music


On New Year’s Eve I found myself thinking what a crappy year 2014 had been. Too many people I loved had died and/or almost died. And a bunch of other stuff. To counteract this mood, I went through my calendar to write the story of 2014 as a series of fortunate and enjoyable events. Now that I’ve compiled this list, I’m feeling better and I think it was a great idea:

Listening to a bunch of really great audiobooks and podcasts–probably hundreds of hours worth
Learning to ride a dirt bike, getting pretty decent at it, and going on some spectacular rides
A bunch of massages—weekly, for a good part of the year
Good help from my chiropractor, Dr. Goff, resulting in significantly less back and neck pain over the course of the year.
About 50 group supervisions with Sheri Marquez
A good visit from my brother in law, Rob
Gourmet ramen in the middle of Wonder Valley at night
The highly unlikely moving of a 10×20’ shed
A bunch of great hikes to nearby microconfluences
Military/PTSD show at BOXO
Monthly consultations with John Viola
Dancing 50 or more songs with Reanna, some at Pappy & Harriet’s, mostly at home in the trailer
Dad’s shows at Ma Rouge
Saving a tiny baby tortoise with Reanna
Seeing the Pixies at Pappy & Harriet’s
Visit from Grace and Yared
Visits from Jeannie and Christian
Visits from Doug and Kathryn
Visit from Blake
Julian’s 1st birthday party, Wiley’s 1st birthday party, Christian’s 6th birthday party, Wally’s birthday party
A lot of cooking Mexican food using peppers I grew in the garden
Watched a lot of fantastic movies
Reanna’s dinners and lunches. We eat so good.
Lunch at Del Rey Deli w- Corrina & Alders
Teaching couples communication at Nourishing Tree
Ovenights at Ely & Christina’s before Pasadena trainings
Grey water systems workshop by Nicholas
Lovely evening outdoor meals at Damian & Maya’s
Swimming at the JT retreat center
Tram up San Jacinto and hike with Reanna
Swale digging party at Damian & Maya’s
Talks about new urbanism with Ely
Mexico vs Brazil World Cup game at Santana’s
Summer evenings in the hammock under the stars with Reanna
Teaching suicide prevention a bunch of times
NBTSC at Camp Latgawa
Teaching “the future of facts” workshop at camp
Good talks with Tilke
Scorpion hunting with Ollie
Bunch of trips to Joshua Tree farmers market
Watching Cosmos with family. Also Call the Midwife, the 7 Up series, Tudor Monastery Farm, and generally just hanging out, lounging around in my parents’ living room with family.
Jeff Lantz moves to Joshua Tree
Acquiring a real fixer-upper next door
Reanna’s obsession with floor plans
Marble run games with Ollie
Going on a date with Reanna to the dry lake in bloom
Starting to take piano lessons, learning stride
The latest Shins, Tame Impala, Modest Mouse & Johnny Marr albums. And Louis Armstrong.
Visits from Ely, Christina & Julian
Visit from John and his family

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One of the last books I read before starting to work full time was Atule Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, on the recommendation of my friend Joe Dillon. It was really good and I’ll pass the recommendation on to you. He argues that across many disciplines we no longer live in a very very complicated world; we live in a truly complex world. Part of what that means is that our brains, our intuitions, are no longer up to the task of flying modern airliners, constructing modern buildings, or performing modern surgery. To do these things well, we need well-constructed checklists to keep from killing people.

One particularly frustrating, inefficient day in grad school, I realized that my brain/intuition wasn’t up to the task of leaving the house with everything I needed for the day. I put some serious thought into a checklist, wrote the list on a note card and taped it to the inside my front door, at eye level:

Keys

Money

Phone

It was very helpful. I started singing it after a week and have ever since, eventually abandoning the note. I sing it before I go anywhere and check my pockets for each item as I do. It sounds like this:

"Keys Money Phone"(Tempo varies with mood, but usually 120+ bpm)

I have been debating with two of my brothers for over a decade about the longevity and importance of 20th century popular music and musical artists. In 100, 200 or 300 years, assuming basic continuity of our civilization, which artists from the last century will be household names, will be known at all outside of music historians, will be considered important in any way?

Our positions have changed a bit over the years, but I tend to argue like this: How many artists can you name from the 19th century? The 18th? The 17th? My music history education is probably better than average, but my lists quickly narrow. I can think of ten or so 19th century composers (and zero musicians) off the top of my head and have put in significant listening time with only Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. I can think of about five 18th century composers and have spent significant time with two–Mozart and Bach. I can only think of one composer from the 17th century and have spent no time with his music. By the 16th century, I don’t even recognize any musicians‘ or composers‘ names.

And none of the above wrote in English. If I had needed to understand the words to enjoy the music I would have no use for any of them.

So, I argue, why should we expect more than ten or so musical artists of our era to be generally known and considered important in 100 years, or more than five in 200 years, or two in 300 years? To do so seems to inflate the importance of our music, and to deflate the probable importance of future generations’ music to the generations that produce it and the probability of major shifts in the dominant culture. It’s an easy mistake to make, I think, for the Gen Xers and Millenials in the cultural shadow of the Boomers. After all, who have our generations produced to eclipse The Beatles or James Brown?

And there’s the way language changes. Even assuming English remains dominant, our modern English is quite likely to sound stilted in 100 years and pretty hard to understand in 300. How many people will listen to Bob Dylan purely for the sonic experience, especially once the historical context of 20th century folk music and Dylan’s “going electric” is long gone?

My brothers, on the other hand, tend to argue that digital storage of music and globalization have changed everything and my looking at history to predict the future is not clear thinking. First, there is unprecedented access to fame in modern times: The composers I cite could write down their pieces and try to get others to play them, but couldn’t put them on YouTube with a video to go viral. As far as I know it’s true that even the best known of my list of composers had nowhere near the fame of Michael Jackson. Maybe popes or emperors had a shot at that kind of fame, but not Bach. Second, my composers wrote on paper that can decompose or get thrown away with grandpa’s old junk after he dies. This is way, way less likely to happen with the way we store information now. A recording of music can theoretically live forever in easy access. Third,  the trend seems to be nichification, not extinction. The memory of and enthusiasm for Carl Perkins, for example, lives on in young people who are into neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly and who knows what other sub-genres to come.  Finally, my wife, Reanna, points out that language may not drift the way it used to because of globalization and the internet. It seems like standardization (to Californian English) is the trend these days, not drift. Dylan may be only a little harder to understand in a couple centuries than he is today.

For all these reasons, they argue, why should we expect any really great music from the 20th century to lose its place in the popular culture of the future?

We will never know the answer. Still, it makes for an interesting exercise to predict. When or if general knowledge of 20th century music narrows to 10 artists, who will it be? Five artists? Two?

Here are my best guesses. This was very difficult, though a very interesting process to go through. Compelling, even. How can I keep my aesthetics and hopes out of it? How long can a dead musical artist remain in memory based on the force of their charisma or persona or being a major voice of their generation?  I am actually less sure about my guesses now that I’ve thought them through. Perhaps I’ll write another post about the process. 

I’d love to know, what are your versions of these lists?

100 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2100:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Billy Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Duke Ellington
  • Elvis Presley
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Michael Jackson
  • Ray Charles
  • The Beatles

200 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2200:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
  • The Beatles

[Note: I gave myself five slots to fill on this list but decided not to.]

300 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2300:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong

Several years ago, I realized what a bummer it is that I will never be able to hear what Jimi Hendrix sounded like with fresh ears. I remember hearing him for the first time, and it was good, but by that time, Hendrix was a practically a genre and certainly a cliche. I can only imagine the joy of hearing him for the first time in the late 60s, before anyone was bored of Hendrix-pastiche, when was hearing him in the context of his actual time: Johnson in office and civil rights moving, The Beatles best records just out, and Blonde on Blonde, and Pet Sounds. It must have been shocking and amazing and wonderful to hear something so powerful and so different and so right.

And that’s just Hendrix. What about Duke Ellington, or Louie Armstrong, or Woody Guthrie, or the Stanley Brothers, or Sinatra, or Elvis?

I have this fantasy of creating something like those experiences for myself: A nutty music buff, or team of them, puts together a big playlist–maybe 200 songs–for each half-decade of the 20th century. I’d have the soundtracks of 20 impossibly hip Americans from different eras. I’d listen to them exclusively, immerse myself in them, one at a time for a few weeks at a time, in chronological order, for a year.

I think I’d stand a chance of really hearing the newness of Hendrix, and all the rest of them, in that context. I would love to try. Any nutty music buffs out there want to take on the project? I will put my ears in your hands.

I met Chris Thile when he was a boy. Seven, maybe. Our parents were friends, through La Leche League, I think, and maybe southern California homeschooling events, and through both having family bands. He was already amazing at mandolin and asked to try my electric guitar. He said he’d never played one before, which was difficult to believe as I watched his little-boy fingers fly on the fretboard. He was clearly and instantly miles beyond me on my own instrument.

I don’t write off his success to talent, though. I believe he is an outlier in many respects. He has worked like crazy, practicing, performing, touring, composing. He’s also one of the nicest and most charismatic people I’ve met. Most of the many times I’ve seen him perform over the years, he’s noticed and said hi to me from the stage or after the set, treating me like an old friend even though we really barely knew each other. So charming!

Here’s a video about Chris being named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow:

And here he is at about the age I met him, on acoustic guitar:

My brother Damian recently played bass and sang backup for Eric Burdon on Google Music, doing Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” They shot at Rimrock Ranch in Pioneertown, a cool spot that Reanna and I had been looking at for a wedding venue. The rest of the band is Eric McFadden on guitar and Wally Ingram on drums. Here it is:

For the last seven years, I’ve led a music project at session 2 of Not Back to School Camp. It’s always fun–a group of musicians of all skill levels and a broad range of instruments get together for the first time, learn to play as a band, write a piece of music, and play it for the rest of camp. In the past, we’ve had 10 hours to accomplish this task. This year, we had 6. Here is our performance:

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