Strung Like a Horse

A week or two ago, I got wind of a local show by a Chattanooga band called Strung Like a Horse. I’d like to see more live music but have weird anxieties about going to a show and being the creepy loner sitting in a corner creepily listening to the music. Or, if I feel like I can get past that anxiety, I have venue anxiety. Like: What if I don’t know what the dress code is or what if the venue turns out to cater to some demographic that I’m just really super far from fitting into, making me feel like a sore thumb, etc. Every once in a while, I manage to transcend my stupid little anxieties and go out into public. I did so to see the Strung Like a Horse show, and it was neat.

The venue was The International, which I hadn’t heard of much less been to. It’s a spacious venue with a small bar at the center, some lounge areas, and some open space in front of the small main stage. It was neither upscale nor seedy, so pretty comfortable venue-wise for me once I got past the bouncer and stopped feeling like a trespasser.

A nice little jazz/latin sort of band opened. I didn’t catch their name, but I liked their set. Then Strung Like a Horse came out, and the real fun began. The lead singer sports sort of a scraggly rattail and wore a suit with tails and with the coat’s sleeves ripped off. He played guitar and mandolin and was joined by a drummer, a fiddler, a banjo player, and an upright bass player. They were high energy and twangy and looked like they were having a lot of fun, which in turn made the show fun for me. I’m not good at counting heads, but I’d say there were maybe 100 people in front of the stage. Maybe it was 200. So, a nice crowd but nothing too overwhelming for your anxious sort who doesn’t love crowds any more than he loves feeling like a fish out of water.

Strung Like a Horse bill themselves as a gypsy punk grass band, and that feels about right to me. I’m pretty keen on all those things, so I really enjoyed the show and would surely go see another (if I could get past venue/crowd/etc. anxiety).

If the band sounds at all appealing, you can listen to them on rdio, and they have a few videos as well. Or go see a show if they hit your area.

I did a pretty poor job of taking photos, but here’s what I got:


Cheers, Decadence, Poverty, and the Littlest Pianer I Ever Seen

Let me set the stage. We’ve chopped some organic vegetables and put aside a dozen organic eggs and are going to mix them with a bit of local raw milk to make a quiche for dinner. A friend is coming over to watch our children so that we can go to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s blogger’s night, which afforded me the opportunity to get free tickets to a KSO performance in exchange for blogging about the event. I emerge from my home office at the end of the workday to the panicked sounds of my wife saying that the oven won’t turn on. It’s been on pre-heat for a half hour, but it just won’t come on, and what are we going to do about dinner and the timing and all the vegetables and the homemade crust and we’re going to be late? Simple. We order a pizza for the kids and sitter and the two of us head out early to grab dinner in Market Square.

On the way there, I chatter to my wife about the program notes I had read online, noting that the daughter of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman will be playing piano tonight. The elder Perlman once came to the university I attended what feels like a million years ago, and I remember hearing much buzz about him and regretting that I didn’t attend, myself. I’ve since seen him on PBS a number of times. “Is his daughter Rhea Perlman?” my wife asks. She’s joking, of course, but the jest isn’t entirely tangential, since there’s to be a wine-and-cheese reception (with Rhea as barkeep? we spend the evening looking for a Danny DeVito clone to pair with the pianist) following the performance at which I envision meeting a few of the local bloggers I’ve been reading recently as I try to cultivate a stronger sense of geographical belonging.

I’ve lived in Knoxville nearly ten years, and I figure it must be about time to call it home and become more involved with the community (even if mostly the online one) around me. In all that time, I’ve never been to the Tennessee Theatre, which is the venue for the performance.

And what a neat venue it is! I knew to expect an old-fashioned theater, but this thing is just over the top. The style of the building (says wikipedia) is apparently Spanish-Moorish, with various influences from other parts of the world. In purely visual terms, what that seems to mean is lots of plaster to make textures, lots of red and gold patterns on the walls, big drapey curtains, patterned grates backlit with colorful lights, and everything’s big. When the house lights are up, if you look up at the big oval tray-type ceiling, it’s sort of a light aqua color (with lighter I think gold or yellow textures) that seems to move in contrast to the red/gold surrounding it and is really sort of dizzying. I can’t help thinking it’s supposed to be sky-like, and this is reinforced by the way the illusion of movement actually gave me a similar vertiginous feeling that I get sometimes when looking at moving clouds. When the lights go down, the ceiling glows a royal blue. The theater is a neat place to be.

Here I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about being a fish out of water. This was apparently a big concern of bloggers invited to attend last year. Those of us who are new to the KSO don’t know what to wear. I’m a flip-flops and tee-shirt kind of guy, and I joked that I’d wear my usual attire to the performance. I wound up going with okay-looking jeans and a sweater. When I went to the bathroom before the show, I noticed that lots of the older guys were wearing suits and long overcoats and hats and such, and I couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t sizing me and my jeans up and thinking about how it was types like me who were really lowering the bar and ruining the significance or specialness of the experience for them sort of the way a group of loud teenagers at a decent sit-down restaurant can kind of take away from the experience of a nice dinner out.

Mencken famously lambasted the South and its appreciation of the arts in a 1917 essay entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart.” His essay ultimately helped to catalyze the growth of the arts in the South. A brief sample of what he had to say:

But consider the condition of [the South] today. The picture gives one the creeps. It is as if the Civil War stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays, or a single public monument that is worth looking at, or a single workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things.

Them, it turned out, was fightin’ words. More:

Virginia is the best of the South today, and Georgia is perhaps the worst. The one is simply senile; the other is crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence… As for the cause of this unanimous torpor and doltishness, this curious and almost pathological estrangement from everything that makes for a civilized culture, I have hinted at it already, and now state it again. The South has simply been drained of all its best blood. The vast hemorrhage of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its masters.

As I walked into the restroom downstairs from the auditorium, I had a sudden fear that maybe this was the sort of bathroom that had an attendant whom I wouldn’t know how to address or whether to tip. Luckily, there was no attendant, but my sheepishness at going in highlighted to me how out of water I felt. I wasn’t a fish out of water so much, I guess, as a small-town Southern boy in culture. And it was hard for me not to imagine these fedoraed gentlemen thinking of me and my jeans and sweater as some remnant of that poor white trash that killed culture in the South.

So when I found my seat six rows back from the stage and saw what was a teensy tinsy piano-looking thing, I leaned over to my wife and whispered in her ear in a put-on yokel voice, “That there’s the littlest pianer I ever seen.” After consulting the program notes, we learned that, duh, it was a harpsichord to be played during the first piece of music, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Bach was apparently not terribly well-known during his life, and Mendelssohn (whose Italian Symphony closed the evening) was largely responsible during the hundred years following Bach’s life for bringing Bach’s music to the public. This revival reminds me of the Southern revival of culture clearly in evidence during the KSO’s performance.

And yet during the concert, I found myself looking around at other attendees and wondering how many were here because they really enjoyed the music. Don’t we sometimes pose in order to give the impression of learnedness or culture? Do my references to Mencken enhance this little article or do they serve primarily to give the impression that I do know literature and culture in spite of my written assurances that I’m a redneck who doesn’t know the triangle from the violin? I thought of the beer commercial from the last year or two featuring two guys attending the opera with their girlfriends clearly against their personal wills. They sneak bottled beer into the concert and are busted when a high note shatters the bottles of beer in their coat pockets (a guy in front of them conspiratorially waves a can of beer at them). How many people were at this performance of the KSO more or less against their wills? And how many thought about their taxes or mentally composed an email to send at work tomorrow? How many were there out of some sense of duty to something they couldn’t name? (And how many were listening to the music while writing six small notepad pages of notes that would inform a later blog post?)

It’s a strange thing for most of us to sit and listen to music as our primary focus for an hour-and-a-half. Music is usually a background. It’s something you turn on to drown out road noise or (quietly) to provide an air of sophistication or elegance at a dinner party. Sitting and doing nothing but listening to music, it occurred to me, denotes that the listeners are people of leisure. Else we’re just too darned busy and in need of multi-tasking for it. This is why it’s traditionally the haughty upper-class types (e.g. the wealthy overcoated restroom gentlemen) who we think of as orchestra-goers.

As I sat waiting for the concert to begin, I leafed through the printed program notes, which seemed mostly to be advertising. I saw, for example, an advertisement by ImagePoint, a 60-year-old local company that seems recently to have shut its doors and left many people without work. I saw ads by several area insurance providers and the Pilot Corporation and Clayton Homes. In the back of the notes was a list of donors, and I read that Clayton Homes — which routinely and (from a business perspective) understandably has to evict people from the homes they’ve bought — and the Pilot Corporation made $100,00-or-above donations to the KSO in the last year. ImagePoint donated between $25,000 and $49,999. Eleven individuals or groups made donations between $10,000 and $14,999; 30 between $5,000 and $9,999; 19 between $2,500 and $4,999; and more than I was willing to count at lower tiers. The decadence of going to the symphony much less of donating large sums of money to it while some of those very donors are experiencing financial difficulties that put people out of work or are in industries whose pricing or general administration causes great hardship to people who live paycheck to paycheck made me most uneasy.

Walking from the parking deck to the theater, I worried about seeing homeless people. This always bothers me for a variety of reasons having to do with social awkwardness, guilt, sympathy, and other things. My ears went numb from cold in the three or four minutes the walk took, and some people have to live in these conditions while the rest of us stream into the warmth of an opulent theater to spend an hour-and-a-half of otherwise unoccupied time listening to beautiful music. Uneasy indeed. It certainly put the catastrophe of a nonstarting oven and an aborted quiche in perspective.

The concert itself was lovely. Although the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 gets a little old to me, I love the style of music, and hearing in person the quiet richness of the eleven-person ensemble playing it was a treat. Listening to the music in person, I think you get a greater sense of texture than you can get from a recording. I could feel the contrabass resonating in my chest, and I’m a sucker for the lower pitches in music to begin with, so I really enjoyed the piece.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, which I wasn’t familiar with. I’m not a big fan of the piano fronting an orchestra. It seems to me that the piano makes an utterly different sort of sound that doesn’t blend well with the rest of the music. I imagine Perlman’s performance was virtuosic, but my bias against the piano and my tin ear left me a little underwhelmed by the piece.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 I hadn’t known by name, but I recognized it instantly once the music started. According to the program notes, Mendelssohn considered this one of his jolliest pieces, and jolly it is, save for the second movement, which was somber and processional and gorgeous (the low notes here really struck my fancy again as, later, did the improbably quiet buzzing of the string instruments during a very quiet part of the piece). I liked this one quite a lot.

I was optimistic about getting to meet a few local bloggers at the reception after the concert, but I managed to foul that up. I spoke briefly with Doug McCaughan but then cowered behind a pillar having forgotten, until confronted with the fact, that I am an absolute wreck around strangers, and particularly around larger groups of them. Katy Gawne, a performer and the official KSO blogger, graciously answered a couple of questions I had (what’s the difference between a symphony and a concerto? the concerto usually has a soloist out in front of the orchestra; what exactly is a scherzo [which I learned is pronounced not “sure-zo” but “scare-zo”]? it’s a type of musical construction). There was no Rhea Perlman acting as Carla slinging drinks, but Navah Perlman did show up and seemed personable and approachable. After standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, we opted to grab our coats and run. I had hoped the reception might be slightly more intimate and give me a chance to meet a few fellow-bloggers and get a little more plugged into that community, but my own sociopathy, inflamed by the press of people, prevented that.

Still, it was a nice night. I enjoyed seeing the theater and having a chance to see and hear the orchestra. I’m glad that the KSO is reaching out to try to pick up an audience that’s not composed simply of the crusty types I imagined in the restroom were looking down on me. In fact, the KSO does a number of neat programs in the community; my wife always takes our daughter to see the ensemble that tours the libraries from time to time, for example. And the outreach to bloggers is a neat idea. It’s clear that the KSO cares about giving music to people and accommodating even novice redneck listeners like me.

The only downside for me was the uneasy feeling I get when I contemplate the decadence of doing things like going to the symphony when there are people nearby without homes or healthy (or any) food. For all that I think it’s a good idea to support the arts, I have trouble reconciling large donations to the orchestra with the sad fact that there are always people huddled with their small bundles of personal effects in front of the homeless shelter just a few blocks away from the Tennessee Theatre.

By assuring the availability of the arts, which demand the leisure to patronize them, do we guarantee that there’s a greatness always to be striven for that, once attained, affords people the chance to help those in poor circumstances? Or is it all so much puffery? I’m not making a judgment either way. I suspect reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. If the KSO will have me back next year after this ambivalent (but at its root ultimately enthusiastic and grateful, I promise) article, I’ll probably attend again. But maybe I’ll also donate to the local shelter or food bank in the amount of the tickets in order to offset the weight of my relative prosperity on my conscience.

Going to the Knoxville Symphony

I know just slightly more than Jack about music. I can read notes (slowly) and used to play the trombone at least well enough to get an all-district (but not all-state) seat in high school band. I’ve gone out of my way to buy some classical music beyond the Mozart and Vivaldi and Pachelbel and Bach and Tchaikovsky that everybody knows (but not too much more). I do listen to this music a bit. My most frequently-played tunes are composed by Arvo Part, a modern classical composer. Part’s stuff makes me feel about as close to spiritual as I get.

So, I don’t know a whole lot about music. I’m not involved enough or educated enough about classical music that going to the symphony on my own dime is a high priority for me. But the prospect of going for free? Well that’s pretty compelling.

I learned via Doug McCaughan that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is hosting a repeat performance this year of what was apparently a successful Blogger Night last year. The first 50 bloggers to send email to Stephanie Burdette (stephanie at by January 14 requesting tickets will get them (provided they agree to blog about the event after the fact). My tickets are already reserved, and I know of at least a couple of other bloggers who have already spoken up for theirs.

The January 15/16 concert will highlight Mozart and Mendelssohn and feature Navah Perlman (daughter of the famous violinist).

Five Songs

I don’t know that I’ve ever participated in a blog meme, but here goes. Occasional web correspondent Ross White tagged me with the five songs meme. I listen to music mostly as background music and don’t consider myself much of an aficionado, so this list probably sucks. First, let’s go by my iTunes play count, which covers basically the last two years (I’m not sure whether my iPod adds its play counts back to iTunes when I dock it, though I suspect it does, given the first item on the list, which is a kid’s song we mostly listen to in the car).

  • I Know a Chicken (Laurie Berkner)
  • Gold Digger (Kanye West)
  • The Reason (Hoobastank — a great tune to belt out when you’re falling asleep at the wheel)
  • Elvira (Oak Ridge Boys — another nostalgic one I got for my daughter)
  • I Am the True Vine (Paul Hillier, an Arvo Part arrangement)

Now for a truer list of my recent frequently-played tunes:

  • Hate Me (Blue October)
  • Cancer (My Chemical Romance — this is a coincidence, by the way)
  • I Write Sins Not Tragedies (Panic! At the Disco)
  • Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
  • Da Pacem Domine (Arvo Part — I tend t listen to all of his music at once, so this is a representative tune; more on Part here)

So there you have it. Two lists for the price of one, both no doubt showcasing my embarrassingly bad, poppy taste in music.

Tabula Rasa

It’s hard to write about music when you don’t know much about music. I played trombone from the sixth through the twelfth grade and was a decent player, but I’ve done nothing with music since, and I know nothing worth mentioning about music theory or official music appreciation. I can never remember the difference between light and heavy classical, for example, if those are even the proper terms (I think they are). I can read simple music (bass clef, though I could probably pick up treble pretty easily if held at gunpoint) and I can pick out melodies on a piano without much trouble, but that’s as far as it goes. I can’t name a sung pitch, and I’d be hard pressed to tap out any rhythm with any sort of dot in the notation accompanying anything of lesser value than a quarter note. And I sure can’t talk intelligently about why certain combinations of notes or rhythms provoke particular responses in us. In spite of all my deficiencies on this front, I wanted to tell you about some near-transcendental music I’ve been turned on to for a couple of years now.

It’s not often, I think, that the non-musical among us take time to sit and listen to music for its own sake. It’s something to dance to with our daughters, or something to play as background noise while we work, something to distract us from maddening traffic or, on longer trips, to help keep us awake. It’s very seldom that I, in any case, have the opportunity or inclination to listen to music as an end in itself. M had a rough night with the baby the other night (woke up at 4:00 unable to sleep) and so went to bed early the following night. Lennie crashed prematurely as well. So I had a surplus of time. I could have caught up on some work, or I could have read from one of my pile of pending books, or I could have worked on writing the great American novel, but I’ve been wanting to write about this near-transcendental music, and writing about it necessitated listening to it. And it’s long music — the piece I had particularly in mind is 26+ minutes.

For almost a half hour that night, I sat still in my big comfy chair with the iPod churning, white ear buds plugged into my head, rain and wind roaring outside the open window, my head often cradled in my hands, fingers pressing my tired eyes. The song is Tabula Rasa, by Estonian composer Arvo Part. He was born in 1935 and wrote experimental music through the 1960s. Then he went on a little hiatus and came back writing in a style he called tintinnabulation (which means the sound of ringing bells). Of this style, he said the following: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” I don’t have a firm handle on what the style means or how it can be described from a music theory vantage, but I can say that Tabula Rasa is characterized by tones that either sweep back and forth on top of the melody or that subsist dully behind the melody, and I think these are probably the bells in his songs.

Here are some things I wrote down during my first listening of Tabula Rasa the other night:

first movement: tension and resolution, as of something being unraveled and frantically wound back up; mental picture of many things falling, an image out of Panic Room of stolen money bursting out of a bag into the air and falling down around the man ruined by the crime of necessity that led him to steal it. It is a movement of cascades.

second movement: long tones with shorter smooth tones oscillating between high and low pitches underneath. clarity; whereas there’s a sort of call and response in the first movement, this one is one of solitary contemplation; as the pitches ascend, it is the sound of someone coming to peace with something; it may be the sound of grace or forgiveness, then of regret, and then of peace and resolution again. It’s ethereal, conjuring images of white flowing figures, in comparison to the very earthy, tangible feel of the first movement.

Did I mention already how hard it is to write about music when you don’t know much about music? Some of the things I wrote down seemed fitting at the time and still do, but they sound pretentious or just silly after the fact. And I’m not trying to sound pretentious or silly, and in fact, I’m disclaiming any knowledge of the field, and I’m telling you honestly that I’m not capable of communicating very well about the music. But I want to tell you about it anyway because it is beautiful music, the most beautiful and stirring I know of.

I listen to Part’s music often when I’m on trips out to San Francisco. When I can, I’ll walk down to the strip at Stanford and look at the shops and the people. These walks make me feel alone (because I am alone) and nostalgic for school life and a little sad, but they’re also very peaceful and reflective and good for me. I feel very clear headed on these walks. Part’s music, and Tabula Rasa in particular, has for me a clarity and a reflectiveness that captures this mood for me. It’s more resonant than cathartic in the old Aristotelian sense. It doesn’t make me weep or emote in any direct or especially meaningful way, but it latches onto something in me and fills me with a sort of awe.

I don’t know what the music critics and theorists would have to say about his music, but it seems to me to be (at least on this album) simultaneously profoundly peaceful and sad. It makes me think of loss but it somehow redeems that sense of loss with its own crushing beauty. Even though I’m not usually a music-for-music’s sake kind of guy, and even though I can’t appreciate music from any technical vantage, I have to say that Part’s music is one of my favorite things.

Making an Honest Man of Myself

For a long time now, I’ve been very pleased to use open source software. To the uninitiated, what that means is that all of the software I use on a daily basis is free. There’s much more nuance to the culture surrounding open source software, but that’s what’s really significant about it to me with respect to daily use.

For example, when I was a Windows user, I never ponied up and paid for a license for Microsoft Word. If it didn’t come on my computer, I used an old CD to install it, probably using an install key I found on the internet. Open source software lets me have great (often comparable) software at no cost and with no guilt. I simply download Open Office and use that as my document software now. My use of and later involvement with the production and marketing of open source software have bled in recent years into another significant area of my daily life.

As a programmer, I often find myself listening to music while I work. My tastes vary. Sometimes I’ll pop in 20th century Estonian classical and sometimes Eminem. Sometimes bluegrass, sometimes Chemical Brothers. Sometimes the Statler Brothers or Aaron Neville and sometimes RadioHead or Nine Inch Nails. Much of the music I’ve listened to over the past few years has been pirated. I had one employer that kept a music library selected by its employees. That is, each month, each employee got to pick an album that the company bought and had available for the employees to listen to. Another company had some people in it who happened to toss mp3s of a lot of their songs onto a server. I’ve derived much enjoyment and distraction from songs I copied from these sources.

And lately, I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about it, largely because I’ve also felt guilty about stealing software as I used to do. A few times recently, I’ve declined to share my music with friends who got iPods. It’s hard to do that, to know you’re going to come off as some sort of ninny for being so rigid about not wanting to facilitate music theft. At the same time, though, I’ve kept and enjoyed the music I’ve stolen over the years. It was pretty hypocritical. I’ve justified it in part by saying “well, it’s already stolen, and I can’t unsteal it.” But that’s bullshit. Any justification is bullshit.

So today, I deleted it. There are probably a few tunes I inadvertently skipped (you try going quickly through a few thousand songs to delete the ones you didn’t buy), but I made a good faith effort to purge anything I haven’t either personally bought or been given a legitimately purchased copy of. I’m now an honest man, no longer a hypocrite. And it feels good.

If you’re a friend and you’ve asked for music, please don’t take personally my disinclination to give it to you. And don’t think I’m judging you. I don’t care who does what. I just know that I personally felt guilty for using music I hadn’t paid for that people expect to be paid for, so I’m not doing it anymore. I also feel guilty when I accidentally kill a bug (I prefer to let them out the door), but that doesn’t mean I’m looking at you askance if you bust out a flyswatter.

I’ll miss a lot of the music I deleted, though a lot of it was junk I’ve never listened to very much (so I really lose two sorts of burden as a result of the deletion). The upside is that I can purchase much of it back and be legitimate. Radio Head doesn’t seem to have anything on iTunes, and that’s perhaps my biggest woe. But it’s a pretty small price to pay in exchange for not feeling like a hypocrite.