Friday, December 19, 2014

Music - Figuring It Out for Yourself

My transcription of a tune I'm learning -
a work in progress
You don’t really learn something until you learn it yourself in your own way. For example, I remember finding other people's instructions on how to play by ear and re-blogging this information long before I had ever tried it myself. That was over three years ago. Now that I am five weeks into attempting to learn tunes by ear I'm developing an inkling of an idea of how to do this based on how I’ve managed to do it thus far.

After a full year of playing by ear I'll have an even better understanding of the process and a more refined way of doing it. Chances are what works for me - my eventual way of understanding it or describing it - may be different than the way it was explained in those instructions written by others.

Another example is the chord player who refers to a chord chart to tell her when to go to the IV chord, the V chord, and so on.  If instead she learned through trial and error by relying on her ear to tell her what’s right and what’s wrong rather than what some guy wrote on some sheet or even what some teacher said to do, then not only is she learning in a more direct, intuitive fashion, but she may also happen upon personal harmonic preferences, such as hearing a minor sounding chord that the chart omitted.

When you figure something out for yourself, you learn what's important and what you can leave out.  My chicken-scratch transcriptions make sense to me and don't need to be any clearer for my use and understanding, but would be confusing for someone else. A lot of people will say when you are learning a new song you figure out what the chords are first and then go from there.  I may be wrong in my approach and this may be an incomplete view, but I don't really even think about or care about chords. I think in terms of melody. That's what's important to me.

I like to learn the melody first and then go from there.  I understand theory well enough to know what chords would be available in the scale being used, but I don't need to know that to play the tune.  I might harmonize a melody note with another note - that's similar to the idea of a chord. It took figuring this out on my own for me to personally decide what's important and what's not.

One impact I hope learning by ear will have is, rather than being so focused on just playing the notes - a "midi" style melody - I can shift my focus to articulating the general feel, rhythm and vibrato of the piece. You don’t need a book telling you where to do a triplet or hammer-on, you just hear the need for it in the music and do so automatically.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Translations - Week 4 (new tune transcriptions and poems)

Camper Van Beethoven's first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, is one of my all-time favorites.  One thing I like most about it is the inclusion of several Eastern-European tinged instrumentals, which are juxtaposed with CVB's vintage stoner-punk songs about nothing. I didn't hear the album when it first came out in 1985 (I would have been eleven then and listening to Lionel Richie), but a friend turned me on to it in the late 90's and I've been a fan ever since.

In the first three weeks of this Tranlsations project, where I am trying to learn to play music by ear, I've already taken on a Japanese 5-string banjo tune (Basho by Akira Satake), a segment of a Phish instrumental (Divided Sky), an Irish reel (John Stenson's #2), an oldtime fiddle tune (Grandad's Favorite) and a standard (South of the Border by Greg Cohen/Bill Frisell).  So it occurred to me to try out some of these Camper Van Beethoven instrumentals. I chose to work on the tunes Balalaika Gap and Opi Rides Again.

Once I got in tune with the album, which required tuning my tenor banjo to be about a half of a half-step sharp, it was fairly easy to hear what these tunes were doing.  Of course, I slowed them waaaaayyyy down using the Slow Downer, which helped.  I can tell that both of these tunes use a lot of "accidental" notes.  This must be a characteristic of Eastern European music, which is what CVB is mimicking with these compositions.  I haven't really analyzed or determined the scales being used in these melodies to figure out which notes are part of the scale and which would be considered accidentals. I don't know which is which; I can just tell that it is happening!  On this recording I play both tunes back to back:

The other music I worked on this week is an Irish tune called Joe Banne's Schottische (or Joe Bane's Scottische, and other variations of those spellings).  I believe it's native to the County Clare region of Ireland.  I've heard this tune for a while on recordings and really like it, but up until the last 4 weeks I thought I needed tab/notation to learn a melody and since I couldn't find the music for Joe Banne's anywhere I hadn't tried.  But, I was whistling that tune this week and decided to give it a shot.  

The notes were almost there under the fingers to start with.  I listened to the Norman and Nancy Blake / Boys of the Lough version from Rising Fawn Gathering, which is in A, and fine tuned my interpretation from that.  Then I listened to the concertina-led version on the Crag Road CD, which I determined is in F.  So I transposed it from A to F and then made a few more tweaks to it based on some differences I was hearing.  My A version is on the tenor banjo and the F version is on mandolin.  I like this tune better in F, actually.

Here are this week's poems.


The red line at eye level. Inherited. It circumnavigates the room. Any attempt to cover it up is futile. A failure. Not everyone sees it. Not all. Not at all times. Some not at all. It has us surrounded. The walls, paper thin - no, cinder blocked. Worms squirming below, at frog level. Acorns being thrown at an invisible target. The sound of one-hundred-fifty year old cannon fire off in the distance. Can we turn back now? Suddenly tired. Clouds swirling above. The path leads to the river. They should put a bench here.


The dreams have changed houses. Moved over. What decade is it now? No longer the 80's. Must be the early 90's. Wrapped in the moment of the return. How did that shirt get mixed up in all this? It's from a different era, the shirt. The buttons much too big. He's wearing it now, but can't go outside in it, or wear it in public. It's OK for around the house. Or maybe under a jacket when going to the store. Or jumping fences with dogs and getting into cars.


Most squirrels spend their whole lives within five-hundred feet of where they were born. The ones that venture beyond that aren't seen as being adventurous. They are the defeated. Those who have given up or were banished. Their numbers only go so far beyond the decimal. After a certain point it becomes indistinct. Too faint for the seeing eye, the rational mind, the quadruped, the hearing sense. Vertical, yes. Falling out of a tree. Seemingly unharmed. All the squirrels have left. They were welcome to stay and play piano.


I took Rosetta for an angel or words to that effect. Like that old man on the bus. When she wasn't driving a cab Rosetta liked to play with water in her backyard. She has one book of poetry. It can still be found in the Portsmouth library. I gave her $45. We called her again for a repeat experience the next day. It was still her voice, but only this time she sent an impostor. A stand-in. Who drove too fast and saw little need for lines. It wasn't the same person. The ball of light. The insect shell. We know who eats them.


The parakeet was named Pretty Boy. It didn’t have a name initially, but when the yellow parakeet died, she named the blue one Pretty Boy. The yellow parakeet died after only a few months, but Pretty Boy lived for more than ten years. When the yellow parakeet died, she considered cutting it open to look at its tiny entrails for signs of the dark matter or some clue toward its sudden demise. But, thought better of it. Bird autopsies can be gory. When Pretty Boy finally died she considered having him stuffed, because that’s what you do when a beloved pet passes away. But, she thought better of it. She already had a goose down blanket. Pretty Boy’s cage, which it once shared with the yellow parakeet, now sits empty in the garage. It’s too good to throw away.


I keep going over it again and again in my head. Was it really just an accident or was it somehow intentional? A subliminal compulsion to shake the container of lemonade knowing the top was off. No irreparable damage was done. It was cleaned up before it got sticky and the sweatshirt that took the brunt was put in the wash. Still, there seems to be some confusion over this. There was that milky apparition floating - swirling - to the top of the simple syrup when she was wondering how it could have appeared so quickly. That was another time. Another time. Did some of it carry over?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Travel Destination: Québec City!

Almost every year my wife and I try and visit some place outside the continental USA, as budget and time permit.  In the last decade we've been to Ireland (multiple times), Scotland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Jamaica and Puerto Rico (twice). Next on the list will be Québec City in 2015. Why Québec? Here are some reasons.
image from Voyages Universitie site
Old World charm – That phrase "Old World charm" looks and sounds so stupid, but what it means is that Québec is reputed to be the most European of all North American cities. You know, narrow, cobblestone, shop-lined streets; outdoor cafes, and stuff like that.

French culture and language – You can experience a French-speaking region for much less cost than going to France or even the French-Caribbean. Plus, it’s in Canada, where the people are just plain friendlier. The French stereotypes don’t apply to the Québecois, do they?

Cost/Convenience – With one-stopover flights from our local RVA airport to Québec for under $400 round trip, it means no flying out of DC. And, you can easily find rental apartments in the Old Québec/Saint Roch area for less than $400 per week.

Music – It’s always a plus for me if the place we’re going has an oldtime jam or Irish session to check out, and it looks like there is an Irish session at Pub Nelligan’s in the city every Tuesday evening.

Waterside – Although it’s neither an island nor directly situated on an open body of water, the mighty Saint-Lawrence River does run through Québec, which keeps our water-themed trend going. The Saint-Lawrence is fairly wide as it passes through. You can take a ferry across to Lévis, where there is the Parcuors des Anses – a 10 mile paved walking/bike path along the water.
image from Corporate Stays site
Size/Layout – Québec looks like it is small enough and condensed enough to be completely walkable, but still sizable enough to have plenty of pubs/breweries, restaurants, coffee shops, museums and other cultural attractions. I have a feeling that it will be similar to Galway Ireland, Reykjavik Iceland, St. John’s Newfoundland and San Juan Puerto Rico – other cities we have visited and really enjoyed.

Other travel destinations in the running this time were New Orleans, Lunenburg Nova Scotia, the French Antilles (Guadeloupe or Martinique) and Michigan.

New Orleans was a strong contender.  It certainly checks the boxes for cost and convenience, plus culture, cuisine and music.  However, New Orleans might be more fun to visit with friends than as a couple, and Québec has a possible advantage in terms of charm as well as the French-speaking characteristic, which may be an incentive to learn some français before going.

Lunenburg, NS appears to be a lovely small town in Canada, similar to previous favorites like Dingle Ireland and Stromness in Orkney, Scotland.  However, flights to the nearest airport Halifax are a little bit more expensive than to Québec and you'd probably want to rent a car since Lunenburg is about 80 minutes away.  I also didn't see any inexpensive lodging options in Lunenburg other than the campground in the middle of the town; an option I seriously considered. But, if you're going to be in Nova Scotia you might as well try and see the Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton while you're up there, which would involve a ton of driving and more expenses.  We weren't up to the challenge.

The francophone islands in the Caribbean looked enticing until I looked into the airfare.  Unlike Puerto Rico, where you can fly for less than $300, it's almost $800 or more to fly/get to Martinique, Guadeloupe or St. Barts, so that will have to wait.  Plus, I think we're ready for another northern, more urban setting and not some place tropical.

The west coast of Michigan made a pretty strong case for itself as well, with its miles and miles of coastline, parks and cool beach towns along Lake Michigan and the density of breweries.  Grand Rapids alone has something like 25 breweries and Traverse City frequently shows up as one of the best places to live and/or visit.  It's also feasible to drive to MI from VA instead of having to fly.  Somehow, though, the idea of Michigan just doesn't seem foreign enough!

Ireland would actually be at the top of the list once again if flights there weren't so expensive now (I remember getting $440 round-trip tickets less than a decade ago).  Nonetheless, I have no doubts that Québec is the place to go next!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Diversity - Accentuating the Similarities

getty images
There’s a research paper entitled Mozart to Metallica: A Comparison of Musical Sequences and Similarities, by Stuart Cunningham, Vic Grout and Harry Bergen. The paper found that “Many musical pieces, though perceived as being greatly different in terms of their style, are often very similarly constructed on a strictly notational basis”.

Now that I’m attempting to play and notate some music by ear, I am noticing this more myself. Genre has its uses and conveniences for categorizing and selling music to the general public, and as a player of music you can delve pretty deep into the nuances of different styles and traditions if that’s your thing, but the more I play and study music, the more I see the similarities.

I personally define traditional music as the act of creating music on your own, for your own enjoyment, using some type of musical instrument. This must have been how people did it back in the days before recordings, mp3s and clicking play. If you’re sitting on your front porch playing guitar, then you’re playing music in a traditional fashion, no matter what sound is coming out. It could be Bach or it could be Mary Had A Little Lamb.  One could also argue that pursuing your own musical interests based on the influences around you is more traditional than going out of your way to preserve an archaic style.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To me, (tenor banjo) is a music equalizer. I can use it to pluck any instrumental melody that my ears are capable of hearing and my fingers are capable of playing. The universality of this act neutralizes the concepts of musical genre, style, tradition and other perceived differences. In other words, a classical composition, a fiddle tune, a jazz standard, an Eastern European folk song – when envisioned/interpreted as notes on the 4-string banjo – sort of all become the same thing, rather than a bunch of very different things. At this micro-level, the only genre is the genre of making music on your instrument. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

The tenor banjo is one of the core instruments in Irish traditional music. It’s loud, it cuts through the din and it uses the same fingerings as the fiddle. It made sense for it to be adopted into the fold. But, when I play an Irish tune on tenor banjo, I try and view it as more of a coincidence than an association with an established style. Irish tunes are just one of many things I might want to play on this instrument. Hopefully, I’d still be playing Irish tunes on the tenor banjo even if there wasn’t already a precedent for it (although it is nice to have that roadmap).

Everything is malleable. For example, I’m pretty sure the Phish song Guyute is in 6/8 time like a jig (if it’s not it could be). When stripped of its album version, its arena-rock context, and its jamband distinction, and with no one to please but yourself, playing Guyute on your instrument should be fundamentally no different than playing something like Irish Washerwoman on it. Conversely, when stripped of its clichéd “Irishness”, playing Irish Washerwoman on the tenor banjo should be no different than playing an arrangement of Guyute on it. It works both ways. One is no more or less an aberration than the other.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2014

This year’s Best Of list is marked by the inclusion of several debut and one-off recordings from recently formed ensembles, as well as small-bands featuring just two or three members; although a few old favorites did once again make the cut.  Also notable this time around is a turn toward the noisier, freer, more avant-garde side of the musical spectrum, alongside groups representing traditional Appalachian and Irish music.  

Rhyton - Kykeon
Rhyton is a Brooklyn-based instrumental trio with a jammy, Mediterranean sound.  They take simple, exotic scales and motifs, and build them into full-blown psychedelic compositions.  For about the first minute of Kykeon, their newest release for Thrill Jockey Records, it sounds as if Rhyton are adjusting the dial, re-calibrating their connection to the faucet from which music springs, until they are synced up with the live stream, where they remain tuned for the next 40 minutes of mellifluous elevated prime, until being pulled back down the sonic wormhole from whence they came.  These improvisational meditations are bolstered by Dave Shuford's use of unique instruments such as the Egyptian doumbek, the Turkish electro-saz and the Greek bouzouki...and his bandmates' bass and drums.  Rhyton falls somewhere between jamband, post-rock and indie-world music.  At times it sounds like they are channeling the same spirit that would have infused the Grateful Dead at one of the late 60’s Acid Tests.

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara - Thumbscrew
This album of free improv avant-garde jazz rocks with a heavy metal attitude.  Mary Halvorson is one of the most exciting guitarists/musicians/composers to come along in any genre right now, and on Thumbscrew she's matched up with the equally skillful Michael Formanek, bass and Tomas Fujiwara, drums.  Constantly shifting, this music is too cohesive to be fully improvised, yet too feral to be entirely composed. But, that's just the magic of three great listeners working in tandem.  If you find it hard to jive with Thumbscrew's inverted groove just give it time.  Soon you'll be addicted.

The Alt - The Alt
The Alt is the debut album by a newly formed Irish-folk trio featuring John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O'Leary; a super-group of sorts, that, not surprisingly, excels at upcycling songs.  Each member takes a turn at lead vocals, giving the album a nice flow, interspersed with a couple strong sets of tunes, because they can.  Nuala Kennedy has a voice that is reminiscent of Nanci Griffith, Eamon O'Leary (one half of the Murphy Beds) is a master of the ballad, and John Doyle is an exceptional interpreter of story songs. Instrumentally, Doyle and O'Leary are stringed-instrument whizzes; the perfect accompaniment to Nuala's expressive flute playing.  The Alt takes its name from a mystical glen, or chasm, on the slopes of Knocknarea in County Sligo.

Greg Cohen - Golden State
Greg Cohen is the long-time bassist for John Zorn's Masada. On this straight-ahead jazz outing, he teams with guitarist Bill Frisell to present 9 tracks inspired by the nature and landscape of California - 6 Cohen originals and 3 standards. This is a stripped down, minimalist album - just Cohen's acoustic upright bass and Frisell's unusually clean, non-distorted electric guitar. Recorded in one studio session on December 3, 2012 in Brooklyn, NY. An instant classic.

The Corn Potato String Band - The Corn Potato String Band
This fun record finds Aaron Jonah Lewis, Ben Belcher and Lindsay McCaw playing a variety of instruments exhibiting twin fiddling, double banjo tunes, Southwestern stringband music, country rags and oldtime. There's a light-hearted, vaudvillian nature to their square dance hootenanny. The Corn Potato Stringband is not afraid to mix n' match styles and influences into a smorgasbord of entertainment. Recorded live with no overdubs.

Crag Road - Crag Road
Crag Road hails from County Clare, Ireland and features Ennis seisiún veterans Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper, newcomer Aoibheann 'Yvonne' Queally on concertina, and Noirin Lynch on bodhrán and vocals. Noirin's sparsely accompanied songs are well chosen, but it’s the tunes that shine the most here. Aoibheann's home grown concertina leads the way, supported by musicians who have spent their lives gathered around pub tables conjuring jigs and reels.

Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline - The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2
Nels Cline's affinity for noise and MMW's proclivity for groove are a match made in, well, a highly hip heaven.  The famed trio that merged jazz with jam has shifted their personality slightly on this release to match Cline's frenzied energy.  While MMW with guitarist John Scofield (as heard on this year's excellent Juice) may be like chocolate and more chocolate, MMW with Cline is like chocolate and cheese - a curious meeting of tastes.  Every listen to this highly improvised album reveals more than before.  Recorded live on August 27, 2013 at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY.

The Hot Seats - Grandad's Favorite
The same breakneck speed, wittiness, and slightly blue attitude we've come to expect from these RVA lads is well showcased on Grandad’s Favorite, but this time the balance of songs and tunes might be the best they've ever assembled. Play this one for your granddad. It’s sure to be his favorite.

Xylouris White - Goats
Xylouris White is the unusual collaboration between Cretan lute player Giorgis Xylouris and rock/free jazz drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). On Goats, their debut album, they use Greek folk music as the foundation for rock-minded improvisations. Goats was produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, who describes the recording process like this: “Rather than trying to capture a perfect ‘version’ of a tune, they listened to each other playing and that real-time, in-the-moment communication and shaping is what made each take distinct”. The result is much more than just Cretan melodies and rhythms combined with rock drumming and a rock aesthetic.  Simply put, it’s two virtuosos coming together to fluidly create something entirely new.

The Two Man Gentlemen Band - Enthusiastic Attempts at Hot Swing and String Band Favorites
Andy Bean and Fuller Condon have become increasingly better instrumentalists, now able to solo with the best of them. So, instead of the usual (humorous, original songs that sound like they could be from yesteryear), The Gentlemen tackled a selection of classics from the hot jazz and string band era. They receive some help from Brian Kantor on drumkit as well as members of the California Feetwarmers, adding clarinet, accordion, guitar and plectrum banjo to these cuts, which were recorded around one microphone.

Honorable Mention
Phish - Fuego
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
Mary Halvorson - Reverse Blue
Sam Amidon - Lily-O
Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood - Juice

Monday, December 8, 2014

Daniel Hales' Tempo Maps and Top Ten Prose Poetry Books

Musician and writer Daniel Hales' short, jagged prose poems feel like the offspring of a jazz improviser and a cold November day.  His cryptic wordplay works best not when the reader finds something to identify with, but when it implants images and associations that wouldn't have come to mind otherwise.

Daniel's new book of poetry is called Tempo Maps, from ixnay press.  You can start at the front or the other has two alternate beginnings that both end in the middle, or something like that.  The book comes with a CD of Hales reading the poems, interspersed with short instrumental interludes.  Here's a selection from the book.
The little league field seen from the top of Tuckerman's tower is a removed wedge, a pale green sheath (like a sacred grove in a fantasy novel's centerfold map).  The hometown bench is a silver bar where six boys tasted High Lifes one night dotted with fireflies.  Later, two of these boys are men that buy their wives the exact same set of lavender-cedarwood candles.  Another one worries that his cassettes are dying a little more each winter out in the garage.  Another wonders why he can't find the post office's number in the phone book.

Back in September, Daniel Hales shared his list of the Top Ten Prose Poetry Books on; a list that included works by Russell Edson, Francis Ponge, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Louis Jenkins, as well as some equally talented but lesser known writers.  This list has proven to be invaluable in my discovery of poets in this style.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Translations - Week 3

Here are the submissions for Week 3 of my Translations project, where I am trying to play music by ear without looking at the notes or tab...and also tie in the writing of poems.  This week I worked on three tunes - an Irish reel, an oldtime fiddle tune and a standard.  The Irish reel is John Stenson's #2, key of A.  I listened to Baron Collins Hill's MandoLessons version but didn't watch his phrase by phrase breakdown - I just looped the beginning of the video where he plays the tune one time through. The tune came to me fairly easily after listening to it that way.  After letting it ferment for a couple days, I watched Baron's tutorial and realized that I had a few notes off, but learning what the actual notes were supposed to be was surprisingly distracting because then I became overly conscious of the "correct" notes instead of just playing naturally.

For the oldtime tune Grandad's Favorite, by West Virginia fiddler Ernie Carpenter, I didn't have the benefit of a video tutorial, I just had The Hot Seats' version and a few YouTube videos to watch.  So, while the notes are probably way different than they're supposed to be, the playing was more flowing, less stilted. 

Finally, I also wanted to do the tune South of the Border from the album Golden State by Greg Cohen (with Bill Frisell).  I wasn't familiar with the tune before hearing Greg and Bill's recording of it for the first time a few weeks ago, but I discovered that it's a standard, not a Greg Cohen original.  I started playing along with Greg and Bill's version this past Monday and surmised that they were in Eb (that in and of itself is a major achievement). Eb shouldn't be a problem (you should be able to play anything in any key), but I used the Amazing Slow Downer to change the pitch by one half step to D, which instantly made it easier for me to play along with it.  I also listened to recordings by Willie Nelson and Flaco Jimenez to hear how the lyrics go with the song. The version I recorded was in D, although I should go back and try and play it in Eb.

Three poems this week.  Not as many as the past 2 weeks.  These have sort of a macabre, deranged bent to them.


The man wants so badly for the hole out front, towards the right of the house, where the earth meets the parking lot, to be a portal to Hell, or an opening to an ancient Indian burial ground.  "Have you noticed this hole before?", he asks his wife as they are walking past it.  "Yes", she says, "It's been here a long time".  He thinks about that.  He just noticed it for the first time the other day.  He so badly wants it to be a conduit to the other side, christened with the blood of souls.  He considered putting a sign next to the hole which read "A dragon is buried here", or "Local dwarf has gone missing", or "Goddess inside", or "Unicorn washed ashore".  He wondered if there were faces on the walls?  Such a strange sensation.  An energy.  The urge to poke your head inside.  Summoned to a hole outside the house where the grass meets the road.  The noises we choose to hear and those we don't.  Like the bird overheard, overhead, seen when stopping to re-calibrate.


The pickle man kept looking at the words Out of Order over and over again.  He had been wearing the same pants for days.  Those were his clothes.  His outfit. do you say?..."character".  The words themselves were in the correct order, but they must have been referring to something that was not. In order to better understand, he asked the man in the white suit refilling the buffet line if perhaps the sauces, the chutneys, could go last, at the very end - or maybe just before the donuts.  He had spilled wine on his pants the night before but it blended in.  The plates come first, but the dishes could have been better sorted.


It just stopped.  All of a sudden.  Waiting to remember.  Peonies.  No, ponies.  That's all we remember.  Somehow thinking that it was important.  Years ago.  Not so long ago.  Seems like yesterday.  We had to cancel.  Turn around.  The man says "this is a good place for a dog park".  The woman says "that's a nice house".  The man asks "did you check the mail?".  The woman hears it differently.  It was supposed to be raining.  Part of her paw was falling off.