Friday, September 11, 2009

The Sugarcubes

From one of my favorite albums, Life's Too Good (1988), in honor of my cousin Lisa's Bjork sighting in NY this week.

My friends in high school teased me mercilessly about my musical taste after the Sugarcubes played on SNL. I was only 14, but I didn't back down, I knew I was right! HA!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Two Suns

Bat for Lashes w/ Other Lives

My niece, Keighlyn, and I heard the celestial Bat for Lashes, aka British musician Natasha Khan, and her stellar, instrument-swapping band a few weeks ago in DC at the 9:30 Club. Khan and co. were on a month-long US tour to promote "Two Suns," their Mercury-prize nominated second album.

While the album is primarily a requiem for a lost relationship (as in "we're two suns spinning at two different speeds" from the show's opener 'Glass'), the two suns also refer to earth-goddess Khan, and her blond, vixen alter-ego, Pearl. (Or perhaps to two similarly doe-eyed, self-possessed young women... Was it just coincidence that we spent the afternoon before the show at the Air and Space Museum?!) Natasha sang and played piano, guitar, and autoharp, and was joined by musicians Ben Christophers, Charlotte Hatherley, and Sarah Jones on percussion, bass, piano, autoharp, and backing vocals.

The coolest band from Oklahoma, Other Lives, opened the show with a great set of folk-rock, including a mean rendition of 'The Partisan' (a WWII-era song often played by Leonard Cohen).

Other Lives' Cellist Jenny Hsu

Jesse Tabish

Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan

Like many of the musicians I've embraced lately, Ms. Khan is a child of the 70s. In some ways I think that's why her music resonates with me--we grew up with the same cultural references, listening to the same things. From the opening lines of 'Glass' I can imagine her singing 'If I only could, I'd make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places.' Besides that angelic yet fiery voice, with Kate Bush she also shares a mystical quality, and one that doesn't come across as pretense or corny. At one point during the show, we all even howled like wolves, but it totally works.

In addition to "Two Suns," the two hour show featured songs from their 2007 debut album, "Fur and Gold" (also a Mercury prize nominee). Of the albums' opener, 'Horse and I,' Radiohead's Thom Yorke (with whom she toured in 2008) said "natasha khan of bat for lashes ain't scared. i love the harpsichord and the sexual ghost voices and bowed saws. this song seems to come from the world of grimm's fairytales, and i feel like a wolf."

Although Khan's voice is often compared to Kate Bush or Bjork, there are hints of Polly Jean, especially in songs like 'Trophy' with it's lower register chorus of "heaven is a feeling I get in your arms." One of my favorite songs of the night was 'Siren Song,' with Natasha alone at the piano singing a beautiful song about ambivalence.

Ben Christophers (a bit of a Thom Yorke vibe, eh?)

Two Chucks (but mine are 20+ years old!)

The show's closer, the crowd pleasing 'Daniel', is a song about Mr. Miyagi's apprentice. Seriously.

Back home in Baltimore at the world's best record store...

Set List:
Sleep Alone
Horse and I
Travelling Woman
Siren Song
What’s a Girl to Do
Pearl’s Dream

Good Love
Moon and Moon
Two Planets

She's clearly a child of the 80s-look at that outfit!

And just for fun..

Friday, July 10, 2009

My new favorite musician...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Polly & John

Is it narcissism that my god is a tiny, dark-haired woman, reserved, yet full of fire?

PJ Harvey & John Parish
June 5, 2009
Warner Theatre, DC

With Eric Drew Feldman, Giovanni Ferrario, and Jean Marc Butty.

Set: (not necessarily in order!)
Black Hearted Love
Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen
Rope Bridge Crossing
Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool
Civil War Correspondent
The Soldier
Un Cercle Autour du Soleil
The Chair
Leaving California
A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go
Passionless, Pointless
Pig Will Not
Cracks in the Canvas
False Fire (John on vocals)

Monday, June 1, 2009

You don't know me I am an introvert, an excavator...

Santigold w/Amanda Blank and Trouble Andrew
Ram's Head Live, Baltimore

The innovator herself, Ms. Santi White (AKA Santigold-- previously Santogold before she was nearly sued by an infomercial star!), played to an appreciative but under capacity crowd at Ram's Head last night. (Her show at 9:30 Club next week is sold out--what up Baltimore?) She's quite the performer and perfectly adorable-- those Gap ads don't do her justice. (Like Karen O, she often dresses like it's the late 80s, so her loveliness goes unnoticed.) All I can say is that I danced like I was in my living room with the shades drawn. I even hit the stationary woman next to me (I apologized!), and got beer spilled down the back of my pants, but it was well worth it.

She played most of the songs from "Santogold" plus a fab tune from her days heading the Philadelphia-based band Stiffed. She was joined onstage twice by her two openers, Amanda Blank (whose set we missed), and Trouble Andrew, who was quite entertaining himself. During the show she was flanked by 2 back-up singers/dancers, who were as cool as members of the British guard, and who Santi described as "badass bitches." When she brought members of the audience onstage for one of the encores, she cautioned them to stay away from these humorless ladies. They were dressed like they stepped out of a bad 80s sitcom, but they pulled off their moves with aplomb.

It's challenging describing Santigold's sound to others. City Paper described it as "the Pixies fronted by MIA. " A friend said he imagined that's how Beck would sound if he took female hormones. While even Santi herself understands the MIA comparison, I do not. They're both women of color playing genre-bending music, but for me that's where the similarity ends. The Beck comparison is probably more accurate (who could dispute his genre-bending?). However, to me she sounds like Siouxsie Sioux if she was born in Philly instead of London. Sure, her self-titled debut album contains some rapping, but she's not rap or hip-hop. In an interview with the NME she famously called being labeled hip-hop racist. She's got a point. Like another Brooklyn band I love, TV on the Radio, she's an African-American woman playing indie rock. I'm not sure why that's confusing to music writers or music fans, especially considering that African-Americans invented rock 'n roll.
The evolutionary mechanism that's given us humans the ability to make quick categorizations is becoming quite a liability, especially given the increasingly global nature of the world. It's no longer safe or good to fit everything into a little box. Ms. White certainly doesn't fit in one.

I think that's why her music resonates with me. Even though it's an innovative blending of styles, it's somewhat familiar as well. Perhaps it's also because we're contemporaries (like TV on the Radio, or the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, or Beck) and we grew up listening to the same kinds of music. (It's cool to have been born in the 70s!!!)

So if you haven't heard her, check her out!

Trouble Andrew's "mascot, " complete with skeleton mask (?) ! He didn't play an instrument or sing, but occasionally honked an ear-piercing bull horn and scattered dollar bills in front of a fan... I could have done without the shtick, especially since they had a decent sound. They warrant further examination, I think.

Cool chicks, Crystal and Miriam, check out a door to nowhere.

Well you're a liar and your cues are all wrong, but I can't count all the ways you woo me...

And I like sometimes to wave it high, up where everyone can see...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sincerely, L. Cohen

Leonard Cohen
May 11, 2009
Merriweather Post Pavilion
7:30-11:00 PM

I need to see you naked in your body and your thought
-Aint No Cure for Love

I'm good at love, I'm good at hate, it's in between I freeze
-A Thousand Kisses Deep

All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

Leonard Cohen played with Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters (vocals), Roscoe Beck (bass, vocals), Neil Larsen (keyboards & Hammond B3 accordion), Bob Metzger (electric, acoustic & pedal steel guitar), Javier Mas (bandurria, laud, archilaud, 12 string acoustic guitar), Rafael Gayol (drums, percussion), and Dino Soldo (sax, clarinet, dobro, keys).

Cutie pie sound guys in fedoras

Jack and Evelyn before the show

Another fedora

Mr. Cohen on his knees

Sharon Robinson

Whither Thou Goest

Dance Me to the End of Love
The Future
Aint No Cure for Love
Bird on a Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Chelsea Hotel No. 2
Waiting for the Miracle
("We're so privileged to be here with you when the world is plunged in chaos...we'll be back for the second half of the show")
Tower of Song
Suzanne (Leonard on guitar)
The Gypsy's Wife
The Partisan
Boogie Street
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (spoken word)
Take this Waltz
I'm Your Man ("And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear this old man's mask for you.")
Encore 1: So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Encore 2: Famous Blue Raincoat
Encore 3: If It Be Your Will (spoken word)
Encore 4: I Tried to Leave You
Whither Thou Goest

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Stop Falling In Love With Everything That Lets You Down

Tommy Keene - 5/2/2009

The Talking Head, Baltimore

Twenty-some years after hearing the Replacements 'Alex Chilton' for the first time on my sister's college radio show, and a good 10 years after hearing the man himself play with a reunited Box Tops on Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre, PA, I've finally gotten around to really discovering the music of Alex Chilton and Big Star. Aside from knowing that he influenced everyone from the Replacements to Counting Crows ("I wanna be Big Star") I never knew much about him, save that he was trapped during Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to my friend Tom, who knows more about music than anyone I know, I discovered the melodic melancholy of Mr. Chilton and company. Elliott Smith, who'd covered several Big Star songs (notably Thirteen and Nighttime), and certainly no stranger to beautiful pain himself, was in many ways a musical heir of Chilton and Big Star. Another musical heir, who I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing in Baltimore last night, is Tommy Keene.

Tommy Keene, a Maryland native who has been playing/recording since the early 80s, is someone I'd never even heard of until about a month ago. This is surprising, given his long career and musical collaborations (notably playing as the Keene Brothers with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fame, another band I discovered thanks to college radio--I put 'Surgical Focus' on many a mix tape for some undeserving boy). Perhaps it's incorrect to call Keene an heir to Chilton--at 51 he's not even a decade younger--because while the music has a similar sensibility, Keene is clearly his own musician. The word 'power pop' gets thrown around a lot, but I don't really know what that means. Defining a musical genre based on affection for the Beatles and intelligently written pop tunes is limiting, since, like any label, it doesn't really tell you anything meaningful. (Interestingly, wikipedia's definition of 'power pop' would also fit Kurt Cobain, who, despite appearances to the contrary, was totally a melody junkie.) Tom's disclaimer (knowing my musical taste) when giving me the first Keene mix was that Tommy Keene isn't Radiohead. Maybe not, but he's a stellar performer/lyricist/guitar player who writes thoughtful, well-crafted songs.

Keene played at the Talking Head, a venue more intimate than anywhere I've seen a show (it's probably the size of my apartment), and my new favorite place to hear a band. (According to Rolling Stone's 2008 "Best Of" issue which rated Baltimore as having "the best music scene," the Talking Head is named for native son David Byrne, but I haven't been able to corroborate that). The 2 dimwitted door attendants at Sonar had never even heard of the Talking Head, even though it's housed within Sonar's walls ("What?--the Talking Heads aren't playing tonight, it's Sum 41, you got the wrong night babe..") You can imagine how much I appreciated being patronized by some stoned chick in smeared eye makeup who was younger than me. But it was fortuitous timing. As we stopped to talk to a friend of Tom's in the small alley leading to the club, Tommy Keene, his band, and what looked like his family, came around the corner behind us, and graciously greeted their fans on their way inside.

Now, I have only recently discovered Tommy Keene's music. However, the small crowd gathered at Talking Head knew his catalogue inside and out. I kinda felt like I did when I saw the Watchmen on opening night at the Uptown in DC and the mostly male audience cheered for every special effect. It's always super interesting, and a privilege for sure, to intimately observe a subculture of devoted fans. And man, were they devoted. There was a burly guy in a Ravens jersey with both arms and fists in the air during most of the show. The guy in front of me did an exaggerated head-bang to seemingly every drum beat. Out of the corner of my eye I spied the guy next to me playing air guitar. Seriously.

But I have to say, Tommy rocked. He may have only been playing for 30 people, but he played like he was playing for 300. It was the last night on their tour, and he was clearly enjoying himself and the attention from his adoring and extremely well-informed fans who knew everything he played, from his 80s material to his latest, In the Late Bright. His voice is reminiscient of Chilton's, but deeper and rougher, the perfect marriage of Paul Westerberg and Elvis Costello. Physically, he looked to me like a cross between a young Jimmy Stewart and Mel Gibson (circa Lethal Weapon). He has this everyman countenance, with a touch of madness in those intense blue eyes. And his playing matches him--it's pleasing, but is not sugar coated pop--and he's such a skilled musician that it doesn't even occur to you to be wowed by it. He makes it all seem easy. Flawless.

Why, then, hasn't he been on my radar? It's a mystery to me that every true music fan I know knows Chilton, but doesn't know Keene. It must be frustrating for Mr. Keene to be playing this tiny club for less than 50 people, while Sum 41 played to a packed house next door. And it frustrates me as a music fan. After the show, Keene mingled with fans--signing CDs, posing for pictures-- and graciously answered a new fan's lyric question, saying "I'm not sure, email me" (and I totally will-- it's a shame he's gay!)

For the last encore, Keene announced a surprise guest on drums, his 14 year old nephew, Hunter Keene, for their amazing cover of Lou Reed's 'Kill Your Sons.' The doe-eyed Hunter, a dead ringer for Atreyu from the Neverending Story, didn't appear to have any difficulty keeping up. In fact, he totally upstaged the rest of the band with his fierce playing. In a few years he'll be in some huge rock band. Perhaps mainstream success won't elude him like it has his uncle.

For more info on Tommy Keene, check out Tom's blog posting and Keene's recent NPR interview.

1. Late Bright (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
2. Secret Life of Stories (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT 2009)
3. Highwire Days (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
4. Down, Down, Down (from SLEEPING ON A ROLLERCOASTER EP, 1992)
5. Nothing Can Change You (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
6. Paper Words and Lies (from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986; CD reissued with RUN NOW EP in 1998)
7. Save This Harmony (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
8. Goodbye Jane (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
9. Black & White New York (from CRASHING THE ETHER, 2006)
10. Turning On Blue (from TEN YEARS AFTER, 1996)
11. Underworld (from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986)
12. Realize You're Mine (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
13. When Our Vows Break (T. Keene-J. Shears) (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
14. Back To Zero (his "signature song," first real single, from PLACES THAT ARE GONE EP, Dolphin Records, 1984)
15. Compromise (from TEN YEARS AFTER, 1996)
16. Long Time Missing (from ISOLATION PARTY, 1998)
17. Places That Are Gone (from PLACES THAT ARE GONE EP, 1984 - original version on the CD compilation THE REAL UNDERGROUND; a later, rerecorded, version appears on SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986)
18. Kill Your Sons (Lou Reed)
(from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986, also appears as a live version on RUN NOW EP, 1986)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Send Me Home Damaged

A Woman A Man Walked By
PJ Harvey & John Parish
March 2009

Years ago, a male, heterosexual friend confided that he would do Morrissey if given the opportunity--he loved his music that much. Courtney Love, on the other hand, once said that while her girl friends were lusting over male rockers, she, instead, wanted to be them. My feelings about PJ Harvey are a combination of the two (though mostly the latter). There is no other musician, not even my beloved Thom Yorke, that gets to me like Polly Jean. She is a true original--her voice, her music, her lyrics. Nick Cave sang about her: "With a crooked smile and a heart-shaped face, comes from the West Country where the birds sing bass, she's got a house-big heart where we all live, and plead and counsel and forgive."

But for me there's always been something else about Polly Jean. Poet Audre Lorde wrote "My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition." How difficult it is to truly be who we really are--to bring all of our seemingly contradictory selves to the surface. Polly's music has always captured the complexity of human nature beautifully. On a more personal level, from the time I was barely out of my teens her music helped me acknowledge those parts of myself and resist any perceived constraints.

Almost every interview describes her as a "slip of a girl," painfully shy, soft-spoken, and polite. Yet her music is raw power-- her voice deep and resonant, her playing fierce. Despite her diminutive frame, she is no delicate flower. But it isn't simply that she's this small woman who plays powerful music. She plays real music. And despite her ever changing persona (the combat-booted riot girl of the early 90s, the fake-eyelashed vamp of To Bring You My Love, the Victorian-era pianist of White Chalk), there's an authenticity to her music because she's never fit into any box.

She's the author of '50 Foot Queenie,' a song with more bravado than anything written by Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or any rapper ("glory, glory, lay it all on me, 50 foot queenie, 50 and rising, you bend over, Cassanova, no sweat, I'm clean, nothing can touch me") but also the author of 'It's You' ("when I was younger I spent my days wondering to whom I was supposed to pray--it's you.") And neither sounds like a put-on. You surely believe her when she sings "can't you see my pocket knife, you can't make me be your wife" as well as "could you be my calling?" on the same album. She can pull off the line "lick my legs I'm on fire," as well as "I envy to murderous envy your lover." She is the victim, the perpetrator, the innocent bystander. She is in love with love, and she is a woman scorned. She is tender and sweet, melancholy and mournful. She is bruised and broken, she is cold and withholding. She is in complete control of her sexuality. She is waiting for her savior on a horse. She blows the dichotomy of virgin/whore, good/evil, weak/strong out of the water. She, and her music, and all of us, are all of these things. She may be a mere human, but she masquerades as a goddess.

It is in this context that I listened to A Woman A Man Walked By, her 11th musical offering (if you include 4-track demos and the brilliant Peel sessions) and her second full-length collaboration with her friend John Parish (following 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point). Admittedly, I have high expectations whenever Polly releases an album (perhaps expecting Polly to express the innermost workings of my soul is a bit much). But I'm rarely disappointed. I don't need to LOVE everything she does, I just want to feel something different. Polly's music can be challenging, and AWAMWB is challenging for sure. But, more importantly, she always appears to be challenging herself, whether it be her voice (as on the album White Chalk--which initially made my skin crawl), or by writing more formulaic pop/rock tunes (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea--one of her most acclaimed/commercially successful records, although not my favorite. I'd take the dead lovers/broken characters of Is This Desire, Uh Huh Her, or To Bring You My Love over Stories any day.)

With Polly's own music, her sweet melodies often belie acidic lyrics or vice-versa. However, her collaborations with John Parish are like a dysfunctional relationship where each partner brings the other further down. They seem to feed off of each other to create even more ominous or distorted moods. In an interview with LA Weekly about their latest collaboration, Polly concurred "What I always try to do vocally with what John presents to me musically is to match the environment that that piece of music is inhabiting, and strengthen it more. So I just absorb the feeling of the music that is given me...What I do vocally always has to be absolutely together with the music in that they were made for each other and you cannot separate one from the other. "

She's made the creepiest and most inaccessible music of her career with John, but it totally works. This is not safe musical territory. However, I'm hesitant to use the word "dark." I mean, of course it's dark (that's sort of redundant with Polly), but the darkness isn't literal (not even the murderous lover of Black Hearted Love), it's purely visceral. It's about conveying these very personal emotions. This is not an album of out of tune keening that's been labeled 'art rock' and lauded by pretentious music critics to boost their indie cred. For me it's all about how the music makes me feel.

I have nothing against a well-crafted pop song, on the contrary, and I especially love a good lyric. However, when it comes to music that "owns my soul," as my niece Keighlyn would say, I need a fair dose of dissonance, and perhaps even a little pain, with my melody. Maybe it's because I live a well-ordered life, and masquerade as calm, cool, and collected (all those who know me well can roll your eyes now--I swear, people really think that!), but I find the chaos of Polly and John cathartic. It's more authentic than, I don't know, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

The album opener, 'Black Hearted Love,' is vintage PJ Harvey, with loud guitars and her voice back to her own deep register, not the bastardized sweetness of her previous album. It's one of the most violent songs about being underestimated that I've ever heard: "When you call out my name in rapture, I volunteer my soul for murder." It's one of my favorite tracks on the album, but also one of the most familiar. An ominous game of hide and seek dominates 'Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen.' It's as if 'Dance Hall at Louse Point' was being played in Appalachia or rural Ireland. The garden (as in "there is no laughter in the garden") is a recurring theme in her lyrics across albums. There is, in fact, a photo in the liner notes of Polly play-shrieking at John handing her an apple.

'Leaving California' finds Polly back to her falsetto, but it's the perfect complement to John's funeral dirge. 'The Chair,' about a dead child, another recurring theme, is probably my least favorite, but it's only Wed (and the album came out yesterday!) There's something very jazzy and Radiohead Kid A/Amnesiac about it.

'April' finds her playing with that voice-- initially a cross between a croak and a keen (I picture Snow White's evil step-mother in her disguise as the old woman with the apple). "April I feel you leaving, I don't know what silence means, it could mean anything." Then she unleashes that voice: "April, April, that I'm walking that I'm watching, your rain overcomes me." It's utterly perfect.

The music of the titular 'A Woman A Man Walked By' definitely matches the lyrics : "He had chicken liver balls, he had chicken liver spleen, he had chicken liver heart, made of chicken liver parts, lily livered little parts....but I wanted to explore the damp alleyways of his soul." Then, in a most terrifying growl (think Regan from the Exorcist), "I want his fuckin' ass." These two minutes of musical and lyrical brutality are followed by the frenetic instrumental 'The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go' which evokes Tom Waits in a boxcar.

'The Soldier,' a lovely, lilting ballad, begins "I imagine I'm a soldier walking on the faces of dead women." (And it's another banjo tune to boot.) 'Pig Will Not' starts with a howl that turns into a chorus of "I WILL NOT!" Phrases like "that rubbish inside your rotting mind" are punctuated by Polly barking like a dog. (I almost fell asleep on my second listen last night until I came to this song!)

'Passionless, Pointless' is an understated, unsentimental, yet devastating portrayal of a disintegrating relationship ("you slept facing the wall and you wanted less than I wanted.")
The album's closer, the spoken word 'Cracks in the Canvas,' comes too soon, after only 36 minutes. Polly sings "Dear God, you better not let me down this time."

And no, she hasn't.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Musical Pharmacology

The New York Times
March 29, 2009
By Matthew Gurewitsch

Composing Concertos in the Key of Rx

REMEMBER the Mozart Effect? As propounded by the news media, the message was that listening to Mozart made children smarter. The science was full of holes, but the notion appealed, and a growing body of research has since suggested that music, classical music in particular, is somehow good for us. The field is still short on evidence, but it has started a lively conversation between scientists and other experts.

“Listening to finer music and attending concerts on a consistent basis makes your real age about four years younger,” Dr. Michael F. Roizen — the chief wellness officer of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, said recently. “Whether that’s due to stress relief or other properties, we see decreases in all-cause mortality, reflecting slower aging of arteries as well as cancer-related and environmental factors. Attending sports events like soccer or football offers none of these benefits.”

That music touches the core of our being is a discovery as old as human consciousness. Plato grappled with the powers of music in “The Laws” and other dialogues, and he was hardly the first to do so. Shakespeare in several of his most poignant scenes dramatized music’s soothing effect on troubled spirits.

Healers of many sorts try to harness music for therapeutic purposes, if only as an adjunct to crystals, perfumes and green tea. But could music ever take its place as medicine?

One expert who is betting that it will is Vera Brandes, the director of the research program in music and medicine at the Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. “I am the first musical pharmacologist,” Ms. Brandes said last fall in Vienna. In that capacity she is developing medication in the form of music, dispensed as a prescription. To market the product line, she helped found Sanoson (, a company that also designs custom music systems for medical facilities.

“We are preparing for the launch of our therapies in Germany and Austria in the fall of 2009,” she said, “and are anticipating the U.S. launch in 2010.”

Here is how the treatment works. Once the doctor has established a diagnosis, the patient is sent home with a listening protocol and music loaded onto a player much like an iPod. Timing is critical.

“Calming music heard at an ascending point in your circadian cycle wouldn’t calm you,” Ms. Brandes said. “It may even annoy you.” The technology — which includes special headsets and formatting as protection against piracy — is proprietary. A patent application has been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The music is proprietary too. To avoid the interference of personal associations, the tracks consist entirely of original material. “In our research,” Ms. Brandes said, “we have found that when people are listening to music they know, their reactions are entirely different.”

Dr. Roizen and Ms. Brandes crossed paths last August at a symposium entitled “Music and the Brain,” presented by the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Orchestra during the orchestra’s residency at the Salzburg Festival. Dr. Roizen, who is an author (with Mehmet C. Oz) of “You: The Owner’s Manual” and its numerous best-selling sequels, delivered solid substance with a showman’s flair in his talk “The Beneficial Effects of Music on Your Health.” Ms. Brandes, who was working on the program for Mozart & Science 2008, an international congress in Vienna last November, was in attendance and found that she shared with Dr. Roizen a passion for quantifying health effects that many have long taken on faith.

Since Plato and Shakespeare, natural scientists, many of them musicians themselves, have been looking at music with an ever more analytical eye. In the utilitarian 20th century, Muzak built an empire (now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings) on the premise that background music in the workplace could boost productivity. Dr. Oliver Sacks, that inveterate explorer of uncharted regions of neurology, devoted his latest best-seller, “Musicophilia,” to freakish effects of music on the brain. And as anyone who owns an iPod knows, personal playlists can work small wonders on mood and well-being.

But how?

Like apothecaries of old, who distilled extracts from nature’s store of herbs and plants, Ms. Brandes and her associates analyze music of all kinds to tease out its “active ingredients,” which are then blended and balanced into medicinal compounds. Though they steer clear of gross pathologies or infectious diseases, they claim their methods have broad application in psychosomatic disorders, pain management and what Ms. Brandes calls “diseases of civilization”: anxiety, depression, insomnia and certain types of arrhythmia. The pharmacopeia stands at about 55 tracks of medicinal music, with more in the pipeline.

In a pilot study, which in 2008 received a citation at the annual scientific meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Baltimore, Ms. Brandes and international associates investigated the effects of music on patients suffering from hypertension for which no organic cause can be found.

“Conventionally hypertensive patients are treated with beta blockers, which suppress their symptoms,” Ms. Brandes said. “Music can address the psychosomatic root causes.”

According to her study, listening to a specially designed music program for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks, patients experienced clinically significant improvements in heart-rate variability, a major indicator of autonomous nervous function. In her next study Ms. Brandes will subject these findings to a full-fledged clinical trial.

Formerly a producer of musical events and recordings, Ms. Brandes, 52, masterminded the international breakthrough of the harp phenomenon Andreas Vollenweider and staged Keith Jarrett’s legendary concert in Cologne, Germany, to name just two highlights of an impressive résumé. But a near-fatal car crash in 1995 caused her to begin contemplating a change of career.

“I broke Vertebrae 11 and 12, missing the spinal cord by a millimeter,” Ms. Brandes said. “The doctor said, ‘I can’t do much for you for a while, but you can sing if you like.’ ” The medical team expected to keep her immobilized for 10 to 14 weeks.

As it happened, Ms. Brandes was sharing her room with a Buddhist, whose friends came and chanted daily. After just two weeks in the hospital, an M.R.I. showed that her spine was completely healed. “Everyone said it was a miracle,” Ms. Brandes said. “They sent me home. It got me thinking.”

Three years later, even more decisive for the work that was to follow, Ms. Brandes spent three months at the bedside of her mother, who was in a coma with a rare blood cancer.

“I gave her a headset, and I played music for her,” Ms. Brandes said. “Because I knew her so well, I could tell from the subtlest changes in her hands and face what she liked and what she didn’t like. My mother was my first case study.”

Initially the dying woman responded best to the classical Spanish guitar music she had always enjoyed: Andrés Segovia, Narciso Yepes. But as her condition worsened, those old favorites seemed to distress her, and gentle Minimalism — “nothing complex,” Ms. Brandes said — proved more beneficial.

As suggestive and as personally meaningful as this experience must have been, Ms. Brandes, who holds no advanced degree in medicine or science, knew that her nascent theories would never gain acceptance without clinical trials by the book. “From the first,” she said, “I was determined to satisfy the strictest Western scientific criteria.”

Subjects in the studies wear smart watches that monitor seven physiological values, including heart rate and electrical muscular activity. (The placebos in her work are nature sounds.)

In general what has power to heal has potential to harm. In the case of music, the truism appears not to apply. Allegations of adverse reactions, addiction or overdoses, to cite some of the most serious dangers, are rare, and those that might be cited seem either flatly incredible or specious in the extreme. In Wagner’s time some predicted that “Tristan und Isolde” would drive people insane, but where were the mental cases? And in our time we hear of military interrogators administering music nonstop at deafening volume as a form of torture lite. But surely the torture lies in sleep deprivation, repetition and trauma to the inner ear, not in exposure to the music as such.

In the fall, over several days in Vienna, I was able to sample Sanoson’s music at appropriate times of day. A wake-up program after a half-hour nap began with nature sounds, developed a soft-rock rhythm, added a voice singing wordlessly and ended on a more chugging beat, sending me off in fine form for whatever the rest of my day might hold. A soothing evening program sounded like a snatch of mock Minimalism, unembellished by the variations and surprises that make concert music by Terry Riley, Philip Glass and John Adams a lot more interesting.

But the objective of Sanoson composers (Ms. Brandes herself and two others, their anonymity guarded religiously) is not to write concert music of independent aesthetic merit, any more than an apothecary is out to concoct choice cordials. It is to deliver specific stimuli — dosages of rhythm, harmony or dissonance and timbre — at the appropriate time and in an effective sequence.

Similar principles, applied to more nebulous ends, underlie the Internet-based beta site Sourcetone Interactive Radio ( Billed as “the world’s premiere music health service,” Sourcetone streams music in a dozen genres, choosing tracks according to the user’s mood as indicated on a graphic Emotion Wheel. Company literature says that “the service is designed to promote health through the power of music by delivering playlists that promote desired emotional states such as relaxation, invigoration, stimulation and happiness.”

A glorified jukebox? Interviewed in New York in February, the psychologist Jeff Berger, a founder and executive vice president of Sourcetone, bristled at that description, even as he backed off from any specific medical claims. Yet he expressed hope that Sourcetone would in time prove valuable — in the treatment of brain injuries, for instance — in ways he declined to elaborate.

Though that would seem a stretch, Sourcetone uses research conducted jointly with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Harvard Medical School, where the neurologist Gottfried Schlaug studies the effects of musical activity on brain function and plasticity. Dr. Schlaug (who at one time seriously considered a career as an organist and choir director) said recently that his work with Sourcetone has essentially consisted of quantifying subjective personal responses to specific pieces of music in an objective way.

Of far deeper medical interest, he added, are his efforts to provide a “neurobiological substrate” for existing forms of music therapy already in wide use: to prove that they work and how they work. An example would be melodic-intonation therapy, which uses singing to help stroke patients relearn language.

“I think it’s important to engage and make music,” Dr. Schlaug said, “not just to listen.”

Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition of music and language at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, agrees, and is working on participatory musical treatments for depression. But in the long term, he sees broader possibilities.

“Physiologically, it’s perfectly plausible that music would affect not only psychiatric conditions but also endocrine, autonomic and autoimmune disorders,” he said. “I can’t say music is a pill to abolish these diseases. But my vision is that we can come up with things to help. This work is so important. So many pills have horrible side effects, both physiological and psychological. Music has no side effects, or no harmful ones.”

As Ms. Brandes sees it, some things down the road may be very different, but others should not change. “Say a patient comes in suffering from depression,” she said. “The first step is always to see the physician. But then there will be the choice of treatment options: the shrink, Prozac or music.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Children are not always escaping from the mundane, but from the horrific--from all kinds of strong, frightening feelings they have; they don't really mind a little anxiety and heart failure, so long as they know it will end all right. -Maurice Sendak

One of the most frightening, loveliest books will finally make it to the big screen this fall. (Thank you, Alisa, for sending me the trailer.)

From Maurice Sendak's 1964 acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal:
Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. But what is just as obvious--and what is too often overlooked--is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood--the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all Wild Things--that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled...

I feel like I’ve just been born, even though I’m getting on.

-PJ Harvey (‘Pocket Knife’)

You can dye your hair but it's the one thing you can't change
Can't run away from yourself.

-Pulp (‘Help the Aged’)

Behold this bevy of brunette babes born on March 25th:

Flannery O'Connor

Machiko Kyo

Gloria Steinem

Aretha Franklin

'Tis Herself (looking exactly the same as in the '70s!)

I wish I was special, but today I'm number one, second to no one, no sweat, I'm clean, nothing can touch me...

..and a great horoscope to boot!
Free Will Astrology
Don't you think it's time you toned down your manic aspirations? Aren't you curious about the sweet, sensitive success that could be yours if only you got really calm and peaceful? Wouldn't it be interesting to explore the more manageable opportunities that might become available by accepting your limitations with humble equanimity? APRIL FOOL! Don't you dare do any of those things, Aries. Your spiritual duty for the foreseeable future is to be a brave initiator of ingenious experiments . . . a high-powered self-starter who competes primarily with yourself . . . a pioneering warrior who's in quest of transcendent exploits that make it unnecessary to go to war.