world’s oldest musical instrument

I loved museums when I was a boy, and I still do. The great ones in New York City,  especially the Natural History Museum, were places of wonder to me.

Some shows last week along the southern Atlantic coastline led me to the Smithsonian, where I spent hours wondering at this flute, discovered in a cave in Germany just ten years ago.

It’s about 35,000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest manufactured musical instruments. Two pieces of carved and hollowed-out mammoth ivory, joined together and sealed. The flute had at least three finger holes and played a five-note scale.

The five-note scale is found, in different forms, in most of the world’s music, including Gospel, Folk, Jazz, American Blues and Rock. Which got me thinking:

We’ve had the ability to play any melody in popular music for tens of thousands of years. Who’s to say some of these tunes that are kicking around the pop charts haven’t been around for 30, 40, or 50 thousand years?

I know it’s far-fetched but there’s only a handful of notes and there have been human beings for millennia playing around with all the same notes, and the vast majority of music has been passed down anyway.

I suppose this is why we have the Museum: It’s a place to find remnants of every interesting or valuable thing we have ever touched alongside thousands of labels describing what’s gone, to help us make sense of the things that are left and begin anew from what we had discovered from the old.

I’m reminded how in my own real-life museum I have collected hundreds of artifacts, although they are stored as haphazardly as pencils and lyrics stuffed in cabinets, analog tapes and guitar strings tucked in drawers.

There is no order to them; they are curated in a chaos of hurt and joy. Endless artifacts of memory pressing against my heart, the songwriter’s gallery.

artifacts

still life

My right arm is all strapped up and bandaged. It’s just bruised. I tripped over a guitar cable and down some stairs.

For comedic relief, I’m telling everyone else an entirely different story. Some people I tell I was injured practicing the mysterious art of Japanese Ninjutsu. Parachute-jumping. Rock-climbing. Bull-riding.

A good songwriter never lets facts get in the way.

I’ve got some half-written songs waiting on me. Things are still moving but it’s taking longer than usual. I know I’ll finish them, eventually.

Grace has something to do with quiet and stillness, and waiting – on your healing, on other people, on your best intentions or your gut. On God.

Soon enough little words and a little tune will come out of the silence, like a prayer prayed back to the one who prays. And if it’s really meant to be, the song won’t disturb the silence from which it came.

still life

A three-legged dog walks into the saloon and announces, “I’m alookin’ fer the man what shot my paw.” (I’m so sorry.)

 

living room music

There’s a tempo they want. A sound quality they want. There are subjects they won’t air. The music industry (like any other successful industry) is about formulas and rules.

Follow them, and you will succeed in it as a songwriter and, for better or worse, likely remain a part of it for life. Incidentally, the formula looks like this:

This Brightness plus that Tempo plus this Timing and that Song Duration
multiplied by
LOUDNESS (imperative for chart-topping success this century),
divided by
such-and-such Chord Structure plus Harmonic Complexity = Chart Hit

If that’s the business you’re in, you keep doing this, because it brings you rewards. The tradeoff is that you end up with a body of contemporary hits that are cookie-cutter and calculated. Not anything meant to last.

If you’d made the choice not to follow the rules, then you have freedom to make something that could last. Like, living room music.

Before it was an industry, before Nashville, before Honky Tonk, before Rockabilly, country music truly was living room music. It had this timeless, front-porch quality to it. Much of it very dark and brooding, and depressing and tragic. And beautiful.

I aim with most every song I write to absorb some of that and evoke the past time, but at the same time make something new. Hopefully, something special and very cool to enough people.

This lofty height can only be reached from a place of autonomy. Without record companies, or radio dials, or A&R executives in the middle.

I have never made up a song with an ear or an eye for the marketplace. “Will it touch someone, and will it last?” is always what I’m up against.

I know how to make up that other kind of music. I choose not to. I choose to make quirky, alt-country songs I believe in, instead.

When a song is a hit and makes the artist famous, popular culture declares the song is great art. But of course, popular is not a measure of art. There are many things you can do to get everyone to hear and download your music that have nothing to do with whether it’s great art, just as there are many ways to sell a novel or increase your blog readership.

Do what you believe, not what’s going to make you popular.

OK, break time’s over. Back to my plain but very wonderful little studio up the stairs.

livingroommusic

 

 

how to tune a guitar

You go for a drive with the top down and let the guitar sit in the passenger seat.

Make the first left, that way your destination is farther and the road to it prettier, the blossoms absurdly violet. Lose your location.

Fiddle with the radio dial. Brush past the popular music stations to the one of choice. Pause there just to adore someone’s croon.

“She was 21 when I left Galveston …” Begin thinking softly to yourself about the sadness heard deep inside the radio.

Now pick up the guitar and press your side close to hers. Begin tuning. The notes the open strings make, from the thickest to thinnest, are as follows:

E – the lowest string. The hollow Echo of a voice which speaks in an empty room.

A – she whispers sea “Anemones,” but my heart does not look up.

D – the 4th string. Dragonfly and water lily.

G – Sound becomes flesh for God to enter.

B – the Buzz and babble of billions of white bees in succulent afternoon.

E – the highest string, Exhaling verses blown back in air.

Gathering your fingers around her, reach inside her wires and steal away her heart. At last, you are playing.

tuneaguitar

masterpiece

masterpiece

The thing I most dreaded when I began making up songs as a teenager was being struck down by an F-150 before the world could hear my masterpiece.

Not so much anymore.

These days I don’t sit and wonder if my next song will be liked by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t care whether the world will consider it a major work. I make up songs for one reason: to get free.

Songwriting makes my feelings manageable. Some people fight or pray their way out of really painful situations; I just have to tell you how bad it felt. The grief is released, mastered in a sense, through the work. I am able to move forward from it — you never move on from grief, you only move forward — after that transcendent moment when suddenly it’s art.  To be able to do that makes the song, for me, a masterpiece.

It has a little something to do with craft, skill and workmanship. It has nothing to do with being popular. (If the goal is to be popular, then it’s all about the judgment of the world.)

It has everything to do with carving the battle scars deep into the work itself.

As long as I’m satisfied that the song I’m writing has that character, I know that even if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the perfect emblem of unimportance, even if it’s mortal and has provided but a moment or two of consolation or healing, it will still be a masterpiece of sorts. It will be, if only for a little while, my masterpiece.

icons

At a gallery recently I was admiring a beautiful icon of Mary the Theotokos.

treasureI asked the artist whether she thought her painting would last forever and she said, “Probably not, but who cares? Every woman in love has the face of Mary.”

What a remarkable answer.

I was struck by the humility of the artist. Her reply made me think about Art: why we need to make it, how beautiful it is to need, where Art really lives and the grace of endurance.

A few days ago all of us were reminded of its impermanence. A 1,000-year-old church can vanish in the blink of an eye.

The love of it, that is more important than forever. That is a larger That.

 

 

 

10 crayons

There’s a lot of data in the brain that informs the song sequence on a live performance set list (or LP, for that matter), but essentially it’s a “feel” process:

– Is it time for a lift of tempo?

– Have I leaned on the guitar for too many tunes? Is it time for a song with those wide piano chords I love …

– Where do I tuck the one the sounds like the “single,” at the beginning or in the middle?

– What’s the key change? Shall we change from C to G-flat … two keys that are as musically different as you can get, but it speaks differentness and wakes up the palate.

All of these pieces of information come together as part of that “feel” process. I know the tunes so well that if I have these 10 little musical crayons and I’ve chosen songs one, two and three, and I’m wondering, What wants to be four?,  it comes down to What feels like it wants to come next?

In the end, I’m listening for a beautiful flow. If one song ends and then another, and then another, and oh, the chords do work,  this whole thing works, now the chain and sequence takes shape, with choice after choice, linkage after linkage, until it’s all working and together the songs tell the story the artist is hoping for.

I have had years of being a functioning artist in this dysfunctional, one-track, pop, middle-brow, over-hyped, streaming, noisy culture … and within that I’ve tried to be an artist who cares about the full beauty of musical order and sequence, whose sound is sincere and whose love of connection is deep. That’s my crayon crusade.

10 crayons