Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mister Composer Head Talks About Sincerity

Okay, so I'm back to practicing the banjo. I'm not sure how to spell that – "practising/practicing". They are both correct, but one is more British than the other. I prefer the British one. Whenever I use it (i.e the British spelling) though, an Editor FIXES it. Don't you just hate Editors?

But I digress…

Someone drew this on a sidewalk (c) David Ocker

I can't play much on the banjo, but I do okay with my favorite country song, "I'm Sure To Fall", by Carl Perkins. That's real country, not the country pop shit that we've been subjected to the last couple decades. Make no mistake. Perkins is country pop too. But it is so much closer to the roots, and not pre-fabricated with stardom and money as the purpose of the music. I think he wrote a real song, for all the right reasons. I could be wrong – it would be the first time, but it could happen – but I don't think so.

But anyway, I played a gig in New York once, with a duo I once played in. We did "I'm Sure To Fall". I played sruti box and sang. Now, I should mention that this was a real sruti box. It only produces certain pitches, and you have to work the bellows with one hand. So you only have one hand left ( it could be the right) with which to manage hole coverage duties in order to get the various combinations of pitches that will imply the chord progression. Plus it's really flat by Western standards, so the guitar player has to completely retune. That's no big deal because everybody from Hendrix to Guns & Roses played a 1/2 step flat on purpose.

But I digress…

Someone dripped this on the sidewalk (c) David Ocker

The thing is this. When we went into Sure To Fall, I felt my heart warm up, got a bit of a lump in my throat, and was aware of a little moisture in my eyes. My heart and mind were filled with thoughts of my wife, and I sang that song for her. That sounds stupid, and it is. But I don't care. That's how it felt.

So the same duo did a gig in L.A., and we did Sure To Fall, by Carl Perkins. Afterwards someone came up to me and said "I'm sure glad you did that country song. You obviously love that song, and it put everything else you did in context". Words to that effect.

The next day I go at an e-mail from a composer friend who was also at that show. Heard the same set, the same songs as the aforementioned guy. She said "It must be nice to be able to put yourself on a pedestal like that, making fun of other peoples' work". Words to that effect.

She picked up on no love, no sincerity.

Why would I work so hard to poke fun at something I don't like? I just would not bother.

I explained this to her. She sent an apology. That was gracious, if unnecessary. She is a classy person.

Someone spray painted this on the sidewalk (c) David Ocker
A friend of mine has often commented that Bruce Springsteen sells "mock sincerity". I think that's fair. Bruce can convince his audience that he actually cares about what he's singing about. I suppose only his hair dresser knows for sure.

But another composer friend remembers hearing Bruce at a bar in New Jersey, way before stardom. He said "You don't have to like Bruce Springsteen, but it was about the best bar band I've ever heard". Words to that effect.

Funny thing about bar bands. They rarely "make it". No matter how good they are.

Keith Richards was asked once what he thought of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. He said "They're a lounge band that made it".

I once roasted a pig, named Gloria Estefan, and she had a caption bubble that said "I'm Gloria Estefan. I'm a real pig, and you can eat me!"

Words to that effect.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mr. Composerhead Tells A Cage Story (OR TWO)

(As Mr. Composerhead's Amanuensis I apologize for falling behind in my work. Here is a long delayed Mr. Ch. essay with my pictures. Comp-head doesn't DO pictures, I guess. As a lesser student of Earle Brown I had personally forgotten about the Kontarskys but what Composerhead says is very true. /David, Mr. Head's-uensis.)

Fallen Conehead (c) David Ocker

Okay, so John Cage was fond of telling stories, and he told a lot of them. Much of his writing consists in anecdotes. Sort of reminds me of Earle Brown, except Earle didn't write that much. But his "teaching" consisted, for the most part, in telling stories about the Kontarsky brothers…

But I digress

Behind the purple fence (c) David Ocker

There's another composer who has a blog and recently posted a little anecdote about John Cage. It's very nice. (They always are.)

An artist friend once said to me that about the worst word you could use to describe anything or anyone is "nice". He considered "nice" to be a particularly derogatory word. But in a backhanded sort of way, because it doesn't sound bad. It's how you use it. Just like "bad" actually means "good", when used in an 80s slang sort of way.

When I was a kid living in Michigan my older cousins were using "tough" to describe a particularly desirable girl. "Yeah, she's tough". I never adopted that one myself. But I think I got it.

You can make a word mean almost anything you want, just by how you use it.

I think it has been said, somewhere, by someone, "Context is everything".

Window in a Green wall (c) David Ocker
When I was in college in Ohio, some of the guys were using "tits" to suggest that something was particularly cool. "Man, that's tits". I'm not sure how you would use "tits" to suggest that someone had particularly nice tits. I never adopted that term for my own vocabulary either. Although I have no problem with tits. I think they're nice.

Another friend in college was using "harmless". He would say, referring to something that had no impact at all on any level "Yeah, get harmless!!". In other words, it wasn't even interesting enough to suggest that it sucked.

It is generally understood among musicians - and especially composers - that the most damning word you can use to describe someone's new piece is "interesting".

That makes it very difficult to tell someone you found their piece interesting – when you mean it. What if you were genuinely engaged? Liked it, didn't like it. Really doesn't matter. But what if you were interested? What can you say? It was nice? Tough? Tits?

"Yeah man, those were some nice tough tits. Interesting too."

Maybe just say it was bad.

Personally, if I was interested, I would say "It was interesting – AND I MEAN IT!".

But I am not often all that interested, frankly.

A yellow crosswalk line (c) David Ocker
So "What does any of this have to do with John Cage stories?" you may be inclined to ask, and understandably so.

[Personally, I never stand under anything I don't understand. But I digress…]

Nothing, so far. But we're getting there.

So anyway, on this other composer's blog someone left a comment to the effect that it's about time someone put together a collection of Cage stories. How nice that would be.

Well, this was in the works years ago. I don't know if it ever materialized, but I was on a list of people who were asked to tell their favorite Cage story, for some sort of compilation.

I submitted a story about when I heard Cage read the preamble to Lecture On the Weather. It was a very engaging read; he was obviously into it. When he was done, the friend I was with said "Everyone thinks he's all sweetness and light, but that man has a lot of anger".

My story was never used, and I have always suspected it's because it was not nice enough.

A colorful plastic totem pole (c) David Ocker
But here's a nice one.

Once I had a piece performed on a concert that included Cage's Freeman Etudes. After the concert I encountered Cage in a corridor, with no one else around. He said to me "Yours was my favorite piece on the concert". If I had been quicker on my feet I would have said "Mine too". But instead I said "Thank you", not nearly as interesting or fun.

I don't recall if I said anything about the Freeman Etudes. I do think they're interesting – really - but I would never go out of my way to hear them again.