chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

Posts Tagged ‘music’

Intro to Flamenco

Posted by Jason on February 6, 2009

Most people have heard of flamenco music at some point in their lives, but many truly do not understand what this wonderful music is all about. As many people know, flamenco music comes from Spain and includes guitar, singing and dance. However, one thing that is not well known is that all Spanish music is not flamenco. Furthermore, all Spanish music played on the guitar is not necessarily flamenco. In fact, most Spanish guitar music that we hear in the United States is NOT flamenco, but rather classical music.

So what do most of us know about flamenco music over here in the good ol’ U.S. of A? Gypsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, and Jesse Cook are probably a few of the names that come to mind when we start talking about flamenco. All guitar players, none of them quite play flamenco music. The Gypsy Kings are probably the closest thing to flamenco, but they take only one tiny sliver of flamenco styles (the rumba flamenca) and use that winning formula like crazy to make some big bucks. Ottmar Liebert is basically a smooth jazz guitarist that has taken some scales to make his “jazz” sound a little Spanish and PRESTO! We have “flamenco nuevo,” which is pretty much crap. Jesse Cook makes me want to puke. If Gypsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert had a bastard musical love child, it would be this guy. He’s a watered down version of already watered down versions of flamenco. It’s pop jacuzzi jazz rumba fusion-lite, and above all it’s NOT flamenco. Don’t be fooled, people.

So what is flamenco, then? At the very core of flamenco is singing, or cante. Flamenco singing is not largely known about in the states because it’s not very marketable. It is gutteral, loud, and uses a lot of notes between notes that sound like they’re off-key to most western ears. It is a singing born out of suffering and oppression; it is raw and harsh. Flamenco started out as marginalized gypsies bore inhumane working conditions in a foreign land. They had to work in mines or fields for little pay and no say in how they were treated. The first songs were work songs or fiesta songs, similar to those of the African-American tradition here in the U.S.

Eventually guitars were added to accompany the singing and they had to cut through the din of tavern patrons and noisy friends. In order to do this, flamenco players mostly strummed and tapped on the tops of their guitars in order for the compound, driving rhythms of flamenco to be heard. From the mid-1800’s to about the 1950’s or 60’s, the guitar was never thought of as a solo instrument, except for little sections and fills called falsetas in between verses of the cante. Sabicas was the first guitarist to really make waves as a solo flamenco player, and others like Manolo Sanlucar and the now-famous Paco de Lucia soon followed. Tomatito and Pepe Habichuela are also in the same vein as the earlier guitarists, and Vicente Amigo is a more modern and less traditional continuation of true flamenco guitarists.

Dance came out as a natural response to the rhythmic complexities and depth in flamenco music, and it is one of the more marketable aspects of the art. Americans would much rather go see a dance and guitar show than singing and guitar. Both the baile (dance) and the toque (guitar) are flashy and exotic sounding. Flamenco singing appeals only to a small group of people that are interested in the emotions and the pain that are at the foundation of the deep song or cante jondo. I don’t think American ears will ever enjoy flamenco singing on a large scale. It’s too raw, too honest. Guitar and dance are much more easily commercialized and watered down with our preferred varieties of easy listening. Even pure flamenco (which is really not quite pure without the song) can be appreciated in the U.S. if it’s guitar and dance.

So, at its core, flamenco is a tradition of folk song born out of a suffering of a marginalized people. Guitars and dance are very important to the art form, but they are not the heart of it. Over here in America, we have embraced the guitar and the dance, as well as corrupted, watered-down versions of each, but we have yet to welcome a strident and raw style of singing. I don’t know that any culture really appreciates the cante very much; even mainstream Spain can’t seem to stomach it in large quantities. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. Nobody has really tried to adopt it and morph it into something sellable, thereby leaving at least some of the flamenco tradition intact.


Posted in flamenco, music, Musings, Spain | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Great Quote

Posted by Jason on January 24, 2009

“An elementary school music teacher is kind of like an animal lover working in a slaughterhouse…”

-Some dude on NPR

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Update: Saga of a Love Affair

Posted by Jason on January 21, 2009

When I decided to play guitar again, I thought it would probably last a day or two and then fizzle out. It’s happened before. I get all excited about playing again, just enough to dig a guitar out of the closet and make a giant mess. I play for a day or two, and then I forget about it, or we have to clean house for friends to come over and the guitar and music stand go bye-bye.

This is what I expected of myself. To my surprise, I played guitar every day except Friday of last week (even though I really wanted to). I took the long weekend off, but I still really felt like playing the guitar even if my hands were beat up from yard work or changing a toilet or whatever. Those four days without playing could have been the nail in the coffin, but I decided to play a bit on my lunch break yesterday. This morning I looked at my little music nook and decided I’m actually going to clean up the living room in order to be able to play guitar after school today. Crazy, isn’t it?

What has really been interesting to me is the power of memory, specifically the kinesthetic or tactile memory. I’m playing things that I learned 5 years ago in Spain and haven’t really played since. I have some books that are helping me remember and develop the basic musical structures of the different flamenco songs, but some of the solos I learned by imitation from my teacher in Spain are all coming back to me. A couple I’ve played since then, but many I’ve not. Very interesting.

There is a lot of truth in the old adage of “it’s just like riding a bike: you never forget.” It is widely known that, of all the different types of memory we have, kinesthetic is the second strongest. Smell/taste is the first. Because your brain and muscles work so hard with so many repetitions in order to learn a physical skill or a fine motor movement, this link is seemingly unbreakable once formed. Obviously, memories will fade without use, but physical memories and smell/taste memories will be the last to go.

It’s also important to exercise your brain and force yourself to remember things sometimes. For instance, I’ve been working out of these flamenco guitar books at home the past week. Even though I didn’t bring them to work with me, I still made the decision to practice a little bit on my lunch break. Now, did I just twiddle around and play all the songs I’ve know for years and years? No. I wanted to play the flamenco stuff that I’d been working on in my books. While I exercised my memory by trying to remember stuff from my books, it also jogged my memory of the stuff I learned years ago that wasn’t in my books.

It’s pretty fascinating to see what our brains can come up with when we turn them on and actually use them…

Posted in music, Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Saga of a Love Affair…

Posted by Jason on January 12, 2009

Sounds racy, doesn’t it? It really has nothing to do with anything juicy in my love-life. Marriage is great. This has to do with another, earlier love of my life: the guitar. I started playing classical guitar about 12 years ago, practicing like a madman throughout high school, playing in college ensembles while in high school, suffering through a university music major, studying flamenco music in Spain, playing weddings and dinners, etc. 

I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve touch the guitar since about October. I had a wedding and a church dinner to play for in the same week (when it rains it pours, I guess). Last year I started playing more and wanting to get into jazz, since jazz is a pretty heady music and I like that mental challenge of it. Over the summer, I kind of lost interest and just the whole prospect of playing the guitar hasn’t really excited me for a long time.

I feel a little guilty that something that I invested so much time and money in has really taken a far back seat in my life, if it’s even in the car at all… I feel weird that I don’t really care too much anymore about something that has been a huge force in my life for so long. I have so many other things that pique my interest that playing guitar doesn’t really hold the same allure as pretty much anything else that I’m into right now.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that I’m not going to leave the guitar just yet. I don’t think I can… ever. It would also be a sin to let the skills I have deteriorate into something I “used to do” way back when. Today when I get home from work, I’m going to file my nails to a decent shape and get out some books and a guitar and start playing again. 

I’m not going to expect much, but I’m not going to let the guilt of what I should know how to play eat away at me, either. Throughout my late college and post-college days, I had always been angry at myself for not being a better guitar player. I’ve been angry that I didn’t have the singular drive that I did when I was in high school. I got distracted by life and never fulfilled my potential for true guitar greatness…

Bollocks to all that, I say. Nobody is telling me what I should know how to play or whatever. I know how to play the guitar plenty well. I have more skills and knowledge than most guitar players that make a bit of money at it. Now I’m going to play stuff that I want.  I’m going to bust out some of my flamenco books and really get back to the heart of what intrigued me so much from the beginning. I have good foundations in flamenco from my time in Spain. It’s high time I went back to that. I’m only going to learn classical music if I feel like it, and I won’t beat myself up over not completing a piece of music. Maybe I’ll even feel like performing again, or accompanying for a flamenco dance studio or whatever.

The sky is the limit, not the goal. I have to keep that in mind. I think the communal nature of playing in a group or accompanying someone will really help me enjoy music again. However, I’m super self-conscious about my performance that I don’t feel I’m nearly good enough to play with others, especially if they are good enough to challenge me in my playing. I get embarrassed and I’m scared to hell they’ll find out I’m really not that good. I’m sure it’s also a pride thing. Well, that’s way down the road, and I don’t have to collaborate if I don’t want to. So there. 

It’s guitar time, everyone!

Posted in music | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

J.S. Bach Helps Everything Make Sense

Posted by Jason on December 17, 2008

When things are crazy in my life, I listen to J.S. Bach. Lute suites are my favorite, but anything will pretty much do. It’s not that it’s feel-good music. It’s not always calming and relaxing. Bach is actually filled with a lot of tension. He rarely stays in the same key and moves around musically in some crazy ways.

What it really does for me is put things in order. It makes sense. Even when Bach moves from one key to another or just puts in some really gnarly harmonies, they make sense. There is an order in this music that just works for me. It’s often very complicated like an intense algebraic expression, but there is order. The problem can be solved. Each note, no matter how out of place it might sound, finds its place in the greater scheme of things.

If you took a vertical snapshot of many of Bach’s chords and played those notes at one time on the piano,  just as those notes sound at the same time in a piece of music, there’s a good chance that audio snapshot would not sound so lovely. However, take the two chords before it and the two chords after it, and that little spot of 5 beats will sound just as if it always belonged. Taken on their own and out of context many of Bach’s notes sound bad. It’s when they get connected in time that magic actually happens.

Now that seems all good for me, the music theory nerd, but it might just sound like a bunch of notes to you. Too many notes in fact. But here is where the beauty in Bach lies: imagine a couple different colored paintbrushes being pulled along a roadway. When they start off, it’s not a bunch of scribbles. That would be just noise. Maybe they race along in parallel lines, or maybe they cross over one another in nice, flowing curves going up and down. Always forward, but never backward. The order of Bach is that the race continues forward until the end of the piece. It flows, and the fun is trying to follow one or two colors/voices throughout the course of the race. Our ears are the chase helicopters that try and keep up with the competitors. Sometimes our cameras are trained on just one racer for a while; other times it switches to a wide view of the whole pack. Sometimes there are epic battles, back and forth, for first place; other times one voice starts in front and stays in front. 

Bach understood so well that life is tension, as well as release. This makes us alive; it’s really the essence of the entire world around us. Push, pull. Bad, good. Birth, death. When things are tense and I’m not comfortable in my own skin, Bach shows me that it will resolve. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will resolve. It might resolve on a minor chord or it might be a happy major chord. But it will resolve. Tension cannot be forever. It may last for longer than we are comfortable with, but that’s what makes music and life great.

Posted in music | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Bottom Line it For Me! – Puccini’s “La Boheme”

Posted by Jason on December 9, 2008

This is one of my favorite operas ever. Here goes:

Poor guy falls in love with girl. Girl dies from tuberculosis.

More operas and books to follow. Comment with suggestions for future “summaries.”

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bottom Line it For Me! – Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Posted by Jason on December 6, 2008

Mozart/da Ponte take on a classic Spanish story.

Unscrupulous guy seduces a bunch of girls. Dead father of one girl invites the seducer to dinner. Player and dead father shake hands. Dead father pulls seducer down to Hell.

More operas/books to come. Feel free to post suggestions in comment box…

Posted in Literature | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bottom Line it For Me! – Bizet’s “Carmen”

Posted by Jason on December 5, 2008

So I decided to force one of my classes to watch a DVD of the classic opera Carmen by Bizet. They can’t read the subtitles very well and they certainly can’t understand the French, so I’m being a good teacher and helping the kids through the plot. I thought to myself today, “Dang, how simple do I need to make this thing?”

Here goes, my best, brief synopsis of Carmen:

Soldier falls in love with gypsy woman. Gypsy woman falls in love with bullfighter. Soldier kills gypsy woman.

Baddabing, baddaboom. Any questions?

More operas and literary works to follow. If you have a certain opera or book in mind, let me know…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »