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Film Love Music Religion Television

An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

Categories
Music

Songs for Singin’

The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite band right now) are releasing their new two-disc album Songs for Singin’ two months early “so families can listen to some positive tunes while they stay home.”

The first single is “Hope Machine”, a jaunty tune that was written before COVID-19 but still pointedly speaks to the current moment:

Loved these lines:

Talk quiet and listen loud
Teach humble and learn proud
Scuffle with the struggle
And wrestle with the pain

There’s lots more sophisticated and pithy life advice that’s both timely and timeless tucked into a song supposedly written just for kids. But that’s the Okee Dokee Brothers for you.

Couldn’t pre-order fast enough.

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and films of the 2010s.

Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the albums from the last 10 years that sustained and entertained me:

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge. Favorite track: “City of Refuge”

The Book of Mormon Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “You And Me (But Mostly Me)”

case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs. Favorite track: “Atomic Number”

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Favorite track: “A Little Bit of Everything”

Good Old War, Come Back As Rain. Favorite track: “Amazing Eyes”

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “One Last Time”

Ingrid Michaelson, Songs for the Season. Favorite track: “Auld Lang Syne”

Joe Pug, Messenger. Favorite track: “The First Time I Saw You”

John Mayer, Born and Raised. Favorite track: “Queen of California”

The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. Favorite track: “Jack Sparrow”

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. Favorite track: “Ends of the Earth”

Lucius, Wildewoman. Favorite track: “Turn It Around”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Through the Woods. Favorite track: “Walking With Spring”

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Favorite track: “First Snowfall”

The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt. Favorite track: “Troubles Will Be Gone”

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.

Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.

Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.

Categories
Family Film Music

This is his song

One day I was trying to soothe my fussy baby with some bouncing and singing. I faced him toward me and then out of nowhere started singing a melody that popped into my head. The combination of the song and how I swayed and bounced him calmed him right away, and even elicited a smile.

At first I couldn’t place the melody. But then I remembered: it was the “This Is My Song” ditty from the 1958 movie musical Tom Thumb, officially titled “Tom Thumb’s Tune”:

Here’s the film version, featuring the dance stylings of West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actor Russ Tamblyn. I remember loving that movie as a kid, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that perhaps it’s time for a rewatch.

The song-and-bounce routine has now become something of a family joke given how effective it is at soothing, if only temporarily. Funny how things can emerge from your brain at just the right time.

Categories
Music

Love & Revelation

So excited to receive Over the Rhine’s gorgeous new album Love & Revelation in the mail. I don’t get many CDs these days, so it was a treat to admire the design and new-CD smell:

This album was part of Over the Rhine’s fundraiser from a few years ago my wife and I contributed to. Two more future albums are included in our donation level, along with the treat of getting our names in the liner notes:

Get it when it’s released wide March 15!

Categories
Film Music Technology

Why I love Kanopy, Hum, and System Information

Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:

Kanopy

Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages of Fear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!

Hum

hum-songs

I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.

System Information on Mac

I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)

Categories
Music

Favorite music of 2018

Most of the music I encountered for the first time in 2018 wasn’t actually new. But here are a few new releases I did fancy this year, in no particular order.

Winterland by The Okee Dokee Brothers

One of my favorite bands released a full album about my favorite season, so yeah, it’s gonna make this list. Choice song: “Blankets of Snow”

Songs for the Season by Ingrid Michaelson

This album has been on heavy rotation this Christmastime. Choice song: “Looks Like A Cold, Cold Winter”

Magic Ship by Mountain Man

Here’s a digital browsing success story: I was on Hoopla (free with your library card) trolling through the new music releases and selected an album from an artist I knew and liked. Don’t even remember which it was, but I saw that the Similar Artists under the album showed a band called Mountain Man. Had never heard of them, but I figured a group with a name like that couldn’t be bad. Turned out I was correct. It’s a trio of women doing mostly a cappella folk serenades, and I can’t wait to play them as lullabies to my incipient child. Choice song: “Agt”

See You Around by I’m With Her

I’m with I’m With Her. Choice song: “Overland”

Wide Awake by Rayland Baxter

Recently heard a song from this album at the dentist office, which I guess means Baxter has officially arrived. Choice song: “Strange American Dream”

Between Two Shores by Glen Hansard

What I call “Sad Bastard” music at its finest. Hansard is on my bucket list to see live. Choice song: “Why Woman”

Songs from the Valley by Sandra McCracken

I’ve seen Sandra live many times and would gladly keep seeing her. Choice song: “Lover of My Soul”

Ruins by First Aid Kit

I’m starting to realize I have a thing for female harmonies. Choice song: “My Wild Sweet Love”

Categories
Life Music

Now available: ‘The Wonder Of It All’, a new album of old demos

Surprise! I just released a new album of old demos called The Wonder Of It All, now available on SoundCloud.

Since 2010, when I first got my MacBook Pro, I’ve used GarageBand to record song ideas. Some of them remain fragments and half-songs, but many have become full songs. This album is a collection of the songs that became something.

Most of the songs were written and recorded in 2010 when I was in Colombia, or in 2011 after I returned home and had a good amount of spare time. None of them are professionally or even decently recorded; I did them all myself, usually just with the MacBook’s built-in microphone in a bedroom or other non-soundproofed space. (Piano and drums were recorded at Reba Place Church.) Except where noted I did all the singing and played all the instruments. I am not a good singer, but I am proud of how I composed and arranged many of the songs. Some turned out well, some make me cringe, some I’m just happy I finished.

I’m releasing them now for two reasons:

  • Now in my thirties with a kid on the way, I’d very much like to just get these out into the world and achieve some sense of closure rather than let them languish on a hard drive. They represent a formative time of my life for which I’m very grateful, but it’s time to say goodbye and thanks for the memories.
  • Without a band or reason to record them professionally, I’d rather release them as demos, lo-tech warts and all, because something is better than nothing.

Keep reading for some short liner notes on each track. Thanks for listening and sharing. And thanks to Richard Polt for the authentic Royal Executive typewriter font for the cover.

1. “The Wonder Of It All”

The most recently written and recorded song on the album, from 2015. Initially had some drums towards the end, but between that, the guitar, and piano, the rhythm got too choppy. Just realized how much the beginning sounds like “Hero” by Family of the Year (a.k.a. the Boyhood song).

2. “It All Comes Back To You”

Originally called “Shouldn’t Have Done,” written by my friend and former bandmate Taylor, I changed the chorus and wrote two more verses for this new version. (Original version is track 14.) The random children shouting in the background were playing in the Colombian church where I was recording.

3. “Minor Lovers (feat. Taylor Martin)”

With a little banjo and stand-up bass help from Taylor.

4. “Be Still Your Fears (Christmastime Is Here)”

Once I started coming back around on Christmas music in general, I figured I should try to write my own. A bit strange putting this together in a warm Colombian winter. Should have added some sleigh bells in the interludes.

5. “Rejoice Evermore”

Proud of the backing vocals on this one. Can you tell I was listening to Mumford & Sons a lot around that time? This and track 13 are the most explicitly worship-songy I think—not a surprise given I was living with a Colombian pastor’s family and heavily involved at church.

6. “I Can Do Anything Good”

Remember that viral video of a cute little girl saying affirmations in her bathroom mirror? I turned everything she said into lyrics.

7. “Heaven Knows”

My “sad bastard” emo song. Added the harmonica interludes after I got one for my birthday one year.

8. “I Will Find A Way”

Went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this more upbeat version. Regret not adding some foot-stomps to give it some meat and drive.

9. “Long Gone Days”

Also went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this slow rock rendition. Needs some bass or low-end.

10. “Today Starts”

Wrote this all the way back in high school, and even recorded it with Taylor on a 4-track mixer. But couldn’t locate the recording, so I tried it again. The original was better, and not just because Taylor sang it.

11. “I Carry Your Heart”

Chorus lyrics are quoting an e.e. cummings poem, which I first heard in the good movie In Her Shoes. Had fun stacking harmonies throughout.

12. “What Love Looks Like To Me”

Kinda funny that I wrote this before ever actually being in love and having botched two different shotgun relationships. Call it a creative writing experiment.

13. “Awake And Alive”

Another fun vocal one. Not sure what I was thinking with the claps but why not.

14. “It All Comes Back To You (feat. Taylor Martin)”

The original “Shouldn’t Have Done” with me on guitar and Taylor singing.

Categories
Music

Music of the moment, ctd

An ongoing series on music I’ve encountered recently.

“Strange American Dream” by Rayland Baxter, Wide Awake
Recently I decided I wanted to find a way to regularly hear new music. If only there were a podcast, I thought, from a renowned media company that featured new music every week. Then I realized that was NPR’s All Songs Considered, a podcast I’ve known about for years but never listened to. The first episode I heard featured this song. I was hooked right away, dove into his back catalog, and then found out he was playing in Chicago exactly when I could make it. It was a great show: he’s like the lovechild of Tom Petty and Steve Miller Band, with a dash of U2.

“Waiting on a Song” by Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song
I was on a Black Keys-adjacent kick and realized I hadn’t listened to Auerbach’s solo stuff. I didn’t care for Keep It Hid, but Waiting on a Song is a sparkling mix of pop, rock, and soul.

“To the Great Unknown” by Cloud Cult, The Seeker
A buddy of mine told me about Cloud Cult in the midst of a deep conversation about the mysteries of the universe. Turns out Cloud Cult is a great guide in that journey. I can’t decide if I actually like Minowa’s voice or not, but the combination of stargazing lyrics and indie rock just does something for me.

“The Last Goodbye” by Uncle Earl, Waterloo, Tennessee
Pretty sure I have Abigail Washburn’s Wikipedia page to thank for stumbling upon this band she was in before her solo work. Combining her voice and banjo-fueled folk music can never go wrong.

“Steamboat Whistle Blues” by John Hartford, Aereo-Plain
Without realizing it, the first Hartford song I heard was Sara Watkins’ cover of “Long Hot Summer Days” almost a decade ago. It took until recently to look into his stuff, and the banjo-heavy “newgrass” of Aereo-Plain emerged as the favorite. It has several straight-up weird songs, but this one ain’t one of them: