Volkswagen’s Fun Theory Reviewed Dec14

Volkswagen’s Fun Theory Reviewed...

A recent Volkswagen commercial demonstrates a lighthearted experimental process that they have termed the ‘Fun Theory.’ In the commercial, the Volkswagen team wire a set of stairs inside a metro station to become a piano keyboard that interacts with those pedestrians who choose to take the stairs. As the pedestrians travel up and down the newly refurbished staircase, they suddenly discover they are playing notes on a piano. The sensors in the key pads that pedestrians step on were programmed to create the sound appropriate to the note played by the relative piano key. In doing this, the Volkswagen team wanted to know if more people would take the stairs because they had made taking the stairs ‘fun.’ This social experiment brings art, architecture and music together in one sensory experience. The commercial demonstrates several reactions to climbing musical stairs and each pedestrian seems to have a different response to the idea of creating music on their way up the staircase. Piano music of a whimsical and fun nature plays in the background of the commercial, fading in and out at key points to demonstrate that people stopping to press a key on the staircase are also playing the piano with each step they take. The result of the commercial is spontaneous, warm and encouraging to the viewer. But what is the Fun Theory ultimately? Volkswagen’s team stops at the word fun as if fun is to be the only necessary element conveyed in the re-purposing of a set of metro stairs into a piano keyboard. Instead, let’s look deeper into what sort of purpose and pleasure the pedestrians might have been getting by the exercise (no pun intended) and, lastly, what does this say about music and the arts — about creativity itself?...

The King Who Danced Dec14

The King Who Danced

Louis the XIV, known also as Louis the Sun King, was the King of France from the year 1643 until he died in 1715. He remains the longest-reigning monarch of any European country and was responsible for a great many feats, for better or worse, including the building of Versailles. But he is less well known as a dancer who often starred in performances of the ballet at the time. It is conjectured that Louis’ mother, the Queen, spent so much time with him at the theater and enjoying fine cuisine that, from a young age, Louis XIV also gained a passion for these pastimes as well. The King became the chief patron of the Académie Française. He supported the advancement of Classical French literature and became the backing to such writers as Molière, Racine and La Fontaine, names that we know even now, especially Molière, who’s gifts of satire were unrivaled in Paris. Louis was also the patron of many exceptional artists of the period, including Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard. But in the realm of music, composers and musicians such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, and François Couperin were the backbone of the King’s personal interests and these musicians, Lully especially, often contributed to the production of ballets. Louis was a danseur who performed around eighty roles in forty different ballets. It could be argued that King Louis was practically a professional dancer as the number of performances rivals those of a truly dedicated artist. Louis not only performed in traditional ballet but also took roles in Molière’s comédies-ballets, which were an art form that combined drama with dancing. At one point in his dancing career, King Louis performed as Apollo and Neptune in the same performance of a...

Introducing: Tim Totani...

Tim Totani is a singer and songwriter from McAlester, Oklahoma. His style is in the country/rock tradition of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp, and his new EP Back Home was released just last month. We’d like to thank Mr. Totani for taking a few minutes to answer some questions for us here at Musebreak. Musebreak: First of all, tell us a little about yourself. What is your musical background? How did you get started? Tim Totani: I grew up around music from my mom singing to me as a little boy to watching the band play at church. But I didn’t get started playing until junior high school where my music director John Wilcox influenced my passion for playing the most. MB: I’m assuming you play guitar. Do you play any other instruments? What models do you use, and what’s your favorite? TT: I do play guitar, and I’ve played many instruments such as violin, cello, mandolin, bass, drums, and piano. Recently, piano is probably my favorite. I play a Taylor acoustic guitar. MB: What is your process for writing a song? What comes first, the lyrics or the music? TT: When writing a song the process varies. Some days I have lyrics that pop in my head first that I write music for, and other time the music comes first. MB: I mentioned Seger and Mellencamp in the intro, which to my ear are the most stylistically similar acts to your work. What do you consider the most similar? What musicians do you go to for inspiration? TT: I have been compared to Brantley Gilbert on many occasions, and I could see that. And I listen to a lot of artist for inspiration such as Brantley, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Eli Young...

Album Review: The Buachaills’ At Your Call...

It’s a St. Patrick’s Day miracle: A second album of Celtic music for your enjoyment! It certainly was for mine. This week we’re looking at the debut release from the Celtic folk/rock band The Buachaills (pronounced bo’-quels, approximately). Their debut single is due out tomorrow, with the rest of the album due out in May. You can pre-order it on Amazon, and probably a few other places. The album is called At Your Call, and is an enjoyable collection of Irish influenced music. If the High Kings’ album we looked at last week was a little light on the Celtic influences for your tastes, this one should be right up your alley. Still using the electric bass (James Fleming) and drum set (Chris Carey), The Buachaills also have Eoin Murphy on guitar and mandolin and Aaron Dolan on whistles and Uillean pipes. Carey, Dolan, and Murphy all take turns on the vocals. The album starts with a short instrumental introduction, beginning with Dolan’s pipes and immediately moving into a lively reel. This is followed by the title track “At Your Call” which is catchy alternative rock style with a solid Irish feel to the accompaniment. Next is the song that is to be tomorrow’s debut single, a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”. The famous sax solo is replaced very capably with Dolan’s pipes. It works much better than you might imagine. Following this is “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time”. This is a lively Irish reel style pop song. It’s an infectious tune with a strong hook. Next is the instrumental “King of the Fairies”. It starts slowly and mournfully, and then moves into a nice minor key jig that highlights Dolan’s pipes and a fine, restrained drum performance by Carey....

Album Review: The High Kings’ Friends for Life...

A week from Monday, we see the return of St. Patrick’s Day, the day that everyone gets to either celebrate their Irish heritage, or pretend they have one. What St. Pat’s Day celebration would be complete without some rousing Irish music to go along with it? Sure, the Celtic Woman recordings have been popular, but let’s be honest. Their music just doesn’t have that Irish pub feel that the occasion calls for. So as an alternative, we bring you The High Kings, and their latest album Friends for Life. The High Kings is a talented quartet of Irish musicians with a healthy dose of contemporary influences added. Their stated motto: “Folk ’n Roll”. Friends for Life is their fourth album since their 2008 inception; and their third studio album. Released last September, it is a collection of original music combined with a few traditional songs spiced with their special arrangement skills. The opening track is “Oh Maggie”, an original song about a man on hard times and trying to do better so he can return to the woman he loves. It’s traditional sounding, but with electric guitars and a drum set added to update the sound. Following is a strong departure; “Gucci”. This is a borderline stream of conscience song with Paul Simon-esque metaphors. “All Around the World” takes us back to more familiar territory, with an upbeat feel-good dance song. It is, admittedly, the least Irish sounding song on the album; it almost sounds Cajun. It’s not surprising, then, that they follow it up with the first traditional Irish song on the album, “Johnny Leave Her”. This is an a capella arrangement, with each of the quartet featured on the verses, and harmony on the chorus. “Health to the Company” is another traditional...

Album Review: Marissa Nadler’s July...

Singer/Songwriter Marissa Nadler released July, her sixth studio album last week, and it looks to be a cold month. Nadler’s style is often categorized as “dream pop”, a sub-genre of alternative rock that features atmospheric music and ethereal vocals. Her mezzo-soprano voice is reminiscent of Norah Jones, and she frequently overdubs herself for harmonization. The music is almost totally percussion-less, relying on her acoustic guitar skills to provide the rhythm with flowing arpeggios. Layered on this is a bed of synthesizer chords and sometimes slow electric guitar notes. The effect is almost the acoustic equivalent to a Rothko painting, with large blocks of dark colors evoking a moody, hazy atmosphere. Musically, it’s actually quite challenging. Miss Nadler has no fear of dissonance; the layers of sound sometimes clashing and resolving in waves of anticipation of resolutions that almost arrives, but not never quite completely. Its effect is intentionally unsettling. Unfortunately, the lyrics do not quite deliver on the evocation that the music promises. Apparently this album is about a painful breakup she had; that much is apparent from the tales she spins in this collection of songs. The lyrics are very, very personal; perhaps too personal. We are offered images and ideas that obviously mean a lot to her, but we’re left a bit in the dark. It’s like someone posted on Facebook, “Well it looks like I’m single again. I should have made that paper airplane after all. I don’t want to talk about it,” and we’re thinking, “Paper airplane? What’s that about?” In effect, she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve, but she’s got her shirt turned inside-out and we can’t quite figure out what that stitching is supposed to be. July is a masterful and unusual album musically. It stretches the...

Ensembles: The Big Band Jan26

Ensembles: The Big Band...

In the 1920s, as recorded music became more common, there arose the beginnings of an ensemble constructed to appeal to a popular music audience. These groups contained trumpets, trombones and saxophones; supported by a rhythm section, and joined with a group of string instruments for a more orchestral quality. Such groups performed popular tunes and acted as accompaniment for vocalists. The jazz influence was minimal, with little improvisation; however, many period jazz musicians supplemented their incomes as members of such groups. Probably the best known example of groups of this type for contemporary listeners was Lawrence Welk’s orchestra which remained active for many decades. It wasn’t until the late 20s that we begin to see the big band really come into its own. Growing primarily out of New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, these bands dropped the string players, and adopted a musical style that allowed for much more improvisation. With a few exceptions (like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer), these groups were primarily formed of black musicians and aimed at black audiences. The recordings were euphemistically referred to as “race records”, and were routinely dismissed as low quality. Still, talent will inevitably rise to the surface, and these groups began gaining larger audiences while crossing the race barriers. Black band leaders became household names and gained the respect of the musical community as a whole. The greatest of these would doubtlessly be Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra. Also, notable for this period is the fact that improvising soloists became nearly as famous as the band leaders themselves, many of whom would go on to form their own bands. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were just a few who came from this background. As the 1930s approached, the big band...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit Jan12

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit...

We’ve all seen them or heard them, whether we listen to Rock music, Jazz, Country, and increasingly Classical: the drum kit. Sometimes referred to as a drum set, or “trap” set, this is the collection of percussion instruments collected onto a rack system so that they can be played by a single individual. When you hear some child saying he wants to play drums, this is usually what they mean. The earliest forms of the drum set date to the late nineteenth century, in particular in connection with Vaudeville and other small performance venues. These arrangements of percussion instruments were imperative to having the benefit of a full percussion section using the minimum of space. A bass drum would be set on its side on the floor where it could be played by the foot, thus giving it the name “kick drum” which is still used today. A concert snare drum (a flatter version of the field drums military bands used which had catgut or wire strands stretched across the bottom head which vibrate sympathetically to the top head being struck) would typically be placed to the left of the bass drum between the legs. Usually a floor tom (a larger, un-snared drum) would be placed to the right of the bass drum. In addition, other auxiliary percussion instruments would be mounted or placed close at hand, such as cymbals, whistles, cowbells, and anything else the music called for. The whole set up was colloquially called a “contraption”, which appears to have been the origin for calling a drum set a “trap” set. Another possible reason for the term was that early kits had a bass drum with a trap door in the shell to use it as a box for transporting smaller percussion...

Dynamics: The Heart of Sound Jan05

Dynamics: The Heart of Sound...

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of music, that of pitch, rhythm, and tone quality. As a musician matures, they must learn other important factors. The most important of these is dynamics. For the sake of the layman, dynamics in music are the variations in loud and soft. Student musicians sometimes fail to recognize the importance of these qualities. This may be a result of listening to a lot of popular music on radio. In addition to the fact that many pop performers use very little difference in dynamics, it is reinforced by the use of equipment in radio stations to level the dynamic contrast to make it easier to match various recordings to a constant volume level. This can be demonstrated by comparing a popular recording to a “classical” recording with a high degree of dynamic variation, such as Holst’s The Planets Suite. Dynamics really come in two ways. The first, more well-known way, is the overall level of a passage of music. These may be marked f (forte or loud), p (piano or soft), modified slightly with an m (mezzo or moderate) in front, or compounded by multiple indications like ff (fortissimo). Changes are made by indicating a new level for a sudden change, or with the description crescendo or decrescendo to indicate a gradual change. Usually when people talk about dynamics, it’s this type that they mean. Unlike many other things in the notation of music, the levels are entirely relative. Forte is not assigned a specific decibel level, and varies depending on the style of music, the type of ensemble, the importance of the passage, and ultimately the artistic intent of the composer or conductor or performer. The issue is further complicated by large variations in the intent...

2013: A Year of Accomplishments...

As the new year approaches, it has been a tradition to look back over the year’s accomplishments and struggles, and give credit to those around me who have made the year a success. I am proud to view Musebreak’s launch and its continuing publications as a success. In July we began Musebreak as a way for artists to help spread the message about the value of art to those not in the field. A handful of people banded together and decided to write about art, music and literature, and possibly make a difference in some way. I would like to commend the people of Musebreak for this year’s effort. You have done a fantastic job! In six month’s time, we’ve published 56 articles. I would like to especially thank Patrick and Fiona for their consistent efforts in getting out articles each week. For a volunteer force, I’m extremely proud of their effort to bring something of interest each week. I would also like to thank all of the others who have contributed with either articles or interviews as they could. I know it’s not easy to take time out of busy schedules to volunteer your time. Finally I would like to thank Musebreak’s audience, the readers who stop in each week to learn something new. Musebreak would be nothing without either. Since our launch in July our viewing numbers have grown. We now regularly receive over 4000 page hits per weekly publication. I count that a success, considering we are a small organization and I hope to see us grow in the years to come. I have made requests for more writers and interviewees and have yet to have much response, but I’m hoping in the months to come, people will realize that talking...

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas Nov10

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas...

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, Dressed in holiday style. In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas Children laughing, people passing, Meeting smile after smile, And on every street corner you’ll hear…” -“Silver Bells” by Livingston and Evans   We’re barely past Hallowe’en and already it has started: Christmas! The first trick-or-treater had yet to ring a doorbell, and yet the candy prices had been slashed and moved back to some obscure aisle to make room for the red, green, gold, silver ornamentations of Christmastime in every store. Most people don’t understand marketing, and fail to grasp that every retail establishment must promote themselves early and heavily as a good place to spend those Christmas greenbacks, even before anyone is even thinking about spending the first penny on it. It’s a cut-throat business, and the next two months will determine who is having a going-out-of-business sale in January and who isn’t. This is the dark side of Christmas. (Well, one of them.) And since a big part of getting shoppers in the Christmas mood is playing Christmas music over the intercom, the music is tragically linked to this commercial overload. It doesn’t help matters that the majority of recorded Christmas music is highly saccharine. Even the edgiest of musical acts cleans up their performance when they do a Christmas tune. It doesn’t have to be that way. Like many people of my generation (and the generation before that), I grew up listening to Bing Crosby’s album Merry Christmas, and I can honestly say that I never hear a single track from that album that it doesn’t give me a good feeling. Over the years, I’ve accumulated several other albums that I always enjoy hearing, sometimes even in the middle of summer. I love listening to...

Album Review: Diane Birch’s Speak a Little Louder...

The sophomore album from singer/songwriter Diane Birch was released just last week, and presents an artist who is still defining herself. Her first album, Bible Belt, brought inevitable comparisons to Carole King. This time she downplays her keyboard chops and focuses on songwriting and arranging. She has mentioned that she incorporates many influences in her music, particularly in this new collection. That much is obvious from even a single listening. Her singing is edgier this time around, making her sound like the second coming of Stevie Nicks. As you would expect, there’s some Fleetwood Mac sounds here as well. Also, keep an ear open for Sinead O’Connor, The Cranberries, Alanis Morrisette, Heart, the Motels, and even a disco number ala Diana Ross. They’re not fully fledged style copies, but the influence is present. The version of this album you’ll find in the CD racks at your store is shorter than the full-length version available online by five songs. I’d recommend getting the 16 track version, since some of the best cuts are among those left off of the short version. The title track is a very moody number with heavy synthesizer beds. Lyrically it’s a little weak, but the hook is memorable. The two tracks that really highlight Diane’s Stevie styles are “Tell Me Tomorrow” and “Love & War”, the former being a solo Stevie style song and the latter one more in the Fleetwood Mac mold. “Pretty in Pain” is the disco number, and works well. If you enjoyed Diane’s earlier work, you’ll want to take note of “Superstars”, which is a solid hypnotic song, and “Truer than Blue”, which is the only track that is just her voice and piano. Although Diane is too young to remember it first hand, there is...

Ensembles: the Brass Quintet Oct27

Ensembles: the Brass Quintet...

There are many varieties of small ensembles (sometimes referred to as chamber ensembles) for classical instruments; but perhaps the most popular one for wind players (brass and woodwind) is the brass quintet. This is for several reasons. For one thing, since three fifths of the group is made up of common jazz/pop instruments, these groups frequently play popular music in addition to the more mainstream classical literature. Another reason is its flexibility in performance settings. The group is small enough that it can perform intimate indoor concerts, but the nature of the instruments is such that it can perform equally as effectively outdoors with no acoustic support like band-shells and the like. The standard instrumentation for a brass quintet is two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba. In more advanced groups, the trumpets will sometimes switch off to piccolo trumpet (a trumpet pitched an octave higher than a regular trumpet) or flugelhorn (a trumpet relative with conical tubing that gives it a mellower sound). Some groups will use cornets in the place of trumpets, particularly if their repertoire includes a lot of Americana style music. Other variations will use a euphonium or baritone horn in the place of the trombone, or switch out the French horn with another trombone, or replace the tuba with a bass trombone. These alternations are relatively rare. It may surprise some brass quintet fans how recent the creation of this ensemble is. There were two groups that formed around the same time, in the 1940s, that established this type of ensemble. They were the New York Brass Quintet and the Chicago Brass Quintet. Of the two, the Chicago group is arguably the most influential, due to tuba player Arnold Jacobs being the teacher of Chuck Daellenbach...

Writers Journey: Support and Freedom...

We live in an age where we are expected to earn revenue on what we produce.  This expectation was brought about by the Age of Enlightenment and furthered by the Industrial Revolution.  If we are successful novelists, for example, we must churn out a New York Times bestseller every year or two.  Culturally, we are told a myth that insists that we earn money from our art. This ‘Hollywood fantasy’ of earning money per project is actually very new and flies in the face of thousands of years in which artists lived under another kind of system:  namely support from a patron.  I don’t advocate that we go back to having patrons, which is what you might call feudalistic even on a good day, but I do want to point out that it’s easy to mistake one thing for another and this is where we can accidentally confuse having money and being paid for our art with true freedom to make the art that must be made. The biggest misconception an artist faces is the definition of the word resource.  If you want something, say quality light and space to paint in, that doesn’t mean you need money to get it.  It means you need a resource (space and light) and your first inclination may well be to pay for studio space for it.  Stop right there!  What you really need is space and light.  In our consumerist mentality, we will often equate this with real estate.  But space and light is not the same thing as a studio situated downtown.  Space and light may be had in a breakfast nook, or outside at a park, or on the back lawn.  One of your friends may have space and light that they’ll willingly share...