Underrated yet resonating: how I learned to truly appreciate music

I have not updated this blog since August 2017. Being a research postgraduate student has been more intense than what I initially expected. At one point, and for almost 2 months, I once had my 80-hour weeks being spent on researching, conducting data analysis, cleaning the data, adding new variables, testing various models, extensive literature review (for my thesis and course papers), and teaching – given my compulsory assignment as a teaching assistant. All those made me no Elon Musk (though he boasted he could spend up to 100 hours), but looking back, those exasperating time periods have also given me extensive new experiences and new skills. I learned to program (in Stata and R), read journal articles much faster (I could spend a week reviewing more than 20 such articles), and gradually started to concretize my research topic framework.

For all the ‘pros’ given, all these also entail the ‘cons’: I had once promised to myself that I would hang out more often with friends, but within the first three months (early September to early December last year) I only did hangouts with my friends for, like, only 5 times. Most of my daily lunches and/or dinners were in ‘rushed’ mode: a 20-minute lunch will do, and so will a 30-minute dinner. If fortunate enough to bump into friends, it can be slightly longer (mostly like 1 hour for dinner). Mostly, I have lunches and/or dinners with myself. I am glad that I am getting used to it, and even more gladly that given this winter session (I do not need to teach or take courses), I have more time to spend with friends and my family.

All these circumstances also eventually made me resort to music. Indeed, I would say that listening to music has added some colors to my otherwise-perceived dull, academic life.

To be honest, now I am highly selective in terms of my musical taste. Back then, I just listened to anything you would label ‘mainstream’. Just name any popular singers that easily cross our minds: Maroon 5 (who still listens to “Payphone”?), Katy Perry, Taylor Swift (who is no longer the Taylor Swift we used to know), Michael Buble, Ed Sheeran (used to be on the same folksy type as Passenger), and for the turn to the worse, now we have The Chainsmokers (apologies beforehand, but I strongly believe the band has done a disservice to the notion of ‘music’ itself), and there are just too many examples I would rather not mention in this post.

My own impression is that pop music is becoming increasingly dull, repetitive, and replicable. It is mostly the same catchy tunes (and there is science to explain that), the same old-school love songs (or perhaps about breakup or heartbreak as well), and it is what I would call as a “one-off” listening tour: you listen to it once – or maybe twice, or at most thrice – and the satisfaction rate diminishes. Does anyone still miss Rihanna’s “Umbrella”? How about Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”? Or Maroon 5’s “Payphone”? Psy’s “Gangnam Style”? Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”? And for the crème de la crème of the layer of ironies above ironies, Justin Bieber’s “Baby”?

Back in high school, I used to listen – though infrequently – to a lot of these popular-pop pieces, but there has always been something that ticks me off: why is there nothing that could be more interesting than these? Indeed, this is my personal pattern: I listened to some songs privately, but I would stop listening to any for a long period of time, before the pattern recurs itself. There appeared to be a quite long break between listening to certain trending pop songs and following the trend of others. I was not satisfied with such status quo.

Before I came to university, my favorite singers was Coldplay (before “it’s something just like this”). The band used to be classified as ‘alternative rock’, but lately, I have had a strong sentiment that Coldplay – just like The Chainsmoker – has committed the same disrespect and disservice to music with their latest works I would label as generic and one-off mass-produced entertainment. I had a strong admiration for the band for the works they produced back in the 2000s – “Yellow”, “Talk”, “Fix You”, “God Put A Smile On Your Face” – these were just (and still are) some of my favorites beyond “Viva La Vida”, “Paradise”, and “Midnight”. Somehow, I felt like starting from mid-2010s, they have largely departed from the original genre they used to play in the beginning. I obviously look like a person that ‘fails to move on’, but honestly, this is just my own sentiment.

My musical taste somewhat improved when I happened to be a roommate with an Indonesian friend (and also my senior), Viciano; he made me kind of old-school. He introduced me to Simon & Garfunkel (most notably “The Sound of Silence”), Joan Baez (“Donna Donna” and “We Shall Overcome”), and Erik Satie. The first two were hugely popular back in the 1960s and 1970s; Erik Satie, given his surrealist theme in his piano works (the Gymnopedie volume), made me reconnect to literary works by Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, or other fellow absurdist-fiction authors. I would say one of the most satisfying moments – when you happen to read something like “The Metamorphosis” – is if you complement it by listening to Erik Satie’s works, especially with the growing popularity of Spotify.

An exchange friend of mine from the US, Abby, introduced me to Bon Iver, hailing from her home state (Wisconsin). Simultaneously, I began using Spotify. Thus came the concoction of musicians by which I initially used to listen interchangeably: Passenger, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez (increasingly infrequent), Erik Satie (yes, infrequent, too), Bon Iver, Jason Mraz (heck, I used to listen to his love songs frequently), and at one point I was swayed away by Americana music; somehow the algorithm interpreted my musical taste and recommended to me Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. At one point, I felt myself too old-school and melancholic.

Then Spotify “introduced” me to Sufjan Stevens. Gee, never have I thought musicians could experiment with numerous different genres and styles!  From my observation, I would say that it is Sufjan’s originality – as channeled through his seemingly effortless experimentation with various musical instruments – that made me begin to truly appreciate music. He played it all with piano (“Flint – For the Unemployed and Underpaid”), guitar (“To Be Alone With You”), electronics (most songs in The Age of Adz album), vocoder (“Jupiter”), had his work laden with choir (some of the songs in “Illinois” and “Michigan” albums), thunderous orchestra (“All Delighted People”), some messages of hope or optimism (like “Chicago”), or space-themed epic music (most songs in Planetarium, and most recently, “Wallowa Lake Monster”).

Oh, I forgot Ryuichi Sakamoto. “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and “The Last Emperor” captivated my mind, especially on his “1996” album. Gradually, I started to realize that he not only adorns through piano, but would also experiment on various themes. His collaborative works that I did enjoy would be his works with Alva Noto (“Vrioon”, “Insen”, “Summvs”), and not long time ago, with Taylor Deupree and Illuha (“Disappearance”). Now I begin to develop a fond appreciation of ‘lowercase’ music. It is a kind of extreme, ambient minimalism applied to music at its maximum. In the case of Sakamoto and Noto’s collaboration, it is an unusual – indeed weird – but very powerful combination of piano and electronics, both played in a minimalist language. However, I caution that not many people will particularly build a sense of deep enjoyment with lowercase music; the duration can be extremely long (expect 10-20 minutes for each musical piece), and the tone may actually be repetitive, but in a texture I would describe as very soft, and very light.

As years went by, I continued to experiment listening to different genres of music, juggling through one playlist and another. I have forgotten most of the singers (as most of them are indie and hard to remember), but there are some that my mind managed to recollect much better (perhaps because their approach suits what my mind demands): Fleet Foxes (beginning from “White Winter Hymnal”) and The National (starting from “I Should Live in Salt”) would be among the bands I listen quite frequently.

You can see – through this progression – that I am becoming increasingly ‘departed’ from most of the mainstream pop music. Indeed, honestly, I am now very choosy in applying criteria of what I want to listen. I am fortunate to have befriended several people sharing the near-similar musical taste as I do: Michael, Kevin (another Kevin), Wilbert, Arvind, Christine, and Veronica. All I can say is that I am not alone in having this sentiment. For myself, whenever I want to listen to a song, I always take into account these following criteria:

  • What was the inspiration behind this song?
  • What affected the music creator so significantly that he/she is motivated to make one?
  • Does the musical work itself convey the message that the musician wants us to hear?

The third criterion is at best tricky: some people may choose to convey messages about their perception of the world and their personalities through fiction (like Albert Camus or Franz Kafka or Haruki Murakami, all of them I believed were introverts), but conveying them through music is another. Most works were for ‘one-off’ consumption; for others, we may replay it over and over to capture, interpret, and understand the tensions, the atmosphere, the musicality, and the short bits of glimpse of what the creators have undergone through that they could reflect, and transcend, these experiences. That’s why I am also interested to look into the backgrounds of the musicians.

Let me just highlight some of the best – though underrated and under-appreciated – musicians and/or albums based on what I have listened from Spotify:

Emahoy Tsegue Maryam-Guebrou – “Ethiopiques, vol: 21” (2005)

Ms. Emahoy had a very interesting background. She was born and raised in one of the wealthiest families in Ethiopia in the 1920s and 1930s; unlike most of her country fellows, she was fortunate to have been exposed to European classical music, and was herself tutored by European composers, and studied in a boarding school in Switzerland. She aspired to become a classical musician among the ranks of the most popular composers at that time. The unfortunate circumstances happened when Italian troops invaded Ethiopia to annex the country. Some of her family members were killed, and they had to seek temporary exile. Moreover, Ms. Emahoy had to give up her dream of becoming a classical musician. While she would become among the first women to serve as a government civil servant, and also an active participant in her church’s choir team, further political crises in Ethiopia in the following decades eventually forced her to abdicate from these positions. She decided to become a nun, relocated herself to an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery, and dedicated herself to religious cause. Eventually, she sought refuge in Israel (with other Ethiopian Jews), and has since been living in Jerusalem.

And she happened to produce some musical works while on the monastery. They were originally conceived back in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was only through the help of a French record label that her works could be retrieved. Some of her best musical pieces (that I would recommend) are:

  • “The Homeless Wanderer” (the tempo and the way Ms. Emahoy tinkered with tones were ‘reminiscent’ of a homeless person, walking right and there, to find a home)
  • “Homesickness, Vol.1”
  • “Homesickness, Vol.2” (even better – and sadder – than Vol. 1)

How did I feel about her piano works? I have to say it’s intriguing. To some degree, it had quite a jazzy feeling, but it’s not entirely jazz. It is layered in a style that is – I’m not so sure how my description could make you figure out a big picture – just simply Ethiopian-like. It’s like nothing else in the world. Moreover, the “Homesickness” made me always reminisce about my old hometown; in some way, it tries to convey a message that no matter how imperfect and ugly our place of origin is, it remains ours (for we were born and raised there) and just plainly embedded in our identities. It felt sentimental, but the overall musical piece is really useful as well when doing assignments.

Jace Clayton – “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” (2013)

Jace Clayton paid a tribute to Julius Eastman by replaying his piano works, and given his background as a DJ, combining them with electronics in a maximum ambient manner. Julius Eastman’s life story was highly provocative given his double-minority background: he’s both African-American and homosexual. Originally, Eastman aspired to become a music professor, and had indeed spent some time in SUNY Buffalo. He decided to relocate to New York City to escape what he called a “bureaucratic” culture, but his life there was hardly easy, given his double-minority status. This could be explained by his decision to put in provocative titles into his works: “Evil Nigger”, “Crazy Nigger”, and “Gay Guerrilla” (note: if CNN alone did not put a censor on the word “shithole”, and was indeed repeated by the commentators in an ESPN-like situation, I would not feel the need to censor the word ‘nigger’ either). He was eventually homeless, rejected by Cornell for a fellowship application, and died from HIV/AIDS.

I have listened through the entire album, and I have to admit, the whole works were complete sets of ordered, and pre-structured, tensions. The build-up of tension had been apparent from the beginning of the album. The tempo was slow, but was made increasingly fast (especially after Jace Clayton added some elements of ambient electronics), and by the middle of the album (before transitioning to Gay Guerrilla), the build-up of tension was so rapid – but so structured – that the tensions, and eventually the rupture, were analogous to a rapid stream of sea waves. I pictured it that Clayton had the understanding that Eastman would describe the tensions within himself as similar to how waves would crush rocks, trials would test – and eventually shatter – his dreams. At one point, it rendered me unbearably sad – but at the same time I also discovered the “beauty” of this album. Not that Arooj Aftab’s closing song – a song about an imaginary, parallel universe where Julius Eastman would be world-famous, so famous that he could set up a music academy that could just easily reject aspiring musicians like himself in the real world – would offer much consolation to Eastman’s misfortunes. At best, however, Aftab’s work would take a dark comedic turn, a “wish-I-could-have” revelation about long-lost aspirations.

Jordan de la Sierra – “Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose” (originally released in 1977, rediscovered in 2014)

Actually not much is known about Jordan de la Sierra. All I did only know was that he was a Bay Area-based composer, and he had only produced 1 album, which is precisely this one. Pitchfork mentioned that the album flopped back then in 1977 (de la Sierra had envisioned it as some kind of “magnum opus”), and quickly he retracted the albums back from circulation. Not much is known until someone uploaded his work in Soundcloud back in 2014. Since then, there has been renewed – though not much – interest in the album, and it was ‘re-released’ at the same year. I first happened to discover this work through a playlist recommended by LNZNDRF, a spin-off, krautrock band from The National.

Like the previous two albums, it was solely based on piano. What made it unusual was that de la Sierra played a piano in a cathedral, having the whole sequence recorded, and once back in his music studio, he “recorded” his own record again. This was where the composer gave us a truly ambient sentiment regarding the music. The whole album contained only 4 songs, but the duration was extremely long: almost 1 hour 45 minutes. I don’t feel the whole works contained anything special about his life story (as we know almost nothing about the composer), but I could feel the efforts he had put in to make it his ‘magnum opus’. It was meditative, and allowed me to concentrate better in my research-related tasks. I personally would consider it a magnum opus of its own, though one almost completely forgotten.

Fleet Foxes – “Crack-Up” (2017)

This is Fleet Foxes’ best album ever. It is so different from the previous three albums (catchy, folksy, and mostly pleasantly memorable) that the most recent album again radiates its ambience (like the previous three). Indeed, 6 years had passed since their last album (“Helplessness Blues”) was released in 2011. The whole band was on its way to achieve its fame, but in an unusual decision, the whole band decided to ‘stop and reflect’. The vocalist, Robin Pecknold, chose to study in Columbia University, and upon his graduation, devoted his life to woodworking, sailing, and ‘reflecting on his own life’. Basically, almost the whole album was about ‘reflection’. What a relationship truly means (whether getting close to fellow personnel, family members, or fans), whether a relationship is superficial, and what was to be contemplated over past misfortunes and ‘wrong decisions’.

I really like “Odaigahara / Third of May”, but my most favorite song is “On Another Ocean (January/June)”. It reflects as much on Robin Pecknold’s life experience (himself in East Coast, the rest in West Coast) as it does to myself. What a true relationship is about, what it means to yearn for true friends, and most importantly (for me), about finding a true life partner. The lines I will never forget from this song are:

“So do

You think the smoke it won’t enfold you?

Could there be someone waiting for you

Off in the distance, then?”

Other songs that are memorable to me are “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” (three different pieces fused into a song) and “Fool’s Errand”.

The National – “Sleep Well Beast” (2017)

Compared to previous albums, this is among the ‘darkest’ ones. As in previous albums, it touches on topics about challenges in a relationship, as reflected from “Nobody Else Will Be There” (and indeed most of the succeeding songs as the former is the opening song for the album) and politics – especially in the aftermath of US presidential election – with “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Walk It Back”, and the highly fired-up “Turtleneck”.

Listen to “Walk It Back” (depends on how one interprets it, but I would say it’s a mix of themes about depression, relationship gone nowhere, and political situation), and you will be presented with a speech transcript by Karl Rove (then-Deputy Chief of Staff to George W. Bush administration):

“”People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do…”

After all, such is the same reasoning why Bush would ‘give’ us a series of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also a massive global financial crisis.

The most memorable song, from my opinion, would be “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”. Indeed, that was the first song the band released before the entire album came out. It was written – and mainly inspired – not long after the shocking presidential election that delivered to us one of the best WWE superstars, Donald Trump.

The most “feel-it” lines are:

“The system only dreams in total darkness

Why are you hiding from me?

We’re in a different kind of thing now

All night you’re talking to God”

Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Async” (2017)

He has been among the most productive musicians, having collaborated with many different counterparts in a variety of genres and instruments. In this album, he seemingly experimented with any kinds of possible instruments (even if it involved randomly shuffling leaves followed by howling sound of a dog, which were not really instruments). The album was completely ambient, and occasionally intense (especially in “async”, which was a set of tense, semi-structured, drum-induced tensions in a partially random ordering). On another piece, when listening to “fullmoon”, one could listen through multiple translations of Paul Bowles’ closing statement on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 film adaptation of his novel, “The Sheltering Sky”, followed by deeply ambient electronic music. On “Life, Life”, Sakamoto combined Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem (“And This I Dreamt, And This I Dream”) with Japanese traditional instruments (especially sho). The whole album was dedicated to his personal struggle against cancer back in 2014.

“fullmoon” featured Paul Bowles’ closing statement, as shown below:

“Because we don’t know when we will die

we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well

Yet everything happens only a certain number of times

And a very small number really

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood

Some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it?

Perhaps four, five times more

Perhaps not even that

How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?

Perhaps 20, and yet it all seems limitless”

And then “And This I Dreamt, And This I Dream” poem, as narrated by David Sylvian (Sakamoto’s collaborator in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”):

“And this I dreamt, and this I dream,

And some time this I will dream again,

And all will be repeated, all be re-embodied,

You will dream everything I have seen in dream.

 

To one side from ourselves, to one side from the world

Wave follows wave to break on the shore,

On each wave is a star, a person, a bird,

Dreams, reality, death – on wave after wave.

 

No need for a date: I was, I am, and I will be,

Life is a wonder of wonders, and to wonder

I dedicate myself, on my knees, like an orphan,

Alone – among mirrors – fenced in by reflections:

Cities and seas, iridescent, intensified.

A mother in tears takes a child on her lap.”

St. Vincent – “Masseduction” (2017)

Annie Clark – more commonly known as St. Vincent – embarked on her most ambitious – and at the same time eccentric – album. The whole album, given its pomposity, very highly upbeat tempo, and also a ‘satirical’ tribute to a ‘toxic’ celebrity culture, is itself provocative. To some degree, it also highlights about loneliness, being the consequence of having attained a celebrity status. The same loneliness that, if brought down further towards a darker path, could lead to sexual abuse, or even drug addiction. Despite their catchy tunes, they are not pop songs. They just feel avant-garde.

One of the most memorable songs is “New York”, by which the narrator (presumably driven by St. Vincent’s own life experience and possibly her prior relationship with Cara Delevingne) lamented about loneliness. The lines are:

If I last-strawed you on 8th Avenue

Where you’re the only motherfucker in the city

Who can stand me

 

I have lost a hero

I have lost a friend

But for you, darling

I’d do it all again

 

Some additional albums worth mentioning here:

 

Bon Iver – “22, A Million” (2016)

Colin Stetson (ft. Justin Vernon) – “New History Warfare Vol. 3” (2013)

Sufjan Stevens – “Carrie and Lowell” (2015)

Bryce Dessner, So Percussion – “Music for Woods and Strings”

Bryce Dessner, Kronos Quartet – “Aheym” (2013)

 

I’ll see if I can give further updates in the near future.

 

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