Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Race to the Finish, Part One

I'm not sure exactly how this feverish race began. It seems that life in general has become more and more frantic over the past several decades- people want instant gratification, instant results, instant endings. They talk faster, prepare food faster, eat faster, have relationships faster, drive faster, sleep less. People get impatient if you don't explain everything really quickly. They skip the middle parts of books and want to know the endings of movies. When you talk to kids these days, they look into your eyes for about half a sentence before the eyes start darting all over the room, looking for new stimulation. People walk around or drive while eating and yakking into their cell phones every minute, multi-tasking their brains out. They all seem to be constantly slurping water from plastic bottles with caps that snap and pop incessantly, and listening to music on their ipods no matter what else they are also doing. There is no quiet, no stillness. Sometimes it seems to me that life has become one long Road-runner cartoon...
I stopped watching TV altogether 11 years ago, but when I catch a glimpse of it at someone's house, I see how it has changed even in the short since when I used to watch it. Now on TV, images flash by at ever more alarming speed, music gets cut up into tiny indigestible snippets that come and go in a way that makes your head spin, and people talk LOUD on TV, practically hollering. People on TV seem way too excited. Are they on drugs? I don't think I would have even noticed this change if I had been steadily watching TV all along these past ten years.
This hyper-acceleration trend has infiltrated everyday life pretty thoroughly, and music is no exception. How we obtain music, how we learn it, dance to it, listen to it, and how we play it, all these processes have been speeded up and made louder.

Over the past dozen years or so I have observed a distinct increase in the speed at which old-time and traditional music is played. I'm sure this trend has been going on far longer than 12 years, but that's just how long I've been paying attention to it (maybe my attention span is only 12 years). Not only is old-time and traditional music being played FASTER, but it's being played BIGGER...meaning in larger jam sessions, more often amplified, more types of instruments being added, more mixing of styles, more harmonies...and much more often in a highly energized stringband setting.
New stringbands seem to form, name themselves, get a few festival gigs, churn out several CDs in rapid succession, then disband to form new combinations with new band names. Nothing seems to last long. One thing they all seem to have in common is to describe themselves as having a "hard driving" and "cutting edge" sound, and also throwing in pretty much any genre of music that is novel, sort of a New Age/Old-time Fusion. They like to use the terms traditional and archaic a lot when describing themselves, but hard driving seems to be the overriding goal. The term hard driving used to mean something else, something steady and powerful. Now hard driving seems to merely mean fast with a heavy beat.
CDs are raining down upon us all in frightening quantities to the point where some people are pretty much just taping their sessions with friends and throwing them onto cds to sell on their websites or post on the web. I don't even want people's new CDs so much anymore when they are offered to me during music gatherings. "Hey, our band just came out with a great new CD, check it out!", thanks anyway! (as I move away trying to look busy). Because burning CDs is now so very easy and cheap to do, every Tom Dick and Harry is cranking out CDs to the point where they have become about as valuable to barter at music gatherings as yesterday's Mardi Gras beads. People have literally hundreds of tunes loaded on their ipods at any given time...some have thousands of tunes loaded on their hard drives. How can anyone even listen to thousands of tunes? 'CD release parties' have become so commonplace at old-time festivals that they've become meaningless. There is just no longer any way to keep up with it all. But- is there really a lot going on in this frantic music machine that is worth keeping up with?

In old-time music circles, there is a ravenous appetite for 'newly discovered' traditional music fodder- people scour archival field recordings of fiddlers and ballad singers in a race to see who can first score an obscure old tune or song to record on their new CD, or play at a session. Inevitably these old ballads and fiddle tunes which were originally recorded sung unaccompanied in a striking individual manner or being fiddled solo in a lonesome quirky way, are given the Full Monty hard driving/cutting edge treatment. What I often hear on new CDs and at festival jam sessions is a virtual frenzy of banging and sawing, executed with full bluegrass 3 and 4 part harmonies, thumping bass, popcorn style banjo, packed with new chords and chord changes, twin fiddling, etc., much of it played at the Speed of Light. After the first two or three tracks it becomes somehow exhausting, like walking in a crowded mall during the Christmas shopping season. The one good thing about it being so fast is that it's over with quicker.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a healthy dose of real high energy music. I love to play a fast zingy dulcimer back up to a fiddler. High energy spirited music and dance can provide a happy and welcome release from daily stress and a fun connection between friends. Some of my fellow musician friends seem to like their music fast and upbeat all the time. Good for them! But fast is frequently more fun when there is slow to balance it out and provide a contrast. Spring gets boring if there is no Autumn. Over the years, average tempo seems to have been recalibrated. What is called slow today was a moderate speed long ago. Whenever I ask anyone to play something slowly, the response is always a briskly moderate speed, never what I'd consider slow, and never as slow or as full of nuances as many field recordings where I may have first heard that particular tune or song.
Old-time music is now played so that even in sessions among friends, when I know some wonderful verses to a song being played and could actually contribute something nice, I simply cannot sing at that speed. Nor would I want to even try, because I'd have to sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks, like playing a 33 1/2 rpm LP record at 45 rpms. I often have to cut out any pleasant instrumental variations as well. No time for subtleties, no breathing spaces.

Playing traditional music BIGGER and FASTER can be fun, but should not be the norm or the goal. Like those changes over time that I noticed in TV programming, people seem not to notice that music is being played faster and louder and bigger every year. I am positive this is not all a figment of my imagination, nor a matter of my becoming senile.
Is there to be a swing of the pendulum at some point back to smaller and more intimate music? Or will the world of traditional music eventually implode upon itself like a black hole, crushed by it's own frantic density, wildly churning itself into musical butter?

What does this all mean to the rest of us? To those of us who are not professional musicians, who do not put out CDs or book concerts or appear at festivals, who merely play at home for enjoyment and perhaps hope to find other kindred souls to learn from and to play with in pleasant settings? What does all this mean to those of us who seek in our music to find rejuvenation and intimacy, a life tonic to help balance the daily life onslaught of relentless racket and frantic rushing about?
More about that in a coming post: A Race to the Finish, Part Two.


  1. In the 70's sometime I bought a record by Bashful Brother Oswald...can't find it right now....lotsa good tunes....
    The setting in one tune is a widower telling of his love for his dearly departed, and lamenting his state if affairs in general, and in particular how "life moves so fast nowadays".
    Fortunately for me I hang out with & play music with late 20's & early 30's persons...and am so impressed their music tastes. The shuffled music playlist at our gatherings include Fred Cockerham playing/singing Little Maggie, Uncle Eck Dunford, Highwoods String Band & Tommy Jarrell, mixed seamlessly with modern music. They so appreciate the old tunes and players...makes me glad.
    You describe our band to a T Lisa....hard & fast tunes...& I like 'em allright.
    Our audience seems to demand the fast tunes. When we play a slower one I notice listnessness (?!) amongst them....
    And I'm not sure we play the slower tunes as well...takes a different skill set f'sure.

    Good topic Lisa...thx!


  2. Hi Randy,
    Maybe the audience is not being 'listless' when you are playing slower tunes- but rather lost in inward reflection? I have sometimes caught myself with a sort of 'slack' expression while listening to slow reflective music- simply because I am lost in thought and feeling. It's a possibility, in any case. ;)

    I feel there needs to be slow if fast is to be fully enjoyed. And vice versa!
    I used to live in Puerto Rico where it was ALWAYS warm and sunny. After years of this, it became tedious and you just sort of didn't even notice the weather anymore, took it all for granted. I began to miss the changing seasons terribly, even missed the frigid icy dark winter that I used to curse.
    It's all sort of linked to the concept of how it's hard to fully appreciate something if you never have had it taken away. Even love is like this.

  3. I few years back when I took up the sax I got hold of some big band recordings from the '40s - just to get into the spirit of things. I was struck by how frenetic THAT was! I'm slow by anybody's comparison, so I certainly get your point. Very well said I might add.

    I've read about DJs speeding up the speed of recordings as a popular song reaches the end of its popularity cycle. I wonder if the people who cut new CDs of '40s music do or did the same thing.

    -- Al