On grace and the proper way to listen to music.

On grace and the proper way to listen to music.

Davebrubeckquartet1967aThere was a big guy in the audience at a Dave Brubeck concert, plonked awkwardly in one of those little red auditorium seats (i.e. knees up above his waste because he was too tall to fit comfortably), and he was rocking out.  Legs jostling, hand tapping his thigh, swaying, bobbing his neck forward and back.

The woman beside him was trying to be patient.  But, she’d come to hear the music.  Eventually turned and asked him in a hiss to please sit still.  The guy said, sorry, sorry, sorry.  But it was hard.  His knees kept jittering.  All through the show.

Then, toward the end, Dave Brubeck turned away from his piano and said, I’d like to welcome my son Chris up onto the stage.  The big guy in the audience didn’t rub it in.  He just turned to the woman next to him — she was between him and the nearest aisle — and said, excuse me, stood up, slipped awkwardly by, and hopped up onstage.  A stagehand walked out to hand him a trombone.

CaptureA fine trombonist, Chris Brubeck.  Also plays fretless bass.  And listens to music like somebody who really, truly loves music.  Who can’t help but move.  Yet still tolerates the listening habits of others with grace.

R.I.P., Dave, 1920-2012.  He kneaded my hands when we met in 2008, trying to transfer a bit of his magic.  And “Unsquare Dance” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” still bring so much joy.


p.s.  One bonus Dave Brubeck story.  My uncle was playing at a tribute show, and at one point in the evening he had his eyes closed, playing a solo.  And the audience burst into loud applause.  My uncle thought he must be playing great!  Honestly, I have no doubt he was.  But then he heard the piano and realized, no, everyone was clapping because Dave Brubeck had just stepped onto the stage.


On inflammatory language & music.

CaptureI recently spent an afternoon sitting in the “undergraduate resource room” at Indiana University reading Randall Kennedy‘s The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (which is not the book’s entire title… but that’s kinda the whole point of this essay).  The book is good — a thorough history of our most damaging racial epithet, with special emphasis on its appearance in court cases in the United States — and ends on an oddly hopeful & inclusive note as regards the future of the word.

I should preface my remarks by pointing out that, quite clearly, Kennedy knows more about this word than I do.  And my reflexive assumption from a glance at his author photograph is that his opinions are coming from a place that’s more likely informed by visceral experience than any of my thoughts.  So it’s cool to hear that Kennedy believes that measured, reflective, purposeful use of the word by people of any genetic background can be acceptable.  Even though I disagree.

I obviously wouldn’t excise the word from anyone else’s work.  I’m anti-censorship — there are vile passages in my own work, so I’m well aware that sometimes art demands it — and beyond that, phrases that would be vile coming from my own lips are not necessarily so coming from someone else’s.  My buddy who overcame can talk smack on alcoholics.  Through stupidity & suffering, he earned that privilege.  I’m permitted only to listen.

I think, with that word especially, who you are and what you’ve suffered through in large part determines what is okay to say.

But even then, I wish the word were wielded less frequently.  Because music, done right, invites repetition.  Listener participation.  Good songs compel listeners to want to sing along.  So I wish there were subbed versions of certain songs — especially really empowering work like Odd Future’s “Forest Green” or the glorious a cappella riff tucked away at the end of Frank Ocean’s “American Wedding” — with lines like “I ain’t one for people’s wishes” or “these people can’t do nothing that I can’t do.”

Which obviously isn’t their responsibility.  Like all real artists, they probably made their music first and foremost for themselves.  Presumably they made the art they felt was missing from the world, recorded the songs they themselves wanted to hear.  And their original lyrics, from them, for them, are fine.

But, let’s be honest here — audiences are selfish.  I am selfish.  Their songs are so good that I wish they’d made versions that could be sung along to by me.  Which obviously I haven’t earned.  But I still want it.

So, again, I’m anti-censorship.  I think “Forget You” sounds weak — and, there, that’s a word I don’t even mind… it’s just Saxon.  I think “She ain’t messing with no broke broke” sounds ridiculous.  Their real art is obviously the music they first wrote and recorded, and good art released into the world is a gift.  It’s petulant & petty to want more but I still do.

And obviously I don’t need a different edition of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, for instance.  Or (despite the butchery I employed on his title) Kennedy’s book.  But music seems different because of the way listeners spontaneously respond & mimic.  Even singing along, in my own car with the windows up, the real lyrics aren’t things I should say.  I don’t want to train my lips to move that way.

Especially in a world where that language is still pervasive, and not in jest.  Like the Oklahoma fraternity chant.  Like the Duke lacrosse team, who, yes, seem to have been unfairly treated as regards a likely-specious rape allegation… but who were then roundly defended & even celebrated as “innocent” despite the fact that they’d been given large sums of money by the university, used it to get drunk and hire strippers, then shouted vile epithets and vicious racist “jokes” at the women as they drove away.

It’s in light of these ongoing horrors that I have to respectfully disagree with Kennedy’s opinion that — in the right contexts, with careful consideration — the word can be renovated by people who look like me, or like those Oklahoma fraternity members, or like those Duke Lacross players, or like Quentin Tarantino.  Sure, no genetic background creates a monolith.  Melanin-deficient skin enswathes a variety of souls.  But because that word harms listeners most, and a listener won’t always know whether a nearby speaker is evil, I’d excise it from the diction of the pale.

On family (my own) and music videos.


I had planned to post something serious today.  Maybe a piece on Freeman Dyson’s writing about amnesty; I wrote & scheduled it a few weeks ago but have been bumping it since.  Or an essay about the evolution of skin color that I’ve been taking notes for ever since reading early press coverage about the new human genomics data.

But, honestly, I don’t feel like writing anything serious today.  I assume most people who follow the news felt rather weary by the end of last week.  And it’s Father’s Day as I’m typing.  So I’m’a write something cutesy about my family instead.

I come from a family of math & science people who would rather make art.  My mother has a master’s degree in microbiology; now she does garden design.  My father is an infectious disease doctor who put together the first exhibition of his paintings last year.

And their kids?

My brother double majored in mathematics & economics, I have degrees in chemistry & biochemistry, my sister just completed her residency in internal medicine & pediatrics.  All math and science people… and closet (well, not so closeted in my case anymore) artists.  For today’s post I thought I’d slap up three music videos, one that each of us appears in.

My brother’s video comes from a collaboration between him and my former housemate — he makes the music, she makes the visuals, they animate together.  This piece is their take on the Infinite Jest / memetic-evolution-creates-art-that’s-too-compelling trope.  And I’m a sucker for self-referential art — Marshall, on the TV screen, is watching one of their earlier pieces.

I guess his acting is rather subdued here.  But don’t worry!  The videos that my sister and I appear in are action packed!  Packed with action-packed action!

And, right, feel free to check out my brother’s other offerings at Blackbox Singles.  They (the videos) became steadily fancier as they (my brother & former housemate) learned more about that ornery animation software.

Oh, wait.  It seems that my video isn’t very action-packed after all.  Rather slow and pathetic, really.  It was written for our family’s holiday record, the cd we send out to friends and relatives in lieu of a photograph of ourselves fake smiling in front of mall Santa.  And I suppose this video serves as a decent example of the idea that restrictions breed creativity: I like the slow-motion dancing, but my brother told me he’d incorporated that effect only because he realized we hadn’t done enough filming to fill up three and a half minutes.  Whoops.

My sister’s video has dramatically more action — maybe she loses a few points for the backing music being caged from Taylor Swift (although the lyrics are obviously reworked), but, still, her exuberance should make my brother & me feel ashamed of our slothful languor.

Of course, she was a Division I athlete in college, whereas I was a too-many-classes-taking pedantic scrawnmonster.  That’s my excuse.  I’m not sure what my brother’s excuse could be — he & his double’s partner placed third in the state in tennis.