, and Philadelphia. And then down to Memphis, where a cherry bomb was tossed onstage, making the band think they were being shot at (troupers that they were, they kept playing).

But neither security concerns nor the grim plains-trains-and-automobiles slog fully explain why the Beatles gave up the stage. It was no way for them to make music. Even before their first, triumphant trip to the States, the Beatles were getting sick of standing in front of shrieking crowds of adolescent berserkers. “They’re not listening to anything,” John griped. “All they’re doing is going mad.”

Remember Tom Petty

C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on the same day as the JFK assassination. It’s an odd bit of historical trivia that often gets cited to show how even important markers can get lost amid earth shattering news. It might be as stretch to compare Tom Petty to those intellectual titans, but it would also be a mistake to underestimate what a beloved figure he was. That Petty died in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history seems somehow too coincidental not to notice.

It’s an especially cruel irony, because one of the reasons why Tom Petty was so beloved was that, beyond his musical output, Petty was the rare rock star who wanted all of the attention focused on his prodigious and worthy catalog of hits. Petty’s death at age 66 might be the one time where the attention deserved to be focused on the man himself, and that’s understandably very hard to do right now.

Over the course of a 40-plus-year career, the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers experienced some of the inevitable rock ‘n’ roll drama. One of the band’s bass players, Howie Epstein, died of a heroin overdose in 2003. There were the requisite divorces. But somehow it was never the stuff of sordid rock ‘n’ roll gossip. Unless you were some kind of superfan, you likely knew none of these things. All you knew is that when a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song came on the radio, the dial stayed where it was.

My musical awakening came in the late ‘80s/early ’90s, and those younger than that might not have a sense of how oppressively omnipresent classic rock radio had become. In an FM dominated, pre-Internet world, pop music fans basically had a choice between radio stations that played Whitney Houston all the time or radio stations that played Led Zeppelin all the time. When Nirvana cleaned the Augean Stables of rock ‘n’ roll my freshman year in high school, it was quite a relief.


“You are no good.” These were not the words Gregor Piatigorsky, a nervous performer, needed to hear as he warmed up before playing a concerto with the New York Philharmonic. The man who uttered them, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, then said, “I am no good.” The effect on Piatigorsky was immediate and lasting; writing about the incident some 30 years later, the cellist remembered wishing he had “died as a baby.” Nevertheless, he kept practicing, kept striving, hoping somehow, in the brief interval of time remaining, to change the maestro’s mind. “We are no good,” said Toscanini just before the two took the stage. “But the others,” he added, “are worse. Come on, caro, let’s go.”

For Toscanini (1867-1957), pursuing perfection was a matter of conscience. Here was the right way, the only way, of being a musician; any other was simply wrong. In this brilliant biography, Harvey Sachs delineates the guiding role of conscience in Toscanini’s life. Sachs writes from a position of unimpeachable authority: The present biography is his second of the conductor, whose letters he has also edited (2002) and about whom he has written a collection of essays (1991).

Mad for music as a boy, Toscanini enrolled in the conservatory in Parma, the town of his birth, at the age of 9. He practiced his instrument, the cello, diligently, but he spent just as much time listening to the practicing of his classmates. To become more conversant with the instruments of the orchestra, he taught himself the violin and double bass. As a pianist, he was fluent (if not exactly polished), and he could, at sight, reduce complex orchestral scores consisting of dozens of parts to make them playable within the compass of his two hands.

Toscanini was aided in assimilating music by his photographic memory. During rehearsals as a young cellist, he was forever looking around him, much to the consternation of his conductor, who assumed he wasn’t paying attention. But Toscanini had no need of the notes on the page; his mind had already absorbed them. He fixed his eye now on the conductor, studying the gestures he made, now on his fellow musicians, noting which gestures they responded to and which they ignored, alert all the while to what he might do differently and what he would do better. (“Formal study of conducting did not exist in those days,” writes Sachs, and Toscanini learned his craft by observation.) He put to use what he learned once he gained the podium, and his wondrously retentive memory allowed him to conduct vast symphonies and operas without recourse to a score.

Success came to him while young, and one achievement led swiftly to another. He was chosen in 1898 to direct the reconstituted La Scala Opera, widely considered the best theater in Italy, if not the world. (One envious critic knocked him, though, for his “Luciferian arrogance.”) He was lured away in 1908 by the New York Metropolitan Opera, whose board of directors spared no expense to improve the condition of the hall and the caliber of the musicianship. (His most vocal champion on the board was the financier and philanthropist Otto Kahn.) La Scala won him back for eight years, only to lose him again, this time to the New York Philharmonic. When in 1936 he resigned from the Philharmonic, it seemed that, as the New York Times put it, Toscanini had “ended last night his career as conductor in America.” But then an NBC executive came up with an idea—“that the network could attempt to bring the world’s most famous classical performing musician back to the United States under their company’s aegis,” Sachs writes. “Given NBC’s huge and growing corporate resources, the network could afford to transform its already substantial, high-quality house orchestra into a first-rate symphonic radio orchestra.” Toscanini’s leadership of the NBC Symphony Orchestra made him, through the power of radio and then television, a household name. And his appearances as a guest conductor of other orchestras were as numberless as the stars.

* *

Outside music, the touchstone of Toscanini’s conscience was liberty, and he believed its blessings should be enjoyed by all people, free from coercion, unimpeded by prejudice. He was an ardent philo-Semite. While recognizing the genius of Richard Wagner’s art, he wasn’t for a moment taken in by the composer’s Jew-hatred. Wagner the man he considered a “farabutto”—meaning, according to Sachs, scoundrel, crook, or swindler. Toscanini also saw firsthand the anti-Semitism faced by Otto Kahn in the upper reaches of New York society; he could not fathom how the society that Kahn benefited so greatly with his largesse denied him the right to participate in it fully. At his own expense, Toscanini traveled in 1936 to Tel Aviv, where he proudly conducted the inaugural concerts of the Palestine (later the Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra.

A brave anti-Fascist, Toscanini ran afoul of the government of Mussolini. The more tightly Il Duce clamped down on the Italian people, the more Toscanini rebelled. Repeatedly Toscanini refused to conduct “Giovinezza,” the Fascist party’s anthem, before concerts where its playing was required. Once this caused him to be roughed up by a band of young Fascist thugs; afterward his hotel was descended upon by a mob of 200. Eventually, Mussolini arranged to have Toscanini’s telephone conversations wiretapped and his activities watched. In 1938, Mussolini even ordered that Toscanini’s passport be seized; it was restored only when it became clear that Il Duce’s zeal for punishment was outweighed by his dislike for negative publicity from the United States and England. Toscanini immediately left his beloved Italy, not knowing whether he would ever return. Eight years passed, but return he did, after Mussolini was dead and the war was over, to direct the reopening of La Scala.

The Best Christmas Song

Very few songs have joined the Pop Christmas Canon in the last forty years with only two at present being considered for inclusion, in my estimation: The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” Both differ from most of the other songs in the oeuvre by the fact that neither can be remotely called a happy song: in Fairytale, a couple wistfully recounts their unraveling relationship—and their careers and lives as well—amidst the glory around them that is Christmas in New York City. In the “Same Old Au Sang Lyne,” the protagonist runs into an old flame in a convenience store on Christmas eve and they polish off a six-pack in his car while reminiscing.

Both have had a tremendous impact on me—soon after getting married I dragged my wife to New York for Christmas Eve, looking in vain for the NYPD Choir but still managing to have a romantic holiday just the same. And well before we married I took a woman on Christmas Eve to the same convenience store where Dan Fogelberg ran into his ex-beau (yet another advantage of being from Peoria) and split a six-pack in the parking lot just as they did.

But I have my own new nomination for enshrinement into the canon: Snow Day by the group Matt Pond PA.
To call a three minute pop song Shakespearian risks mockery but I am laying my cards on the table: Snow Day is a profound meditation on love and age and faith that slowly unspools in the context of the aftermath of a snowstorm.
The song begins with a familiar trope: recounting the sensory pleasures of walking in a storm with a partner when few others are present.While it’s not exactly original, it is nevertheless satisfying and we can all relate to the silence and calm that a fresh coating of snow instills.

These aren’t a couple of millennials walking around in Williamsburg, looking for the newest speakeasy—this is a couple with some years and a history together, old enough to feel the effects of advancing age. Putting “decaying” at the end of the line may appear at first glance to be merely a way to set up a rhyme but decaying isn’t automatically an adverb here. It’s an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, done in an understated way. And it completely works.Not only have they become old but they’ve become old together, and figured out some essential truths about life and love and faith along the way.However, a few stanzas later it suddenly becomes clear that the song is really about something more elemental.


Joe Hagan has written what promises to be the standard biography of Jann Wenner—standard, because it’s hard to imagine anyone working up the energy to take another stab at it. Fifty years ago, at the age of 21, Wenner founded Rolling Stone magazine, and he’s been editor in chief ever since. Thanks to the anniversary, he has lately been much in the news. Not only has Hagan’s very long biography appeared, but so has a coffee-table book, 50 Years of Rolling Stone, a slab of self-congratulation recounting the magazine’s most celebrated articles and writers, with a not-humble introduction by Wenner. He has made the rounds on the chat shows, morning and evening. HBO, meanwhile, is airing a two-part, four-hour documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, produced by Wenner and codirected by the gifted left-wing documentarian Alex Gibney. Altogether it is enough commotion to cause the average consumer of media to rear back and ask: “But why?”

As it happens, there are at least two answers to that question. One is that Wenner possesses superhuman powers of self-promotion. In the journalism business, it is usually the writers who leap onstage to gyrate and shimmy in hopes of pleasing an indifferent public, while their editors keep shyly to the shadows, feigning modesty and smoldering with envy. Not our Jann. He has made himself more famous than all but a handful of his writers; the rest bear on their backs the skid marks from his powder-blue 1963 Porsche 1600-N Cabriolet.

The other answer is this: Wenner was a genuinely great editor, and as with all great editors his magazine was an extension of his ambitions and enthusiasms. Rolling Stone and its founder are worth attending to, if not celebrating, because for two or three decades the magazine served as the most articulate promoter of the 1960s counterculture in all its guises: sexual, political, musical, and artistic. By now, of course, the counterculture has dropped the “counter” and assumed dominance over every significant American institution short of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Wenner’s instincts told him where everybody was headed, whether they knew it or not, and he hopped to the front of the parade. As a result he became not only famous but rich—and not just rich but shamelessly, ostentatiously rich, a man who enjoyed his filthy lucre perhaps a bit too much. (The powder-blue Porsche was just the beginning.)

And many of his early allies, who once considered him a fellow radical, have never forgiven him for it. Hagan, a magazine writer who once interned for Wenner, seems as preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of his subject’s net worth as Wenner is. It’s said that most biographers come to loathe their subjects sooner or later, on the principle that no man is a hero to his valet, and the trick is for them to claw their way back to some measure of toleration, if not affection or respect. Hagan fell into contempt and couldn’t climb out. Aside from an occasional nod to his editorial gifts, the biographer never gives Wenner an even break.

A quick flip through the index shows the story as Hagan wants to tell it.

Frank Ocean Triumphs Without Even Trying

Frank Ocean offered two vital and contradictory performances in 2017. On the main stage, he once more played the guy sitting this one out—there he was, canceling headlining performances at major festivals around the world, ghosting on expectant audiences. If he did appear, he was wearing headphones, sometimes sitting down, and avoiding all eye contact: He didn’t cultivate a crowd so much as gather eavesdroppers. This is a maddening standby of his, one his fans depend on even as it denies them a chance to be near their hero. Without his serene indifference to stardom and any of its attendant demands, he wouldn’t be their hero.

Surprise music drops are old news in pop music by now, but Frank made the technique feel like an extension of his persona—insouciant and bored, a rich kid handing you the keys to his Porsche because he never drives it. Taken together, the songs feel like fragments of a whole, perhaps an EP he left in water until it broke apart and spread. They are of a piece, thematically and musically, taking the muted, glimmering murmur of Blonde into newer, freer spaces, with the borders left unshaded, and entire arrangements hinted at with a few sounds. They might not be his most resonant songs, or the most anthemic. But they are the purest distillation yet of his gnomic and enormous talent, which remains allergic to big statements, manifesting itself only in sidelong glances and digressions.

With these songs, he allows himself to doodle in public: The drum track on “Chanel” sounds like two distracted palms slapping on a desk, maybe one holding a pen—a simple noise, made from whatever’s available. The piano chords surrounding it are so faint they are barely audible. He approaches the song’s melody in a similarly offhand fashion, treating the four notes of the chorus like a drunk driver trying to veer around hazard cones. Imagine someone humming a once-loved, now-forgotten song to themselves, or the kind of off-key whistling you might do to puncture a tense moment; that’s the emotional register that most of his music happens in now.