Bjork, Biophilia, and My Vespertine Friend

I have always had an interesting relationship with Björk’s music. When I was very young, her melodic content often struck me as too non-sequitur. At the time I listened almost exclusively to electronic music, so the fact that I wasn’t head-over-heels for Björk was always a point of contention with my group of friends.

I was introduced to her music videos in 1999, and that was the beginning of a slow descent into fandom that has taken about fifteen years to culminate (which reached its inevitable conclusion two nights ago at the Hollywood Palladium). I always loved Human Behavior because of the groove and Michel Gondry’s signature quirkiness, and of course when I first saw/heard her collaboration with Chris Cunningham in All Is Full of Love I was just as affected by it as anyone else. But I have to admit, I listened more to the Plaid remix, because at about 2:10 it starts to sound like some electronic Baroque symphony, and also because I used to be crazy for anything having to do with Warp Records.

It was a girl I knew in Tennessee who introduced me to Vespertine. It was a summer thing, a friend of a friend, and she was a beautiful blonde Buddhist in the Bible Belt, and we clicked. One night I confessed that I appreciated Björk but didn’t listen to her much. Vespertine had just come out, and my friend insisted that we drive around one foggy night and listen to it in my car. It opens up with Hidden Place, and as soon as the choral swell came in I knew it was a different sort of album. The spectacle of her previous incarnations had always had the feeling of searching to me, not quite settled. But Vespertine was thoughtful, quieter, more complex, and to me more aurally holistic. I was hearing the live-sampled nature of the source material, the shufflings and cracklings helped along by Matmos. For once, it was as if, rather than being shouted at to come over! get to know me!, instead I was being intimately invited into another’s sanctuary, maybe some warmly lit hollowed-out tree, and told to please keep my voice down because she’s got something very private to say.

It was a wonderful gift my friend had given. And I was aghast to discover that so many reviews, though favorable, still compared it diminutively to earlier albums like Homogenic. I remember being particularly livid when I heard Vespertine described as “too feminine”. I suspected then that the majority of her fans sexualized the massive beats in a strange way, as if they were only allowed to like to like a woman’s electronic music because it came across in what they interpreted as some oddly androgynous masculinity. It has certainly always put Björk in a strange position, because it seems so hard for people to realize that she could quite possibly maybe even a little bit be producing her own damn beats. Vespertine was new and honest in a way electronic music rarely is, and hearing it changed my life.

It was about five or six months later, I don’t remember how long exactly. I was a sophomore in college, as was my Vespertine friend at a different school about two hours away. I remember our last conversation on the phone. I had wanted to attend a music festival she was working at, but I didn’t have enough money to make the drive back to Nashville to see her. She said she was disappointed, but she understood. A month after that conversation, she walked off the top of a tall building, ending her own life. I’ve never told anyone about that phone conversation before this post, and not going to Nashville to see her that day is one of the only true regrets I have in life. There’s no way I could have known, but I will never forgive myself for it anyway.

I’ve never been able to make it through Vespertine since. I just tried tonight, actually, but found it’s hard to type when your vision’s all blurry. Apparently, even just typing about it I’m running into the same problem. Suicide is a horrible thing, and it leaves behind scars on the souls of the living that never go away. So please don’t do it. Okay.

The Biophilia Tour, it turns out, is more of a traveling installation residency and educational fundraiser. All proceeds from VIP sales go toward the Biophilia Educational Program, a fun and creative organization that teaches Icelandic children to interact with science and nature in interesting ways. All of the live video during the performance was scientific in some way, from really colorful cartoony stars to an animation showing the recently discovered mechanism by which the DNA double helix is encoded and assembled. In another video, the nuclei of cells turn into lips that sing the chorus. If you didn’t click the above BEP link, it involves this really adorable video of Icelandic preteens watching educational videos, playing Björk’s custom interfaces, jamming with drummer Manu Delago, and even playing the musical tesla coils.

The Hollywood Palladium, at first [insert word like “glance” but with your ears], was not my cup of tea. I later discovered there’s a reason I’d never been to it before: electronic acts tend not to play there because it’s got a notoriously mucky sound. It turns out, however, that this is only true if the performance actually takes place on the stage. Björk had set herself up in the round, with chairs to one side of the floor but allowing audience members to wander and enjoy from any angle they’d like. To top it off, my friends and I spent most of our time about fifteen feet from the Tesla coils, and man those suckers are loud. The show sounded fabulous. Palladium promoters, take note.

In addition to his signature hang drums, Manu played an elaborate, mostly electronic drumset. The samples were triggered by a drum brain, which were also sometimes channelled to Matt Robertson, who ran numerous controllers from his station, including a Novation Launchpad, a Reaktable, and what I believe was a Lemur, all run through Ableton Live. Matt was processing most of the audio input channels, as far as I could tell, but his live manipulation of Manu’s playing was particularly striking.

She had several keyboard-like instruments done up to accept MIDI information, including a bespoke pipe organ and a gameleste, arguing once again that portmanteau is the highest form of semantic expression. Also, the stage was practically littered with iPads. There was a harpist as well, and of course the lovely Icelandic female choir Graduale Nobili, whom I had the good fortune to get to know a little after the concert (also check out Lyrika!). Everyone was very down to earth and grateful for the opportunity to work with Björk for such a good cause.

The Tesla coil was important to me, because it’s an electronic instrument that doesn’t have a bitrate. It requires no post-amplification or line out. It just is. It’s what electricity sounds like to the naked ear. But after a conversation with one of my friends, I came to agree that the gravity harp was the instrument that most accurately communicated the intention of the residency. Watch it playing during her performance of Solstice below:

Controlled by resident pendulologist Frank Arthur Cassata, designed by Andy Cavatorta and interfaced by James Patten, the gravity harp is four giant robot pendulums outfitted with tuned, rotating sleeves sporting eleven strings each. As the pendulums naturally swing back and forth, a fixed guitar pick plucks the string closest to it. As the pendulum swings out again, the sleeve can stay on the note, rotate to another, or rotate fully to create a rest. The motion of the pendulums is controlled mostly by the simple interaction of mass and gravity. It’s never quite regular, creating a hauntingly near-human cadence that stays with you long after the performance has finished. My brother actually uses an inverted pendulum model in his PhD studies on human walking, and in our talks about his work I’ve come to realize what fascinatingly elegant and endlessly inspiring machines they are.

All this sonic geekery is well and good. It’s a thorough and thoughtful production, both educational and forward-thinking. But at the center of it all, of course, is Björk and her powerful voice, her poetic lyrics, her spritely dancing, and the music. I’ve seen so many sound installations in my day, especially since attending grad school at a place like CalArts. But no matter how elaborate your machines, or how clever your interfaces, in the end it means nothing without the music and a personality like Björk’s to tie it all together.

And, as it turns out, a large part of this tour involves songs from Vespertine. When she launched into Hidden Place, and that gorgeous live choir swelled, ladies and gentleman, I lost it. I went back to a time before I lost my friend, driving through a light fog in the hills of Tennessee, and I cried. And her ability to elicit that kind of emotional response out of electronic music, singing about scientific themes and techy installations, and to have that effect on someone who took over a decade to finally get around to admitting it… that’s what makes Björk one of the most important musicians and performers of our time. I’m so grateful I had a chance to see this show, and if it is even remotely possible, go and see her festival set at the Hollywood Bowl today. I promise, you won’t regret it.

(The images bookending this entry were taken by Paige K. Parsons. Go support her, she’s awesome!)

Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich are DJing on KCRW right now

At the time of this posting, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich of Atoms For Peace and some other band will be DJing on KCRW’s currently very appropriately titled Morning Becomes Eclectic for the next two hours, presumably finishing at noon PST. Watch the video embedded above, or click the previous link for non-HD or audio only looks like it was an hour-long set. Watch this space for a link to the archive!

The show is a promotion for their new album, Amok. So far it’s amazing. They started out with Duke Ellington, and they just called out Bjork. Also you get to watch Thom Yorke’s trademark freakout dancing to his favorite songs. Apparently they’re going to give away free tickets in a bit, too. I am so happy.

Craig Scott’s Lobotomy, ADHD, Rock Outs With Our Shouts Out

Craig Scott is a multi-instrumentalist and composer hailing from Leeds, who brings us music I’m hearing more and more of these days. His aesthetic is like some electronic soundscape if Ornette Coleman made soundscape electronica. There’s this jammy non-sequitur thing happening, and I like it a lot. A lot of technically proficient players here in LA, NYC, even a few in Nashville I’m aware of are turning to improvisatory electronic editing, samplers, etc. for releases and performance. It preserves a humanity that’s still surprising, which is worth its weight in gold, and he is in good company.

Check another of his Leeds projects Ikestra for some serious funk groove in your jam.

My friend and frequent collaborator Amir Oosman is one of my favorite multi-percussionists alive right now, as I mentioned in my review of Joomanji’s Manj. In the below video with Keelan Tobia, you can watch the two of them perform an original composition for tenors, snare, and drum set. They’re not only ridiculously clean in their execution, but as performers they’ve got personality and flair that takes this video over the edge. Cleverly framed by producer Logan Shillinglaw IV, who has a really cool name, the video has already garnered thousands of views since it was uploaded yesterday.

Rounding out several other promos I’ve been sent:

Musique Le Pop is rather pleasant New Wave electro pop. In other words, eighties music with modern synths. I can dig that.

Leron Thomas‘s new single Appear To Stack off of Take It has a very strange quarter-notey type of groove for a funky track, but the way the timbral changes are introduced with the electronics and brass and whatnot really did it for me. Pretty enticing voice, too, I just wish the rhythmic production was a little less repetitive. In this case, though, maybe that’s the point?

The email I got informing me of Gunfight @the Gates by doubleedgedscissor had some janky links in it and wasn’t formatted well. However, the music is unique, a blend of heavy synths, outside drums grooves, processed vocals, homebrewed alien electronics and the occasional sitar. Not linking to them would be a crime against whatever race happens to inhabit whatever awesome planet they’re from.

Still more reviews to come. As I say on my Contact page, I try to shout out each and every one of you who contacts me via this blog. I intend to keep that promise! If you’ve got something you want reviewed, linked, mentioned, or sullied, by all means let me know!

Baths Obsidian, Get Your Kicks, Beardytron

I am a big fan of Baths, who has recently released a new album Obsidian, which dropped a couple days before my birthday. So thanks for the present, Will!

A very pleasant techno/house/dance/edm Finnish producer named Markus Hakala has made his arsenal of kick samples available for free. There are 500, each of which are labeled by pitch. Worth a grab!

Finally, my ongoing musical crush on Beardyman only intensifies as he continues to release more information and demos regarding the Beardytron5000, his newly engineered digital performance environment. Here is his recent interview with the Guardian podcast, highlighting his desire to balance out his covers and improvisations with composed material. The podcast includes a performance at the end!

First Take – A West Coast Workshop of New Operas

Former up-and-coming/now established Los Angeles experimental/contemporary opera company The Industry presents First Take today, Saturday June 1st at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater.

That felt like a lot of information in one sentence. There are six workshops in total, one of which is Alex Vassos’s The House Is Open, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of last year during a CalArts workshop. I’m super happy for him and very proud to have been a part of this production!

The music will be performed by wild Up, who have trained assassins to find you if you don’t style their capitalization that way. This ensemble performs contemporary chamber music like no one’s business. They play with much more heart than you’ll usually get from experimental music, and they’re part of what makes the west coast such an exciting place for new music right now.

The event begins at 2 p.m. and runs until about 5:30 p.m., and by that I mean probably 6. It’s completely free, and it will be awesome. I will be there with friends and possibly a few acquaintances, all of whom will have bells on. Hope to see you there!

Lightning in a Bottle: Off the Grid Electronica

Now, let me point out from the get go that I am not a music festival person per se. Huge music festivals often fall into the trap of more vibe than music, which is awesome for people looking for a good vibe but maybe not such an awesome venue to see your favorite band ever surrounded by mud and screaming people who’ve never heard of them, all of which at a timeslot conflicting with your other second favorite band who you really wanted to see too.

But niche festivals like Lightning in a Bottle are different. First and foremost, the LIB performances are pretty well spread out as far as I can tell. Secondly, the whole shebang feels extremely Californian, which I dig. West coasters like PANTyRAiD, Tycho, Eskmo, ChrisB, Desert Dwellers, Goldroom, Sex Pixels, and I’m sure several others I didn’t recognize will all be there rocking everything from glitch hop to downtempo. I can support a local festival that supports my friends and their friends. Finally, it’s not just a music festival. There are workshops and seminars on everything from green living to African mythology. Well, actually I can see how those two things can be related, but like, there’s one called “Tits & Asstrology”. So, yeah. That happened.

Anyway, with workshops sporting such colorful titles as “Magic in the Mandala” and “Cosmic Sound Concert” it’s all a bit like bringing Venice Beach to Temecula, which is chill, and plus there’s a didgeridoo class! How cool is that? I totally want to go to that. But what I really started thinking about while looking up this festival is the convergence the ever-evolving DIY mentality has taken us to. How different is a workshop teaching you to build your own green home out of natural materials than learning to program your own MIDI controller through an Arduino, really? In fact, my brother once helped green up his home by turning his window blinds into robots that opened and closed with the sun, and he did that with an Arduino for less than $30. See? Same thing. Basically.

Going even deeper, recalling the common dilemma of being less the music and more the vibe, in this case LIB has done an excellent job of having one support the other. The type of people interested in future music are also those interested in future in general, in abstractions of truths like astrology and whatever a cosmic concert means to them. Because thinking of the future by definition means you can’t rely on the status quo. This festival has put together music, seminars, and workshops all for a demographic who are trying to think a little ahead of what’s accepted. There’s a lurking problem with ego in that previous statement, but in this case I think overall it’s quantifiably true, whether the ego thing will end up being properly mitigated or not.

The DIY future is impending. Everyone knows it. As technology becomes cheaper and information more accessible, nothing we now consider “normal” will be safe. LIB has chosen which end of the spectrum they’d like to be on: the electro-future thinkers full of didgeridoos and asstrology. I think I can support that.

To Be A Master; or, Embracing Amazonian Tactics

Hello, friends and readers, internet denizens and explorers. I have officially graduated with my Masters of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts, which is all sorts of arts up in here. It was an amazing experience, in which I learned, grew, and evolved as an artist, even if those three previous verbs turn out to be redundant semantically. I now know an incredible network of talented friends and good people who truly believe in the power of the arts as a way to make the world a better, more understanding sort of place, even if those two previous adjectives also turn out to be redundant.

From another angle, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve now joined the ranks of hopeless indebted Americans with a degree notorious for making survival difficult. But hopefully this blog will help make that a slightly less accurate stereotype! I love this blog, and though my post frequency experienced a deliberate and considerable dropoff over the past two years, I’m thrilled to be able to go back to it and hopefully post on a roughly daily basis again.

To the above end, I have decided to become an Amazon Affiliate. This means that for certain links on this website, I can get a small amount of money if someone buys something after clicking it. I’ll only ever promote products I use myself or believe in very strongly. I hope to be able to help out artists and authors that I feel deserve it, which I’ve been doing for free for the last several years already. If any ads show up, they will be personally selected by myself, which means they will be trustworthy and non-animated, because seriously, I don’t enjoy money nearly as much as I hate animated ads.

Below I’ve compiled a list of my gear. I will add to it (pun?) as I (hopefully) acquire more professional equipment (toys) in the future (present). They will be archived at my new gear page. Please click on everything a thousand million times and buy all of them, because they have literally made me into the musician I am today.

Thanks for your continued readership and support while this blog was on semi-hiatus, and please stay tuned! More in the works. Maybe even an ebook? Okay, moving on!


Macbook Pro

While to some it may seem obvious, my Macbook is the brain of my entire operation, and the main point I’d like to make here is that switching to Mac from PC was the greatest decision of my life. If you even remotely plan to perform using your laptop, ever, one night you’ll be having the set of your life when suddenly your PC will crash. It just will. Be very careful with your third party plugins and (if you’re a beast) Max patches or whatever, and your Macbook will treat you so very right.

MOTU Traveler
MOTU Traveler

If my Macbook Pro is the brain of my studio, my MOTU is the heart. I mean, their company name stands for “Mark Of The Unicorn”. How can you get more endearing than that?

When I bought this piece of gear which was (and still would be) very expensive for someone like me, my whole life changed. I had previously owned an M-Audio 2-channel external soundcard which, to its credit, performed exactly as the box said it would. But I couldn’t stereo multitrack, the MIDI latency was atrocious, and the sound of the inputs made me grind my teeth at night. So I researched for months, and finally bought the Traveler, and it saved my life.

I was living in the living room of a 1-bedroom apartment. I would travel around Los Angeles after work, recording in strange places, mixing everywhere. I’d go to friend’s places and record there. I’d even go overseas and record while abroad. And my MOTU went with me. It doesn’t require a power cable, which is incredible. It has premium sounding mic pre-amps, four of which are dual XLR/quarter-inch. It supports daisy chaining, just about any cable format you can think of, and because of the dual action gain knobs essentially doubles as a mixer. 8 ins and 8 outs! A digital mixing board that fits in a backpack! And it supports near-zero latency MIDI!

No other unit in my studio gets more use or more love than my Traveler. I can’t recommend it enough for the highly mobile laptop audiophile.

Ableton Live 8 Suite

Now, you’ll notice I’m not talking about the brand new Ableton 9 and its Push Controller. This is not because I don’t want to. Indeed, nothing would make me happier than to tell you that I own these things and that you should too. But I can’t afford them, and so I can only speak to Live 8. And what I will speak to it is that it is the best, most intuitive, most useful solution to the Digital Audio Workstation in existence. Ableton changed my life in the same way the Traveler did. I’ve been forced to use ProTools over and over again, and the one thing that keeps running through my head (besides “No, I do not want a detailed report, dammit!“) is this question: “Why are we still trying to recreate an analog recording setup when analog recording setups are becoming obsolete?”

Enter Ableton Live. It was built from the ground up as a live performance space, and then evolved into a fully functional DAW from that perspective. Since it’s a platform meant to allow one to improvise synthesized and sampled music, there’s no better program for composition and performance out there. And for a while, that’s all it was best at. But now, and especially with what I’m told is a nice update to their digital/analog conversion algorithm in version 9, Ableton has become a platform that can run your entire studio, leaving dinosaurs like ProTools and Logic to the meteors.

This opinion of mine is the subject of an incredible amount of controversy. ProTools was revolutionary, and people still get angry at me for badmouthing it. And, seriously, to each their own. I’m not really hating on either ProTools or Logic (much), but for me, and for anyone who considers themselves a composer, Ableton Live is the only program that makes any sense whatsoever.

Rode NT1A Condenser Microphone

When I bought this microphone in 2004, the world was a different place. As I see it, there were two main differences in terms of microphones: first, the concept of buying Chinese-made knockoffs was laughable, and second, the online DIY community was a tiny, burgeoning infant still struggling to get its IMG SRC code right. Now remakes like the MXL 603S exist and are really hard to discount, excuse the pun, and DIY microphones have me drooling more and more with each successive Google query.

So, if we’re being honest here, I have no idea if I’m still allowed to tout the NT1A like I do. But I can tell you that, having worked in six serious recording studios in last ten years, this is still one of the quietest, most universal, best sounding microphones $200 could ever buy, especially if you record a lot of vocals. I get sentimental about my NT1A the same way I do about my MOTU. I’ve beat the poor thing to a pulp, spit buckets into it, thrown it in backpacks and hauled it across oceans, and the little guy just keeps on chugging, like the little engine that could, sounding great, avoiding hiss and if anything sounding better over time. Plus, Rode is a fabulous company who take great pride in their microphones at any price level. Had I ever had to get my mic repaired, they would have done so for free, just like Seagate. But that has never happened, and that’s why I still recommend the NT1A as a multi-purpose condenser mic after all these years.

Audix OM2 Dynamic Microphone

Compare this simple dynamic mic to the Shure SM57 or SM58 on both price point and frequency response, and the OM2 wins out every time. It’s $20 bucks cheaper and doesn’t have weird bumps in the response that suspiciously match tape stock compression.

Look, I know that every studio on earth has like, boxes of Shures. Sound engineers stick with what they know, and in the first half of the 20th century these simple machines were only encumbered by the occasional angel choirs that would sing after a particularly heavenly recording experience. I get it. But we have come so far now. I love the Shures as much as the next studio engineer, but you are wasting cash buying one these days when you can get a better, cheaper dynamic mic from someone like Audix.

KRK Rokit 5 Studio Monitors

One day, decades from now, producers of the future will look back on these speakers as the Yamaha NS10s of our generation. They may not be perfect, they may not get much respect, but they are the people’s speaker. In the wild west that is the current music production scene, these speakers give you the sound you need to connect with your listener. Beginning and end of story. They have an impressive bass response, not flat but nudged just right. These are the speakers Skrillex mixed his breakout “My Name Is Skrillex” album on. KRK makes a ton of great speakers, but the people have spoken, and for the price these simply can’t be beat.

Beyerdynamic DT880 Headphones

Noise complaints have always been the bane of my existence. That, and the carrying weight of a studio monitor pair. So I had to get mixing headphones.

There’s a lot of things to think about when purchasing mixing headphones. First of all, you have to think of any possible way you can avoid it. No matter what you do, psychologically and laws-of-physicsly, your bass levels are going to be off. Another of your most important considerations is comfort: are you really going to want to wear the damn things on your ears for eight hours a day? Just physical comfort-wise?

These headphones have been the trick up my sleeve for years. I auditioned many, many pairs, and when I finally placed these around my earholes, A-and-B-ing between monitors and headphones, at first I wasn’t sure if the headphones were plugged in! True story. They sound extremely true, and that is not something I would say lightly. I developed a workflow where I could get the sound good enough on my headphones, then adjust a few bass levels after a listen in my car, and that was my ghetto mixing flow that ended up working wonders. (Typing that out, it’s actually probably a candidate for accidental genius. Headphones, computer speakers, and car speakers? Basically the entire world’s listening palette these days.)

Disclaimer: These are absolutely NOT recording cans. The giant cushions create far too much bleed; you’ll hear your click in everything. But no matter what anyone tells you, the best recording headphones you’ll ever find are earbuds. They don’t even have to be all that nice. Nowadays any medium-grade earbuds are more than sufficient for recording thanks to the iPod revolution. They’re comfortable, unobtrusive, and create zero bleed. You take that one home for free.

M-Audio Keystudio MIDI Controller

Out of all my workflow, this is probably the most basic element. I was broke and needed something with more than one octave. You’ll find a similar controller keyboard sitting in front of every composer’s workstation in the world. You need a mod wheel and a pitch bend. Everything else is gravy.

They get much more complicated. Honestly, I’m eyeing a smaller interface with knobs to twiddle and sample pads to mash. But, philosophically, we are taking what’s in our human heads and converting that into very long series of numbers. Your controller is one of the ways we’ve found to keep that transition as human as possible. Get a keyboard, or a Launchpad, or something, but if you don’t have some kind of interface your music will suffer.

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex External 1.5TB Hard Drive

This may be the most insider recommendation I have. There are hundreds of different versions of hard drives out there, and, I don’t know about you, but it seems like no matter how big the drive, internal or whatever, I always manage to fill it up in no time. I’m collecting hard drives like some crazy digital content hoarder. But with all the backups we have to make (you do backup religiously, right?), plus the demands of higher and higher format resolutions, digital storage space is a specter that’s always looming.

I worked in digital storage for years. I worked at a top tier digital post production house in Hollywood, and we operated what was at the time the largest digital storage facility on the west coast. This was used entirely for hi-res video FX and colorization filmouts. And do you know how they were solely delivered? Digital tapes and EIGHT MILLION DIFFERENT TYPES OF HARD DRIVES. And I had to deal with every single one, every single awkward, rickety-assed firewire some FX producer had dropkicked into the backseat of their pickup before shoving it through our mail slot. And do you know the one drive that always, always worked?

Seagate. I have some kind of Pavlovian response to seeing a Seagate label. If I saw one of these come through the pipes, I knew I could relax. Their drive would be efficient, quick, and reliable every damn time. In the rare case there was an issue, I knew that it would be fixed quickly, because they have a lifetime parts and data recovery warrantee. No one ever lost shots on a Seagate. This model that I own has a separate Firewire 800 adaptor that finally broke after two years of mistreatment, and they mailed me a replacement within a week, no questions asked, for free.

And though the newest models are usually a bit pricy, the “old” ones go on sale all the time. All of their drives are 7200 RPM. With a Firewire 800, USB 3.0, or Thunderbird attachment, this means that I can get performance speeds off my solid-state Seagate anywhere I go. I can load up my sample libraries, Atmosphere, all the big dogs and not have to worry about bitrate lag. And the thing is tiny! I can easily fit it in the pocket of my jeans. Not that I do that, mind you, I’m just saying, it’s technically pocket-sized. Take it from someone who hates hard drives: this is an awesome hard drive.

As I said, I’ll be adding to this via this page as time goes by. Any little click helps. And there will be an ebook based one of this blogs most popular posts, with updated and expanded sections. Exciting! See you, space cowboys!

Black Betty: On the Use of Metaphor in Blues, or: The Oldest Hook in the Book

I originally started this article with the intention of delving into the history of the song Black Betty. I wanted to trace its murky origins to back when it was a field holler, first recorded by Iron Head Baker and made famous in the above-linked medley released by Lead Belly in 1939. Numerous versions of Black Betty have popped up since, notably Ram Jam’s huge (and only) hit and the more recent Australian band Spiderbait’s banjolin/drum machine… release… hit… thing. During the process of researching the subject however, I soon felt this route had been travelled to its inevitable conclusion countless times already: no one really knows for certain what the song is about.

The various interpretations touted by armchair music historians are fascinating and diverse. Here are a few popular wild guesses at meanings:

  • An old flintlock rifle with a black headstock. The internet seems to think the child would be Brown Bess, but I remember hearing somewhere the child was a bullet fired.
  • A bottle of whiskey, as recorded by Ben Franklin in 1827 (he’s kiss’d black Betty).
  • A prison guard’s bull whip.
  • The prison transfer wagon, or possibly a combination of this and the whip.
  • A an actual person, i.e. a prostitute, slave, troublesome significant other, etc.
  • Heroin, speed, or some other type of drug.

And while I’d love to go around picking up examples and attempting to draw conclusions, CocoJams has already done a stellar job collecting and analyzing various versions of the text, and there’s no way I could do the job half as well as they have. My article would have ended up simply plagiarizing theirs, a sure sign it’s better I just don’t write it in the first place. So go read up and listen to some wonderful versions and then head back here. I’ll wait.

…Great. So then I started to pull back a bit and research double meanings in the blues in general. This, I would say, was fruitful, in the same way someone looking to bait their hook stumbles into a warehouse full floor-to-ceiling with cans of worms. As it turns out, not only is the double entendre prevalent in early blues songwriting, but you make a strong case for defining one as the other. It seems the entire purpose of the blues was appearing to sing about one thing while really singing about another. Take for example this outstanding 1927 article written by Guy B. Johnson, one of those saints of early twentieth century social anthropology who recognized the influence of African culture as the revolutionary tour de force it was. Johnson made a career of interviewing and cataloguing early black American culture (including publishing the oldest known printed version of the ballad of John Henry, which is incredible) and in this article shines a light on the rift between two musical traditions in which language plays a noticeably different role.

Guy Johnson’s article focuses only on double meanings as pertaining to sexual acts and body parts, which admittedly makes up for the majority of double meanings in blues. This being the case, I’ve always personally thought of Black Betty as a flintlock rifle and a prostitute (or some generic troublesome woman) at the same time. Even if the song did used to be just about a rifle, eventually some folks got clever and made it about whatever they wanted, but left the old verses in too. It’s just a guess really, but I do so with millennia of folk songs to back me up. Even in present day, if you look at, oh I don’t know, Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger, it’s a a mostly aesthetic lyric about working hard to produce music. Kanye’s version Stronger keeps the same chorus, but re-contextualizes it as simultaneously being about sex and the state of the music industry by adding his own words around the originals. Pop music is contemporary folk music, and folk music has been constantly undergoing this process since the first time someone less talented heard someone else’s really good chorus and ran with it.

We can then draw the conclusion that Black Betty is probably about at least three things at the same time. The multiple allegory is distinctly made possible by the ambiguity of the lyrics. Had the subject matter been specifically stated (“Whoa-ah, Black Betty, the flintlock musket / Whoa-ah Black Betty, she performs really well in wartime if you oil her / Bam-ba-lam”), we would never have heard of her. The direct relationship with metaphor is as important to the blues as the twelve-bar structure.

We’ve come a long way since Guy B. Johnson’s initial publications, and most people nowadays can probably figure out what “black snake moan” means without too much mental strain. There are even exhaustive online dictionaries that can interpret certain blues terminology for those of us that don’t quite speak the blues but are interested in the culture. Who hasn’t heard the terms mojo, shimmy, son of a gun, and so forth. Blues lyricists were American Shakespeares, in the sense that we all use the terms without realizing where they come from. It’s a lovely example of adversity giving rise to excellent poetry, due in this case to the necessity of hiding one’s true intentions.

One of the most important points evident in the Johnson paper and the online dictionary is that many (if not most) terms had two or more interpretations. There are so many hidden meanings that have nothing to do with sex (killing floor, crossroads, etc.) and I think it’s a bit dismissive. It’s so easy to repeatedly answer the question “What’s this song about?” by simply saying “It’s about sex, duh.” They’re basically all about sex on some level. That doesn’t answer the question. The reason certain songs seem to last and get covered over and over again is because there is, as Jack Lemmon used to say, a method under the mattress. And that lasting quality is what I’d like to cover in the next section of this post.

Okay, here we go. One of the most important parts of popular music is memorability. Here are some surefire ways to get people to remember your lyrics:

  1. Rhyming. Everyone knows this. Humans have been rhyming for thousands of years, in order to help
    bards remember really long epic tales of heroics and the people to remember which religion is the best. The less non-rhyming words between the ones that rhyme the better. (Note: this also explains Eminem.)
  2. Alliteration. When you know what letter the next word starts with, you have a big head start on remembering
    what it is.
  3. Interesting words. The more you have boring words like if/the/and/is/what/that/so/etc., the more extraneous material you have around your deeply meaningful words, the more syllables, notes, non-rhyming nonsense someone has to keep in their head.
  4. Surprise. People will be more likely to remember your lyrics if they’ve never heard those words combined
    before. This is a tricky one, because if your words are completely unassociated they won’t merge as a cohesive unit, and then no one will care anyway.

What I’m describing here, of course, is a hook. It’s a gray area, but somewhere between Virgil and Tears For Fears (“Shout” is still the shortest, catchiest hook ever written, runner up only to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers) lies the line at which prose becomes poetry becomes lyrics becomes a hook. And from the standpoint of songwriting, “Black Betty” is at least three of those things.

Even in terms of song structure, Black Betty follows the cardinal rule of songwriting as laid out for us by Dave Grohl, taking inspiration from Roxette: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus! So let’s look at Black Betty:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Holy crap, folks. Look at that line, knowing what we know now. Just stare at it. Bask in its beauty. It’s technically not a chorus, though, it’s a refrain. So the full chorus goes like this:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Black Betty, Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

My god. This is literally the greatest chorus, built off the greatest refrain, which features the greatest hook, ever written, sung, or stared in awe at by jaded bloggers. Let’s look at that first word.


An extension of “whoa”, the mantra of Keanu Reeves and excited everypersons everywhere since the beginning of time, the exclamation could be that of celebrating friends at a barrelhouse, or just before one tumbles through tempests on a high seas adventure, or just before climaxing with the greatest lover you’ve ever seen or will see. Who is that lover? Perhaps…

Black Betty!

Maybe you’re at war, and all that’s keeping you alive is your flintlock, spit-shined to a sheen of coal black steel, or maybe she really is that woman to whom you can’t say no, and ain’t that woman just like a bottle of rye? In this life, you give up the woman for the whiskey or the other way around, but either way Black Betty’s gonna getcha.


Talk about surprise! Here we were just talking about Betty, when BAM! Ba-LAM! Do you even realize, one paragraph up, how hard it was to type “Black Betty” but not follow it with its 150 year-old onomatopoeic successor? Since the mid-1800s, people have been following Betty with the explosions, and it feels wrong to separate the two for the purposes of this post even for that brief paragraph. Two pairs of Bs on repeat (all the alliteration you want) and not a single extraneous preposition among them. Here’s another incarnation of the chorus:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Jump steady Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Jump steady! Boy, what a rhyme, and what an exciting phrase, both challenging and gratifying at the same time. Did that phrase even exist before it was laid out here? It seems perfectly about a gun here, doesn’t it? What more would we want than to have a nice clean kickback upon firing. Far better than the damn thing gone crazy. But when we ask her to shake that thing, maybe she’s shaking something she’s shooting at, but more likely she’s shaking her ya-ya, or if she isn’t we’d strongly like her to. The subject matter is sexy, a little racy, or maybe violent… in other words, this short little piece of music is its own little self-contained Hollywood blockbuster, practically already in negotiations with Michael Bay’s people for the summer time slot.

I could go on writing like this about Black Betty (which you may have gathered is a personal favorite) for days. It’s not that the song as a whole has some particular meaning that I or countless others are drawn to. The point is that each phrase/word/sound/syllable/phoneme has so many levels of enjoyment and meaning that the listener is free to attach whichever specific, personal association they choose. What’s more, the concept of “the hook” has always been a folk staple, but in the marriage of African rhythmic sensibility and European harmonic language, America gave birth to the pop genre which would eventually rule the world. Black Betty is one of the prime relics of the birth of the American chorus.

By writing songs in an environment that forced musicians to avoid specifics in favor of metaphor and coded language, the blues repertoire was able to convey deep sorrow, frustration, and heartache in a more universal manner than previously possible, thus infusing the cross-cultural charm that allowed the blues to break across borders and be translated into endlessly diverse genres, a process that continues to this day. While Buddy Guy may give a frankly bleak outlook on the future of blues as a distinct format, he refers more to the aesthetic than to the tradition. In a hundred years, whatever music sounds like at the time, whatever instruments technology will have given us, rest assured they will be using them to record yet another cover of Black Betty, one of the oldest and greatest hooks ever written.

ASTEROZOA, my graduation recital in five movements

ASTEROZOA, my graduation recital piece, is now available to view in its entirety on Vimeo. Performed Tuesday, March 19, 2013 in the Roy O. Disney Concert Hall at CalArts, it is a work for multiple ensembles drawing inspiration from various abstractions of the number 5. It runs approximately 42 minutes, and so is probably the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The instrumentation involves myself playing banjo through guitar pedals, a string quartet, a piece for five grand pianos, an African Ewe drumming ensemble, and ends with me throat/harmonic singing through the same guitar pedals from before.

In other words, almost done!!