Thursday, March 18, 2010

Near the midnight hour, who was that masked singer . . . ?

Listening via Facebook to my former VOA Urdu Service colleague and videographer (at left) Kevork Tashdjian's hour-long Internet radio program ("The world unites every Thursday night . . . . ") on our local non-profit public radio WEBR, and kidding him as usual about not identifying the artists being played, I'm moved to share again my own particular madness about recognizing the importance not only of the names and identities of individual artists, but their place in the evolutionary continuity of styles and genres. . . .

So here again is the full rant (do let me know whether I'm totally off the planet on this one . . . . ):

Who WAS that masked . . . musician anyway? Meditations on an obsession

Back in the late 60's, I was invited to give a lecture-demonstration on Indian classical music to a group of outgoing Peace Corps Volunteers at their orientation in Putney, Vermont, and afterwards I somehow found my way to a . . . well . . . gathering somewhere outside of town. I don't recall now why I was in the area, or even the year. But I do remember one moment from that particular evening with crystalline clarity:

The sun was setting, with the intense luminosity of dusk in the New England countryside, and there was a house set amidst fields. It might have been on a farm, or perhaps, most probably, a commune of sorts, set on a farm.

I heard waves of music pulsing at loud volume from inside the house--in a distinctive style which I couldn't quite identify (some sort of 60's rock?) but with previously unheard melodic and harmonic colors--with a few people wandering around outside, and the odd figure dancing alone in the tarnished gleam of twilight.

I moved toward the house, wanting to get closer to the source of the music. When I went inside, I discovered that one of the rooms had been turned, in effect, into an enormous dedicated loudspeark enclosure (as someone there explained), with large speakers placed strategically to broadcast out through the windows into the fields, and the THUMPPP of the bass from huge woofers drumming in my belly as I stood inside.

While I was intrigued with the novel acoustic experiment, I was even more concerned with what the music was, and who was performing it.

When I began to ask around, my questions (What's the song? What's the album? Who's playing?) were met with expressions of blank astonishment.

"Man, I have NO clue . . . does it matter? Just groove, just groove . . . . let yourself go . . . "

But I couldn't let myself go. I had to know the origins of the music, and place it in some sort of context in the musical landscape of that heady Aquarian period of turmoil and consequent creativity. That was perhaps the first time that I realized explicitly how central a clear taxonomy of every aspect of life was essential to my perception of order in the universe, and how the absence of such conceptual structures could leave me bewildered and adrift . . . .

As a child, I had collected minerals, and had consistently won first prize as a junior member of the Colorado Mineral Society in identification and display contests. I had proudly assembled a small library of books on minerals, and studied them carefully, savoring the order of the precise systems of classification by chemical composition and crystal structure. I even made three dimensional cardboard models of the most common crystal forms from Arthur J. Gude's amazing (at least to a child) cutout kits.

I had collected butterflies (pinning them carefully with pins and wax-paper strips on trays in a home-made mounting box in preparation for display), and when I wasn't collecting, I was poring over the exquisite color plates of W. J. Holland's definitive The Butterfly Book--again, wallowing with pleasure through schemes of genus, of species and sub-species, and what distinguishes one individual butterfly from its closest, almost imperceptibly different, relative.

I collected Lincoln pennies and Buffalo and Jefferson nickels and Mercury and Roosevelt dimes, and kept them carefully in their blue Whitman albums, arranged by year and mint. I collected stamps, though fitfully--but then, my taxonomic mania had to come to a halt somewhere.

In the ensuing years, those impulses translated into an exploration of the world of music through listening and collecting, among the myriad categories and subcategories of melodic and rhythmic expression around the world: seeing the development of styles, how a previous composer or performer influences the neophyte, and how the music itself evolves and is transmitted and transformed over time.

I never did learn the names of the performers of the songs booming out from that farmhouse. But to this day I still feel my frustration at being unable to identify that music, to place it in context.

But just now, as I am listening online to Pandora Radio (see my initial posting on this subject) waiting for the caffeine from my morning espresso to kick in, I feel as though I have found a new home, with unlimited options for discovery amongst the taxonomies in the wondrous world of music.

More to come by way of explanation. But in the meantime, explore on your own the richness of Pandora, be your musical preferences classical, or jazz, or folk, rock, or pop, or metal, or hip-hop, or . . . .

As we say in Urdu, "If it comes free, what's the harm?" At least up to 40 hours a month of broad-spectrum listening which you can program yourself.


Jim Millward said...

So what you do, Brian, is this: with an iphone, you get an app called Shazam (there are probably others like it now) that will listen to what is playing through the microphone, and come up with an identification. Either that, or "just groove."

Brian Q. Silver said...

Thanks for the tip, Jim. As it turns out, I just got an i-Phone ten days ago, and will most certainly get the app (application) you recommend.

Sitting here with my first espresso of the morning, I find it most entertaining to imagine what life would have been like in those amazing days in the '60's if I had actually had, through some deus-ex-machina intervention, an i-Phone!