Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"The World's Greatest Bass Player"

I just finished reading Bill Milkowski's biography of Jaco Pastorius, The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. I was a little skeptical aobut the book when I started reading it, expecting it to be a tribute of sorts, glossing over the sadder parts of Jaco's life. That said, I really liked the book. Milwowski does a great job detailing the life of Jaco and demonstrating how bad his mental illness really was. The book isn't at all hagiographic, but rather portrays Jaco as he was, a gifted musician with a severe and troubling problems. Part of the problem he faced was the way his behavior alienated everyone around him and the extent of his denial that he needed help. I found myself emotionally moved at times, experiencing anger, sadness, and frustration. Its a good read for any Jaco fns or jazz fans in general.

It got me thinking. I've always been a big Jaco fan. Following him, my electric basses are Fender jazz basses. I have one (a '78) that's been with me for years. I used to have a '69 fretless. I sold it when we moved to Canada and it became a significant portion of the down payment on our house. One of the first pieces I learned was Teen Town and in high school I was always chided for playing the opening of Birdland as false harmonics rather than following the bass line as written.

I remember when I first learned of Jaco's death. I was in college at rehearsal for the jazz ensemble. The piano player told me about it and we talked a bit about him. The band had a few (well, more than a few) purists in it who either weren't impressed by him or (in one case) didn't know who he was.

It makes me wonder what he could have accomplished had he gotten (and accepted) his the help he needed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Levitt in the Blogosphere

I follow, very loosely, several blogs regarding economics and economic research. Given my past run-in with Steve Levitt (editor of the Journal of Political Economy and co-author of Freakonomics) I found this article interesting (originally referenced here).

There is a common question about the abuse of editorial powers in the economics profession, with a lot of gossip and stories circulating right now. On my recent trip to Europe, I was taken aback by how many people had stories about editors at various journals abusing their power or holding grudges against certain groups of authors. These stories have always been out there, but on this trip I heard a lot of very recent (within the last year) stories of editors behaving badly. It seems like we might be hitting a critical mass. Maybe some checks and balances will finally get implemented.

Monday, June 23, 2008

50 Days

I keep a log of my practice time, something to remind me what I'm working on and (on those days when I need a boost) to show me that I'm making progress. Yesterday I sat down to write something in it after practicing. To my shock, it had been 50 days since my last practice.

I had a lot going on over the last two months. I had a lot of deadlines at work and a trip to Europe to plan and get prepared for. I also have a busy family life that needed attending too. But 50 days? What happened?

It sounds worse than it may actually be. I had a lot of gigs in the two months, but not more than twice a week. Is that a lot? Do I have any other excuses for missing 50 days?

I'm trying not to think aobut it. Its inevitable that time can get away form you. For me, music is an avocation rather than a vocation. As a result, it sometimes must take a back seat. The last 50 days are a sunk cost. I'm putting it behind me and moving on.

However, I'm suffering for it. While I'm not back at step one, I feel like I'm re-training muscles to move in a disciplined manner, re-learning pieces, and generally struggling with intonation. (at least relative to where I was). On top of this, my callouses are gone and the Calgary Stampede is on the horizon. This is a busy gigging time for just about every musician in town. Without my callouses, it will be 10 days of pain so I'm on the rush to get some good time in with my bass.

Overall I'm quite surprised at how far my skills had dropped off in over 50 days. (As an aside, I started yoga again after at least a 3 month break. I'm having the same realizations there as I am with my bass playing.) Maybe I shouldn't be, but its striking how many things (particularly playing the bass) are not like riding a bike: you can and do forget. It reminds me of the old quote (which I heard as attributable to Louis Armstrong)
If I miss one day's practice, I notice. If I miss two days practice, the critics notice. If I miss three days practice, the audience notices it.

Cure for Color Blindness

For the last 41 years I've been color blind. As a kid, I colored in things wrong and failed (to everyone's amazement) those tests where you have to pick out a number or letter from a circle filled with colored dots. As an adult, I've made fashion faux pas, mixing the wrong colors so many times that my wife now checks to make sure I'm not a walking eyesore of color.

Anyway, I recently got a new pair of sunglasses: a polarized pair of Oakley Hijinx. These replace a pair of Arnett Hot Cakes that I've had for over 10 years. After all that time, my wife and daughter convinced me that they looked silly; I looked as if I was a fly or maybe wearing goggles.

The polarization in these new glasses is incredible. I can see colors! At first it was a bit overwhelming. Everything just jumped out at me. Yellows were too bright. I'd get mesmerized by the different shades of green in a tree. I could tell the difference (for the first time) between the amber and red lights on street light. (I used to gauge the light's color by its position.)

I took an online color blindness test just to confirm that the glasses were helping. I scored 3 of 10 without the sunglasses., 6 of 10 with. I think I might have done better without taking the test on a computer: with the glasses on, I can barely see the screen.

Staff Paper Sources on the Web

I'm frequently using staff paper to outline pieces I'm working on and jot musical ideas, particularly pieces where I'm using non-standard notation for slapping, etc. There's something about writing out music by hand when brainstorming or transcribing that I find satisfying and liberating from working on a computer. (I use Finale; I tried Sibelluius but found it to be a bit more of a life-style choice.)

There's lots of staff paper available online for download. I typically use this site which has lots of different set-ups. However, all these formats are for 8.5 x 11. A few weeks back, a friend gave me some paper that was almost 11 x 17 and it was great to work with. I loved being able to have a gig space to make notes and work out ideas.

On that note, here's a new site I recently found. It allows you to choose the paper size, number of staves, color and line weight.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday in Bonn

Saturday there is a huge market in downtown Bonn. In addition to the fruit and vegetable vendors, artisans come out selling their wares. I was particularly intrigued by a potter who made vases that looked as if they were only two-dimensional. I actually thought they were pictures of vases until I got up close. He had an incredible sense of dimensionality, one that he was able to use to trick the viewer. Very cool.

In addition to the vendors, there were also plenty of street musicians out. For quite a while, I sat and watched a bass and guitar duo playing jazz standards ("All of Me," Girl from Ipanema") . The guitarist was playing on a classical guitar while the bassist was playing what looked to me to be an old solid top upright. The bassist was getting a great slap sound, throwing it in intermittently during his walking lines. He seemed to be playing heavy in the pizzicato parts (two fingers, lots of meat on the string) but his slaps were quite light. They were the perfect accent to his playing. It reminds me of something someone once told me about slapping (both electric and upright) bass: its an effect that doesn't compensate for the notes you choose to play. I think that sometimes we (by that I mean "I") forget this lesson and just slap away with not enough attention being paid to the actual notes, rhythm, and feeling the music is conveying. The bassist I saw today knew exactly the right balance between his music he was playing and his "effect."

One of things I was taken by was the number of people who were watching the pair play. People were really involved, some dancing, everyone applauding after each song. In fact, now that I think about it, very few people just walked by without stopping for at least a song. I know it sounds cliché, but there really does seem to be a greater appreciation of jazz in Europe than in North America. (I've noticed this many times before.) I'm not sure what the reason is (I want to hear a better reason than "cultural differences").

I also saw a bagpipe group, two string quartets, and a relatively large string ensemble playing out in the streets. All of these were playing for wedding parties who are walking just hanging out on the cobblestone streets downtown. I guess Saturday is also wedding day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eric Wilson's Against Happiness

I've been reading Eric Wilson's book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. I picked it up because several of the people in the research group I of which I am a member conduct research on subjective well-being (i.e., happiness). There is no shortage of criticisms regarding the search on positive psychology and happiness (for example, read this and this), and I myself have my own criticisms of this approach to studying economic policy.

Wilson's book, I hoped, would offer some interesting insights. Personally, my concerns with happiness studies are in part motivated by a framing effect that seemed right along the lines in Wilson's book. I think framing people's lives in terms of how happy they are can get people to think about the normative concept of how happy they should be. As a result, many people will feel unhappy as an artifact of not begin as happy as they should be. Since the pursuit of happiness motivates behavior, we should be concerned about giving people the wrong frame of reference or making salient benchmarks that should be irrelevant to current decision making. It's one thing to look at the income distribution and learn that you fall below median, it may quite another to learn that you fall below median happiness. That said, I'm not against studying the data we have on subjective well-being, I just think the results need to be interpreted (and implemented into policy analysis) with a great deal of caution.

This is what I hoped Wilson's book would deliver. Unfortunately, from my perspective, Wilson's book is a discussion of the melancholy in literature, particularly romantic literature. He talks about the power of feeling melancholy and how this is motivated great artists from Beethoven (who suffered from a "melancholy almost as great an evil as the other elements;" page 123) to John Lennon (Wilson's discussion of Lennon's melancholy starts with Yoko Ono; page 135).

As a result of perhaps poor product placement, this book has received a lot of negative reviews. (Here's Garrison Keillor's from the NYT.) So many that Wilson has responded, pointing out that people are looking at his book as something that it is not. It is an analysis of the melancholy from a literary perspective; it is not an argument or a case against happiness in research, as a policy tool, of in everyday life. We'll leave those arguments to others (for example, here, here, and here).

Beethoven Meets Goldie

Last night I took a walk around Bonn. Yesterday I wrote that Bonn was really a haven for classical music. But at night, I heard a lot of disco and jungle rhythms coming out of cafés and bars. Most interestingly, I heard (and more than a few places) classical remixes done in a drum and bass style. I know this make someone think of the 1980s remake of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a disco style, but what I heard last night was much more tastefully done.

There is one thing here it stops all music. As you walk through Bonn right now you won't hear a single note being played unless it happens to be something going on in the Czech/Portugal soccer match. I swear it's playing on a big screen television every café I walked past.

I also stopped into a music store today. I was surprised to see how expensive things were. For example, starter electric guitar and bass kits made by Yamaha were selling for over €200. The same kits (made by Fender) sell for around $200 at my local Long & McQuade. The store had Cort guitars selling for between €300 an €500. I picked one up and it was just what you would expect from a Cort guitar: it felt like it was going to break in my hands. Although I was shocked at the prices, I was impressed by their sheet music selection for double bass. They even had a few pieces written for Bertram Turetzky. I thought about purchasing them (and still may) but alot of the specifics about the notation and instructions for performance were in German. Still these pieces are hard enough to find in Canada and the prices seemed reasonable. (In fact it look like these pieces had been marked down substantially from their previously crazy prices.)

Oh yeah, I'm also getting some of my work done.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beethoven House

I'm in Bonn Germany for a few days, working at IZA. I got in today so only had a little of time in the office, but went for a walk later on. My goal is to stay up until 10pm tonight. (I haven't slept since 8am yesterday Mountain time.)

I went to the Beethoven Haus on my walk, a place I've gone to both times I've been in Bonn. Bonn is really a city of classical music. Beethoven lived here and his museum is really quite amazing. I'm always awed by the instruments and the original manuscripts here. Matt Heller recently wrote about Beethoven's "style" of writing and the "need" for corrections. I have to say that looking at his manuscripts, I have no idea how to read them. I assume they are drafts, hence the markings and edits throughout. It gives a great view into part of a real genius' creative process.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the instruments which Beethoven used when he wrote his String Quartet op. 18. The museum sells CD's of Beethoven's works performed on his instruments. I picked up the string quartets.

Tomorrow is time for real work though. I'm hoping the owner of my hotel will help me identify a few music stores here in Bonn.