George Carlin once said that your house is a place to put your stuff. He went on to give an example of someone going on a vacation: You go through your possessions and put aside a subset, or a smaller version of your stuff. At the hotel, a friend invites you over to their place for the night. My god: You’ve got to pack an even smaller version of your stuff.
Music has stuff, too. But it’s messy stuff, a disorganized pile of dirty laundry and recycling we keep meaning to take out to the curb. And that stuff stored in the basement—you can’t even walk down there, stuff is piled up so precariously. There are piles of classical stuff, a little popular rock stuff here and there, and folk stuff.
That last one is a loaded term, there are as many kinds of folk music as there are kinds of people, and they all have their own order. In my case, I’m learning all about Irish folk music, which the band is calling “Celtic” so we can toss in an occasional Scottish song and some modern influences.
But I grew up on rock music, with some classical and electronic influences. My musical stuff includes time signature changes, cellos playing wandering continuos, and the repeats of blues-structured tunes. I’ve also got strong, energetic rhythms lurking in the basement (although you can feel them pounding away, even from as far away as the unfinished attic).
So now I’m putting all of that—my stuff—into playing Irish music. It’s like I came to this place with a big suitcase, and I don’t want to unpack yet because I may lose my stuff in the mess. I’m a little nervous about this, since I’m a nice Jewish boy from northern Jersey, and know very little about what Irish stuff looks like.
Jewish folk music is essentially liturgical, and it’s rich and deep with harmony and skipped beats. Some of the stuff I hear in synagogue sends chills through my shoulders. There’s this great moment when a room full of people with no musical talent whatsoever will sound like a trained choir, just for a single moment. (They sing this stuff every week, after all. Rehearsal pays off, every single time.) And they do this in a large room designed to have good acoustics.
However, when those people call themselves musicians, they’ll sometimes put Klezmer stuff on top of all that, because they live in the damn house and know where everything belongs. Jewish folk music will then get a jazzy backbeat with blues soloing on top of that precarious stack of folk tropes.
But I don’t know where Celtic music is coming from at all. How much of it borrows from Christian music of the time? Was folk music a rebellion against that, or was it something else entirely? Bar songs that got turned into popular tunes? Dance-hall standards? (Celtic dancing is a huge collection of confusing rhythmic types and structure.) The easy shot here is that Irish music is all about fighting, drinking, sex and death—but we’ve got all that stuff too, we just don’t sing about it as much. Where was I, again?
I’m stumbling through this house of Irish music tropes, looking at the top layer of stuff and maybe taking down a book or look at the mail. (But dammit, who left their dirty socks out in the living room?)
I’m starting to get a feel for where these Irish people leave the remote control, and it’s getting a little easier to find the phone when it rings.
In a few months, I hope that our first CD—released just last week—will sound clunky and weirdly awkward to my ears, as if I missed what will then be incredibly obvious musical cues.
Dunno how long I’ll be living in this house, but I’m starting to feel at home here. Maybe it’s time to check out what backbeat lurks in this house’s basement.