orville johnson is a friend of mine from seattle. he is a great guitarist singer and songwriter. he was asked to speak at career day at a local middle school. orville was pleasantly surprised by the experience and as he told me about it, we agreed it would be cool to write a little piece about it for folktronics.

Orville writes:

Career Day at Meadowdale Middle School

My friend Bruce Laven invited me to come to speak at Career Day at Meadowdale Middle School in Edmonds Wa. Bruce is the band director and quite a good pianist. We've played many gigs together. He wanted me to address the life of a professional musician and speak to the kids about the ups and downs, ins and outs, pros and cons, and all that. It was pretty cool even though i did have to show up at 7AM.

Their questions were generally thoughtful though I did get the "have you played with famous people" and " have you been on TV" kind of stuff mixed in. i played them a couple of tunes as well as fielding questions. i was surprised at how many students were considering music as a career. I spoke to three sessions of about 25 kids each and they were not all band or music students. Any student was free to come. i'd say two thirds of those who came (by show of hands) were interested in pursuing music.

One young man told me he was a singer and asked what advice could I give him about working with a band. I told him he should learn a musical instrument and some music theory besides developing his voice. In working with a band, i said, you'll get much more respect from the other musicians if you can speak some of the language of music and not just be one of those singers that doesn't know when to come in or what a bridge or a middle eight is. He listened well and when that session finished he came up and shook my hand and introduced himself properly. i was impressed with his sincerity and thought this cat might actually get somewhere.

Another thing I told them in regard to music as a career is that, even though I do it as my career, I didn't come to it with that in mind. I consider it a calling, more like a priesthood than a job. I do it because I need to do it and only do it as my job because I couldn't stand the thought of spending many hours a day doing something else for money and, Lord knows, we all gots to make a little money somehow to keep our world spinning. I told them if your goal is money making then you'd probably be better off going to law school. In the music biz there's no promotion schedule or pension benefits and you have to make your own way but, for some people, that's the best way to live. It has been for me.

PS I got an envelope today in the mail with letters of appreciation from some of the students. One told me I was "fanomenal" (his spelling), one young lady said she enjoyed my performance even though she doesn't particularly care for the style of music I play (thanx a lot! :) and another said she likes doing things for herself and when people try to take over her life she gets angry. I understand that.


a method for learning about new things

a little experiment that i run from time to time involves asking five or ten friends, to make a list of three new things they are into. it's a very interesting thing to try.

i run this gambit about every couple of years or so, sometimes more often, or whenever, to find out what people are currently digging. to see what i'm missing. there so much going on, yikes! and word of mouth is really my favorite way of learning. especially if there's a group of folks around you that you look up to and respect in regard to what they have to say. in today's world we have to filter out an amazing amount of dross, and it's sometimes easy to just tune everything out and do our thing. when i catch myself in that groove, i might seek out some good minds and put the quiz on 'em.

i recently posited this question, "what are three new things you are into?" to several of my acquaintances, mentors, friends and the like. or folks i thought would give me a response worth looking into. the answers were notable in several respects:

one thing i noticed was that, in days past, most of the time folks would be all excited about a band, record, or artist, or a play, or a movie or a book or something like that. i found it interesting that more than half of the responses i received in my recent query were about products instead. in years past, where someone would be jazzed about a poet or a band or something, today they were on about software or a gadget. at least half of the responses. i found that remarkable.

the other thing i noticed was, no one asked me what i was digging myself. which is fine and not a point of the exercise so to speak, but still worth noting. they were off in their own worlds.

============ an interpretation of this experiment

this exchange got me thinking about some of the books i've been reading lately about the isolationist trends of techno-capitalism, and the post-modern condition, and structuralism, semiotics. subsequently bringing to mind a narrative i've seen bandied about recently, the whole "death of the mainstream" plot. (this has no bearing on me personally, and i watch it with about as much interest as a baseball trade, which is to say slight interest. slight, but interest nonetheless.) most of the folks around me have their own little unique weird world they live in. strange jobs, hobbies, diverse interests.

i must confess, that i like my own context that i have created for myself and don't mind saying so, and enjoy myself therewith. i make my own meanings out of headlines and advertising slogans. the older i get, the less inclined i am to subscribe to these other outside narratives. however, the particular story line about the disappearance of the mainstream intrigues me to some extent. mainstream sales are down, yet there is more great new music out there than a person could keep up with. i read somewhere that amazon sells more strange off the beaten path type books in the aggregate than they do the bestsellers. in other words they make more money off of selling fewer copies of more titles. if this is true, i think this is a good trend.

the direction that data is heading, and the new delivery mediums, are all fascinating to observe. i read with some interest the articles and books on the tail of the comet, so to speak, and the tipping points and so on. however i question anybody's ability or right to be able to explain any of this shit. it seems that things exist only in their particulars. (thank you george berkeley)

it actually is possible to find something to watch on cable teevee, if you can believe that. you have to know where to look, and time it just right, and be ready with the flipper so you never have to watch a commercial, which is hard because the whole things are commercials for other products and concepts and narratives, but it is possible to enjoy oneself for a time. lowering your standards also helps. i don't mess with a tivo because i don't find very much of the data involved worth keeping.

the story arc of whats going on in the business of newspapers, and music, politics, is very fun to watch.

jean-francois lyotard writes:
"eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary culture: you listen to reggae; you watch a western; you eat at mcdonald's at midday and local cuisine at night; you wear paris perfume in tokyo and dress retro in hong kong; knowledge is the stuff of tv game shows."

that was written in 1982. it is exponentially easier and more typical to behave in this way today, twenty six years later. now this concept/machine is all rapped out in overdrive and someone is dangling from a helicopter and is bolting a jet engine onto it, and another person is shooting at them with a laser beam trying to kill them so they can install a time warp mechanism.

another interesting event is that my acquaintances likely to complain loudly about post-modernism, and are apt to use the phrase as a derogative term for art they don't like or care to understand, are frequently the most shining examples of the term. often bringing together a whole pastiche of differing disjointed concepts to create an interesting life that is not like anyone else's and then being able to afford to buy property with very strange jobs based on niche marketing. sub-genres of sub-genres. i read somewhere that modernists are angst ridden because nothing is the way it used to, going to the bank, television, going to the grocery store, jobs, houses, life, nothing is materially like it used to be. i like the way it is now better myself because of access to ideas. in addition, what can you do other than take an assessment of what is, adapt and keep moving forward? complaining and negativity is a drag for everybody, the complainer and the giver of solace or deaf ear.

i gotta say, it's pretty hep to be able to listen to almost any recorded music so easily. to be able to have access to almost any movie and have it delivered to my door tomorrow. and be able to copy everything for later use and research. that part of the whole thing i enjoy. i really love making my own world of ideas and books and music. my father was that way, and my brothers also, so i come by that honest. with today's data delivery systems, we are totally loaded for bear vis-a-vis this behavior.

i digress. if anyone would have thought to ask, one of the new things i'm excited about is a software also.
by whatever mode of analysis applied, last year was my best year ever and the year before that was up until that point also. so whatever is happening is very good for my own art/business model. cheap plane tickets, the dis-intermediation of my industry, the staggering amount of music being reissued for my research applications, and the interest that people in general have in strange music, because strange music is so easy to obtain, interesting cheap gear, open source software, free distribution mediums, ipods that have re-invigorated folks' interest in music because it's so easy to turn off the knuckleheads and juke out on exactly what you want to hear......"what was that song by that band back in?............BAM got and so was telling me about this new band?..........BAM got it.......hey pretty cool, i'll email my friend that i think would like this," all this works together to create a happy working and learning environment for cats like me. and they still make certain things on vinyl. which sounds so good.

i think music is the most badass thing ever, and no matter what happens in our lives it still sounds killer.
thanks for reading and listening.

and the potential applications of Its experimental ideas in american country musics


for some years this record has been in my mind. I became aware of it in the middle seventies, although it was released some years prior, in 1969. a very interesting albeit strange friend of my oldest brother adored this record and couldn't speak of it without laughing. it became one of my all time favorite musical works and my vote for one of the greatest recordings ever. there is something so far out in the music on this thing.

In the last few years, my thinking in regard to currently produced american country musics has come to rest on the idea that there could be more interest created by changing the order and composition of certain archetypical structures, and by utilizing different approaches in the recording methodology, as demonstrated to great effect by the experiments on trout mask replica. (see the term granular synthesis in wikipedia as an example of another technique that has yet to become a part of the set of recording ideas for these musics. american country music forms could be approached with ideas such as granular synthesis to a stunning result).

having grown up with american country, folk and similar forms of music, i didn't really notice the constant repetition of certain musical motifs, even more so in contemporary statements of these forms. some might argue that, like haiku, the beauty is in the constant rearranging of these basic units of sound, or limiting factors. i don't use the word limit as a negative phrase, only to describe the process. for example if we say, let's arrange a piece of music for resonator guitar and washboard and voice, we are limiting or dithering things down so they can be dealt with. compositionally and arrangement-wise this must be done, as the entire cosmos is hard to write music for. (john hartford once told me that style was based on limitation). so i guess i'm using this phrase in a quantitative way rather than a qualitative way.

there are certain thematic objects that are the basis of the language of traditional american country musics. for example (this is obviously tremendously simplified) in a bar of 2/4, in bluegrass music for example, the bass has a specified figure, the fiddle, banjo and mandolin typically play modal scale patterns in sixteenth notes, the strum of the guitar and the path of the vocal melody are architecturally similar from one piece of music to the next.

much of the variation consists of regional dialect. as in the different accented rhythms that ralph stanley and earl scruggs and don reno would use to play the same melody. it's almost like comparing differing accents of the speaking voice.

this is indeed a fascinating study, of course. differences in the way a person from georgia, virginia, louisiana, and missouri, and new york would say a certain phrase can be a very interesting thing to observe. the different ways they might play the same melody on a fiddle are likewise interesting, and to my way of thinking, can be related to speech patterns.

this is all well and good, and continues to hold our attention to a certain extent. however my feeling is that some new ideas would be healthy for everyone, because in the above example, the artists are, after all, saying the same thing. and i think that the type of experiments developed by the good captain can and should be brought to american country music forms. his is an unrestrained playfulness and open-mindedness in regard to structural components, in opposition to a stylistic dogmatism.

the experiments on trout mask replica have been banging around in the back of my mind for several decades. i recently went back to it and have been listening to it quite a bit. the way the music was apparently de-constructed and re-assembled, produces a most striking result. (i have no idea of his actual process, other than what i have read, but the music reminds me of working in a garage for some reason). some of the lo-fi technology, while i doubt the term existed then, has become the language of much of the interesting pop music of the more current timeframe ( not that these contemporary artists consciously copied captain beefheart, but i can still hear a certain thematic unity in the latin playboys first cd, samples of vinyl noise that run throughout certain hip hop tracks, wu tang, the fractured bass sample that busta rhymes if you really want to party with me is based on, dj spooky, the way turntablists reconstruct music architecturally, the list goes on for quite some time).

there are raw elements of traditional american blues and jazz in the music of trout mask replica, but a whole new type of language was created from the arrangement of the musical monads, or within the atomic structure, the micro view. the recording techniques themselves also become a part of the composition. example, in one of the spoken word pieces, the portable tape recorder used to gather sounds, produces some audible thumps as the switch is turned on and off, and becomes a component of the overall effect. captain beefheart didn't try to hide the brush strokes, as it were.

i think that alternative country, or whatever that is called, americana, current folk, bluegrass music, and american country musics in general could well benefit from more experimentation of the rhythmic, melodic, and sonic concepts, along these lines. the procedures of how these musics are recorded could use some new thought. my take on it is that we are faced with a copy of a copy of a copy, and the original aristotelian archetype, if you will, has perhaps been lost. the societal relevance perhaps comes into question, the essential context. the typical newer versions of the music sound okay but what is being said? and why? what is the relation between the poetry and the actor, or the singer and the song?

there are so many things that can be done with the basic tonal ideas of american country musics. the potential is limitless. but if the same basic homogenized building blocks get used over and over again, the overall point can become unclear. then what is the purpose of this music? most especially when so many of the back catalogs are available in boxed sets with copious notes, and contain perhaps better renditions and more interesting recording techniques.

at one point, even the music that is now being copied was new and different. my understanding was that bill monroe was quite the innovator. so was muddy waters. and johnny cash. this could be a very long list. to which i would add captain beefheart.

on trout mask replica, the innovations come dripping out of the speakers. every song is de-constructed and re-assembled in the most intriguing way. captain beefheart's music still sounds fresh and new to me. trout mask replica is such an interesting stew, it's hard to place it on a time line. it could totally come out today, yet it has some pastiche of 78 rpm delta blues, and contemporary cut and paste art techniques, found art, outsider art, beatnik poetry, and hard to classify sonic weirdness and gleeful experimentation, contemporary composed music and avant-garde.

an aside========

a fellow living up here near me is buell neidlinger. i consider him to be one of the greatest musicians that i have ever witnessed. his resume has him playing with the greatest figures of western music. buell told me of sitting in with captain beefheart at their rehearsal studio, i believe, and declared the music to be the "greatest erector set ever constructed!" buell is a musician of the highest caliber and never spoke very highly of anyone's music to me except for igor stravinsky, cecil taylor and cats like that (buell played and recorded with them both, as well as hundreds of other of the heaviest musicians).

once, while buell played on a recording of some music i had written (which is an activity quite like trying to go a few rounds with joe louis), the engineer said, referring to buell's track, " i think he made a mistake in that middle section." upon listening to the playback, i realized buell had reconstructed the fundamental idea on the fly and turned the whole bass part around, it was awesome! (interesting to note that the engineer heard this as a mistake). these types of connections began to occupy my mind at that point. buell, to me, had re-invented the role of how an acoustic bass could be played in an american country type setting. we kept the track just like it was. it really lifted the whole piece up into the stratosphere. this is a one measure example of what can happen when a musician knows a form so well that he or she can innovate within and without the parameters. (this is what i am trying to do with my banjo playing in case you were wondering).

on trout mask replica this goes on in virtually every bar of music for the entire twenty six tracks. with parts stacked vertically on other parts. it's like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and realizing that it is perhaps more advanced than yours.

on this, captain beefheart's masterpiece, there is hardly a section of music that you can really tell what is going to happen next. yet it sounds strangely familiar. it's kind of like listening to all music at once. the effect is interesting and invigorating. it's kind of beautiful and ugly at the same time. man, i love this record.


music syllabus

I. scales

II. chords

III. reading

IV. repertoire

my music syllabus is not the only way a person could look at learning to play, but it is a possible overview. this outline could be adapted for mandolin, banjo and other fretted instruments.

the concepts given here lay out a good practice routine. sit down and warm up with scales, look at some chord stuff, work on some reading, and then all three of those go together to make the repertoire. some other things i would add on page two, so to speak would be an examination of the cycle of fifths, and arpeggio study. but this will get you going. obviously there's an infinity of things left out, what i've given here is a possible version. also this syllabus is western in concept, i have no experience with other musics and can't comment on that, though i am certain there are like methodologies and pedagogy for those realms.

if you are just starting out, this might seem like a lot of complicated topics. start with one thing at a time, and remember it's a good idea to learn what defines the basic unit. example, okay we are working on scales. what's a scale? if you dive in and start learning a ton of fingerings, you might get lost as to the purpose of the exercise. though i guess on one hand, anything you learn is good, it's application may elude you, but eventually, if you forge ahead, this will get clearer.

two things that won't lie to you are a tape recorder (or some recording device) and a metronome. they are handy to have around.

a little more info:
learn how to figure out the names of all the notes on the neck. they don't have to be memorized per se but just so long as you can deduce them, you're alright. then study what a half step and a whole step is. then you can learn the formula for a major scale. how would that lay out on one string? this will help us see why it's so cool that we have more than one string to play, we can carry on up the scale with another string which saves us from having to jump all around on one string. though that's kind of fun and musical also.
the next step would be to work out the fingerings, or learn them from a teacher or a book, the common first position scales for your instrument. roughly they would be named after some of your open strings. for example, on guitar the E, A, D, and G scales are common. different methods group them in different ways. the way i was taught on guitar was to remember the word CAGED. those five letters give you the five common fingerings for guitar in standard tuning.
then next idea is to turn these into moveable ideas, where you can play each fingering pattern chromatically up and down the neck in all the keys. again a teacher or book can help, and perhaps i'll expound on this on the site if folks were interested.
the end result is that the student can play a major scale in each key, in several different fingerings based on the geometry of the particular instrument they are playing. for instance, on the guitar, there are roughly five, C,A,G,E, and D forms. those five fingerings can be played in first position and then moved all over the neck up and down. for banjo, there are roughly three,
A,F, and D forms.

you can pick a scale name, like Bb, we can play that scale in five fingerings for the guitar. using c form, a form, g form, e form, and d form, scooted to the right fret, with the starting note on a Bb. for banjo we can play a Bb scale in three places a form, f form, and d form. there are others but this gets you going on the logic of how the neck is laid out shape-wise.
the next conclusion that the student can work on is playing all the fingerings in this system, in a certain key and studying how they relate. the cycle of fifths is a good list of keys that keeps us working on all twelve keys.
then you can work on connecting them together.
then you can work out other types of scales, which can still be based on these fingerings.

one of my teachers long ago, demonstrated to me how he could play all the E minor information on the guitar from the lowest note all the way up to the highest note. this system was how he visualized the neck. as a series of interconnecting patterns. i was dying to learn how he did that.

learn how chords are built, and the formulas for major minor diminished and augmented, and how these fingerings lay out on your instrument. these are three note chords. the next step would be to study the four note chords and memorize the formulas for them. this information is all over the internet and various places so i'll leave it up to you to turn that particular rock over.
if you then look up and learn the harmonized major scale, and develop that in every key, you will be a long way down the road of studying how chords work and how they relate together and how they relate to scales. this is a lifelong process so enjoy it.

a teacher can be of enormous help here, but a book i like for guitar is a modern method for guitar by william leavitt volume 1. for banjo a good one is mel bay's banjo method c tuning concert style by frank bradbury. for mandolin (i don't play this instrument so here i'm guessing) the student could learn from beginning violin books since the music is the same.
i don't know of a good reading method book for mandolin plectrum style, though i'd guess mr. bay has some. plectrum means with a pick.

here is where you put all the stuff to use playing actual music. the scales, chords and reading will be combined to work out the list of your tunes that you play, your repertoire. the idea is to get five or ten pieces that you really like and learn them inside and out. play them over and over and figure out as much as you can about them. typically this would be a list songs or pieces that the student really likes and therefore would be motivated to really practice. however i would add a codicil to this and recommend that we study pieces that other people might know. standards in other words. the reason is that eventually you are going to want to play with others, and learning music that other people are likely to know will save you a step. if you learn obscure pieces, it's harder to do this. a teacher can really help or you can do some research and ask some folks. it's cool to learn the obscure pieces also, it's just harder to jam with others if that's all you know. also the standards are standards many times because they contain elements that other music is based on. we get a lot of bang for the buck learning standard pieces.

some things to remember:
don't worry about sounding bad. have fun.
don't listen too much to what one person says, unless they are some really badass guy, and even know sometimes the language we have to use to describe music is incomplete. usually what a good teacher says in context is probably pretty close to being right. there are different opinions about all this stuff, and that's okay.
listen to what you are doing. i know that sounds kind of dumb but if you have been playing for a while you will understand what i mean.
learn to think in phrases.
don't put yourself down. it's going to take you ten years of hard work to get anywhere, really. so if you've only been playing for a year, guess what?
it's really fun to take lessons. i take them, and i recommend that you do too. most folks have their own way of learning. figure out what yours is and capitalize on it. but work on the other ways of learning as a way of stretching your brain.
if you are new, a good thing to work on is leaving your left hand fingers down long enough to make a nice round sound. most of the students i have had in the past, would lift their left hand fingers up too soon. let the instrument do the work for you. if this is unclear, ask your teacher to explain the term legato.
if you can get the tuning and time really together, even very simple things sound great. we don't have to extract the music from the instrument as though we were digging a hole in the ground or building a house, the music is already in your instrument, you just have to let it go at the right time.

there's something really cool that happens when i get to the destination on a music trip. usually the two days prior to departure are spent getting everything ready and all that and there' s not much practice time. the travel day is typically pretty long.

when i get where i'm going, after grabbing a bite, and resting and catching up on emails and stuff, out comes the banjo. i get kind of overwhelmed with thankfulness as i tune it up in some distant place, all by myself in a hotel room. dust it off and put on new strings and get it all intonated and warm up a little bit.

i've been working on playing a banjo for thirty six years, and it feels so comfortable and familiar in my hands. the way the fifth string comes out of the side of the neck and the way the strings feel. at this point, i can review some of the music the job will require the next day. my suitcase has music books and practice materials in it. that all comes out. pick quietly for an hour or two in the hotel silence. metronome clicking away.

it's a real thankful, peaceful feeling. i'm very glad things turned out the way they did and things are the way there are.

the way hotel rooms are with the neutrality, it's cool that you can make your own space in there. i don't mind living in hotels. about a third of my life is spent there. sometimes more sometimes a little less.

if you're in the room next to mine, i hope you like banjo music.

Here's some thoughts on how to amplify a banjo.
These are just ideas and my intention isn't to come off as a know-it-all, but just to toss out some concepts. If you are already getting a sound, you don't need my advice, but if you are having trouble, think about the following.

My theory is that if a person puts a pickup on a standard bluegrass style banjo it won't sound very good. One of the reasons is that the flat head style tone ring, and the acoustic sound most of the regular bluegrass type cats are going for, has this cool hollow open type sound. That's a really cool tone alright but really hard to capture with a pickup. In my experience, it's too complex a waveform to read and it confuses FX and samplers and stuff.
Also if a person plays a banjo with a pickup on it, with the same attack as they do playing acoustically in a bluegrass type band, it will sound like an icepick in your head. Also if the musician is unclear on the concept of how the EQ works good tone shall elude.

I've had success with Rob Bishline's wood rim banjo. The wooden rim produces a nice fundamental tone that can be read easily by electronic gear. It doesn't confuse electronics and modules because it gives such a fundamental tone. Also the slightly shorter scale allows you to run heavier strings which fatten up the tone. The wood rim has a fatter tone as well. This has worked very well for me. Rob worked with me on some ideas I had, and we came up with this set up. It allows me to play funky sounding stuff acoustically because of the thick tone.

So here's what works. Put a pickup on this type of banjo. What type of pick up you may ask? Well, it's best to try different ones because different banjos react differently to different pickups. I like the ones that mount in the bridge, but that's just me. Also make sure the wire from the pickup to the jack is shielded. If not your are going to get RF interference. Use a nice pre-amp that has sweep-able mid-range. The Treble Mid Bass thing doesn't dial in frequencies that well. A phase reversal switch is a good idea too. It's like a get out of jail free card. Experiment with your EQ and get good at it. You won't be able to set it and forget it as each night in a different room on a new system, the settings will change.
Here are some things to look for. The honky kind of icepick thing is somewhere around 2.5K or 3. The real high brittleness is around 6K. The woofy low end thing that sounds like your banjo is hooked up to an industrial shop vac tends to be around 200 or multiples of that 400 etc.
Find a chart on the net that has the notes that correspond with the frequencies. If a certain note "takes off" into feed back, you can find it on the EQ and attenuate it a couple of db. Or have your trusty sound man do that.
It's not cool to squish the heck out of everything and have a too many frequencies attenuated or boosted, that changes the phase of everything and makes the banjo sound funny, plus you can kind of fight yourself by squishing a bunch of stuff down and then turning up the gain and doing it all over again. You only should have one or two things cut or boosted probably. And usually only a couple db or one db. Maybe three. Don't get too drastic with the EQ. If you find you must, you probably have some other problem.
Learn to play to the pickup. If a person just blasts away like they would with the acoustic band, the sound will be thin and too crispy. A lighter touch is needed. And also since the electric stuff is an amplifier, remember that 1X2 = 2, but 2X2 = 4
Where 1 is the input, X 2 is the amplification and the sum 2 is the output.
If we raise the input one increment to 2, but we go up two increments on the output. So for an increment differential of 1, we get an output change of 2.

The point:
You get more out of slight changes in your volume electrically than you would acoustically. A very small dynamic change on your end comes across as a bigger change out of the system.

Also the acoustic sound is like a vector shooting away from you. It's very easy to be playing to banjo too loud to begin with.
You may have to move your hand in a little bit towards the neck. And play lighter. Listen and adjust. With different systems, things are going to change. This is good and not bad. Visualize a good tone and then close your eyes and move your hands around until it sounds good.

If you find yourself in a really loud situation, use in-ear monitors. It takes some getting used to but you can totally crank the banjo in your phones and play very lightly and not have to dig in. The sound guy can have your solos smoking out front. Wireless in-ear rigs are very inexpensive. The sound is consistent from night to night.

In extreme cases one could stuff the banjo, but I've never had to resort to that. Also if you know the material really well, it's ok to play where you can just barely hear the banjo. It's a good practice. I just saw an old Black Sabbath video and they had no monitors at all in the early days, and the same with the video I saw of David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars. So it's possible to play quite well in that format. For a long time, nobody had monitors. Decades.

Resist the urge to dig in and try to get more volume that way, your technique goes out the door and the sound gets all gnarly. And yes it will never sound like a loud acoustic banjo really, but what. My job is to re-contextualize all this stuff anyway so I'm off the hook. Also this never seemed to bother Sugarcane Harris!

Have fun.
Music is Good.

Danny Barnes 12.28.07

First, I want to say thanks to Barnes for suggesting I post something; he's always a good engaging guy both with his music and his mind.

I was hanging out a concert the other night and I ran into an old friend of mine. He used to perform with a band that had since split up, and ended up continuing his education at the New School in New York. We talked about what each other was doing for a little while, and it wasn't long before we got into talking about what he was working on--I don't know what to call it exactly, but I'll just say social theory, post-modernism, you get the point. Anyway, he brought up this documentary by a guy named Adam Curtis, who works with the BBC, called Century of The Self. I found it on the web, ordered it and got it in the mail a few days later. I watched the four hours and afterwords was pretty blown away by some of it's points of view, which went something like: ever since WWI, the maladministration of psychology has played an importantly understated and powerful role in changing consumers from an economy of need/essentials to an economy more located in the realms of desire/emotion; moreover, this misuse of psychology has been used more recently and insidiously in the political sphere as well. Not so overtly as in the past, but more along the lines of issues like V chips and so on. I thought is was a fantastic and broad examination of what the purchasing public views as paramount. Also I think I'll be heading to the library to check out some of the theorists mentioned. If I suggested you buy it, it would be too inconsistent, so If you can, rent it.

Introduction to metaphysics by martin heidegger

they give away paperback books of this type in used book stores. the best books ever written. it takes about three readings of a book like this for me to begin to grasp things. one of my fave things in here is how he analyzes the verb "to be." his thing is that "to be" has lost meaning, we say something is or isn't and we don't even really think about it. one of his ideas is that the verb "to be" initially had a component of endurance. to exist entails endurance. i read over that a few times and cut way down on my complaining. if we live, there are things that must be endured. it's a component of living. there's much more here, that's just one thing.

an introduction to the symbolism and the psychology
Marie-Louise von Franz

written by a co-worker of jung, this book bridges together the ancient ideas of alchemy with more modern thought. sample:
" If through fighting and meeting the unconscious one has suffered long enough, a kind of objective personality is established; a nucleus forms in the person which is at peace, quiet even in the midst of the greatest life storms, intensely alive but without action and without participation in the conflict. that peace of mind often comes to people when they have suffered long enough: one day something breaks and the face acquires a quiet expression, for something has been born which remains in the center, outside or beyond the conflict, which does not go on any more as it did."
page 169
i think that frozen moment the author describes there, is what poets and songwriters have been capturing or trying to capture. so many of the songs i love and have tried to write have attempted to deal with that moment. when something better starts happening, almost of it's own accord.

the bhagavad gita

a few years ago my friend jim woodring sent me a copy of this. if you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and read it three times. i usually always have a copy of it on me in paperback when i travel.

" action imprisons the world
unless it is done as a sacrifice;
freed from attatchment, arjuna,
perform action as sacrifice."

a treatise concerning the principles of human understanding
george berkeley

eyvind kang told me about this book. again, i had to take quite a few gos at it. berkeley has such an interesting take on human experience and develops it in a way that can be understood, even if you don't agree with him.
i do agree with him.
it's funny to see berkeley bash locke soundly about the head and shoulders.
after dispensing with matter on page 81 things get really interesting.
in the introduction he shows the implausibility of abstract ideas.
try this one on:
"Qualities as hath been shewn, are nothing else but sensations or ideas, which exist only in a mind perceiving them; and this is true not only of the ideas we are acquainted with at present, but likewise of all possible ideas whatsoever."
some of berkeley's ideas reminded me when say for instance you are going to a foreign country, and some know-it-all will say, "well here's the deal with THAT place." and you go and it's nothing like what mr. know-it-all said.

things only exist in their particulars.

like when people say, "well in the south here's what people do." and you go there and it's nothing like that.
that happened to me over and over and i could never understand that function.
so i was glad to get ahold of berkeley.

i just finished bertrand russell's abc's of the theory of relativity, and it seems that berkeley posited many of the things einstein had to say three hundred years earlier, about relative motion and such. russell made no mention of the western dudes that hinted at those theories centuries earlier. why?

introduction to logic
harry j. gensler

this is a textbook so it's kind of dry. a funny thing happened after i studied about halfway through. things people would say didn't make any sense any more. it kind of messed me up because the weird things that people say that don't make any sense...well they stopped making sense. you hear things all the time that don't technically make sense, or contain a logical fallacy. i wasn't used to questioning on that level. gensler presents a system whereby you can take a statement and give the words symbols and then work through the equation and evaluate it. i came to the conclusion that almost nothing makes sense really.... headlines, things people say as common wisdom, lines in movies, yikes. it got kinda bad, and you can really piss people off if you interupt them and say, "what you just said doesn't make sense and contains a logical fallacy."
i have since read emails from friends that had some weird logical leap in there and i restrained myself from writing back, "you know there is a logical fallacy in your statement here and if you find it and cop to it, i'll send you fifty bucks." or something like that. but i thought better and let it pass.

i kind of dig that folks tape shows. if the idea is to get music out there, taping helps! most of the tapers i have met have been very nice and freaky music fans. as far as i'm concerned, tape all you want, just eat all you tape!

my feeling is that if you are concerned about losing money on letting someone tape your show, you are in the wrong business. and don't let your knucklehead friend that's an armchair music manager tell you otherwise.

it took me quite a few years to understand this concept.
i wasn't aware of how the economics of the system actually worked in real time. i'm a slow learner and it took awhile for the empirical evidence to mount up. tape away tapers! send me a copy so i can study my own work.
give a copy away to anyone you think would dig what i'm doing.

do certain people steal music? of course
is there anything that can be done? no sir
are the majority of folks pretty cool about the whole deal? yes

also, giving stuff away is a sure fire way to cut down on stealing. you can quote me on that one!

consider this:
if an artist is under contract, there is a proviso to take money from the artist and pay for sending out music promotionally. in my experience, very little of the product sent in this way produces very much. yet the artist pays for all this out of their end...well EVERYTHING gets charged off to the artist so never mind the significance of that. the point is that typically one has to pay quite a bit of money to send out stuff in bulk that more often then not either winds up in the trash or in the used record store.

taping gets music out at no cost to the artist.

also if you ask me, dude, if you don't hassle me up, and come to see a show, i don't care if you build a doghouse out there! taping is the least of my worries jackson.

i asked my friend mark burgin to write a little about what he thinks about taping, why he does it and stuff like that. he's a friendly, knowledgeable funny cat. it's great when you load into a show and you see him getting his gear out. he's a good friend to have around. you know that one guy at least is going to be really into the music. and if you need an extension cord or a mike stand or something, he can be a lot of help. it's inspiring when he's there because you want to do a good job since lots of folks listen to his tapes.

DB: Why record shows?

Mark Burgin: I record because I truly enjoy live music and I want everyone else to enjoy it too. To preserve a series of moments in time. In my case, that would be an auditory representation or documentation of those series of moments. Like a photographer will document a single visual moment in time or a videoagrapher will capture a series of visual moments in time, we document the auditory side of history. To review those series of moments in time to bring back other memories of that moment, day, week, month and year of my life, the people around me at that time, and the experience had. Why document live music, or tape? Because live music is alive! No two performances are the same and each performance has it's moments of genius that will forever be lost if not documented. Something magical happens on stage in a live setting that can't be reproduced or captured in the studio. I think it's important to document the creativity of humanity. Some people don't really care about music but I think it's one of the most important creative outlets that humans produce. It elicits such a strong response from so many people and it's so easy to make a connection with it. When I go to a show and there is something amazing happening on stage, I like to know that the "amazingness" of it is captured so people can listen and re-listen again and again. When I listen to a show that I attended and taped, it's almost like I invented a time machine.

DB: Why do artists allow you to tape show?

MB: Many reasons why bands allow us to tape. Several of these would be the free promotion that this creates to furthering their own fanbase by free circulation of performances. To keep fans interested by having each tour documented and in trade friendly circulation. By entertaining the fans by allowing them to take home a memory of that performance. The band also gets an aural document of their chosen profession. Just a few reasons, I'm sure the list is limitless.

DB: How does the taping/trading community act to regulate the illicit sale of recordings?

MB: By self policing our own and shutting down known bootleggers or reporting them to the appropriate powers that be for future shutdown. I think the main way that tapers regulate bootlegging is to educate people. At 95% of the shows I tape at, I have at least one person ask me why I'm taping and if I'm making any money off of it. It's so foreign to people that someone would spend their own time, money, and resources to record a show and then not try to turn a profit on it. As a taper, I think it's your duty to explain the paradigm of taping to people and what the spoken and unspoken rules are. I usually tell people "The cardinal rule that you never want to break is that 'money should never exchange hands'."

in the later part of 1996, i was producing, writing and recording the bad livers album hogs on the highway. there was quite an epiphany during the process of making the song Falling Down the Stairs with a Pistol in my Hand, and it felt really good, as though a whole new world of ideas was opening up to me.

prior to that, roughly the idea for me in regard to recording, was to try and get a good natural sound, as though the listener was hearing a real band playing. even though the tracks on most of the records i had worked on previously had been put together in layers (overdubs), usually, the goal was to try and create a band type sound.

with this track, i just started getting sounds down and chasing that around and seeing where that would lead. much like i envisioned Jackson Pollock, or other modern painters might have worked, throwing some stuff on there, and then developing it. this was the beginning of my Folktronics approach. the rough idea of Folktronics is to hear all of American music at once. it's a combination of scratchy old music from the beginning of the physically recorded medium, and contemporary editing techniques. the cool thing is with just a few parameters, like a binary code or the light and shade of chiaroscuro, there can be infinite variation.

many times in listening to modern "bluegrass" or "acoustic" music and the like, my feeling is that the production is kind of dry or bland. kind of like an old school documentary. it gets the point across but it's time to smash the mold. i just don't get the relevance of imitating bill monroe. himself an innovator. (i grew up with old country music in the house and didn't have to embrace it, or discover it later in life, the more usual story for much of the contemporary listeners... turning onto it later in life i think tends to make one more of a zealot. my mother said the other day, "people talk about how much they like country music now, when i was a kid they made fun of you for listening to country music." she heard the opry back in the day and listened to the light crust doughboys and stuff like that in the early morning. )

my Folktronic approach is an endeavor to bring sonic interest into these forms of music. i lost the relevance of making records that used the same blueprint as the stuff that came before. why try to make a song sound like an overdone copy, which is a copy of something else? why not bring contemporary editing and mixing procedures to this music? what if the aphex twin played banjo?

so Falling Down the Stairs was a song that saw that flower of an idea bloom in my mind. here are some things that set the stage for this concept in my brain at that point in time:
Lee Perry records. Butthole Surfer records. classic experimental music from the twenties (and on) from my history of recording classes. Charles Ives. riding around in vans for years with music freaks and listening to strange music. electronic music. punk rock. experimental music.
so from that song, sprouted the idea for Blood and Mood, a cd i worked on a couple of years later. (Falling Down the Stairs was strangely never really mentioned in the media reviews, however music freaks to this day write fan mail about that it wasn't an economic or commercial prestige thing that got me excited about that piece, but the fact that i got away with it!) in the process of researching new stuff i came across this roni size vinyl record called Brown Paper Bag, and it had a phrase in there where the vocalist said, "new configuration, new riff and new structure." and that has been my catch-phrase since then really. from there, came my cd Oft Mended Raiment, which was entirely sample based and created on an MPC sampler.

around this time i had moved to the seattle area and came to know and work with bill frisell, wayne horvitz, buell neidlinger, and eyvind kang. all of these musicians opened my eyes to the possibilities of music. it is so far-out to be able to listen to these master musicians discuss the methodologies of cecil taylor, igor stravinsky, charles ives, captain beefheart, stockhausen, morton feldman, john zorn, autechre, and hundreds of other important figures in the development of this thing called music.
i became interested in contemporary composed music, freer forms, electronic music, philosophy, esoteric math, rosicrucianism, poetry (specifically william blake), noise music, plato's timaeus, george berkeley's treatise concerning the principles of human understanding, gnosticism, martin heidegger's introduction to metaphysics, symbolic logic, meteorology, ornithology, immanuel kant's introduction to logic, ......Folktronics is my attempt to meld my own style, combining these elements.

my recent cd is called Barnyard Electronics and it represents my latest efforts in this regard. i'm very interested in a Post Modern, Post Structuralist vision. i just got off the phone with my good friend Jim Woodring and described this idea to him and he said," well i think you nailed it." for me this is the greatest glory, to have another artist that you admire, let you know they appreciate what you are up to. i can work for years on a compliment like that.

the way that oscillators are used in synthesized music, as a basis for sound, is a way that the banjo can be used, or other folk instruments. as a waveform generator that can be used to make these epic pieces. and with sampling, we can re-contextualize sounds and make new configurations and architectures of music.

the old records have already been done. they were/are really cool, but i don't think i can compete with them, nor do i want to. no matter how old the music is, somebody thought it up. i'm more interested in that moment when someone said, "hey, what if we did this?"

another way to look at my work is as re-purposed obsolescence. i relate to visual artists, and also the type of artists who make things because they can't stop doing so. this era is so perfect for this type of endeavor. cheap plane tickets, cheap gear. people that are interested in music. places to play, computers. everything has really been leading up to this in my view. and it's a great thing. there exists more great music being done now than ever, and more great gear to work with. Yikes. welcome to my folktronics site.