Category Archives: Music

Best song lyric of 2009

I’m in the middle of reading David Dark’s newest, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, along with Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, and I just discovered a line on the new U2 CD that goes along with both of the books. I’ve had No Line on the Horizon on repeat since the day it came out, listening to it several times a day, my favorite song varying depending on the day. But for the last week, all I’ve been able to do is hit repeat on Stand Up Comedy, over and over and over. It’s a damn good rock song with great lyrics. Here’s the second verse:

Stand up, this is comedy,
The DNA lottery may have left you smart.
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart?
I can stand up for hope, faith, love,
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.

I have a couple posts coming soon explaining more about where I’m coming from in my love for that line, and should also have a review of David’s book up sometime before it hits stores in April. In the meantime, go buy the U2 CD, if for some reason you don’t have it yet.

Why Music Matters

A friend of mine, a Grammy-nominated arranger that I work with, recently forwarded me a speech he’d come across given by Karl Paulnack to incoming freshmen at the Boston Conservatory. In it, Paulnack argues that musicians are as important as doctors and firefighters, that they are “a sort of therapist for the human soul.” Given my chosen field of work, I do, not surprisingly, agree. He tells one story about the power of music – instrumental music – to resurrect forgotten memories, the reason for the music being written somehow connecting with the memory without the listener knowing the story of the piece.

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

Read his full speech here.

And on a related note, Suzanne Vega has an op-ed in the New York Times this week, What’s a Melody For? Here are a couple excerpts.

“Melody is its own idea, like sculpture. You don’t look at a piece of sculpture to see what is resting on top of it. A great melody has its own design, a beautiful combination of intervals and rhythms usually expressing the emotion of the song. Somehow a melody is connected, like the sense of smell, to memory, so when you hear a song it connects you in a flood of emotions to the time and place of that song. I am sure there are reasons in the brain for this, but as a songwriter I don’t need to know how the brain does it, only that it does.”

“Just think of a world without art, without song — how would we celebrate? What would we dream of? What would set our imaginations free? How could we express our emotions for our husbands and wives and children? Celebrate a birthday? A melody is for expressing emotions: delight, passion, sadness. It reminds us of what we have felt and experienced before, in our own personal code of emotion and history. Priceless!”

Rock Band + French Horn = Awesome

I’m at that point in my interaction with the new U2 CD, No Line on the Horizon, where I haven’t yet grasped the meaning of any of the songs on the whole. I just keep hearing individual lines go by and thinking, “damn, that’s brilliant.” Here are a few examples:

  • “It’s not if I believe in love / But if love believes in me.”
  • “I was speeding on the subway / Through the stations of the cross / Every eye looking every other way / Counting down ’til the pain would stop / At the moment of surrender.”
  • “Shout for joy if you get the chance.” (see Bono’s duet with Mick Jagger on Joy from Jagger’s great album Goddess in the Doorway.)
  • “Laughter is eternity if joy is real.”
  • “I’ve found grace inside a sound / I found grace, it’s all that I found / And I can breathe / Breathe now.”
  • “The worst of us are a long drawn out confession / The best of us are geniuses of compression.”
  • “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you / Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you / They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends / Gonna last with you longer than your friend.”

The level I can speak to a little more intelligently is on the musical side. There are a couple of standout moments, but my favorite sixteen seconds on the record right now start at the four minute thirty second mark in Unknown Caller, where the outro starts. The band is rocking along, they sing the last lyric, and suddenly a pipe organ makes its presence known, holding a big chord above the band for four bars, rocking a sus note back and forth in half notes in the middle of the chord. And then, magic. The french horn enters. It’s only an eight bar solo, thirty notes in all, but it gets me every time. You hear a one-bar lick played three times, one step higher each time, with the organ playing along, and than a one-bar fill from the band. The horn lick is repeated, three bars – playing the middle notes from the previous passage twice, than a third higher – and then we get a one-bar fill from the Edge into his killer solo that goes to the end of the track.

There’s a reason U2 is called the best band in the world.

Handbells

I played in a handbell choir my uncle directed for a couple years when I lived in Chattanooga, so when I moved to Nashville and a friend asked if I wanted to play in the choir his wife directs, I jumped right in. We played two songs this past Sunday, and someone was on hand to record the performance. I’m the guy with two bells in each hand.

Tokens Radio Show

Where else but Nashville can you be a part of an audience for a radio show taping that talks about justice, death row, Will Campbell, English-only laws, revivalist preachers, and climaxes with an ensemble performance of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind by musical guests Vince Gill, Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Stuart Duncan, Sonya Isaacs, and more?

Last night kicked off the 2009 season of the Tokens Radio Show, described by host and creator Lee Camp as “part theology lecture, part cultural analysis, part old-time radio show, part good conversation, [and] part good music…” I was able to attend one show last year, the Christmas show where my friend Andrew Peterson was one of the musical guests, and thought it was brilliantly conceived and well executed. Last night’s show, Justice Songs, included one skit based on the recent English-Only law that (fortunately) failed to pass here in Nashville, hypothesizing what a conversation would sound like in a Mexican restaurant between the waiter and the guy ordering the food if the law had passed. Would you like that baby donkey roll on a stick in an Arizona bean holder?

One guest was attorney Brad MacLean, who was interviewed about his work with death row inmates. He mentioned a series of newspaper articles that had defended different sides of the death-row issue, concluding with a question from a nun about asking yourself if you could pull the lever. A rabbi wrote in and said that yes, he could absolutely pull the lever, enthusiastically even, if the crime were bad enough. Which was exactly the reason he opposed the death penalty. I was reminded of the great post Shaun wrote recently quoting Stanley Hauerwas on his reasons for his non-violent beliefs: “I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch.”

Will Campbell, author of Brother to a Dragonfly (which I picked up today at my favorite used bookstore when I took my friend Randall there for the first time) had recorded an interview with Lee Camp, which was played with Camp interjecting more comments in between Campbell’s responses. At one point, Campbell mentioned the statement he is probably most famous for, his summation of the Gospel: “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Vince Gill sang two songs, one a country song and the other a bluegrass song, Odessa Settles blew everyone away as usual with her soulful interpretations of spirituals, Buddy Greene sang the old Stephen Foster song Hard Times Come Again No More, Sonya Isaacs sang Darrell Scott’s You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, and the house band, the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, were great as usual.

You can hear clips from the show – and an extended interview with Brad MacLean about his work with death-row inmates – on the program’s website, www.tokensshow.com.

Joy Desires Eternity

This weekend, the Nashville Symphony is playing Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G minor (a nice piece, but overplayed), Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, and a contemporary piece by Lukas Foss, Time Cycle for Soprano and Orchestra. I love Rachmaninoff’s piano piece Prelude in C# minor, but this was my first time hearing any of his symphonies, or at least hearing them when I was paying attention. Considering the fact that he wrote his first symphony at the age of twenty-three, it is a pretty incredible piece of music. It took him eighteen months to get the first performance which ended up being a complete disaster, due to lack of rehearsal time and even allegations that the conductor was inebriated during the performance, and so was never performed again in his lifetime, a real shame. About five minutes into the first movement, there’s a really cool thing that happens with the second violins and cellos playing in unison, and then the first violins and violas coming in together four bars later and a fourth higher, with woodwinds doubling the strings another four bars later. And the fourth movement is fun throughout, with a great ending. I’d recommend checking it out sometime.

The Lukas Foss piece, Time Cycle for Soprano and Orchestra, was based on four texts, the last being an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra that he translated. It was my favorite of the four movements, and the text reminded me of the best line in the new U2 single, Get On Your Boots: “Laughter is eternity if joy is real.”

O Man, take heed!
What speaks the deep midnight!
“I slept, I slept –
“From deep dream I awoke:
“The world is deep,
“And deeper than the day.
“Deep is its woe –
“Joy deeper than heartache.
“Woe speaks begone!
“But joy desires eternity.
“Desires deep, deep eternity.”

Andy Osenga, Futureman, Over the Rhine, and Stevie Wonder

This past week was a good week for live music.

On Sunday, Andy Osenga and I drove out to a concert just outside of Nashville, a fundraiser for Blood:Water Mission that featured Andy and a couple other guys playing “in the round.”
Tuesday evening, after Handbell Choir practice, I headed over to the 12 South Taproom – featuring 22 beers on tap – for another show from Eclectica, a band that’s a side project for my friend Roy Wooten (or Futureman, drummer for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones), electric violinist Tracy Silverman, and bassist Kyle Whalum (Steve Forrest filled in for him for this gig). This was the second time I’ve seen them play, so I picked up a copy of their album this time – officially due out April 1st – and have really been enjoying it. Here’s the EPK they created for Streaming Video Soul.

On Thursday evening, I headed over to Mercy Lounge for a concert put together by Vanderbilt Divinity School, The Enduring Chill: Remembering Flannery O’Connor. There were four artists, all inspired in some way by O’Connor, with readings from her writings in between sets. This was the third or fourth time I’ve seen Over the Rhine in concert, and probably the best show I’ve seen from them. At one point in the evening, the person responsible for putting together the concert mentioned a few movie directors and songwriters who owed a lot to her writing, artists like U2 and Nick Cave, and directors like Jim Jarmusch and the Cohn Brothers. I really need to get around to finishing up Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel.

A while back, I worked with Grammy-nominated arranger Don Hart, doing the music prep for a concert full of songs from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life that Don had arranged for full orchestra. One of the featured soloists from that night, Abby Burke, performed four of those arrangements, along with three other charts Don had written, with the Paducah, KY Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening. Since Peducah is only about a two and a half hour drive from Nashville, Don and I drove up for the concert. It was nice to hear those charts again, and Abby is an incredible vocalist, with a four-octave range. But I do have to say, nothing matches hearing those arrangements played by Orchestra Nashville at the $125 million dollar Schermerhorn Symphony Center, standing on the side of the stage during rehearsal only thirty minutes after printing out the last of the charts.

Eric Peters’ new record nearing completion

This afternoon, I dropped by Sputnik Studio to hear Andy Osenga record another day of electric guitar overdubs on Eric Peters’ new record, with Ben Shive producing. I was a fly on the wall back in November for the first day of electric guitar overdubs, and it was great to hear these songs a little closer to their finished state. I think this album is Eric’s best, with strong lyrics, great melodies, and inventive chord progressions, and since I’m a big fan of Ben’s production work and the melodic ways he builds his tracks, I can’t wait to get a hold of the final project.

Eric has been blogging about the progress on the new record here, and this guest post from Ben about his role in the process is a great read if you want to know more about what goes into making a record. If everything goes as planned, the record should be out late March or sometime in April.

As you may remember, Eric decided to try something new with this record: to give people the opportunity to contribute on the front end to help make this record, instead of just supporting his art by buying copies after it is finished. I wrote about this over on the Square Peg Alliance blog about six months ago when Eric first introduced his plan, and because there is still room for more supporters, I thought I’d feature that post here (see below).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
eric

I’m a firm believer in the notion that art matters. At the close of a chapter in his book Through a Screen Darkly, a friend of mine, Jeffrey Overstreet, writes, “God heals us through creation and art.” There has been more than one night when I’ve been lost and at a loss for words, and listening to Eric sing his song Tomorrow does just that, heals me, or at least points me towards home, towards a better truth.

wake me up when today is over
for I cannot bear the noise
put me to sleep in silent whispers
inside of God’s own voice
is this the feeling of redemption
or the shoulders of despair?
and since I fear tomorrow
please come and meet me there

angel of tomorrow
say a prayer tonight
when I find myself alone
afraid of being known
and holding on for life

(Listen to Tomorrow at the Rabbit Room)

Eric has begun working on a new album, and he just posted this message on his website, letting those of us who are thankful for his work know how we can play a small part in this next project:

As you may already know I have started recording a new album with friend and fellow Spike Jones appreciator, Ben Shive, at the production helm. Progress will be slow the next month or so as I will be out of town, but the work, at least, has officially begun. I wanted to try something a little different this time around by inviting folks to get involved early on in the process, rather than later. Briefly alluding to this in an earlier post, I figure now is as good a time as any to get the ball rolling on the experiment, this patronage of the arts if I may be so bold. Fundraising, on a larger scale like this, is something I have never done, but now with a bona fide family of three to support this time through the indie record-making gamut, I have been encouraged to put the call out and to let the people of earth help, invest and contribute what they may. Here’s my proposal:

The Goal: $15,000
300 people x $50/each

Click here to read the rest of Eric’s proposal and to make your contribution.

Check one off the list…

bluebird

After reading Christianity Today’s review of Randall Goodgame’s new EP Bluebird earlier this week, I put a check-mark next to one of the entries on the list of goals I keep in my head: To have a CT music review mention one of my string arrangements. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

The opening title track could compete neck and neck with today’s very best porch-pop and coffeehouse rock offerings. Beyond just the ear pleasing acoustics, there are plenty of poetic parallels to a bluebird flying high in the sky with nothing but freedom to fall on (applicable to matters of faith, art, and dreams in general). “All the Years” is far more placid in comparison, stripping down to a sparse piano ballad with light string accompaniment, yet allowing Goodgame’s comforting vocals to come across like a textbook ’70s songwriter (imagine James Taylor turning in his six-string for a keyboard).

Read the full review here. And don’t forgot you can buy the EP from Randall’s website or the Rabbit Room store.