The Do-Minor Effect

Stories and thoughts about music with an invisible academic touch

Month: November, 2012

The girl is mine: Covers and Possession

What makes a cover song overcome the original song it covers? When does it become an independent piece and stop being a tribute? Well, first, it needs to try. The musical world is flooded with covers, only a few aspire to be independent songs. Most of the covers try to highlight the singer’s qualities. Some are more abusive in spirit and only try to promote a new performer with an old tune. Those covers might be sentimental and pleasant but most of them do not last long. So, what does it takes for a cover-song to go free and depart from the original version?

There is no scientific formula for these question but for sure there is one idea that must be kept: the new song needs to cover the old one till it fully possess it. Only by total possession the new one can become an independent creature. But what does “possession” means?

Possessing a song is taking the song and performing it as if it was written by you or for you. It only sounds clear and obvious but most of the covers do not act driven by that idea. When treating the songs that way, one can fit the song’s characteristics – style, lyrics, meaning – to himself/herself. In order to avoid abstractness I’ll give an example.

The song “In the pines” is an old American folk song. According to Wikipedia, its first version is dated back to 1870 and the first recorded version was made at 1925. There are several versions of lyrics to the song, most of them discuss a woman who is having an affair or running from her husband. Most versions include a horrible thing that happens to the lover.

A research from 1970 found 160 recorded versions of the song and at the last four decades many others have been added to this list. What can someone renew in such an over-recorded song?

In 1993 Nirvana performed this song live in the Unplugged concert in New York. For most band’s fans that was the first time to hear the band play the song. But for Curt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, that was the last stop of a few years’ journey with “In the pines”.

Cobain got familier with the song from his friend Mark Lanegan. Lanegan had an 1944′ original record of blues singer Lead Belly with “In the pines”. They both felt attached to the song and decided to record it, but with a different attitude and style. In 1990 they recorded their version and it was published in Lanegan’s solo album. Cobain sang there and played the guitar.

But Cobain wanted to play the song by himself. He recorded a home demo version, which did not find its way to any of the band’s studio albums. In 2004, a decade after his death, the recording was published in the album “With the Lights Out”. Cobain sings there a beautiful melody. It’s a homey, quiet version, with no anger and shouting. Maybe the most beautiful recording by him of this song. In a way, it is a bit closer to Lead Belly’s version.

Nirvana’s cover was praised a lot and got very successful. Why? I think the success stands for the possession of the song by Cobain in three levels:

Lyrics: “Black girl” became “My girl”. From now on Cobain doesn’t sing the old folk song that everybody knows. He sings about his girl. I guess he isn’t the first one to make that change, but it was a necessary thing to do because Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, isn’t a black girl. If he sang about black girl, it wasn’t as if the song was written by him.

Style:  Most versions of the song stayed in the country/blues area. Nirvana plays it with its own style. The few decades distance from the original song made it easy for them to give up the origin blues characteristics. In general, the further the distance in years from the original song, so it is easier to say something new about the song with only change in style.

Interpretation and expression: Cobain shouts. His roar is intimidating. You can feel the violent atmosphere; the girl safety is in danger. Maybe he shouts the pain of betrayal, maybe it’s the aftermath of the horrible thing he did. With his shouts Cobain made the song his song, his story, his pain.

The common versions of the song tell a story when there is a distance between the singer and the character telling the story in the song. Lead Belly is not the man who ask the girl where were she last night. In Nirvana’s cover, Cobain is the man in the song. He is the one in the conversation, which starts quietly in a questionnaire way and ends up with loose nerves of a violent man.

Cobain made this folk song his own one. Nirvana’s version became dominant and pushed aside many others. Well known singers sang it before Cobain, like Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan, but it was Cobain who managed to transform the old song into a contemporary private anger. By that he got possession of the song to himself.

As been said earlier, there is no formula for a good cover. Those who wish to play a new version for an old song need to consider in which levels they can bring the old one a new life. There are few who try to accept the challenge, but those who try might be in turn be covered by others.

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“All folk was once somebody’s pop”

Since David Foster Wallace sadly took his life, there are several names mentioned as his heirs. One of them is John Jeremiah Sullivan, and not just because of his triple name.

Sullivan, as Wallace, writes about living in the modern world and contemporary culture. His assays deal with the life in America, and mainly related to music. He is being published in very well-known magazines, such as GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. Last year he published a book, named “Pulphead“, that holds 14 assays that had been published over the years. One of the assays is “Unknown Bards” who tells a story about one old blues song, lost recordings and music research.

It all started at the end of 98′, when Sullivan worked as a junior editor at the Oxford American Magazine. He got a task from his supervisors to check the lyrics of an old song from 1930 that some of its words can not be understood. The song is “Last Kind Words Blues” and the singer of it is Geeshie Wiley, an anonymous musician that no details are known about her, not even the right way to spell her name.

The song starts with a three clear verses:

[1] The last kind words I heard my daddy say/ Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say

[2] If I die, if I die in the German war/ I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord

[3] If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul/ I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole

The problem starts in the forth verse (1:18 at the video). Sullivan cannot understand what Wiley sings in it:

When you see me comin’, look ‘cross the rich man’s field, / If I don’t bring you flowers, I’ll bring you [a boutonniere?]

Sullivan doesn’t understand Wiley and guesses “boutonniere” (a flower worn in a buttonhole). But this guess is meaningless and does not relate to the song’s spirit.

It’s pre-google times and in order to decode the lyrics one needs to make some effort. Sullivan knows he can’t return to his editors and say he failed. So he starts looking for someone who knows anything about blues. He contacted John Fahey.

Fahey, then 60, blues guitarist, got no clue. He asks Sullivan for some time to call friends and ask them but after a while he admits they all know nothing about those lyrics. Sullivan gets into his car and starts listening to the song over and over again. Suddenly he hears at the second sentence the word “bolt”. He returns to his office, open the OED, Oxford dictionary, and started to look for combinations of using that word. Eventually he finds a quote from 1398 with old English that solves the mystery:

“The floure of the mele, whan it is bultid and departed from the bran”.

So Wiley didn’t sing “flowers”, but “flour”:

“If I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal.”

Sullivan calls back to Fahey with his new hypothesis, and Fahey tells him that his guess is very reasonable: during the civil war, when the flour ran out, people used bolted cornmeal.

Today all this process would last less than a minute of search over the internet. Sullivan would have never met Fahey. But that fortunately didn’t happen and the acquaintance with the bluesist deepened his connection with that genre and he started following blues anthologies that been published in the states. With this deepening he get to know blues collectors, one of them is a blues historian who worked as a pest-control man who goes from door to door. He asked the tenants, “need your house sprayed?”, no, “got any weird old records in the attic?”. That way he broadened his collection and maybe saved some records from oblivion.

The assay continues with exploring the blues through collectors, researchers and musicians, and looses tension. But the interesting thing with the people being told about is that the music they are looking for – and they do not know precisely what is it – must be found with someone. “All folk was once somebody’s pop”, its been said in the assay and they are looking for their lost music with the people – sometimes they find records and sometimes and musician themselves. They know that if they won’t find it, it probably be gone forever.

(“Unknown Bards” can be read fully here:pdf ; “Last Kind Words” can be read here)

Improvising in Rio

For 40 years now pianist Keith Jarrett is getting on the most prestigious stages of the world without knowing what would he play for the next couple of hours. He is alone on stage, just the piano and him, and he plays what comes up from the tip of his fingers. He improvises. This can last for forty minutes straight or just three. Last April Jarrett had a concert at Rio de Janeiro, which became the double album “Rio“, one of his most beautiful recordings in his piano solo albums series.

Jarrett, 67, started playing the piano when he was three years old. At the age of eight he already played full classic recital and ended it with a few original pieces of his own. In 1975 he preformed in Germany in a piano solo concert which become an album that he is most recognized with – The Köln Concert. Since then he preformed hundreds of times the same way – full concert of improvisation.

In a documentary film on his career, “The Art of Improvisation“, Jarrett says that his solo concert recordings are a collaborated work of him and Manfred Eicher, his producer at ECM records. The two of them work together since the 70’s and Eicher managed to record more than hundred piano solo concerts of Keith all these years. From this collection only a few have been published. In Rio the magic they’ve been looking for was found and the improvisation became a full independent musical piece.

Jarrett’s improvisation on stage is the essence of music – being in the current time and place. That’s where music lives, in the present time and only there. Recordings and musical notes are just the by-products.

Jarrett is not improvising on a specific theme over and over again. His playing leans forward, where it can fly or fall. Listening to his piano solo concert recordings is like mapping the possibilities of music creation. When he is getting close to a melody he can touch it and then walk away. He doesn’t tend to stick around it.

For example, at the piece attached, one of the softest in the album, there is a definite pick at 3:22. At this point, instead of repeating the melodic phrase, a thing that every musician would do gladly, he chooses to touch it and fade away from it. This is typical for him – a constant search for music possibilities, finding them and moving on.

There are 15 tracks in Rio, none of them exceeds nine minutes. Jarrett, that had concert albums where he played for 20 minutes and once even for 40 minutes (like in “The Vienna Concert“), had more than a decade ago CFS – Chronic fatigue syndrome – which forced him to stop playing for a while. After recovering, he started playing for short periods each time. According to Rio, it seems he fully recovered from the syndrome – he is at his best at the last half an hour of the concert, at the encores, where an hour of improvisation is behind him.

Jarrett’s totality made his improvisation being not just a raw material but a hi-end product. He devoted himself to the piano, mentally and physically. His body movements near the piano are one of his identifying marks. He tends to stand up, sing or hum during playing the piano. He played till his body didn’t let him continue and returned to the piano the moment he could. This totality accompanies his music to the stages, where he fully give himself and improvises in a way he can not repeat himself – the audience is already familiar with his recordings, and he himself can not let himself down by playing improvisation that has already been played before. That might be the secret of  how he goes for 40 years now mapping the endless possibilities of piano music.

The rhythm of Dave King

Two years ago I saw The Bad Plus trio in the winter jazz Festival in Eilat. One of the things that fascinated me at the concert occurred in between the songs. After every two or three songs the pianist stood up and said: “That was a piece by Dave. The next one is also by him”. As being pianocentric, I always thought that Ethan Iverson, the band’s pianist, write all the their music. Apparently, I was utterly wrong: great amount of the band’s material is written by Dave King – The Bad Plus’ Drummer.

King’s music is intense, and so is his career. His last few months included a documentary release about him, and two albums releases – one with The Bad Plus and one with his a new trio where he plays new versions of old jazz classics.

This standards album, named “I’ve Been Ringing You“, was recorded with a pianist (Bill Carrothers) and a bass player (Billy Peterson) in a four hours long session in a little church in Minnesota. The location had some influence on the musicians, if one can tell by the pleasant darkness sound of the album.

The first song at the album is actually a farewell song, named “Goodbye“, which is a Benny Goodman piece that was played at every concert ending of his orchestra. “Goodbye” was written by Gordon Jenkins in memory of his wife, who passed away while giving birth to their first child, who died as well. King transferred this old gloomy piece, with its lingering clarinet notes that are very rare to find these days, to the modern urban sadness without missing a thing. Goodman’s silent clarinet becomes an itch of drum sticks on the cymbals, on the verge of whisper and scratch.

 The album is a good example of what can become from the meeting of old classics and experimental musician. As he said in interviews, King’s music philosophy is being collaborative – he does not like the kind of playing when one takes the central role and emphasize his great skills while all the other on stage are just being a background stunts for him. He prefer collaboration of ideas on stage where the music is the central player, not the performers’ skills.

This philosophy can be seen in the “King for two days” documentary. For two nights at march 2010 King played in Minneapolis, his home town, with five different bands in diverse styles. The common factor of them all is the relationships between the players. King, 42, plays with some of them since the age of 14. Tough they are familiar with each other, every band has its own style. The Bad Plus are more harmony-lyrical, while King’s other dominant band, Happy Apple, is less harmonic and more experimental. One of the bands in the movie is Golden Valley Is Now. They haven’t released any official recording yet and from the short sample that can was revealed at that evening, it is very intriguing to see what would come up with them.

King is a man of ideas and he needs the right company to fulfill them with. He tried once to do it on his own. King started playing the piano when he was five years old and the drums at the age of nine. Two years ago he recorded a solo album where he plays the piano and the drums on his own. He got some good reviews but did not record anything solo since.

His solo album was an exception at his career and even of his idea of music: music belongs to the group who plays it and not solely to the composer. You can test it by blind-listening to the The Bad Plus. It is not so easy to identify who wrote each piece, even though they play very different instruments: piano, drums and bass. That is one of their greatness. They do not write in order to stress their personal skills. They scrape together their music till it’s a collaborative piece where the composer identity is vague.

Composing is a dominant part in Dave King’s art and it seems to me that this is what ignite him to starts all his musical groups. He doesn’t wait till his band members get used to his new ideas. He joins other people, and without giving up on anything, he fulfill with them all of his musical ideas.

Some pianists are just fed up with their chairs

Conductor Benjamin Zander spoke once in a TED speech in favour of moving the body during piano playing. He praised the movement of the body, claiming that a “one buttock play” is a way of unchaining the music out of the body.

Moving across the piano chair is not as simple as it sounds. The first years of playing music train the young pianist to adapt introvert behavior, as being expressed in his sitting, moving, breathing, and voice making. In classes, the child learns not to sing with the melody. Moving with it is not encouraged. When the child plays at home he is required to sit still at his chair and practice long hours. The body learns how to hold the utterance that music rise in it.

Furthermore, the child learns to play the piano while the body is still small and cannot seize the whole width and height of the piano. He or she can not reach the pedals so they place their feet on a footstool. The chair is a safe place for the young pianist and sitting still is a secure thing to do near the huge instrument. But even when the young pianists grow up they are under pressure of keeping the body still. If they move to much in the concert hall, the audience will accuse them of mannerism and artificial behavior for trying to cover for some musical weaknesses. Zander’s advice only sounds simple.

But some pianists do get some courage and move across the chair. Ethan Iverson, The Bad Plus’ pianist, seems uncomfortable sitting while playing. He bumps on the chair with minor risings and sometimes ends musical sentences with a full standing. His behavior is sincere. He is not trying to get attention by this moving. It seems it is completely driven by the music.

 Eric Lewis

Unlike Iverson, Eric Lewis (AKA ELEW), jazz pianist and a TED star, perfected the standing while playing into a full gimmick. Lewis, whose style is best described by his own label name, NinJazz, is not rising from his chair lifted by the music. He moves the chair out the piano zone, stretches his legs far from each other till he stands at the height of sitting. It is not clear what this position contribute to his music besides a weird show-off. He once referred to this issue in an interview and said that standing like this is painful, but he does it after years of playing for hours with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “I was watching the years of my youth melt away while I was sitting at the piano”, he says. So he decided to play while standing.

It should be put straight: it is not comfortable to play standing. Playing seated let the palms the ability to move freely, while playing standing fix them firmly in a stiff position. Having said that, there are still pianists who play while moving a lot and even standing. This raises the question: are we watching an authentic behavior or a manipulation?

One of the pianists that is in the heart of this debate is Keith Jarrett. His physical behavior near the piano rose some vicious criticism blaming him of mannerism. One of his critics wrote once that his rising from the chair is a sign for the audience that a moment with an artistic depth is just happening, so they should be amazed.

Is it really possible to stand up absentmindedly or with an inner force which is not an intended manner? Peter Elsdon, musicologist from Hull University, published an article about the body movement of Keith Jarrett while playing (can be found partly here and fully at the book “Music and Gesture”). As I understand it, Elsdon claims that the music plays Jarrett’s body and not vice versa.

Jarrett has a ritual of sitting quiet by the piano before playing. This can last even a few minutes. After that, he starts improvising. When he plays, his body moves awkwardly, sometimes in a way that seems unrelated to the music being played. Improvising requires the feeling of being free-minded and that feeling is being obtained with the body movement. For Elsdon, the body is an indication for improvising: it resemebles the struggle, the tension and liberation required for such music playing. Elsdon’s insights support Zander’s “one buttock play” advice: moving the body encourage freedom and creativity. As for the audience, if you find it distracting, you can always close your eyes.