The 600,000 residents of Washington DC, despite paying federal taxes and serving in the armed forces, do not have representation in their federal legislature. District residents have no representation in the Senate and a non-voting Delegate in the House. Having lived in DC for many years, the issue of DC voting rights is near and dear to my heart. So when Tim Hampton, from LUV DC, approached me with the lyrics to a song, I jumped at the opportunity. We edited the lyrics together, and I adapted the melody to its current form and wrote the guitar part. The result is 28th Amendment Song. Get more information about DC voting rights at LUV DC.

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I had a beautiful time in San Francisco last week working on music and relaxing in the sun (a rarity this time of year).  I cowrote a song with the inimitable Roem Baur and biked 150 pounds of bean salad around Angel Island (seriously).  The weekend was capped by an appearance  on Rebuilt Tranny’s Record Exchange show on Mutiny Radio, live from the Mission – take a listen:

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After the post-show exhaustion has faded, we’re starting to get new photos in from the Church show, and there’s a lot of pretty stuff.  A brief selection:

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I like to lay vocals down last in a mix. They’re like mosaic tiles, with the other instrumentation the concrete backing locking everything in place. So it was last night, that after narrowly avoiding the cinematic thunderstorms that raked through Brooklyn we laid down primary vocals done on ‘The Flood’, ‘The Returning of the Doves’, and ‘Veins’. There’s now a lot of comping to do, and some banjo and glockenspiel to lay down, but I can finally hear the music I’ve heard in my head for the last year springing into life, real, jumping out of the speakers.

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Mike Ramsay BanjoI needed an upgrade on my banjo, so I headed over to Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island (Staten Island – not the first place you’d imagine a folk instrument store to be). After a few hours of trying banjos, I finally arrived at an openback model from Mike Ramsey’s Chantrelle Workshop out of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It’s a gorgeous instrument, and I can’t wait to record with it.

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August Sander PortraitThe head of the design team at Topspin mentioned that there happened to be an exhibition of August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ at the Getty, so I spent the majority of my Saturday wandering around rediscovering the project. My timing was serendipitous – the show will be closing in about a week, and the perspective provided a nice natural break from the documentary headspace I’ve occupied through Jamboree into something else. My thoughts:

  • In every instance, Sander sought inclusion in his images. SS soldiers were represented equally alongside farmers, bankers, and the homeless. He eschewed visual politicking for a more ethnographic approach, and his preferred medium of photography proved to be ideally suited for this objective documentation. This approach is simply impossible in music, and as such, Jamboree is an extremely subjective piece of work. I don’t think this in any way detracts from the overall strength of the project, but it does place the work as a whole in a slightly different category – it’s a subjective documentation – true crime as music.
  • While I was walking through the gallery, I found it hard to avoid a type of temporal rubbernecking. Nearly every subject in every photograph would now be dead. To photograph something is almost to buck fate – to wholly define a moment by removing it from the endless flow of time. Sander recognized this – one of the most powerful images in the series, which unfortunately was not included in this exhibition, is the death mask of his son, Erich Sander (to whom Jamboree is dedicated).
  • It’s interesting that a person’s taxonomic value is summed up by Sander as “Banker” or “Communist Party Leader”. Gives some perspective on his views on employment.
  • In his own time, Sander was viewed as being pretty conservative, which is something I didn’t realize. He didn’t bother with the technical or compositional innovations of the time, instead preferring conventional compositions produced using unwieldy, antiquated technology. In a time of advances in perspective theory and handheld cameras, Sander’s technique meant that his work wasn’t included in exhibits focusing on ‘modern’ photography. It’s understandable really – with no knowledge of the larger context, his individual images are merely good. They are only truly great when taken as small parts of a much greater whole.

One book closes, another opens.

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Now let’s look at some examples.  First off, we should note that the idea of music as being typically represented on a five-line staff is a pretty Western generalization – several wildly different systems of notation developed independently in other countries.  Russian hook and banner notation, Japanese Shakuhachi notation, and even music notation systems for Braille border on graphical and challenge our preconceptions about what a score is.  But regardless of the graphicality of these international systems, they still fundamentally exist to present a piece of music as something definite and repeatable.  Which isn’t what we’re concerned with.

What we’re concerned with is the addition of graphical elements to scores as suggestions for improvisation.   This technique emerged in the early 1950′s from a group of composers who rejected the traditional score for requiring performers to submit to the will of the composer.  In contrast, graphical notation fostered an active collaboration between the performer and the composer.  Examples:

John Stead – Play II (for harpsichord and synthesizer)

Stead - Play Score

Ryan Rapsys – Fantasy (for piano and electronic sounds)

Rapsys Fantasy

Karlheinz Stockhausen – Helicopter String Quartet (for for string quartet, 4 helicopters with pilots and 4 sound technicians, 4 television transmitters, 4 x 3 sound transmitters, auditorium with 4 columns of televisions and 4 columns of loudspeakers, sound projectionist with mixing console/ moderator (ad lib.))

Helicopter String Quartet
By my reckoning, after the initial experiments the field splintered and lost its focus.  One side moved into an exploration of the boundary between a score and visual art (a typical example of this is George Crumb’s A Magic Circle of Infinity).  Another went towards fluxus and event scores (a typical example of this is Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano).

Graphical notation shines when it is used as a tool for amplifying communication between the composer and the performer.  It loses all of its power when it functions as an object or a performance art piece.  So how can we do this?  Tomorrow I’m going to talk about my flirtations with graphical notation in the past, and then I’ll show how it can be improved in the future.

More Resources

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