Author: Shayna Cody

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The Dream House: unlike anything you’ve ever or will ever experience

Photo Courtesy Amoeba.com

 

The Dream House is such an individual experience that describing it in words may not do it justice. But, I will try.

The Dream House is a room with four speakers that plays sounds at different frequencies and was made in the 1993 by La Monte Young and his wife, Marian Zazeela as a culmination of years of work. A list of Young’s works can be seen here. The House itself is intriguing at first sight: a carpeted purple-magenta room, not very big in size, with incense that fills the room. The purple filters on the windows make it impossible to tell how much time has passed, and what felt like 10 minutes in the room actually ended up being an hour and 20 minutes. Though the room is small in size, its range of sound is huge. Literally every area of the room had a different sound. Walking in, turning my head, sitting up, and lying down all sounded differently.

The feelings of each pitch ranged from soft on the ear to buzzing to slightly thumping on it like a hammer. The pitch of each sound did not change, but each sound itself was different. The dynamics of the sounds ranged from whisper-soft microphone-screeching feedback, to low ‘wah-wah’ sounds, to the hum of a running AC. The range of sound was so vast that I am almost certain there were sounds being played that my human ear could not pick up.

The speeds of some sounds stayed constant, and the speeds of others moved as my head moved. I did a mini-experiment: I attempted to follow three waves of sound as I turned my head. Looking straight forward, sound A was a low oscillating sound, sound B was a mike-feedback, and sound C was a high tone. I turned my head slowly to the left, and turning left: sound A stayed, and sound B intensified like a person who slowly turns a flashlight towards you until the light beam hits you straight on. Sound C sped up like the sound of a bomb about to detonate until — the sound completely disappeared.

A picture of the wave spectrum in my head had appeared, and then I thought: what would the room look like if all of the vibrations in the room were able to be seen visually? In my head,  I expected the high pitches to not be heard lower to the ground. To test that theory, I lay down. My theory was proven wrong as the same high pitch from before remained, and a new drone-sound previously unheard appeared.

Then I sat up again and looked around at about 17 other people in the room. At that moment I had a crazy realization. At a typical concert or music performance, people usually listen to an artist and heat the same thing. But in the Dream House, although we were all in the same room, with the same four speakers, none of us were hearing the same thing. The Dream House was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was weird, and it was beautiful.

 

Chuck Berry and his Legacy

A few weeks ago, I heard on the news that the great Chuck Berry had passed away. A conversation I had with my grandma about it went something like this:

“Grandma, did you hear that Chuck Berry passed away?”

“Yeah I know. Oh I loved him! That thing he would do with his leg, how he played on his guitar… “

“What was your favorite song by him?”

“Oh man… how can I pick? Maybe ‘Maybellene’, or ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ I liked all-a his songs!”

I felt bad now, because speaking honestly, I knew of his name and that he was great, but I did not know much about Chuck Berry. But the way she spoke of him with such admiration and respect made me want to research more about his life and musical career.

Chuck Berry was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He composed, wrote, and played his own music. He also played the guitar in interesting ways, like doing a “duck walk,” or by sticking one leg out:

​He died in Wentzville, Missouri at 90 years old. There were many songs of his to choose from, but I decided to look at the songs that my grandma mentioned: “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene.”

Johnny B. Goode

The first song, “Johnny B. Goode,” was written by Berry in 1955 and recorded by him in 1958. This song sounds great is one of the most iconic songs in American history, and it is commonly used in shows and movies (including one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future). “Johnny B. Goode” is the story of a boy who plays the guitar and wishes one day to become famous. In this song and many others, Berry was able to mix black and white elements in a way that hadn’t been done prior; through his lyrics, he portrayed the everyday life of white American suburban folk. The music itself was inherently black American: the roots of the song were grounded in the 12-bar blues progression. This progression traces back to, and is in essence, wrought from slavery in America.

“Johnny B. Goode” made this 12-bar blues progression, and a black man’s story, marketable to mainstream audiences. But this marketability did not cone without challenges. He was famous during segregation, a time when it was legal to discriminate against blacks. In order to get his song on the radio, he had to take out any mention of blackness: “The original words [were], of course, ‘That little colored boy could play.’ I changed it to ‘country boy’ — or else it wouldn’t get on the radio.” (Rolling Stone) Even still, he was able to make blackness appeal to mainstream audiences. Many artists have said they were inspired by him, with a few being the Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, and many artists use some of his riffs.

(There is a list of covers that other artists have done on Chuck Berry’s website, here.)

Maybellene

Another song of his, “Maybellene”, adapted from Western song “Ida Red”, is seen as a pivotal song in Rock. This song was able to mix sounds of R&B, country, and blues, something that was unheard of during the 1950s. Berry recorded this song in 1955. The song also inspired a relatively unknown artist at that time, Elvis Presley, to record his own cover of the song. Elvis Presley, contentiously dubbed “The King of Rock & Roll,” has covered many of Berry’s songs.

“Maybellene” was also groundbreaking for its guitar solo: Berry played his guitar in a way that was unable to be duplicated (specifically, during the parts [1:22-1:28] in the video link). Another artist who grew inspired from Berry’s style of playing was the late Jimi Hendrix.

 Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) was an experimental rock artist who was able to create music using guitar feedback, created new methods of fingering on the guitar, and played the guitar using extended techniques (playing the guitar in ways it wasn’t intended to be played). His sounds, like Berry’s, are unique in that they are unable to be imitated. Hendrix actually made his own cover of “Johnny B. Goode”:

According to LifeZette, Hendrix also spoke of how he was influenced by Berry in his biography: “[T]he late Hendrix said Berry was his favorite artist, according to the Hendrix biography ‘Crosstown Traffic.'”

Chuck Berry was a risk-taker who experimented with sounds in music, and he in turn inspired many other groundbreaking experimental artists. His sound was innovative: it made rock and roll. And even with all of the innovations Berry made in the genre of rock, he wanted his music to feel, in his own words: “Simple — at least I hope it to be.”

Ethel at the Met

For February I saw Ethel perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ethel is an acclaimed string quartet that was founded in 1998 and based in New York City. Its members are “Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Kip Jones (violin), and Corin Lee (violin).”  Ethel plays both new and old songs and plays music for free every Friday at the Met.
I arrived at the museum around 5p.m., around the start of the concert, and this was my first time at the museum. The stairs leading up to the building and the museum’s interior set the stage for the music I was about to hear. When I asked where the concert was, I was surprised to find the open setting of the music-playing. They were playing at the Balcony Bar, in front of people enjoying food and having conversations. By the time I got there the seats closest to the band were already filled up, but I had no problem hearing their music.
The instrumentation included a mixture of the oboe, English horn, clarinet, Native American flute and the piano. More specifically, the music I heard was a low note being played and held, while the higher notes (the flute and piano) played a melody. When the first section of the song was finished, the song switched in that the high note was now being held (flute) over the lower-note melody being played by the horn.
Throughout the piece were moments of quirkiness, where the piano would play an ‘untraditional” riff, but the feeling of the music stayed constant throughout: it, to me, was ambiance-setting music. The best words to describe the piece are slow-paced, and smooth-sounding.  There were not many dissonant parts to startle the patrons;  instead, the music served as a background to the museum, the paintings, and the art. In fact, a line from the Met Museum’s website tells us to “[r]elax and enjoy cocktails and appetizers while looking out over the majestic Great Hall” while listening to Ethel’s music, which is exactly what people did.
Also, to me, the music seemed to incorporate the patrons themselves, through their talking. Usually, when a performer performs a work, the audience may be silent and take in the music (depending on the performance). Here, it seemed almost as if the patrons, and their talking, became part of the music themselves. I’m not sure if this effect was intentional, but it made for a very interesting sounding piece altogether. The music seemed light, and appropriate for the setting of the Met museum.
Apparently, the music I heard is notably different from the music they are known for. A review of Ethel’s third album Heavy, by Jayson Greene of Pitchfork.com, reads: “Ethel function as a living affront to the misconception that chamber music is polite, white-napkin stuff.” Here is one piece of music that Greene refers to:

Also, Ethel’s website lists other sources such as the New York Times and the New Yorker to attest to Ethel’s visceral, non-traditional sound.
These reviews demonstrate to me how versatile Ethel is, to play the soothing-sounding music, and then to also play the edgier music as well. The music I heard at the Met was not ‘white-napkin,’ but it was in no way intimidating to its listeners.

Ethel’s music provided a cool juxtaposition to the other music I heard outside of the museum. As I left the museum I was greeted with the sound of a blaring saxophone. Right outside was a man in a suit playing music, alternating between the saxophone and the oboe. This music sounded louder, even though he was playing alone and there were many more instrumentalists playing inside the museum. The sax player’s music was  more arpeggiated, and he sang as well. He evoked a jazzy sound with his instrumentation, whereas Ethel’s music had a more classical sound.
The environment outside the museum was also different: some people were walking past, maybe going up the grand stairs; some were walking past him on the sidewalk, maybe not walking at all; others were sitting down on the stairs, to talk, or to hear his next song.
The music outside and inside the museum were very different, but I found their similarities to be much more interesting. Both pieces had two different vibes, but both were connected through their innovative styles of playing, their ability to captivate their audience, and the sense of calm that both pieces held.
Although  I did not find any outside information for the saxophone player, more information on Ethel can be found here:
http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/met-live-arts/ethel-and-friends-fridays
and on their website here:

Also, Pitchfork’s full 2012 review of Ethel’s album Heavy can be read here:
http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16611-ethel-heavy/