Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Moving to Hong Kong

In less than a month, I will be in Hong Kong. My life will be changing in many ways and so will the nature of this blog. That’s probably okay with you since in recent months, Page 43 hasn’t been particularly active. Fortunately, unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong’s government allows blogging so I can continue doing this. I also plan on having a travel blog that I update quite regularly. Title TBD.

Right now, I’m in a strange juncture with music. I’ve just graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts degree but I’m about to leave the country to do something totally unrelated to my collegiate studies. It’s impossible for me to put music on the backburner though, so you can expect me to start writing about what kind of role music plays in Hong Kong society. As a totally unique “East meets West” city, I expect to find some interesting things happening musically over there.

That’s where the blog is going. I’ve decided to stop doing my little “Best of” posts as I’m always behind and I don’t really enjoy that anymore for whatever reason. Right now, I’m living on Bainbridge Island for June, trying to catch up on some music listening. A lot of great records have come out this year, one of which I’m listening to right now (Blue Scholars’ Cinemetropolis). One of the wonders of the Internet is that moving across the globe will not affect my ability to keep up with the newest records being released in the states. This makes me happy.

Over the next couple years, I’m going to do some serious thinking about doing grad school in musicology. I think being far removed from academic music study will help me evaluate if that’s something I really want to do. I’m also curious to see what ways I get music in my life in such a foreign situation. After four years of rock concerts, theory classes, ensembles, and radio shows, it’s time for something completely different.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Gold Medal: West Side Story (Original Movie Soundtrack) by Leonard Bernstein

Even though this isn’t your conventional “album,” this was still a no-brainer for me. Not only is this among the most successful musical plays ever written, West Side Story is a towering skyscraper of purely musical achievement. By borrowing from atonal music, big band, Latin, standard classical and Broadway traditions, Leonard Bernstein captured lightning in a bottle. Though very much set in 1950s New York, the music here is timeless. “Maria” is one of the most beautiful songs that I’ve ever heard, which is appropriate based on the lyrics, penned by the young Stephen Sondheim. You’re not gonna see me use this word very much: masterpiece.

Silver Medal: Ella and Louis by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

What happens when two iconic jazz musicians get together? Well, often they fight tooth and nail for the spotlight. But on this album, Satchmo and the First Lady of Song have sublime chemistry. And behind the instantly recognizable voices (and trumpet playing), the Oscar Peterson quartet provides the perfect understated arrangement for the standards that fill up the track listing. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be present for these recording sessions. It would certainly be something you tell your grandkids about.

Bronze Medal: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly

It would be easy to discuss how influential Holly was despite only living twenty-two years but this album is on the list simply because it sounds good. You can hear the raw confidence and feeling behind every song on this brief record. Buddy Holly changed the face of music not just because he came at the right time. He was blessed with the ability to communicate the exact sort of attitude that’s behind the best rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen once said he listens to Buddy Holly before each concert to keep himself honest. Snarling, hiccupping and wailing, Holly did things on this record that were often mimicked but never eclipsed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Part Two

A week later, I don’t stand quite so solidly by my previous post. This has to do with a fantastic discussion on Facebook thanks to a handful of my brilliant friends. I’m a little embarrassed to be changing my stance so soon after last week’s manifesto but I’d rather be slightly embarrassed than to be too stubborn to let myself be influenced by strong arguments from other people. The truth is that the distribution of recorded music is a complicated issue that’s changing too rapidly for me to ever have a solid foundation of what’s going on. But here’s why I changed my stance:

I came to realize that the fruit seller analogy was not an accurate one for today’s market. Digital commodities are not finite, which makes it hard to accept their value like an encoded disk or LP, or an apple. Clearly, the album is of value to the listener but if you’re a stickler to the idea that the artist deserves their pay for everyone who experiences the value in their art, should authors get royalty payments every time someone checks that author’s book out of the library? (Devil’s advocate: But it’s not necessarily about experience; it’s about ownership.) But we don’t really own art to begin with; this was an illusion that’s finally being recognized in the music world. With Youtube, anyone can listen to a certain song, anytime. Listening to an entire album on Youtube on one’s iPhone wouldn’t be stealing by anyone’s standards yet a downloaded record from BitTorrent played on iTunes is? What’s the difference? More clicking on YouTube?

{Sidenote: The intellectual property debate is a fascinating topic in itself that I may digress further into some other time. As my boss at the library says, 2011 is supposed to be the year of the ebook. Holy transformation!}

It’s difficult for me to write much of this because I have this constant voice in of the destitute musician in my head, saying, “Every time I don’t get paid for an album, it’s like taking my lunch. And right now, you’re encouraging that.” But these artists need to realize that they have to change their strategy and as Daniel Ahrendt basically said, “Build a window instead of screaming at a wall.” This isn’t doomsday for musicians. It’s just a new frontier in which shrewd, talented musicians still have an opportunity to succeed. People will pay more than ever for concerts and decreased costs of advertising and recording make many parts of the musician’s life a good bit easier than they were before. As is the case with most major changes in human history, it isn’t good or bad, but simply different.

That being said, I want to end by saying that supporting the arts is one of my main goals in life. It’s why I’m a music critic, it’s why I write this blog, it’s why I love writing and performing music. I have now come to terms with the fact that though I acquire music for free on occasion, I am not contributing to any sort of decline in the music industry. Certainly, paying for music is better than not—it’s like making a donation to a cause you believe in. But I do not believe that getting recorded music for free is “stealing” anymore.

Speaking of stealing, I am SO ready to watch Ichiro and Figgins annoy the crap out of opposing pitchers! Happy opening day everyone!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Downloading Music

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past few months, I’ve been working on this music criticism capstone project to complete my music degree. It’s now less than a month a way and I’m hard at work. Yesterday, I interviewed Jeff Leizawitz, an adjunct PLU faculty member who used to be a rock music critic. We talked at the Kelley CafĂ© here on campus at PLU and the conversation was absolutely fascinating. We covered a lot of ground in about an hour but what stuck with me most was what he had to say about illegal downloading. He didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it’s had me reconsidering the way I acquire music.

I’ve personally never illegally downloaded music but I’ve gotten A LOT of albums from friends, which is really no different when it comes down to it. It’s getting recorded music for free, plain and simple. As an active recording artist, Jeff told me that he has been screwed over by the system big time. He told me that for every one hundred albums acquired by music consumers, only five are legitimately paid for. I have no idea how well-founded that is, but if the numbers aren’t that stark yet, I’m sure they will be soon. So basically, musicians are spending hours crafting something very valuable in their recorded music, and are getting one twentieth of what they would get in a perfect world.

Like I said, this isn’t really anything new to me. It’s been fairly clear that ever since music became transferrable as computer files, the money-making days for recorded music were all but over. But does that make it okay to perpetuate the trend? Because the majority is acting one way, is it not worth it to hold your ground?

When I first started collecting music in middle school, I burned CDs. Then I stopped and tried to replace them all with the actual albums. Then I started acquiring music for free again in late high school. It may seem strange that someone as obsessed as I am would be so wishy washy about this, but that’s the truth.

Until Monday, I hadn’t really thought twice about acquiring music illegally in quite some time. Music is my lifeblood and if it’s available, I’ll find a way to get it. But can one really deny the fact that downloading a song is like stealing an apple from a fruit seller? It’s just that no one’s watching when you steal a song, and there aren’t a limited amount of downloads available. Still, our basic economic system has people paying for things that other people produce for a living. As a believer in the power of the arts, it seems that I would not be one to shortchange these artists.

But the problem is, I’m not exactly a rich man. In the past I’ve justified it by saying I must have music and must have food and shelter, but I can only afford food and shelter, so sacrifices must be made, selfishly at the expense of the musician. But that’s no good. I may change my mind again in a week, but right now, I’m going to do what I can to keep the recording industry alive. I just proposed a weekly column with SSGMusic where I feature one album a month. I’d get it for free, but with permission of the artists and with the potential to raise their income through my words. Who knows if it will work, but this is my current solution.

So I don’t want to be like that annoying vegetarian friend who tells you you’re a murderer every time you eat a hamburger; I'm probably more guilty than most people reading this. But I do think it's important to realize that music isn’t a charity. Artists are real people, as hard as that may be to believe. If you don't want to stop downloading, find another way to support the arts. Music will always exist but unless we’re careful, recorded music as we know it could drastically change in a short amount of time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Gold Medal: A Piece of Strange by CunninLynguists

Don’t judge a book by its cover. And for that matter, don’t judge an album by its cover. And for the matter, don’t judge an artist by its name. Lo and behold, a Christian themed hip-hop album by a group with a blatant sexual innuendo as a moniker is probably my favorite rap album ever made. A Piece of Strange is the story of a man, just out of jail, trying to get back on his feet. He finds himself tempted (see apple on cover) by women, crime and drugs and ends up sucked in to this world of sin and finds himself in Hell, only to eventually see The Light. The story is powerful but what really sets this record apart are the beats. Kno is truly a master producer.

Silver Medal: The Long March EP by Blue Scholars

Yes, this is an EP. Yes, I may be biased because I met the two members of the Blue Scholars. Yes, much of this is inspired by the Chinese communism of Mao Zedong. Nonetheless, I hardly had to think twice about including this incredible record at number two. Each song is an eye-opening anthem for the struggling middle class. Each song makes you want to get up and do something about the problems of the world. Each song keeps you listening to every passionate word from the mouth of MC Geologic and grooving to every beat courtesy DJ Sabzi. “I heard a few heads say that hip hop is dead. No it’s not. It’s just malnourished and underfed.”

Bronze Medal: Illinois by Sufjan Stevens

I used to be annoyed with how long this album is but because there is so much variety here, it's quite alright. Illinois has since become an indie classic and it has to do with the fact that he's possibly the most unique, cutting-edge pop musician alive. This album is all about the state of Illinois, and uses baroque pop, tender acoustica and minimalist vignettes to paint a complete picture of Sufjan's magnificent vision that was just coming into focus on Michigan and then was distorted into something completely different on Age of Adz. A master craftsman, Sufjan Stevens' work will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Gold Medal: The Bends by Radiohead

This isn’t even Radiohead’s best album but it’s probably the best pure guitar rock album made in the 1990s. After the so-so Pablo Honey, the boys found the formula to making songs that could blow their competition out of the water. Every song on The Bends is fantastic, which is something I can probably only say for a dozen or so albums in existence. With their sophomore album, Radiohead mastered a sound that most bands never approach over an entire career. The only direction the Oxford quintet could go was out into more adventurous territory, and that they did.

Silver Medal: Elliott Smith by Elliott Smith

Smith’s second record is one of his darkest, which is saying a lot. Many of the songs are about drugs, even more are about death, but through it all, Elliott Smith keeps his head above water in these beautiful acoustic songs. The last (almost) purely acoustic album is hauntingly gorgeous, with songs like “Alphabet Town” and “Satellite” taking the listener’s breath away. I don’t know what it is about Elliott Smith but he can make me melt only a few seconds into a song. What a gift.

Bronze Medal: If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian

All the albums on this list are follow-ups to the debut, which sort of makes the sophomore slump theory seem like bunk. Belle and Sebastian has had a remarkably consistent career but this will be the record that defines their career. The characters in the songs just come to life thanks to the perfectly crafted indie pop songs. The record is melancholy but hopeful, honest but redemptive. They sink into your heart and never leave as you can tell if you see this band perform and find yourself and the rest of the audience singing every word.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Music Criticism?

At this point in time, I have no idea whether I’ll ever be a full-time music journalist. With all the other things to do in life, chances are I will not. But if I absolutely had to choose the most likely profession for me to have five years from now, it would be something along the lines of music criticism. As you may know, I work for the blog SSGMusic as an album/concert reviewer and am doing my final PLU “capstone” project on a couple rock critics. I’ll probably be leaving the country this summer to teach English in Asia, but upon my return, I’ll likely continue my education and pursue a master’s degree in musicology. But who knows for sure. Life’s uncertainties are what make it great.

With all the time and energy I’ve devoted to writing about music, I sometimes feel the need to justify myself. So, I ask, what’s the point? I’ve learned that the best way to really prove anything is to know the opposing arguments as well—if not better—than your own. Because of this, I’ve decided to structure this post as a set of rebuttals to what I think are the strongest reasons why music criticism is insignificant or unnecessary. Here it goes!

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is a common quote attributed to a handful of individuals, including Miles Davis and Elvis Costello. Part of what makes music so wonderful is that, without explanation, anyone can enjoy it. The absolute best moments in music are the ones that can only be felt, not explained from someone else. Music is unlike any other human creation in this sense and writing about it is, in a sense, an eternally fruitless endeavor to communicate what has already been stated more eloquently.

I agree with many of the above statements, but I think that the general idea of “music writing as futile compared to music making” sort of misses the point. Music critics don’t just write to explain power of music; they write to help us more fully understand the art. The ideal music critic is someone who goes beneath the surface of the sounds he/she hears and into the world of the artist. By learning about this world, we can attach more significance to the sounds. This isn’t just about having an “intelligent appreciation” but instead about getting chills at a moment that before hadn’t seemed so special.

When presented the term music critic, the average person doesn’t think of a guide to greater musical enjoyment—they think of a person who says what music is good or bad. And this often gets shaved down to a number value and an explanation. To take a creation, crafted with care into a unique musical achievement, and give it a 6 out of 10 like an Olympic judge gives a gymnast just seems silly. The feelings we get from art are not quantifiable and putting them neatly in a box often takes away from the great joy of the experience.

The idea of rating is one I struggle with. It’s true that music shouldn’t be diminished to a numeric or grade value and I know there are probably many music critics out there who would refuse to give numbers to anything. But rating can be great tool when used responsibly and this is why: the sheer amount of music in existence is intimidating and this we need help navigating the vast abyss. In a perfect world, we would all read and digest every review of every new album but clearly that isn’t possible, and because of this, ratings can be quite convenient. It’s the same thing for movies. Websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB are valuable for simply finding what the general public regards as the best of the best. For me, rating albums is sort of like writing headlines for newspaper stories. It sums up much of my work reviewing albums, but is hardly important once you've read the actual article. Furthermore, the rating of certain aggregate databases or individual critics should never be confused with the indefinable “quality of the music.”

I take issue with the idea of music critics being so-called arbiters of taste. In many fields, experience leads to expertise and a more informed opinion of the field, but the evaluation of music is not like that. Music can mean something different to each listener and shouldn’t be decided by the highbrow, all knowing critics. It often seems that when an album is given a certain review by a certain important critic, this rating is stamped on it and becomes fact. When it comes to aesthetics, I believe that no one has any right to say something’s better than another.

It's true that sometimes, music criticism gets twisted to represent some sort of enlightened truth. For example, getting a 9 or higher from Pitchfork has often come to mean that this is a good album and anyone who disagrees is wrong. I’d like to believe that most consumers of music criticism take everything with a grain of salt. Just like any form of communication, there will always be biases. That being said, the first amendment applies to music as well. My goal as a critic is not to determine what is good or bad. Instead, it is to form a well-articulated observation that is of value to potential listeners. And usually, I try and avoid negative criticism. In the words of composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Life is too short to be wasted on things that are not quality.”

How much value does music criticism really provide society? Artists make art, which—as any sociologist will tell you—is necessary in any time or place, but it seems that critics are more or less speaking their personal opinions, just a bit more loudly than everyone else. When compared to doctors, innovators, or social workers, how are critics really benefitting the human race?

In some ways, this is a ridiculous question. In other ways, it is not. It would be easy to refute this by asking, aren’t there a lot of professions that aren’t benefitting the human race? Like, I dunno, cigarette manufacturers or Wall Street slimeballs? But if this writer goes into the profession of criticism, I’d like to think that the result is of some value to my fellow people. Ultimately, my reasoning has to do with the fact that no matter how many frustrating, horrible things I see or hear about in my community, country or around the globe, the music in my life prevents me from ever being a truly pessimistic and/or apathetic person. If something I write leads people towards that same sort of optimism in the face of doom, then my path is worth it.