Contemporary Classical Composer

Notes

Why Can’t You Feel Your Face?

September 10, 2015

I continue my look at the pinnacle of pop-music success, #1 on the billboard hot 100. Apart from my personal curiosity as a classical composer, I hope to put into words what attentive listening looks like. Pop music is not meant for attentive listening, but for passive listening either as aural sugar or else dance music. But what happens when you listen to it attentively? This is the ongoing experiment. Finally, a discussion about popular music is a discussion about culture—what we value, how we think, who we are collectively, etc. It is never a bad thing to know such things about the society one finds oneself in.

For the week of September 12 the no. 1 song on the charts was “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd.

The song opens with a synth emerging out of silence like a star walking onstage. Soon he seizes attention with lyrics to a simple pop melody. Comparisons to the King of Pop are warranted: there’s a Jackson-esque urgency in his voice—hot, sharp, full of self-assurance and performance energy. It’s the repetitive cadence of the melody that belongs to the present decade, as The Weeknd celebrates the perennial theme of badness.

What makes the song ‘bad’? Look at the opening lines:

And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb

And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come

But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young

This I know, yeah, this I know

Obviously there is a contradiction. Will you die or stay forever young? But contradiction is the point. There is a strange pleasure in intentionally embracing falsehood, especially when you are addicted to something.

The celebration of contradiction, though, is an old strain in rock music (broadly conceived). Think of U2’s “With or Without You,” Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and even the Beatles’ “Getting Better”—it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse!).

But still: what the heck is the song about? I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…but I love it?

The first thought is that it’s simply about an erotic relationship. But if so, how could numbness of face have any significance? Isn’t facial sensation a good thing in the midst of (ahem) romantic interactions? How could it possibly be construed as a compliment: “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you”?

Apparently it’s a reference to cocaine, which can act as a numbing agent. Like Eric Clapton’s “she’s all right,” this song personifies the stimulant with the feminine pronoun—She told me ‘don’t worry about it’. So the song is about cocaine personified as a girl. On the other hand, it could be about a girl who is compared to cocaine. Either way, to understand the song, one has to get the reference. If one doesn’t, it must be exceedingly meaningless.

But how many people playing, streaming, or dancing to this tune know or care about what it really means? There doesn’t seem to be any widespread acknowledgement of its real meaning. The whole situation looks like a very sad, but not surprising, commentary on the state of popular taste. “Who cares what the song is about; it makes me feel good!” There is no need to satire this; the masses are already satiring themselves.

The song is in some way parallel to the name, The Weeknd. First of all, he’s saying “I’ll spell my name however I want to. I don’t want another e in there. Done.” But now non-initiates might think: “Are you supposed to pronounce it ‘weekend’? What else would it be? I guess it must be that.” Then, “Oh, of course, The Weekend!” when they hear someone else say the name, or look it up on Wikipedia. Abel Tesfaye creates an image for himself that people don’t quite understand unless they’re initiated—in the circle. People desperately want to be in the circle. Now they’re singing “I can’t feel my face” thinking it’s just a dope love-song. It looks like The Weeknd is playing on how ignorant people can be—when the beat is good enough.

What about the music itself apart from the lyrics?

The first verse doubles as a sort of intro. Synth sounds keep the tension up until the beat comes in. The beat has a slight disco-feel, and is obviously simple and repetitive, which lends to its rhythmic power. It makes you want to move. Without this beat, the song wouldn’t be #1. There are other factors too, but the beat is the sina qua non.

“Woo” happens every time the chorus starts. Tesfaye channels the height of feeling, which is what dancing in da club is all about. Yielding to the power of the beat is analogous to yielding to the power of cocaine, or this girl who is like cocaine, or both.

An interlude forms the bridge—the beat stops, and the spotlight is on what’s going on in the subject’s mind, regardless of any external realities, like the noise and bright lights of a club. This breaks up the monotony and creates some real contrast. It also recalls the intro, so that when the chorus starts again it’s like a new beginning. It also emphasizes the conscious choice the subject (i.e. the singer with whom the listener is supposed to identify) makes to enter and reenter the state of inebriation which the beat symbolizes. The song is short; but offers plenty of playing ground for DJs, who can mix it, sample something over it, make it last as long as necessary.

In sum, it’s the latest popular oblation to goddess of hedonism, the mainstay of the popular music industry, inviting people to discard their moral inhibitions and yield to the object of their affections, whatever it may be, whether it’s addictive, destructive, face-numbing, fatal, or worse. And why? Because this is what sells.

What is Power?

My recent posts on power appear in Philosophical Investigations and The Philosopher Journal. To read the full version of ‘What is Power?’ please send me a request for the PDF at my contact page.

Warmly,

Gregory K.

Thoughts on Billboard #1: “Blank Space”

December 8, 2014

A few weeks ago, “Blank Space” supplanted Taylor Swift’s other hit “Shake it off” for the number one slot on Billboard. Here are some thoughts on why and how the new chart-topper appeals to the masses.

 

“Blank Space” uses a harmonic cycle made famous in the 1950s : I-vi-IV-V, along with a melody that repeats with each chord change. The song is a story of the subject—Swift—meeting a boy and the possibility of either extreme pleasure or pain that might descend upon him as a result. Meanwhile she remains, as usual, immune to disaster whatever may ensue.

Swift’s vocals open like pugilist jabs. You have to listen closely to catch them. No one listens to them until they slow down with lines like, “you look like my next mistake.”

As usual, Swift exudes high self-confidence. “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend…” she chants knowingly at the end of the first verse.

The transition melody to the chorus is sweet and comely. Everything before was barely a melody at all, a bare minimum of notes to carry the fast-proceeding text while the rhythm and harmony kept listeners happy. The transition melody to “let’s be friends…” is the hook. When it comes, there’s excitement. Like a high school dance.

The chorus is double-length. The poetic variety there is exceptional for pop-songs. As with the opening verse, you have to listen attentively to get all the words on the first hearing—which, again, nobody does. To most listeners, it’s not about that. You can always hit repeat anyway.

The acoustic guitar in the chorus, which is along with everything else is highly-mastered, offers warmth. And the sweet high-register melody that proceeds is like an enchantment, especially with the portamento at “they’ll tell you I’m insane,” with the chord change to V. Of course it’s all highly sardonic. She shouts at end of chorus: “and you love the game,” to a deliberate, assertive rhythm, with reverb. It all communicates power, specifically sexual power. The message is clear even without an assiduous comprehension of every word: handsome boy, I am your doom.

For a more explicit sexual innuendo, listen to the breathy vocal-trail at 0:27. This is a common technique now for female pop vocalists, and it sells.

The bridge is very dark, musing on boys, love, and torture. The parallelism of the lyric is mediocre (“say I didn’t, say I didn’t”), but she gets away with it. The whole phrase repeats verbatim, and would have been intolerably boring if she didn’t harmonize with herself each time the melody repeats, gradually expanding to four-part harmony. The dramatic point here, incidentally, is self-justification: boys really love the game of being tortured with infatuation, so there is no sin in toying with them like a cat does with a mouse.

The song follows the traditional formula: the chorus repeats after the bridge. The harmony is all diatonic too. The music is very conventional in this sense. The spoken lines are the most innovative feature. The beat, also, was manufactured to be “new” without straying from marketability.

Overall, I think the song is famous because it has a cool beat and sweet melody—when it blossoms forth as a pink rose in the sunshine—and exudes a self-confidence empowered by feminism. There’s also a freedom in it: freedom from pathetic moral restrictions such as “thou shalt give a shit about thy boyfriend’s heart.” Taylor, in this song, relishes the feeling of power, both in seducing her boy and in her immunity to any potential heartbreak (which in the video is more than evident; I recommend, however, listening to the song without watching the video since video can distract). Your fate is in my hands she revels throughout the sweet progressions. The song appeals to the need to feel this way. Or it simply appeals to those who like new music and don’t care to listen to it closely, but dance to it affectionately with their boyfriends.

Analysis: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

November 16, 2014

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” currently holds the title of #1 Song on Billboard. Such status merits the attention of a music analyst. I therefore offer the following thoughts on the current reigning champion of recorded tracks in the hope of better understanding why it is successful and how it appeals to popular taste.


The song begins with a confident drumset rhythm, and vocals that open with: “I stay out too late…” followed by a list of other subjectively internalized rebukes. But then she continues: “that’s what people say….mm, mm.” Immediately, the song’s essence is laid out: she doesn’t give a f**k what her critics think. This may already have been obvious, but the analytical details work together to convey the overall meaning:

First “mm, mm,” is something you do when you taste good food. The fact that she does it here communicates that she is in no way displeased by the list of criticisms, but in fact rather enjoys being immune to them. Also, the drum-beat is telling. It’s syncopated, upbeat, multi-timbral; the bass drum is deep and resonant. It represents her confidence in the face of criticism. She “never misses a beat”—a boast from the second verse punctuated with a vocal effect that sounds like she just took a draught of Mountain Dew…more taste imagery that reinforces the sense defiant satisfaction in the face of her lemon-sucking enemies.

Next, the harmonic progression, sketched by the sax and vocal, is not the usual ii-V-I, but ii-IV-I. Why? Because she feels likes it. The first couple of times it cycles, the resolution on the tonic G is unexpected, but once it’s there, it’s obvious—a sprightly 3-2-1 line with mm, mm outlining a pentatonic set below: happy stuff.

The “sub-verse” that transitions to the chorus, in contrast to the aggressively declaimed “critical” lyrics, starts “but I keep on cruising…” Her tone here is sweeter and slightly softer. This is who she is. Unaffected. Unperturbed. Happy in fact.

All this happens before full instrumentation is unleashed. With the arrival of the chorus, we get the bass, brass, synth strings, and even some choral oohs and other percussive effects. Leading the festivities, Taylor exults in long-breathed descending lines, vamping on what the “players,” “haters” and “breakers” do in direct comparison to what she does in response: “shake it off.” Commendably, she uses different words to the same melodic pattern, a forgotten skill among all-too-many popular songwriters.

The long descending lines of the chorus, furthermore, contrast with the short, aggressive jabs of the opening verse. That contrast keeps the song interesting. There is imaginative variety, despite the repetition of the underlying drum-beat. Also, the descending vamp on the verbs: “hate, hate, hate,” etc. is like a derisive hand-gesture of babbling. She fully comprehends but is bored. When Taylor “shakes” such things off, it’s to the same melody, as if meeting force with force—mildly but effectively.

After the second chorus, Taylor addresses her listeners with the spoken word using a ‘telephone’ vocal effect. At first, I thought this address would be a challenge to her detractors, but it turns out to be an invitation to people to follow in her footsteps—or dance-steps—in getting down to the “sick beat.” She proceeds to rap an example of how she shakes things, in demonstration for her teenage fans.

As the chorus repeats to close the song, she improvises, overdubbing vocals, and at one point throwing “you got to” in-between repetitions of “shake it off.” Again the message of empowerment is issued to those who feel intimidated by the cool kids.

The music ends with octaves on the submediant—i.e., not where it’s supposed to—yet another defiant jest that eschews any need to conform to expectations for fear of judgment.

Overall, the songs reflects that highly-esteemed value of social confidence, the ability to express oneself without fear of repudiation by “mean” people. The song affords her fans the opportunity to share in her sense of liberation. Beyond this, I see it as a not uncommon response among celebrities to the vicious public scrutiny to which they are subject and with which they must cope. As a pop song, it is undeniably a success.

The Power of Natural Selection?

This Labor Day weekend I started watching the Cosmos series that first aired in March of this year and is now available on Netflix. As an artist, I get inspiration from learning about the natural world, and for a long time science has provided, and continues to provide that for me. The Cosmos series itself is a work of art–visually and aurally brilliant. But after watching the second episode, I became keenly aware of an all-too-familiar habit of those propounding the wonders of evolution: that of speaking about natural selection or nature as a powerful agent or even quasi-conscious entity.

The second episode, entitled “Some of the Things that Molecules Do,” explores the evolution of life of earth, and opens with an introduction by the narrator, Neil Tyson. In the intro, he asks: “Where did all the different kinds of living creatures come from? The answer is: a transforming power that sounds like something straight out of a fairy-tale of myth,” and warns gravely, “but it’s no such thing.” Later he speaks of the “awesome power of evolution” and the things that natural selection can “do,” such as account for “all the beauty and diversity of life.”

Tyson, as many with and before him, uses active verbs to describe the many exploits of natural selection. The “environment itself selects genetic changes; or “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant,” and “science reveals that all life on earth is one.” The terms “environment,” “evolution,” and “science” could be replaced with someone’s name–such as Joe, Timmy, Dagon, or Zarathustra–and retain the same syntactical logic.

Isaac Asimov, my personal tutor on the history of science (through 1984), explains the pitfalls of such language from the point of view of “scientific purism”:

“Humans, as creatures who behave in a purposeful, motivated way, naturally tend to attribute purpose even to inanimate nature. Scientists call this attitude teleological, and try to avoid such a way of thinking and speaking as much as they can. But in describing the results of evolution, it is so convenient to speak in terms of development toward more efficient ends that even among scientists all but the most fanatical purists occasionally lapse into teleology.”

He continues to confess his own “sin” in falling short of this Puritan standard, and proceeds to discuss the evolution of the brain as the result of a “long series of evolutionary accidents.”

But is the alternative expedient? Consider again the line from Cosmos, “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant, or a plant as an animal.” How might it be re-phrased? Perhaps “evolution can result in an animal’s being disguised as a plant, and vice-versa,” or “evolutionary accidents can in effect disguise an animal as a plant.” This is cumbersome. Refining words to a nicety tends to reduce their emotional impact and thus alienate broader audiences. Thus, teleological language frankly makes better business sense. If the producers of the film want to maximize ROI, they did well to avoid anything that might smack of academicism or strict technical accuracy.

However, there may be more to it that this. Throughout the video, Tyson uses religious imagery. DNA, he says, is the”ancient scripture” of life (and it is universal too, not exclusive to believers!). The realization that all living things are related is a “spiritual” revelation. The Halls of Extinction even, in the film, are depicted as a temple or sanctuary for dead species. And the opening line, cited above, attributes all the “beauty and diversity of life” to (what he later calls) the “power of evolution.” This imagery is not accidental. It reflects certain perceived philosophical implications of the discoveries of science.

In Cosmos, the traditional religious view which evolution is purported to supplant–that a provident God created the heavens and the earth–is not replaced by pure atheism, in all its genuine fatalism, but by another religion, to wit, the Religion of Nature, or of Evolution. Throughout the episode, Tyson sings the praises of Natural Selection. It is “awesome,” has “power,” and yields, “masterpieces of complexity,” like the human eye.

This religion is not new. It is essentially pantheism and dates back to prehistoric times. But a religion it is. It attributes agency to Nature, blind though it may be, and ascribes all the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the biological world to its power. It is also responsible for the fate of every species on on earth–their survival or damnation.

There is therefore a distinction between the actual science and the religious language in which it is clothed. Now: whether one favors the “scientific purism” of Asimov or the theism of tradition is another question. I personally believe it is possible to reconcile Divine Providence with the discoveries of science including the Principle of Contingency and that of Evolution, but leave that for another time. Watching Cosmos, I simply savor the meat and spit out the bones. The meat is delicious enough and the bones can be thrown to the wolves.

Chime Melody

August 27, 2014

Here is one of my Contingency Etudes. Like the others, it features a randomly changing variable, in this case…

…register. My task was to create something meaningful out of randomly shifting registers (sets of 12-note octaves from low to high on the keyboard) determined by the Contingency Theme. This does not make melody impossible; it simply requires that one wait for a convenient register to randomly present itself before the melody can “lawfully” continue. The continuation of the melody is contingent upon register. Sometimes it has to restart because it was interrupted. As a whole, the goal of this piece is to ascend, as if out of the dust, and attain a level of energy from which emotion can be channeled freely. The process is gradual and requires some patience, since the melody cannot ascend but at the behest of chance; but when it is actualized, there is a sense of fulfillment, and the music lays down its head in peace.

The pentatonic scale (the black notes on the piano) is always intuitive. Whatever harmonies result from it, randomly sounding from the depths to the heights, complement one another, as if members of the same family. The intuitiveness and simplicity of the scale, in this case, make me think of plants, animals…life in general. The level of organization in biological life is extremely high; and yet its existence depends to a significant extent upon random forces–both those that shape conditions in the external world, and those that determine DNA during procreation. The interplay of “randomness” and “organization” in this way seem to be metaphorical for life.

Meanwhile, the piece may admit other interpretations. The randomly shifting chords are struck and left echoing like chimes. Yet out of that randomness, a melody emerges, something that would never happen if left to chance. There is Intelligent Design, causation by conscious intent, yet that working through or from within contingency.

In any case, there is the pentatonic scale, which is essentially the universal language of humankind.

Free Etude: Metaphysique

July 15, 2014

I’ve been writing piano etudes lately, and here is the latest one: my “Free Etude.” This piece was originally part of my ongoing Contingency Etude series…it had randomly changing dynamics that would have created a sort of strobe-light effect (loud, soft, very loud, moderately soft, extremely soft, extremely moderately loud, etc., following no pattern). It was ridiculously hard to play. I didn’t even want to play it, as the composer, and a pianist who likes to grapple with Ligeti etudes. The idea is this: if something is hard to play, the aesthetic reward must be worth the effort. It wasn’t, so I canned the random dynamics and made them intuitive. The result is a “free etude”—without any restrictions on my creative fiat.

 

 

As usual, I like to offer a few thoughts on what my music means. In this piece, there is a sense of logic and order created by the repeating patterns, and yet the counterpoint is abstract and “disoriented.” The sense of disorientation comes from the symmetrical pitch-sets (chromatic scales in the right hand and slowly modulating whole tone scales in the left). All that means to me is: outer space, or something like it. Which way is up? Which way is down? Yes, there are momentary reference points, but they change after not too long–unlike life on earth, in which gravity is always pulling downward. The ground is The Frame of Reference. So this piece is either in (so to speak) outer space, or in a disembodied realm. In my series on power, which I posted in the older version of this website (and am soon to re-post as a single stand-alone post for your reading pleasure) I talk about “metaphysical space”… a realm of pure thought (not unlike, I suppose, Plato’s realm of ideal forms). Anyway, it’s the metaphorical “space” where reasoning is done. In this space, there may or may not be a sense of certainty, depending on the subject matter. This etude, it seems to me after hearing myself play through it, and as I listen to this virtual realization of it, is analogous to that realm, and specifically to a discussion, or speech given, in which someone is articulating a point about something that listeners are invited, or perhaps commanded, to observe. In short, the piece is rhetorical, not in the deceptive sense, but in the convincing sense. And there is an unpredictability to it as well. Surprises happen, unexpected changes. What does that mean? That whoever is giving “the speech” is demanding attention. Surprises demand attention. So then, whatever this speech is about, it is important. Also, there is emotional reward when the point is made, when the thing to be expressed is finally expressed. Emotional satisfaction. That is created by the unified rhythmic punches and climax at the end, not to mention the intermediate climaxes in-between that build up to it.

There is another version of this piece in which everything (almost) repeats verbatim, affording one the opportunity to trace the musical argument again, and possibly appreciate it better the second time. But for purposes of brief, more Twitter-spirited communication, I post the short version.

These are my thoughts. When you listen to this music, let your imagination take you where it will, freely as it were, whether where I have suggested, or somewhere else new and different. Imagination, my friends, is what this is all about.

Welcome to the new Gregory Kyle website

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Play on.

The Mission Statement

A mission statement is a single sentence that defines what you do. It should be concise and direct, appeal to the imagination, and encompass all your activities. Ideally it should be direct and easy to memorize.

The mission statement of Guitar Center, for example, is: “We help people make music.” It captures the ultimate purpose of the retail company, and reflects the informal yet professional rapport with customers that is integral to its culture. The statement does not specify things like “where,” “how,” and “what kind of music.” While these things are important, they are not part of the mission statement, but rather the business definition. The business definition is a detailed paragraph that explains who you are, what customer needs you satisfy, how you satisfy them, and who and where your customers are. The mission statement, on the other hand, is a concise statement that you remember when you go to work every day. You should print your mission statement and display it for you and your team to see as a continual reminder.

The mission statement is not a marketing slogan, like “more grains, less you” from multi-grain Cheerios; or AT&T’s “rethink possible.” These slogans are meant to appeal to customers. The mission statement is meant to provide focus and direction to your company. Marketing slogans tend to be short phrases, but mission statements are complete sentences and emphasize verbs like “to help,” or “to serve,” “to provide.”

Creating a mission statement is an art, because it must capture everything you do in few words. The challenge is to be too broad or too specific. Ultimately, the statement defines the motivation behind all your activities.

Read the rest on Medium…

Business Plan Essentials

Having a business plan is essential for entrepreneurs, whether you are launching a startup, or expanding into a new market. This post is the first in a series that will offer an overview of business-plan basics as well as instruction on its most essential elements.

What Is a Business Plan?

A Business Plan is a document that establishes the vision, viability, and strategy of a business.

Why Create a Business Plan?

1. It Provides Clarity

Writing things down forces you to think them through. Unexpressed ideas are liable to change or disappear without notice, but writing them down makes them official. In order to create wealth, you must define your mission, count the costs, evaluate your vision, and formulate a strategy. Writing all this down helps you prove the feasibility of your idea, avoid oversights, solidify your goals, and establish a blueprint that will direct your efforts and motivate your team.

2. It Attracts Capital

A business plan can be used to convince potential backers to invest in your business. If you need help raising capital, a well-crafted plan—not to mention a good idea—will demonstrate the viability and potential reward your business has to offer to investors. With this, you will be able to present a persuasive case for investors to assume the risk of investing in your work. Common sources of financing include Venture/Angel Capitalists, family and friends, the SBA, and SBICs.

3. It Creates Hope

Humans are emotional. We need to know that the efforts we exert will bear fruit. Having a confident vision and well-formulated plan creates positive energy that will fuel your work. Without a vision and strategy, there is no basis for hope, and no real incentive to put forth effort. But when you have articulated your vision, demonstrated its feasibility with analysis, and formulated a strategy to achieve it, you create energy that your company will thrive on. It is impossible to eliminate risk, but crafting a business plan will enable you to pursue your vision knowing that the potential reward is worth the risk you’re taking.

Read the rest on Medium…