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Photo: Michelle Groskopf
Scenes from the fifth annual Write On Song Camp at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles. From left, Federico Vindver, Angel Lopez, Oscarcito, Sam Derosa, and Adriel Favela.

I know almost nothing about popular music these days or the names of current stars, but I thought this article about songwriting camps was interesting. The artists’ collaborative process might be fun for creatives in other arts to try once in a while.

Steve Knopper writes at Vulture, “At a studio in 2016, Dave Longstreth was working by himself on a chord progression, as he usually does when writing for his band, Dirty Projectors.

” ‘It’s normally a pretty solitary process,’ he says now. But that time, Solange was there, as were Sampha, a British songwriter and producer; Blue, Solange’s engineer; and a bunch of other creative people, all part of what Longstreth calls ‘the camps,’ to make Solange’s 2016 album, ‘A Seat at the Table.’

“ ‘I’d have a melody from her, and would be just harmonizing on it, and she would come over and say, “Ooh, I really love this chord and that chord, but this one is too dissonant,” ‘ he recalls. ‘To be just a spoke on the wheel was a novel experience, and to be thinking in a collective way was just really fresh for me.’

“As long as there has been indie rock, songwriters have worked in their own band bubbles. … But over the past decade, the genre’s biggest names … have substantively contributed to albums by Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and others. Many of these connections happen by serendipity — Beyoncé’s ‘They don’t love you like I love you’ hook in ‘Hold Up,’ [was] the result of Koenig tweeting a slightly misremembered line from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 single ‘Maps,’ then recording it with Diplo. …

“When I walked into a room at the Lakehouse Recording Studios in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in late June,” reporter Knopper continues, “my eyes took a few seconds to adjust from the fluorescent hallway lighting. Through flickering candles, I made out Chelsea Jade, a New Zealand singer-songwriter, dressed in black, singing in a high, glassy pitch; Danny Mercer, a Colombian-American guitarist and singer, tapping out a Depeche Mode–style riff on a keyboard; and Randy Class, a Bronx producer, capturing everything on a laptop and looping it back. This was the BMI songwriters’ camp, which split up ten top writers into groups of three or more with the hope of regurgitating multiple daily songs. … Jade improvised: ‘I’m a psychopath.’ Class quickly discerned a double meaning about a ‘psycho’s path.’ Mercer fleshed out the melody with Spanish-guitar runs. …

“Ben Dickey, manager of Future Islands, Washed Out, and other indie-rock stars, believes the trend begins with hip-hop, in which artists are more experimental and willing to take chances than those in any other genre. Whereas a songwriter in a rock band can be stuck in a routine, collaborating with the same people in the same configurations, West, Drake, and Beyoncé pick the best material from whoever inspires them at the time. ‘You come up with what can be a really interesting song that has way more diverse influences than what one singular singer-songwriter would come up with — then you have Kanye or Drake come in and rap over it,’ Dickey says.” Read more at Vulture, here.

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Photo: Marc Royce/Los Angeles Times
Conductor Eric Whitacre (above), the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a 2,200-person audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall participated in “the largest free group singing event in California history” on July 21.

Kudos to creative thinkers who keep coming up with new ideas to engage people in the arts! In July, the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale led an exceptionally large audience of interested Californians in a free singing event that must have warmed the cockles of a lot of hearts. This went well beyond the annual singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which many other choral groups invite the public to join.

Jessica Gelt of the Los Angeles Times reports, “Eric Whitacre, the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Swan family artist-in-residence, says he’s like that old cola commercial — he wants to teach the world to sing. The whole world. And he’s not joking. But he’ll start with a statewide singing event, ‘Big Sing California.’ …

“The massive project, years in the making, [featured] the 100-voice Master Chorale onstage singing along with 2,200 audience members to a program of songs selected and conducted by Whitacre and Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon, along with guest conductors Moira Smiley and Rollo Dilworth.

“Those proceedings [were] simulcast to five venues all over the state packed with additional audience members [also] singing along. Each venue [rehearsed] with its audience for a few hours before the event. …

“ ‘If you’ve never experienced a couple thousand people singing together, it just brings chills. … It’s the best of human experience … the best of who we are distilled together.’

“Whitacre began singing when he was 18, and it changed his life. He has been singing and composing since then, traveling the world in the process, establishing a massive social media following and creating a series of online ‘virtual choirs,’ which are edited together after participants upload videos of themselves all singing the same song. …

“Gershon adds that Whitacre has ‘single-handedly gotten more people excited about singing together than anyone else on the planet. He confirms that the choral experience is transcendent and transformative.’ ”

More at the Los Angeles Times, here. The list of songs are here.

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Photo: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times
Camryn Cowan and Jordan Millar, 11-year-old students in the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers (VYC) program, received a burst of media attention after being featured along with their compositions in the New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks.

The young composers in this story got a boost for their musical talent thanks to a New York Philharmonic program. Just imagine what could be accomplished with similar programs in all areas of the arts — playwriting, painting, poetry, sculpture, etc.! Giving kids an opportunity to blossom benefits us all.

Joshua Barone described the experience of two gifted girls in a New York Times article: “It was the kind of debut most musicians only dream of: a world-class orchestra, tens of thousands of listeners.

“At its outdoor parks concerts [in June], the New York Philharmonic performed works by two 11-year-old girls, Camryn Cowan and Jordan Millar — newcomers to the world of composing. They won over the crowds, who gave standing ovations. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times gave them an effusive review. …

“Where does a composer go from here? Ms. Cowan and Ms. Millar — two students from Brooklyn who are part of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers initiative — followed up on their victorious tour of New York City by, well, returning to class. …

“Both girls … were confident in explaining their works, originally written for a Harlem Renaissance-theme program earlier this year. Ms. Cowan, who was 10 at the time, said that her ‘Harlem Shake’ was an exercise in layering, but with saxophone improvisations that nodded to the neighborhood’s past.

“Ms. Millar’s ‘Boogie Down Uptown’ conjures stepping out of the subway onto the streets of Harlem for the first time, with musical textures inspired by the shadowy movement of Aaron Douglas paintings. (For all this seriousness, they are still children: Ms. Millar said her fascination with Douglas’s art comes from her favorite Disney movie, ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ which borrows its aesthetic from his paintings.) …

“Jon Deak — a composer, the Philharmonic’s longtime associate principal bassist, and the founder of its Very Young Composers initiative — said that … all children are creative. ‘People ask whether I’ve found the next little Mozart, and I say yes, I’ve found dozens of them,’ he said. ‘They’re all over the place. We just need to listen to them.’

“Participants in the program come from about 15 partner schools in New York. … Eventually, they graduate to writing complex scores that they workshop with one another and try out at Young People’s Concerts.

“In the process, Mr. Deak said, the students have to become leaders: ‘Look at a 10-year-old who comes up to a bassoonist’s kneecaps and says “That’s too fast” or “There’s something wrong with that note.” They have to defend their pieces, and boy, do they … do it.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Ge Wang
The Stanford Laptop Orchestra rehearsing for its tenth anniversary concert last month.

Not sure I would enjoy the sound of an all-electronic orchestra even though I did think MIT professor Tod Machover’s partly electronic opera Resurrection was lovely. What I do like about the Stanford Laptop Orchestra is the idea that the most important requirement for taking the course is curiosity. I’m all for curiosity.

Arielle Pardes Gear writes at Wired magazine, “Ten days before the big concert, the members of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra are performing technology triage. Rehearsal has only just started, but already, things seemed to be falling apart. First there was trouble with the network that connects the laptops to one another. Then one of the laptops crashed. …

“The orchestra members have gathered at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics to rehearse a new kind of musical composition. Together, sitting on meditation pillows in front of MacBooks, they create songs that stretch the definition of music. The orchestra plays laptops like accordions, turns video games into musical scores, and harnesses face-tracking software to turn webcams into instruments. …

“Fixing a broken network isn’t as simple as a replacing a snapped string on a violin. But in a laptop orchestra, the potential for disaster is part of the delight. Since it was founded in 2008, the SLOrk has been making music that surprises audiences while it subverts the concept of orchestral performance. The compositions, part-machine and part-human, don’t always go according to plan. Technical difficulties are all but guaranteed.  …

” ‘Nothing’s better at being a cello than a cello,’ says [Ge Wang, the SLOrk’s founder and director]. ‘So we’re not trying to make a cello. We’re trying to make something you don’t have a name for yet.’ …

“[The Stanford Laptop Orchestra is] a for-credit course at Stanford — Music 128, cross-listed in the computer science department as CS 170 — but getting in isn’t easy. The group of 15 students includes those with computer science credentials, and those with more traditional music backgrounds, but neither is enough to become a great laptop orchestra player. The most important thing is curiosity. ‘We’re unified by this interest to make music together with computers,’ says Wang, ‘and to figure out what that means.’ ”

More here.

 

 

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Photo: The Human Rights Warrior
New study suggests that children exposed to music from other ethnic groups become more tolerant.

Numerous studies have shown that children pick up biases against other ethnic and racial groups at a very young age. Here’s a study suggesting that the music of other cultures can temper that process.

Tom Jacobs writes at Pacific Standard, “Ethnocentrism remains a fact of life in both Europe and the United States. Combating it will require teaching a new generation to view members of different cultures as potential friends rather than threatening outsiders. But what mode of communication has the power to stimulate such a shift?

“New research from Portugal suggests the answer may be music. It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What’s more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture. …

“[The] study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 229 Portuguese sixth graders, all living in greater Lisbon. Two-thirds came from blue-collar families.

“The students began by filling out a survey in which they were presented with 10 personal traits — five positive (including ‘hard-working’ and ‘honest’) and five negative (including ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy’). They were asked to pick those that applied to members of three ethnic groups common to the Lisbon area: Portuguese, Brazilian, or Cape Verdean people. …

“For the next six months, half of the students took part in a specially designed ‘cross-cultural music education program.’ During the 20 sessions, each of which was 90 minutes long, they learned about Cape Verdean culture, and listened and sang to both Portuguese and Cape Verdean songs.

“At the end of the program, all the students again filled out the survey in which they evaluated people of the three ethnicities.

“Among those who took the class, ‘prejudice towards Cape Verdean people was reduced,’ the researchers report. ‘Attitudes towards other groups were not altered.’

“In contrast, prejudice did not drop among those who did not take the class. A follow-up three months later found the same pattern held for all of the youngsters, meaning the prejudice reduction for those who took the course had stuck.”

More here.

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Photo: Walker State Prison/Times Free Press
Holly Mulcahy, left, and Mary Corbett perform in front of 128 Walker State Prison’s Faith and Character Based inmates.

When I read about some of the crimes that send people to prison, I do have trouble experiencing empathy for the perpetrators. But then I remember that not everyone in prison is unreachable. That’s why I find stories like Barry Courter’s at the Associated Press hopeful.

He writes about a music program in a Georgia State prison: “Holly Mulcahy stands with her violin, her back to the wall of the gym at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. Next to her is Mary Corbett with her violin. Between them and 128 inmates serving time for a host of crimes big and small. …

“The men are seated in chairs fanned out in a semicircle facing the stage, quiet and staring at the two women, who are smiling and relaxed.

“The place is so quiet, Corbett steps to the microphone and says with a laugh, ‘Talk amongst yourselves. We have to tune up.’

“It’s a relatively simple moment, but it sets the tone for how the rest of the evening will go.

“Walker State Prison, home to about 400 inmates, is unique among Georgia prisons. In 2011, the facility became the testing ground for the Georgia Department of Corrections’ new Faith and Character Based program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity and faith.

“Inmates in the Faith and Character Based curriculum have all requested to be there and have gone through a vetting process before being allowed to participate in the two-year program. …

“ ‘Half of the men there are lifers, but to be there, they must be eligible for parole,’ says Alan Bonderud. He’s been volunteering there since 2010 and was involved in mentoring new mentors when the prison added the [program]. …

“The goal is to give the men skills that will help them increase their chances of reacclimating into society upon release and to reduce the chances of the men ever returning to prison.

“Education is a key component as the men take a variety of classes — a few have earned Master of Divinity degrees, for example — but so is character development.

“Mulcahy first visited Walker State about three years ago after a chance meeting with Bonderud at a Chattanooga Symphony & Opera-sponsored gala. When Mulcahy, the CSO concertmaster, learned that Bonderud mentored at Walker State, she expressed an interest in performing there.

“ ‘I didn’t want to just go there and perform,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do more.’

“Bonderud says the recitals ‘have been very effective. They continue to increase the numbers of men who attend, and reports from the men are that they now share their programs with family members, and it gives them something new to talk about. It encourages them with their families. Some even have had family members take up the violin.’ …

“The program begins with ‘How Majestic the Expanse’ by Shawna Wolf, then Mulcahy opens the floor for discussion. Two inmates move around the room delivering hand-held microphones to prisoners who have raised their hands to speak.

“No one speaks except for the inmate with the microphone.

“ ‘I pictured it reminded me of icicles,’ he begins. ‘I could hear the sound of light coming through the trees and birds chirping. I heard the pulse in the music.’ …

“Mulcahy doesn’t try to lead, correct, judge or in any way influence the discussion, except to encourage the men to say what they think.

“ ‘There are no wrong answers,’ she says. …

“[Inmate Scott] Reed says he did not attend the early recitals, but he couldn’t help but be surprised at what he heard in the dormitories (the men live in bunk beds in large open rooms rather than cells) after the performances.

“ ‘I heard grown men talking about their feelings and their emotions that they felt hearing the music,’ he says.

“ ‘These are pretty hard guys from the streets.’

“Says inmate Garrett Anderson, ‘I’ve never heard this kind of music before. Never. And I never thought about how something made me feel. I never talked about it.’ ”

More.

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Photo: Serena McKinney
Ludwig Göransson, composer to the
Black Panther music score, spent a month in Africa, returning home with “a totally different idea of music.”

I’m looking forward to seeing Black Panther when we can get it on DVD. In the meantime, I’m reading a lot about it. This story by Jon Burligame in Variety is on the development of the movie’s musical score.

“Ludwig Göransson, the Swedish-born composer who was charged with scoring Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ movie and has worked with director Ryan Coogler on all of his films, didn’t just visit a university library or look at YouTube videos: He spent a month in Africa.

“The result was life-changing, he tells Variety: ‘I came back with a totally different idea of music, a different knowledge. The music that I discovered was so unique and special. [The challenge was] how do I use that as the foundation of the entire score, but with an orchestra and modern production techniques — infuse it in a way that it doesn’t lose its African authenticity?’ …

“Nearly all of the unusual sounds in the ‘Black Panther’ score were recorded in the West African nation of Senegal, where Göransson spent two and a half weeks accompanying singer-guitarist Baaba Maal on tour. Maal introduced Göransson to other Senegalese musicians, and many performed on the soundtrack.

“The music that pairs with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), monarch of the film’s fictional African kingdom Wakanda, is led by six ‘talking drums,’ which Göransson explains as ‘a small drum you put on your shoulder, one that does what no other percussion instrument does — it breathes.’ The drummer squeezes, then loosens it to change the pitch. …

“For the theme associated with usurper Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the composer used another West African instrument, the Fula flute: ‘It sounded sad but also aggressive, energetic and impulsive,’ he says, and with the flutist speaking and even screaming into the flute, ‘it really resonated with the character.’ …

“Having recorded hours of music in Senegal, the composer flew to South Africa, where he spent a week studying at the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown. There he sought out recordings from across the continent and played dozens of instruments.

“At the same time, says Coogler, the score had to work as a superhero movie … ‘Ludwig is so well versed in orchestral composition, he could find a way to merge the two, and know when to go with one or the other.

“After months of writing, Göransson recorded more than two hours of music with a 92-piece London orchestra and a 40-voice choir in October and December, augmenting the African recordings and even using the orchestra to echo the multiple layers of rhythms in some of the complex drumming he first heard in Senegal. The choir sang in Xhosa, a South African language. …

“Says Coogler: ‘Ludwig really set the table for the emotion that we were trying to get across, whether it was excitement or reflection or sadness.’ ” More at Variety, here.

Have you seen Black Panther? If you are knowledgeable about African music, I’d love to hear what you thought of the music. Even if you aren’t that knowledgeable.

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