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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:55AM   |  17 comments

Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany

Large cities often struggle with a contingent of people living on the fringe. In Europe, they often migrate from other countries; only the next generation will function within the society like natives. These foreigners to these new environments their music, their customs and their cuisine. Delicious foreign food easily crosses boundaries--and always sells.

Growing up in Brazil, I heard the accordion on old French recordings and at the winter Folk Festivals, generally accompanying dances that vaguely resembles square dance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RetlvTcLj8). For me the accordion was an instrument of character but certainly not cool. I never considered playing or owning one until two years ago, when my garage sale buddy bought one for me, amidst a fierce price escalation. Garage sale etiquette is highly regulated and treasured by the ‘regulars’.

My accordion is fake white ‘mother-of pearl’. I intend to buy a white polyester suit to be properly dressed when I first perform on it publicly. Maybe not. I play it at home a couple of times a year. Its haunting sounds urge me to learn how to play it properly. Its sound evokes foreign lands and laments something lost. Melancholic foreign music always sells.

Two subway stations in Berlin attract accordion players of the highest caliber. Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the old East Berlin and Stadmitte; the ‘middle of the city’ station left on the fringe during the “Berlin Wall” years and now back to its deserved central place (http://www.berlinverkehr.com/netze/051212sumetro.jpg). 

Often I hear a duo of violin-accordion at Alexanderplatz that leaves nothing to desire in terms of ensemble, intonation, and certainly passion. All passersby do not seem to notice the quality of this duo, like when Joshua Bell played Bach on the Washington subway (http://amnesiablog.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/he-played-the-violin-in-the-subway/). 

The connection between the subway lines U2 and U6, in Stadmitte, is through two long wide corridors, connected at a ninety degrees angle stairway with a plateau. Virtuoso street musicians have noticed this acoustical gem. 

The first time that I heard the richly reverberating sounds of Bach’s “Wedge” Fugue in E minor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idhHq1mn1XA&feature=PlayList&p=7BA785A65B04C10F&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=3) I was struck. Was that a famous organ in a north German cathedral disguised as an accordion in a subway station thirty feet bellow the street level? 

 Since this experience, I have heard many polkas but also Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Planets by Gustav Holst, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakhov, the Four Seasons of Vivaldi and, of course, Carmina Burana! These highly trained musicians do not carry themselves according to the level of their craft.   I imagine that they came from the former eastern  block, where education was affordable for the talented. Later, they drifted over to the commercial side of the world. Here, they do not seem to be able to package their craft into a sellable product.

This brings me to Lady Gaga. I like her a lot because she personifies the unconventional and yes, I always want to dance with her music. Like Madonna, she comes from a Catholic background, exploits unusual sexual themes, and has been able to reinvent herself at every turn. She rules the video clip world and young consumers buy her wares. I watched an interview with her at “Wetten, dass…?”, the most popular variety show on German TV, and she was so ‘cool’ that she sounded a bit ‘slow’. 

Lady Gaga is a savvy businesswoman careful of her brand, so I am sure that this too was staged. It did not matter; her outfit astonished everybody. Fashion has always been an integral part of her persona.   She knows how to market herself.

I have written before about music merging into a multimedia art. The tendency is for opera singers also to ‘look’ good; for violinists to pose in Chanel dresses on their album covers, for programming to incorporate themes. I have no problem with that.

However, from a purely musical point of view, Lady Gaga does not have the training of some of these street  musicians that I mentioned. There is no question that she has been able to package her musical product into something consumers will buy. I would certainly pay 10 Euros to enter a club where her music will be played. Should those accordionists learn something from Lady Gaga? Do they have a chance if they do not play a fashionable instrument and look attractive? Do they need to invest in reinventing themselves? Yes. No. Maybe.

I do not resent the power of advertizing and marketing: it is all a question of choices.   However, the training of an artist is a long and arduous process. I wish every aspiring musician would first embrace and excel in the history, technique and language of their art, then branch out into multimedia. Hopefully, they would still look great after all this time shuttling between the library and the practice room.

“Life is change, growth is optional”. We all know this adage. Some musicians choose to be different—they decide to follow the not so economically successful path of musicians of the past. There is space for all out there.

So go out and dance to Lady Gaga’s music. Life is short. But do not forget to drop a coin when music touches you, especially when an unassuming, over-educated musician performs it, thirty feet below a busy street intersection.

 


17 Comments

My extremely illustrious musical background can be summed up, musically, by Twinkle Twinkle little Star played on one hand. Yes, I can play it on either my left hand, or right hand.

Music, like literature, has evolved (developed is subjective, if we practice historical anachronism) tremendously over the years, and it is looking at the practice of each that societal norms can be deciphered.

In this age of desensitisation, multimedia marketing, and overall sensory overload, it is no wonder that the oustanding one is the one standing out. Lady GaGa, I think, has proceeded past the icon to the phenomenon. Which other mad artiste has been employed as a designer for Polaroid? Probably none.

That said, thanks for the mini lesson on accordions. Just out of curiosity, how would you repackage the accordion to rival Lady GaGa?

This brings to mind the independent music scene around the world, where musicians struggle between staying true to their sound and turning their music to money.

But it is fortunate that there seemed to be a healthy market for non-mainstream music, and of course producers and record labels that help support these musicians.

Show your support! Get their CDs!

After reading your entry, I'm reminded of how a blind street musician in Singapore shot to fame after joining a local singing competition. At that time, everyone was guessing he clinched the first prize due to sympathy votes. After all, he wasn't the most good-looking contestant on the show, nor was he the best singer of the lot.

I guess it really all boils down to the idea of a package: he had an incredible back-story (handicapped but still living life to the fullest and making himself useful through his music), he had a makeover after that and the last I heard, he's been going places in the Mandarin pop music scene.

I believe a lot of times, musicians (all sorts, including good and bad ones) need a lot of luck and opportunities to get themselves heard and established, so it's not really just based on sheer talent and/or diligence.

p.s. I am not a huge of Lady Gaga, but I have to admit her music's addictive. It's impossible to go to a mall and not hear stores playing her music. p-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face.

I guess the changing demands of audiences also play a very large part to determine how successful the artist can be, regardless of his/her aptitude and talent. While in the past talent contests depended solely on one's singing OR acting capabilities, things are different now.

Right now, it's not just enough to be able to sing. Audiences are looking for all rounded stars who can dance, who look good, or who make an impression on them. Nothing is really bad about that, but musician wannabes just have to adapt and equip themselves with skills and versitality to survive. Perhaps this is why Lady Gaga has made it, even though i can't really say i enjoy her music very much. She stands out with her strange outfits and catchy tunes, and her X-factor has kept her around.

I find it sad and a pity though, that the new demands of the market have kept many real good voices from rising up! They should be given a chance, and we the audience have to give them a chance.

If American Idol has taught us anything, it's that sheer talent is not enough to make it in the business.

Like you said, it's a matter of choice. Certain musicians choose to remain outside the mainstream simply because they worry, or rather they know, that they would have to compromise their artistic integrity. But at the same time if you don't get your music out there, no one will listen to it. Unfortunately not many people will seek non-mainstream music out - much like movies - so this is where sheer dumb luck comes in.

In Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, the Internet is seen as having taken us out of the 'watercooler" era when we "listened, watched and read from the same relatively same pool of mostly hit content" into the "microculture" when "we're all into different things."

The Internet now provides us with the ability to sustain fan bases around anything. There is indeed space, now more than ever, for success for those musicians who do not choose the commercial route which musicians such as Lady Gaga have taken.

Hi Chng Bee Hwee,

Thank you for your interesting post on February 9th.
I agree with everything you said and I will try to answer your last question, how to package the accordion player in order to rival Lady Gaga.
Difficult. I think that Lady Gaga relies heavily on image and ultimately sex. So I would first have a total make-over with the accordionist so that he would look as sexy as possible. Second, I would give him access to the industry so that he could have videos made in which the landscape is ablaze while he fiercely fingers his accordion. Then he plays sensual, slow melodies while gorgeous young women (many of them) seem to desire him. People's initial instinct is almost always about sex but the allure of playing an instrument is still present, even in our visually oriented age. I am not sure that my accordionist would rival Lady Gaga, but at least with these tools he would have a chance!
On an unrelated, related topic. One of the most successful artists in German is a violinist (yes, he plays the violin) called David Garrett. He is a good violinist but I think that it helps that he is young, handsome and moves his long, blond mane as he plays the violin. Sex can sell with violinists, so why not with an accordionist?
Thank you for your post and support your local musicians!

Jairo Geronymo

Hi Koon Yen,
Thank you for your post on February 10th.
I could not agree more with you! There is a healthy market for alternative music. I believe that many people are turned off by mass appeal steering the music market.
So I raise my glas to you! Let's all get out there and support the good local musicians!

Jairo Geronymo

Hi Phoebe,

Thank you for your post on February 11th,
Unfortunately proper packaging can transform drastically the career of a musician, the good and the bad ones.
I am glad that your Singapore musician got a well deserved break.
I want to develop on the word'luck'. I think that luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. If I were offered to be the lead guitar player for Madonna i would not be able to take on that lucky chance because I am not prepared for that. However, in the past I played on a short notice with a respected orchestra just because I was prepared for that. So I believe that there is no luck, just readiness when opportunity knocks at your door.
Keep the good work, opportunity will knock at your door too. Be prepared...

Jairo Geronymo

Hi Emma Lim,

Thank you for your post on February 15th.
You go girl! You hit all the right spots!
I would say that voice and talent are definitely not one of the top priorities in order to be a pop star. The initial advertisement that led to the creation of the "Spicy Girls" emphasized looks, attitude and mentioned that vocal training or experience was not necessary. Victoria Beckham certainly built her career on those values.
You cannot deceive everybody forever. Real talent and hard work are difficult to hide. The people that matter will recognize that. So do not worry if your favorite musician is not a celebrity like Lady Gaga. You buy his music and that makes him happy. There is space for everybody.
Thank you for your post.

Jairo Geronymo

Hi Junani Johari,

Thank you for your post on February 15th.
The focus of American Idol is not the musical rise of a true talent but rather the 'reality TV' aspect of it. It is not about the music, it is about the personal struggles of everyday people.
I agree with you that the majority of people do not seek alternative music. However, when I lived in Ithaca, I always walked down to Cinemapolis rather then going to the mall for another brainless blockbuster. Someplaces encourage the alternative and other don't. In the end it is, as you said, a matter of conscious choice.
Do good work and keep questioning everybody, that is the secret of an intellectually healthy life!

Jairo Geronymo

Hi Noelle Yong,

Thank you for your very insightful and positive post on February 16th!
So many people were afraid that the internet would steal our sociability and transform us into screen zombies. I think that it has happened to some people, but the internet possibilities are endless and some have been put to good use, like the one you mentioned. Now it is possible to support an alternative musician, no matter where you are. That is simply fantastic.
I like your positive attitude that if we make the right choices we can escape from the consumerist cultural garbage and have access to great works of art, in every form.
Thank you for your post and keep making the right choices! The good musicians all over the world thank you!

Jairo Geronymo

Hey Jairo,

I love this blog entry for many reasons. First of all, I am of Polish ancestry, so the accordion is ingrained in my family's DNA. Let it be known that even for us, the accordion is not a cool instrument but it's fun any time you want to dance, drink, or drink and dance. And that's the beauty of it. The accordion is one of those silly aspects of life that annoy those in bad moods or bring out the fun in happy people.

That being said, I don't think the accordion will ever be meant to be part of the pop music scene. It's not an instrument I could ever listen to while driving to work, lest it inspire me to weave to-and-fro through traffic or rage as the tempo picks up. I would not put accordion music on at a party or play it while djing or doing the dishes. Accordions are for polka and festivals and silly summer outdoor fun. Do accordion players have to be uber-successful pop stars?

Another reason I love this entry, I too have contemplated the true musicianship and brilliance of the Lady Gaga. In high school, I always strove to listen to music no one else knew about, thus confirming my true music fanship. Not until college did I realize pop music has quality and a deserved place in important music. Lady Gaga, as you said, had this great way of marketing herself and creating a world around her image. Can this transfer to accordion players? Well, to argue with my previous statement, this may work. If Carrot Top played the accordion, we'd laugh or groan. If Lady Gaga did, instrument sales would spike, accordion would be played from every car window, and hipsters about would say they knew about this first. Can we ask her to do this?!

Dear Michele (Maciejewski),

Thank you for your comments.

I understand what you mean by an instrument having its sound impregnated in a family's DNA. You should consider yourself lucky, cultural inheritance can bring so much variety to society. We certainly need it!
I grew up in Brazil and my cultural chest of drawers contains the accordion music of France but mostly the Tango sounds of Argentina. Brazil and Argentina are rivals in soccer but cousins in their musical inheritance.
The music of Piazzolla, for example, can make me long for Brazil, even though it relates to Argentina. Having mentioned Piazzolla, I do think that he is somewhat of a superstar. Do we measure a superstar by its fan base at a certain moment or through time?
Here is some more food for thought: Is Mozart a superstar? Are you sure people will remember Lady Gaga in 200 years?
I do not think that Lady Gaga will ever have the intention of making the accordion a cool instrument. Part of good marketing is knowing how to ride the waves of what is new. However, fads can go away quite quickly.
So I urge you to enjoy the musical traditions of your family more than just at family reunions or when dancing polkas! However, I do agree with you that you should not drive listening to violent and sexy accordion Tango music. Nobody needs one more crazy driver!
Take care,

Jairo Geronymo

True. Like any other product, branding and packaging are important to sell big time. They cannot deny the fact that artists monetize their talent just like those accordionists you met. Its just that they made more money because they invested on themselves well.

It is easy to make the ever common mistake of blaming street performers and homeless persons for their situation, when in reality we know nothing of their unique and personal stories, because that would take effort and reaching out. Things have become less and less personal with cell phones and the internet. We are loosing out ability to connect with others.

I agree with you about Lady Gaga's mastery of pop culture, but I do not know that much about her. How much of her success can be attributed to her personally? Sometimes I feel that with advertising and merchandising the world is almost told what to like, and it listens. Having talent is not enough to become 'the next best thing' in pop culture.

But then the question arises of success in the musical industry. Why is it so hard to become successful and important in any form of the arts? Because everyone else wants to become successful and important as well, and they are all better than you. If everyone who was passionate about music had a record label there would be so many options that each individual would never get the attention needed to support themselves. At least I think that might be the reason. I am not really sure. But I guess that weather or not you are successful and important in the music industry, if you truly love music and performing for others you will find a way to.

It seems in today's society that the primary lens for people focuses in on image, brand, and product, instead of authenticity, passion, and truth. Advertising and marketing of major corporations seem to manipulate or hide the true core of the products whether it be objects or people. Lady Gaga, for example, seems to be more like an object, a product of business aimed at consumer demand. Her ambiance seems always directed at the product of herself over her music. Moreover, every time she speaks, her words do not come off as genuine but rather to provoke controversy or be in parallel with her alter ego. In contrast, what I find most impressive is passion. When I hear music, I try to feel the pent up emotion in the artist rather than just be awed by his/her outfit or make up choice. Furthermore, I usually can find this emotional connect off the television screens and separate from the radio. I find the most respectful artists in subway stations, at local coffee shops, or even just when playing around on the guitar with friends. The key point is that it just feels more real when you see someone without even the means to pay their bills, practicing their passion of music with a smile on. Don't you feel that true artists are the ones that value music as their main satiation? The extra frills of advertising, celebratizing, and losing oneself in the art of becoming famous seem to be very distinct from art but more in line with capitalistic measures.



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