Wednesday, March 16, 2005

5 pieces of music that changed my life


I had this assignment for a class I am taking and I thought it would be cool as a blog entry, so here you go....

1. Black Night, Buddy Guy, album – Damn Right I’ve got the Blues
The first time I fell in love with music was with the blues. I have always listened to many different styles of music, but the blues was the first style that spoke to me on a very personal level. I felt the connection with lyrics, emotion, musical sense and spirit. I also, for the first time, felt a strong sense of what made a good and bad piece of music. Up until then I was blown away by the fact that someone could play an instrument, or write a song, but I lacked the capacity to consider musicianship or overall quality. I was a dumb kid. I would go down to the concert in the park and be in awe of the local Blues Band. They had good energy and were fun to dance to, but lacked an important element of really good music making...the feeling. For the most part, they were just up there hacking their way through their favorite blues tunes with as much emotion as a happy dog. They were entertaining, and had their handful of devoted fans, but did not give much of themselves to the music. It was this song by Buddy Guy that opened my eyes to what it really means to put yourself into the music. When I heard it I felt like everything Buddy was saying was the truth. I listened to the song hundreds of times, considering every note. I got emotional, and very private with it. I did not dare play it for anyone who I thought would not understand. It became my base standard for what one can put into a song.

2. Pride and Joy, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble
I did not want to use up a spot on this list for this song, but the more I thought about it, the more I was sure that this song changed a significant part of my musical life. The first major band I was in played this song hundreds of times. I could not stand it. As soon as the lead guitar player would start with the opening riff, my stomach would turn. I would get physically sick even thinking about playing it. I argued my case on many occasion to boot it from the set list, but it always came back loud and obnoxious as ever. With this song I began a journey down a road that would lead me to conclude that music has the ability to elicit every kind of emotion we hold within ourselves. It is not just happy, wonderful, and great. It can also be sad, fearful, and torturous.

3. Shake Everything You Got, Maceo Parker, album - Life on Planet Groove.
This album, and in particular, this song, changed the way I think about improvisation, soloing, and live performance more than any other piece of music I can think of. It was taped live in Germany in the late 80’s, but the power, simplicity, and raw energy is timeless. About 3 minutes into the track, Maceo starts to chant, “Gunna give..the drummer some, ha, give it to the drummer”. He says this about 10 times and finally gives it away by yelling, “DRUM”. Just when you think the drummer, (Kenwood Dennard), is about to go nuts, he falls into this very simple, yet very deep groove that involves both linear drumming and a steady pulse kept by the audience clapping. It blew me away to hear the exchange of energy between the drummer and the audience. After awhile Maceo comes back to the mic and says, “ME…and the drummer check it out”. It is here where the real magic begins. Maceo plays with short very rhythmic phrases in the tonic key for about 8 measures, and then modulates up a half step. The crowd cheers in approval. He goes up another half step and the crowd screams a little louder. He then continues on for 11 more half steps, taking the crowd (and the listener) with him as he goes. By the end the energy level is so high that the release is inevitable. As the band kicks back into the main theme, the crowd claps and cheers as if to say ‘thank you’ and they land the song shortly after. I have never played for people the same since.

4. Piru Bole, John Bergamo, album – On the Edge
This was the first major piece I learned on hand drums. It changed the way I thought about composed music. I guess part of it had to do with the fact that I learned it from the composer, so I felt like I was coming in from a ground level understanding, without interpretive guessing, (i.e. I did not question anything, which gave me a sort of freedom. He stressed the importance of individual interpretation as far as instrument choice and especially in the treatment of the improvised sections. He also stressed the importance of the form and staying true to the 16 beat cycle that it is composed around. This was the first time I was introduced to the idea of structured free improvisation. I must admit… for the first few months I did not do well with it. It was a marriage of composition and improv that gave me headaches. Once I learned my space in the music, and then how to enter and exit that space without interruption, my musical world was changed forever. Now when I listen to any number of recordings of the piece, I feel a very personal connection to it.

5. Astia Agbekor
This piece is a formal work for drum, dance, and song from Ghana. It can run anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes, and it was THE defining piece for my understanding of African music. It was not until my third year in the African music and dance program at Cal Arts that my ears opened up to the depth and complexity that was in the music, and it happened almost instantly while I played this piece one night at a concert. For three years my main duty was to play a drum called the Kaganu, which only plays on the upbeats. I spent the first year learning how to play on upbeats, the second year watching the dancers interact with the pattern, and the third year trying to hear all the other drum parts around me. I would listen to the drummer next to me, then listen to the lead drummer, then the other supporting drummers, and so on, all while holding down the upbeats. I could hear how it all fit together, but still did not have a sense for how it was supposed to feel. Then suddenly, about 20 minutes into the piece, I felt like we all just took off together. It was like a plane that had been trying to take off for 3 years had finally just went skyward. We were all together and there was no unsure thing in existence. I ceased to think about what was happening, and could feel all of the music. There seemed to be layers, and textures that were never there before. I was floored. I remember sitting in a blissful stunned silence for about 2 hours after the show was over. It was kind of like putting on glasses for the first time, and realizing how beautiful the world around you is. Everything was in focus and it all made sense without explanation. Of all the things I miss about my experience at Cal Arts, being in that ensemble is one of the biggest. What took three years to understand was gone in an instant, and I miss it so much. One of my great desires in life is to play music like that again.

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