October 7, 2010

Softer Side of Dead Kings of Norway: "Makes Me Sick"

For my techno-rock-punk music side-project Dead Kings of Norway I've always taken my lyrics from other sources and then titled the song after the source of the lyrics. In the past couple of months I've tried writing my own lyrics again and last week decided to write a pop song. The resulting song, "Makes Me Sick" is a big departure from my usual tunes. First off, it sticks to a very standard ABABCAB song structure, it's all sung (a goal of mine from now on), I wrote all the lyrics, and it doesn't have the frenetic perpetual motion of most of my DKON songs. Therefore, I'm not totally sure I should label it a Dead Kings song, but maybe I'll just hold it for a future collection. Hit the jump for a stream of the song, a download link, and a brief explanation of the song.


October 1, 2010

Composing for Beginning Piano Students

I believe that musical composition is a necessary component of music education. Too often, composition is left until the student has a strong knowledge of music theory, when in reality, the two should be taught alongside each other. Composition can also be used to reinforce new topics learned in the piano lesson or to provide some variety to the student. I decided that, in the fourth week of lessons, I would offer some of my students the option of writing a composition as part of their homework. This would allow them to explore the piano in new ways, and show me some of their own musical ideas.

The difficult question then becomes, how can my beginning students, who are just learning to read notes compose a piece? I was inspired by a lecture I heard at the 2009 MTNA Minnesota Convention by Dr. Kevin David Richmond, who was presenting on his dissertation which focused on the use of "non-traditional notation and techniques" for students. In short, this means pieces of music used for teaching that use shapes such as boxes, lines, and squiggles as well as a variety of other things to express music. Using these pieces, it is possible to isolate certain aspects of the music, as well as give students a chance to express themselves musically despite not having a full grasp of the musical language.

I gave the assignment to two of my youngest students. One decided it wasn't for her (I gave up trying to assign it to her after three lessons) and the other, a young boy, took the project on eagerly. Here is the result of his efforts:


He didn't have a name for the piece, but I've been calling it "Curkol", after deciphering his handwriting at the top of the page. I had given him very little direction besides showing him some sample shapes to use (he didn't end up using any of mine, which was fine) so everything he came in with was a surprise to me. He read the piece left to right, top to bottom just like a piece of music (or a page in a book) and had very explicit ideas of what each symbol meant.

His recorded explanation and performance of the piece are below the jump:


September 8, 2010

In The Ghetto - WMPT Sessions

This one goes out to my friend Nick who leaves for the windy city tomorrow. And who, by his own account, grew up "in the ghetto". Good luck in Chitown kid!

Track is after the cut.

September 4, 2010

Poker Face - The WMPT Sessions

I'm just giving the people what they want! And yes, this is what I'm doing in my office...apart from practicing that is. Recording after the cut!

All The Love - The WMPT Sessions



My sister deserves a certain amount of credit for this, since without her I would never have heard of the Outfield. On our way to school when I was 12-14 and she was 16-18, we would play Big Innings: The Best of the Outfield over and over again. Their songs "Voices of Babylon", "All the Love", and "Your Love" have stayed with me for a long time.


August 26, 2010

Dead Kings of Norway - TEAM D Full Download

In my last couple years at St. Olaf I formed a band called Dead Kings of Norway. I wrote and recorded all of the music and for live shows, I had my friend Aarpn sing alongside me. I wanted to work in a genre of music I called Dance Metal, combining the hard hits of punk rock and metal with the danceability of club electronica. So, using Finale to compose, Reason to make instruments, and the lyrics of other bands and authors, I created Dead Kings of Norway and wrote the album Terrifyingly Efficient at Manufacturing Death

You can download the whole album beneath the cut.

August 7, 2010

CDs I Forgot I Owned Pt II

After sorting through the second massively heavy tub of Compact Discs I stumbled upon another set of recordings that I had forgotten that I own.  Here are a few of them:

Sum-41 All Killer, No Filler

I have both fond memories of this band as well as intense hatred towards them. They were funny, had catchy tunes, and are Canadian. On the other hand they ushered in a new era of trashy pop-punk and were a little too slick for me to really throw my trust into them. Despite any negative feelings though, their songs remain guilty pleasures. In retrospect, their lyrics were pretty vapid but their successful combination of 80's hardcore, straight-forward unoffensive punk, and rap makes me think of them as the band Beastie Boys would have been if they had signed to a major label early, and stuck with punk-rock. Also, "Fat Lip" was just such a great song! Plus I had crushes on all the punk-rock chicks in the video, even the girl who gets her hair shaved into a skullet.

August 5, 2010

Les Deuce Punks does Taylor Swift



Singer: Amy Hill
Keyboards: ME
Drummer: COZ

Yes, I mess up a whole lot. But that's what you get when you only practice a couple times and do one take.

July 29, 2010

CDs I Forgot I Owned

So I've been embarking on a project to rip all of my CDs so that at some point if I decide I don't want to lug the three massively heavy plastic totes full of music around, I don't have to. I decided that rather than discriminate, I would instead just rip every single CD to an external hard-drive so that if in the future, for whatever reason, I could within minutes access that elusive track...say the "Hell Yes" Dizzee Rascal remix of Beck's "Fax Machine Anthem". You know, the important things. Along the way I found a great number of albums that I had completely forgotten that I own, both good and very, very bad. Following are some of these albums, along with my reviews of them after listening to each for approximately 2 minutes.

Lindsay Lohan's Speak
Her juju is a-ok.
 
Maybe it's my current exposure to teeny-bopper music, or the advent of extreme-auto tune music, but I don't hate this as much as every particle of my body tells me I should. I listened to the entire first song, "Rumors," which consists of one giant complaint about the paparazzi following her. I don't keep up much on Lohan celebrity gossip, but these kinds of songs (I think Chris Brown has some of them too) are just pathetic. Also, how exactly am I supposed to relate to this song? Maybe everyone in California has their own crew of photographers following them, but I somehow doubt it. Well, maybe I don't doubt it but it doesn't relate to me very strongly. The other track I listened to was "Symptoms of You". My favorite parts of the track are the MIDI piano at the beginning that sounds like it was recorded straight off of my composition software Finale, and the undeniably perfect lyric: "I don't need a pill to fix my juju". I agree, Lindsay, your juju is just fine.


I give it one Milli and one Vanilli (both holding Grammys) so....  (1Milli + 1 Vanilli) x 1 Grammy




July 25, 2010

Reach Out (I'll Be There)

I'm a big fan of the song "Reach Out, I'll Be There" most famously performed by the Four Tops. One night while looking for a good video of the song on YouTube, I noticed that a whole heck of a lot of other people also like the song. So I guess it's time for an around-the-world exploration of "Reach Out"!


July 15, 2010

Pokemon Theme Song



I have such love for this song. Time well spent.

July 10, 2010

Microcuts Explained

Taking inspiration from one photo per day websites I decided to compose one short piece for piano every day over the past week.


"Highland"

By clicking on the word "microcuts" found in the labels on this post or on the label cloud to the right of this post, you can get to a complete list of the short pieces I've composed over the past week.

I took inspiration from certain things I had seen during the day or particular topics I had been thinking about. "Antichrist" was inspired by the Lars von Trier film of the same name, "Pluie" was inspired by a sudden burst of rain one afternoon, and "Day by Day" was inspired by a friend of mine who has overcome substance abuse problems. Other tunes, like "Shrew Dance" and some that didn't make it up onto the site were simply a result of an activity that I love doing: sitting at the piano and writing the dumbest thing I can make up.

The project has been extremely rewarding and I'm excited to keep recording, posting, and eventually notating and compiling these for some sort of collection. I probably won't keep writing new songs every day, but they give me something exciting and creative to do at the piano.

The term Microcuts comes from a song by the band Muse. Their song has very little to do with my pieces, but I've always liked the word and I thought it fit my short composition style well. I've composed pieces like this in the past, calling them flash-compositions after the same style of writing in literature called "flash-fiction". Although it might sound a little hackneyed to name my collection after a rock song, I like the word and think it applies well to these compositions.

Microcut - Day by Day



Dedicated to those recovering from addictions.

July 8, 2010

Microcut - Shrew Dance



Combo of two things: talking about a shrew at lunch today and my never-ending desire to write stupid but personally amusing tunes.

July 7, 2010

Microcut - Time Travel



If I played long enough, one of my hands would be older than the other. I'm just not sure which one.

July 6, 2010

Microcut - Pluck



Whoops. Clipping.

July 5, 2010

Microcut - Pluie



Scatter!

July 4, 2010

Microcut - Antichrist



Dedicated to Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Willem Dafoe.

July 3, 2010

Microcut - French Girls

A piece from me to you, ladies of France.

July 1, 2010

Tim's Camp Rock!

At Theatre E3 this year, I've been working with one of my classes on rock and roll, and how to play instruments in a band. I've been wanting to do this for a long time now but could never quite figure out how to do it. I think I've figured out some sort of system now.

All of the kids love the idea of making rock bands, but most lack the actual skills necessary to put the components together. I had to have some way to simplify the entire process so that I could teach a basic skillset across the whole board. Here's what I came up with:

First off, I chose six different songs that they could pick from. The songs all shared the same chord progression, using I, IV, and V chords and nothing else. The songs were:

"Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
"Blue Suede Shoes" by Elvis Presley
"All Shook Up" by Elvis Presley
"Good Golly Miss Molly" by Little Richard
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry

In addition to using only I, IV, and V chords, these songs (with the exception of "All Shook Up") use a blues progression as their primary harmonic progression. I transposed all of the songs to the key of G Major so that the only chords they had to learn were G, C, and D.



I took the opportunity to teach the class about chord charts and how to read tablature. Kids who had some preexisting guitar experience were able to pick up the three chords easily, and others set about diligently learning them. For kids who just could not move between the chords fast enough, I taught them the three bass notes necessary to play the chords and basic bass-guitar technique. Because I only have one bass guitar, some of the electric guitarists also picked these three notes.

The kids who have basic experience playing piano naturally gravitated towards it. For kids who have trouble inverting their chords, they move them around the keyboard in root position. For others, I taught the nearest inversions to use and they were allowed to choose whether to use left hand, right hand, or both.

For drums, a student loaned his snare drum, and I brought in a plastic bucket to act as a bass drum. Drummers are expected to play the snare drum on off-beats (beats 2 and 4). To help facilitate this, the kids can use one hand on the "bass drum" and one on the snare, alternating between the two. Because many people have an easier time finding the strong beats (1 and 3), this gives them something to do on every beat and keeps the tempo steady.

From my time at Birch Creek Music Camp in Wisconsin, and from my friends' Tartufi's Saturday Morning Rock Out!, I took the idea of having the kids play along with adults in order to learn from imitation and have the support of stronger musicians. I play along with the kids, filling in on instruments that need someone, or else playing piano with whoever is at the keyboard. One of the interns at the camp (Caleb), will be playing drums in the performance, and I'll have an adult guitarist as well.



The kids all learn at different rates, and some will not be ready in time. I expected this, but am really surprised by how many of them have picked up the instruments quickly, and look forward to coming in and playing. Some have gravitated to specific instruments, with many of the girls enjoying the power of the bass guitar and one particular girl sitting in on others' sessions in order to play drums when they need someone to pound the skins.

Overall, what I feel they've gained is a sense of empowerment and a greater ability to work in an ensemble. Looking at the pictures after today's classes I noticed their extreme concentration on the task at hand. Most of all they're having fun, and it makes me wish I had the equipment to let them all work the entire day. As it is, I have to cycle through each group and groups get no longer than ten minutes on the equipment. Over the course of the week though, each group gets about a half hour of time with me and during the off time they can review lyrics, song form, and performance ideas.



Now I can't wait to hear from the parents who are getting badgered by kids to buy them instruments.

June 16, 2010

Million Dead - Listen to This Band

One of the best bands I've ever come across is now-defunct British band Million Dead. The band intelligently combined punk-rock, heavy metal, and the British Sound, topping every song with witty and politically profound lyrics.

 
I've had a number of "favorite" bands in my lifetime, but few of them hold up in retrospect like Million Dead. Like most good bands, Million Dead was short lived, only playing together for four years from 2001 - 2005. Since their break-up the only member of the band I've followed is Frank Turner, whose punk-folk music is strong and catchy. Because of their short existence, they released relatively few recordings, the best of which I'll write about below, along with music samples.

A Song to Ruin

A Song To Ruin while being Million Dead's first full length album, has the sound of a band who has already reached maturity. The album can be called anything but formulaic, with unorthodox song forms, masterfully crafted lyrics, and a range of styles from the brooding epic "The Rise and Fall" (an allegorical story about the fall of the Roman Empire and other empires as told by the people who toppled them), to the grindcore influenced album opener "Pornography for Cowards".

Frank Turner's lyrical construction shines brightly on this album, with every song containing deep references to mythology ("The Rise and Fall"), popular culture ("MacGyver"), Soviet government stuctures ("I am the Party"), and fairy-tales ("Charlie and the Propaganda Myth Machine"). A sample of these clever lyrics from the fourth song on the album, "Charlie and the Propaganda Myth Machine", a play on the Roald Dahl classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Willy Wonka was a capitalist confidence trickster,
a poster boy for neo-liberalism, a full-stop on revolt.
and the BFG a propagandist for an unaccountable regime,
Orwell's vision with a wrinkled face.
Hold out the arm and quiet the voice.

Most amazingly, Turner is able to twist arhythmic lyrics like the ones above and fit them to the music in such a way that few others can do. The most powerful song, and closest to a "single" off the record (although "Smiling at Strangers on Trains" is the first official single), is the raucous "I Am the Party", a song complete with references to Orwell, the Bolsheviks, and a number of Eastern European revolutions. 




This same music video rip was my first exposure to Million Dead, and to this day I still get chills from this song. The power of the drums and bass combined with the intricate guitar riffs drive the song musically, while Turner expertly combines screaming and singing more skillfully than most hard-rock vocalists. I was originally drawn to the song by the music, and upon looking up the lyrics I was only rewarded further.


Harmony No Harmony

Million Dead's second (and last) full length album Harmony No Harmony was quickly followed by the release of their break-up notice. Having discovered Million Dead around 2003, I was devastated to have this new musical treat taken away from me, before they ever got a chance to tour America (or get any airplay or recognition in the States). Harmony No Harmony is as strong an album as their previous effort had been, but strikingly different. The lyrics are less overtly political, and more social and philosophical in nature. 

The creative and academic references can still be found with songs like "Carthago est Delenda" referencing the Punic Wars, "Holloway Prison Blues" referencing philosopher Francis Fukuyama (famous for being a founder of neo-conservatism), and a slew of musical references including "Holloway Prison Blues" (referencing "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash), "After the Rush Hour" (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush"), and even the title of the album is a reference to liner notes in Blag Flag's album Everything Went Black. 

While mantaining the rough sound from the previous album (despite the replacement of the guitarist), this album finds itself with more streamlined and formulaic song constructions. The post-rock forms of the last album have been replaced with the more standard verse-refrain-bridge constructions of popular rock-and-roll. Despite this change, Million Dead ups the ante in song arrangements. "To Whom it May Concern", an open letter from a cubicle worker to his/her boss, and "Father My Father" a confessional about the broken relationship between Turner and his father, both end with expansive choruses, with the former featuring a multiple-harmony chorus on the words "I'm only working here because I need the fucking money". 

The video for one of the best tracks on the album, "After the Rush Hour":


and because I know you're curious about that chorus (sorry about the sound quality):


In addition to their two full-length albums, the band released a number of singles and EPs, the most interesting of which is the EP I Gave my Eyes to Stevie Wonder, the title song of which sounds like this:


For those of you who are already hooked, I also recommend looking up their cover of the Smith's "Girlfriend in a Coma" and all of Frank Turner's output.

Frank Turner, while not writing music of the same aggresive quality, keeps his lyrics in fine form, but continues the mainstreaming of his music. His lyrics have become more social in nature, but are still clever, and occasionally contain the same intelligent politics of Million Dead. He plays in a realm halway between folk and punk-rock and keeps an avid fan-base. I corresponded by email with him soon after he split from Million Dead and began doing his own music, to ask his permission to play his music on KSTO. He was excited at the prospect, sent me a CD and even offered me free tickets to any shows in England if I could find someone to give them to. If Million Dead seems too hard for you, or if you simply want more, look up Frank Turner.

June 11, 2010

Secret Agent People

In the process of looking up a suitable recording of the Johnny Rivers' classic "Secret Agent Man" I stumbled upon an awesome array of covers and videos.


The song, originally written as the theme song for the British television show Danger Man contains a number of clear references to James Bond, both musically (the main guitar riff resembles 007's theme) and lyrically ("they've given you a number and taken away your name"). Now, the song is more associated with general 1960s popular music and surf-rock than the television show for which it was originally written.

The best video of the original is this live television broadcast from the 60s featuring a very young Johnny Rivers doing some top-notch lip/guitar-syncing. I wish we still had television shows like this.


I'll never totally understand how surf-rock and spying came to be associated with each other. Somehow the image of tanned dudes riding waves meshes really well with guys in suits poisoning drinks and carrying out acts of espionage. Let's compare:



Yeah, I'm not seeing it. But then again:



There you go, it just took 40 years and a Vin Diesel to show us what the connection is. Back to the music.

Here's Mr. Rivers a number of years later on David Letterman (turn your speakers up for this one).


It's nice to hear him actually singing and playing live instead of just syncing to a recording. Also, lets set up the band in a more awkward way.

Hey, it's DAVID HASSELHOFF! This one's for you Germany.


The Hoff really outdoes himself on this one, with dancing ladies, giant floating background text, and spy...laser pointers? I also can't tell if the beat is really horrible, or of this video has just been recycled so many times the fidelity has reduced the drums to a pile of beeps and boops. 

This version by Devo is not for everyone.

Did you watch that? Seriously? I just realized that if you replaced the instruments but kept the rhythms around 2:30 in the video with heavily distorted guitars and like a hundred more drums you could make a Slipknot song. How cool! Also, just to prove they can still rock it:


And in case you're saying this already, I know it's not a "true" cover, chillax bro.

Here's a version of "Secret Agent Man" by surf-rock mainstays The Ventures.


Do you feel like having a bit more international flair in your "Secret Agent Man" journey?


The Plugz recorded "Un Hombre Secreto"...because they could. And then it was featured in the movie The Repo Man which I believe was just remade for modern theaters.

Want more surf-rock punk-rock crossover? Here you go:


Master of disguise? I say yes:

And last but certainly not least:


That's what I'm here for. To fill your needs for Bruce Willis singing "Secret Agent Man" over the top of a mix tape of scenes from Die Hard 2 recorded by hand-held camera off of a television. 

What have we learned today? Nothing? Perfect.






June 9, 2010

The Decline of This Blog

And so we've reached it. The inevitable downward spiral of this blog.

As we take a look back at the past few months we can see a wide variety of posts. There were articles about nu-metal, rappers, and animated gifs. The most recent postings, a three-part series on contemporary piano music really took it out of me and I've been slow to recover.

Really I just felt the need to post something here so I wouldn't feel bad about neglecting my free corner of the internet. This isn't the end, only an excuse. If anyone has ideas of what to write about, go ahead and leave a comment.

***UPDATE*** 6/12/10

My love for blogging has been renewed with a rush of new inspiration. LONG LIVE THE BLOG!

May 29, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part III

In this final installment, I'll cover the steps that can be taken by the parties mentioned in the first post to help solve the problem of diminishing exposure of contemporary repertoire in the piano performance and teaching world.



1) Patrons - The role of patrons in the promotion of contemporary music is somewhat obvious. Patrons of the arts need to do as much as they can to not only support new composers, but also promote great works written over the past 100 years. Patrons are quick to commission new works from composers. A commissioned work is typically written with some idea in mind or parameters given by the patron who is paying for both its composition and performance. Sometimes a performer will commission a piece from a particular composer using money from a grant, competition, or donor. Other commissioned works are written for competitions, and all competitors are required to learn the piece.

Commissioning works is the primary way new music is premiered in the modern era, and I have no problem with it. The unfortunate downside to this system is that these commisioned works are rarely repeated in non-premiere performances. It might be true that the majority of pieces in the modern repertoire are commissioned works, but that does not mean the majority of commissioned works make it into the canon. With patrons eager to get a new piece composed in their name or by their dime, the performances of contemporary, yet not-new pieces are rare.

Patrons need to make several adjustments to help this situation. They need to be as eager to support recent repertoire as they are to commision new works. Patrons have a great ability to control what becomes part of the canon, and by supporting and sponsoring contemporary and lesser-known repertoire they can influence the canon. Patrons also need to do their research into new and lesser-known music. It's true that you can't go wrong with a Beethoven Sonata or Symphony, but by exploring contemporary repertoire, they have the ability to expand the consciousness of all music-lovers.

2) Pianists - Pianists are the most guilty of neglecting contemporary repertoire but can also make the most change. Pianists can begin by exploring the genres of contemporary music that they like and programming small amounts on their recitals. Many contemporary pieces require learning new techniques, and pianists shy away from them. If pianists want to stay relevant in the modern musical world, they must be bold and embrace new techniques. Pianists should set goals, such as programming at least one piece written within the past 50 years on every recital program, or dedicating a part of every concert to a lesser-known composer. By placing these pieces on programs, the pianist not only shows knowledge of the modern world, but also exposes the audience to a composer or style of music that they may enjoy enough to look into after the concert.

In my own experience, the exposure to composers outside of the canon has had a profound effect on audiences. After a recital in college, in which I played Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin for fifty minutes, the pieces that everyone still talks about were two miniatures by early American composer Amy Beach. Her pieces are not extremely "modern" sounding but they are beautiful and fresh to the ears of the audience. By playing some of her pieces on a recital, I not only exposed people to her music, but also entered her name into their musical vocabulary.

Amy Beach's "Scottish Legend" performed by Phillip Sear, who looks a lot like Larry David
3) Recordings - Recordings have done a lot for contemporary music. Without recordings, our musical vocabulary would be much smaller and we would never get to hear the majority of the great classical repertoire. What we must be careful of is not being satisfied with just the recording. Music is a performance art, and pieces should exist outside of just the recording (for western, piano "art-music" that is, rock and roll and electronic music which exists solely on the record are different). 

When deciding what to record, pianists should think about what their intentions are with the recordings. When forte-pianist Malcolm Bilson came to the University of Illinois in October, 2009, he was talking to a faculty member about recording the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven. Bilson, who has recorded all of the Beethoven sonatas on historical forte-piano replicas, asked what kind of piano the faculty member would be recording on. Upon hearing that they would be recorded on a Steinway, Bilson asked "what's the point?" Although I was shocked by how absolutely cold and rude that response was (it takes an incredible amount of time to record the complete sonatas of Beethoven) he was absolutely correct. 

At that exact moment in time, I was in a room with three men who had all recorded and released the complete Beethoven sonatas. These are in addition to recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas as performed by Richard Goode, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Kempff, Claudio Arrau, Ronald Brautigam, and a massive host of others. If you wanted, you could own well over a dozen (probably close to two dozen) different interpretations of the complete Beethoven Sonatas. Pianists need to take that same enthusiasm for recording the classics and apply it to contemporary repertoire. Pianists tend to see that someone has already recorded the John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for example, and not want to record their own interpretation. As a recording pianist, one has the obligation to record new and lesser-known works as often, if not more often than established works.

4) Competitions - Competitions are what they are, and there is little one can do to change them. They test the complete skillset and knowlede of the pianist, and this by defition must include non-contemporary repertoire. The furtherance of acceptance of non-standard repertoire would help the cause, as well as the expansion of repertoire knowledge on the part of judges. Judges tend to be incredibly knowledgable (usually made up of teachers and performers) but less accepting of modern works. 

The commisioned works of competitions are an excellent, yet flawed attribute. Commissioned piece prizes help add importance to the commissioned work, but pianists in the competitions tend to apply less effort to these pieces, and according to a source that shall not be named, these pieces are often treated as something of a joke within the competition circuit. Expansion of acceptable repertoire and a professional approach to the commissioned work will help the competition scene become less of a problem.

5) Teachers - Many of our conceptions and preferences about music are formed at a young age. As music teachers we have a responsibility to produce open minded students who are as enthusiastic about modern music as they are about anything else. This responsibility includes teaching about modern theory, music history and how to appreciate contemporary piano repertoire. 

Teachers should be knowledgable about contemporary repertoire. Unlike public school teachers, who require licenses with periodic renewals and updating, piano teachers do not need to be licensed and do not need to attend classes. Because of this independence, teachers need to dedicate their own time to self-improvement in weak areas. Teachers who do not have a strong knowledge of contemporary composition technique, repertoire, and performance practice should make it a priority to familiarize themselves with these areas of piano literature. 

Compositions featuring contemporary techniques and sounds are plentiful at every level of difficulty. Composers like Ross Lee Finney and Stephen Chatman use a variety of modern techniques including graphic notation, aleatoricism, improvisation and a variety of styles for beginners through adults. For an excellent rundown of modern techniques and a catalog of contemporary pieces suitable for teaching, download or buy Kevin David Richmond's dissertation Non-traditional Notation and Techniques in Student Piano Repertoire.

This concludes my series on the contemporary piano scene. It's important not only for the advancement of music to celebrate contemporary composers, but it's also important for the advancement of the piano as an instrument of relevance. There are many players in this scene, and everyone has to be responsible for their part. Pianists need to expand their repertoire, patrons need to sponsor concerts of contemporary music, and teachers need to keep their students out of the dark.

May 18, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part II


Because I'm not all doom and gloom, Parts II and III of my series on contemporary piano music will focus on the benefits of teaching and performing the repertoire of 20th century and lesser known composers and what we can do to help solve the problem. After Part I (which my father deemed "angry") this installment will focus some of the benefits of exposing others and being exposed to contemporary piano music.

I had played classical piano for over a decade before I attended Birch Creek Music Camp in Door County, Wisconsin as a high-schooler. I had just made the decision to pursue piano in college, and needed some experience at a music camp, under a different teacher. At this point, I knew very little about classical repertoire in general, little about music theory, and didn't particularly enjoy listening to Western Art-Music (aka "classical music"). The camp was brutal for me, but two particular pieces opened up my ears. One was Dvorak's 9th Symphony ("New World Symphony"), and the other was Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Four Hands.


I had heard the Dvorak once before but had never even heard of early 20th century French composer Poulenc. The piece had a profound effect on me. The brutality of the driving secondo part mixed with the witty, syncopated melodies piqued my interest in a way no Beethoven sonata could ever do. I started to gobble up records by "contemporary" (Poulenc died in 1963) composers. Right after camp ended I bought a CD of Dvorak and Elgar's cello concertos, Poulenc's Stabat Mater, Gloria, Secheresses and other pieces, and a recording of Charles Ive's Sonata no. 2 "Concord". Back at my high-school, I discovered the library's vinyl collection (hidden underneath the stairs) and checked out a half dozen records every weekend to record to my computer. I was exposed to Varese, Babbitt, Schoenberg, more Ives, and most importantly for piano, living American composer George Crumb.

As a teenager more interested in punk rock and heavy metal than Mozart, these composers gave me access to sounds that I had never heard before, and related more strongly to my world. Later on, in college I expanded my interest in contemporary composers to a general interest in lesser-known composers. This combined with my growing feminism led me to composers such as Amy Beach, Charles Griffes, Cecile Chaminade, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and Joan Tower amongst many others. As an undergraduate, despite my interest in lesser-played and contemporary repertoire, I was expected to perform a steady diet of the classics, but was allowed to sprinkle in newer composers on occasion. My recital programs from my final years included works by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Robert Schumann, Haydn, Beach, and living composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. I grew into Rautavaara's Piano Sonata no. 2 "Fire Sermon" easily, and decided after college to make contemporary music my primary focus.

Rautavaara's Second Piano Sonata (performed by somebody else)

That is my own personal story of how I discovered and fell in love with non-canonic piano literature, but I left out all of the reasons why I've made it my focus. Below are some of the benefits for performers, students, and audiences of learning contemporary and lesser-known piano literature.

1) Wealth of Repertoire - It may seem somewhat obvious, but the amount of repertoire we have access to since the romantic era (ca. 1815-1900) is huge. In keyboard terms, repertoire usually begins in the Baroque era with Bach, Handel, and for the adventurous, Francois Couperin. Classical repertoire is effectively limited to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Romantic repertoire grows immensely with the inclusion of late Schubert, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. These composers (with the exceptions of Clara Schumann, and Couperin) are well represented in performance. Representing the era after these composers, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and some of the other early Russian masters are performed. This is quite a lot of repertoire, and creates a difficult problem for performers and teachers who want to expose others to the abundance of historical music, yet still advocate unheard works. 

Contemporary music offers a huge amount of repertoire for the piano. Composers can publish easily with the help of independent printing presses, or self-publish online. In addition to living composers, there are as many lesser-known composers from the late-romantic and early 20th century as there are famous ones. The sheer amount of repertoire is often daunting, which is why it is important for college students and teachers to begin investigating non-canonic works as soon as possible, and continue for their entire lives. 

Because of the breadth of contamporary literature, there is something for everyone. Many people hear a piece of music written in the past 100 years and throw out the rest of the repertoire alongside it. Unlike some other musical eras, such as the early Classical period, where many musical aesthetics were shared amongst composers (this is not to say they all sound alike, just that they shared many ideals), contemporary music has a wide range of styles and sounds. If the mathematical methods of Iannis Xenakis are not your style, you may enjoy the percussive syncopations of Bartok's Piano Sonata.

Second half of Xenakis' Mists

Bartok's Piano Sonata performed by a very energetic Lang-Lang (I'm pretty sure he thanks his page turner after the first turn)
The term "contemporary piano repertoire" is actually a colossal misnomer. Some of the different styles that make up this era of music include (in no particular order): Serialism, Impressionism, Quotational School, Late Romanticism, Expressionism, Indeterminacy (which itself can include Aleatoricism, Chance music, and Stochastic methods), Pointilism, Electronic music, Minimalism (another misnomer), Nationalism, Avante-Garde, and Neoclassicism to name very few of the many genres. There is literally something for everyone.

2) Audiences Enjoy it - Many pianists fear that audiences will not enjoy contemporary music. In my experience, audiences tend to enjoy this repertoire as much, if not more than canonic works. Because the majority of audiences cannot tell Beethoven's Op. 53 from Op. 106 (and seriously, why should they), programming a Ginastera sonata will be just as exciting as programming a Chopin Scherzo. To an audience that does not know a piece of music is non-canonic, there is no sense of danger or entering unknown territory.

Much of the contemporary piano repertory is very exciting music. The pieces are often shorter and more in line with the modern audience's attention span. With the exception of minimalism, pieces often feature rapid shifts in mood, content, harmony, and character. This keeps contemporary music exciting, a feature rarely associated with western art-music.

3) It Reflects Modern Aesthetics - We don't live in a time of grand balls, elegant dress, and court concerts anymore. For the same reasons that pre-20th century music can be hard for an audience to understand, contemporary music can be far more accessible. As mentioned before, the length of pieces are closer to the attention span of the modern audience, and the character of pieces relate more directly to those found in the modern range of emotions. The dripping sentimentality and overt show of emotions found in much of the romantic repertoire, while appealing to us, is somewhat lost outside of its original context, whereas the mechanical drive of a Prokofiev Sonata is much more relatable to the modern experience.

Additionally, the musics that make up modern "popular" music are well represented in the art-music world as well. Jazz and classical music have played off of each other as long as Jazz has existed. The compositional idioms of Jazz, Pop, and Classical share much more in common than we might think. This makes for a compositional style that is more easily understood by the modern listener, regardless of classical background knowledge. For example, the following third and fourth movements of American composer Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata (especially the fourth movement) contain both driving rhythm and syncopations, understandable by any untrained listener, as well as a fugue which can appeal to those with a historical background. (Go to around 1:58 for the beginning of the fourth movement fugue) 

Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata mvmts 3 and 4 performed by Christopher Atzinger (full disclosure: Dr. Atzinger was my undergraduate teacher)

4) A Way to Teach Recent History - American educator Raymond Burrows, one of the creators of the college "group piano" class wrote about the usefulness of piano for history teachers, to give an insight to their classes on the culture of European civilizations of the past 300 years. Music teachers can also use piano literature from the past 100 years to help illustrate historical concepts and events. The reaction to the World Wars can be seen in Serialism and Indeterminism, Nationalism can be illustrated in the piano works of Charles Ives in America, and numerous Russian composers operating under the auspices of the Union of Soviet Composers. The avante-garde and experimentation of the 60s and 70s can be explored just as validly through the music of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young as it can through the psychadelic music of Jimi Hendrix.

5) The Modern Piano - Pieces written within the last 100 years were overwhelmingly written for the modern piano. Some things that distinguish the modern piano from the piano used in Beethoven and Schubert's time are the standardization of the steel frame and the crossing of the strings. Both of these things were done for power and sonority of the instrument. The steel frame enables performers to play louder and harder, and the crossing of the strings (the bass strings are crossed over the treble strings) creates a more lush sound due to sympathetic vibrations, as well as the ability to fit longer (louder) bass strings into a smaller area. For more information about the development of the piano check out this Wikipedia article.


These technological innovations had a profound effect on the style of writing for the keyboard. Composers stopped writing busy bass-line passages, as can be found in many of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, and wrote more octave or character-specific bass passages. The power of the new piano also allows more percussive sounds such as heard in the above Poulenc and Bartok videos. The modern piano also allows unique extended techniques such as those found in the works of pioneer Henry Cowell, and living composer George Crumb.

Henry Cowell's "The Banshee" performed by the composer
These extended technique pieces are often played on the strings rather than on the keys of the piano. They involves scraping, muting, and plucking the strings amongst other techniques. These pieces utilize the modern piano specifically, and were written for the instrument that we currently play. These pieces will almost always work on the modern instrument, unlike Mozart and Beethoven sonatas which have to be played differently on the modern piano than they are on the classical forte-piano. If we have access to pieces written specifically for our instrument, we should be playing them. As it is, the majority of recital program pieces were written for a very different kind of piano.

6) Teaching Pieces - Because of the difficulty and "newness" of many modern pieces, it is often thought that they are intended for experts only. Although I will write more about this in Part III, there are a wealth of contemporary composers who not only write pieces for children, but whose pieces (often written in non-standard notation) better suit children than canonic pieces can. Composers like Stephen Chatman, whose children's pieces often consist of shapes and lines with written directions more effectively teach the piano than more traditional pieces by controlling the number of variables a student has to focus on when learning the instrument. Pieces often focus simply on pitch selection, or dynamics, or articulation, rather than combining all of these elements at the same time. The results are often pleasurable, unique, and satisfying for both audiences and students.

I can't write enough about the benefits of teaching and performing contemporary repertoire. The amount of repertoire is immense, and largely untapped. One only needs a first exposure to catalyze the exploration of this great musical world. Part III of this series will focus on what each area of the musical world from Part I can do to help solve the Contemporary Crisis that exists in the piano world.

May 9, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part I

Over the past few years I've grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of interest on the part of pianists in 20th century and contemporary repertoire. Part I of this essay will focus on the reasons I think contemporary music has fallen out of the pianist's repertoire.



At my alma-mater of St. Olaf College there was a general interest in new music. We had a fairly strong composition department, and extremely open access to a music library with thousands of recordings, as well as an impossibly huge online database. The piano faculty regularly played contemporary pieces, and encouraged their students to do the same. I expected upon my acceptance to the University of Illinois that I would hear large amounts of new music, but was rudely surprised by the conservatism found on most piano recital programs.

Being a large state school, the piano department is composed mainly of students seeking their doctoral and masters degrees in piano performance. The requirements for this degree call for a number of recitals, and many candidates give more than the required number of performances in their time here. This abundance of performance opportunities gives pianists an opportunity to perform a wide range of repertoire, and for those that have the ability, they perform a constantly changing catalog of music. Despite the amount of talent and availability of performances here is a typical program:

Bach - Prelude and fugue or a dance suite

Beethoven - Usually an early or middle period sonata. Sometimes a Mozart Mannheim Sonata is substituted.

Chopin - Ballade or Scherzo

Token 20th century piece, usually a late romantic piece. Rachmaninoff preludes or etudes are common, Debussy, rarely something written after 1950.

I have no problem with any of these components individually. All are important parts of the pianist's repertoire, and deserve to be played. Here is my major problem with the above program, and thus the majority of programs not just at the U of I, but in concert halls across the country: with the exception of the last piece, which is basically optional anyways, none of these pieces were written within the last 160 years.

Imagine never reading a book written within the last 160 years or never looking at a painting made after 1850. Even more depressing, imagine authors and visual artists were forced to create works only in the style of works from around 1700 - 1850.Adding another layer of the ridiculous, none of these pieces besides the last one were even written for the actual instrument they're being played on! The modern piano as we know it (essentially the Steinway-Standard) didn't become widespread until the early part of the 20th century, and although Chopin's piano resembled our current one, they are not the same instrument.

The "token contemporary" piece, almost always tacked on to the end is what I look forward to the entire concert. At St. Olaf I could almost always count on this piece being something I had never heard before live and probably wouldn't hear again (although I swear I heard Lieberman's Gargoyles about a dozen times). At University of Illinois, this contemporary piece tends to be something that barely counts as contemporary. Rachmaninoff preludes and etudes are very popular choices, which while sort of counting as 20th century repertoire, are written very much in a Romantic vein, and are still nearly 100 years old.

Musicologist Stewart Gordon, in his book A History of Keyboard Literature paints a depressing but accurate picture of the future of the piano in his final pages. He comments on the declining popularity of the piano as a vehicle for new composition. I believe there are a number of things to place blame on for this problem.

1) Patrons - Audiences like to hear the "classics". This is the reason you can almost bet on a Beethoven symphony being played somewhere on an orchestra's concert season program. Patrons (as in, the people who pay the money) often know quite a bit about classical music. Their are many donors and patrons however, who don't, and know that there is no danger in asking for an orchestra to play Beethoven. The same is true when it comes to piano. A patron can put money down at Krannert (the large performing arts center in Champaign) asking that an important pianist be brought in to play a Mozart concerto. I have never heard of a patron paying money to hear Crumb's Makrokosmos be played on a program. This audience expectation problem creates a huge feedback loop: a limited amount of repertoire is heard (Beethoven Waldstein sonata anyone?) therefore audiences never get exposure to other music and after that only request what they know. In addition, pianists only learn the rep that will be known by audiences. In my experience though, audiences tend to greatly enjoy contemporary piano literature. This sets up a strange condundrum which I'll explore more thoroughly in Part II.

2) Pianists - Pianists have the pleasure as well as the burden of a having an incredible abundance of literature to choose from. Next to singers, we have probably the largest repertoire selection available, and far and away the most solo concert repertoire. The time frame of our literature spans right around 300 years, so it can be difficult to choose pieces. Pianists, however, are timid about choosing contemporary repertoire and effectively cut that 300-year time span down to about 2/3 of its length. This is a shame considering how much has been written for the piano in the last 100 years. I believe it is a pianist's duty to not only please an audience, but to teach them about "new"sounds. It's ridiculous that something composed nearly 100 years ago like Cowell's "The Banshee" is still considered "contemporary" and sounds "new" to an audience. Pianists can help dictate what enters the canon and what stays outside, unfortunately we seem to be doing a better job of the latter and aren't really trying for the former.

3) Recordings - We live in a time where recording technology has completely changed how we listen to music. Now a single performance of a piece, recorded onto a CD, can come to define the work, rather than represent one possible manifestation of the work. Contemporary music has been relegated to the recorded world, while live performance is the realm of those pieces which have entered the canon. This is another problem that can be solved in part by pianists, resolving to bring the recorded to the stage.

4) Competitions - Competitions are a very sticky point amongst many pianists. In some ways, there has always been an element of competition in music, but at its fundamental, music is an artform, and competition takes the focus off of the art and onto the competitor. Competitions have served to elevate certain pieces above others and canonize them above everything else. Pieces such as Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and the fourth movement of the Barber Piano Sonata have become "competition pieces" and are thus learned and idealized. Competitions narrow the window of acceptable repertoire. Pieces often have to be well known, playing a piece unfamiliar to the judges makes them feel inferior for not knowing it, and so contemporary literature is discouraged. The "token contemporary piece" from before usually takes the form of a commissioned work for the competition, a piece usually learned at the last minute by performers.

5) Teachers - Many teachers are not knowledgeable about 20th century, contemporary, and music outside of the canon. For large numbers of piano teachers, the piano repertoire basically stops at Debussy (again, nearly 100 years ago) and they ignore the rich array of techniques and sounds that exist from the last century. For some it is ignorance, they just don't know what's available to be taught, but for others it is a conscious decision to avoid this music.

You'll notice I did not fault composers at all. Composers continue to write for piano, though understandably not as much as they used to. I believe composers are writing less for piano becuase pianists are playing fewer of their works. New works have been relegated to the sidelines for performances by "new music ensembles" or performers who dedicate their existence to new music such as the Kronos Quartet. These musicians often commission new works which are performed once, recorded, and never heard again. There is also a certain lack of repertoire for the intermediate and early advanced pianist that is frustrating. Big name modern composers tend to write a handful of extremely difficult performance pieces rather than pieces which are more easily learned by the high-school or even early undergraduate pianist. Many modern composers, such as Ross Lee-Finney, have dedicated large sections of their careers to composing for the developing pianist, a topic I will get into more in Parts II and III.

There are a large number of reasons for the downturn in interest in contemporary music for pianists, but the often cited reason of "it's unappealing" is by far the worst excuse. Post-Romantic piano literature takes so many shapes and sounds that to group it all together is absurd. The above are only a few reasons why I think this literature has been neglected.

Part II of this post will cover the value of learning and performing new and lesser-heard works. Part III will be a review of what pianists and teachers can do to remedy the situation.

May 3, 2010

In Retrospect: Nu-Metal

Nu-Metal, a valid genre of hard-rock, or an excuse for roid-rage beefy-dudes to smash some heads in the pit? Here are 5 bands that aren't as bad as I thought they were, and five that were worse.

 IT'S TIME TO GET THE F*** DOWN!

I'll fully admit before I launch into this, that at one point in my life, I liked all of these bands. Like, I was totally into it, even the bands in my "bad" column. And when I say bands that aren't "as bad as I thought they were" I mean in retrospect. So really, this is just me revisiting the judgments I made on these bands in high-school and college. Basically, my viewpoint went from: middle school = all of these bands rule, to college = all of these bands suck. I probably won't listen to most of these bands again, although I do sneak peeks at System of a Down and Static-X every once and awhile. Anyways, onto the bands, starting with the good.


Bands that were better than I thought

Korn

I never realized until now how much of Korn's sound was hip-hop influenced. From their danceable drum-beats to sparse and freaky guitar parts, they really had a unique sound compared to most of the other bands out at the time. I always loved Fieldy's bass playing too, it completely lacked any tone or discernable pitch, and was purely there for rhythmic variety. Many tried to copy him and all of them failed. Also, can I get a hallelujah for METAL SCATTING?

System of a Down


I was huge into System of a Down all the way until they released the double album Mezmerize/Hypnotize. At that point I just couldn't take their turn into silly unfocused lyrics anymore. Also, I think they basically stopped recording at that point while singer Serj Tankian recorded his own stuff. I never really stopped liking this band, so I don't know if I should really put them on this list. I did try listening to Toxicity on my last ride home from Champaign but got so sick of it I didn't finish. The above song ("Chop Suey") will forever be one of my favorite rock songs of all time, and I think really marked the pinnacle of their career.

Chevelle
Chevelle was almost going to make the bad column and then I watched the video above and realized that they really just got screwed over by getting lumped in with the rest of the bands on the list. They didn't sound anything like the other groups, and really sounded more like a grunge-era holdover mixed with some post-punk. I could actually listen to this again. Along with Bush, I love Bush!

Static-X
 

Unforunately I can't embed the video I wanted to, because Warner Brothers doesn't understand that MUSIC VIDEO EMBEDDING IS FREE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THEIR BANDS. Seriously. Wayne Static had awesome vocals, and their old Japanese guitarist was totally sweet. That's enough to go on.
Slipknot

I really struggled with this band. But in the end, musically, they were pretty inventive and talented (within the aesthetics of their genre). They had an excellent main drummer, a couple extra drummers, and some cool guitar parts. They recognized that rhythm is the most important part of nu-metal (along with hair-gel) and amplified it. That's why they eventually had a guy who hit an iron keg with a baseball bat (cool!). The only thing holding them back was their vocals and those dumb masks, which were dumb enough for them to make the next list as well.

Bands that were just as bad, if not worse than I remember

Slipknot 
 

Seriously, so dumb.
Taproot 

Once again, record labels don't understand the concept of free advertising so I can't give the official video, but here's the song. It starts off so cool! Then it gets so dumb! His voice is grating, his look was awful (why did they feel a need to have both ears pierced?) and...it's just bad.

Flaw
I actually bought this CD, and if I remember correctly, it represents one of my last nu-metal purchases. This song is truly precious though. If only because it was clearly written for the singular reason of moshing to the screamed line "You Suck!". But mosh they did.
Spineshank

Spineshank is my go-to band when I talking about nu-metal. I think because their name is so ridiculous. They also failed to successfuly incorporate electronics into metal (a void in my soul finally filled by the mighty Genghis Tron). Spineshank was another band solely created to make moshing-songs, so really they were to nu-metal what Lil Jon is to rap. Also, check out the hair if you can. I wanted their hair.

Godsmack
Can you hear this song being sung in a workout room someplace? Because I can. This lovely song was a hard-rock mainstay, it featured "tribal" drumming to go with your "tribal" armband tattoo, mystic deep-throated lyrics, and like...some other sweet stuff that I can't put into words. Also, Godsmack's bass player held his bass WAY LOWER than anyone else on the planet. He must have needed surgery on his back at some point, because I can't imagine playing bass around your ankles all the time. Well...actually I can because I tried it, and it didn't work.

Mushroomhead

Remember this band? No? Think they look a lot like ICP? That's because they do. You know what else they share in common with ICP? Take a guess, there are lots of things.

So, I hope that didn't take too long for you. It did? Sorry. Tired of this question and answer stuff that I started in the last paragraph and kept going with, thus ruining the continuity of the whole blog post? Me too.

April 30, 2010

Headis: The Hottest New European Game



Look at those safety features!

April 29, 2010

Why I Love Andrew W.K. (and You Should Too)

My recent (read: year-long) obsession with Andrew W.K. may seem like a surprise to some, and to others it's probably just annoying. As a former A.W.K. hater, let me make a case for the artist that changed my attitude toward party-rock, sweaty dudes, and life in general.

When I was in high-school (or middle-school), Andrew W.K. came out with his infamous album, I Get Wet, a collection of anthems dedicated to one concept: parties. As a non-partier myself, I rejected Mr. W.K. as a dumb, screaming bro (and this was before the term "bro" became popular). I threw on my Mindless Self Indulgence t-shirt and stuck to listening to terrible, now forgotten bands such as...well...Spineshank (what a rad name!). It wasn't until my senior year in college, working at KSTO that I was clued (by both our Loud Rock and Hip Hop directors) into what a totally cool dude Andrew W.K. is. So, it was four years after the initial release of I Get Wet that I finally purchased the album.

Apparently this album cover caused controversy in Europe, where they thought his bleeding nose endorsed cocaine usage. Because apparently that's the only thing that causes someone's nose to bleed in Europe. The "true" story (according to Wikipedia...citation needed) is that Andrew just hit himself in the face with a brick and then added some animal blood to his own for more...blood. For those unfamiliar with the album, let me give you a sample of some of the song titles:

"It's Time to Party"
"Party Hard"
"Party til You Puke"
"I Get Wet"
"Fun Night"
Other favorites are "I Love NYC" and "She Is Beautiful".



Upon first listen, this album seems like it might be a frat-boy's dream CD, with three titles including the word party, and most of the rest serving as anthems that can be sung while intoxicated on a couple dozen PBRs. The album is a great time though, every song is short, starts with a drum hit so you know when to pump your fist in the air, and sounds pretty similar...but in a good way.

What makes Andrew W.K. unique is his definition of the word "party". To A.W.K., it seems that a "party" can take on many unique meanings, depending who is doing the partying. You see, to Andrew, a "party" doesn't necessarily require beer, drugs, and popped collars, but instead relies on friends, good feelings, and more good feelings.



Part of what is so admirable about Andrew W.K. is the extent to which he accepts who he is both in the personal sense, and the professional. He never tries to disguise the fact that he is an entertainer rather than a musician (although I believe his musical skills are under-appreciated). From what little I know about his past, he is actually some sort of creation of an A&R team who was trying to put together a highly marketable front-man. Andrew took this newfound fame and admiration and ran with it, creating an entire persona based on positive energy. He is funny, intelligent, and always good natured, characteristics atypical of the standard rock or pop-star. In all, despite the blood and "party" mantra, he's an incredible role model. He never refutes his origins as a record-company product, a past steeped in some mystery and legal disputes. What he has done though, is made this image his life, and dedicated his existence to spreading the energy that he has.



I realized about a year ago that Andrew W.K. is more than a rocker (and in reality, a product), he is an idea. He is the embodiment of Positive Mental Attitude, a much maligned philosophy that says the world can be a better place if we have optimism and treat everyone with respect. Andrew transforms this philosophy into, "Everyone should be partying in their own way, and I'm cool with that as long as your idea of partying doesn't infringe too much on my, or anyone else's idea of partying." That may be a little simplistic, but I like the gist of it. He seems to be a man completely transformed by the power of positive thinking. He believes in the power of optimism so much that at many shows he delivers motivational speeches and fields open Q & As. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates his positive vibes, such as the juggalos at Gathering of Juggalos, who only believe in magic (like the magic of rainbows).



Beyond his persona and good vibes, I really genuinely enjoy his music as well. I Get Wet was a fun album, and serves its purpose as an anthemic good-times collection of stand-alone tunes. I'm not a huge fan of his solo-piano recordings, partly because they don't capture my interest in the same way his rock songs do, and partly because they can't carry the same level of energy that the other albums can. They're still well done though.

I very recently purchased the dual album Close Calls with Brickwalls/Mother of Mankind. This is a re-release of 2006's Close Calls with Brickwalls, an album that caught extremely mixed reaction from fans due to the departure in sound from I Get Wet and The Wolf. Rather than going with the party-chant lyrics and fairly un-nuanced distortion guitar sounds of the first album, Close Calls is a thorough "rock and roll record". The songs are well thought out, sung rather than screamed, and feature a much higher emphasis on arrangement and mixing than the songs on Wet did. The double album contains 40 tracks, some of which are less memorable, but all of which reveal a more musically flexible Andrew W.K., one which I embrace heartily. Some of the songs are still incredibly goofy, but reveal a new depth not found (nor necessarily required or wanted) on Wet. Other songs like "I'm a Vagabond" included below, and the shocking "Kill Yourself" show a side to Andrew that was not clear before, revealing a less black-and-white view of the world than we've heard previously.

"I'm a Vagabond"


The song that convinced me to buy the albums (I knew I was going to buy it at some point, but I didn't know when) was "I'm Not Going to Bed". It's funny, but it's so true (especially considering that I'm writing this instead of going to bed).




Andrew W.K. has gone from reviled rock-star to much beloved entertainer. One look at the youtube comments for most of these videos reveal a deep pool of admiration from his fans (most of the time I would never recommend looking at Youtube comments) and, I believe this admiration is justly earned. Even if he started as a creation, he has proven that a single person can embody a positive, worthwhile message. I would love to catch one of his lectures some day, or attend a Q & A session.

I'm not advocating some sort of celebrity-cult worship of the Andrew W.K., but rather I think he's interesting, worth knowing about, and worth learning something from. His music rocks, his hair is smooth and shiny, and he's got more than enough energy to go around.