Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Magic of Pentatonics

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Music is a universal language. It cuts across national, cultural, and linguistic borders and unites us at a very basic level of our being. Don't take my word for it: Check out this amazing video from Bobby McFerrin, of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame.

Notice how he's hopping around the stage as if bouncing on giant piano keys. What's fascinating is that after Bobby spots the crowd the first two notes of his song, they get the third one all by themselves, without any prompting. They go on to do the same thing no matter how high or low Bobby goes on his imaginary keyboard. He says that no matter where in the world he does this, the audience just instinctively gets it.

How does it work? Well, the truth is that no one really knows. What Bobby's playing is a pentatonic major scale. What that means, in the simplest terms I can explain, is that where C Major has seven tones plus the octave -- CDEFGABC, straight up the white keys on the piano -- the pentatonic omits the fourth and the seventh of the scale. Thus: CDE (skip over F) GA (skip over B) C.

This does two things. First, it removes the tritones from the scale. Tritones are inherently dissonant. So if you remove the fourth and the seventh, all the remaining tones sound consonant with each other. No clashing tones remain.

Second, the pentatonic scale mimics the circle of fifths, which is a tool some musicians use to visualize the relationships between musical tones.

Just plain Bill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Perfect fifths, which are what make up the circle, exist in intervals that are the most pleasing to the human ear of all tone combinations, with the exception of unison notes (say, the same C played together on two instruments) and octaves (say, two neighboring Cs played together on a piano). Instruments that are tuned in fifths, including most instruments of the violin and mandolin families, along with tenor guitars and tenor banjos, bring out these pleasing harmonics.

So if you travel clockwise from the top around the circle of fifths, you see that the first five notes are C, G, D, A, and E. Rearrange them, and you have CDEGA(C) -- our C Major pentatonic scale!

There's something about pentatonics that's hardwired into our brains. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first musical scales humans managed to work out were pentatonic. Ancient bone flutes, believed to be as much as 60,000 years old upon their discovery, were found to be tuned to pentatonic scales. Cultures all over the world worked out the same scales independently of each other. Moreover, pentatonics are at the heart of a lot of the music of the Orient, most notably in China, where the five notes of a pentatonic scale would have mimicked the five elements of Taoist philosophy. Looking back to the origins of the Western world, we find that pentatonics were associated with Pythagoras, who used the tones as the basis of his "music of the spheres," an idea that posited that musical tones emanating from celestial bodies could give us insights into the harmonic order of the universe.

It seems that music itself reveals an order to our existence, given that we all seem to innately know how to tap into this artform regardless of where we come from or what language we speak. It's likely that some caveman was grunting out a pentatonic scale somewhere in our distant past. Fast-forward thousands of years, and Bobby McFerrin's ability to "hack our brains" with pentatonics seems to show that those primitive human discoveries remain embedded deep within us.

Pretty cool stuff, if you ask me.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Elon Musk and the "Threat" of Free Speech

It's amusing to see leftists out themselves as the enemies of free speech we always knew they were. After The Babylon Bee was banned from Twitter for daring to point out that men are not women and can never be women, Elon Musk asked a sensible question of his Twitter followers.

The poll results speak for themselves.

Musk followed up by pointing out, as I've been arguing for ages, that social media functions as the modern-day public square, and that if you can't speak freely in the public square, the free dissemination of ideas is under threat, and all you end up with is one-sided propaganda.

Musk asks if a new platform is needed... but then he got the idea to up his own stake in Twitter, with an eye toward buying it and taking it private.

Cue the hysterics from the "tolerant" left.

Free speech on Twitter is a threat to health and human rights:

In fact, free speech on Twitter is a threat to freedom itself:

Not just a threat to freedom, but a threat to the survival of the entire planet:

That's right, Nazis. And not the Ukrainian ones we pretend don't exist.

Yes, Jeff, because allowing people to speak freely on a public platform is exactly like book-burning Nazism. 

So you get the gist of all this hysterical left-wing bedwetting, right? Free speech is terrifying. In fact, it's fascism

Sounds like something Orwell would have said. But as you may recall from Justin Trudeau's attacks on Canadian truckers, this is exactly the upside-down way these people think:

Max Boot, the biggest shill you'll ever find for woke neoliberalism, could have drawn that last cartoon: He literally thinks free speech is a threat to democracy. I'm not joking. He's Genuinely Frightened, like these people always are. Ideas that they disapprove of are an existential threat to them. (And why am I not the least bit surprised that he's virtue-signaling with a Ukrainian flag in his profile?)

That's why he's always so enthusiastic about the censorship of conservative voices. That's just the "free market" at work, you see. 

But I really love the ones who, in reaction to Musk's defense of free speech, are showing the world just how little self-awareness they possess. Of course, that's giving them the benefit of the doubt. They could just be raging hypocrites.

Walking yourself out to the curb, Travis?

It's OK when the oligarchs we like do it:

"Private companies can do whatev... oh, wait."

There it is for all the world to see. All the selective bans, all the narrative-controlling "fact-checks"... that's what this has always been about. Now they're just admitting it out in the open, to the point that they characterize free speech as a threat to freedom. 

But if, as these same people always say, over and over again, that private companies can do whatever they want, then why would they care if Elon Musk wanted to buy Twitter and do whatever he wanted with it? Hmm, gosh, they must not have really meant what they said. OK, maybe they really are all raging hypocrites.

Since Twitter has now implemented a poison pill aimed at blocking Musk's takeover of the company, I think he'd be wise to pour his resources into creating a viable free-speech social media platform to challenge Twitter, Facebook, and all the other Silicon Valley totalitarians getting off on controlling what people can say on their platforms. Or he could invest in one of the many alternatives that already exist, like Minds. 

That's the thing. The alternatives are already out there, but no one will use them. They'd just rather hang out on the Silicon Valley platforms that hate them and complain but do nothing when they or their friends get "fact-checked" or banned. But if Musk got himself, and his money, involved, that could change everything.

It's way past time for these social media monopolies to be regulated like utilities. But we know that no one in Washington has the guts to do that. Most politicians are happy to use these same monopolies as a way to do an end-run around the First Amendment and engage in corporate censorship by proxy. So it's up to people like Musk to take action.

But if we want the situation to get better, not only will Musk have to do something big -- but the people who use social media and care about the free exchange of ideas will have to take some initiative as well. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Artist Profile: Hania Rani

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

SchorleCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

"I think I am the same as an artist and as a person. Music is my way of communication and I see the art, the music as a whole thing, with no borders, divisions, or even genres." ~ Hania Rani

Hania Raniszewska, professionally known as just Hania Rani, has an extraordinary gift for blending beauty and melancholy within the frameworks of her minimalist compositions. The Polish-born pianist has roots in classical music, but her artistry propels her music far beyond the confining limitations of genre. As all great music does, it transcends simple labels and boxes and cuts straight to the heart.

If anything does define Rani's beautiful music, it's a delicate mixture of atmospherics with textures and repeating patterns that vary in their intensity from piece to piece. My introduction to her music was her striking piece "F Major," built on insistent arpeggiations that don't pummel you as much as build a hypnotic foundation for the listener to float away on. The accompanying video, shot in a cold, windswept Icelandic mountainscape, perfectly captures the marriage of grandeur and desolation that the music so vividly evokes. Rarely has a piece in a major key sounded as forlorn as this.

Incidentally, I highly recommend listening with headphones. Hearing the squeaks, clacks, and rattles of Rani's upright piano adds an organic human warmth to the piece that the sterility of digital electronics can never hope to match.

If that piece draws you in, let's go next to a solo performance from Studio S2 in Warsaw. The opening piece, "Hawaii Oslo," begins with a single repeating note, a propulsive D, as Rani manually dampens the piano string, creating a sharp, riveting intensity to set the mood. Slowly, she adds other notes, letting them ring out in stark contrast to the underlying pulse. Creating loops to let the parts play on, she shifts from her upright piano to a grand piano, adding a plaintive melody over the top.

Critics have likened Rani's work to that of Philip Glass, but on "Hawaii Oslo" I hear nothing more clearly than Terry Riley, whose piece "In C" centers on, you guessed it, a repeating C underpinning the piece like the tick-tick-ticking of a trusty wristwatch. There are many amazing interpretations of Riley's masterwork out there, but the following is one of my personal favorites, included here to give you a sense of the common thread my ears hear running between Rani's and Riley's works. (Terry's original score, notably, has the C played on a piano.)

If you wander further into the Warsaw session, you'll see that Rani also embellishes some of her compositions with subtle electronics and with vocals. Fleshing out her works appears to be a key part of her desire to expand beyond the confines of classical music and solo piano, and that evolution can be clearly heard in her two solo albums to date. The first, Esja, focuses exclusively on Rani's extraordinary talents on piano (again, put on the headphones to hear the rich subtleties and the lovely clicky-clacky humanness of the recordings), while the second, Home, incorporates vocals along with some tastefully understated bass and drums, courtesy of the rhythm section from Polish jazz outfit Immortal Onion. When you hear a little bit of their music, you'll understand why it would resonate with Rani:

But there's far more to Hania Rani than just solo piano albums. With cellist Dobrawa Czocher, a longtime friend of hers, she's produced two records -- one, Inner Symphonies, that she wrote with Czocher, and another, Biala Flaga, combining Rani's original works with those of Polish composer Grzegorz Ciechowski.

Here's a fiery performance of the "Con Moto" section of their Inner Symphonies album. Note the conductor adding some nice Moog stylings -- and what a visual delight to watch Rani's fingers practically dancing across the keys.

And here's a piece, also from Inner Symphonies, that's sure to tug at your heartstrings. The video for "Malasana" recounts the true story of a Chechen mother and her children stranded for four months in 2016 at a Belarussian railway station, seeking asylum in the EU as they sought to flee human-rights abuses in their homeland.

And, finally, here's a spellbinding 2020 live performance from the duo that focuses on Ciechowski's works.

Rani has also written music for flim, TV, and stage, and she collaborates with singer/violinist Joanna Longic in a project called Teskno.

In short, you have a vivid tapestry of diverse sounds to choose from when you delve into her magnificent works. And while I enjoy almost all of what I've heard, there's nothing that grabs my attention more than watching her sit at an upright piano and seeing the hammers punch out one of those bubbling rhythms that characterize much of her style. If you're old enough to remember the pulsating clacks of an old teletype machine, her music works in a similar way to lull you.

That propulsiveness in her music combines with passion and an atmosphere of longingness that pulls you in and somehow makes you lose track of space and time. It's slightly disorienting, but in a very good way. It manages to take you out of yourself and transport you into its own insular universe, where it washes over you, soothes you, and refuses to let you go. Rani herself observes that music has the ability to "bring you to places that you could never buy a ticket to," and she's right. All my favorite pieces of music do exactly that. She understands the power of the medium she works in, and how fortunate for all of us that she has chosen to share her magnificent gifts with the rest of the world.

Following are the released recordings of Rani's work that I'm familiar with. It may not be exhaustive, and some of the CDs are hard to find (ask me how I know), but if you want to fill your world with some beautiful, emotionally evocative works from an equally beautiful and talented young woman, you can't go wrong with Hania Rani.

Monday, April 4, 2022

An Open Letter to the "Anarchist" Vandals of Wallace, Idaho

Wikimedia Commons.

Wallace, Idaho, is one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it places. This tiny town, nestled in a valley between two mountain passes, was once billed the Silver Capital of the World, a boast that was not misplaced in its mining heyday. Today, Wallace and its surrounding communities rely mostly on tourism to survive. Wallace itself is filled with restaurants, hotels, and little artisan craft stores to attract road-weary travelers who may be looking to hop off I-90 for a break as they make their way to someplace else. It's a nice place to live. We've even had a few movies filmed here, including the 1997 action-adventure flick Dante's Peak

Wallace continues to thrive because of the ingenuity of its residents and a healthy sense of humor. Among the attractions you'll find here are an honest-to-goodness bordello museum -- prostitution existed in the open, in this town of lonely mining men, until the 1980s -- and a manhole cover proclaiming the spot of the Center of the Universe, mocking the EPA's declaration, upon setting up a Superfund site here, that it couldn't prove whether local pollution was due to mining or natural occurrences. Wallace's response? We're the center of the universe. Prove that we're not. 

That's the funny part. Here's the ingenious part: As Wallace faced the threat of destruction when the feds wanted to run the interstate through town, the locals fought back by placing the entire town on the National Register of Historic Places, forever putting major developments, for good or bad, off limits. The result is a charming, picturesque downtown frozen in time, and a viaduct that carries I-90 around, rather than through, town. 

Under that viaduct runs a paved bike trail where the railway used to be. Wallace also hosts a huge flea market under there in late summer.

Recently, though, some local kids who lack any of the evident smarts that characterize this quirky little town decided that the wall at the west end of the viaduct, along with the surrounding posts and pavement, was their mural to deface as they pleased. 

My family moved here from Seattle, and we don't miss its urban blight, among many other of the unpleasant things that come with living in a big city. Well, if anyone else missed the delights of vulgar inner-city graffiti, fear not: It's now made its way to rural North Idaho.

I find it telling that one of the mental giants who vandalized the viaduct signed his work with his name. Nearby is a painting of the letters WHS, short for Wallace High School, which sits right across the street from the scene of the crime.

In a town of 791 people (as of the 2020 census), there can't be that many teenage boys named Brian. I'm just saying that it couldn't possibly be that hard to track down the culprit, especially with Brian giving us a helping hand. And oh, did I mention that the county cops are headquartered here in Wallace, too?

In fact, the local presence of the police was perhaps the inspiration for this fine piece of BLM-aligned tagging in our 97%-white town:

If you're unfamiliar, ACAB means "All Cops Are Bastards."

Let me pause for a minute here and explain something to you vandalizing cretins: I don't like cops, either. I think most of them are decent guys just trying to keep their communities safe, and so far I've had nothing but positive experiences with the cops around here. However, the inherent problem with policing, as I see it, is that power too easily goes to people's heads, and I think way too many guys on power trips long to put on the badge just so they can legally exert authority -- often violent authority -- over the people. But whatever side you come down on, do you understand why the police exist? They exist because of people like you, who deface and destroy things that don't belong to you. You are apparently too young and/or naive to make the connection.

And that brings me to your adorable little "anarchy" tag.

Thanks for perpetuating the stereotype of anarchists as shiftless, violent vandals and thugs with no respect for other people's property. The reality is that anarchism could never flourish without the exercise of self-control. If you don't want people in power exerting authority over you, then you have to give them no reason to do so, by living according to a personal code of self-restraint, responsibility, and respect for boundaries. What's someone else's is not yours to do with as you wish, which means you have no claim over public property or anyone else's private property. Mark up your own property all you want. Leave everyone else's alone. 

I'm taking the time to explain this to you because I'm an anarchist in principle. I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien was right when, in telling his son why his political views were leaning more toward anarchism -- "philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs" -- he proclaimed that "the most improper job of any man [...] is bossing other men," adding, "Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." (Can't you just hear Bilbo Baggins rattling that last sentence off as he addresses the well-wishers at his eleventy-first birthday party?) 

Likewise, Ursula LeGuin described her vision of anarchism as "not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with," but rather a political ideal rooted in "solidarity [and] mutual aid," as laid out in "early Taoist thought" and "expounded on by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman." You edgy vandals should stay in school, head to the library, and read a little bit about all of them, throwing a little Chomsky in for good measure, before you decide to spray-paint another circle-A when you clearly have no idea what it is you're supporting. 

The point is, if you oppose authoritarian systems that use violence to control populations, then how are you any better if you think it's OK to violate something that isn't yours? 

Ammon Hennacy, perhaps my favorite anarchist, drove the point home when he said: "An anarchist is someone who doesn't need a cop to make him behave." Once you understand the gravity of that sentence, you'll understand why vandalism in the name of anarchism will never get you anywhere. If you want freedom from authoritarian systems of power, then you have to be the one who sets the example and takes the high road.

One more of your lovely pieces of "art" before I wrap it up:

"Fuck the system. Obey yourself."

OK, but what if yourself tells you to go out and murder someone? "The system" is broken and ultimately illegitimate, but you can't just replace it with pure selfish anything-goes egotism. If anything, you need to obey your conscience, so you can weigh the good and bad of each situation, pondering the consequences of your actions, before you act. There's an old saying that applies well to this situation: "Liberty is not license to do whatever you want to do. It is the freedom to do what you ought to do." If you managed to throw off all external systems of authority, would you have the clarity of mind, the maturity, the responsibility, to ensure that your choices minimized harm to others? If not, then don't be surprised when someone in your anything-goes anarchist paradise organizes an armed militia to make you think twice. Then you're right back to having a police force exerting control over you. Doesn't sound so great, does it? 

The reason I say that I'm an anarchist in principle is that I don't think humans are capable of self-governance. I wish they were, but your defacing antics are a painful reminder that we're always going to need authority figures to intervene when people lack the self-discipline to respect other people and their property. 

Maybe Brian will do right by his community and step forward to take responsibility for the act of vandalism he and his friends committed. Man up, Brian. Show us what a real anarchist is made of -- one who takes personal responsibility for his actions and doesn't need a cop to make him behave. I'll personally meet you under the viaduct -- as I hand you a toothbrush to scrub off every last bit of graffiti. 

See you there.

Friday, April 1, 2022

The Songs That Time Forgot: John Sebastian

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

John Sebastian onstage in 1970.
Image source: Jim McClearCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Let's go back to the 1971 archives and look at another forgotten long-form tune, this one from a '60s pop star who struggled to fit into a changing music industry.

Depending on when you came of age, you know John Sebastian either as the leader of the '60s band The Lovin' Spoonful or as the singer of the theme song from the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show of the '70s. If you're a millennial or younger, you may not have heard of him at all.

But Sebastian and the Spoonful were everywhere in the mid- to late '60s. Though the height of their fame slightly predated the Summer of Love and the apex of the hippie movement, you'd still be hard pressed to find a group that better represented the relaxed, easygoing side of the peace-and-love zeitgeist of the day, with songs that made you want to hum along and snap your fingers. They were a little bit pop, a little bit folk, blues, and country, and a great big dose of breezy sunshine. "Do You Believe in Magic" put them on the map, "Daydream" was Paul McCartney's inspiration for The Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine," and "Summer in the City" revealed that the Spoonful could rock out when they wanted to.

But their star quickly faded, and by the end of the decade, the Spoonful were gone. Sebastian embarked on a solo career that for all practical purposes began with his one-man show at Woodstock. There as a spectator, he was asked to come up and put on an impromptu acoustic set while the stagehands swept away the rain in preparation for the next act.

That unexpected performance gave his public image a boost, but the momentum didn't last. A string of solo albums in the early '70s didn't make much of a dent, as Sebastian lamented that musical trends and tastes were passing him by. Nonetheless, he got to enjoy one last moment in the spotlight when the Kotter theme topped the charts in 1976. Since then he's been working as a session musician, a TV presenter, a soundtrack writer, a music teacher, and a children's book author.

One step along his solo-album journey was his 1971 record The Four of Us, whose title track, taking up all of Side 2, was a story-song based on a road trip he and his wife had taken with another couple who were their "partners in crime." They "drew a smile across the states" and set off for an adventure.

Though most of the song ambles along lazily with just voice and acoustic guitar, it's the unexpected breakout sections along the way that hold your interest. A Caribbean-flavored detour, with the van abandoned as the gang travels across the sea, gives us a steel drum-infused, party-like tribute to a place called Domenica. (The island of Dominica, perhaps?) A swing through New Orleans treats us to some boogie-woogie piano licks over a rock 'n' roll backbeat. A long swing that ends up in Colorado introduces a reflective mood as our travelers ponder their destination -- not just on the journey, but in their lives.

Ultimately, the song ends as a reflection of good, perhaps simpler, times, the carefree years before you settle down and have kids, get a job and pay the bills. "Paradise is nice, but then you can't stay there forever," Sebastian sings, aware that the show of life must go on. But it never feels sad or resigned, because that's not who John Sebastian is. The warm remember-when vibe that permeates the song isn't trying to romanticize those days from a distance, but rather looking back with a fond smile ("Gee, we really miss those times / Seeing through each other's eyes / Sure was nice") and remembering to carry that mood forward no matter where life takes you ("So go and see and pass it on / Lest you miss it, lest you're gone / Every lover keep your driver / On the road and laughing").

His song took us along for a ride that captured the mood of an era that was fading in the rearview mirror as the world moved away from the freewheeling '60s and into the decidedly more hard-headed '70s. And I think we can see from the mood of his song why John Sebastian's star faded. He came face to face with a musical landscape that would have required him to reinvent himself to stay on top. But what happens if your authentic self is what you put out there for the world to see in the first place, and doing anything else would make you feel like a fraud? I get the sense that John Sebastian is that kind of guy. What you see is what you get. He's friendly, he's upbeat, he knows what he likes to do and what he's good at, and that's enough -- because he's authentic. He can't create a fake image and put it up for sale. And I say good for him.

John Sebastian is the kind of dyed-in-the-wool hippie that I think I would have loved to know. His sunny optimism shines through in the music he writes, capturing the best of the idealistic spirit of what the hippie movement was supposed to be all about. At the end of his Woodstock performance, he told the crowd, "Just love everybody around you, and clean up a little garbage on your way out, and everything's going to be all right." And I think that's John Sebastian's personality in a nutshell: Keep a loving spirit, do what little you can to help, and keep a positive outlook.

That's something I struggle with. And that's we always need people like John Sebastian, to keep us balanced, to keep us going, to put an arm around our shoulder and encourage us to hang in there.

That's the magic of this song. That's what it does for me.