Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Great Schism: Part 2

I left my last post with two gigantic unanswered questions: What is the function of classical music today? and What are the similarities between popular and classical music, with the exception of both fitting in the bubble of Western music?

There’s no correct answer to either question. I hate it when teachers say that but the truth is most important questions don’t have easy answers. Regarding the second question, it’s important to remember that the best classical composers and popular songwriters both strived for the same result. Jimmy Page and Ludwig van Beethoven were both utter perfectionists, not stopping until their work was entirely satisfying. Sometimes we look at these two musicians like two aliens from different planets. But this is not so! Both Page and Beethoven grew up in societies that staunchly supported musical achievement, albeit 174 years apart. Page felt the mystique and aura of the Beatles, Beethoven of Mozart. Both listened carefully to what was around them but wanted to make something new. Well…Beethoven listened for as long as he could.

Within a 40 minute Led Zeppelin album or a 35 minute Beethoven symphony, we find the same rises, the same falls, the same meticulous layering of strings (violins or guitars), the same cohesive nature, and ultimately, we find something to get excited about. But what creates the schism is the sociological association. When we hear the unmistakable riff of “Black Dog,” we are transported to an enormous stadium, packed with screaming intoxicated teenagers and twenty-somethings, each with his/her hair down to the waist. When we hear the equally recognizable beginning to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we think of a stuffy concert hall, filled with highbrow men in tuxedoes, accompanied by their elegant, sophisticated wives. There’s truth in these instant mental pictures, and hence people find no common ground between the two compositions. But in truth, both Page and Beethoven were only trying to push their craft a bit further, whether that may have been accomplished by using new modulation techniques or new distortion pedals.

I am quite aware of the differences as well, putting context aside. Beethoven was more gifted, hands down. It’s staggering that the man was deaf for a good part of his life yet prolific till the end, all the while suffering from other overwhelming health problems. Page was in a band with three other talented collaborators and only made significant musical contributions for about ten years, all while sleeping around and doing drugs like any good rock star should. Beethoven’s work stands 182 years later while Zeppelin’s does only about 29 years after the hammer of the gods fell for the last time. Still, both men were giants in their prime for good reason. They were able to find “it” with consistency, the goal of any artist. If you don’t know what “it” is, see my second post.

This goes back to the importance of classical music today. Beethoven (I’ll just keep using Ludwig because he’s a good example) lived in a time with no microphones, recording devices or notation software. Musical statements were made live, on the stage, by a bunch of people wielding odd-looking concoctions of wood or medal known as instruments. Yet despite these overwhelming limitations, art was made, art that is still admired today. Even after the Moog synthesizer and multi-track recording, we still marvel at the power of dozens and dozens of people on stage playing their part in the grand scheme of things. Orchestral music stands as a testament to human stubbornness. Some things we simply refuse to let become obsolete.

Not only does it stick around, classical music is the best example of why music is the “universal language.” People throughout the world have heard the music of the masters and keep coming back for more. Even those of us who couldn’t tell Bach from Stravinsky have watched the classic film Fantasia in awe, and not just because of the pretty colors and dinosaurs. Studying and enjoying this stuff is a way to connect us with the whole world. In the twenty-first century, we need to grasp at every opportunity to find common ground. Brahms, not bombs!

To summarize this lengthy piece of propaganda, don’t get fooled by having separate categories for classical music and popular music. The brilliant minds of both spheres are blessed with the same innate ability to communicate human emotions using sound and silence. In 1956, Chuck Berry released the song “Roll Over Beethoven” which was later covered by the Beatles. If you haven’t heard the song, the title pretty much says it all. But as revolutionary as Berry was, I have to disagree and say that Beethoven isn’t going to budge and he needn’t tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Classical and Pop: The Great Musical Schism (Part 1)

Yesterday, a couple of friends and I went to see the Seattle Symphony. They played excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. I hadn’t seen the Seattle Symphony since I was a young tyke, being dragged by my parents from concert to concert, so this was the first time I had gone on my own accord. Well, it was certainly worth it. Using my “Campus Club” student discount card to get a $60 seat for only $10, I was reminded how truly incredible live music can be. I have listened to a recording of the Symphonie Fantastique many times, but seeing and hearing freakishly talented human beings perform it in a top-notch facility is completely different. But not only was this concert incredible; it made me think about the function of classical music today.

Of course, I think about this all the time but describing the concert seemed like a better intro than “I was sitting in my room, looking out the window, when I started thinking about the function of classical music today.” But seriously, there were more bald heads and wrinkles in that nearly full audience than I have seen in a long time. This was no surprise though. Classical music is synonymous with the word tradition and what demographic loves tradition more than senior citizens? There's the answer: classical music exists to keep old people happy.

Little joke...that isn't my opinion.

I am currently studying classical music at a liberal arts institution. Nearly everything is geared toward finding enrichment through performing and listening to the masters of the classical vein. And this is great! There’s a reason that Mozart is legendary more than 200 years after his death. But sometimes my fellow students can be a bit ridiculous. For example, the other day I was working on lyrics to a song in one of the practice rooms in the music building. A music education major came in and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was writing a song. He then asked me if I was writing an art song in the tradition of Schubert or Brahms. I couldn’t help chuckling a little bit even though he was completely serious. Not every music student would assume I was writing lieder, but this really did happen. Some people are stuck in the 19th century.

I enjoy learning about sonata-allegro form and imitative counterpoint and all, but my musical foundation will always be in the popular music of the 1960s and beyond. I became the hopelessly obsessed person I am today back in November of 2001 when I was in 7th grade. This is when George Harrison died. Beatles’ music was being played on nearly every radio station and I was hooked. I’d liked the Beatles since I can remember but this renaissance made me think outside the “like” box a little bit. Over the next few years, the only music that mattered was “classic rock,” whatever that convenient idiom means. My musical taste buds grew more tolerant over time and I even started listening to classical music. But I’d always go about listening to classical in a different way than popular music. In some ways, I still do.

There are countless differences between the classical and pop. Of course, let me first warn you about some huge generalizations. Classical and popular music can’t be pinned down in a statement. They are mighty big animals. But classical is typically associated with careful attention to detail, refined subtlety and complex structure. Popular music, however, is often performed by people who don’t read music, and usually focuses on the catchiness above the overall form. In terms of audiences, many feel that classical is for the bourgeoisie, popular is for the proletariat.

But the two are so closely related!!!! This may be a recurring theme in this blog as I am currently flirting with the idea of writing my senior capstone project on this very subject. I've spent many hours wikipediaing both, so I feel like a true expert on this subject. Why are they closely related? Believe it or not, classical and popular music are based on the very same Western music system! Rock ’n’ roll was not invented like the printing press. Elvis Presley used major and minor keys in his music. Four is still the most common meter whether you are listening to J.S. Bach or Bachman Turner Overdrive. But the similarities go way deeper than that.

To be continued…

Monday, March 16, 2009

From Macro to Micro

For a few years now, I've been participating in a thread on called the "Go Review that Album Game." In this game, one person posts a review on the thread, then the next person looks at his/her predecessor's music collection and picks any album for that person to review. I like this system because it forces me to analyze albums I otherwise might ignore and not limit myself to what I know really well.

This review is a product of that game. I previously said that my goal was to expand from my familiar zone of writing reviews but that doesn't mean I'll stop writing them. I try to consistently type up a review once a month. Here's one of an album you probably haven't heard of!

And by the way, here is a list of my reviews through that game. Some of them suck but I'd rather write more reviews than go back and edit them. Plus, it's nice to see that I'm a better writer now that before.

There's something so wonderful about a band that can't pinned down but aren't trying to be particularly groundbreaking. Grand Archives come out of Seattle's indie scene and are led by Mat Brooke, former lead guitarist for Band of Horses. But this quintet’s general style sounds more like seventies soft rock a la America than anything else. Of course, the main difference between GA and the lush sound of England’s favorite Crosby, Stills, and Nash wannabe is in the lyrics. The verse here is essentially the anti-cliché. Originality (some might say opacity) hardly begins to describe the words penned by Mr. Brooke.

“Torn Foam Blue Couch” begins this self-titled album with “Hold on, the further waves are high, sleepless every night, lie down shading your eyes from everyone.” This is a rather odd beginning, but what really makes it out of the ordinary is the delivery. The lyrics and melody don’t mesh like one might expect them to. Lyrically, the album is one long, reflective, line after another. Yet each word is sung as part of the greater melody, with no inflection or emotion. Nearly all the vocals are doubled and drenched with reverb making this occasionally heart-wrenching poetry seem nonchalant, floating dreamily above the acoustic guitars and piano.

Another prime example of the paradoxical lyric/music relationship is in the third to last track, “Louis Riel.” The song seems to be about the narrator’s disdain for the title character and has a harmonized chorus of “Hung by a rope where the railroad will surely come by,” sung after a child-like refrain of “ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da da da dum.” The song could be a musical cousin of “Teach Your Children” or “Ventura Highway,” two tunes we might not associate with a hangman’s noose.

I saw Grand Archives play at the Sasquatch Festival in 2008. I was pleasantly surprised, eventually purchasing their first full-length release. Of course, hearing the group live, I wasn’t listening carefully to the words, but I knew I liked their sound. The songs were simple but quite catchy and all contained a certain charm. Also, the group could seamlessly switch from tender acoustic arrangements to full-on rockers without losing any clarity or allure. I hadn’t even heard of the group before seeing them live, so I was pleased to have discovered something worthwhile.

After really getting to know Grand Archives, I’m still a fan. The songs are cleverly written, and subtlety is the name of the game. As mentioned earlier, the vocals might appear to lack personality but that’s just part of the act. To quote the final song, “Orange Juice,” “You can’t conquer a world that’s always been good to you, but let’s go out and try anyway.” This confusing yet somehow understandable bit of advice is a perfect ending to this quirky debut.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

If music be the food of love...

It’s crazy to think that when Shakespeare wrote those words, J.S. Bach was over eighty years from being born. I mean, there’s certainly great music from the 17th century and earlier but it is hard to deny that music as we know it was in its infancy.

Most everyone has heard it said that music is the "universal language." This phrase gets thrown around so often that we often take it for granted. But it’s a fantastic and completely true concept. Is there anything else that can invoke emotions in such a wide range of people throughout history all over the world? It’s impossible to give an all-encompassing answer for why this is. One could try to psychologically explain the parts of the brain that are stimulated by certain vibrations in air molecules but that says nothing about the supernatural feeling we get after a certain note, chord, rhythm or whatever.

This surreal sensation is the absolute most important factor in studying or thinking about music. Everyone who has ever genuinely been moved by music is on the same plane. Someone who has experienced this when listening to Blink 182 or Britney Spears is no less musically enlightened than I am. On the flipside, a musical novice like myself is right up there with Beethoven, Paul Simon or Duke Ellington. Don’t get me wrong; these giants were/are infinitely more knowledgeable and gifted than I could imagine being. I’m simply saying that there is no such thing as elite musical appreciation.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who dislikes Britney and Blink as much as I do. I could follow up this post with all the ways I would rather be tortured than forced to listen to music by these “artists.” However, names are insignificant when you’re talking about an otherworldly experience between a person and the sounds that he/she is hearing. For this to occur when listening to “Toxic,” it would take a set of circumstances that may be inexplicable to me. However, once it does (and I’m sure it has), nothing else matters.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all music is equal. A recording of some kid playing the violin for the first time is not on the same level as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Like any form of art, in music, there is clearly a connection between craftsmanship and creating pleasing material (gasp!). And some musical qualities are, on average, more pleasing than others. It’s safe to say that people typically like sound of The Beatles more than Strawberry Alarm Clock, putting other factors such as fame aside. But explaining this is difficult and not the point.

Let this post serve as my lengthy disclaimer. Before I go on and tear certain artists apart limb from limb, let me just say that the ideal function of music is for people to experience what no words cannot describe. If it succeeds, then it is worthy. End of story. For every music listener, there is a different perspective based on countless factors. The general trends are meaningless when put up against the entire musical tradition. Leonard Bernstein once said that music can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” As his contemporary Ira Gershwin wrote in “I Got Rhythm,” “Who could ask for anything more?”

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Thank you so much for coming to this page. There are billions of sites you could have gone to instead so your cyber presence is appreciated. I’d imagine if you’re reading this, you probably know me but regardless, here is a bit of personal info as well as my aspirations for this blog

My name is Ben Tully and I am a twenty-year-old college student at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, USA where I plan to graduate in 2011. You can read my “About Me” page for a more detailed description of who I am, but in a nutshell, I am a music freak who loves writing about, composing, and playing music. Recently, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about music for a living. I write album reviews for the PLU newspaper (The Mast) and have posted all my reviews on, but have recently wanted to expand my music writing horizons. There are a lot more opinions in my head than just what albums are good, bad or ugly. To me, this is the perfect place to write about anything music related. For example, someday you may read an article entitled “Why do people often say they like all genres except country?” or “Copying music: To burn or not to burn” or “Beethoven vs. Brian Wilson.” I’m not making any promises, but these are some things that I could hypothetically write about.

The blog’s title is a song by David Crosby released on Crosby and Nash’s first album in 1972. It’s a fantastic song but has no particular significance to me or to this site. It just seemed to be a good blog title. I hope to post here weekly or more often, despite my hectic schedule as a college student. The goal is for this to become more than just another blog. I don’t plan on gushing my feelings or divulging into my personal life. It’s arrogant enough to create an entire website of my own opinions so I might as well keep it focused on the music. Like I said on my “About Me,” any feedback is more than welcome. Since I’d like to get paid for this someday, pointing out flaws is helpful and not hurtful at all, as long as your criticism is backed up. Feedback that only says “You suck at writing” won’t be particularly beneficial.

I love expressing my thoughts about music, but often I do so upon deaf ears. Writing it in this fashion will A) be articulated better than if I had spoken on the subject, and B) be there for anyone who wants to read it, but if you’d rather not, that’s okay. I realize that a lot of people out there listen to what they like and leave it at that, and there is nothing wrong with this philosophy. As long as you’re interested in furthering your knowledge of something, you’re cool with me. Nonetheless, I’m really looking forward to this and I hope you check it every now and then for new posts. Thanks again and I hope you enjoy Page 43!