Brian Whitman: So, my question is: What is it about MUSIC as a form of expression that it can change people's moods or views?
Mike Keneally: That I can't answer. Some things are so beautiful that they defy analysis...the power of music is, I believe, one of these things.
Brian: Could it be the actual NOTES or CHORDS present within? A funeral dirge is much less 'happy' than, say, 'Take The A-Train'. But WHY? Are we as humans trained to believe that minor chords and the such at a slow tempo = sad, and rising notes going up a scale at a fast beat = happy? Is this instinct or pure training?
Mike: Pure training. I don't know which composer decided, years and years ago, that those would be the standards. But they did and other composers followed suit and hundreds of years of popular commercial music have operated therein. The music of cultures unaffected by these trends is a whole other kettle of fish. One culture's unlistenable dirge is another's joyous victory song.
Brian: Look at Boil That Dust Speck. I love this album too, however it is definitely NOT my feel-good album.
Mike: Because both you (who receives the music as not "feel-good") and I (who created it with that intention) have been shaped by the standards of Western Cultural music tradition.
Brian: It is my 'hate-my-life-hate-my-girlfriend-kill-my-dog' album. I love the song 'Land Of Broken Dreams' because it's so - ANGRY. You seem to capture pure angriness and force in one song, and I find that personally beautiful. Now, I've read the liner notes billions of times, and I can see why this is so - personal losses on your side changed your outlook on things, and therefore, the music on 'Speck.' That is absolutely amazing to me - how you can convey these emotions on a 5" piece of plastic. BUT,
HOW DID YOUR BRAIN KNOW HOW TO DO THIS?
What is the instruction set (sorry, thinking logically) that tells your brain to play a heavy - toned minor chord when you feel angry? Why does this make the general population feel angry as well?
Mike: Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning.
Brian: Are there people out there who dance around with sunflowers to 'Cause Of Breakfast' while crying every time they hear 'Day Of The Cow'? Who tells us this?
Mike: It could well be. Because they were conditioned to receive it that way. But the effect of generations of conditioning eventually seeps into the genetic pool. When my one year old daughter hears Disney songs her face lights up and her arm pumps to the beat. When I play her Zappa in the car she doesn't have the same automatic reaction (although she certainly doesn't mind, and if the beat's really infectious she might start with the arm - she's very rhythmically oriented, which is NOT across the board conditioning for our culture. Some have rhythm and some don't for some odd reason). She has received genetic code from her parents' conditioning.
Brian: I can write off most of my happiness w/ your albums to experiences, i.e. driving home from Philadelphia from a concert, me, Rob, and Chris had hat. blasting out the car CD player and all singing along. (Me+Chris do a mean 'apple pie' and seriously considered playing it for our school's talent show, but no.) So, everytime I hear the album, I can remember fondly days past and fun and concerts in Philadelphia. Kind of like a musical-flash-card. Pop music doesn't do that.
Mike: That's an inaccurate generalization. Perhaps it doesn't do it for you, but the songs I heard on AM radio when I was growing up invariably produce strong nostalgic reactions, frequently with a time/place correlary, when I hear them today.
Brian: When I bought the new Bela Fleck album (Tales From The Acoustic Planet, it's great, buy it...) I hadn't heard it yet, yet it made me indescribably happy. Bouncing around in my room happy. Air-banjoing along happy. I had no memories of this album. I had just bought it! So, there we go, back to the instinct theory again.
Mike: Scott thought it was too new-agey. It affected him completely differently. Everyone puts their genetic coding to use in a slightly different way.
Brian: I don't know, Mike, this whole thing confuses the hell outta me, and maybe a logical minded musician like yourself can answer me.
Mike: Understand that everything I have written above is off the top of my head, with no protracted consideration given the topic at hand. I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.
Brian: My brother is a musician (goes to Berklee like Bryan did) but he stopped listening to my kind of music long ago and now buys $40 import albums of guys banging on pipes. So, really, I can't ask him much.
Mike: No, but maybe you can listen to his pipe-banging albums and find out what he hears in them. The first step toward throwing off the shackles of your genetic conditioning is understanding that a certain degree of beauty is present in all music, especially that which is conceived and executed with integrity and sincerity.
Joseph McConkey: My quest for Dust Speck almost came to an end last week when I finally held the CD in my own hands at a local record store. I could not contain myself when I showed the disc to a friend. As I walked up to the counter to make my purchase I realized that Newbury Comics (the record store in Boston) did not accept any plastic. So I hid the album behind Baby Snakes and took off to an ATM machine to buy some money.
When I came back with my cash I discovered that the CD was gone. My friend insisted that it was still in the store somewhere, but I told her that I had made a fatal mistake by hiding it behind a Frank album. I asked the clerk at the counter if anyone had recently purchased your album and she said that some guy who has been looking for it for a while just left very happy. Oh well, my quest continues.
Mike: I'm sorry for your loss but I like the story. Better luck next time!
Steve Vai: It is with a very heavy heart that I unfortunately write this letter. First I would like to say I love your web site, congratulations. It's nice that fans can reach and communicate with a musician they admire.
Mike: Thank you!
Steve: But there was one letter that I personally found very disturbing. It is very sad to me that you despise the Zappa's Universe project so much. It's true that some aspects of it were of the unsavory nature and for all those reasons I feel for you and with you, but in case you haven't noticed, you will find scavengerness in any aspect of any business. (Even charity organizations).
Mike: I do know this to be true.
Steve: But there was also another side of the Zappa tribute concert that I believe you have failed to acknowledge. That is that it was a tribute to Frank and we were all there in respect and love for Frank and I believe that's how the audience felt it (and in some ways maybe Frank too).
Mike: I know I didn't cover that aspect within the section in question (because the guy who wrote the original letter seemed mostly interested in the window- kicking) but I have acknowledged that fact elsewhere, particularly in the column about Frank I wrote for Guitar Player a few weeks after he left. Both there, and in the ZU entry on the Discography section of the Keneally page, I note that the intentions of the performers were pure and above reproach. As you know, it's two other things that particularly rankle me about the project: the relentless headaches it caused for Frank and the family (including Polygram suing Frank - not much of a tribute there) and the shoddiness of the CD from a technical standpoint (the video is more useful, I find).
Steve: It is resentful that Frank found so much grief from certain goings-on as a result of this extravaganza, but our intentions were not to bring him any kind of misery and I believe he knew that.
Mike: He definitely knew that. After all, Dweezil played in ZU too...Frank never held any of the performers responsible for what happened afterward.
Steve: Yes, the production and editing and etc. was not up to the standard of a Frank record but who on Earth could deliver that properly but Frank?
Mike: Good point.
Steve: It was obvious the time and dedication you put into that show. I (like others) was amazed at your whole performance and contribution. It's very sad that you look back on the event with such disgust, but it's worse that you have to carry that around with you and it's horrendous that you take that event (which to some of us was somewhat sacred, Grammy or not) and try to poison the image of it with every chance you get.
Mike: At this point I can only apologize. It's obvious that what I've said has hurt you and you have to know that this was never my intention. I can be a very cranky guy at times, and I sometimes derive too much pleasure from taking potshots at easy targets. Part of it, also, is that I spend so much time with the Zappa family (for whom the phrase "Zappa's Universe" is one of the least-welcomed phrases in the English language), and it has become effortless to dismiss the project at every turn. I do receive a lot of messages from people who really enjoy ZU, and perhaps I shouldn't so gleefully "poison the image" that others hold.
Steve: It's a beautiful piece of music, performed well by a very good band. It was a team effort as I have stated in the press before. Yes, Frank's death was the main factor involved in the winning of the Grammy and that's the Academy's way of acknowledging him (Always has been their way), but it was also a decent performance. I personally felt incredibly honored to be a part of it.
Mike: At the time of the shows I was convinced that they were absolutely wonderful and we were doing a great thing for Frank. These feelings have been corrupted by corporate avarice...but that's my misfortune and mine alone. I'm very happy that you've maintained a good perspective on the whole thing.
Steve: From when I was a young kid, up through the years I worked with Frank, my whole musical fantasy and consciousness revolved around pleasing him with the way I performed his music. The Grammy seemed astonishingly and poetically ironic to me. But it's an honor I proudly will carry through the rest of my life because I know why I was there and I believe it was the same reason why you were there.
Mike: Absolutely. My reaction to the Grammy win was non-logical, completely visceral, and shocking to me in the depth of its rage. I swear to you that I did not make any effort to manufacture the feelings that caused me to kick in that window; they welled up without any prompting. It is not a source of pride to me, but the question was asked and I answered honestly.
Steve: Also, I am curious to know who told you that me overdubbing my guitar part to get it "just so" was a "huge shameful secret".
Mike: Joel [Thome] told me it was essential that no one know. I can't tell you how glad I am that this edict did not originate with you.
Steve: I have never denied that I redid my part, I've even stated it in certain press. I will be the first one to tell you and anyone who asks that usually my live guitar tracks are abysmal trash. When it comes to playing live, most of the time I am a horrific hacker.
Mike: I've seen you live enough times to know that you're being absurdly modest here.
Steve: Before I even considered stepping on an airplane I made it unequivocally clear to all those at Poly Gram that I had to have the right to fix my guitar parts because I was sure that most of it would be shit. I wanted to be able to present my contribution to Frank with pride, regardless of his sometimes harsh criticism. To be perfectly honest, it has always amazed me that Frank hired me and kept me in the band as long as he did, (blue hair maybe?).
Mike: Blue hair is a good thing, but glorious technique and feel, hair-raising transcription/doubling abilities and commanding stage presence might have been factors as well.
Steve: I have to torturously punch through all my guitar parts in the studio. Sometimes they come out O.K. but when I was done with Sofa, to me it was very O.K. To me it was one of my best performances ever. Besides Frank and the fans, I always hoped you would be pleased with it too. I never intended for it to be "a mondo fucking deception".
Mike: This is the part of your letter that cuts the deepest. It forces to me to face my own prejudices/jealousies...the fact is, I take your brilliance so much for granted that I rarely feel the need to trumpet it. Of course your playing on "Sofa" is superb, but you're so consistently superb all the time that it hardly seemed worthy of notice. This is an absurd way for me to behave, and once again I apologize.
Were I to really dig deep into my psyche I might find that some of my feelings stem from the interview with you in Guitar World a couple of years back, when you were asked for your opinion on Frank's guitarists and you neglected to include me (once the interviewer reminded you of my existence you were extremely generous in your comments, but I'm just a guy, subject to human frailties, and I think that might have bruised me a bit). Another way to look at it is that you have so much going for you (wealthy, successful, adored etc.) that my praise is unnecessary...but Frank had all that going for him as well, and I praise him every chance I get.
Here's a fact: until I heard the Halloween '81 concert, and in particular your playing on the middle section of "Montana", I never dreamed that those kind of melodies were even possible on the guitar. It's because of you that I was inspired to try to play the same kind of things, and it's because of your example that I developed enough facility to pass my Frank audition. God, even the ZU performance for which I seem to be most often praised ("Jazz Discharge Party Hats") would never have come about if it weren't for you. I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude. In any case your letter was an eye-opener for me, and it has changed me for the better. Thanks.
Steve: Well, look at the bright side of the Zappa Universe Grammy trauma, you got to kick in a Tower records window, and you got $40 bucks worth of music out of the deal. I'm sure that there is a moral in here somewhere. ???
Mike: If there is I still haven't figured it out. Unless it was all cosmically designed to bring you and I together in some kind of hands-across-the-water Woodstock Nation love-fest.
Steve: Warm Regards,
I like "Hat"
Mike: And I love "The God Eaters".
[For Mike's complete story of the kicked-in window, check out Really, Keneally? Mike's original description of the ZU project and his participation can be read at Mike Keneally With Zappa's Universe.]
Brian Whitman: Americans are very elitist in that they think everything is wrong except for their culture. Maybe Take The A-Train is layed at Indian funerals? Hmmm... interesting. I would, however, like to meet the American composer who started this whole chain. Do you think it was one person, when it comes down to it?
Mike: Nah. For me to suggest that was pure whimsy.
Brian: Or maybe it was a movement?
Mike: That's nearer the nub, but "movement" in the sense of inexorable evolution rather than a bunch of revolutionaries gathering over cups of grog and bellowing, "Major seventh chords mean you're falling in love!"
Brian: How long has Western civilization been going on for?
Mike: Dunno, but watch those dangling participles, dude.
Brian: Because both you (who receives the music as not "feel-good") and I (who created it with that intention) have been shaped by the standards of Western Cultural music tradition.
So even the most 'out there' composers need the basis of Western Civ to compose upon?
Mike: We don't "need" it, it's thrust upon us through evolution. We have no choice.
Brian: Do you think humans will ever evolve out of this genetic code? Say I raised a family, and taught them that only dobro and banjo were real instruments, and everything else was garbage. So, whenever they heard a guitar or drums or bass, they would screech in agony. So, they're changed like that, and they tell their kids and their kids... possible, maybe? Is this conditioning reversible, then, I wonder?
Mike: Damn straight.
[Mike: That's an inaccurate generalization. Perhaps it doesn't do it for you, but the songs I heard on AM radio when I was growing up invariably produce strong nostalgic reactions, frequently with a time/place correlary, when I hear them today.]
Yes, sorry, pop music doesn't do that FOR ME. Not anymore. But now, since I'm more attuned to more complex, more 'better' music, Pop music sounds like rehashed garbage to me, now. So, is it safe to say that only the music that we appreciate gets correlated to memory?
Mike: First of all you need to acquaint yourself with "more better" pop music (Beatles, XTC, Harry Nilsson, TMBG etc. etc. etc.) because you're missing out big time. And it's definitely unsafe to say that only the music we appreciate gets correlated to memory...how many miserable advertising jingles get lodged in our heads on a daily basis, unable to be jogged free? I remember the songs of my radio childhood regardless of their quality.
[Mike: Scott thought it was too new-agey. It affected him completely differently. Everyone puts their genetic coding to use in a slightly different way.]
Are some people coded in Western Civ so that they appreciate John Zorn's freewheeling pipe bashing free jazz from birth, I wonder? Was it mapped out that I would not like pop music by the time I was 15, or was that a 'choice' or done by influences?
Mike: My feeling is that these aesthetic choices are wholly guided by free will. We're all given a level playing field (THIS chord is happy and THIS chord is sad etc.) and the freedom to make choices from there (yeah, it's a sad chord but it's not sad ENOUGH or angry or passionate enough...I wanna hear some pipe- banging).
Brian: Basically, do you think that his genetic coding thing goes all the way - could it tell me what I'll like in 50 years? Scott didn't like Bela - is that because the 'newgrass gene' in his body is set to 'off', or because he had a bad experience with 'The Beverly Hillbillies' as a child?
Mike: I think with Scott it was thwarted expectations. He'd heard good things about Bela (some from me) and it set him up for a fall when the new album didn't align with what he'd been led to expect. I haven't heard the new album so I can't say whether or not I feel he was too harsh.
[Mike: Understand that everything I have written above is off the top of my head, with no protracted consideration given the topic at hand. I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.]
And still your reasoning seems coherent to me. It amazes the mind.
Mike: And I still don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, but it's fun to wallow around in this stuff.
Brian: That brings up my past question / argument - can we throw off these 'shackles' and change our 'genetic conditioning'?
Mike: Throwing off the shackles does not constitue a wholesale "changing" of our code, just a railing against, a shout in the darkness that you know what you're supposed to feel about music and you don't buy it anymore. Most people aren't up to the task and that's why the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard" sells a quillion copies.
Brian: Not to get into a destiny + fate argument here, but maybe it was set in me that I am supposed to like rap for two years, then like testosterone rock for two years, then go through a hippie phase, then settle into a nice 'new jazz' state for a while? And maybe my brother does have this 'noise-jazz' gene set to on. Because I've listened to it, and discussed it with him, and I see no musical appreciation coming from me. But he loves it. Has a band that plays it, even! He's liked it for about 4 years now, I would assume he'll like it for much more - maybe he's settled in to a genetic standstill?
Mike: I'd venture that he'll always retain a fondness for it whether or not it remains his musical focus, because of the fond memories he'll have of banging on pipes with his friends in those younger, carefree days.
Brian: scrod. 800 more people wearing 'scrod.' stickers at a recent Phish concert in the northeast. Spreads like wildfire. I love it.
Mike: That's pretty cool.
Brian: Thanks for the discussion, Mike.
Mike: My playzhur.
Brian: P.S. What does Scott Chatfield do? Is he a professional photographer / graphic designer, or just a good friend? He doesn't give any hints in his very, how shall I say, unique homepage.
Mike: In his alter ego he is promotions director for KGB-FM, a classic rock radio station in San Diego (just your sort of thing). He is a very good friend who enjoys Webbing in his spare time. I'm intensely grateful to him.
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