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Thoughts on Music

Greg Jalbert

Thoughts on Music is collection of short essays on situations involving music.

Imagine an ant with a huge head, so large that it's legs quiver and collapse under its weight. The antennae probing rapidly for a way forward, but a body and legs so spindly that the head will not rise again.

Table of Contents

The Highhat ... MIDI ... Stravinsky At Dawn ... Lakshmi and Viswa ... Starting Over ... The Electric Bass ... Drumming in Spring

The Highhat

When I was a child, my father had his jazz ensemble rehearsals in the 'breezeway', a room between the kitchen and the garage that presumably started without walls and enjoyed the free flow of air. My bedroom was above and to the North of the breezeway, and I could clearly hear the music. I remember seeing the drummer's highhat for the first time, amazed at the gasping clamshell activity. This was the room were I first started learning to sing with my father at the RMI electric piano, playing Georgie Girl, and 52d Street Song (...feelin' groovy...) by Paul Simon. It was an unusual keyboard, a blue and black trapezoidal shape with seesaw buttons to choose the sounds. A strange electronic sound, very early in the budding world of electronic music performance gear. Now I see it as the beginnings of the huge market, that really started snowballing with the advent of MIDI.


As I gradually leave the MIDI frenzy, from my role as a music software developer and publisher, a home composer, wannabe performing/recording musician, I can more clearly see the structure of the music industry. The lust for gear fulfills some immediate need to feel powerful. Samples of the conventional instruments available at a keypress; sound effects, reverberation, flanging, all blowing the ego up with just a keypress. The sense of ecstasy in music seems to be defined by the choices the industry has may, not by ourselves. The overall glitz of the music trade magazines is a sensational blitz, fooling a wide range of readers with the promise of technological propulsion into the realm of musical power, success, and profit. Most of us, flying off the edges of the hype machine, end up with piles of gear that no longer takes us anywhere emotionally, spiritually, and least of all, financially. Used baggage, for which there's not much of a market.

Stravinsky At Dawn

When I was in college, I had switched my major from music to computer science. I would stay up all night doing my programming assignments in a room full of my serious programming buddies, drinking a liter of Coke and eating pizza. One morning after a particularly grueling night of programming, I came back to my dormitory room and listened to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I was very tired but needed something of culture after a long night of logic-driven programming. The music seemed to have a particular vitality, and I very attentive to the detail. It wasn't until years later, at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, that I would hear Stravinsky's masterpiece in person, which of course was another highlight in my listening experience, waves of emotion coming over me with the richness of the live sound of the orchestra.

19 March 1999

Lakshmi and Viswa

Tonight I saw a dance concert by Lakshmi, daughter of T. Balasaraswati of Southern India. T. Viswanathan played flute fantastically intertwining his flute in and around the basic melody, bringing a smile to S. Vidya keeping nattuvangam (time) and doing the main singing. Lakshmi's 19 year old son performed with vitality and precision as a dancer for the first few pieces and then moving to vocal for the rest of the concert, and Doug Knight, Lakshmi's husband delineated and ornamented the complex and entrancing dance rhythms. I am seated in the concert next to my partner Karen, my ex-partner Shira, my good friend Srini, another Bharata Natyam appreciator and surrounded by many friends and acquaintances of South Indian music and dance. I haven't paid my dues enough here. I am also now leaving the community of music and dance even more as I refuse to replace my broken down automobile. So my arts will have to be a locally performed and appreciated type.

Is there local support for artists and musicians? It seems that the globalization of culture has lead to a diffusion of appreciators, so these people are forced to drive ever farther to gather with fellow appreciators to enjoy a concert. We don't even do music with our neighbors anymore.

I notice how heavy the MIDI keyboards are, the piano is impossible. I am beginning to appreciate the folky, acoustic, light-weight instruments that make it easy for people to play music together or by themselves.

Starting Over

How many musicians wish they could start over again? To start at an earlier age, to stay more focused, to find a better teacher, to avoid the distractions. I think about the dead end explorations I've made, and wonder where I might be if I avoided all of that. I have broadly explored many styles and musical cultures, but without really getting deeply involved in any one area. Perhaps the biggest commitment is to Carnatic music, but the jazz music that my father introduced me to is a another relatively deep area. Why did my father really get me into music? Was it a distraction from other things in life? Was he checking on my prodigy quotient? Did he need a roady and driving companion? Did he have the same perspective at my age? Will I have the same perspective at his age? I studied classical guitar in college, but didn't keep it up after changing my major to computer science. The culture of classical guitar was not rich enough, with only a group of 5-10 students, one teacher, and many other distractions, 20th century music, electronic music, jazz-rock fusion. Perhaps the biggest loss we have in modern life is that anything goes, and culture is a dizzying competition of styles, everything trying to grab your attention. So the depth and nuace of a long-term commitment to a single focused music is a rare experience. The classical musicians have the best discipline, but there's a depth to folk and jazz in many cases as well. High culture has the financial structures to pay the way of a promising musician. But that leaves so many of us to the barrage of mass media, defining our tastes, and keeping it as shallow as possible, so we can be easily enticed again and again with 'newer' and 'better' styles. The high-sugar content works well with youth, the biggest music market, in the formative stages of understanding world culture, but unfortunately controlled largely by much older profit-minded executives.

The Electric Bass

One time, days before Christmas, even though my father discussed it with me, I was surprised to find a new electric bass guitar in a black case leaning against the water heater in the basement, near the washing machine. I guess I was excited, but little did I know how this was to turn out. In retrospect, the bass plays the role of a galley slave in music. Keep time, just crank out the roots and fifths, maybe do some walking. In fact, just keep walking like that for 4 hours; don't worry, the drinks are free at the bar for the musicians. This role wasn't very clear at first, but it gets pretty boring, especially after hearing Jaco Pastorius play melody on the bass, improvising the most lyrical lines, expressive and floating free of the chains of supporting some other self-centered musician. This musical structure of piano-bass-drums in trio jazz comes from a very Western kind of musical sensibility, figured bass. Musicians realize bass, chordal and melodic materials from a harmonic progression blueprint in shorthand notation. Contrast this to the structure of African drumming or Javanese Gamelan, where parts play interlocking rhythmic and melodic roles.

19 March 1999

Drumming in Spring

Took the bus over to the gallery. Walked inside, greeted by a black & white jester, bouncing and leering. Drummers and dancers, in a circle of candles. Fire from wires wrapped tightly around fingers. Smoky and poisonous from lighter fluid for torches. Talking and yearning, thanking and preaching. Caring and pointing, and posing and boasting. Young energy, boundless and angry, where do we go, where do we go? Hungry and writhing, sweating and heaving. Buses can be too cold, but then they can be pretty warm. Seed was strewn, offered, sprinkled, wasted. What if they were from a genetic engineering company? Thoughts of offering. A song, a word, a movement. What is giving? What is receiving? What are the other modes of interaction? Long day on the bicycle, walking and squatting, over foreign plants invading the hilltop. Picking and pulling, sparkling in the warmth. Coasting down the hill on the bicycle, wind cools, my bones feel achy, tension in the elbows. Long days at the keyboard. Waiting for the bus in the cool breeze. Breaking on the bicycle to watch out for cars. Trying not to breath the bad air. Stop breathing. See how it feels. Seeing the billowing red flames. What is happening to the world? Spring is here, but planting is not what anyone is thinking about. Isn't this strange? Home to tea and a date, two slices of bread. What do they eat? What should I bring? I can bring some good food, cooked or prepared with love. I haven't a garden. Too shady by the neighbor's house, poison land from all-night gas station. Flowers all around, just a reminder of what we've lost. Full of 'luv' and sweets. Green is the color of the warm night sleep.

What will we eat? When will we sleep? How do we feel? What really matters?

Copyright © 1999 Greg Jalbert