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Grizzly Bear Discuss Painted Ruins

Ed droste is reaching over to grab Chris Taylor by the shoulder, imitating his Grizzly Bear bandmate’s motivational role behind their upcoming fifth album, Painted Ruins. “Come on! Snap out of it!” mimics Droste, as Taylor laughs along. This brotherly interaction is happening at Droste’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where it’s a sunny spring day. Droste, bearded and wearing a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, and Taylor, in a lighter blue tee and with his blond hair combed from the side, are huddled together in front of an iPad perched on a pile of books. Visible behind them even over Skype is a mirror reflecting on the living room, which has a black-and-white baby photo of Droste and a wire stand for his fern, peace lily, philodendron, and more. “I’m an anxious person, and plants calm me,” he says.

Originally all based in New York, the group has scattered, with singer/guitarist Droste, multi-instrumentalist/producer Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear all living in L.A., and co-lead singer and guitarist Daniel Rossen splitting his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and upstate New York. All are married now except for Droste, who is recently divorced. Bear, the proud father of a 1-year-old, is the first dad among the group. “We’re four guys in our mid-30s, and the world is going into a really crazy-ass direction,” says Taylor, casually summing up the general context behind the new record.

Since coalescing around the current lineup after 2004’s apartment-recorded Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear have developed a distinctive style that blends baroque-pop’s intricacy, the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies, and psych-folk’s finger-picking unease into something thrilling enough to famously get Beyoncé and Jay Z out for a show. Across 2007’s Yellow House, 2009’s Veckatimest, and 2012’s Shields, they refined an approach that was cerebral, but also deeply emotional, and never less than meticulous.

“Three Rings,” the first track released from the new record, retains their characteristic ornateness, but the six-minute song is also slow-building and somewhat elusive; proper single “Mourning Sound,” on the other hand, is gleaming and hard-charging, perhaps surprisingly so. Painted Ruins has plenty of both styles, from slinky electro-folk that name-checks a Honda TRX 250 four-wheeler, of all things, on opener “Wasted Acres,” to the horn-enshadowed resignation of closing opus “Sky Took Hold.” Taylor contributed more to the band’s collective songwriting process this time, including his first-ever Grizzly Bear lead vocal turn, on the melancholic “Systole.”

Reached separately by phone, Rossen says that his part on “Mourning Sound” was inspired by morning walks upstate, where he also uses that TRX 250 from “Wasted Acres” for hauling firewood with his dog. As for the foreboding march of “Four Cypresses”—which includes the album’s most evocative line, “It’s chaos, but it works”—Rossen says it started as a narrative from the perspective of a homeless person sleeping in the driveway of a place he was staying in L.A., but broadened to encompass his thoughts about the refugee experience and life during wartime. “I never really explained that to those guys,” he admits, referring to his bandmates.

Communication within Grizzly Bear may have its limits, but Droste and Taylor present an understanding that seems implicit. After more than a decade together, Taylor says, “There’s that rare kind of intraband wisdom—a more adult approach to problem-solving.”

A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs

As avatars of San Francisco’s ’60s-born counterculture, the Grateful Dead have served as an alternative to American reality for more than a half-century. Performing from 1965 to 1995 with guitarist and songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Dead survive through a vast body of live recordings, originally traded by obsessive fans and now preserved on a long string of official releases. Though the band has an epic narrative (told in Amir Bar-Lev’s rapturous four-hour Long, Strange Trip documentary), much of the Dead’s story and significance remains purely musical. Part of the group’s staying power is due to the mysterious vastness that exists outside the bounds of their official studio recordings, a live canon shaped by generations of the still-active Deadhead music trading network.

Flourishing in an extralegal sharing economy built around the exchange of concert tapes and psychedelics (the tapes were never to be sold), most of the Dead’s live recordings could only be accessed through profoundly anti-corporate means. Rather than killing music, as an infamous British music industry campaign claimed in ’80s, home taping actually propelled the Grateful Dead to stadiums, as the Dead themselves acknowledged.

Profoundly unslick, the Grateful Dead’s anti-authoritarian creative tendencies remain palpable in the current era. Self-consciously apolitical and populist to a fault, the Dead built a diverse audience across the political spectrum while continuing to act as a catalyst for young and old seekers, music heads, counterculturalists, and psychonauts. Simultaneously, the Dead produced dancing music, folklore, and lyrics to nourish an extended community that continues to thrive at shows by the band’s surviving members and a national scene of cover bands.

Navigating the Grateful Dead’s shadow discography can be daunting, a tangle of different periods and idiosyncrasies. This list of recommended song versions—chronological, not ranked—serves as an introductory survey of the band’s different periods. Loosely, the 37 entries here chart a path from garage-prog (1966) to lysergic jam suites (1967-1969), alt-Americana (1970), barroom country & western (1971), space-jazz (1972-1975), and epic hippie disco (1976-1978), eventually arriving at the more slowly evolving band of the ’80s and ’90s, whose driving creative force sometimes seemed to be their own inertia.

It’s the latter era that is most prone to cleave even Dead enthusiasts. It represents a divide between the tighter, more critically accepted earlier band and the beloved-by-Deadheads ’80s and ’90s incarnations, when they were beset by addiction, the technologies of the era, questionable aesthetic choices, and an evolving secret musical language that sometimes made more sense in sold-out stadiums of dancing fans. While the Dead got more popular every year in their later decades—and continued to generate jam surprises and bold performances aplenty—new listeners will likely want to start with the band’s earlier epochs. One can see long-running debates even among our contributors encapsulated in entries for beloved songs like “Jack Straw” and the “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” combo, with a contingent of heads here deeply digging the chaotic stadium psychedelia of the later band.

The majority of the primary song choices presented below come from the classic years of the ’60s and ’70s; for many songs, Key Later Versions from the ’80s or ’90s highlight further developments for the discerning Dead freak. There, one can hear the band finding new places hidden in the old, mining the mountain range of material they’d generated earlier in their career.

Though the band’s proper albums have earned an undeserved bad reputation, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both released in 1970) especially contain a small handful of songs for which the studio versions remain almost undisputedly definitive. While songs like “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Box of Rain,” and several others belong on any list of the band’s campfire standards, they’re left off here in the interest of songs that varied more greatly in live performance. Likewise, Europe ’72, which features elements re-touched in the studio, generated a number of great live tunes served perfectly well the version found on that album, including “Ramble on Rose” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” Though the Dead continued introducing new originals up through their last tours, this list focuses on something like a core curriculum of live Dead.

Nearly every selection on this list can and should be argued by anyone with an opinion about live Dead recordings. But these picks are intended to be gateways into different scenic and well-manicured corners of Grateful Dead land for those who haven’t spent much time there, places that might feel welcoming before drumz/space kicks in. From there, the paths are nearly infinite: an enormous live catalog splattered unceremoniously across streaming services (but helpfully listed chronologically at DeadDiscs), the complete fan-curated collection at archive.org (navigable via DeadLists or Relisten.net), a riot of Grateful Dead historical and ahistorical blogs, academic conferences, a nightly slate of #couchtour webcasts, or a live music venue near you.

Listen to The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs on Spotify and Apple Music.


“You Don’t Have To Ask”

July 16, 1966

Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif.

Written by: Grateful Dead

Overly complicated original is highlight of album’s worth of songs scrapped before debut LP. Played in 1966 only.

“You Don’t Have to Ask” has all the elements of a great garage band song. It’s got a groovy bass line, excellent reverby guitar solos, great group harmony vocals, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s combo organ cuts right through everything. It’s a zippy little number, guaranteed to fulfill the Dead’s dance-band obligations. But while it’s catchy, it’s also totally fucking bananas. There are several verses, choruses, parts, sections, a bridge or maybe three, chords you don’t expect (maybe they were surprised too), modulation up, (spoiler alert) modulation back down, then something else entirely, all at a breakneck speed for them and wrapped up in under four minutes. It kinda sounds like they (Bob) were still learning the song, but they’re all really going for it, even if it was destined to be one of approximately an album’s worth of originals dropped from the repertoire before the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1967. If there was a version of the Nuggets compilations that consisted entirely of songs written and played by lunatics totally zonked on acid, this would definitely make the cut. James McNew

Lore: Deadhead forensics has determined that “You Don’t Have to Ask” was also known as “Otis on a Shakedown Cruise,” an early song title remembered by band members that seemingly didn’t survive on tape; at least until an attentive listener noticed that—seconds before this version starts—a band member can be heard off-mic asking, “Otis?”

 


Music and Politics Meet in the Border Community of McAllen, Texas

It’s an uncommonly brisk evening in McAllen, a small city in Texas that sits just north of the Rio Grande and, beyond that, Mexico. In the backyard of a bar called Yerberia Cultura, a piñata in the shape of an anthropomorphized border wall is being brutalized by a young woman with a mop handle. The McAllen pop-punk band Fantástico!eggs her on with a customized cover of Khia’s notoriously raunchy hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)”: “Do it now, hit it good, hit that piñata just like you should!”

The scene takes place in the middle of March’s Dreams festival, a laid-back event where independent-minded local and out-of-town acts share a sprawling patio with a woman selling T-shirtsemblazoned with catchphrases like “Your History Books Are Puro Pedo”—that is, “Pure Farts”—and a food stand run by a mom who put her daughter through college with her flautas. The musical lineup at Dreams is inspired, and it likely wouldn’t happen anywhere else.

The three artists at the top of the bill have wildly different sounds and live shows, but there’s a common thread connecting them. As Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange records deeply inward-gazing lullabies, protection spells, and guides to self-care dealing with the fear and anxiety of being brown; Xenia Rubinos balances sweet soul with smart bass riffs while exploring her own identity and the Latinx experience in white America; Downtown Boys pay spiritual homage to both Bruce Springsteen and Selena, making aggressively confrontational punk rock spiked with politically charged calls to action.

“Representation is super important on these lineups, especially for us down here,” says Dreams organizer and McAllen DIY mainstay Patrick Garcia. “To see these artists, to see their skin, and to see what they are.” Recently, many young bands in McAllen and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley have been emboldened by this kind of recognition, offering their own takes on the Latinx experience, from the prog-metal stylings of DeZorah, to the indie-pop snark of Pinky Swear, to the nimble-tongued raps of Caldo Frio. Despite a deck stacked against them by geography, postcolonialism, and modern politics, the music scene in the Valley is more than just healthy—it’s thriving.

Garcia points to Downtown Boys’ first McAllen show a couple of years ago as a flashpoint representative of already shifting attitudes. “People freaked out seeing a brown woman shouting ‘girls to the front,’” he says. “It was like, ‘Whoa, you’re loving us and telling us to take care of ourselves.’ It invigorated the community.”

The feeling is mutual. “You’re instantly contextualized—you can’t play here without knowing that you’re in McAllen,” says Downtown Boys vocalist Victoria Ruiz. “You’re able to see people who look like you, and they could be your cousin. It’s so hard to feel that context in a lot of other cities that we play.”

So as bands like Downtown Boys tour the country, or the world, they spread the gospel of McAllen as diehards like Garcia see it: A community and culture with more to offer than the two-dimensional narratives of crime and poverty that have proliferated on conservative outlets like Breitbart News, all the way up to the White House.

Downtown Boys at Dreams festival in McAllen, Texas. Piñata art by Josué Ramírez.

In the Rio Grande Valley, notions of heritage and pride often involve an undercurrent of assimilation that permeates everyday life. For a lot of families, achieving the American Dream means shedding much of the culture they left behind and adopting their new home’s language and ethos of white supremacy.

The assimilation may be driven by the innocuous intentions of a parent wanting a better life for their child, but it can foster a subconscious self-loathing that bands like Downtown Boys aim to obliterate as they chant brown pride anthems in Spanish, or when guitarist Joey DeFrancesco goes on a political rant onstage as Ruiz translates it into Spanish in real-time. The band’s arrival in the Valley seemed to dovetail with a burgeoning movement of young people in the scene looking to reconnect with these lost parts of their identity.

The traditional regional sounds of the Rio Grande Valley are loosely referred to as Conjunto, ranch music based around a Mexican 12-string acoustic bass guitar. It’s an ever-present part of life in the area, heard at quinceñeras, family barbecues, or even just in the street. Tejano music sprouted up after European immigrants—specifically from Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—began to settle in south Texas in the mid 19th century, bringing with them their waltzes, polkas, and most importantly, accordions, which would become the style’s defining instrument.

Ask a young person in the Valley today what they think of Conjuntoor Tejano music, though, and they’re unlikely to identify with it. But filmmakers Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza hope to recontextualize the Valley’s music history with their new documentary, As I Walk Through the Valley, which traces the area’s musical spirit across genres and generations.

Tejano was very punk in its attitude,” says Garza. He goes on to explain how the style was employed as Chicanos in the Valley fought against corruption and marched for human rights in the 1970s. That rebelliousness has fueled independent music in the Valley for decades, through the punk, metal, and hardcore scenes of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but despondent and bored young people in the area are often caught in cultural limbo, unaware that previous generations of kids built their own DIY scenes, and they could, too.

“Part of why we’re doing this project, is that we’re cut off from our own local history and narratives,” Vela says of his film. “They’re not taught in school, certainly. Young people are trying to connect with these things, but there’s no unbroken tradition. We’re just trying to piecemeal it together and find some sense of roots, and where they’re cut off.”

The U.S. side of the Rio Grande—a border wall can be seen in the distance.

Through events like Dreams, Garcia and others are also doing their part to build bridges from the past to the present when it comes to both grassroots music and activism, often using one to propel the other. The McAllen music scene was recently forced to organize to protect its very existence after a white, developer-friendly politician sought to ban outdoor amplified music and all-ages shows in the city’s 17th Street Entertainment District—a ban that would have killed live music at the Yerberia Cultura and, by association, Dreams. A campaign spearheaded by Garcia and veteran local musician Andres Sanchez collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to oppose the ordinance in a single day, ultimately forcing the city commission to back down and rescind it.

But other fights rage on. The same forces that keep people from traveling out of the Valley to see or play shows—poverty, geographical isolation, and the border patrol checkpoints on every road leading north and south—make it difficult to access healthcare services such as abortions, or to visit family or seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Some of the same kids screaming “She’s brown! She’s smart!” along with Victoria Ruiz at Dreams can be found escorting women to the sole clinic in the Valley that provides abortion services; some of the same people proclaiming that they’re “young, Latin, and proud” along with Roberto Lange at the Yerberia Cultura were also at an event earlier that day in nearby San Juan, Texas, where community leaders assembled by newly elected Rep. Vicente Gonzalez hosted a roundtable for Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, directly speaking truth to power regarding issues of immigration, religious tolerance, and environmentalism.

Also in attendance at Dreams was Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Right Center. He works with law enforcement and local landowners to provide fresh water stations for the undocumented migrants seeking points north along the massive ranches and scrubland that divides the Valley from San Antonio. The bodies of those he can’t save—people that die from exposure or dehydration—he helps recover from private land in hopes of reuniting them with their families.

Few issues in South Texas are as charged, however, as access to affordable abortion services. After Texas passed a measure designed to result in the closure of the majority of abortion clinics in the state in 2013, the Whole Woman’s Health clinic on South Main Street in McAllen became the only remaining clinic providing services in the entire Valley—an area that covers almost 5,000 square miles and is home to more than 1.3 million people. Whole Woman’s Health argued the bill was unconstitutional, took their case to the Supreme Court, and won. But the damage was done—many of the clinics that closed have yet to reopen, and Texas’ assault on these clinics continues.

At the forefront of that fight in the Valley is South Texans for Reproductive Justice, an organization founded by activists Denni and Melissa Arjona that is committed to evolving the conversation around abortion to include factors of marginalization like poverty and citizenship status that disproportionately affect women of color. For the last few years, the Arjonas have organized a concert called Skank for Choice—featuring Denni’s band Los Skagaleros—to benefit La Frontera Fund, which helps provide practical support to Valley residents who are seeking abortions. Additionally, local Cathryn Torres, a staunch supporter of reproductive justice, produced a show called Justicia, promoting women in hardcore and benefitting La Frontera Fund.

McAllen’s lone remaining abortion clinic is often quite literally a battleground, with anti-choice activists maintaining a constant presence in the public spaces surrounding the building and posting massive signs within every possible sightline for patients arriving for appointments. The facility was closed when I visited, but a handful of protesters were still posted up out front, praying their rosaries.

It’s gotten so intense that in addition to a security guard, there is a literal wall in front of its doors, limiting the points of access to the facility. When the anti-choicers—typically led by leaders in the Roman Catholic community—mobilize on the clinic, the South Texans for Reproductive Justice puts together counter-actions to protect patients and employees of the clinic, often forming a human barrier.

Protestors stand outside of the Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, even when the clinic is closed.

If there’s one organization that represents the intersectionality of the Valley’s progressive front, it’s the LGBTQ advocacy group Aquí Estamos, which has strong ties to the music scene and various activist organizations—and few members of Aquí Estamos embody this spirit better than Alexis Bay.

Bay, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, is one of the few people I meet in the valley who is not Chicano; their family immigrated from Cuba through South Florida, and moved to the Valley when they were just 3 years old. They spend their days working at a nature center in one of the few preserved plots of wildlife in the area, teaching people about its old growth forests that predate colonialism; the Valley’s positioning as a migration highway makes it one of the premier birding destinations in America. Bay is also involved in the fight for reproductive justice and volunteered to assist South and Central American refugees. “There’s no separating these things, they’re very interwoven,” Bay says of the various organizations and causes they are a part of. “The Valley is a very beautiful quilt in that sense.”

Part of that quilt can seem contradictory, and one unavoidable intersection is the role of Roman Catholicism in the culture of the Valley: Members of Aquí Estamos often find themselves volunteering with members of the church at the Humanitarian Respite Center, only to find themselves on opposite sides of the picket line in the fight for reproductive justice. And beyond the awkwardness of working with someone who might hate you for your orientation or thoughts on abortion, there’s also the struggle of Catholicism’s looming role in identity, even for those in the Valley who aren’t religious.

“Even if you’re not Catholic, on some level, you’re still probably culturally Catholic—there’s still some imagery that invokes emotion or comfort,” says Bay. “If you go to other parts of the country, they’re more than happy to be like, ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,’ [but here] you still meet Latinx folks that may have a rosary. It still means something to them.”

And though progressive activists of all stripes are making advances in the Valley, that’s not to say that Brown Pride has completely taken over: There are still Mexican-American Trump supporters in the area, perpetuating false narratives about themselves.

“It’s so strange,” Patrick Garcia admits. “It’s not that I can’t blame them, but when I look at it, I understand they’re in a system of poverty, and to them, success is wealth, and wealth is being offered via this candidate via the rhetoric of false freedom, so they’re going to lean towards that.”

Trump piñatas at a shop in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just across the border.

But even if the wall has some supporters in the Valley, of all the activist fronts in the region, the fight for the dignity and human rights of undocumented immigrants seems to have the most solidarity: You can find Catholics, atheists, musicians, grandmas, and grandchildren among the ranks of those advocating for the cause. And it’s likely because many people don’t have to look back too far to find their connection to Mexico or points south, or have a friend, relative, or neighbor without papers. The ham-fisted narratives about drug-smuggling violent criminal immigrants are hard to swallow when you know plenty of normal, hard-working people whose only difference from you is a piece of paper.

For an undocumented musician, it’s especially heartbreaking; even as the Valley’s profile grows and the opportunities for local musicians expand beyond South Texas, without papers, the risk of being detained at a checkpoint is often too great to be able to take part.

Jesus Reazola is 31 years old and stands some six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a hulking frame that belies a soft-spoken nature. His friends call him Chuy, a common Mexican nickname for Jesus. He plays drums in the band Monstruo Bohemio and raps in a group called Caldo Frio with drummer Carmen Castillo. Castillo’s family hails from Reynosa, Mexico, McAllen’s sister city on the other side of the border, and they crossed when she was barely a year old; she’s since acquired legal resident status. Reazola has not.

Carmen Castillo and Jesus “Chuy” Reazola of the McAllen rap duo Caldo Frio.

Over tacos at his favorite restaurant in McAllen, Reazola tells me how his family fled from intense cartel violence in Monterrey, Mexico in the summer of 1998 when he was 11, just old enough to remember the journey into the U.S. While Reazola was still living in Monterrey, his mother would make frequent trips into the U.S. to work. (Before drug cartels monopolized the smuggling routes across the border, freelance coyotes—human smugglers that knew the safest routes to cross undetected—could get you across for a reasonable fee.) She told him how, while crossing the Rio Grande, she was swept up in a current and just narrowly escaped drowning, exhausting herself fighting the river’s strong current. “Don’t fight the river, it’s too strong,” she said. “Just float.” When they crossed as a family in 1998, the advice became a mantra: “Flota con el Rio.”

Years later, when Reazola was 26 and living in the U.S., he found himself at a party when a fight broke out, drawing the attention of law enforcement. He says that he was trying to break it up, but it didn’t matter—he was rounded up and taken to jail, and when his undocumented status was discovered, he was deported to Mexico, where he hadn’t lived since he was a child. Like a lot of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S., staying in Mexico wasn’t really an option for him; his life, job, friends, and much of his family were in the States.

But as the U.S. ramped up its war on drugs, and the smuggling routes became too valuable for the cartels to ignore, the independent coyotes were given a choice: Start working for the cartels, or else. Many chose to flee. People looking to cross without papers faced a similar dilemma: If they were discovered crossing without paying the cartel, they too faced reprisals. Unable to afford the few hundred dollars to pay the cartel, Reazola chose to risk his life crossing with a former coyote, who had fled to the U.S. rather than work for a cartel, crawling for hours to avoid detection. “I was in Mexico for less than 24 hours,” Reazola says. “Me and my friend crossed back as soon as we touched down in Mexico. We didn’t even eat that day.”

When they arrived at the Rio Grande crossing, his mother’s words came rushing back to him the moment he stepped into the water—wisdom that likely saved his life. The throughline of those experiences—Reazola mother’s perilous crossing, the family’s flight from Monterrey, and his mad dash back into the U.S. as an adult—became the basis for “Flota con el Rio,” the sixth track on Caldo Frio’s latest album, Aca en el Sur (Here in the South). It’s a bouncy rap song colored with strings and a somber acoustic guitar riff, peppered by Reazola’s rapid-fire flow; he speaks English well, but he raps in Spanish, his f

“Flota con el Rio”

Caldo Frio

Via 

When Reazola first told me his story, I struggled with the responsibility of putting him at risk by sharing it publicly. But like many other undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he understands that in order to change policy, you must first change hearts and minds. Undocumented immigrants often struggle for the most basic dignity, for the right to move freely, to be recognized as human. Near the border, this results in a peculiar kind of detention—not in a camp or locked-down facility, but within the hundred-mile floodplain that makes up the Rio Grande Valley. With checkpoints all around, the risk of being deported is too great to justify even small trips—for an artist like Reazola, the idea of even traveling to Austin remains in the realm of fantasy. There can be no tour, no SXSW showcase, no exploration of the country he risked his life to reach.

Most of the people I speak with in the Rio Grande Valley are exhausted by the rhetoric of border politics and by national media presuming to speak for them. Some are even taking the issue into their own hands with Neta, an independent news source for, by, and of Valley residents, a place for their voices and stories to be heard, on their own terms. For musical diehards like Garcia, Vela, and Garza, the dream is for the music of the Valley to be recognized for its rich past, present, and future; for the South Texans for Reproductive Justice, the dream is for all people to have equal access to healthcare; for Reazola, the dream is merely to take his art beyond the confines of the low-lying scrublands that he now calls home. All of these are American Dreams, each one worth fighting for.

 

Podcast Music

My first encounter with what we’re going to call “the space” happened at age 13, sitting in the front seat of my mother’s black Ford Expedition. She and I were parked outside the local bank, and we’d come to a full halt in the middle of our errand to finish listening to the woman’s voice on the radio. The segment was on This American Lifefrom a 2001 episode called “Stories of Loss,” and something about its author, Genevieve Jurgensen, pinned us to our seats in a kind of reverent and abject horror.

“I would like you to have heard me talking to them just once, if only the telephone. I feel powerless in trying to make you accept this evidence: They were here. I was their mother.”

Underneath her voice, there was a simple riff on the electric guitar. It was a quiet, low bit of an A-chord that ebbed and flowed under her story about her daughters, who were there one May morning and gone by the evening. The guitar was there under the moment when she bellowed the eldest’s name into the hills. It was silent when she seemed to need silence. Mostly, it just repeated with neutral insistence, turned over itself again and again in the same way this mother circled her grief. I’ve heard that guitar riff three times in my life, under Jurgensen’s words, and I can tell you exactly where I was each time. (Bank parking lot, O’Hare International Airport, a cold kitchen.)

Podcast music has become its own cottage industry: WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, employs house composers for its stable of shows, and most podcasts with any budget contract musicians to write original theme and background music. The worlds of high-profile podcasting and music are melding: Nick Thorburn from Islands composed music for Serial; Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDswrote the New Yorker Radio Hour’s theme; Andrew Dost from fun. and That Dog. collaborated on the theme for Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour. And Daniel Hart, Helado Negro, Trey Pollard, and Matt McGinley, who contributed to the score for the recent blockbuster podcast S-Town, had 16 million people hear their music in its first week of release.

There’s something fundamentally different about the music that’s written for radio, even by great pop writers whose work seems effortlessly catchy—primarily, it’s not supposed to be very catchy. Its function is to create a space for the human voice, and for the silence of a voice that’s stopped speaking. This notion of “the space” comes by way of JD Samson of Le Tigre, who recently wrote the season teaser for Radiotopia, the Public Radio Exchange’s podcast network. “My first bunch of songs I sent in were… songs,” Samson tells me. “And [the producers] were like ‘No, it can’t be a normal song. It has to be really boring.’” She’d take out an element and send it back, only to get another note: “More boring.” And again: “More boring than that.”

Samson is calling me from her car, driving somewhere by herself, and she points out that solitude is the basic state of the podcast listener: by oneself, interstitial, and yet tethered by voices to an invisible and vast network of human experience. “It’s this moment when I get to be truly alone,” she says, and yet she is entirely connected. The voice provides the primary score, and the music is there to facilitate its power to deliver you to that twinned space: solitude and communion.

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There’s some consensus that while many radio creators are talented at this, the most consistent geniuses of magical podcast space creation is the team at This American Life, which first aired in 1995. (“They’re just fucking masters,” says one producer; “It just seems like they’re writing the playbook,” a composer attests.) They produced Serial, the true-crime phenomenon that kicked podcasts up to the strata of media production worthy of critical attention. (It accrued more than 80 million downloads.)

The same team is behind S-Town, the true story of an unusual man living in what he refers to as Shit-town, Alabama. S-Town came out in late March and provoked a storm of praise, protests, and think pieces. Its most obvious innovation is grafting the shape and mood of a Southern Gothic novel onto a modern podcast. Jad Abumrad, who hosts, produces, and composes music for the WNYC radio show Radiolab, which is itself a revolutionary work of radio sound design, tells me that S-Town’s structure altered the way the medium is consumed: “It brought a Faulknerian novel approach to a disposable medium, so now [it] feels like a medium you might want to listen to again and again.” From a production and music standpoint, S-Townis exquisite.

When it came time to find a composer for S-Town, Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life and executive producer of its sister shows, asked St. Vincent’s Annie Clark for advice, and she suggested her onetime bandmate Daniel Hart, a composer and violinist. Glass sent Hart scratch tracks of the first two episodes and explained that the team wanted something that sounded Southern without being twangy. Or, as Julie Snyder, another S-Town producer puts it to me: “Not Deliverance banjos. Not like we’re leaning too hard.” Maybe strings over a hip-hop beat? Strings that sound like a hip-hop beat?

 

Early requests from producers to composers often come in the form of vague questions, pastiche-y chains of adjectives, and slightly demented lists. Jenna Weiss-Berman, who has edited and produced podcast hits like Women of the HourStill ProcessingMissing Richard Simmonsand Hillary Clinton’s podcastkindly read me a sample of the average directive for musical vibe. It’s her job to ask show hosts what they want the music to sound like; this is the kind of thing they send back:

“Funky and sexy but not corny
Janet Jackson ‘Miss You Much’ is the perfect beat
Old school R&B vibes
Tropical bubblegum”

Or:

“Electronic steel drums
‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber
A song with airplane sounds in it?
Possibly a song with airport announcements in it
Something soothing.”

Others go minimal. For her new podcast Never Before, author and activist Janet Mock just requested “something Solange-y.”

Typically, creating the musical profile of a podcast is about reflecting both its mood and its style. Weiss-Berman often devotes an entire production meeting to determining the 10 most prominent moods of the show so she can communicate that to musicians. For Lena Dunham’s show Women of the Hour, she and Dunham wanted something that evoked “girl group-y” and “’90s grunge” style, with a mix of energies and moods adaptable to different stories. For S-Town, Snyder, Glass, and host and creator Brian Reed needed a soundtrack that could suggest the Southern Gothic, with its history, suspense, desolation, humor; convey feel of modern small-town Alabama; and, most of all, create momentum underneath long stretches of exposition or monologue.

Daniel Hart, who has lived more than half of his life in the South, liked the assignment: “I wanted it to sound like the complexity of Southern rural life as I had known it to be, as I had rarely seen it portrayed in media.” He decided to use instruments common in the South but pitched or played in a way that sounded slightly unfamiliar. He used a Bulgarian cousin to the mandolin called a tamboura, a dulcimer, and “a fair amount of strings, handclaps, and knee slaps.” (And, ultimately, lots of banjo.) He wrote the show’s theme, and then an album’s worth of background music to mix and match under each episode.

The formal demands of writing background music for podcasting are a bit rigid. Hart explains that the songs work best at between 90 seconds and two and a half minutes long, with a clear delineation between sections with different energy levels: an intro, a section that’s the full theme with all its instrumentation, a reprise of that theme with a sparer arrangement, and a satisfying final section. He says the music should have peaks and valleys “because that echoes the rhythm of the storytelling.”

Mainly, it shouldn’t be too interesting. The worst thing music can do in a podcast is call attention to itself, or to compete with the voices over it. In some specific cases, this means stripping away instruments that tend to interfere with the human voice: Weiss-Berman is constantly telling musicians to nix the synth. Julie Snyder explained to Daniel Hart that S-Town narrator Brian Reed has a voice that tends to drop out at certain registers, so the instrumentation would have to work around the lacunas in his resonance. So: no horns.

The goal is emotional ambiguity or—more often—neutrality. For many podcast producers, the sign of good taste in music editing is letting the vocal tape and narration speak for itself, never using music as what Abumrad calls “emotional steroids” to manipulate the listener’s feelings. Snyder points out that her rule of thumb is to play away from the obvious emotion. “You’re usually trying to undercut emotions. If it’s sad, then you don’t want the music to be sad, and if it’s funny, you don’t want circus music. There are obvious exceptions to that where you can go big, but mostly it’s like Pull back! Pull back!” 

Martin Fowler, who scored the serialized mystery podcast Limetownand is one of the stable of composers This American Life calls on to supply their stock music library, says this type of music should be “so understated you have to try to pay attention to hear it at all—a melody that stays out of the way, so it gives forward propulsion without drawing your attention.” It’s a listening experience so passive that you might be moved by an episode’s score and then, 10 minutes after finishing, forget it had any music at all. I ask Fowler if there’s anything frustrating about writing music that by definition no one should remember, and he corrects me. “It should always have a melody you can sing and remember, even if you don’t realize you’re hearing it. You’re trying to make music that people don’t hear. It’s an important distinction.”

But if the music isn’t there to be heard, precisely, then what’s it there to do?

Firstly and maybe most basically, music can set tone. Consider the music that runs underneath the first time Brian Reed meets S-Town’sprotagonist, John B. McLemore: a shimmery single note pedaling on the celeste over low pizzicato fourths. On its own it’s fairly neutral, but over the tape, which includes John’s voice and Reed’s narration, the music sounds curious, tentative, excited, suspicious—like everything is still to come.

Or, maybe, think of the scoring under an early episode of Radiolab, “Finding Emilie,” about a young art student who’s hit by an 18 wheeler shortly after she falls in love. In the early portions of the episode, when Emilie’s boyfriend Alan is describing how they met at a party during a snowstorm, the music is an irradiated, almost ghostly vibraphone floating downscale, layered over a low drone. When I ask him about it, Abumrad recalls writing this “love theme” to sound as if the young couple had been placed in a snow globe.

He remembers more sharply scoring the moment that he considers the emotional node of the story: when Emilie is lying in the hospital, now deaf and blind, able to speak and move but totally disoriented and unreachable. “Pull me out of the wall,” she starts saying out loud, “it’s dark in here.” The music is tight, tense, excruciatingly simple, just a series of drones that rise almost imperceptibly, maybe two semitones over the course of 45 seconds, just enough to feel disorienting escalation. “It’s almost non-music,” says Abumrad. “You want motion but you don’t want to inject too much feeling. [Emilie] was still in the hospital when we were telling that story. It didn’t feel right to overproduce—that would be impolite at best. [The music] is just holding the space.”

In this sense, music is a proxy for image. Where a film director can establish character or set a mood with tone, light, focus, and angle, a podcast producer has only music and sound design, which has to offset the storytelling voice without obscuring it or drowning it out. Podcast producer Brendan Baker suggests that, at its best, music can conjure an image or a scene or a quality of light with perfect clarity. “If you take a piece of music that already has a set of subconscious imagery in it, and match that to a story with particular descriptions, and then maybe add a set of subtle sound effects—then something really cool happens and the image solidifies. You can almost see it.” Done right, he says, it’s magical, a kind of synthesis.

 

Music also has the useful ability to expand or contract a listener’s experience of time. Editing S-Town, Snyder often had to bridge several months, or even several years between two pieces of tape in only seconds. And there’s a moment from the wonderfully strange and atmospheric podcast Love + Radio that does this. An episode called “Greetings from Coney Island” tells the true story of a modern woman who starts receiving love letters written in 1938; at one point, the story transitions away from the woman’s narration, and the voice of the letter writer—the voice from the past—comes in. Brendan Baker, who produced that show, describes the music’s effect as “changing the depth of field, like you’re zooming out and then zooming back into a different era. The music blossoms into this historical world.” The sound cue is only a minute long, but it pushes the listener back 80 years.

Conversely, producers often use music to create momentum to propel a listener forward, often through long pieces of text. Snyder, in editing S-Town, often used this to offset the effects of a main character like John, a savant-like hypomanic clockmaker prone to hours of entertaining but obtuse monologue. “When hearing one person talk, especially scripted talk, it’s hard to pay attention,” Snyder says. “You zone out a little bit.” So when Reed reads aloud an email John sent him detailing a list of global catastrophes (“99 percent of rhinos gone since 1914, 90 percent of big ocean fish gone since 1950, 50 percent of great barrier reef gone since 1985…”), Snyder adds a little music for energy: It’s an arpeggiating synth that loops, as if the music itself were rolling its eyes, but over a simple, joggy kick drum riff that seems to assure you that this is all going somewhere.

Nearly every producer I speak to uses the word “punctuation” to point out the way music serves to delineate between thoughts, create pauses, or emphasize important moments in a story. “If you tell an anecdote and then take a moment to reflect on what it means, then you’d have one piece of music under that whole unit to set it out,” Snyder says. “Or no music except right before and right after.” This helps the listener subconsciously organize discrete sections of the story in their mind, look for the resonances within it, and then patch those microsections into a coherent whole. Alternately, a swell of music or a punchy beat can draw attention to a plot twist or a key piece of dialogue.

“In the roughest way,” Snyder says, “we’ve always thought that if you start music you pay attention to what happens right after the music starts, and then if you take it out you pay a lot of attention to what happens right after the music ends.” The most dramatic example of this in S-Town comes at the beginning of the third episode, which opens with queasy tones, a suspended, beating half-chord, and a faint single note on the piano sounding again and again, as if a child were dully beating the key far away in the house. It’s all already starting to fade by the time we hear a telephone call between Brian Reed and a friend of his protagonist. “We have some bad news to tell you,” the woman’s voice says, a little hollow sounding over the phone line. The music evaporates like mist. “John B. killed hisself Monday night.” The musical silence that follows is deafening. Suddenly, all you hear is human noise: the shift of clothes, a baby fussing in the background, the shake in her voice, the ragged sound of Reed’s breath as he starts to cry, a moan, long moments of speechlessness. As a production choice, it feels artless, and almost unnervingly naked. They speak this way, unadorned, for almost seven minutes.

This points to music’s most fundamental purpose in this setting: to expose the human voice and everything it carries, to facilitate everything profound and strange and funny about a voice speaking to be heard and our desire to hear it. At its best, it amplifies not only what’s being said but the act of saying.

“It’s that feeling of being lifted off your seat,” Jad Abumrad says. “These tiny inconsequential humans have this epic Shakespearean experience. It’s the sound of transcendence and this little human being so much bigger. And music can do that! It can make you step out of yourself and out of time.” This point about transcending self and time and space rings true. There are now millions of people who care about whether a man they never met from a little “shit town” they’ve never been to has experienced love; through Hart’s work, they’ve felt an approximation not only of what it feels like to be from a small town in Alabama, but what it felt like to be John B. McLemore. The music, in part, preserves the space he occupied in the world, and makes room for us to enter it. Sixteen years after I heard Jurgensen’s story on the radio, I remember her eldest daughter’s name. It was Mathilde.

Overlooked Albums

So much fights for your attention. Do you want to watch TV? Read a book? Listen to music? Even when you do finally put on a record, open up iTunes, skim through a playlist on Spotify, it’s comforting to go to what’s familiar. Keeping up with what you know and love is hard enough, adding in new stuff can seem impossible. For whatever reason, we feel these albums, all released this year, haven’t reached as many ears as they should. It’s a long journey of a lot of decisions before you press play, but we promise it’s worth it. None of these albums received Best New Music, but they’re all worth another spin.

 

 Three years after Darren Cunningham said he was ending his Actress project, he started dropping hints he was writing an album that could cure acid indigestion or be prescribed as a “Metropolitical sound vitamin.” AZD, his most recent collection of experimental techno tracks, runs counter to his opaque statements, making for his most accessible record. Where 2014’s Ghettoville dissolved any semblance of rhythm into a pool of acid, AZD is looser and groovier, with tracks explicitly made for the grid of a dancefloor. Looming over AZD is some wacky inspiration, specifically the artist Rammellzee’s “Gothic Futurism” manifesto, which saw a cross historical link between Medieval monks and graffiti artists. AZD stands as one of Cunningham’s most inviting projects, and its generous attitude makes his disorienting songs all the more affecting. –Kevin Lozano

Ellen Arkbro is an efficient composer. Starting with this album’s title, For Organ and Brass, she leaves little room for indulgence or flair. The title composition begins with a wallop, a long tone of organ entered into at full force. It changes very little, notes held for double-digit seconds, brass sounds gurgling in the background. The other two pieces are much more delightful (or as delightful as abstract drone can be), with a solid debt to the New York sounds of the late ’70s and early ’80s, merging avant-garde classical with whatever kooky background stuff the Talking Heads were trying out. It’s gaseous, wonderful music that lets your mind shape it as you please, like watching big clouds and finding dinosaurs, bunnies, tanks, ships. Here is the raw materials, do as you please. –Matt

“For Organ and BrassSilver Haze

Aye Nako addessed issues of racial and gender identity with pop-punk exuberance on their 2013 debut, Unleash Yourself, and delved into what they dubbed “non-college rock” with 2015’s The Blackest Eye EP.  Silver Haze, their powerfully bedraggled sophomore album, slouches further in a ’90s indie-rock direction, their knack for infusing well-worn forms with fresh perspectives still expertly intact. Singer-guitarist Mars Dixon now shares songwriting and vocal duties with fellow guitarist Jade Payne, whose deadpan lyrics carry a political tinge that fits right in. “Tell me what I need to stay safe on the streets,” Dixon implores on the churning anthem “Sissy.” It’s a common enough sentiment nowadays, and this group deserves to be heard by more than those who already share it. –Marc Hoga

“Particle Mace”

Aye Nako

Thot Breaker

Young Thug isn’t the only rapper to issue a “singing” album this year. Chief Keef’s Thot Breaker, the latest full-length from the prolific artist, sees the 21-year-old artist fully embracing the sensitive crooner within. Given the sheer size of his catalog, casual fans can’t be held entirely at fault for potentially skipping a new album from Keef—but his latest album belongs in the same pantheon that his Bang 3 and Finally Rich projects inhabit. Thot Breaker shows that Chief Keef is capable of creating memorable and outright charming  music when he wants to. It’s a milestone of growth for an artist who was vaulted into the spotlight at 16. –Noah Yoo


When word spread that the Courtneys almost got their own animated TV show, only to have it falter over Nickelodeon’s insistence on singling out a “leader,” longtime followers of the Vancouver band couldn’t help but chuckle. Onstage and in interviews, the trio of singers come across as an ideal ensemble cast. Plus their 2013 self-titled debut was rife with chunky guitars and peppy choruses ready for primetime, including one song named after “90210.” Instead of a TV show, with their sophomore album the Courtneys became the first non-New Zealanders signed to Flying Nun, the influential kiwi-pop label. But II’s sticky-sweet bubblegum could still spark singalongs anywhere Saturday morning cartoons are viewed. Nick may have missed the mark, but fans of whip-smart fuzz-pop should tune in anyway. —Marc Hogan

“Minnesota”

Modern Species

Aarhus, Denmark, is not exactly known as a European dance music hub. DJ Sports and his Regelbau collective are helping redefine the city’s scene by making tunes that transform any party, be it in their hood or yours, into sun-kissed scenes blessed with ocean breeze. DJ Sports’ debut Modern Species is a primer on how this Danish producer utilizes classic genres, like 1990s drum ’n’ bass, fine-tuned techno, and soulful house, to create fantasy with every rhythmic moment. His percussion is adventurous, sprawling across a wide range of BPM, and his synths and sound design are both precise and pillowy, comforting as they are perfectly calibrated. This is the kind of album that will transport you from the humdrum environment of the everyday to a place a lot brighter. –Kevin Lozan

“World A”

DJ Sports

An Act of Love

The throb of minimal dub techno often does away with the rollercoaster highs of more populist dance styles in favor of a muted steadiness. This static consistency can sometimes be too heady for its own good, but in the capable hands of producer Jacob Long, aka Earthen Sea, it turns into an emotional experience that can be just as visceral as any rave. An Act of Love alternates its shadowy beats with ambient washes of sound, the album’s pulse flickering on and off as if it’s caught in limbo between ash and ascension. –Ryan Dombal

“About That Time”

Eart

The Distance

Gigi Masin, who released the chiller’s classic Wind in 1986, has lately enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, through reissues and a renewed interest in extremely meditative, spacey jams. Gaussian Curve is his newish trio and on The Distance they take the simple sounds the Italian began unfurling 30 years ago and, well, unfurl them just a little bit more. This is vibey, unhurried music, with long guitar strums and high register synthesizer drones. Put it on, close your eyes and dive right in. Come on in, says Gigi, the water’s fine. –Matthew Schnipper

“Four For You”

Gaussian Curv

All Blue

Last fall, G Perico joined the ranks of Los Angeles rap’s most promising with Shit Don’t Stop, his mixtape of visceral street-level storytelling and streamlined G-funk glide. The competition in West Coast hip-hop has only gotten tougher this year, but Perico solidifies his spot with All Blue, an airtight debut album underscoring the contradictions that drove Shit Don’t Stop forward. Perico invokes Crips imagery with keen-eyed verité detail, but he isn’t celebrating it, and his crisply enunciated yelps and simmering synths somehow manage to convey joy. “Finally got a future that don’t involve the state pen,” he raps on late-album highlight “How You Feel.” He’s seriously understating what’s ahead. –Mar

“Bacc Forth

Green Twins

 Nick Hakim sounds like he spends as much time listening to Marvin Gaye as he does Tame Impala. The former’s innate sense of sensuality runs through Hakim’s debut, and the latter’s influence offers a kaleidoscopic haze where his falsetto can hide a little, when it gets too real. The Queens-based, Berklee-educated musician is willing to admit—under the cover of a smoldering sax, retro piano line, swirl of strings, or drum machine—that he misses her terribly, that he wants to take up residence in her mind if only to better meet her needs. So much soulful music makes a point of broadcasting desire as vividly as possible, but Nick Hakim understands that a low-key touch never hurt anyone’s chances, either. –Jillian Mapes

Exploring the Future of Musical A.I

Here is a song called “Daddy’s Car.” If it appeared in some YouTube ad for Bounty paper towels, you probably wouldn’t blink. It sounds like a fourth-generation photocopy of the Beatles. Under normal circumstances, I would probably listen to it once, deem it “successfully generic” and move on.

But “Daddy’s Car” was written under highly abnormal circumstances; it was dreamed up by a computer’s brain. That brain was built by a Sony-owned software company called Flow Machines, which tapped its vast neural network to compose a melody in the “style of the Beatles,” a melody that was then tweaked and finessed by a French musician named Benoît Carré. For all its apparent unoriginality, “Daddy’s Car” is one of the most remarkable unremarkable songs ever written.

Computers are writing more and more music these days. But they’re not following a mysterious, inward-springing muse, humming melodies because they liked the way the clouds looked outside the window that day. No, like everything else machines do, they are making music because we are telling them to—and companies are investing millions of dollars in this complicated act of ventriloquism. Besides Flow Machines, which is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the European Research Council, there is also Magenta, an initiative launched by Google last year

Here’s the thing: We really, really want our machines to talk to us. Tous, for us, in our own voices, in a voice we’ve never heard before—it doesn’t matter, we just want the company. Ever since the human voice shot across telephone wires, we have been staring at cold coils and trying to animate them. By now, we’ve got the talking part pretty much down—we can wake up our computers by yelling “hey” at them, or tell them to remind us to watch the Warriors game six days from now, or ask them absently to dim the lights a little, and they’ll comply.

The next logical step is to make them sing and play to us. But giving machines a creative voice, literal inspiration (inspirare, meaning “to breathe”)—that is a much slipperier problem, tougher to program, than making them talk. To hone in on the luminous stuff coming out of a mouth or an instrument, to capture the sounds themselves, let alone ones abiding by their own internal logic and order—what’s the math for that? Where do the notes stop and the music begins?

Douglas Eck works at Magenta, an offshoot of the artificial-intelligence project Google Brain that aims to develop “algorithms that can learn how to generate art and music.” He’s an engineer as well as a musician. “The pinnacle of my career was in my early 20s, I played a lot of bluegrass and punk in coffee houses in Indiana; Johnny Cash meets Johnny Rotten. I had dozens of people see me play live,” he cracks. He’s thought a lot about the difference between the notes and the music, in a philosophical sense.

Perhaps surprisingly, Eck rejects the fundamental idea of a Turing Test for a pop song. He doesn’t want Magenta to fool listeners, or replace musicians.  “We’re not chasing the idea that we can make a human-feeling music without humans,” Eck says. “I’m not that interested in being able to push a button and have a computer make something that is emotionally evocative by itself. While I think that’s an interesting goal, it’s not my goal.”

The biggest stumbling blocks he and his team hit, he admits, were human—and not machine-made. Good old cognitive bias reared its head: “We didn’t start by thinking about what musicians want, which is funny and surprising because we’re all musicians,” he says, laughing. “The first round of Magenta looked like it was engineered by a bunch of Googlers.”

Poking around the open-source forum as a layperson quickly confirms Eck’s diagnosis. It’s a place of command lines and prompts, a coder’s realm. “We’re still stuck in that mode,” he says, adding somewhat comically, “and we’re kind of engineering our way out of it.”

“This kind of problem shows up everywhere,” he continues. “One challenge for self-driving cars is that you’re used to making eye contact with the driver before you know if it’s safe to cross the street. But how do you make eye contact with a driverless car? For the same reason, building machine-learning tools that musicians actually useis tough.” They have to pass “the guitar pedal test,” Eck says, presumably meaning they beg musicians to pick them up, fiddle with them, and see what kind of funny sounds they can make.

Watch how Google’s Magenta uses neural networks to play a piano “duet” with real-life musicians.

For now, though, Magenta is a playground of coders, and they are uploading their early results for each other’s perusal, often with a bracing dash of self-deprecation. “I know it’s a bit cheesy but I hope you enjoy,” writes user Jose Cano of his Magenta collaboration. It is, for sure, a bit cheesy. The piano on the piece feels clumsy, kind of like a beginner student who has just discovered the satisfying tang of noodling up and down the harmonic minor scale. When the Magenta-generated synth tries going beyond that, it is immediately out of its depth, hitting notes outside the logical framework. The vocabulary is limited, but you sense an intelligence feeling its way around some basic rules.

 

For his part, Eck takes a bit of a “polar bear riding a tricycle” attitude towards machines making music—it’s probably more impressive the bear is doing it at all, nevermind its skill level. He says he’s OK if some of the musical experimentation that volunteer users trade with Magenta’s team “kind of sucks.” It’s a refreshingly humble attitude from a bunch of Google engineers. “If Frank Ocean came along and said, ‘Let’s collaborate with Magenta,’ I might say, ‘It’s not the time.’”

Nonetheless, what Eck wants, and what Magenta so far lacks, is a team of musicians playing around with it, bending the software into shapes the engineers could have never imagined. “Look what happened with the drum machine,” he says. “It became brilliant when it got used for creative purposes for which it wasn’t intended. Maybe I have a Magenta model that’s trained to generate new sounds, or new sequences of melody, but what makes it interesting is that another artist comes along and plays with it.”

Around the time of our interview, Magenta unveiled a new tool called NSynth—a neural network that has been trained on nearly 300,000 instrument sounds. The way it has “learned” these sounds represents a leap in thinking: Usually, when computers reproduce sounds, they reduce the physical vibrations of sound waves into numbers that approximate those vibrations, and then the machine crunches those numbers. That’s how you end up playing flutes and trumpets and cellos on a keyboard.

NSynth operates on a slightly higher plane. Instead of converting waves to numbers, it works from a series of “ideas” programmed into its head already about what instruments sound like—this is the stuff of cortexes, not brain cells. In effect, it’s basically a smart synth, and its neatest trick is the ability to crossfade between two sounds in its database to make a new one. So when you ask it to blend, say, the sound of a goose honk and a harp, it spits something out that indeed sounds like a strange approximation of those two things. With a little doing, you can import those sounds into your home studio.

Playing around with the dials and fader is fun, but it feels more like the past than the future: I’m reminded of my older brother’s little toy Casio in the mid-’80s, and its voice recorder. Was mixing goose honks and a harp much different from recording curse words into a microphone so I could play “Chopsticks” with them? NSynth ultimately feels more like being shown the parts of airplane wing than flying.

In the realm of musical AI, Flow Machines feels a bit more like liftoff. Click around on their website, and it will eagerly show you how it learned to write a harmony for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy that was directly inspired by Bach chorales. Then, watch a video of the Flow Machine’s in-house singer-songwriter, Benoît Carré, perform a fairly stupefying one-man rendition of the Beatles “I Feel Fine” with a “smart” loop pedal created by the company. Instead of recording what you tell it to, the Reflexive Looper “listens” to your playing and makes decisions, on its own, what to record and loop. It is also intelligent enough to take that looped material and transpose it, on its own, into a new key. Watching Carré test-drive it in real time is breathtaking.

Musician Benoît Carré uses Flow Machines’ Reflexive Looper, which decides what to record and loop on its own as a musician plays and sings into it.

Where Magenta bills itself as a “research project,” Flow Machine is focused on output; there will be a compilation album made by a series of artists using Flow Machines’ software soon, on its own label. François Pachet, the head of Flow Machines, isn’t ready to share specific details on the album project, but he hopes it will kick Flow Machines, and the larger project of AI-assisted music in general, into a new phase, one where the presence of AI ceases to be the talking point.

“When we launched the original tunes, people listened to the technical artifact—now, we’d like to be judged only on the music,” he says, laughing. “It’s going to be hard.”

Flow Machines works differently than Magenta. It is a vast database of songs and styles. You pick a few from its vault as inspirational starting points, not much different from how humans write songs on their own. Then you tell the software a few things about the music you want it to generate; not too many short notes, for example, or not too many chords; medium tempo, with some inverted chord voicing. Then Flow Machines gets to work and starts spitting out ideas: You keep the ones you like. You can even zero in on part of a melody and ditch the rest, encouraging the software to develop a single idea further.

In other words, Flow Machines is sort of a virtual musician. It’s limber and responsive enough to extemporaneously draw on a rich base of references but it can also collaborate. It can tweak its phrasing, play it a little less like this and a little more like this, draw out a phrase or get rid of a frilly turnaround, based on a person’s input.

Flow Machines has to both learn to make music and to make music with others, and Pachet can’t think of any other machine learning that resembles it. “You give an idea, and the system fills in the blanks, but then you criticize the results,” he says. I ask him if voice texting—in which a phone has to be able to both understand and recognize every word in the English language and also be able to interpret my peculiar way of speaking it—is close. “Not really,” he says. “Unless you are asking your phone to take your voice text as a prompt and write a new paragraph in the style of William Faulkner, or Obama.”

A video explaining the overall concepts behind Flow Machines.

There are a couple of well-known thought experiments about machine consciousness. One of them is called “The Chinese Room.” It was first posed by the American philosopher John Searle in 1980, and this is roughly how it goes: You are locked in a room. Someone feeds you pieces of paper with Chinese writing on them through a slot in the door. You don’t speak or understand a word of Chinese, but you have a roomful of books in your room that tell you which Chinese symbols to copy back. You dutifully copy those Chinese letters by hand and pass them back through the slot to your mysterious interlocutor. You don’t know what the Chinese letters that you’re reading say, nor do you know what you are writing back. As far as you know, you’re trading recipes, or comparing bathroom tiles, or debating the nature of the universe.

But the people on the other side of the room would have no idea just how ignorant you are. To them, you are a sophisticated and fluent Chinese speaker participating in a meaningful discussion. This was Searle’s metaphorical argument against conscious machines, which, he argued, played the role of the blank copyists in the room. Manipulation of symbols is one thing, but innate comprehension of those symbols is another.

This is a neat metaphor for the music being made by Magenta and Flow Machines. When I ask both Douglas Eck and François Pachet about their theories of machine consciousness, both are brusquely unsentimental. “This is a technology,” Eck insists. “Try to think of an art form that uses zero technology. In every case that I’ve looked at, when we’ve used new technology, it’s always made us more creative. We should admit that our brains are not all that smart without an environment to lean on. For example, most of us can’t even do long division without technology in the form of paper and pencil.”

Pachet offers a similar answer. He thinks that Flow Machine is capable of generating “perfectly good” songs all by itself, but that truly unique ones only happen with an artist present. “There are so many choices to make when writing a piece of music,” he says. “Only an artist can make the sort of choices that result in a great piece.”

Those decisions—phrasing, timing, feeling—happen at a level that machines don’t know how to aim for, at least not yet. Truly great music is born of a burning desire to communicate, as well as good, old-fashioned accidents of misunderstanding, which humans still seem to have the market cornered on. Excitement, which has been the divining rod leading most human investigations, still seems foreign to processing systems. You can teach machines to spin sugar, but not to crave it.

And yet, Pachet notes, sometimes the software generates stunning music anyway, all on its own. “Sometimes, it will map a guitar line onto a new song, and it works so well; it’s great, and we don’t know why. And the system, to be honest, doesn’t know either—it has no ideas on its own about what’s a ‘good’ generation or a ‘bad’ one.” This doesn’t feel so different from humankind’s relationship to music in general; we love certain sounds and decide we can’t live without them, while others repulse us. Do we really understand why? We try to explain it, to ourselves and to others, but the impulse, and the base-level attraction, occurs somewhere beneath our conscious minds’ reach.

This is why, ultimately, Pachet doesn’t have any truck with grand theories of machine consciousness. Despite working on what feels like one of the final frontiers of human behavior—is anything more irreducibly human than music?—he doesn’t see a ghost in the machine, a latent soul waiting to rise from the lines of code. He compares the modern advancements of musical AI with the birth of the digital synthesizer. “That was just a tool, and this is exactly the same thing,” he says. “The tool does not have any idea about what it creates, and this is just a new generation of tools. We just have to learn how to use them.”

It’s ironic, or maybe appropriate, that the only person I speak to who waxes mystical about the sounds these programs make is a musician. Benoît Carré’s full-time job is to collaborate with Flow Machines, exploring its quirks and taking it for test-drives every day. Intriguingly, working with this sophisticated algorithmic software has plugged him into the more subconscious side of his songwriting brain.

Take “Mr. Shadow,” for instance, a song Flow Machines generated working from hundreds of American jazz standards. The melody was one of countless results that the program spit out—it captured Carré’s imagination, and he built the song from there. He is entranced by the way the software “reads” human voices, and is convinced it taps into something elemental about them. “It’s like if I captured the soul of the singer,” he says. “What I get is not a voice that tells me stories with lyrics. I get an emotion, a style, a way of singing—things that are the essence of the singer. It’s like an abstract song, but very emotional. That’s what I find most interesting about this tool; you recreate a sense of listening to music like if you were a child who didn’t understand every word, but you get the feeling. It’s a new kind of song.”

“Mr. Shadow” is a song generated by Flow Machines based on jazz standards.

Music making is, at its root, a sort of dreaming—in making it, we are closer to our subconscious than we are, arguably, with any other form of artistic creation. The only substance we are pushing is air, and once that air goes still, the medium dies, and all we have are recordings. It is the most ethereal of all the arts, and as machines take over more and more of the “manual labor” of the job, musicians might very well be freed up to delve even deeper into those dreamscapes.

“When I’m playing with Flow Machines, I’m more connected with my unconsciousness and my feelings, and less with my mind,” Carré says. “It’s very instinctive. The music that you make with those tools helps you to go further inside yourself, to explore the shadow side of your creativity. I’m discovering a new way to make music, yes, but maybe I’m also discovering a style. The melodies that come out are not in your style, but they are the result of your choices. But there’s something more, something augmented, something that doesn’t seem like our reality.”

Carré is more likely to think of Flow Machine as “an intelligence,” which is the word he uses to describe playing with the Reflexive Looper. He’s made the most music with these machines, after all, and he is the one with their melodies in his head; they feel quite real to him. “When I work with Flow Machines, I feel like I’m collaborating,” he notes. “I do not feel alone. These programs are proposing melodies to me that I can sing in the shower the next morning. They are melodies that obsess me sometimes, because they are really different. It’s like when you are about to sleep: You have thoughts, but you don’t identify them; they are real, but not real. There is something otherworldly about them.”

Back to home

The Least Corny Man in America

could tell you what Vince Staples is eating for lunch, but we both agree that celebrity-profile trope is corny. There’s a lot in this world that Staples thinks is corny, but when we meet in downtown Manhattan on a June afternoon, he seems to be particularly peeved about the music industry. I can’t blame him. He’s only in New York City for the day, between a red-eye from Los Angeles, and another flight to London. And he’s spending his time answering a journalist’s questions, a thing he’s done hundreds of times in the past few years, and then doing a photo shoot. There are lot of things that have to be done in order to sell music that don’t involve music, and Staples isn’t particularly enthused.

“We expect niggas to make videos, to have merch, to have this whole aesthetic,” he tells me with palpable irritation. “When people start talking about these artists nowadays, music is the last thing you thinking about.”

He even quibbles with the way we describe musicians as “artists,” comparing the music industry to that of visual art, which he says he respects more. As he puts it, there are no museums for music—meaning that there are no institutions determining the rules for how music is consumed. Anyone can pay 99 cents for a song, or stream it on their service of choice, and feel ownership over it. With no one setting the rules, the work is subjected to everyone’s review, everyone’s opinion, everyone’s re-interpretation of the album art. The music is no longer about the music, but rather what the listener can project onto it. Or, as Staples says, “Everybody’s trying to put themselves in someone else’s picture.”

I don’t have the same level of reverence for the world of visual art—it’s difficult for me to totally respect any artform that deliberately tucks itself away for a highly selective audience that is determined by not much more than how deep your pockets are—but I understand his point. And that’s a big part of what makes Staples such a sought-after figure. Even when you disagree with him, his perspective is so well-considered and the power of his personality is so magnetic, he will win you over. He processes the world very quickly. His patience for stupidity is thinner than the gap between his two front teeth. His sense of humor is quintessentially black American, born out of that unique understanding of oppression while clocking the absurd logic of racism. A week after we first meet, in the green room before his recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” Staples is asked if he’s going to wear his eyeglasses on air. “Nah,” he replies, “can’t let The Man know you got a disability.”

This is the other thing that has every publication and talk show running to sit down with him. That quick wit impresses many and inspires comedy club-sized laughs. During his “Daily Show” interview, after rhapsodizing on topics as disparate as afrofuturism, the life expectancy rate of beta fish, and the thirst-quenching properties of Sprite, host Trevor Noah tells Staples that he’s the most interesting guest he’s ever had. But here the paradox of the 23-year-old’s celebrity is further cleaved: None of this has anything to do with the music.

Big Fish Theory, his second full-length studio album, is a natural extension of the sounds and themes explored on last year’s Prima Donna EP and its accompanying short film. That project had the young MC asking questions about the fragility of the spotlight he found himself thrust into after the success of his debut LP, Summertime ’06. On Big Fish Theory, he’s trying to embrace the spoils of success while navigating heartbreak, both in his romantic life and in the broader world, where blackness is still a death sentence.

At least, that’s my interpretation. You could come to your own conclusion about the meaning behind his music, and Staples would be completely fine with that. He isn’t here to determine your relationship to the music by providing explanations, a stance that would appear to contradict his art-world analogy. By declining to explain, he leaves it open for the listening audience to project their own views onto his work. But he’s steadfast in his separatism. At his core, he’s a purist—not the annoying “hip-hop was better in my day” kind, but rather someone who believes everyone should do theirthing and not be required to play the role of artist, critic, and dealer. “My job is to make songs,” he says. “That’s my place. I create things. All the other stuff, I really don’t think about it at all.”

It’s not that he isn’t thoughtful, it’s just that he doesn’t want you to get the wrong impression. He isn’t a tortured artist with a song in his heart dying to get out. He’s a regular dude from Long Beach, California who also happens to be a supremely talented rapper. He has a lot of questions that he asks out of the blue, such as, “Do you think Fiji water is actually bottled at the source?” He would rather be back home shooting dice with the homies than explaining himself to white people who only care about his teenage life as a Crip. “I understand that I come off like a deep motherfucker,” he tells me over the lunch I still won’t describe, “but a lot of times depth is in simplistic things.”

Fair enough. But despite his protests to the contrary, Vince Staples has something to say—about black life in America, the music industry, media, art, sports, you name it—through his unmistakably SoCal accent.

Pitchfork: It seems like you don’t have a romantic relationship to rap culture, that you really do view this as a job.

Vince Staples: My question is: What’s the culture?

The music, the style, the people—making community around this.

That’s just being black, though. To me, the culture of black people is just [surviving] in the United States of America, because we don’t really have any kind of background past slavery that we know of as a majority, and we cling to different things to give us our identity. Right now, [hip-hop] is what it is, and it’s been like that for a minute. But all that “do it for the culture, do it for hip-hop” stuff is corny.

So you do view this as work.

It’s work for everybody. It’s demeaning to the whole experience of it to not know that it’s an obligation. I got responsibilities, that’s basically it. We not catching these flights and doing all these tours and investing all this money for nothing. It is a job for everybody, whether they want to say it or not. It ain’t easy to do. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be so significant that people are able to do it.

But is any part of it fun?

Yeah. I wouldn’t do nothing I didn’t want to do it. Ever. It’s cool. I appreciate it.

What parts do you enjoy?

All of it. You get to go places, to create things, and you get to make money off doing those two things. You get to feed your families. All of it is fun if you do it the right way. When people ask those questions, they don’t really be asking about music. They asking about all the other stuff. Music comes secondary, if not third or fourth, in how people look at artists. Well, not artists, rappers. Big difference.

What’s the other stuff people are asking about?

They want to know how much money you got, how famous you are, how cool you are, how successful you are in the commercial space. Nobody’s talking about the music, for the most part. It’s not really a conversation for many people.

There is a celebratory vibe to parts of Big Fish Theory, where you want to get people dancing, which feels new compared to a lot of what you’ve done so far. There’s a difference between a line like “I ain’t ever run from nothing but the police,” from 2015’s “Norf Norf,” and “I was up late night ballin’,” from “Big Fish.”

Yeah, but not really.

How so?

It’s the same mood. If you look at the songs as a whole, “Norf Norf” is more celebratory than “Big Fish” is. Both songs are hyphy music, but “Big Fish” is at a slower tempo, and there’s not as much energy in it. So it all depends on how you look at it. There are no wrong answers in this shit, you know? You do what you do.

You do present a tension between wanting to celebrate and almost feeling like you’re unable to completely embrace that part of it. There’s a lyric on the new song “Party People” where you’re like, “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see.”

Yeah, I know what you mean. You can look at it that way. It gets tricky, because everything has an exact reason, but I’m never gonna say, “No, that’s not what it means.”

But what does that line mean to you? You created it.

Yeah, I know. In 10 years, when I’m washed up, I’m gonna come back with a book deal and we gonna explain all the albums and tell the story.

But now, this is my thing also: Do you consider music to be art?

Yes.

There’s a difference between a legacy artist and a currently working artist, for the most part. I look at an album like an art exhibit, it’s like a solo show. You have different works that you’ve created, song one through song 12 is like painting one through painting 12, sculpture one through sculpture 12, whatever the fuck you want to call it, right? And then you present them all, you put them on the wall, and people gawk at it. That’s the point of an art show.

Now, when you see art on the wall, it’s [coming with] two to three things at the most. It has an artist’s name, the name of the piece, when it was created. If they dead, it has when they were born and when they died. Some things have explanation. Most things don’t.

So my question would be: Why, in music, is there a need for the artist to explain? I don’t know the answer to those questions; when you walk up to a canvas, you just start painting. You might have a general idea of the colors, of the composition, but certain things come as the process goes. So I don’t ever think into anything that deep. I never say, “I’m gonna say this specific thing right here, but this is my plight.” I don’t got a plight. That’s not my type of shit, so it don’t really mean much.

So that line you mentioned is a question. It’s not for me to answer. I’m asking, “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?” If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask the question. It’s not a struggle to me, as it might be to most people. I have no problem with… I won’t say I have no problem, but the surrounding elements of the environment and the world don’t bother me. I never think about stuff, honestly.

Never?

No.

That seems false based on everything that is in your music, and every interview you’ve done.

The honest-to-God truth is that the things I say in my music might seem reflective of current times, but I have never went outside of me, my home, and my homies. It’s not a bigger picture, it’s just a scene.

But you and your homies are the bigger picture.

Not to me. What I’m saying is: We walked across the street yesterday. That’s the statement, because that’s the actual. Now, what is it about? Are you leaving? Are you trying to reach your destination? Is there a fear? Is there doubt? Are you traveling alone? There are things that can go into that and further define it, but nine times out of 10, nigga was probably just walking across the street.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” Does it really ever fucking matter? The fact that it happened is the conversation, but it’s not really up to me, necessarily, to answer those questions. It’s up to the listener to sit and dissect the music and figure it out for themselves, because that’s fire shit.

Do you think you could have a second career after this as a commentator, a la Joe Budden?

No, I’m cool. I ain’t trying to talk no more.

A lot of people want you to talk.

People want a lot of things. I don’t care what people want.

They are certain things that people usually want you to talk about. The interview that introduced me to you was on ESPN’s “Highly Questionable,” and you seemed to want to talk about sports during that conversation…

And they was talking to me about being a gang banger? It happens every time: “I heard you just put out an album, but what’s it like to be in a street gang?” Which goes back to what I said—when is it ever about the music?

So is it just that people shouldn’t even ask about the music and just enjoy it?

This is my thing: If you listen to the songs, you get an emotional response, it makes you feel a certain type of way. You share that experience and you try to get more insight into your emotions. That’s really when it becomes constructive.

One thing I’ve noticed is that fans always refute when you tell them the truth. They want to fight, because it’s just an idea of what it’s supposed to be, because everyone’s so smart nowadays. With the internet, everyone’s so knowledgeable, everyone knows so much about music, everybody got a top five. But a lot of people don’t really digest the music and just be personal with it. Like, an album must sell a million-some records for two weeks, and then you never hear nobody talk about it again, because everybody move too fast. But you can’t blame music for moving fast. There’s so much going on in the world right now, so many ways to consume things, so many ways to dish them out. So I just don’t really expect the thought-out question to happen, especially when my fans have so much stuff to digest. I don’t really even know what the right question would be.

You’ve dropped a new project every year thus far in your career.

Yeah, somebody told me that yesterday. I didn’t even notice it to be real. They said, “You dropped four projects in three years,” and I was like, “No I haven’t,” and we had to really look at the shit. We don’t really record that much, so it don’t feel like it.

You don’t have a whole bunch of stuff just sitting around?

No, we probably got less than five unreleased finished songs that got names and shit. We ain’t got songs sitting around.

So this is not going to be a Tupac situation where…

Oh, if I’m dead, it’s over.

Bob Seger’s Music

“[Bob] Seger’s absence from digital services, combined with the gradual disappearance of even physical copies of half his catalog, suggest a rare level of indifference to his legacy,” Tim Quirk wrote for NPR Music in late March in his feature, “Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?”

Today, much of Seger’s music has finally arrived in the digital realm, and so half of that late-career dereliction — whether by design or overly tightened professional security — is now erased. Taylor who?

No less than 13 of Seger’s previously unavailable albums — Beautiful Loser, Night Moves, Live Bullet, Stranger In Town, Nine Tonight, Against The WindThe DistanceGreatest HitsLike A Rock, Greatest Hits 2The Fire InsideUltimate Hitsand Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man — are now available on most major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, but notably excluding both Pandora Premium and Tidal.

Unlike many streaming holdouts, the vast majority of Seger’s music — even his bestselling Greatest Hits — was also never available to purchase as digital files. Compounding the problem, physical copies of many of his greatest albums also remain difficult to find, though some of Seger’s albums, including Greatest Hits and his 1968 debut, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, are now being reissued on vinyl.

Punch Andrews, Seger’s manager, told NPR Music that the catalog had remained offline mostly because of the low rates they pay artists. “For years, we have been asked to bring the catalog to streaming,'” Andrews said. “We have not pulled the trigger there because the rates are low; so low, in fact, that the label would not break it down and show the artist how little he would make. Bob has always been an album artist and that format has served him very well. Streaming and downloads have always favored singles artists.”

Quirk’s article, however, found that as availability of Seger’s catalog, both digitally and physically, dwindled, so did radio plays (and, obviously, sales). Will Seger’s new availability bring with it a new relevancy, or will he simply be another spoke in the wheel? Another blade of grass in a great big field?

Geri Allen, Pianist, Composer And Educator

Geri Allen at the Village Vanguard in 2011.
John Rogers for WBGO and NPR/JohnRogersNYC.com

Geri Allen, a widely influential jazz pianist, composer and educator who defied classification while steadfastly affirming her roots in the hard-bop tradition of her native Detroit, died Tuesday in Philadelphia. She was 60, and had lived for the last four years in Pittsburgh.

The cause was cancer, said Ora Harris, her manager of 30 years. The news shocked Allen’s devoted listeners, as well as her peers and the many pianists she directly influenced.

In addition to her varied and commanding work as a leader, Allen made her mark as a venturesome improviser on notable albums with the saxophonist-composers Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake, Steve Coleman and Charles Lloyd; drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr.; bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian; and many others. Her recent collaborations with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, in separate trios featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding and tenor saxophonist David Murray, found her in a ceaselessly exploratory mode, probing new harmonic expanses and dynamic arcs.

Allen’s solo piano work, from Home Grown in 1985 to Flying Toward the Sound in 2010, reveals an uncommon technical prowess and kaleidoscopic tonal range. The subtitle of Flying Toward the Sound claims inspiration from Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock specifically, but on this and other recordings we hear Allen, unfailingly distinctive. From Home Grown, the track “Black Man,” with its looping, interlocking pulses and forward momentum, points clearly toward a rhythmic sensibility heard today from such celebrated pianists as Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer.

Geri Antoinette Allen was born June 12, 1957 in Pontiac, Mich., and raised in Detroit. Her father, Mount V. Allen, Jr., was a principal in the Detroit public school system, and her mother, Barbara Jean, was a defense contract administrator for the U.S. government.

Allen took up the piano at age 7 and went on to graduate from Cass Technical High School, the alma mater of jazz greats on the order of Paul Chambers, Wardell Gray, Gerald Wilson and Donald Byrd.

While in school, Allen became a protégée of the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who directed the Jazz Development Workshop and also mentored saxophonist Kenny Garrett and violinist Regina Carter, among many others. (Belgrave would go on to appear on Allen’s albums The Nurturer and Maroons in the early 1990s.) From another mentor, the late drummer Roy Brooks, Allen developed a deep love for Thelonious Monk, whose compositions she masterfully interpreted.

Allen graduated from Howard University in 1979, as one of the first students to complete a jazz studies degree there. She earned an M.A. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. For part of a year she sustained herself touring with former Supreme Mary Wilson. In 1984, she debuted with The Printmakers, a tight, imaginative trio session with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille.

LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD

Soon afterward, Allen made a series of statements with the vanguardist M-Base Collective, spearheaded by Steve Coleman. She appeared on his debut album, Motherland Pulse, in 1985, and on several subsequent releases by his flagship band, Five Elements. Her own album Open On All Sides In The Middle, from 1986, featured Coleman in a bustling electro-acoustic ensemble, alongside other players including Belgrave and trombonist Robin Eubanks.

Trio summits followed with Ron Carter, a fellow Cass Tech alum, and Tony Williams(Twenty One); with Haden and Motian (EtudesLive at the Village Vanguard); and with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (The Life of a Song). In each setting, Allen proved more than a virtuoso able to marshal the greatest rhythm sections; she was a musical partner with prodigious ears, motivated by the percussive energy of the avant-garde, the elusive unified spark of straight-ahead swing and the expressive truth of piano balladry.

Allen’s 1996 encounter with Ornette Coleman, documented on the albums Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, stands out in part for its historical significance: this was the first time since Walter Norris on Somethin’ Else!!!!in 1958 that an acoustic pianist had recorded with Coleman.

The piano had little use in his free-floating music, because it tended to impose a conventional chordal fixity; not with Allen on the bandstand. She played a multifaceted textural and contrapuntal role, her ocean-deep harmonic knowledge guiding but never limiting her, from gorgeous and evocative rubato episodes to urgent free blowing. Her melodic voice, too, sometimes moving in unison with Coleman, brought a clarion intensity that remains unique in his output.

Along with her rare qualities as a player, Allen had significant impact as an educator for 10 years at the University of Michigan. She began as director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, her alma mater, in 2013, succeeding one of her mentors, Nathan Davis. Three years later she became artistic director of the Carr Center — characterized by Mark Stryker, author of the forthcoming book Made In Detroit: Jazz From The Motor City, as “a downtown Detroit arts organization that primarily champions African-American culture and has a strong arts education program.”

In both her institutional work and her musical projects, Allen engaged in a serious way with jazz as part of a larger African-American continuum in the arts. Her 2013 album Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations was a hometown homage, but also a reflection on the porous boundaries of black music. Last year the artist Carrie Mae Weems welcomed Allen and her trio to the Guggenheim Museum for part of a performance series called “Past Tense/Future Perfect.”

In her own work, Allen often sought to broaden her reference points and sonic palette, featuring the Atlanta Jazz Chorus on Timeless Portraits and Dreams (2006); the electric and acoustic guitar of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid on The Gathering (1998); and tap dancers Lloyd Storey, on Open On All Sides In The Middle, and Maurice Chestnut, on Geri Allen & Time Line Live (2010). She shed light on the legacy of the still-underappreciated pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams on Zodiac Suite: Revisited, credited to the Mary Lou Williams Collective, with bassist Buster Williams and drummers Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille.

Allen is survived by her father, her brother, Mount Allen III, and three children: Laila Deen, Wallace Vernell and Barbara Ann. Her marriage to the trumpeter Wallace Roney ended in divorce.

Along with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, Allen received the African American Classical Music Award from Spelman College and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard. In 1995 she became the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year, for Twenty-One. The following year she became the first woman to win the Jazzpar Prize, a highly prestigious Danish honor.

Over years of seeing Allen live, it’s striking to recall her at Caramoor in 1994, when she shared a solo piano bill with the great Kenny Barron. She parsed Monk and other material, including her own, and encored in a riotous two-piano showdown with Barron on “Tea For Two,” dealing impressively with a tune of older vintage. Years later, at the Village Vanguard, she led an engrossing quartet with Hart, bassist (and fellow Cass Tech alum) Robert Hurst and percussionist Mino Cinelu.

In terms of the unexpected, however, don’t for a moment discount Allen’s 2011 Christmas album, A Child Is Born. She plays not just piano but also Farfisa organ, celeste, clavinet and Fender Rhodes, taking “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to harmonic places they’ve likely never been. Even at its most searching, complex and sonically novel, there’s a contemplative quality in the music that makes this a worthy listen as we mourn Allen’s untimely passing

Musical

Joe Scarborough plays The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on February 21, 2017.
CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images
It’s the Thursday before the Fourth of July and Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC personality, is having a surreal morning. A little more than 90 minutes ago, the President of the United States took to Twitter to hurl a volley of insults at the Morning Joe host (whom he’s nicknamed “Psycho Joe”) and, far more crudely, co-host and fiancée Mika Brzezinski. President Trump, who’d been friendly with Scarborough for years until their relationship turned sour during the 2016 presidential campaign, has attacked the couple before, but this time, the president’s comments were so objectively coarse that congressional leaders from both sides quickly denounced his words.

Trump’s Graphic Insult Of Cable Host Crosses A Line For Many
POLITICS
Trump’s Graphic Insult Of Cable Host Crosses A Line For Many
Scarborough is on the line to discuss his musical side-project, a five-song EP called Mystified that hit streaming services last Friday. The former Florida congressman turned talk-show host, who started playing in bands when he was 14, estimates writing around 400 songs over the past four daces. Finally, a year or two ago, he went into the studio to record 10 of them and came out with 50. “It’s what I love doing more than anything,” he says. “It drives me.”

We spoke to Scarborough about his plans to release an EP every month for the next two years, the reaction to Mystified thus far, and Trump: The Musical. (Yes, Trump: The Musical.) Read on for an edited transcript.

Watch Scarborough’s Music Video For ‘Mystified’

Last summer in a GQ profile, you were in the early stages of writing and pitching something called Trump: The Musical. At the time, you’d said that his win would be “even better” for the project’s viability than if he lost. But now that he did … well?

Joe Scarborough: When I said that, I, of course, didn’t think he was going to win. Nobody really thought he was going to win. Trump: The Musical was going to be historical fiction. I wrote the songs in the middle of the campaign, in the summer [of 2016], and people would always stop when we were recording and say, ‘What if he wins?’ I’d go, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’ Then after he won, I’m like, ‘What are we gonna do?’ But then suddenly … the problem is just the opposite — I could write a song every day about another crazy thing. But it’s moving forward. [My agent] Ari Emanuel and I are working on it. It may be a multi-platform deal where it’s not just a musical, but a reality TV show about a musical — American Idol meets A Chorus Line, where you have people trying out to play the president and members of the Trump family.

That’s so meta.

It’s very meta. We have a feeling everybody’s gonna want to be a part of it.

He’ll tweet at contestants.

Exactly.

You know him. Does he have taste in music?

No. In a decade of knowing him, I’ve never heard him talk about music one time. I think he mentioned Elton John once in an Anderson Cooper interview, but that’s about as deep as it’s gone.

As president, he’s used the score from [the 1997 Harrison Ford movie] Air Force One. It’s bizarre to watch the actual president in the actual Air Force One arrive to a soundtrack about a fictional Air Force One and a fictional president.

Hear The Theme To ‘Air Force One’

Yeah, a fictional Air Force One and a fictional president who gets kidnapped aboard his own airplane. He’s playing a role. We’ve always said … he wasn’t playing himself as a politician, he was [playing] a reality-TV-star politician. When he tries to surround himself with the trappings of the presidency — or decide what songs he’s going to play — so much of it has to do with what he thinks a president should look like on TV or in the movies. It is not surprising that he plays the soundtrack to Air Force One — he doesn’t read, he doesn’t understand history, he doesn’t understand politics, but he understands pop culture. And it seeps through everything he does.

Right now, we’re at a critical political moment. What role does music play?

I think it’s more critical than ever. The mistake a lot of us have made, in reaction to Trumpism, is nonstop outrage and shock. The much better way to get at him is by laughing at the insanity of it all. Mocking him. And you’re allowed to do that with more of a 30,000-foot glance if you are a movie director or a poet or a novelist or a songwriter — you have more distance than hosts on CNN or MSNBC or editorial networks that’re just responding, that day, to the insanity.

Mystified is your first EP, but you’ve made music your whole life. Why are you doing this now?

It’s the worst rock-star story ever, the least glamorous reason to get into a rock and roll band — or to start releasing your songs: I turned 50. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this has been the center of my life, for my entire life, and my kids don’t even know about this side of me.’ People have known me as a lawyer, a football coach, a politician, a TV host. But they’ve never seen what was actually at my core, what I value most outside of my family. So the idea was, I was going to record 10 songs. I’ve always been sort of a studio rat. And it went so well, at the end of a year, we had recorded 50.

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Now you’re planning to release EPs monthly. What’s the strategy to that schedule?

Everybody’s got a band: ‘I’m a tennis player, but I want to be in a band’; ‘I’m an actor, I’ve got a band.’ I’m the reverse. I’ve been playing music since I was 5. Anything I’ve done, I’ve done to support my music habit. So, for the first month, everybody will say, ‘Gee, isn’t it cute?’ Then the next month, I put four more songs out. And if I don’t get absolutely horrific reviews, four more. After one year, I will have put out 50 songs. I’m confident that at the end of a year, people will say, ‘He doesn’t completely suck. There are actually some good songs in there.’ For me, that’s really important. The downside is, if the [songs] don’t keep improving every month, people could tune it out.

You run the risk of fatigue, but you’re hoping once the novelty of “Joe Scarborough has a band” wears off, people will hear the music more objectively.

Right. It’s a lot like Morning Joe: We got some early reviews that were grudgingly respectful; nobody could admit that they liked the show in polite society. And our favorite review — which we still use whenever we’re introduced anywhere — was when the New Yorker called our show “appallingly entertaining.” That was their way of saying they liked it, but still being snide about liking it. Some of the reviews about Mystified are like that.

Yes, they’re like, “not awful,” “surprising,” and “better than expected.”

It’s absolutely hilarious. After a couple of reviews, I called my bandmates and said, ‘You don’t understand, but I’ve been through this with Morning Joe. Those are the best reviews we could ever ask for.’ One I loved said it was like “Walk on the Wild Side” [being sung by] a light-blue gingham shirt. I don’t care what else you put on me: If you compare me to Lou Reed, I’m good.

What’s your fantasy Scarborough concert look like? Let’s say you can play with any artists — living or dead, from any era of their careers — and the show can take place anywhere. Who’s on the bill and where is the show?

I really love British music, so the show would be in 1977, during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the night The Sex Pistols went down the river blaring “God Save the Queen.” I would talk to The Beatles, all solo, and somehow figure out how to do what Lorne Michaels couldn’t do [and get them to reunite] and maybe offer them $500 apiece to sit on the river as The Sex Pistols go blaring down it. Also, I would talk to young Elvis Costello and The Clash, who are about a year away from their big breakthroughs, and have them there.

Are you headlining or opening?

I would be too intimidated to play. Instead, we’d have a roundtable. We’d interview them Morning Joe-style