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The audible count off (“1…2…3…4) is one way for a tune to get on its feet. It establishes expectations for what the listener will hear. Even if there are slight variations to counting off, room for any sort of creative leeway seems limited.

Yet that is an unjustifiable claim. As humans, we operate in this messy space between accidental and deliberate action. Even something as simple and straightforward as counting off can have an infinity’s worth of variations between the numbers. How interesting yet how reassuring.

Here are a few takes of counting off in music that blur accidental and deliberate:

Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” begins with Gabriel counting off. It is a normal count off at first: “1…2…”. But then, instead of going “3…4”, Gabriel just says “4” on the “3”, saying nothing on the “4” as a guitar line acts as the pickup for the tune.

In Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, the version off of Damaged, Henry Rollins sings the hook with the drums and then counts off by himself. Rollins’ count off slightly decelerates from the initial tempo of the tune, creating slight disorientation as the song drives through in this new rhythm.

The Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free has a comically strange count off in “America Drinks”. Zappa gives the “1…2…” and then adds “buckle my shoe”: a little rhyme instead of “3…4”. The tune then starts at a new tempo entirely. It is as if Zappa’s count off was just there for comic relief, not for establishing a rhythm.

Or take Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” off of Computer Love. A robotic voice counts off in German to 8 and the tune takes that as the tempo. This count off is not just left alone. It is further integrated through the song as count offs in other languages are introduced. The whole song arguably revolves around count offs.

 

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Mobile cafes are a recent phenomenon that has been getting its legs within the last couple of years. In September 2014, Fresh Cup magazine published Reagan Crisp’s article on mobile cafes titled “A Moveable Feast: Driving and Riding the Mobile Wave”.

One mobile cafe that is highlighted is the coffee truck of Oklahoma City’s Mariposa Coffee Roasters. Their truck started with an instance of serving volunteer firefighters in a rough patch. From that point on, Crisp writes, “[t]hey realized then that if they had a coffee truck they could serve the community whenever, wherever…The truck is their lifeline to the community”. Mobility lets Mariposa Coffee Roasters reach their community.

Amyie Kao, cofounder of Mariposa, offered her thoughts on their purpose: “Coffee is much more than a beverage…It has the power to shape the atmosphere of a gathering, the experience of a story, and transform a setting”. Mariposa can take this power that coffee exudes and explore other avenues than settling down with one shop.

Kao could have easily been describing music, something that has entertained mobility in various guises. The internet might top this list but we will stick to physical mobility. Most obvious, musicians travel from gig to gig, whether on tour or a weekend hustle. This is a bit distanced from the mobile cafe idea. Maybe its more akin to taking ones roasted espresso beans to various coffee shops and hoping to sell them to use in their lattes. It isn’t roasting and making espresso drinks on one’s own with a bike or truck.

One of the closest examples to the mobile cafe were the mobile sound systems in Jamaica during the advent of Reggae and Dub in the late fifties and sixties.  With a person operating the system and a deejay supplying banter, mobility allowed sound systems to amplify excitement at parties and get togethers all over the island.

What is unique about this mobile model is that it lets people continually redefine where and what their community is. Could there be a kind of mobile music hub in the vein of the mobile cafe and sound system? A bus or something that acts as a performance and get together space for musicians and aficionados? Does it even have to be something physical?

Maybe mobility could also be a mode of thought. A mobile cafe can keep returning to the same spot, developing a following there, and expand to another place and do the same thing there. Rinse and repeat. In that sense, we could not only work on our immediate community but reach out bit by bit but with the intention of developing lasting relationships.

Repeating Kao’s statement within another lens, music is much more than sound. “It has the power to shape the atmosphere of a gathering, the experience, of a story, and transform a setting”. Why not take this power wherever we can?

 

“In the pure pursuit of its own formal law it [chamber music] critically honed itself against the activities of the music market and against the society they complied with”.

– Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music 

Musical happenings can be exhilarating in how they too contort reality. Once that threshold is passed from the public sphere to this private sphere, things start to change.

The house DJ of The Paradise Garage, a famous discotheque in New York City from ’77 to ’87, was Larry Levan. While Levan was around, The Paradise Garage was in full “pursuit of its own formal law”, throwing caution to the wind whilst doing so. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton reflected on this other world that Levan created at The Paradise Garage in their history of the DJ, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life:

“Levan could drive dancers wild with desire or work them into a fury of frustration, often at the same time…Once (while sitting on a rocking horse), he had the whole club dancing to nothing more than a few of his live keyboard doodles, unaware that the record he was accompanying had finished minutes ago”

“One time Francois Kevorkian, a regular guest DJ there, remembers him putting on a movie instead of music. ‘What are you going to do? There’s two and a half thousand people there and you suddenly play Altered States. That’s the kind of freedom that I think people need to know exists.

Within the power of communal musical experiences, this kind of freedom can exist. We can use this freedom to pursue our “own formal law” within a community. By replacing societal norms within these gatherings, we can offer a different glimpse of how things are, could be, and should be.

Music can take us somewhere else. Yet let us not forget that, within our power, the communal rituality of music can take us to another place entirely.

There is another segment of interest from Joshua Jampol’s interview with Kasper Bech Holten, head of Copenhagen’s Royal Opera. It is from Jampol’s insightful collection of opera interviews, Living Opera. 

Here is Holten’s response to the question of what vision of opera he has been refining and sharing with his company:

“That’s what I like about the refined metaphor ‘The Emotional Fitness Center’. If you don’t get on the machines, if you don’t contribute, it doesn’t work. You can go to all the fitness centers you want and look at the machines. That doesn’t help; you won’t get slim or trained. You have to invest yourself and your own emotional life. You have to use your love muscle and your hate muscle to get something out of opera”. 

Holten implies that our emotions need to be trained to remain healthy. Opera is a means to keep emotionally fit. All music, in this sense, can be a means of keeping our emotions in shape.

It makes one wonder if there is a musical regimen that can work out all these emotional muscles. Is that that point though? Everyone has different means of staying healthy. Emotional makeups vary from person to person. Perhaps that is not the point.

Maybe we should be aware of what emotional muscles are worked by the types of music we listen to. Once noticed, there might be an imbalance, whether that be an overcompensation or lack in one muscle. We could, for instance, just be listening to aggressive music. Our anger muscles could be highly developed from this. However, our calm muscle would be getting nothing and could need more orientation and care.

Our emotional health attributed to the music we listen might be something we all need to lend more consideration to.

 

Joshua Jampol has a great interview with Kasper Bech Holten, head of Copenhagen’s Royal Opera, in his book Living Opera. This bit was of interest:

“It forces us to think about why we’re here, what we’re doing, then telling that story…So it was very important for me to find answers to that question – What is opera, and why do we do it? – to find answers to that question – What is opera, and why do we do it? – answers I could tell myself, my artists, my staff, and the audience. And have it be one coherent story I tell behind the scenes and to the public…You need a vision for why we exist. Why do we spend so much of the taxpayer’s money? What’s our contribution?”

Jessica Hopper, editor in chief of The Pitchfork Review, had a great conversation on Longform Podcast. Here is a wonderful part that writer Austin Kleon found fascinating:

“Back then, pre-internet, everybody was expected to participate, to keep the economy of things alive… That was what a fanzine was. I have a very distinct memory of going to a show in Minneapolis as a teenager and hearing someone who I very much respected in the scene talking about how, ‘Oh, that guy, he just goes to shows. He doesn’t play in a band, he doesn’t book anything, he doesn’t make a fanzine, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t put bands up at his house. He doesn’t do his part.’ And I was like, ‘I gotta do a fanzine. I gotta have something to show for being here…’.

Holten and Hopper both emphasize the question of contribution. They constantly asked themselves what part they were playing for their music community. Holten had to question not only the government funded Royal Opera’s existence but its service to Copenhagen. Hopper had to question not only her existence in Minneapolis’ music scene but her service to it.

There is a lesson there.

Say there is a gallery where every painting has no attribution to the artist. In its place, the person who made the frame for the painting is given credit. Even if the frame lends much of its power from the painting, the gallery decides that the viewing public should know of the frame maker only.

In improvisation based music, those who create the tune or the guidelines for musicians is given compositional credit. In some sense they are the frame makers. Those musicians that add the color and richness of improvisation to these frames often go unattributed or listed as a performer and not a creative contributor.

Andrew Durkin, who inspired much of these thoughts, has written about this issue in his book Decomposition: A Music Manifesto. He writes that “[i]mprovisation is more often than not the real point of such music, adding a good deal of content that wasn’t there in the first place – including not only new melodic ideas but variations on the harmony and even form of a pice. Yet for all its aesthetic impact, none of this is typically recognized as compositional”. Even if the frame is made for the painting, the frame maker is only recognized.

There are also plenty of times when the painter is given credit over the framer. Some jazz numbers are known by the performer rather than the person who wrote it. It makes one wonder whether the delineation between a composer and performer is even as easy as a frame and a painting. Compositional credit might not even be the point.

Maybe messiness is the point.

 

Walt Whitman published seven editions of Leaves of Grass between 1855 and 1891. Poems would be fixed and added to the collection with each subsequent edition. In the second he prefaced the poems with a congratulatory letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson when he read the first printing of the book.

Besides a handfuls of other pieces of prose and poetry, Leaves of Grass was his artistic statement which was far from a static monument. It was a work in progress since it was published until Whitman’s death.

Kanye West’s latest album, Life of Pablo, is as curiously shifting as Leaves of Grass. Since its “release”, songs from the album have been edited and new track listings have surfaced. The process of this album is described beautifully in an article written by Joe Carmanica.

West takes a cue from the flux of literary editions and, in the hyper speed of today’s world, has curated many editions of this record. Openness of process flies in the face of a definitive and polished musical product. Life of Pablo exists in the edits.

Towards the end of his life, Ulysses S. Grant cryptically wrote, “The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun”. What would happen if we could say that as musicians and if our work could say it just the same? Perhaps Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s statement of Grant’s decree.