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Music

The lyric attempts the impossible – to stop time

One of the sources that has forever shaped my view on songwriting — on lyric writing in particular — is the introduction to the lyric poem in this lecture from University of Toronto English professor, Nick Mount, on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, published by TVO:

While studying English at the University of Toronto, I unfortunately never took a course with Nick Mount. Mount opens the lecture with a description of the lyric poem that resonates with me and is forever etched in my memory:

When you’re reading a novel, your attention is on the progression of time, the forward movement of the plot through its complication and its resolution. A lyric poem… is less about the progression of time than it is about the attempt to stop time. The lyric tries the impossible. It tries to temporarily stop time, to slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception — sometimes a moment of confusion, of understanding, sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, often a bit of both. For me, that is the main virtue of poetry — and in particular of the lyric poem — its ability to get me to stop and pay attention to life, to everything that I’m rushing by because of time, because of the inevitable tick of the clock. And that is what a lyric poem excels atcapturing the things, the experiences, that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time.

Then, channeling the famous University of Toronto English professor, Northrop Frye, Mount continues:

Frye says that the lyric poem gets written because some normal activity has been blocked, the normal progression of time, and the poet has to write about that block before returning to the world of time.

This is my experience as a songwriter explained by the University of Toronto Department of English. Furthermore, while I have yet to fully wrap my mind around this yet, I think a pair of U of T theology professors have something profound to say about this too.

Fr. Bernard Lonergan from Regis College wrote in Insight about four fundamental forms of bias that can impact our consciousness, the first of which is dramatic bias, which operates at the level of elementary feelings and passions. From Insight (emphasis added):

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can also be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters. Nor has such a bias merely some single or isolated effect. To exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it, and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint. To lack that fuller view results in behaviour that generates misunderstanding both in ourselves and in others. To suffer such incomprehension favours a withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy. This introversion, which overcomes the extroversion native to the biological pattern of experience, generates a differentiation of the persona that appears before others and the more intimate ego that in the daydream is at once the main actor and the sole spectator. Finally, the incomprehension, isolation, and duality rob the development of one’s common sense of some part, greater or less, of the corrections and assurances that result from learning accurately the tested insights of others and from submitting one’s own insights to the criticism based on others’ experience and development.

Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, p. 191.

Biases are the kinds of things that emerge and prevent authentic insight, and dramatic bias in particular has to do with that level of passion and feeling in one’s own psyche. These are barriers, but the sort of thing that when not ignored but worked out, can lead to insight. Furthermore, dramatic bias is dialectical, as there’s some tension between two competing things that needs to be worked out is dialogue.

As one of my Regis College professors, John Dadosky, once put it in a lecture: “Once a bias is removed, then you can get on with the business of authentic living with that area of life in which you were stuck.” This comment is what sparked the connection for me and reminded me of Nick Mount’s comments on the lyric poem, calling to mind Northrop Frye’s notion that the normal progression of time has been blocked and you are stuck and cannot return to the normal world of time until — or unless — you work out the block with the lyric poem. What is a lyric poem but that dialectical attempt to resolve the bias, to resolve to block – to get unstuck?

Lonergan, in his transcendental precepts, describes the method through which any individual transcends himself or herself to live in reality:

  1. be attentive to experience;
  2. be intelligent in understanding;
  3. be reasonable in judgment;
  4. be responsible in decision-making;
  5. be in love with God, self and neighbour.

A good artist – a good lyricist – is attentive to human experience, as a prerequisite for being intelligent in our understanding of the human experience (and, thus, a prerequisite of being reasonable, responsible and in love). Insofar as art is good, insofar as it is attentive to our lived experience and it authentically expresses that, it is the raw material for reflection that can lead to intelligent understanding of the human experience.

Is the lyric poem not a dialectical attempt at being attentive to the experience of dramatic bias? To be attentive to that experience that stops the normal progression of time and removes us from the world, so that we can work through that experience and return to the world — unstuck — with the bias removed through a dialectical engagement with the blockage?

For the lyricist, the world of time has stopped — the dramatic bias “blocks… the normal progression of time” — and the lyricist experiences a “withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy.” That dramatic bias is worked out in a dialogue between fantasy and reality through the lyric, so that the lyricist can “return to the world of time” and “get on with the business of authentic living.”

For the listener or reader, lyrics that are truly attentive to experience cause us to “stop and pay attention to life,” to “slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception” — a mix of confusion and understanding, of emotion and intellect — in order to draw our attention to the dramatic biases in our own lives, the “experiences that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time,” so that the listener themselves can, through engaging with the lyric, work out a similar block or dramatic bias in their own life and return to the normal progression of time (whether or not the lyricist is similarly successful).

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to wrap my mind properly around what Lonergan is saying and how this relates to lyric poetry, but… is that not what a lyric poem does? Is that not the experience and the role of a songwriter? Is that not what lyrics are for you?

That’s what lyrics are for me.

Canvases is a song about the normal progression of time being blocked and the need to “paint all of these unknown voices” before returning to the world of time — written four years before I heard Nick Mount’s lecture, while I was attentive to my own experience but before I understood it in the way I do now.

Thank you, Nick Mount, Northrop Frye, John Dadosky and Bernard Lonergan, for furthering my understanding of my own lyric poetry and experience as a music lover.

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Interview on Music Manumit Podcast

Thanks to Tom and Doug for inviting me to chat on the Music Manumit podcast this past weekend! You can listen to our discussion here about being creative about the career and business side of being a musician.

Music Manumit

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mp3 audio | ogg vorbis | stream | torrent

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Four videos I wish mass music didn’t remind me of, but often does…

Ever since I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of liturgical music, I can’t help but cringe a little when, all too often, the music at mass instead resembles one of these videos.

1. The “Misplaced Enthusiasm”

I appreciate the enthusiasm. I do. But there’s a time and a place. As much as we may think that’s during the recessional, it’s really not.

True story: Once, for the recessional, a cantor tried to get the congregation to clap along. On 1 and 3. To “This is the Day That the Lord Has Made.” All I could think of was this video. I just about lost it.

2. Look at me! / Which one of these instruments does not belong…

In a liturgical setting, not every genre/instrument… fits. The goal of liturgical music is to create the right atmosphere, not so much to… stand out and be noticed.

3. The Wannabe Rock Star

I know you want to be a rock star. I get it. It’s just… mass probably isn’t the best place to kick start your career. Even though you’re trying really hard.

4. Behold the Wood of the Cross / Gilligan’s Island

Sometimes, a song is just such a blatant import of something straight from popular culture. For example, I can’t listen to the verses in “Behold the Wood of the Cross” without thinking of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Unless a grain of wheat shall fall
Upon the ground and die
It shall remain but a single grain…
Here on Gilligan’s Island!

Help?

Anyone with experience knows this is not an exhaustive list. For those who can relate… any tips for coping?

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Amhrán Mhuínse

I fell in love with this song 10 years ago in Ireland (a different but similar recording): Amhrán Mhuínse (The Song of Muínis)

I fell in love with the music — I never understood the lyrics. By chance, I scrolled past it in a playlist today, and it spoke to my heart, so I put it on repeat and decided to spend some time searching for an English translation.

*hand to heart*

If I were three leagues out at sea or on mountains far from home,
Without any living thing near me but the green fern and the heather,
The snow being blown down on me, and the wind snatching it off again,
And I were to be talking to my fair Taimín and I would not find the night long.

Dear Virgin Mary, what will I do, this winter is coming on cold.
And, dear Virgin Mary, what will this house do and all that are in it?
Wasn’t it young, my darling, that you went, during a grand time,
At a time when the cuckoo was playing a tune and every green leaf was growing?

If I have my children home with me the night that I will die,
They will wake me in mighty style three nights and three days;
There will be fine clay pipes and kegs that are full,
And there will be three mountainy women to keen me when I’m laid out.

And cut my coffin out for me, from the choicest brightest boards;
And if Seán Hynes is in Muínis, let it be made by his hand.
Let my cap and my ribbon be inside in it, and be placed stylishly on my head,
And Big Paudeen will take me to Muínis for rough will be the day.

And as I go west by Inse Ghainimh, let the flag be on the mast.
Oh, do not bury me in Leitir Calaidh, for it’s not where my people are,
But bring me west to Muínis, to the place where I will be mourned aloud;
The lights will be on the dunes, and I will not be lonely there.

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Video: Accelerate by Alanna J Brown

A few weeks ago, I stood in with one of my absolute favourite Toronto artists, Alanna J Brown, in a music video for her song, Accelerate, the first single off her upcoming album. The video was conveniently shot in the same building in which I work… command line by day, mask-wearing bassist by night!

Accelerate – Alanna J Brown from Alanna J Brown on Vimeo.

I’m playing with Alanna next week, on the U of T campus.

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The Songwriters Association of Canada Wants To Embrace File Sharing, But Does It Have the Right Approach?

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

in 2007, the Songwriters Association of Canada gained some international headlines with a proposal to legalize non-commercial peer-to-peer file sharing through an ISP levy. This sort of proposal wasn’t new, but had not been so prominently put forth by an artist organization before. There were serious problems with the proposal, but it stimulated a healthy debate and it started from many correct premises — that file sharing should be embraced, that digital locks and lawsuits were not a way forward, etc. But it was a non-voluntary, “you’re a criminal” tax that could open the floodgates for other industries to demand similar levies.

I was a member of the Songwriters Association of Canada from 2007-2011, and I had the opportunity to express my concerns about the proposal to many people involved. Last year, I attended a session with an update on the proposal, and was surprised how much it had changed. The proposal had dropped the legislative angle in favor of a business to business approach, with an actual opt-out option for both creators and customers of participating ISPs. Unlike groups behind other licensing proposals, the SAC has actually been responsive to many concerns, and unlike other artist groups, the SAC takes a decidedly positive view on sharing music and the opportunities technology provides to creators. This attitude comes through in the proposal:

Rather than a legislative approach to the monetization of music file-sharing as we originally envisioned, the S.A.C. is now focused on a “business to business” model that requires no new legislation be enacted in Canada.

Our basic belief however remains the same: Music file-sharing is a vibrant, open, global distribution system for music of all kinds, and presents a tremendous opportunity to both creators and rights-holders. […]

People have always shared music and always will. The music we share defines who we are, and who our friends and peers are. The importance of music in the fabric of our own culture, as well as those around the world, is inextricably bound to the experience of sharing. [emphasis changed]

As the copyright debate heats up again in Canada in light of SOPA and new pressures on pending legislation, this positive attitude towards peer-to-peer file sharing was expressed again in a recent TorrentFreak interview with the SAC VP, Jean-Robert Bisaillon:

We think the practice [of file-sharing] is great and unstoppable. This is why we want to establish a regime that allows everyone to keep on doing it without stigmatizing the public and, instead, find a way for artists and rights holders to be fairly compensated for the music files that are being shared. […]

Other positive aspects include being able to find music that is not available in the commercial realm offer, finding a higher quality of digital files, being able to afford music even if you are poor and being able to discover new artists or recommend them to friends. […]

Music is much better off with the Web. The internet network allows for musical discovery despite distance and time of the day. It has sparked collaborations between musicians unimaginable before. It has helped artists to book international tours without expensive long-distances charges and postal delays we knew before. [emphasis added]

However, significant problems remain with the proposal. For example, the original criticism still stands as to how this would scale for other industries — what about book publishers, newspapers, movie studies, video game manufacturers and other industries that are also crying foul about “piracy”? The SAC dismisses other cultural industries pretty quickly, as if only the music industry is concerned about unauthorized copying. And, just like private copying levies have suffered from scope creep, as people no longer buy blank audio cassettes or CDs, or short-sightedness, as technology changes rapidly, it’s not clear how the SAC model would adapt to growing wireless and mobile computing or more distributed file sharing. Many more questions remain: Would small, independent artists, who are not charting through traditional means, get fair treatment? Is it wise to largely rely on a single, proprietary vendor, Big Champagne, for tracking all distribution? Would consumers be paying multiple times for music? What does it mean to “self-declare not to music file-share” in order to opt-out?

But the central problem with the proposal is the SAC’s copyright crutch. Jean-Robert Bisaillon says things like,

The Internet has dramatically increased the private non-commercial sharing of music, which we support. All that is missing a means to compensate music creators for this massive use of their work. [emphasis added]

And the proposal says things like,

Once a fair and reasonable monetization system is in place, all stakeholders including consumers and Internet service providers will benefit substantially. [emphasis added]

The SAC seems obsessed with a “monetization system,” when the truth is there is no one model, no magic bullet. Rather, the the sky is rising and the path to success involves all sorts of different models and creative approaches, most of which don’t depend on copyright or worrying about getting paid for every use. Even a voluntary license plan is still a bad idea. The means to compensate music creators isn’t missing, it’s just increasingly found outside of copyright.

Still, it’s important for the SAC’s voice to be heard as the copyright debate heats up again in Canada. As a creator group offering a positive take on peer-to-peer file sharing, and denouncing an “adversarial relationship” between creators and fans, they offer an important counterpoint to the SOPA-style provisions being pushed by Canadian record industry groups. I would take the SAC’s constructive and responsive approach over record industry astroturfing and fear mongering any day.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Engagement Video

This is a really rough edit, but a really special moment: some video of the proposal 16 months ago.

T-minus 17.5 hours until marriage

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Dave Borins at the Mariposa Folk Festival this summer

I’ve been playing violin with Dave Borins for two years now, and it’s been a blast. This April, we played an audition in Orillia, and secured ourselves a spot in the Mariposa Folk Festival this summer. Now that some of the audition videos are available online, I thought I’d share ours in anticipation of our upcoming showcase.

(We’ve got some other good videos on YouTube too.)

Details on the July 11th showcase are available on the the events calendar I’ve been hacking together recently, and the full Mariposa schedule has details on the other folk goodness happening throughout that weekend.

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New Canadian Copyright Bill C-32: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And What To Do About It

As expected, the Canadian government tabled a new copyright bill today. Despite the consultation last summer, rumour has it that Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and Industry Minister Tony Clement—the two cabinet ministers responsible for copyright (who seemed to understand the new opportunities technology presents)—couldn’t come to an agreement, and the Prime Minister’s Office sided with Moore’s more hard-line approach. Yet, it appears Clement’s influence was not lost. The proposed legislation, Bill C-32, actually contains many good provisions… but strict digital lock restrictions threaten to undo them all.

Fair Dealing—There’s An Exception For That

The current Canadian concept of fair dealing is more limited that the American doctrine of fair use. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it should be interpreted broadly, but present law restricts fair dealing to just five categories—research, private study, criticism, news reporting, and review. NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus had tabled a private member’s bill to introduce flexible fair dealing back in March, but with Moore’s vision winning out over Clement’s, Bill C-32 rejects flexible fair dealing.

But, it does contain a host of new exceptions for parody and satire, education, time shifting, formating shifting, and backup copies. There’s even a new “Non-Commercial User-generated Content” exception (29.21), which would legalize mashups and remixes under certain circumstances.

While the litany of exceptions fails to introduce real flexibility into the law for new innovations, Michael Geist—leading critic of the last, failed copyright bill—still describes this as “a pretty good compromise.” There are those who strongly oppose the uncertainty that comes with flexibility, so maybe the “there’s an exception for that” approach is the best we can hope for right now.

Though not perfect, it’s still a positive development, and definitely an improvement on the past.

Other Good Compromises

Geist notes two other good compromises. As with the last two copyright bills, C-32 would implement a notice-and-notice system for Internet Service Providers to handle copyright infringement allegations, rather than the guilty-until-proven-innocent American notice-and-takedown system, or the insanely disproportionate three-accusations-and-you’re-kicked-off-the-internet approach. Also, a change to the statutory damages provision would finally distinguish between large scale counterfeiting and non-commercial infringement, limiting the latter between $100-$5000 instead of the current $20,000 maximum. While $5000 per infringement is still pretty ridiculous, cutting the maximum down by 75% for non-commercial infringement would be a positive development.

The Downright Terrible: Digital Lock Provisions Undo The Exceptions

The huge loophole in this bill is the approach to anti-circumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to break a digital lock even if what you are doing is otherwise non-infringing. It’s important to understand how this massively undermines any good which might come from additional fair dealing exceptions: if there’s a digital lock, the exceptions are meaningless. Bill C-32’s rigid digital lock provisions undo the exceptions.

  • Want to make a backup copy? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to transfer songs to your iPod? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to make use of copyrighted content in the classroom? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to remix Louis Armstrong with death metal? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!

This has to change. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Submissions to last summer’s consultation were overwhelmingly opposed to this approach. Other countries have met their international obligations with anti-circumvention provisions that are actually linked to copyright infringement (e.g. New Zealand‘s passed law, India‘s proposed law). With a flexible anti-circumvention provision, the exceptions would apply to digital locks too.

Why should companies be able to rewrite copyright law and trump exceptions simply because they slap a digital lock onto something? If there’s a backup exception, there should be a backup exception. If there’s allowance for parody and satire, no digital lock should be able to take that away. And what’s the use of a format shifting exception if digital locks will force you to repurchase your content to stay legal anyways?

Canada needs to have a flexible anti-circumvention approach that is actually linked to infringement, or none of the compromises in this bill even matter.

Other Nasty Things

There’s an inducement clause (27 (2.3)) which would make it illegal to provide a service online “that a person knows or should have known is designed primarily to enable acts of copyright infringement.” Would the Internet-equivalent of a VCR pass that test? What about BitTorrent? Both technologies can be used to enable acts of copyright infringement, but they also have legitimate uses. How the “primary use” is determined could have significant implications here.

The time shifting provision (29.23) warrants further review, as it contains a variety of conditions under which you can record a program for later viewing. For example, the bill would require that you “keep the recording no longer than is reasonably necessary in order to listen to or view the program at a more convenient time”—seemingly, a requirement to get rid of recordings once you’ve listened to/watched them.

Also, library provisions allowing for distribution are subject to digital locks, and contain a requirement for copies to be destroyed within five days.

There are lots of details like this in this bill that require further study, and most likely revision.

The Strategy: Let’s Make Some Noise

The Conservatives are seeking support on this bill from the Liberals. Liberal Industry critic, MP Marc Garneau, is keen to work with the government to introduce a new law, and is open to the possibility of summer hearings to get it passed. But Clement told the CBC, “I’m not coming down from the mountain with this chiselled in stone… we could seek some consensus and there could be some positive amendments to this bill.”

When I met with my MP, Liberal Joe Volpe, over Bill C-61 in the summer of 2008, his main question to me was whether to scrap the bill or to fix it. Critically, We must let our MPs know—especially the Liberals—which compromises are acceptable, and which undermine the entire copyright bargain. Flexible fair dealing would have been better than a litany of exceptions, but that compromise could work. However, allowing digital locks to undo those exceptions is simply unacceptable.

Conclusion

Politics is the art of the possible, a complex art of balance between ideals and interests. This bill isn’t perfect, but there is a push from both sides of the floor to get it passed. There are a lot of good compromises, but whether or not the bad provisions get fixed could have huge implications on Canadian culture, technology and business in the years to come. Make your voice heard.

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Acoustic Assaultcast: Free Culture

Back in March, I was invited by my friend Roman Verzub to the first episode of The Acoustic Assaultcast to talk about music and free culture.

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