An Improviser is Born

by Bill Benzon

I was improvising before I’d learned the word, but I wasn’t systematic about it until years later. I suppose for a time the word had a bit of a mystique about it, as it does for many. After all, the norm in Western musical practice has been to read music that someone else, the composer, had written. The composer is the authority; you are a mere conduit; and improvising, where you (shudder) make it up yourself, that’s VERY mysterious.

* * * * *

You mean, no notes in front of you. Just make it up?

Yes.

And it comes out OK?

Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends.

Isn’t that very brave and dangerous?

No. Do you speak from a script?

No.

Well then, there you have it. Don’t need a script for music either.

* * * * *      

I started taking music lessons when I was ten years old. My earliest teachers taught me to read music, and only to read music. So that’s what I did. But at some point, I forget just when, I decided I wanted to play simple tunes that weren’t in lessons. I decided, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do it. I do remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I was particularly taken with the theme song to a series that played on Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV show. I forget the name of the series, but it was about mountain men and the song had wistful lyrics about living in the mountains. Read more »

Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 2)

by Dwight Furrow

Wine-bottle-supplier-300x273Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.

In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.

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Music Lessons: On Social Actors, Voices and Aesthetics in the Subcontinent


by Gautam Pemmaraju

I. Deviations Images

Last December, while at a common friend’s house in North London, Steve Savale or Chandrasonic of the British band Asian Dub Foundation played us a video clip of a recent concert of theirs in St Petersburg. Prior to their performance, a local production person had approached the band with a message – there was a man who needed to see them urgently. A Tajik, who had earlier that week been brutally beaten up by Russian police, pleaded with the band to put him on stage for just the one song. In his plea, heartfelt as it was, there appeared to be the promise of the undoing of some wrong, an anodyne correction of injustice and brutality. He went on stage to sing a medley1 of two Bollywood songs, both from the 1982 hit film Disco Dancer – Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki and Jimmy, Jimmy. Keeping rhythm on a aluminum bucket while providing instrumental phrasing, solos and bridges alike, the impassioned singer incorporated a famous desi trick, well known to and enthusiastically advertised in low-brow entertainment of small town India, as well as in filmi shows that travel to perform for diasporic communities across the world: ‘special item – man singing in ladies voice’. The first song, with its popular humanist message, declares that the world belongs neither to whites nor to blacks, but to those with hearts (or lovers to be less literal), while the second one, well known to many South Asians for its kitschy appeal (and the nostalgia it evokes), was covered by M.I.A a few years ago. A version by the Russian pop singer Angel-A has also made its appearance recently.

This collision of different identities sets up the stage for many a discussion – the insidious and wide influence of Bollywood, shared culture amongst the political allies of the Cold War era, the efficacy and appeal of humanist and polemical messages, dynamic appropriations of fringe elements in pop-culture, and issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘false-consciousness’ in fetishism and bricolage. Amidst all the elements that may find themselves in the mix, so to speak, the twin processes of creation and mediation and the actors involved, provide fascinating insights into what seems a duplicitous web of irresolvable complexity.

Having been associated with music, musicians, music television and music production for a significant part of my professional life (and continue to be), I am resigned to many unanswered questions and contentious issues– there are no hit formulae, there only appear to be some at certain times; finding ‘voice’ is unpredictable and imprecise; what people like is highly complex and yet seems, oftentimes, really quite simple; resonance is both a physical and psychological phenomenon. What I can though say with absolute certainty is that I still remain profoundly enamoured by music and its diverse gratifications.

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