3/20/15

Business, Work & Community

I'm thinking you might like a feat of analysis?; a brainstorm of reasoning?; or maybe just a mash-up of somewhat related thoughts? In any case, for a random essay, I will now attempt to explicate the relationship as I see it between business, work and community (if you think I'm crazy, don't - I'm having a good time with this). I think about this quite a lot, as I am passionate about combining these three concepts into my daily life. That said, you would be correct to assume that I have a hard time in the current economy, which seeks to divorce work life from home life.

Communities arose over time and are able to adapt to fulfill fundamental needs: companionship, protection, food, clothing, housing, child care, senior care, health care, education, transportation, entertainment and utilities. Communities generate the businesses and services necessary to accommodate these needs; communities also provide the workforces that businesses need to open and thrive. The people, the businesses and the labor are a self-sustaining system - in a word, the economy. I suppose that seems like an obvious conclusion, but this is the first time I've spelled it out for myself logically. I find two things about this intriguing: first, the idea that the larger "economy" started out as a small "community" which relies as much or more on social interactions as it does on fiscal transactions; and second, the revolutionary changes that the corporate form of business has had on both the community and the economy. Business used to exist for the well-being of community, but in the present world takes advantage of community - especially as urban populations swell and rural ones shrink.

The last three years wreaked havoc on my creative ambitions due to an exhausting and unfulfilling job. Three months ago, however, I started working at a brand new coffee shop/cafe/art gallery in Northeast Minneapolis called Mojo, with a very vague suspicion that here I would find the kickstart I was seeking for my creativity. I work at restaurants & cafes; I always will - I'm in the industry for life, but I have an inherent (from my dad) need to derive a deeper satisfaction from my work than just fulfilling the job duties. I desire to work in an environment that fosters creativity and genuinely accommodates meaningful, humanitarian interaction. This all seems a bit philosophical, but when put into practice requires only the social skills we all learn (hopefully) while growing up combined with the specific skill-sets we learn during grade school, college and job training. Work and life need not be mutually exclusive, and I believe there was a time not long ago when the predominant business model encapsulated these two aims: to be a part of the fabric of community; and do so by offering goods and/or services aimed at augmenting that community. I understand, however, that working for someone else most often takes one's own goals and dreams out of the equation, separating them from the work day. Because of this, if you work forty hours a week, you spend about one-third of your time awake accomplishing your employer's goals. Two-thirds of your time remain to achieve your own goals, and raise a family, and dedicate time for free-time, romance or recreation. The full-time work schedule was not established with your best interests in mind... it was created out of a nefarious scheme to render the workforce subservient to the corporate leaders, which has led to a change in our spending habits. Full-time employees, especially if they are also parents, have less time and energy off the job to shop for and cook food (much less grow their own), make their own clothes, fix their own cars and houses, or fellowship with family and friends. We now strive to achieve a certain level of disposable income in order to buy the goods and serves we no longer view as attainable on our own. The attitude of Americans becoming rampant and unwitting consumers has been a hot topic for a decade, yet the cultural penchant to consume has been meticulously calculated by the business sector.

Now I'll step off the soap box and come back to Mojo Coffee Gallery. You might initially think of the song lyric "mojo risin'" from The Doors, or the groovy connotation of the word used by Mike Meyers in the "Austin Powers" movies. In this context, however, the word mojo is used quite spiritually to conjure an image of passion and a desire to affect people through the performance of art and the immediacy of good food. I've perused the definitions of "mojo" and learned that the original word means a small cloth bag worn around the neck that carries a magical charm in it used to attract good luck or love, or to ward off evil spirits. Newer meanings of mojo relate more to personal charisma or confidence; having a quality that distinguishes a person apart from others; the essence of one's style. This is the idea that Mojo Coffee Gallery is built on: that a business can still have a soul. The story of how Mojo came to be involves a group of people attempting to create a space to reconnect community, art and business. I'm excited to see Mojo develop and I'm hopeful that this kind of place can still exist and thrive.

2/10/15

The Current Dilemma with "The Current"

The Current started ten years ago this winter, and as they celebrate their tenacity and momentum there's a new strain of disappointment filtering in following the dismissal of daytime d.j. Barb Abney. It seems as though a section of The Current's long-standing audience, myself included, are no longer as satisfied with the station's performance, and question the motivation to oust the dedicated, personable Barb Abney. Alright, I admit it may just be me (read this article from the Star Tribune), but The Current is publicly owned, and a public discourse should take place to evaluate its current state and future success. Here I offer my assessment of the station's progress.

I have always been a music lover. The earliest memories I have of music involve a 1970's Fisher Price dual-speed record player and a box of 45's. A specific remembrance of music accompanies most of the milestones in my life. I listened to The Current avidly the first four years it existed. The unconventional energy, inventiveness and diversity pumping out through my home stereo was so refreshing to ears tired of the previous decade of trend-setting, mass marketed, corporate-controlled, singles-based airplay. In the past The Current has recognized, discussed and presented the ways in which music history has influenced "current" artists - that's my take on the name of the station: that music flows like a current from one generation to the next. The programming for the first four years had no rival anywhere, as it moved seamlessly between genres, styles, periods and cultures. I remember when the mix would include Mable John and Zap Mama, then Joss Stone and Radio Citizen, then Aha and Duran Duran, then throw in that song by Robert Plant and Allison Kraus, then play the Black Keys (when they were good) and Ali Farka Toure and Sigur Ros and then something like Dire Straits, followed by A Tribe Called Quest and Nappy Roots. I have discovered so, so, SO, SOOOOO much music by listening to The Current; my musical tastes have broadened and expanded substantially. The associations and connections made by the dj's at The Current made music exciting again. Who else would've thought to juxtapose Katy Perry with Missy Elliott? Oh, right... never mind (even though I didn't watch the Super Bowl). Anyway, I'm just trying to express the profound impact that this radio experiment has had on the listening public.

I moved to New York City in 2008, luckily able to bring The Current with me online. My Minnesota Public Radio station still had no equal, even in the big, make that gigantic city where everything is possible and everything is available... except a great radio station (and cake doughnuts, and that stubborn Midwestern stoicism that oftentimes results in frostbite or pneumonia). I created innumerable stations on Pandora based on bands I'd heard for the first time on The Current. I was also elated when a band that I'd discovered for myself was played on The Current - it was a camaraderie of spirit; a playful volley of music impressions; an intrepid rediscovery of musical shapes and forms. During the four years I lived in NYC The Current began incorporating more and more popular, and also trendy, music - past and present - in ever-increasing proportions. The playlists were changing in a way that felt fabricated, just like the airplay of the nineties. In addition, the scintillating commentary from the d.j.'s about the music seemed to be phasing out of the program. Keeping up with the times is perfectly fine in and of itself, yet The Current was losing its cutting-edge philosophy of "the current of music" to a more banal pandering to a more mainstream audience. For several years I kept expecting to hear new music that was as inventive and interesting as its source material, yet I was continually disappointed. There are still intermittent times when the "old" Current shines through, but they are fleeting and tend to be either during a member drive (misrepresentation) or at six o'clock in the morning. To be fair, I surmise that the qualm I'm voicing has probable causes, such as the time of day I happen to listen, or the fact that "Take Me to Church" was the most requested song of last year. I am not insinuating that the programmers or d.j.s on The Current are losing their ability to produce content with more depth, but that the station has changed its course for the worse.

To jump to my point, I was a contributing member of MPR before New York, and have not re-subscribed since moving back to Minnesota, because of this (de-)evolution. The amazement, intrigue and curiosity I felt about this tributary of music that kept me coming back for more every day has been lost in the raging, expansive river. These days we listeners hear a daily barrage of recent songs in similar sounding blocks of songs, and we hear those blocks of songs three or four times a day. I want the passion The Current used to have to return. The songs that all the music scouts are seeking for the latest ad campaign or the latest movie theme can have their day on the radio, but The Current should be honoring its ten-year legacy by placing these trendy songs in the context of "the current". Bring back the digressions into punk, math/geek-rock, soul, hip-hop, jazz, avant grade, experimental, funk and blues. Play a different block of songs each time a highly-requested song is played. Be more spontaneous. Mix up those Hozier songs with some electro-swing... try Parov Stelar or Wax Tailor. Mix up that Jose James with some Ali Farka Toure or Afrika Bambaata. Mix up Courtney Barnett with The Kills or Shirley Bassey or Pat Benatar. Better yet, play for us some obscure female punk band from the late seventies; play some of the original songs sampled by the Beastie Boys or Dee-Lite; talk about what influenced Glass Animals or Lizzo. Play anything by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Chick Correa, Astrud Gilberto, Seu Jorge, Tom Waits, Caetano Veloso or Up, Bustle & Out. Bring back the connections and revelations that provide fresh insight to new music. I don't want to be placated by hearing familiar songs again and again - that doesn't stimulate the mind. I want to be inspired and enthused by hearing unique interpretations of "the current" of music and tune in to a live broadcast of authentic people affirming that creativity and artistry still thrive.

1/29/15

A Pale Boy; A Splintered Frame

A pale boy with blue eyes sits on a
brown back porch,
holding head in hands that
have gone numb
-
the full humid weight of the
sky tugs and pulls
down every recent day;
he sits on the steps of his
secret refuge,
the vacant, dilapidated house
-
as mosquitoes ravenously
persist,
and uncertainty hovers above
the trees,
inside the bulbous
gray
rain
clouds
-
a gust of wind opens the sky,
gutters start to swell with the
advancing rain
now intermittent,
now pouring down,
filling potholes and ditches
-
blades of grass luminate
a vibrant green;
pebbles darken in hue -
an acquired luster -
and release
their burden of heat;
the mosquitoes dissipate as
though dissolved
-
the soaked floorboards creak
under the first weight
set upon them in two years…
the boy walks through the
remains of rooms,
under the half-caved roof
and emerges from the
splintered frame
of the front door
-
he steps into the full deluge
and is running,
splashing through the puddles
with shimmering blue eyes,
and a magnificent white smile.

1/11/15

To Sum it Up

When was the last time you intentionally sat down and listened to an entire album, start to finish, without distraction? I was born between the era of records and the era of CD’s - when we had cassette tapes, and you had two choices: either suffer through the songs you didn’t like on an album, or spend way too long trying to fast-forward or rewind to find the song(s) you wanted to hear. Then CD’s took the place of tapes, and the freedom to instantly change songs had returned, so you can imagine my fondness for CD’s, which may never expire. I’m feeling as though I’ll be shopping at the CD store until the only CD’s still around to buy are greatest hits collections, so I have to ask: is the “Album” even a thing any more?

I haven’t listened to a complete album for far too long, but I recently brought home the first album I’ve ever bought by Slim Harpo, a New Orleans blues harmonica player from the late fifties and sixties. I poured myself a cup of coffee one morning and listened to the whole thing, relishing the rhythms and absorbing the acoustics. It was fantastic, and revived a dormant affinity in me for that experience. As the music played some thoughts started bubbling up from the depths about the history and relevance of the Album. I’m thinking mainly about pop music and how the presentation and format of new music has changed as technology changes. Digital forms of music are rendering the Album obsolete, along with compact discs. New music (and more broadly, new media) is increasingly summed up and presented in shorter and more condensed segments. Even though most bands are still compelled to release new material in album form, I would guess that most of the audience buys and/or listens to it in digital form. In the last ten years I’ve watched, to my dismay, the record sections (yes, I buy records too) in music stores dwindle down to almost nothing, and I’ve been heartbroken as many record stores went out of business. Suddenly the scenario has reversed and records are making a big comeback, while compact discs are dwindling. I’m quite certain the reason for that is because there are still enough people around who appreciate the tangible experience that an album provides.

The Brazilian coffee I was drinking that morning was really delicious, but even better was listening to an album with no interruptions. Many of Slim Harpo’s songs play through the standard form of verses and choruses, solos and bridges, all that sort of stuff - with a beginning and an end. On many tracks, however, something else happens at the “end” of the song: Harpo slides into a groove on his harmonica a few seconds before the volume fades out. The songs end at just the moment when my interest is piqued by the allure of spontaneous musical meanderings, when I’m ready to follow the musician wherever he might go… but there’s that blasted cut-off again. That harmonica groove seems to vanish into thin air, never to be heard.

I started to analyze my reaction to having the improvisation of a bluesman cut short. In my opinion, if a musician wants to launch into free-form, it should be allowed to continue… but then how would the album producer decide when to conclude each song? The standard or popular format for an album is that each song is a compartment that comes to an end that is as conclusive as it can be (unless the tracks are meant to meld into each other), which is the likely reason for fading out - before things get out of hand and become more difficult to sum up nice and neat. With pop music the listener’s attention is not distracted by a desire to interpret or formulate new thoughts, but is always prepared to hear what comes next. I’ve read that the sooner the chorus occurs in a song (ideally by the thirty-second mark), the more likely it will be played on the radio. Most of the time, even if the structure of a pop song is experimented with, there is a definite ending that gives closure to it and creates a space before the start of the next track. The song “Alive” by Pearl Jam, for example, diverges from the norm in the middle and culminates with three minutes of soulful guitar playing, yet still definitively ends with a few drum strokes.

I did some searching online to dig up the reasoning behind the popular structure of verse/chorus/verse. What I gathered is that musical form is created using repetition and contrast; or familiarity and surprise. Popular music is so highly pleasing (and sometimes addictive) because it exploits the repetition of catchy melodies or hummable phrases to generate an expectation of more of the same. The contrasting element - be it a segue, a bridge, overlapping parts, or a solo, etc., - then surprises the audience and prevents monotony (although I can think of some bands that have broken this rule and droned on intentionally: The Velvet Underground, Radiohead, Matthew Dear, Low, Sigur Ros, Wilco, Neil Young, Pink Floyd…). Here comes the revelation: repetition is the fastest way for a song to become familiar, kind of like how eating sweets is the fastest way to get sugar into your bloodstream… Aha! Ear candy. What we’re getting is the sugar high, not the nourishment of a balanced meal produced with an effort to cook and a knowledge of what satisfies our appetite. I ran this by a friend of mine and he conjured up the image of a relationship. I believe this is what Radiohead meant when they sang that “Anyone can play guitar” - that putting a verse and a chorus together with a few inventive measures of sound is an instant pleasure that can be produced by anyone while sitting in bed. The pop song, in relationship terms, thus equates to a night of making out. All other studied musical artistry parallels a deeper, more passionate relationship with another person - dependent more on emotions, desires and sacrifices than on gratification.

To be clear, I enjoy the pop form of music quite a bit, yet as I listened to Slim Harpo I wanted to break out of the mold. I wanted to follow those incomplete thoughts. I wanted to hear the improvisation that was only hinted at and let my mind wander the way it does listening to classical or jazz music - both of which have more complex forms and comprise more variation. Popular music is the only form of music that morphs to reflect the way media is distributed and received. We are now able to access the news and listen to music whenever we want, wherever we are, from unlimited sources. We sacrifice the profound impact that music can have on our souls for the convenience of pop music.