Monday, June 30, 2008

Geosong of the Week: Ventilator's "Earthquake Song"

This week's song is much more obscure than last week's, though I actually found it fairly early on in my search for earthquake-related music, thanks to typing "earthquake" into the iTunes music store to see what happened. This "Earthquake Song" is by a Los Angeles-based band called Ventilator, from their 1996 album "Reseda Spleen." (Is that not a fantastic album name? Spleen spleen spleen! And the guy on TV just said "spleen" as soon as I typed it - how weird is that?) It's another Northridge song - this would be evident from the album's release date and the "Reseda" in the title pinpointing the quake's actual epicenter - but the band's MySpace says outright that the idea for the song came after one bandmember's studio was trashed by the temblor. The song is in two parts: a section with lyrics, followed by an extended guitar solo.

The lyrics focus on the aftermath of the earthquake, rather than the imminent shaking, or the exact moment of the rupture. It also zooms in on one person wandering the bewildering postquake city and struggling with the enormity of the situation, rather than taking the city at large as the closest focus.
I couldn't find the lyrics transcribed online, so I'll take a stab at it. If I'm not supposed to do this, someone please let me know!

So you say you've walked the streets today.
What was left unharmed still remains.
Your hands are at your sides, you face me with denial.
How can we rely on our houses?

Gonna need a loan to hold us in.
Feel the movement, continental drift.
Don't be so surprised, your home is now a lie.
Remember how you walked without standing.

I particularly like that last line, since people that I know who experienced the Northridge quake talk about how they were basically thrown out of their beds. Why walk, when the ground walks for you? I also think the line about denial is interesting, since there seems to be a fair amount of it in southern California. There are a few quake awareness campaigns going on in the area now to try and fix this, but when I bring up quakes with non-sciency people, I have more often than not received a remark to the extent of, "Silly east coaster, stop worrying about that!" This song covers the switch from "haha can't happen to me!" denial to "how did that just actually happen?" denial.

Musically, this song hits me with a strong Beatles influence. I don't know if everyone will hear that influence as strongly as I do, but it was pretty much the first thing I thought upon listening, even before I considered the lyrics. The influence is more prominent in the first section of the song - the part with words. I think it's the combination of a modal scale as the basis for the melody, as well as the wide leap in register between the second and third phrases of the verse. Modes and interesting melody contours were not, apparently, things the Beatles set out to do on principle, but I think it sounds good. Ventilator's "Earthquake Song" hits that sound, to my ear, which is a very good thing as far as I'm concerned. The opening guitar riff is also pretty Beatlesy, but the end guitar solo isn't quite as much.

Considering I like this song, there's really no good reason why I haven't listened to the others available on their site yet.

Ventilator on MySpace
You can hear "Earthquake Song" and others on there. And there is not annoying flash.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Geosong of the Week: Natalie Merchant's "San Andreas Fault"

As someone with a strong background in the arts (visual art in addition to music), the latest edition of The Accretionary Wedge was particularly enjoyable to me. I had a great time reading all of the entries, and I was even more excited to see the numerous posts about geology in song lyrics that ensued. This, I figured, meant it was high time for me to start posting something I'd been thinking about doing for a while.

Last year, a friend and I went on a a road trip along the San Andreas Fault. (This was the trip that led to my accident, and also to the infamous LOLfaults.) In anticipation of such a trip, I figured we needed a playlist of relevant songs. The original list included only twelve songs, some of which were only related to earthquakes when put in context with the others (ie. "I Feel the Earth Move" and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"), but some of which were directly relevant. The list was a great accompaniment for the trip, but with future trips in the works, the list needed to grow. A boring summer library job was all the time I needed to dig up more. At the present time, the playlist is 41 songs long, out of which about 30 are actually directly related to earthquakes, or mention them explicitly. My plan is to write a post featuring one of these songs each week, at least throughout the summer, if not longer.

The first song I want to feature is the first song I found in this whole project; if I hadn't found it, I might not have thought to build a playlist to begin with. When I mention to people that I have compiled a list of earthquake songs, I tend to get asked if this one is on there: Natalie Merchant's San Andreas Fault.
I get the impression that this is one of the most mainstream/popularly exposed songs on the list. I certainly didn't have to dig far for it. And it's even been quoted in a serious book about the 1906 San Francisco quake (Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World) - not bad for a pop song!

"San Andreas Fault" is a song that seems subdued at first, but despite being quiet and predominantly-acoustic, the story within is devastating, to individuals and to whole regions. This is not a song with a snapshot narrative that doesn't go anywhere. It moves from complacence to conflict within a few minutes. I like this song. I like how the chord progression is different from the standard pop/rock I-IV-V-I. But I think the lyrics make this song - the imagery is very strong and poetic. Here are the lyrics.
I particularly like the image of the Fault moving its fingers through the ground, and the juxtaposition of "promised land" and "wicked ground." (I admit, nerdily enough, to titling an earthquake-related piece of fiction that I wrote "The Wicked Ground," after the line from this song.) Those phrases say so much about California, I think, with the combination of natural beauty and natural danger that pervades the state. I also find the verses about the Fault and its natural force to be all the more poetic compared to the first two verses, discussing human beauty and ambition. Those pale against what nature can do. Indeed, nature has no regard for human goals and dreams.

"San Andreas Fault" is the first track on Merchant's first solo album, Tigerlily, which was released in late 1995. Most of the recording was done in the winter of 1994. This timeline pretty much indisputably pegs this song as being a Northridge song. Since so much music comes as a response to historical events, it makes far more sense that the song was a response to the quake rather than an unconscious anticipation; if it had been written prior to Northridge, chances are there'd be blurbs along the lines of, "OMG SONG PREDICTS QUAKE!" I haven't found anything to that extent. Plus, the imagery in the first part of the song is clearly a reference to LA, what with the discussion of dreams of physical beauty and aspirations to the silver screen.

But the Northridge earthquake was not caused by the San Andreas - Merchant has blamed the wrong fault. This misconception is all too common (I even saw it on Wikipedia at one point, and promptly corrected it), particularly in songs. This is not the only time it turns up on the Playlist. Scientifically, it's an important misconception to get rid of, since people living in Southern California needs to realize the earthquake threat is not confined to one single fault, but is spread over many and is therefore even harder to evaluate and predict. But I suppose it can be excused for songs - if the songs are any good - providing people don't consider those songs to be literal lessons rather than poetic ones.

Natalie Merchant page on Rhapsody. You can listen to the song here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

June Sixteenth

One year ago Monday, I flipped my car off the freeway and was certain at the time that I wasn't going to survive the wreck.

This Monday, I graduated from UC Riverside with a Master of Arts degree in music composition.

Both of these things are kind of hard for me to believe, in a way, though both for different reasons. I still think about that accident almost every day, but considering how active I am now, driving and not suffering any residual pain, it's kind of hard to consider that it really truly happened, even if I remember all the details so clearly. And it's hard to believe it's already been a whole year, because I still remember it all so well. And as for graduation, after two years of school that became increasingly intense with each quarter, it's hard to believe that it's over (for that department, at least), rather than it's going to get even more intense. Being allowed to stick the letters "M.A." after my name if I feel like it seems almost anticlimactic after all that work.

I obviously never expected the accident. Who would? It took such a short time to occur, and yet changed my summer and my life and work since then in an enormous way. But I always expected that I would earn the Master's in music - and that's ultimately not changing my life nearly as much as I thought it would. I went into it knowing it would be the next step to making myself a better composer who was more likely to get a job in the field. But I'm coming out of it into a totally different discipline, not to the job world or to a music PhD. I certainly didn't expect that before the accident, for all I was fascinated by the local geology, but now that I've started working on it, I'm certainly glad for the change of course. I don't know if I really would have thought in earnest about switching if not for the shakeup that was that wreck. Can I be glad about a effect of an event, while still loathing the event itself? I suppose so, weird though it may be.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gongs, Gods, and the Ring of Fire

Java is the most densely-populated island on Earth, both in terms of humans and in terms of volcanoes. With cities built between these peaks and farms reaching uncomfortably far up the slopes, it is no surprise that this volcanism has greatly influenced the culture. National Geographic ran an article on Indonesian volcanoes in culture and the conflicts between spirituality and science earlier this year; I saw discussion when I was first getting into the geoblogosphere. But for all it was an interesting article, and for all the cultural discussion that was there, music didn't come up at all.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with a few ethnomusicologists and an anthropologist over whether central Javanese gamelan music is high art music or not. It is considered one of the major fine arts of Indonesia, but at the same time, this music is used for so many purposes and events that it not, in the strictest sense, art music. But regardless of how it's classified, its aesthetic, origin, and some of those uses are undeniably geological.

A gamelan consists largely of bronze keyed instruments and different styles of tuned gongs, both horizontally and vertically suspended. There are string and woodwind instruments involved, as well as vocals, but the core set of instruments are all heavy metal. The instruments, particularly, the gongs are cast by digging the form into the ground and casting molten bronze into it. The word gamelan comes from gamel, which means "to forge." While the heat from the actual volcanoes isn't used to melt the bronze, the heat of these forges is symbolic of the heat within the volcanoes. With that starting point, it could be read further that the molten bronze itself references the lava, forming the instruments like the volcanoes formed Java to begin with. The instruments are made as a set, not interchangeable with instruments from other gamelans; each set is given a name, often related to the landscape and natural setting of the city in which the set of instruments is to reside. UC Riverside's is Kyai Telaga Semu, or "Venerable Lake of Illusions," referencing mirages in the desert surrounding the university. UCLA's is, amusingly, "Venerable Dark Cloud." I have no doubt that volcanoes find their way into the names, where appropriate.

The most important instrument in a gamelan, though it has the fewest notes, is the great gong. The legend of the first gamelan states that the sultan needed a way to contact the gods, so he invented the gong; other gongs were added to contact other gods, and the ensemble grew. The gods in question are believed to reside in the volcanoes; there are some volcanoes, most notably Merapi, which is located between Javanese cultural centers Surakarta and Yogyakarta, with resident gamelans in caves on the slopes, which are played to keep the godly residents of the volcano appeased and less inclined to induce eruption. To speak to a volcano, the sound would need to be loud and low. The great gong consists of several hundred pounds of bronze, and makes a sound so low that it tests the bottom range of human hearing. When playing in a gamelan, you can feel the gong just as much as you hear it; the compressional sound wave pulses past you, as if the gong is the central vent of a volcano unleashing an explosion, or the epicenter of an earthquake. Even the names of instrument and mountain are related: gong ageng, or "great gong," has the same root as gunung, or volcano. A further connection here is that the animistic spirit of the gamelan resides in the gong, much like the larger gods reside within the volcanoes.

Javanese gamelan music is cyclical. There is a set framework pattern of notes that is repeated over and over, with variations in tempo and underlying texture. This music also has three basic levels of instrumental parts: those that play the framework, those that elaborate virtuosically within the framework, and those that punctuate. The gong is the strongest punctuation - it marks each repetition of the cycle, and marks the very beginning and the very end of a performance of a piece. To me - though I have not yet heard or read anything that definitively confirms or disproves this - having the gong be the beginning and the end at once is like the explosive part of an eruption cycle. Is the bang the end of one buildup, or is it the event that allows the next buildup to begin? Another feature of gamelan music is that more punctuation indicates a more intense mood, regardless of speed and volume. A quick piece with sparse punctuation would be considered less intense than a slow piece with frequent punctuation, and pieces used to represent fight scenes in shadow puppet theatre or dance have multiple punctuation strokes per note of the main melody. Could this relate to the eruption cycle as well - the more noise and material shooting out of the volcano, the more intense the eruption? These particular connections are things about which I have not seen research, but I am very curious to know if this is real, or if I'm just overanalyzing. I suspect I'd need to speak/read Javanese to figure this out, so I may enlist one of my Javanist ethnomusicologist friends to help me dig, since the only Javanese words I know are directly related to gamelan.

I've been playing in the UCR Javanese gamelan for two years now, and I absolutely love it. I joined the group for purely aesthetic reasons - I loved the sound of the music - but the more I learn about the structure of the music and the culture behind it, I appreciate it more and more in deeper ways. The undeniable connection to geology in this music is an added bonus, but one that makes gamelan even more fascinating and beautiful to me.

And now, since I've been jabbering about this for a lot of lines, here's a soundfile of a gamelan piece. This is the group in which I play, from our 6 June 2008 concert. We're not Javanese professionals by any means, but our instructor and guest singer have been studying Java for decades, and we had a guest director come in from Yogyakarta to work with us. These are good people to have in charge. This particular piece is a ladrang, which has 32 notes per stroke of the big gong, and it is often used to open a concert.
Ladrang Wilujeng

Friday, June 6, 2008

I have not been subducted! I promise!

With all the posts about the geoblogosphere expanding and going "mainstream," I feel even more guilty about not posting anything in two weeks than I would have anyway. I'm good at the self-guilt-tripping thing! I am sorry for not having read your posts all that carefully in the past couple of weeks!

One major reason for this is that, since my last entry on 22 May, I have played in eight concerts: three of Renaissance music (Tuff Cookie, I'm not going to bring the school's viol on a cross country flight when I head east this summer, but maybe I will haul it to AGU!), two of all-Russian orchestral music, one of bluegrass, one of student compositions (a piece that I composed was also on this concert), and one of music from around the world (in which I played mariachi, bluegrass, and Javanese gamelan). I still have two more concerts left before the end of the quarter, and this list doesn't include the ones from earlier in May.

This is a lot. It is making me exhausted - I do, after all, have other school work! But I think that if this were last quarter, it would be burning me out a lot more than it is. I'm sure the reason I'm not spontaneously combusting in all of this is knowing that, even though the music department still owns me until next Monday, this stuff is no longer my job. Finding out that I did officially get in to the earth science department after waiting so long to hear relieved a lot of stress on its own, but I didn't expect it would make such a difference in my outlook toward the rest of music school. With the ensembles, I can really enjoy them again, since they have no bearing on my academic future or career. That my attitude toward some of the more tedious groups improved almost immediately upon my receiving that acceptance letter tells me even more that I've made the right choice about switching majors. I'll be learning tons of things about a science that's always fascinated me (both now, in school, and in the future, through research), all the while preventing myself from completely burning out on music. Win win!

(The geology classes have also gotten me off my butt and out of my apartment a lot this quarter. That does not happen with music classes. Getting outside every weekend and stomping around on desert mountains has also, I think, been wonderful for my sanity. And not to mention for getting rid of some of the weight that comes from being a music major who never gets outside.)

And that got pretty rambly. I guess that's what happens when I write 12:30 AM blog entries after long concerts. I promise I will write more about actual geological topics soon!