Music !

Heard this conversation in a movie I watched recently.

———————-

Q – “Do you like Music?”

A – “Do you breathe?”

———————-

What a fantastic answer … ain’t it.

If I were to think about it for myself, I would fall into the same group. Music is one of the pillars of my life. Since I lack the ability to be able to play an instrument or sing, I devote my energy and whatever free time possible to consume music – literally. Plus that spares the family the ordeals of listening to my heartfelt but drastically tuneless outputs.

At possibly anytime of the day there’s a song that’s playing over and over in my head. This happens when I am relaxing, travelling, most stressful moments, when I have to make important decisions, when I am analyzing something, subconsciously processing feelings, information or a course of action. This happens without an iPod or a phone constantly blasting music onto my eardrums, which for some reason I can’t stand. I  prefer to listen to music as singular activity. Sit down and listen to it, pay attention, give it respect…. It keeps me sane and grounded. I wouldn’t be the same without it.

Since music is so important, I want it to sound good when it is played back.  Thus the forays into audio gear – Electrostatic speakers, tube amps and stuff.

The choice of music I delve in is pretty eclectic. It ranges from Phish (a musical genre in themselves) to Dylan to Beautiful south to Blues to Sufi and everything else in between and sideways.  An intensely emotionally charged and powerful piece sung by Abida Parveen inspired me to jot this down. The purity of her voice, the simple words, the sparse but striking musical arrangements emerging like a dream from the electrostatic panels of the incredible Cadence Amaya speakers was a riveting experience.
 
So what’s the point of this post? Does one talk about breathing? … perhaps we need to ….

The death of a giant

 

I saw a giant die today.

Giants have a unique way of their own. They come into the world with a bang. Everyone notices their arrival. People look upto them in awe. When they flex their muscle, others run for cover. They forge their own path. More often than not, they trample over others who stand in their way. Occasionally it is on purpose, as the giant sees the others as a minor obstacle which needs to be brushed aside like a fly. Most often they don’t even notice the ones trampled, for they are not in their line of sight. The hapless ones were merrily going their own way, till they realized too late that the giant had also chosen to take the path they were on. As the giant marches on, it collect accolades and occasionally brickbats. Many a times they can get drunk in their own success, and not even notice that another bigger, stronger giant is on their path.

And then, after a while …. they die.

They get crushed by a bigger, newer giant on the block. Their death is often more spectacular and feted than their birth. It is always like a supernova. A brilliant flash of light, thundering explosions that can be heard and felt light years away. And as they die, they take many others with them.

As they fall to the ground, they don’t pass away quickly. They lie there and whimper, struggle and prolong their agony. They attract vultures and on lookers by the truckload. The vultures peck away and the parts that they find the juiciest and the tastiest. As the vultures come and go, they leave behind a giant, which is little smaller, uglier, disfigured, more hapless. The vultures go and pass on the message about the waiting feast to others of their clan. Till the time only a skeleton remains, with some rotting body parts that no one, not even the vultures wish to partake of. Then it’s over. People talk sympathetically about the giant for a while, then it is forgotten, relegated to myths and memories.

I saw a giant die today.

It wasn’t a person. It was a name that many people would have heard of – ‘Borders’. They are, or rather were, 6one of the biggest names in the book selling business, at least in the english speaking part of the world.

And the way I discovered it was as much a shock as the news of them going away. Walking down Broadway in NY, from battery park upto Manhattan downtown, we spotted the familiar black and white sign of Borders from a distance. The pace of the kids quickened, fuelled by the possibility of laying their hands on some more of their favorite books. As we inched closer, it seemed strange that their was no activity around the huge doors. On reaching the front  doors, we were greeted by a dusty porch, peeled carpets and paint and huge signs proclaiming ‘Prime retail space for lease’. We, being tourists in NY with a million things to see and do, raised our eyebrows and carried on.

Later, after spending an afternoon at the iconic Central park, we headed into the Lincoln center. Everyone was cheered by another sight of the Borders sign. As we climbed the escalator and reached the first floor, I was shocked to see huge, ugly black and yellow signs – ‘Going out of business. Everything 20 – 40% off’.

image

To see these signs pasted all over the glass walls, which otherwise would be adorned with the posters of books, was like being hit by a heatwave, when you are expecting a gentle, soothing spring breeze. I looked at my wife,  we both stared back at each other puzzled. We gingerly stepped inside to witness signs of chaos. Books piled up in unruly stacks, hundreds of people jostling to get their hands on a bargain. Huge red signs proclaiming the death of a giant. Instead of the nice soothing piped music, the sound system was continually blaring announcements about warning people to not to sit on the ground and read, as it was a fire and safety hazard.

Where one would normally find friendly helpful staff who would go out of their way to suggest books and help you discover new books, there was no one in sight. Every info counter was a deserted mess with strewn papers, packaging and computer screens displaying a blank white screen or a message about no network available. Much like small ghost towns. With great difficulty I was able to track down a staff member to inquire about the whereabouts of a specific kids book. I was greeted by a steely eyed, grim faced girl, who pointed to a far corner and asked me to go search myself. The far corner, the erstwhile kids section was a deserted place. The bright and colourful covers of kids books seemed glaringly out of place among the carnage that surrounded them.

Catching another rare staff member later for her help in searching in the catalog, the explanation emerged. She explained that Borders was now owned by a liquidator. They had no access to the catalog and it was just a matter of time before all this would be gone. There was genuine remorse and tiredness in that face. Whether that feeling came from having repeated that answer to a hundred customers, pain of losing her job or a sense of loss due to passing away of a place where books were respected, I’ll never know. What was clear to see were the remains of the giant. It’s skeleton in the form of empty shelves, the discarded bits in the form of unwanted books, crushed mints and sweets packages near the checkout counter and bargain shoppers rummaging in the piles for a succulent morsel.

While this does reflect on me being not completely in touch with going-ons in the world, but I could sense a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time. As we walked around the bookshop trying to look for books, I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I nothing more than a vulture, scavanging on juicy bits of a dying giant. Are the discounted books piling up in my basket, small bits of the giant. Did I at some point in time, inadvertentently play a part in it’s demise? Or the giant that I could see dying in front of me, was not Borders, but the printed book.  Will all physical bookshops soon meet the same fate, and did Borders fail to reinvent itself in a world of publishing and book retailing that is or has chaged radically?
Lots of questions, and very little answers. What’s even more ironic is that this piece is being typed on a tablet. One of the reasons for buying it was to being able to occasionally read magazines and books on it. So maybe that was my part in it’s downfall. But does  that mean that one should stop evolving and not foster progress and new approaches?

As one would expect, there are no right or wrong answers here. And an issue like these can be argued equally passionately both ways. All i know is that I watched a giant die, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

The Piano man

Having just came back home from a late night out without kids with wifey and friends, my nerves are tingling. This has got nothing to do with the night-time energy of Zurich Niederdorf – the hub of Zurich nightlife. The culprit is the Piano Man. No – it’s not Billy Joel. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him live, and he certainly wouldn’t be playing at that incredibly crowded Zurich bar with people almost falling over him, waitresses buzzing around him carrying trays loaded with trays 6 inches over his head and his entire Piano being used as a table top by women for resting their drinks and swooning over him.

The Piano man in question here is some unknown(at least to me) gentleman probably from Poland or some other east European country. Even after reading his name a couple of time on the front page of the menu of the bar, for the life of me i cannot remember his name now, except that it sounded vaguely polish. And it’s probably for the better. Some things are best left as mysteries. So why is it that at 3 in the morning, having just reached home – I am not in bed and all i can do is write about the evening?

It’s because I can’t get the songs out of my head. I can almost taste the liquid air of that nightclub, the made heavier by the fact that i was only 2 feet away from the Piano being pounded by his fingers. And that i could read the titles and the lyrics of the songs in his notebook which has been thumbed a million times. And it certainly wasn’t for his musical virtuosity – he had the knack of murdering many songs, as he did with ‘The Piano man’. There were many passages where he should have sung Bass, but instead he sang Soprano. Many a times his tune was out of whack with the original. And top it up with the fact that i cannot really bear to hear more than half an Elton John song in a year – and he sang three of them today evening. Apollo, pls forgive me and him.

But the reason my mind is still tingling is the sheer visceral impact, energy, enthusiasm, enjoyment, vibe that the performance contained. It is another glowing tribute to the power of music, especially when you can have the pleasure of it being played live in front of you. The impact feels so much pronounced to me as at any point in time there is a song going on in my head. My first instinct when i get home it to put on some music on the divine Cadence Amayas and the Audio Analogue Puccini, much to the chagrin of my lovely wife at times.

A song being played back from a shiny disc or the grooves of a vinyl record, can never come close to recreating the magic that live music is. No matter how good or how close it sounds to the real thing thanks to good Hi-Fi gear, recorded music can never hold a candle to witnessing it being produced live. Even as I write this, Dylan is playing in the background, belting out ‘Angelina’. His anguished and soaring voice is palpably placed dead center of the soundstage, right between the two speakers, slightly recessed behind the Piano. I can almost ‘see’ the hammers on the piano, hitting the strings and producing the plaintive melody. Thanks to the incredibly fast electrostatic panels, I can ‘sense’ his movement, as he probably shifts his position in front of the microphone, pouring his heart out into the song. I can ‘feel’ his mood as he shifts gears and emotions throughout the song. The picture that he is painting with his words, is coming together very close to as he intends it to be – part Rimbaud poem, part Van Gogh painting and part Kurosawa movie. Having heard him live, his voice is an incredibly close rendition of how he sounds  in real life – shifting from indifference to total immersion in a hearbeat. It is perfect, almost.

As good as it gets, there is something missing. As I wait for the magic to happen, it just doesn’t kick in. All I can do is compare it to the sometimes imperfect renditions belted out in flesh and blood, just an hour back. There is a an invisible veil somewhere. It wasn’t there an hour back. Music is better off without that veil. If you like music, I strongly recommend the following. Firstly, play or learn to play a musical instrument (though I sadly can’t, I will endeavor to it). Secondly, buy the best possible music playback gear you can afford ( … and please don’t get fooled by thinking the Bose is all there is to Hi-Fi). Lastly and most importantly, get out and go to a live concert. Just go, don’t think too much or over-analyze the artist. If you like a musical genre, and there is a relevant live musical event happening close to where you are …. just go. Let lightning strike.

So Dylan is 70 today, what’s the big fuss then?

Enough has been written about Dylan over the past years, and even more in the last few weeks and months about the fact that he turned 70 today. Intellingent life, i guess was the the first one off the block with their reportage on Dylan at 70. And I may be the last! Feels nice to close the loop and momentarily exist in the same stratosphere with one of the few truly refined and intelligent journals today. But this piece is about him, not them – so let’s move on.

Anyone interested in music, has to have had a brush with his music at some point in time. And since Dylan’s music is such a polarising object, it can only inspire emotions of the two extremes in people – either you love it or hate it, there is no middle ground. Even mentioning this brings me goose pimples! And it seems appropriate to call his music an ‘object’. His music is so physical in its manifestation, that one can see it in front of you and has perhaps taken different forms over the years. From the rough un-cut diamond in the early sixties, to a sharp razor-edged knife with a encrusted rubies in the mid sixties. It then morphed from an electric saw in the early seventies to a faceless mouldy piece of stale cheese in early eighties. While it may have been in the danger of being thrown into rubbish, it turned into a nicely aged bordeaux during late nineties & early 2000s. And some people are complaining that now the bottle has been left uncorked for too long.

So maybe that’s what the fuss is about? Not the fact that he is 70, and still rambles on that jolly bandwagon of ‘The never ending tour’. That he is not to everyone’s taste. But then, he never was supposed or wanted it to be that way. Or is the fuss about that each time, a new image (much like the one’s I described) is created and labelled on to him, he puts on his leopard skin pillbox hat, takes the tunnel that the jack of hearts dug, and emerges in a place that no one except him could have thought of. He has been doing this for 50 years, and probably sees no reason as to why he should not continue to do so, till his visibly frail frame and his croaky voice allows him to.

I can vividly recall the first memories when the Dylan bug bit. It was in 1996, sitting on a rocky beach in Pondicherry (southern India), gazing into the ocean while the Sony walkman earphones belted out the (almost) violent Hurricane from his album Desire.  This, the first Dylan album that i had bought, is not the most typical initiation as most people would argue. As the last notes of Isis faded into the background, drowned by the sea waves and noises around me, I had sold my soul to him.

After owning everything that he had ever sung (or recited in many cases), the first ‘live’ Dylan experience was also an atypical one, 2004 in a town called Stra (near Venice in northern Italy). The concert stage was set in the massive lawns of a beautiful Italian mansion. Having driven from Budapest to Stra to listen to him, me and wife (carrying our then 9 month old son in a child seat to the concert – we were crazy !) had these visions of him coming on to the stage, greeting the crowd and speaking to us. Then picking up his guitar and harmonica and belt out a beautiful rendition of Desolation row. But the expectation were shattered by a wall of sound that emerged from a stage where 6-7 people banged into their instruments. “Which song is this and where the @#§* is Dylan” we asked ourselves. The violence of the music and the way he twisted the song To be alone with you, still rankles in my mind. To find him tucked away in the shadows, with a scruffy beard, his side to the audience, banging away on a keyboard and croaking inaudibly into a mike could not have been a greater contrast to the much publicised image of a clean shaven Dylan wooing the audience with his words, guitar & harmonica, which was stuck in my head. 5 more concerts later with musical renditions of his songs ranging from pristine revelations to having molten lead poured into my ears, my soul is still sold to him.

So is the fuss all about the fact that people who are more fortunate than me to see him in his so-called heydays of 60s, are still yearning for that image. They haven’t moved on from that place, while he has. Maybe the fuss will always remain and hopefully it does. His music in not mass produced McDonald burgers that will always come out the same way. It is a hand crafted sculpture. When reproduced on different days, in different setting and moods, it will be variations of the original. And like the pied piper, there will always be a beeline behind him, following his tunes hypnotically.

So how did I celebrate his birthday? In the most atypical way. By not listening to his music! Strange as it may sound, by having his favorite songs playing in my head, rather than via the beautiful Cadence Amayas, gave them a more Dylanesque touch. By imagining how they might sound if he were to sing it today, rather than hearing the version from 1978, made them more real and personal. Even though I own all the 4 recorded versions of Mississippi, the fifth one, which is my own and playing in my head right now, seems the most appropriate one to play today. And maybe that’s what the fuss is all about.

The day the finger tappers took over the world

The other day while posting an entry on my blog, John Lennon’s Imagine was playing on the Cadence Amayas, and a freakish vision appeared – Mr Lennon’s apparition magically manifested from the electrostatic panels and asked me “Imagine a world which has been taken over by WordPress!”, but before i could offer an opinion, he vanished and was off to sign autographs in some remote parts of the andromeda galaxy.

Hmm … world domination by WordPress, a scary or welcome thought, depending on which way you swing. For the sake of not monopolizing the creative space, I leave the description of life on earth in such a scenario to a future George Orwell clone to think it up in another book like 1984. But using my immense powers of prediction, I can safely bet that following will be the national anthem for this new world.

Warning – The following may sound outright cheesy, stupid or funny to you, but remember beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder :-) …. For best results, sing along to the tune of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon

Imagine there’s no conversation
Its easy if you write
No sounds surround us
Around us only words

Imagine all the people blogging for today
Imagine there’s no telephones
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to speak or hear for
And no shouted arguments too

Imagine all the people
Blogging away in peace …
You may say I’m a blogger
But I am not the only one
I hope some day you’ll blog like us
And the world will read as one

Imagine only muses and observations
I wonder if you can
No need for ears and tongues
A bloggerhood of man

Imagine all the people
Reporting all the world
You may say I’m a blogger
But I am not the only one
I hope some day you’ll blog like us
And the world will read as one …

I think we might soon come to this. The following cartoon convinced me.

A penny for your thoughts …

The weirdness of you

This started off in my head as ‘The nearness of you’ (A famous jazz tune from the forties made famous by The Glenn miller band, and more recently vandalized by the likes of Norah Jones). I heard faint traces of this tune in the background score of a documentary made on Salvador Dali. By the time the documentary ended, the phrase “the nearness of you” had morphed into “the weirdness of you“. So fittingly Dali, i thought, and could not resist the thought of penning it down (or as in today’s world – keying) it down.

If you have seen Dali’s paintings (see them in real life, photos do not do justice to the life they contain), one cannot  help but wonder what was the source idea that he started with it and what did it morph into by the time he had finished with it a few days, or in some case a few months later. My favorite one being his ‘Soft self portrait with grilled bacon’. My (non professional) take on that painting is as follows –

Dali 'Soft self portrait with grilled bacon' Image courtesy http://web.sbu.edu

The idea probably took root in head as he was waiting for a fried egg with grilled bacon at his breakfast table. Instead he received an indescribably mutilated and disfigured piece of coagulated albumin with rashers of grilled bacon adorning it. His life flashed by in front of his eyes and he saw a melting distorted image of himself. He flung aside the plate, grabbed his bread roll (of which he famously said – “Bread has been one of the oldest objects  of fetishism and obsession in my work, the one to which i have been most faithful”) and dashed off to his room to frantically start painting his self-portrait.

But to call his art weird is an insult, he is usually referred to as a ‘surrealist’, which some people think of as a polite name for weirdness (there … we coming back to this word again and again). But why should you take my word for it? Shun all your other holiday plans, buy a ticket to Spain, take a bus to his hometown Figueres, grab a breadroll from a local bakery and while munching upon it, feast your senses in the  museum. Did i call it a museum? In Dali’s words – “The museum should not be considered a museum. It is a giant surrealist object, everything inside it is coherent, there is nothing that escapes the webs of my understanding”. Heck … you don’t even need to enter, the outer walls adorned with giant eggs and bread-rolls will convince you of his vision

… breads off to you, O’ great weird one.

Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, home of h...

The Dali museum Figueres, Spain. Image courtesy Wikipedia