Archives For Music

Guitars and Heros

Matthew Bietz —  July 27, 2010 — 1 Comment

Over at /dev/culture, my friend Nat posted about Guitar Hero and learning the ukulele:

It was pointed out to me by my brother that playing the guitar is a lot like playing a video game: There are certain things you need to do with your fingers at certain times, and you need to memorize the moves (either specifically or generally) before you try it so it works out better. He’s right. Having played electronic games for over two and a half decades, and finally poking about working on the ukulele, it’s entirely true.

I was a little surprised at how vehemently and viscerally I reacted. I’m sure my fellow Starbucks patrons were wondering why I suddenly burst out with an emphatic, “No it’s not!”

I’ve had (pretty much) the opposite experience from Nat’s. I’ve spent the past two and a half decades playing cello, and have never really gotten into video games. For a brief period of my youth, I was dedicated to Munch Man, but since then, it’s been less video game and more computer-mediated game play (solitaire, scrabble, boggle, etc.). Occasionally I’ve had the chance to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band when visiting friends. And I always come away from the experience frustrated because it doesn’t feel like playing a real instrument.

In one sense, I think Nat’s right: with video games, “your fingers have to be in the right place at the right time, just like fingering for chords on a guitar or other stringed instrument.” But with Guitar Hero, hitting the right button at the right time is the end of the story. If you do it right enough times, you win the game. On a real guitar (or other musical instrument), learning to put your fingers in the right place at the right time means that you are finally ready to begin making music. Playing the correct notes is more of a prerequisite than the goal.

This video of Max Roach is a perfect example that making music isn’t about how many buttons you have:

Like Nat, I’d be happy if playing Guitar Hero encourages more people to get into making music. But I think that it’s just as likely that kids who might have asked for a real guitar for their birthday will now be begging their parents for a cheap five-button fake, and that makes me a little sad.

Theme & Variations

Matthew Bietz —  May 3, 2007 — 2 Comments

There was a time in my life when I hated the Theme and Variations musical form. I couldn’t stand it. I’m sure that I said some malicious and hurtful things about T&V. But in the past few years I’ve come to realize that my opinions were ill-informed and far too negative. In fact, I think it’s time for me to formally apologize to T&V, and renounce my earlier position. As the politicians say, “If I had known then what I know now….”

So why this change of heart? Or, why blog about it? It’s simple: we saw Brad Mehldau last night.

Before I tell you about the concert, though, I want to explain why I hated T&V. I think Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations has a lot to do with it. I think it’s a stupid stupid piece of music. Can’t stand it. Like many (thought not all) T&Vs, it starts out with a cornball theme, and then spends the next umpteen minutes piling on the drivel. Heart IThe embellishments twitter and twirl around the theme, changing the rhythms, or the key, or the harmonies, or the timbres. But in the Rococo (and other bad examples of the form), these embellishments are about as interesting as dotting your i‘s with a heart. It’s cute and all, but it ain’t art.

But then I discovered that those embellishments don’t have to be insipid. Continue Reading…

Arts & Crafts

Matthew Bietz —  April 20, 2007 — Leave a comment

Wednesday night we went to see the Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts jazz ensemble. Part of the Athenaeum Jazz at the Neurosciences Institute series. Good good good. They started off with some Thelonius Monk – it took them a couple minutes to hit their stride, but what a stride they hit.

Matt Wilson is a great drummer. He’s got these amazing expressions on stage – if it weren’t for the shock of gray up front, you’d think he was 17. He likes to experiment with the sound – banging on every part of the drum kit, blowing whistles and harmonicas, dropping things on the stage, and using his hands to play everything. The down side of all the experimentation is that it occasionally comes off gimmicky. But when it works, there are some great moments. Amazing variations in tone from what seem like simple instruments. He used what looked like a normal egg shaker, but he was opening and closing his hand in a way that was making a huge range of sounds. And some of the stuff he was doing with the brushes and the crash cymbals was magic.

One of the other highlights was a real live Hammond B-3 organ. I’ve heard them in all kinds of recordings, and everyone knows the sound even if they don’t know what it comes from. My first thought on seeing it was that this is a group on tour, and this thing looks like a real bear to lug around. Organ console with pedals, plus the big speaker case. And with the ancient technology inside, it’s probably really susceptible to gremlins when it’s moved.

The sounds that this thing can make. Growls, barks, moans, wails. There’s that basic gospel organ sound – you expect a robed choir to come swaying down the aisle. But the organ can be so much more. I’d kind of had the impression that playing various electronic keyboard instruments could have lots of keyboard technique, but the sounds were kind of pre-packaged. But with this thing, each little nudge and tweak of the sliders and switches gives a new sound. It kind of felt like a painter mixing the colors in real time instead of just taking what came out of the tubes. I was a little disappointed that Gary Versace didn’t do more with the pedals – it was all fingers for him, but a great sound.

Dan and I both had the same reaction to the concert: jazz (at least of this ilk) has become a parallel universe to classical music. The musicians are just as skilled, and the music is just as thoughtful. It’s working with very different harmonic and structural forms, of course. But like the most interesting classical music, the forms aren’t taken for granted. They push and play and twist and experiment. And they think in long arcs. It’s art music in the best sense.