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Thirty-five years ago today, the world lost a genius to an act of madness.

John Lennon. Not a perfect man, a flawed one. But he was blessed with a creativity and spirit which ring through the decades, continuing to inspire musicians and pacifists today.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, however, is that since the day he was shot and killed, over a million others in America have met the same fate.

Surely we can do better.

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So another decade of music has now passed.

Thank God.

Since the end of World War II, if not earlier, every decade brought one if not two large-scale movements in the evolution of popular music, but surely the 2000s was the least inspired and most insipid of the bunch. And the scary thing is, it’s not because I’m not getting any younger, it’s because the music isn’t getting any fresher.

I think the predominant themes of the last 10 years in popular music were “artists” who consider screaming a valid alternative to singing and the “artists” whose idea of music has more to do with what they look like than how they sound.

These trends were to be expected, of course; the over-hyped pretty-but-talentless thing certainly had its share of precursors in the 80s and 90s, and the screaming “singers” were doubtless born of the roaring vocals of Sepultura and Pantera as well as the “Territorial Pissings” end of Nirvana’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, they appear to have assumed a place of prominence within the last ten years, a place which I look forward to seeing them lose.

This is not to say by any means that all the music of the last ten years has been bad – it is still possible to create excellent new music even if one is not truly innovating. A quick listen to such acts as Jealousy Curve, Cherry Suede or Kick Up The Fire is certainly proof of that.

There has also been a small degree of continued innovation; Radiohead, for example, have continued to push the envelope, delivering album after album of fresh-sounding material.

By and large, though, the 2000s certainly didn’t produce a musical shift on the order of rock and roll, punk or even disco. The electronica end didn’t evolve much. Rap hasn’t particularly grown beyond where it was in 1999.

I believe that part of this is due to the continued dominance of the RIAA (and its parent, the IIPA) over the majority of what gets out there. The record labels want a sound which has been focus-grouped and market-tested to death before they spend a nickel, hardly an ethos to foster revolutionary content.

I also believe, however, that this is beginning to change for the better; as recording technology becomes ever cheaper and the means to distribute and disseminate music over the Web becomes ever easier, we approach a scenario wherein a band still rehearsing in a basement or garage out in Wheretheheckisthat, Iowa can change the face of the world. The number of views to their MySpace or PureVolume pages, the number of plays on Last.fm or YouTube can skyrocket without the need for expensive label promotion or indeed any backing beyond the skilled leveraging of social media.

Unsurprisingly, the cries of the RIAA against music piracy have grown ever more strident as time has passed; many months ago I wrote an ‘open letter’ to them on this blog, and little has changed. Their product, for the most part, continues to be anemic tripe. Especially in a recession, it is hardly worth the gas money to drive to the record store for this stuff, never mind drop fifteen or twenty bucks for an album which is three-fourths filler.

Here, then, are the seeds for the next big music revolution. Not looking like Lady Gaga, not screaming like Avenged Sevenfold, not delivering balls-less impressions of punk rock like Fall Out Boy. Coming up with your own ideas and getting them out there without worrying about the market will prove to be a true test of where the world really is.

Independent radio stations get this. Some Internet radio providers get this. The RIAA will never get this.

Roll on the 2010s, let’s hear what you have in store.

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There are a few songs which most of us can identify within the first few seconds, and will be able to do so to the grave.

Love it or loathe it, the intro riff to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of these. So is the opening to Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”. REM made a huge splash with “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion”, both of which have immediately catchy riffs.

Axl Rose may have been bitten by a radioactive asshole when he was a young boy, but he and his G’n’R cohorts were no strangers to the great riff either. Will there be a day in our lives where we can’t place the first few measures of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Don’t Cry” or “Paradise City”?

This phenomenon is by no means limited to rock. Since the day that Beethoven wrote the first measure of the Fifth Symphony, the immediate in-your-face intro has been a fixture of all styles of music.

However, this art appears to be… well, if not dead, then at least starting to smell that way.

Who, today, is creating riffs which can stand with Van Halen’s “Jump”, with AC/DC’s “Back In Black”, with Def Leppard’s “Photograph”?

This question is not rhetorical. I really enjoy songs that I can immediately get into, and would welcome any suggestions along these lines. Perhaps you, my faithful readers, will come up with more recent examples in such multitudes as to render this entire post invalid. Indeed, I truly hope you do.

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Today I’m guest posting over at CougarMicrobes.com for the first, but hopefully not only time.

So there’s not much to see here, but I will share the recipe for the rhubarb pear crisp which went over so very well, rather than letting it languish in the comments on an older post. There should also be a new update of One More Morning later today.

Pear Rhubarb Crisp

(If anyone wants this in metric, let me know and I’ll do the conversions.)

Ingredients:
Fruit base:
4 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups chopped pears (recommend Taylor or Bartlett for sweetness)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp orange extract

1 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Crumbled topping:
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups oats

Butter the base and halfway up the sides of a 9″ by 13″ baking dish. Mix together the fruit base ingredients (if the pears are not juicy, you may wish to add a little bit of apple juice, but no more than 1/4 cup) and layer in the baking dish.

Mix the flour, oats, salt and baking soda in one bowl and the butter, sugar and vanilla in another, then combine and stir well. Layer this over the top of the fruit mixture.

Bake at 375°F for 40 minutes.

Serve hot with vanilla ice cream (recommend Edy’s Slow-Churned) or frozen yogurt (recommend Perry’s All-Natural).

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(Inspired by questions posed by Catastrophe Jones in her LiveJournal, and adapted from my subsequent comments.)

We live in a world very much a victim of its own societal norms, often ostracizing or punishing those who deviate from the same. And yet, we understand so little about the brain hardware and psyche software that surely any attempts to assert exactly what goes on in there must be taken with a giant salt lick.

What IS sanity, really?

Given that the very definition of ‘sanity’ must be a state within an arbitrary level of deviation from an arbitrary norm, it stands to reason that the people with the most ‘middling’ psychological state will also be those who most strongly conform to the societal standards – as such, the people most likely to opt for mainstream art, music and fashion, since they are precisely the people to whom it is marketed. They are the ones most likely to enjoy reality television, most likely to hold moderate opinions in matters of politics and religion.

Of course, sanity is hardly a line on a chart, nor even a region of a scatter plot. Different forms of deviation from the arbitrary norm are invariably going to manifest in one of three forms – a concordant form, in which the esthetic and lifestyle choices follow the pattern of supposed “deviation” (hence the more radical movements which dot our history); a discordant form, in which it fights against the “deviation” (as evidenced by the pathological need for conformity displayed by some individuals); and an anarchic form, in which it bears no relation to the “deviation”.

The polarization of psychological ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is inherently destructive, both for those who try to push against their ‘weird’ element and be normal or indeed those who revel in nonconformity and thus try to accentuate that ‘weird’ element at the expense of normal. That second example is the reason we see the subculture and counterculture groups we do, and also the reason for the ironic fact that within any given subculture or counterculture there is just as much conformity as outside it. If you don’t believe me, hang out at Hot Topic for an hour or so. Ultimately, the only way to break free of either trap is to be oneself, and not give a flying fuck about where you fall on any arbitrary spectrum.

Breaking out of this societally imposed reality tunnel also sheds some light on discussion of both religion and magic; I believe that there has long been a mindset whereby people lump together everything they don’t understand and call it magic, as though having a label for it somehow makes it fit more easily into their limited worldview. Other people, for perhaps an even longer time, have been doing the same thing but instead labeling it ‘God’. Some have had the lamentable notion of putting the things they like under one label and the things they don’t under the other, leading to a plethora of tragedies throughout history.

I feel this view is generally decreasing – science, though in some ways still in its infancy compared to magic/religion, has shown that many phenomena do in fact have a rational explanation, hitherto undiscovered. There may indeed be a supreme entity, or at least higher entities, behind some of the weirder shit that goes on – goodness knows evolutionary theory tends to start gibbering when faced with the platypus – but we are more aware than we once were of the “magic” of magnetic fields and nitrogen cycles and dielectric gaps and the other scientific things which make the world as awesome as it is.

In practice, though, every answer brings with it at least two further questions – often “why” and “how”. Modern magic is more about making the “why” be your own will and the “how” be your knowledge. As such, just as you suggest, the wonder is lost. Here’s the thing, though – when you as a magician are becoming the how and why of any given phenomenon, you aren’t using the phenomenon so much as supplanting it. Perhaps when you take yourself back out of the equation, you do so with a better understanding of what kind of forces are conspiring to cause the phenomenon when you’re not there. This is science, magic, religion, all rolled into one tasty meta-burrito.

Now, part of the reason magic rushes in where science fears to tread is that magic will not restrict itself to the phenomena which make sense – magic can work against the logical thread of physics just as well as it can work with it, or in its own way (concordant, discordant, anarchic – notice a theme?). However, working with the forces supplied by Nature is inevitably easier than working against them, and requires a greater exercise of will. It also requires sufficient cognitive flexibility as to be able to sustain belief in the desired outcome rather than in the assertions of science. This cognitive flexibility is, of course, antithetical to standard definitions of ‘sanity’.

I have proposed a number of times, and continue to suggest, that all entities capable of cognition are indeed part of a greater whole, wherein each of these individual instances of psyche is a vector in a massive reality matrix. The sum total of said matrix is the observable reality of which we all speak, and in which we all interact. Because we retain our individual mental set, we are able to disagree on many matters, especially when it comes to such complex vectors as morality, but we are nonetheless joined by this matrix. Magic – and indeed miracle, for the religious – is what occurs when one such psyche is endowed with sufficient will as to allow its vector to exert greater influence on the mathematical whole of the reality matrix. This influence leads to an observable phenomenon which, once observed, is then believed by others, and therefore leads to a paradigm shift in observable reality as more and more individual psyches also incorporate it into their own mental sets.

(It should be noted that this approach calls for some sort of baseline; an n-dimensional reality matrix does not hop into being all on its own. There may be a small but fundamental set of “core” laws of physics which underlie all of this. It may be the will of God, or of the planet itself, or of another still-unknown agency.)

This form of influence by will has become more difficult to bring forth in the modern era precisely because we are all so interconnected in other ways. A magician in the 1500s only had to exert sufficient will to overcome the mental sets of those nearby in order to accomplish many of his or her works, whereas a 21st century magician must be able to exert so much will into the matrix as to be able to overcome a great many more mental sets.

This is also true of our emotional states and desires – more than simply the interaction of id and superego, we have each other’s mental sets to contend with, and that causes struggle as we seek a way to match our individual state to that of another person without disturbing the surrounding whole enough that anything becomes unbalanced. The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is therefore perhaps better expressed as “you get out of the reality matrix what you put into the reality matrix” – if your movements within it are helpful to another, then they will generally be more inclined to return the favor. If you are instead obstructive to another, there will likely be strife in both directions. Ergo, it is logical to make your contribution as positive as can be, or at least not harmful (concordant or anarchic rather than discordant).

It also seems to me that the summed vectors of individual psyches can have profound effects. If you and I both find that the sum of our contributions is positive (not numerically but in terms of appeal), this is then a scientific basis for friendship, or even love. If we find the sum negative, we will be predisposed to mutual antipathy. And if one of us finds it positive and the other not, therein lies the potential for frustration and heartbreak such as that of unrequited love. But enough of sadness.

I would love to hear feedback on this, as the notion of the reality matrix has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about music – what I like, and what I like about it. (BTW, thanks to all of those who left suggestions on my post earlier this month! Still open to more if anyone cares to drop them in there.) I started writing up some thoughts on that, which were then preempted by the post immediately below this. But since my music posts often seem to come in twos, here’s a little more.
phrenology head image from WikiMedia, headphone mine

Since the dawn of humankind, we have had music. From the earliest drumming of stone upon stone to the latest Next Big Thing, music has fulfilled a niche in our existence into which nothing else could comfortably fit.

Whether your poison is Slipknot or Shostakovich, Coldplay or Common, we are sensitive to rhythms and to harmonic vibrations.

I had for a long time heard and accepted the notion that music is really just a form of applied mathematics, but I no longer believe that to be the whole truth. Ultimately, the structure of any given piece of music can be described mathematically – as a sum of the frequency, duration and shape of each waveform – but I think this misses an important element.

Knowing why music sounds the way it does is all well and good, but that doesn’t tell us why it is good.

So instead I submit that music is 75% mathematics and 25% psychology. Add in lyrics (if appropriate to the piece in question) and the ratio might instead be closer to 65-35.

In Western music, we find that major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad and diminished chords send us looking around for the small animal we must have just stepped on.

startled rabbit

We also find that certain chord progressions evoke specific ideas. For example, a movie showing a boat on the open sea will often be scored with a chord sequence of major I to minor v. (Side note – saw a planetarium movie while I was in Portland which used the same I-v pattern for space travel montages. The parallel is interesting.)

The emotional interplay between our existing mental states and the subtle but profound messages we get from music is incredibly complex – indeed, it must logically be a product of both the inherent complexity of our minds and the number of possible musical permutations, an almost unfathomably wide array of information.

This, I believe, is why we don’t all like the same music (even though Clear Channel, Viacom, SonyBMG and others seem to be trying to convince us otherwise). Perhaps everything lies in our individual reactions to the mathematical structures we perceive, and there’s really no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music.

Except Muzak, of course. That shit is just terrible.

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When I heard that a supergroup named Tinted Windows had been put together from members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains Of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson – and WASN’T part of some dorky VH-1 show – I figured it could be great, or could suck, but would at least be interesting.

Way to be wrong on all three counts.

(Spot the one from Cheap Trick.)

To be fair, I am not a huge fan of any of the four bands these gentlemen come from, though I do like a lot of their collective body of work (leaving out, of course, the lamentable “Mmmbop”). There should, however, be enough songcrafting talent here to deliver at least one flawless piece of fun, summer-driving-with-the-top-down power-pop. Can’t seem to find it, though.

If you’re still interested enough that you don’t want to simply take my word for it, their eponymous album hits stores today and they’ll be on Letterman tonight.

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