Welcome to my home on the internet

I live in New York City and I play, write, arrange, and produce music for myself and lots of other people. I spend quite a bit of time in Austin, Texas, and travel around the country with various groups. I've contributed performances, compositions, and arrangements to recordings by bands like Snarky Puppy, Okkervil River, Bill Laurance, Nelo, and many more. My band is Progger.
For booking, lessons (in person or via Skype), or questions, send an email to proggermusic@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music, fear, and Ayn Rand

I feel compelled to write a blog today.

A brief synopsis of what's happened since my last blog: My girlfriend Maggie and I moved to Albuquerque. I went on tour with Nelo for a month, and during this time realized that my musical life would come to a tragic end if I stayed in Albuquerque. Maggie recognized this and agreed to move to Austin, even though she was much happier in Albuquerque. We moved to Austin where I joined Nelo as a full member, while Maggie got a job. We can both now make a living, which wasn't happening in Albuquerque, and I love living in Austin. Maggie's tolerating it like a champ, although I know she would have rather stayed in Albuquerque. I owe her one(*10^6).

So, here I am, with about a million things to blog about, but I'm going to narrow it down to one relatively insignificant topic: a review I read of Muse's album, "Origin of Symmetry," on Amazon. Here it is:

Pomposity, bombast, pretension and prog-rock: they're four crimes that blight the landscape of modern music and Origin Of Symmetry--the second record by Teignmouth, U.K. angst-rockers Muse--is guilty of every single one. But the truly astonishing thing about this record is the way it twists every one of these cardinal musical sins into spectacularly silly and starkly individual strengths. Where their debut album Showbiz was rightly dismissed as little more than Radiohead-lite, here Muse sound defiantly like their own band: on "New Born", they're torn somewhere between the purity of front man Matt Bellamy's angelic vocal tones and the corruption of a huge, dirty, distorted bass riff that electrifies the sound into crackling life; on the fraught, operatic "Bliss", they sound like an unholy--but very welcome--cross between synth-heavy Krautrock legends Tangerine Dream and youthful choirboy angst-peddlers JJ72; and even a wonderfully dippy take on the Nina Simone-popularised jazz standard "Feeling Good" is carried off with the requisite deadpan countenance. Bellamy's impassioned voice, in particular, is on spectacular form, soaring skywards until it cracks into a beautiful falsetto reminiscent of Jeff Buckley's greatest vocal moments. So gloriously overblown, it deserves to be huge--Origin Of Symmetry is a fascinating, flamboyant and satisfyingly individual album. --Louis Pattison

To be clear, I've never listened to "Origin of Symmetry" except in brief clips, so I can't write my own review of the album. I'm a big Muse fan in general, and I'm quite sure I'd like this record. Pattison cleverly turns his initially negative reaction to "Origin's" dominant characteristics into its biggest strengths, and this blog is by no means an objection to the author's critique. This blog is an objection to the implications of the review's first sentence. It bothers the hell out of me, and not just because Pattison uses "pomposity" instead of "pompousness." It isn't even so much that he lumps prog rock in with three unfavorable terms.

What bugs me is that this reviewer-- who seems like a sharp, eloquent, clear-thinking individual with solid ears-- betrays a disturbing, common implication that I've noticed in the greater community of musicians and music listeners. While it may be true that pompousness and bombast can be mistaken for courage and strength of conviction, I find the opposite to be equally true and very detrimental to the music community. During my years in musical academia, as a student as well as a teacher, I met many aspiring musicians who were terrified of being themselves, and similarly terrified of people who weren't that way.

I've found many things about Ayn Rand's philosophy that could be transformed into important musical lessons. [I'm thinking about this stuff a lot right now because I'm reading The Fountainhead for the first time, and I'm not even remotely done with it, so forgive me if my conception is half-baked, but I was already pretty familiar with her ideas before I started reading the book.] I agree with Rand that humanity is capable of incredible acts of beauty, and that these works are brought about by creativity, fueled by passion and love for one's work, and unhindered by fear. Most artists would offer a knee-jerk agreement to that sentence, despite the fact that most music, literature, art, and film in history comes close to these ideals, and therefore are transient.

Being unhindered by fear seems to be the toughest part of that equation for aspiring musicians of my generation. It seems like everyone out there is worried about everyone else's opinion but his or her own. This is ass-backwards. I may not agree with Ayn Rand wholesale, but I certainly agree that being artistically afraid-- of judgment, of death, of failure, of looking foolish-- will lead to a musician accomplishing absolutely nothing of consequence. The only songs, tunes, or records I listen to habitually reek of courage, identity, and fearlessness: Kurt Rosenwinkel's "Heartcore," the Postal Service's "Give Up," and Muse's "Absolution," for example. Or Busta Rhymes' "Extinction Level Event." These albums display a huge spectrum of emotion, intensity, texture, and groove, and they're all very different from each other. My point is not to say that all music needs to be explosive and intense. It just needs to be uncompromisingly honest, and that comes from being unhindered by fear.

I still find myself crippled by fear, occasionally, even though it's something I've worked hard to get over since I was a teenager. It's gotten better over time, but I guess that's the reason why reviews like the one above-- even if they appear to be positive-- bother me. The implication that music with balls is a no-no is a complete crock of bullshit. Music, and all art, only matters if it's absolutely fearless. Anyone who mistakes fearlessness for pomposity needs to wise the hell up. I'll admit that it's very hard for some people, myself included, to be real with themselves all the time, and therefore it can be hard to be real with other people and the world. When this happens, when truth wins and bullshit evaporates, beautiful events take place and great works of art can be made.

1 comment:

  1. Last sentence of fifth paragraph should read like this: "Most artists would offer a knee-jerk agreement to that sentence, despite the fact that most music, literature, art, and film in history doesn't come close to these ideals, and therefore is transient." I got my positives, negatives, singulars, and plurals all Fd in the A.