Thursday, June 16, 2011

Let's Get Sirius

Well, live and learn. I got some books on CD at the library before beginning the trip, knowing that the narrow band of what radio plays is too little and its constant shouting and commercials too much. Imagine my delight when I saw a little USB port in the rental car inviting me to plug in my I-Pod!!  Imagine my frustration when it kept reading, “Error. Can’t access.”

And then one more round of delight when I accidentally pushed a button and something new came on—radio without commercials and choice far beyond the norm. I’m talking not one, but SEVEN different jazz options and then classical music of all sorts and then comedy, sports, news, even some books on tape. And of course, pop, disco, hip-hop, what have you. You all probably know all about SiriusXM, but this was new to me.

On the Sirius Website, they say things like “Imagine just about every kind of music.” Under “Tell Me What I’ll Hear,” they say, “The question is what won’t you hear on SiriusXM?” Under “How Much Does It Cost?” they say, “You can’t put a price on being able to hear exactly what you want, when you want.” This is typical Madison Avenue, with its over-the-top promise and exaggeration, but it’s also part of a pervasive thinking that bothers me. The kind of thing like “I-Pad. It does everything you could ever want or imagine.”

And I just have to take issue with that. I-Pad may help me order tomato seeds, but it won’t water them. It may give me a recipe, but it won’t cook my meal or wash my dishes or light the candles at the dinner table or assure a scintillating conversation. It might get me a date through some dating network, but it won’t mend my broken heart. It might help send out the funeral notice, but it won’t heal my grief. You get the idea. You just have to be careful about that “everything” claim. It’s both insulting to the machine by claiming too much and to the human being by claiming too little for our deepest needs and desires. 

Now in my short two days with Sirius as commercial free radio, I’m pretty impressed. The jazz selections were wide and varied and hit both the classics and some new material. The categories—Siriusly Sinatra, 60’s rock, Latin jazz, etc. —were intriguing. But when it claims to cover all kinds of music, it is throwing the gauntlet into my territory. I have no choice but to pick it up and set things straight. Pay attention— there will be a test.

For starters, I noticed that amidst the 50 or 60 choices, I never found one for American folk music. I’m not talking Peter, Paul and Mary here (though that would be sweet), but real homegrown folk music— Appalachian ballads and dance tunes, Georgia Sea Island ring plays, New England sea chanteys, Louisiana Cajun music, cowboy songs, Tex-Mex music, Native American chants, Minnesota polkas, Mississippi Delta Blues, chain-gang songs, spirituals and much, much more. Part of the car journey mythos traveling through landscape could be actually hearing the music that grew from that place, the whole rich heritage of our musical polyglot. Wouldn’t that be something? So note what’s omitted from the “everything “ claim— not just that it’s hard to find Sundanese gamelan or Afro-Columbian Currulao, but difficult to find Jean Ritchie singing her Kentucky family’s songs or Mississipi John Hurt plucking out his blues or Bessie Jones singing clapping plays with children in Georgia.

Sit up straight here, because this is important stuff. We all see (and hear) the world through our narrow band of exposure and experience and that’s okay as long as we’re aware that it ain’t the whole deal. Stop anyone on the street in America and ask them, “What types of music are there?” and I imagine (though maybe I’m being generous here), that most will say “Rock. Pop. Rap. Jazz. Classical. Country.” Pressed further, they might sub-divide into Alternative, Heavy Metal, Punk, Disco or Swing, Be-bop, Jazz-Rock, Latin or Opera, Baroque, Romantic, etc. The more musically conscious might spin off into New Age, Techno, Minimalist and that catch-all, World Music. But still, this is just the tip of the tip of a mammoth iceberg that most can barely imagine.

Take my bagpipe. Please. (Snare drum, ka-chunk!) If I say bagpipe, you say Scotland. (Except in Scotland, where a kid pressed to figure out where it’s from said “Tenerife.” Huh?) And now I have to tell you about the Uillean pipes from Ireland, the Northumbrian pipes of England, the Gaita from Galicia, the Zampogna from Italy, the Dudelsack from Germany, the Sackpipa from Sweden, the Musette from France (one of 15 different French bagpipes, each with its own name) before finally arriving at the Gaida from Bulgaria (also called gaida in Greece). And that’s not getting into the Middle East, North Africa or India—nor does it cover all the European pipes.

And if you should get into Bulgarian gaida music, you’ll have to distinguish between different size gaidas and the distinction in styles that come from each region. And within those styles, the particular dance rhythms (pravo horo, paidushka, richinitza, lesnoto, daichovo, etc.). And probably not a single one of them is represented on SiriusXM.

If you’re very musically hip, you might know that samba and bossa nova come from Brazil, but you won’t impress anyone there if you also don’t know something about Maracatu, Frevo, Ciranda, Choro, Lambada, Samba-Reggae. And by the time you finally learn something about these styles, four more new ones have probably been invented. Same with Cuba, Colombia, India, China—well, really, just about every place on the planet.

And besides musical styles, there are all the composers and musicians whose work is worthy, but underexposed. I’m thinking Johannes Ockeghem and John Dunstable, Herbie Nichols and Blossom Dearie, Federico Mompou and Gunild Keetman, Mark Growden and…well, the list is long.

Music and musical style is a moving target, a response from people to the landscape and the times they live in and often both. Cosmopolitan culture groups them under broad categories that give the illusion of uniformity, but the actual diversity is extraordinary. For SiriusXM to truly represent “all kinds of music” would probably require thousands of channels. And that’s just the recorded music. Keep in mind—and I know I’m stretching your imagination here—that most of the music played today and certainly in the past has not even been recorded. Before recording technology (just a mere century old), its notes and structures might be captured on paper (and again, a very, very small percentage of it at that), but most of it evaporated in the air or echoed in the minds, ears and hearts of the listeners and the players. And that is still true today. It’s a large, large world and there are enormous chunks of it—music, dance, art, poetry, what have you—that still has not been captured, recorded, studied, shared and made public. Just a reality check for the "everything" claim.

SiriusXM feels like a good step in a good direction and I thank them. But why stop here? Two suggestions for the Sirius programmers to take their job more seriously:

1)    Consider a yet broader band of music to reach the listening public. Offer a few things off of the beaten paths. (Starting with the 26 recordings I’ve made of the kids at The San Francisco School since 1983! Over 900 pieces arranged for the Orff Ensemble by kids from 3 to 14 years old.)

2)    Don’t feed the hubris that we know it all and have captured it all on our machines. Modify your adjectives—from “every kind of music” to “a number of kinds of music”—from “hear exactly what you want” to “hear some things you want to hear and others you didn’t even know you wanted.” You get the idea.

And this to serious Sirius listeners: Everything you enjoy listening to—from Jean Ritchie's Wondrous Love to James Brown’s Popcorn to Mozart’s Requiem to Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight and beyond came from a particular time and a particular place and a particular culture and a particular person or group of people who were living it at the height of their senses, emotions and intelligence. They weren’t just entertaining themselves pleased that they had videos, recordings, games, at their fingertips. They were actively making and shaping the culture by actively making and shaping art.

Let’s not forget that. To make art one must live an authentic life larger than the constant distraction of instant entertainment. You gotta get your hands dirty, your heart broken, your shoulder punched, your car repossessed—and then tell about it. You gotta turn off the flickering screens and look around you, take the earphones out and listen, put down the book and talk to someone.

So stop reading this Blog, go out and do something and then write a song about it. Record it on your Flip, put it up on Youtube, advertise it on Facebook and if you’re lucky, someone will record it and include it on SiriusXM. And I’ll listen to it the next time I drive out West.

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