Intonation: A Nearly Four-Decade-Long Musical Conversation

Martin D-76

I’ve been enjoying a musical conversation that I’ve been having with my father that has spanned the better part of four decades  This conversation has assumed numerous directions, been carried with words and with music, and though it has been conveyed through countless instruments over a gamut of styles and genres, Bluegrass and the acoustic guitar have always been what I call ‘home’.  Over the course of this conversation with my father, I would have to say that it hasn’t been until about the last year or so that I could say I’ve really ‘gotten’ the meaning of it all–or am getting to the meaning of it all.  Perhaps this would be a good point to mention that my father died in April of 2010, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the conversation; in fact, in some ways things seem to ramped-up a bit.  I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it isn’t.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have been exposed to a great deal of live music–my father spent a good chunk of his free-time playing guitar in a couple of different bands that I remember.  He was a fantastic musician, and I would venture to refer to him more as a guitarist than a guitar player–it’s a subtle distinction and some use the descriptions interchangeably, but not me.  He could play a dozen different instruments proficiently enough to “play along” with a group, but I’m certain he felt most comfortable on the guitar.  There were guitars that came and went in our house–some with six strings, some with twelve (an eight string guitar may have even stayed with us for a short time)–but the one that stuck around until the bitter end was Dad’s Martin D-76.

That's Dad on the right with his D-76, then only a couple of years old.

Looked upon as something of a novelty, the Martin D-76 was a produced to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial, and it was a limited edition with only 1,976.  For the most part, the D-76 did not sell well primarily because of quality control issues that had plagued the preceding years.  The guitars had lost their sense of hand-built quality, and the D-76 was a limited edition that attempted to draw consumers back to the brand; unfortunately they didn’t sell out of them until 1978.  Fortunately, Dad got one, and fortunately they just happen to be good guitars.

As a kid, touching the guitar wasn’t exactly verboten, but it definitely wasn’t encouraged either, and let’s just say that I’m thankful that Dad never saw me doing my Pete Townsend-style windmill strumming technique on his Martin; I might not be writing this post today.

I started off on the ukulele, and played that for a while, but yearned to graduate to a tier-one instrument.  An uncle gave me a banjo and I played it for a time, but all I could muster were some basic techniques that, to this day, I have not moved beyond.  My dad always modestly said that he played guitar so that he could hang out with real musicians, and when a college roommate of mine brought a guitar to school with him, I jumped at the chance to learn, and the couple of chords that I did know bloomed into a laborious, self-directed study of the instrument.   By the next Christmas, I had my own guitar and was free to play as often as I liked.

Many of the ‘guitar-related’ behaviors I saw in my dad as I was growing-up that I never understood now began to make sense.  Tuning the guitar was always a fun thing to watch Dad do:  He would go to that far-off place–not a physical place, but a mental place–with his eyes down-cast, looking at nothing and hearing something that only he could hear.  He could feel that sweet spot between sharp and flat like no one else and if he were playing with someone even the slightest bit out of tune, he would search you out in a crowd to share a funny look, like an inside joke (at my house, whistling out of tune–so long as it was on purpose–was high comedy). I guess I caught the same bug; sometimes I take so long to tune-up that I don’t have enough time to play.

That's Dad on the right with 12-string guitar, complete with cigarette wedged into the peg head.

Despite the fact that he would always say his tuning was, “close enough for bluegrass”, he taught me that there should be some respect paid to and some care taken with the harmonic relationship between strings, and further, the relationship between the instruments.

Dad also taught me that, if you were going to play, you play like you mean it.  You didn’t have to play with him very much to hear him tell you to play it or sing it louder.  He played with a heavy right hand, and over the years, nearly dug a hole in the spruce top where his pick would come down just above the top E string, something that was thankfully left untouched when the guitar was sent back to Martin 10 or 15 years ago for a factory reset.

The arc of my own musical interests has run the gamut, but live, imperfect music has always been at the core, and though I ranged-off into electric territory, I always came back to the acoustic guitar, and really eventually back home to bluegrass.  Perhaps it was my own maturity level, but there was something restorative about bluegrass.  I could identify with ‘the old home place’, having moved away from it, and pining to get back to it one way or the other, in one form or another.

Martin D-76 Purfling

I watched him for years, studied his mannerisms, and saw how connected he was to this guitar and how capable he was with it.  That’s why it was so tough, 3 months after he’d been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, to see him toting this guitar through the airport on his last trip to Phoenix before he died.  Unless you’ve experienced it, I guess you don’t know how you’ll act, but I had been whistling past the graveyard for 3 months and in that moment, everything became quite real, and I knew instantly what that scene meant.  He told me that, “It was always your guitar anyway.”

Not feeling especially worthy of playing such an instrument and partially due to some degree of grief I’m sure, it took me a while before I felt completely comfortable with the idea that I was now the guitar’s steward.  After a couple of months, I had Bob Colosi make me a set of bridge pins, nut, and compensated saddle–all out of bone–to replace the original plastic ones that Martin put on the guitar and that my father so detested.  I then had the guys at Guitar Electronics (don’t let the name fool you) do the fitting, shaping and installation.  It wasn’t until I had added these touches and actually improved upon the original sound that I felt like the guitar was mine.  I even solved the difficult B string tuning problem with the compensated saddle which Dad probably wished he had done too.

It’s funny to me how I kind of chuckled at my dad for the amount of time he spent trying to get his guitar in-tune, and only later realized why.  With a fine instrument, the tones are so much more well-defined and you can hear that relationship between that the strings that I talked about earlier much more clearly.  Also with a fine instrument, the woods used in the guitar are much more superior conductors of sound vibration, so not only can you hear it, but you can feel it as well.  It is hard to convey this in words, but suffice it to say that I’ve played for nearly 20 years, and this was an epiphany for me.

That's Dad in the middle with his D-76. He'd be pissed if he knew I posted this one.

I found myself doing many of those things I observed my father doing over all of those years, and I found that things that I did not understand had begun to become clear.  Sometimes, it is as though we are playing the same guitar and I find myself chuckling over one of those old inside jokes–almost like I’m still carrying-on a conversation with my father, even since his death.

My daughter will have forgotten her grandfather–she was not yet 2 when he died–and my son was born 2 weeks after his death, so the one real tangible thing I can share with them about an extremely vital aspect of my father’s life is locked away in that guitar, and the only difficulty will be for me to coax it out for them to “see” for themselves.  I really do feel that I’m more of a steward than an owner of this guitar, and perhaps one day I can tell one of my kids that the guitar has always belonged to them anyway.

Now, if those kids would just keep it down so I could tune-up.

October 1969: The Beatles’ Abbey Road Hits #1 on the UK Chart

41 Years ago this week, Abbey Road hit number 1 on the UK charts, and although released prior to the Let it Be album, it would be, technically, the Beatles last studio recordings released.  What is really amazing about the album is that, though the band wasn’t really functioning as a band at that point, they put many of their differences behind them, and in a number of ways, used to the album to make light of those differences. 

The album cover itself fueled speculation that there was truth to the “Paul is dead” rumor that gained some traction around the time the album was released.  Perhaps this is a topic for another post, but briefly, John Lennon’s white suit was said to symbolize a clergyman; Ringo Starr’s black suit, an undertaker; George Harrison’s blue jeans and denim shirt, a grave-digger; and the fact that Paul McCartney is walking out of step with the band and has no shoes all ‘proved’ the rumor to be true.  However you take the album cover, it is an iconic image in the world of pop and rock music.

In the UK, the album debuted at number 1 and spent 11 consecutive weeks there, and then was bumped for 1 week by The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed album before returning to number 1 for 6 more weeks.  In all it spent nearly 2 years in the UK top 75 and then reached number 30 when the album was released on CD in 1987.

The album is essentially divided into 2 sections–side A being a selection of singles, and side B being comprised of shorter incomplete compositions woven together into a longer musical suite.  Although most of the album was recorded in only about a month’s worth of time, it remains timeless in its appeal.

Various publications throughout the years have placed it on their ‘top’ lists in various slots, it is generally viewed as one of the top 20 albums of all time (I would put it in the top 10).  Like many albums or concerts I’ve recomended to folks over the years, this is one of those pieces of music that deserves your time, and deserves to be listened to in one sitting.  If you don’t own the album, get it–it’s one of those albums that is extremely approachable for those of you who might be less familiar with The Beatles–it is most definitely an album you’ll cherish.

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Why Music?

trebleQuestion

What is it that keeps us listening to music?  No, I won’t let you get away with a simple answer–“because I enjoy it”.  Why do we enjoy it?  Has anyone every satisfactorily explained that? 

I think, in order to take a stab at answering that question, we have to take a look at why our ancestors “invented” music.  I put invented in quotes because I think that a pretty strong case can be made to point out that rather than being invented, it was a device or mechanism used to mimic things that naturally occurred around them.

For the Classical Greeks, music was a very big undertaking rooted in religious implications.  The 2 principal instruments used to create Classical Greek music were the aulos and the lyre.  The aulos was a double-reed instrument with a high-pitched, nasal sound–much like a modern clarinet–and the lyre was a stringed instrument that can be best described as an early harp (although it wouldn’t sound much like today’s harp). 

On the one hand, the aulos was said to mimic the sound of the Gorgon Medusa’s screams as her head was lifted from her shoulders by the hero Perseus.  Stefan Hagel’s pages have some great information and feature some examples of aulos recordings here.  The aulos was the sonic representation of all that was chaotic in the world, and just by listening to a couple of examples on the aulos page from above, we get the picture.

On the other hand, the lyre (or kithara), or better, the tuning convention utilized on the instrument, was said to mimic the order and relationship between the planets as they saw them.  Again, check out Stefan Hagel’s page here for examples of kithara recordings. 

Whereas with the aulos we had chaos, with the lyre we have a sense of order and things belonging in their natural place, so, quite literally, Classical Greek music was the representation of everything–the yin and yang, as it were–in one place.  Music played a central role, but just as important as the music itself was dance–in and of itself, a highly stylized activity with plenty of religious significance–and verse, about which I’d like to talk a bit more.

Verse was important because in a society that had long existed in an oral tradition, the information that it was to be conveyed needed to be uniform to large extent.  They obviously didn’t have printing presses that ensured that the same information that was given to one person in the city was the same information given to another person in the countryside, so there needed to be some kind of convention or mechanism that allowed the information that was to be conveyed, to be conveyed with some kind of uniformity.  This information ranged from exploits of mythic gods, to labors of heroic characters, to fables and lessons, but one of the ways that they made sure that uniformity existed was to put the information to song.

So, put into context, music helps us come up with a prism through which to view the world.  Music helps us understand the unknown, reinforces ideas that we already have, and its lyrical observations provide us with a framework that we can use to, in a sense, lay over the top of the world around us.  Much like how I marvel at a well-read person’s ability to pull from a text that he or she has read and use it to explain or describe a situation or parallel situation that has happened in that person’s life, music provides for that same potential, albeit in a more simplified fashion and in a different vernacular if you will.

If you play any music, or at least understand the basic chord progressions of modern Western music, how would you explain why the same 3 chords used thousands of times over can be paired with the same lyrics–because we only have a limited number of words in our language and limited still by the number of words that can then be used to rhyme with those words–about love, death, and happiness, and people can then still find enjoyment in those same things as though they were new again? 

Perhaps that’s a larger question than the one that I set out to answer originally, but I think their answers are similar.  The fact is that humans have always lived in a world, to one degree or another, of chaos with “the unexplained” always baying at us like wolves on the edge of civilization, and one universal way for us to make sense of it all is to listen to how others deal- have dealt, are dealing–with the unknown.  Music helps us be closer to each other in ways that we may not ever understand–think of the parallels between the relationship between the heartbeat of a mother and her unborn child and how we may hear that familiar cadence in the rhythm and beat of a song.

These are big questions and I know I’ve just scratched the surface on some of these things, but I’d like YOU to think:  Why Music?  Think critically.  What does it mean to you, and why do you listen to it?  And before you closet classicists and ethnomusicologists have a field-day with my interpretation of Classical Greek music, please realize that you cannot argue with an ignoramus–it’s futile and you’ll just make both of us look silly.

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Les Paul: A Life of Musical Innovation

photo courtesy blog.oregonlive.com

photo courtesy blog.oregonlive.com

I haven’t said anything about Les Paul since his death a week ago, but I’ll just say that when I saw Les Paul guitar for the first time, I just had to have one.  In guitar parlance, you are, very very generally, either a Les Paul guy or a Stratocaster guy.  If you are familiar with the sound, you’ll know that the Les Paul has a deeper tone, or, as I like to call it, a bit of a growl to it, in comparison to the twangy brightness of the Strat.

We’ve got Les Paul to thank for two of the most important musical innovations of the 20th century:  the electric guitar, and multi-track recording.  We take it all for granted because we are just used to hearing music rather than recording it, but if you’ve ever done any recording, you know that multi-track recording not only changed the way it was recorded, but changed the way we all listen to music, and what we expect to hear when we are listening to it.

Rather than talk about his life – there’s plenty of information about Les Paul and his life story – I would rather you sit back and listen to him play and talk about his life and his music.  Accompanied by Marian McPartland who is a fantastic pianist – if you can ever catch her show, please do – Paul Nowinski on bass, and Lou Pallo on rhythm guitar, Les Paul gives you a big juicy slice of musical history that deserves a listen.

Please take a listen here, enjoy, and share your thoughts:

http://www.archive.org/serve/LesPaul1996-2002PianoJazzMarianMcPartlandNYC/LesPaul1996-2002PianoJazzMarianMcPartlandNYC.wma

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Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett: Representatives of a Different Time

I’ll go ahead and file this one in the category of “things I wish I had said but didn’t”…  I recently read a great John Derbyshire observation (most of them ARE great) the other day where he succinctly and accurately made the following comments about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett: 

“Jackson, like Fawcett, was a relic of the time when we were a single nation, listening to the same pop songs, going to the same movies, sticking the same babe posters on our bedroom walls, laughing at the same jokes, even giving our kids names from a common stock. Whether Jackson should be extravagantly mourned or not, I leave to you to decide; but that era of national-cultural unity surely should be. Requiescat in pace.”  Read the entire entry here.

He’s right.  We’ve become so specialized in the music we listen to, in the sports we play, in the television shows we watch, etc.  When I was younger, there was pop, rock, rap, and oldies on the radio; We played baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and so on; There were a handful of things to watch on network television, and on cable, we had ESPN when it seemed that they were showing 24 hour coverage of Australian Rules Football, plus we had MTV which actually used to play videos.  I know my parents would laugh at the number of choices that I’ve laid out already, but compared to what is available now, that was IT.

These people didn’t have to pitch reality shows to Lifetime Networks and have some dopy crew follow them around with cameras and microphones so that we could sit around saying, “why are we watching these no-talent ass-clowns”?  No, these people were stars because, in a pool of entertainment so limited, not in terms of ability or creativity, but in terms of sheer depth, these people naturally stood out, and had somewhat of a captive audience.

Whatever you think about someone like Michael Jackson, what with all of his eccentricities and his bizzare and downright disgusting behavior, he along with Farah Fawcett represented a time that, for better or worse, we’ve pushed beyond.  My old poet friend and mentor, Jared Carter, argued a decade ago that we’ve turned into a society of producers of art with fewer and fewer consumers of it, and the net result is that those consumers have more crap than art to consume.  I tend to agree with him as well.