Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Connections Between Miles and Bjork

When I bought my tickets to see Bjork more than a month ago, I had to settle for a “side view”; the closest center seats were sold out, and I wasn`t going to take a risk buying center seats that could for all I know be at the far back of the arena. Although I had never been to the Nippon Budokan before, I had definitely heard about the many large tours that had passed through and the slew of albums named “Live at Budokan” or simply “at Budokan”. This was going to be vastly different from any club experience I had, so after mulling it over, I decided a side view was better than no view - the fact the person seated next to me was using binoculars not withstanding. But the side view turned out to be not such a bad choice after all. It provided a clear view of her band and the rest of the stage including the percussion and assorted electronics.

Not surprisingly though this perspective of the stage shifted a lot of my focus away from Bjork and directed it to the rest of her group. And with this redirected perspective, I had an epiphany. With so much of her focus in the past few years on gathering such a wide array of talented musicians and using their ideas to support her music, she`s beginning to come off like Miles Davis. For so much of his career, Miles would gather and work with some of the best jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John Coltrane, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter, uniting them under his well-established and respected name. In fact, for many of Shorter`s original tunes, the recordings that are most celebrated are those with Miles Davis. With many of these musicians, Miles claimed in the '70s that he created the best rock band in existence. His statement not only reflects the talent of his group, but also the variety of new electric instruments his band was playing that were still taboo in jazz circles. In a similar vein, Bjork has gathered her own cast of talent including Matmos, Konono No.1, Timbaland, Rahzel, Mike Patton, and Mark Bell. In addition to a creative combination of musicians, Bjork always manages to assemble a surprising if not impressive orchestration ranging from the strings and beats of the Homogenic era to her current use of some cutting-edge electronic instruments including the Reactable, which isn't even in commercial production yet.

Another link between Bjork and Miles Davis is how they treat their own melodies in live performances. One thing I`m always astounded by when I listen to The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine & Four More is that the melodies of what should be instantly recognizable songs are carefully obscured by a very free interpretation of the melody`s original shape. The band provides an incredibly solid foundation, making something like “All Blues” unmistakable, but when the melody is the defining feature on “My Funny Valentine” or “Stella by Starlight” Miles twists it around to create something almost entirely different. Bjork`s band too was solid, providing her with the platform necessary to do something similar. On Friday, Bjork constantly pushed the tempo, staying ahead of the beat or not holding out a note and skipping a beat or two. This rendered her singing style more speech-like and turned lyrical melodies from Hyperballad into something she spoke almost directly to the audience seated in folding chairs on the floor in front of her. Lately I've been interested in how vocals are bent rhythmically or placed slightly off of the beat to create tension or the directness of speech. Basically I like it when singers emote by manipulating rhythms and tempos.

Though it doesn't really demonstrate the singing style I was talking about, this clip of All is Full of Love gives you an impression of what the show was like.

And here's that recording of All Blues I was talking about. With Miles playing the head solo, he's free to interpret the melody without risking unexpected harmonic clashes.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thank You Jon Cage For Classifying This Under Music

Everyone remotely familiar with Japanese culture has heard about the sensory overload that one can get on a daily basis, whether is be from seizure-inducing shows to TV screens that span the walls of buildings in Shibuya. Seeing photos and maybe even getting a glimpse of a video displaying these sights isn`t that hard, but they only demonstrate the immense overload of visual stimuli. What may not be so commonly known is that audio overload in Japan is just as prevelent if not more so. And even though I live in a city much smaller and therefore much quieter than Tokyo, I still can`t avoid in my own sleepy neighborhood the underlying cultural norms that allow a healthy dosage of sound to be acceptable.

I've been bugged by the level of sound that I encounter regularly in Japan since I had to put up with bike gangs at 3 A.M. and the resulting low speed chases by the local police. Needless to say, the police sirens had an adverse effect in reducing the sound level. A couple of weeks ago, I was recently reminded of this distaste when I went shoe shopping. In every store in Japan, the staff are trained to say the Japanese equivalent of "Welcome!" in a pretty lively voice. I'm pretty certain it's a way to show their energy and enthusiasm for the product they're selling. However, here the staff were saying their "Welcome!" and other greetings at a level no weaker than a shout. The fact that I was standing a couple of feet away from one of these shouting clerks didn't make him lower his volume. Giving one an aggravated look elicited an apology from one, but had no discernible other results. Surrounded by shoe salesmen yelling at the top of their lungs would've been utter torture had I not had in-ear headphones to cancel most of the noise.

If anyone knows about how candidates for public office in Japan campaign, you're well aware of the vans that they ride around in all day using a loudspeaker to ask for votes. Well, back in the spring, a candidate in one of the city elections placed his campaign headquarters on the first floor of my building. So my apartment building was the epicenter of loudspeaker announcements for one campaign and was definitely on the route of a few others. Not only that, but on the night before the election my candidate neighbor and his campaign staff had a rally in the parking lot, in which there was a lot of chanting and cheering.

It's not only the campaign vans make the rounds in Japan, but there are also garbage trucks making announcements for the TVs and other large items. Then there are food trucks using a loudspeaker to advertise yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato) and other Japanese snacks. But in some ways, it's actually entertaining. Hearing that half-sung yaki-imo announcement actually made my night a couple of weeks ago.

Another yaki-imo truck parked near my local train station. Note the loudspeaker on top.

Now I don't want to come across as someone who is so sensitive to noise that I can't sleep or focus unless I have perfect silence. The list of pointless announcements thanking you for riding the train, ensuring your safety on the train, or warning you when elevator doors are about to close really does go on. I hope to record at least a few of them. I think it's just that the Japanese have a greater tolerance for noise, or at least have a lower tendency to complain overtly about things. However for me, someone who is much more likely to complain and didn't grow up in Japan, the amount of useless noise is enough to merit this and many verbal rants.

All About Me

Kiryu-shi, Gunma-ken, Japan
I'm currently living in a small Japanese city at the foothills of mountains about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo. A lot of time is spent absorbing the culture in large doses; and when that gets old, I turn to the Internet.