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February 23, 2016

Book Notes - Ian Brennan "How Music Dies (or Lives)"

How Music Dies (or Lives)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan's How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts is one of the most thought-provoking books on modern music that I have ever read.

Stream this playlist at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Ian Brennan's Book Notes music playlist for his book How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts:

My fourth book, How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts, grapples with issues related to inequitable distribution and representation in the media. The one-page Foreword by Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney, in many ways nails the topic much better than what follows in the 400-pages penned by me.

Somewhat ironically, the longer that I have played music, the less I actually listen to it. I have come to value silence more, and also am very wary of overdependence on prescribed and distant commercialized sources, in lieu of more carefully attending to those immediately around us that we can have two-way, face-to-face communication with.

For the fortunate majority of us, our ears and eyes begin to work almost automatically at birth. Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, learning to use those senses involves more developing the ability to filter out the overwhelming amount of information that we are bombarded with, rather than acquiring skills in actually detecting and receiving stimulus.

With the advent of recorded and calcified music, in many ways we have fallen silent before sound, and risk hearing less, rather than more. The number of commercial releases has more than doubled since the beginning of the iTunes' age, and now averages around 100,000 full-length releases each year (!), and that is in the United States alone. Unfortunately, the 86% or so of the planet that does not sing in English and/or Spanish are segregated to within their own national borders, and often displaced and strong-armed even there by colonialistic corporate interlopers. This results in a subtle form of censorship, cleverly disguised as marketplace "competition."

Since How Music Dies (or Lives) is a book about music, what follows here are largely references to some of the songs and artists that make cameos throughout the narrative. Overall, for the sake of avoiding self-promotion or parody, aside from one exception I have deliberately avoided detailing any records that I have actually produced (though, the book itself is peppered with some of the road stories from Rwanda, Malawi, Cambodia, South Sudan, Transylvania, et al.)

"Oh Death" by Nimrod Workman

Nimrod was 87 year old at the time of this recording, and didn't even begin his singing career until after his retirement from working as a coal-miner. He puts grit and body to the bumpersticker slogan "Real musicians have day jobs."

His plaintive, hillbilly voice is unidentifiable as either white nor black. But, instead, is undeniably 100% American. (Since the subject matter of this song is death, it should be noted that he warded it off for another twelve years and almost reached one-hundred years of age.)

"I Am Sitting in a Room" by Alvin Lucier

The sound pioneer, Mr. Lucier suffered from a stuttering problem. On this track, for 45 minutes 24 seconds he recorded and then re-recorded himself speaking the same lines over and over again, until the words disappear completely, "correcting" his speech, and finally all that is left is harmonics.

"Stay With Me, Baby" by Lorraine Ellison

That one of the greatest vocals ever committed to tape was done by a virtually unknown and mostly still forgotten singer, is yet another example of the failure of our star system. That it was only recorded due to Frank Sinatra having canceled a session last minute, only makes the performance all the more bittersweet.

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" by Nina Simone

There are few better examples of a singer making a song their own. The mighty Ms. Simone seizes the tune from Dylan and imbues it with such empathy and resignation that the entire meaning shifts on its axis. She lifts one of Dylan's B-sides to a level rarely met.

Giancinto Scelsi

Thanks to my colleague Bill Freimuth, I was turned onto this mid-20th century Italian composer who devoted most of his post-"nervous breakdown" career to writing entire symphonies that explored the potential of only a single note at a time. Spanning minutes, he used micro-tonal oscillations, timbre, and dynamics in place of melody to build entire orchestrations.

Something so myopic being rendered so big wields surprising beauty and is quite haunting, relying on implosion rather than the histrionics usually found in popular music.

Nebraska (album) by Bruce Springsteen

In keeping with one of the themes of my book being that one cannot (and really should not) try to outrun our own roots, Springsteen is a recurrent character since he played such a prominent role in my working class, suburban upbringing.

For anyone who was not a music follower at that time, it is hard to recapture just how revolutionary it was for one of the biggest rock stars in America to followup an epic double-album— that was forged in one of New York's finest studios over the course of almost two years— with a collection of songs fashioned at home alone on a 4-track cassette recorder. At the time, even The Clash themselves were recording in lavish studios with famous producers like Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones) and Sandy Pearlman (yep, "Don't Fear The Reaper").

There are better tunes on the record, but when The Boss' guitar playing completely falls apart at 3:10 on "Johnny 99", he reset the bounds of what was possible to feature on major label records. Though usually uncredited for its reach, there probably would be no alt-country and maybe would not ever have been the lo-fi revolution either, were it not for this album. (Even if many of those most influenced by this album received that influence indirectly and secondhand, which is another thread throughout my book, How Music Dies— that of how influences echo and ricochet, and often the source is hard to find until "purity" itself becomes a myth.)

Unfortunately, Springsteen's artistic decline immediately followed. Almost as an over-correction, instead of doubling-down this irreverent and raw road, he reversed full-throttle into the commercial motherlode of early-MTV. And, sadly, he has never really recovered since.

"Stop the War Now" by Edwin Starr

This little known followup to Mr. Starr's epic "War" single, stands as an exhibition of crass commerce being put before art. The followup song— composed by the same two Motown writers as the original— is pretty alright in and of itself, but the rework nonetheless completely pales in comparison to its predecessor. The strain is evident of trying to generate something on the coattails of another piece's success and magic.

"Home of Johnnie Mae" by Eddie Kendricks

A minor single by one of The Tempations gone solo, this might be among the most spot-on, post-breakup songs ever.

"The easy chair looks uneasy, without her sitting there," indeed.

"El Huria Telitwar" by Tinariwen

During the recording of the Tassili album in southeast Algeria, Tinariwen's lead-dancer and party-starter, Hassan and I snuck off to record this track while most of the rest of the camp had ventured away for the three hour, mostly off-road roundtrip into the nearest town.

That is the sound of his friend, who cooked the meals for the group, tapping out percussion uninvited on the side of the acoustic guitar Hassan was playing and then joining in to ad-lib harmonies with him. It was done in one take, during a lull in a windstorm. The song later had to be sacrificed from the final album for political reasons within the band.

Though, it was only released later as a bonus track, it remains stronger than the majority of songs on the Grammy-winning record— regardless that those were sung by the official singers, guitar players, and songwriters in the group, and that this track was recorded on much lesser equipment. This is the "shadow record" phenomenon that I refer to in the book. For various reasons— ego, technical problems, lack of opportunity or resources, faulty memory— a lot of amazing material never reaches the world.
But, most people have at least one (and usually only one) great song inside if them. And this is his.

"My Favorite Mutiny" by The Coup

Boots Riley is from Oakland, the town I was born in. I'm old enough to have witnessed firsthand the revolutionary history of the Black Panthers patrolling the streets with shotguns. The line, "They want us gone, like a dollar in a crack den," sadly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in America since the civil rights era.

But all politics aside, songs must stand on their own, and the groove of this track is infectious.

"Isadora Duncan" by Vic Chesnutt

Witnessing this wheelchair bound genius sing, "I dreamed I was dancing with Isadora Duncan," to an almost entirely empty club on the UC Berkeley campus was the moment I crossed over into becoming a producer. That night as my band shared a stage with him, I knew instantly, that despite my lifetime of countless hours locked in my room "practicing" guitar, I would never write a song as sublime as those that simply poured out of him.

Whale Songs

That our massive mammal cousins adopt a specific vertical posture exclusively for vocalizing and do not just sing instinctively, but instead actually compose their own trademark songs, and those sounds then potentially spread around the oceans as "hits" if the melodies are strong enough, are staggering realizations.

The similarity of their vocals to the singing of some Inuit whale-hunters from Greenland is even eerier, and can hardly be construed as mere coincidence.

"You Got My Mind Messed Up" by James Carr

That one of the greatest male soul singers battled with a bi-polar disorder, lends even greater subtext to the pained vocals here.

"I Don't Want Nobody" by Eddie Harris

Eddie Harris was a jazz musician who mostly trafficked in instrumentals— but on this track from his bluntly titled album I Need Some Money, he reneges on the commercialized bet, still conceding to sing, but through his saxophone instead.

(A few years later he completely napalmed his career by releasing a comedy album, The Reason Why I'm Talking S—t.)

"Last of the Cut and Pasters" by Joaquina

This song haunts me. It was written and sung by my friend Jeff Klindt, into his cassette-tape 4-track, alone in his kitchen during the middle of one sleepless San Francisco night.

He later succumbed completely to depression and addiction, and in many ways this moment feels like a summary of his life. And, it is a grand one.

It is yet another recording that stands as an example of how many of the most transcendent music gets lost amidst the sheer mass and volume of commercialized releases.

Ian Brennan and How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts links:

the author's website

B-Lines and Felines interview with the author
Bandwidth interview with the author
Downtown interview with the author
Infinite Culture interview with the author
On-Demand interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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