Billy Corgan, frontman of the Chicago-based Smashing Pumpkins rock band, performed a musical interpretation of the Herman Hesse novella in Highland Park (at Madame ZuZu’s tea house) last month. The performance lasted eight hours, and attendees were rotated in groups so that all had a chance to marvel at the Chicago rock legend. How can your favorite novella inspire you?
Acclaimed jazz pianist Marian McPartland died at the age of 95 on August 20. Born in England and trained as a classical pianist, she was “drawn to the improvisational freedom of jazz.” and succeeded, according to critic Leonard Feather in spite of “three hopeless strikes against her: she was British, white, and a woman.” Besides recording over 50 albums, Ms. McPartland composed music, and led the way for other female jazz performers from Carmen McRae to Norah Jones. She is perhaps best remembered for her interviews and performances with other musicians on her long-running NPR program “Piano Jazz” which first aired in 1979. In 1958 she was one of two women included in the famous portrait of jazz musicians which inspired the 1994 documentary A Great Day in Harlem. She won a “Lifetime Achievement” Grammy in 2004 and in 2010, was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. You can read the entire NPR article here and the Washington Post obit here. And check out the EPL catalog for her recordings.
All dressed up in its purple best, Northwestern University celebrated last week as it sent a new graduating class out into the world, and odds are good this won’t be the last you hear of them. Over the years, you see, NU has become a veritable assembly line of notable alums – a fact comedian Stephen Colbert duly noted during his much-anticipated commencement address. “Northwestern’s alumni list is truly impressive,” said the 1987 NU grad. “This university has graduated bestselling authors, Olympians, presidential candidates, Grammy winners, Peabody winners, Emmy winners – and that’s just me.” All kidding aside, though, he’s right. From Saul Bellow and Cloris Leachman to Steve Albini and Dan Chaon, Wildcat grads are clearly an accomplished bunch. So to honor their achievements both past and future, we present the following eclectic list of books, movies, and music from some of Northwestern’s talented very own. Enjoy, and stay tuned. The list is growing.
The drive to access media more conveniently has culminated recently in the appearance of the free Amazon Cloud system, among others, designed for a one-stop music experience. This article on ZDNET discusses the various legal issues arising between the music industry and technology companies, as well as linking to other discussions about clouds. Google launched its Music Beta which allows users to upload material they own. One cannot upload or purchase music yet on Music Beta. Stay tuned to see how this shakes out!
He’s a songwriter, lead guitarist, and founding member of the legendary rock band the Rolling Stones. He’s an outlaw folk hero, a pirate hipster, and arguably the originator of the decadent “rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle. He’s Keith Richards, and it should come as no surprise that everyone is clamoring for a copy of his long-awaited memoir Life. In fact, given Richards’ penchant for death-defying excess, Life’s most surprising characteristic might be that it’s much more than just a gossipy showbiz tell-all. Sure, the juicy bits are all there: the drug busts, the infamous Altamont show, his rocky relationship with Mick Jagger. But, as the NY Times writes, Life is also “a high-def, high-velocity portrait of the era when rock ‘n’ roll came of age…, an eye-opening all-nighter in the studio with a master craftsman…, and the intimate and moving story of one man’s long strange trip over the decades.” So, if you want to raise a little vicarious rock ‘n’ roll hell, know the secrets of the Stones, and glimpse some music magic, look no further than Keith Richards’ uncommonly candid new book Life. If you find, however, that this literary concert is temporarily sold out, please don’t be discouraged. Any of the following critically-acclaimed music memoirs are a great way to pass the time while you wait for Mr. Richards to take the stage.
Jeff Tweedy wrote one. Billy Corgan and Jewel did too. 2Pac and Jim Morrison have posthumous collections, and Bob Dylan’s began as an underground bootleg. What, you may ask, is the connection between this diverse group of musical artists? The answer may surprise you. Believe it or not, all of the aforementioned rockers and rappers have a published volume of poetry to their credit, and though the critical and commerical response to each has differed, the books are a collective reminder of the following oft-forgotten fact. Simply put, the arts of writing songs and writing poetry are not one and the same, and it’s no given that a great lyricist will make a great poet. There are a few rare talents, however, who are accomplished in both music and verse, and one such artist is Virginia-native David Berman. Pulling double duty as an indie rock cult hero and a critically-acclaimed poet, Berman’s debut book Actual Air is a sure bet for connoisseurs of fine poetry everywhere.
On February 26, 1932, he was born to poor Southern Baptist sharecroppers in the tiny town of Kingsland, Arkansas. In 1950, he was stationed in West Germany to eavesdrop on Soviet radio traffic for the U.S. Air Force. By 1956, he was perched atop the Billboard charts with his song “I Walk the Line” and well along the road to becoming an American legend. He was Johnny Cash, and today would have been his 78th birthday.
Over a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Cash’s distinctively deep baritone and “freight train” rhythm resonated with fans of country, rock, blues, folk, and gospel music and carried him to the pinnacle of musical success. He won 17 Grammy Awards, sold over 90 million records, hosted a successful primetime T.V. show, and was inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. But along with these great heights there also came devastating lows. Cash’s struggles with drugs and alcohol cost him his first marriage, wreaked havoc upon his health, and saw him jailed for smuggling amphetamines across the U.S.-Mexico border. Through it all, however, Cash remained true to his humble roots while singing both to and for the downtrodden, downhearted, and down-and-out. He was a rebel, a reformer, and above all, a relevent artist who continued to reach new audiences up until his death in 2003 from complications with diabetes.
Since even those of us who work at the library are constantly surprised by all the cool, new, old, interesting, inspiring, and sometimes just downright strange books, music, movies, and websites that we come across every day, we’ve decided to start this new periodic column on the blog in order to share some of the more unusual things we find. We’ll update it whenever we find something exciting, so be sure to check back often. And while you’re at it, leave us a comment and tell us what strange and beautiful things you’re finding at the library and out in the world. Enjoy!
To kick off the column, today we’re featuring The Happiness Project, a new album from Canadian musician Charles Spearin. Hailing from Toronto, Spearin has long been a fixture of Canada’s independent music community, where he performs with the bands Do Make Say Think, and Broken Social Scene. For his new release, Spearin has created something extraordinary. Inspired by the people of his multicultural neighborhood in downtown Toronto, Spearin has made a recording that is a cross between a sociological experiment, an audio documentary, and a pop record.
Sitting on his front porch on summer evenings with his wife and kids, Spearin noticed how all the adults in the neighborhood gathered together on their porches and sidewalks to talk and tell stories while the kids played nearby. He soon began inviting his neighbors over to his home, where he recorded interviews with them, vaguely focusing on the idea of happiness. After each interview, Spearin would listen back to what he’d recorded and look for “meaning and melody” in the voices. He was looking for interesting, meaningful snippets of dialogue, but also for the natural melody of the spoken word. Since we’re so accustomed to speaking and listening to one another all day long everyday, we often don’t really hear the musical qualities of the human voice. As Spearin himself says “we don’t pay any attention to the movement of our lips and tongue, and the rising and falling of our voices as we toss our thoughts back and forth to each other. The only time we pay attention to these qualities is in song. (Just as when we read we don’t pay attention to the curl and swing of the letters as though they were little drawings.)”
But this is where Spearin’s magic comes in. Taking his melody lines directly from the voices of his neighbors, he creates music out of the natural rhythms and cadences of their speech. These found melodies are then transformed into musical notes and played on saxophones, guitars, violins, and a host of other instruments, as they become the focal points of the songs on the album. If this all sounds very formal, experimental, and well, strange, it is. But it’s also a whole lot more engaging and beautiful than you might think. From an old woman’s thoughts on love, to a child’s temper tantrum, to a deaf woman recounting the first time she was ever able to hear after successful surgery on her ear, these recordings are haunting and revelatory, teasing the hidden beauty out of the ordinary and illuminating the music of everyday life. For more information on The Happiness Project, and to hear the music, visit the website and watch the short film below.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating overlooked and lesser known female musical artists from around the world. Though they may not be household names, in many cases they served as key influences on other artists who went on to be critical and commercial sensations. Their influence can still be felt strongly in the much of the music we listen to today, and many of them have fans and admirers from among today’s current music scene. In other words, these are artist’s artists—the ones in your favorite musicians’ personal record collections. So hunt them down, check them out, and let them show you why their names and their music should be on your lips. And while you’re at it, drop us a comment and let us know some of your favorite female musicians.
Elizabeth Cotten (1895-1987)
Elizabeth Cotten was born in North Carolina in 1893. By the age of seven, she had begun teaching herself how to play her older brother’s banjo. She soon picked up the guitar as well and began writing her own songs. By the age of 12, Cotten was working as a maid alongside her mother and by 15 she was married and expecting her first child. With her new responsibilities, Cotten had little time for music and largely retired from playing for the next 25 years, only playing very occasionally at church meetings. While later living in Washington D.C. a chance meeting led Cotten to be employed as a maid by the famed folk musicologists Ruth and Charles Seeger, whose children included future musicians Pete, Peggy, and Mike. It was during this time that Cotten began playing music again on one of the many guitars lying around the Seeger home. The Seegers strongly encouraged her to perform her music—son Mike began recording her in 1952 and later produced her first record in 1957 (featuring her best known song, “Freight Train” which she wrote at the age of 12). Soon after she began performing her first live concerts (now in her late 60s) and touring the country, which was in the midst of the 1960s folk music revival. Cotten continued to record and tour for the next several decades, well into her 80s. Many of the songs she performed were among the earliest ones that she wrote, when just a child. Elizabeth Cotten died in Syracuse, New York in 1987.
Watch Elizabeth Cotten performing her song “Freight Train” with Pete Seeger below.