Reflections on the joys of discovering new music
005 :: BEVERLY
"Deep River (Live at Le Guess Who?)" by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, from Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, released by Transgressive Records in 2020.
Buy direct: https://beverlyglenn-copeland.bandcamp.com/album/transmissions-the-music-of-beverly-glenn-copeland-2
We will end in jubilation, but we begin in prayer. A single, solitary voice — a simple, five-line verse — an earnest plea for deliverance and grace. As this voice stands before us, naked and exposed yet confident and assured, we hear both the vulnerability and the strength that come with prayer, the humility and the awe that one feels when addressing and communing with a higher power, like the humility and awe that we feel in the presence of this miraculous voice. And so, as this voice asks for grace, it is also itself an act of grace, and thus serves as a kind of grace, a blessing of the performance now to come.
And that's not all, for this opening prayer, it should be noted, was also an invitation. As much as it was calling upon a higher power to come down and bless this musical gathering, it was also calling on us, its audience, to come over and take a seat at the table. "Don't you want to go to that Gospel-feast?" it asked. And that, as I see it, is the point of this performance: to get us to share in its beatific vision, by itself being something beatific to behold.
And so it welcomes us in and leads us along, with its steady djembe beat, its wide and open chord voicings, and its slow descending bassline. Without our even noticing it, we have crossed over into a new and beautiful musical space. It's a transition that, coincidentally or not, mirrors the song's lyrics, which are all about crossing over, across the great divide of a deep river, into that home over Jordan, into campground, into that promised land. In short, the lyrics, and their delivery, are an embodiment of the radical hope for a better life beyond this one, and this music is helping us keep our faith in that other life, by showing us the glorious sound of freedom and salvation.
Yet the true sound of deliverance transcends words and language. And perhaps this is why, in the song's third verse, the lyrics shift to ululation. Or perhaps the shift is yet a further invitation, showing that literacy is not a requisite for salvation.
And this brings us to my absolute favourite moment of the song, its most direct invitation to its audience, when the singer momentarily goes off script and breaks the fourth wall to explicitly tell us to join in.
There is just something so tender about that little instruction, something so incongruous with the singing that surrounds it. To realize that this is what the singer normally sounds like, that from a speaking voice so light and playful can come a singing voice so powerful and divine — well, it makes anything seem possible. Somehow the majestic beauty we've been hearing now doesn't seem so out of reach.
If this is how you, too, feel by the end of this performance, then that means the performance has done what it set out to do, transporting you across that deep river to the salvation on the other side. And so the song ends in a finale of overflowing jubilation, for not only has it finally reached the promised land, but it is also now here together with all of us.
004 :: SAVAGE
"Savage Remix (feat. Beyoncé)" by Megan Thee Stallion, released by 300 Entertainment in 2020.
Have four single chords ever sounded so dope? Have four single chords ever so effectively encapsulated a whole song? Two seconds in and you already know everything you need to know. This song is an attitude, and that attitude is defiance.
These chords, with their half-step alternation, refuse any stable tonal centre. These chords, with their taut syncopation, resist any clear metre (at least until the beat drops). Yet nothing here is wavering, nothing here is uncertain. The sound is all tension, holding these sonic contradictions together in a single, confident, self-standing whole.
Thus it's no surprise that when the vocals make their entrance they are equally confident and defiant. Indeed, the lyrics are a litany of conventional contradictions, all proclaimed to coexist within the MC herself: "Hood but I'm classy / Rich but I'm ratchet", "bougie", "moody", "sassy", "nasty". The song is a proud declaration of what would ordinarily be insults and slurs, a reclamation of otherwise derogatory language, captured at once in its titular word, "savage" – simultaneously denoting the dominating and the dominated subject.
Yet as much as this song is a personal statement, it is also a personal mantra, a refrain to be repeated over and over again, so as not to let yourself be defined by how others see you. But where does one find the strength to contain such multitudes? Where does one find the strength to stand up against the regressive and oppressive opinions of an unwelcoming world? Mere repetition of the mantra is not sufficient. You need an inner champion, a second voice inside your head, that validates your identity and incites you to carry on.
And this is where we find the true brilliance of this song, because that second voice is here too, whispering in this ear and then the other, punctuating and giving new strength to the song's mantra, and all the more effectively because this voice is Beyoncé, the strongest inner champion one could ever have. In this way, the song doesn't feature Beyoncé so much as it summons her into being, channelling her power and making it one's own.
What we hear is the sound of Beyoncé sublimated – the sound, not of Beyoncé herself, but of what it's like to listen to Beyoncé – the vicarious experience of being unstoppable, incomparable, and indefinable.
003 :: QUARTET
Last Leaf by Danish String Quartet, released by ECM Records in 2017.
Buy direct: https://ecmrecords.bandcamp.com/album/last-leaf-1
What even is a string quartet today? Do we need them anymore? What new could they possibly have to say? To many, the string quartet may seem like a dead language: beautiful, self-contained, but of things past, an object of study rather than a living medium.
This is all, of course, false, as any number of contemporary string quartets can attest. But this record, by the Danish String Quartet, presents a completely new way to see the string quartet completely anew.
Fittingly, the first sound one hears on the record – the sound you're hearing now – is not even a string instrument, but a keyboard: an organ of some sort, so intimate that you can hear the press of its keys. And yet, what it's playing is a hymn that, we're told, has been "arranged for string quartet", even if it's not played by one.
This opening underlines what I take to be the record's thesis: that the string quartet is not an ensemble or a repertoire so much as it is an orientation, a way of approaching music, whatever music that may be.
In this particular case, the music is old: this record, like many string quartet records, looks backward for inspiration. But rather than looking to the classical music tradition, it looks to the traditional folk songs of Scandinavia – melodies that were around long before the string quartet was canonized, long before the violin, viola, and cello even existed. In this way, the record is not reanimating a tradition so much as it is reimagining a tradition, not merely giving these melodies a four-part string arrangement, but, more deeply, refracting them through a string quartet's sensibility.
And what is that sensibility, that orientation? In my mind, it is characterized by a musical nimbleness, a fluidity in key and tempo. There is an undulation to these performances, in the way the tonal centre can shift and drift between measures, the way the pace will subtly modulate from beat to beat. I can only describe it as the movement of breath, or the movement of the heart, an expression of some vital, ineffable energy.
Great solo performances have this quality as well, being expressions of their performer's own singular energy. Yet with string quartets this experience is amplified, as their singular energy comes from four performers, working in concert, melding their individual energies into one multidimensional voice. Individuality dissolves into union, and what we hear is the sound of an intimate synchronization, of four people coalescing into a piece of music and bringing it newly alive.
The highlight of the record, for me, is "Shine You No More". The song is, essentially, a jig – a simple, looping melody played so fast and energetically that it can only be heard as an exhortation to get up, grab a partner, and dance. It's a performance that can't but set the listener into motion, whether that be a whirling of the body or a tapping of the foot. And so we, too, become synchronized with the music, and the unity between the players becomes a community with their audience.
It is, perhaps, the primordial function of music: to bring us together, by bringing sounds together. Yet here again, the old is refracted through the new: While sonically this performance follows the patterns of traditional dance music, structurally it follows the logic of contemporary dance music, in its dynamic shifts and swells, its four-to-the-floor heartbeat, or its middle section, which is basically one long slow build, and when the drop comes, it's...
002 :: POPS
Don't Lose This by Pops Staples, released by ANTI- Records in 2015.
It's customary to think of songs as built up out of a few fundamental elements: melody, rhythm, harmony, lyric – words set to a tune sung in time atop chords. But these songs are nothing like that. They of course have melody and rhythm, harmony and lyric. But that's not what they're made of, that's not what they are. Pops Staples songs, rather, are compositions of two timbres: his trembling voice and his tremolo guitar.
There's other sounds here, too, of course: drums, bass, other voices. But these songs are anchored by the unique signatures of Pops's two instruments: the wooziness of his guitar, the yearning in his voice. Either of these elements on its own is distinctive enough as it is. But together they sound like nothing else.
It's often hard to believe that these two sounds are coming from the same performer, in a simultaneous performance. They often have entirely different energies, moving not so much in counterpoint as in parallel, but in a way that somehow, miraculously, comes together as a single musical whole. These songs are like a conversation between Pops's voice and his guitar, but a conversation that does not just go back and forth between them, but also involves a lot of talking over one another.
And that's not the only reason these songs sound conversational. It's also a matter of the casualness and spontaneity of their performance. The rhythm is loose, the melodies meandering. Pops sings as if he's just telling you the lyrics, speaking them out in his delicate yet sonorous voice. The guitar licks feel extemporaneous, as if they're just whatever in the moment came to his mind. Though Pops has surely played these songs hundreds if not thousands of times before, they never sound rehearsed. They sound as if Pops has just sat down and started speaking through his instruments, channelling the energy of the moment into a new and singular performance.
There's one other element to this music's essence, one last thing that makes it what it is. This is spiritual music, gospel music, devotional music – and it's doubtful that Pops's sound could be put to any other purpose, let alone a better one. Listening to Pops play, you can't but hear the spirit moving through him, in the way his guitar quivers and the way his voice always remains pure, however quiet or loud it may be.
These are holy sounds, but also human ones. In them one can feel the divine element in man. In them one can hear a man approaching the divine. Through this music one learns that we all can aspire to something greater, however humble our talents may be. Through this music one sees that there is transcendence even amidst the mundane.
001 :: RITME
Ritme Jaavdanegi by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, released by Latency in 2019.
Buy direct: https://mohammadmortazavi.bandcamp.com/album/ritme-jaavdanegi
The first thing you hear is time. Not so much time's passing, or its pulse, but the dimension itself: pure Time, as it were. As a solo percussion performance, there is nothing to hear but time: no melody, no harmony, no lyric, just rhythm. And as much as the music brings you into time, it also brings you out of time, or, at least, out of regular time. Because the song's pulse is irregular, disarming, driving, hurtling forward. It seems to stretch out too long and then snap back too quickly, in a hiccuping hexameter of 5 long syllables followed by 1 short. The overall effect is a music that you cannot nod your head to, cannot tap your foot to, a music that resists the way we typically divide up time in our minds. As when a pungent flavour overwhelms one's taste, this music overwhelms our sense of temporality. All else stops, and only time moves forward.
The second thing you hear is space. Because this music is, in fact, not only rhythm. There is pitch and tonality here as well, which punctuate the metronomic rapping, lending it something like the prosody of spoken language: not quite melody, but far from mere percussive sound. Yet these tonal hits occur along a spatial, rather than harmonic, dimension. They serve to situate the music in the space of the tombak. What we are hearing in these disparate pitches is an outline of the embodied drum, a constellation of points from the centre to the periphery of the drumhead, around its rim, and along its shell. We are hearing the drummer's hands move through space: their pats, taps, knuckles, and snaps. We are hearing a three-dimensional musical object, a statue we are walking around with our ears.
The third thing you hear is the club. Listen long enough, closely enough, and this music puts you into a kind of trance, which then brings to mind the dancefloor, home to that other kind of trance. And it's not just the regular pulsing rhythms or the hard percussive hits. It's the experience of absorption into music, of being suffused with music. It's the dissolution of the ordinary boundaries of the self, the disappearance of everything but your immediate auditory experience. In the present moment, there is only the music. You are only the music. You are the drum. The drum is you.