INSTRUMENTAL story archive

Articles and opinion from the INSTRUMENTAL webzine

Month: July, 2012

Fresh Tracks – Observing “Vows”

The Band That Uses Ideas As A Map

In 2012, the future sound of American music has never before been so difficult to map. So many contemporary ideas, already deeply rooted and expressed in post 9/11 anxieties, are precocious, experimental and daring.

The first indication that new directions would be intuitive, exploratory and unexpected came with bands like Explosions in the Sky. Later on, the sound of Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Vampire Weekend floated pleasantly across the Atlantic to UK where listeners were startled to hear utterly non-generic pop music.

There are delightful variations upon popular themes for sure, but it is the spirit of adventure that is attractive. In the hands of the Young Americans contemporary music is being steered away from the formulaic and returned to a love of form. It dares once more to be different.

Vows are from New Jersey and they are emblematic of this current, highly reflective thinking. They are essentially a duo who are part of a wider collective that coalesces and dissolves as needs and wants arise. They also use thin disguises in the shape of improbable pseudonyms. It’s as if the act of expression requires the individual identity to be sublimated and suppressed in order for their bravely honest work to be more clearly visible.


The tunes feature hypnotic repeating figures and sweeping musical gestures that suggest  enormous, humbling landscapes dominated by awe-inspiring forests and mountains. It also hints that we might be a little lost in the world whenever we become aware of our own smallness. The songs are carefully structured and arranged to feel as if the moments of surprise are spontaneous. That is adroit. So too is the rather daring use of discord here and there. Brian Wilson’s famous meanderings into those deep dark woods took him to the brink of ridicule. Here, his legacy is a creative world where bands like Vows don’t feel the need for permission to play as they feel and compose as they see fit.

This music is an altogether different take on Americana but it rightfully takes its place alongside more conventional forms. In the future though, this music will inevitably become a convention in itself and be marked out as being as quintessentially American as Hank Williams or The Beach Boys. Vows are part of that evolution and only they have any clue where it will take them. They are holding the map.

In January 2011, New Jersey natives James Hencken and Jeff Pupa got together to form Vows.  Their debut album of songs, Winter’s Grave, was self-recorded and self-produced, and released for free digital download in April 2011. Vows was born as a recording project between Pupa (aka Bone Blanket) and Hencken (aka Nillo) in a conscious attempt to deviate from the acoustic singer/songwriter template for creating new material.

The two experimented by layering synth, organs, and piano tracks interleaved with ambient guitar sounds to create something more akin to an environment for the song. They also used different techniques for miking and recording each drum individually so that an empowered percussion enjoys an elevated role above mere backbeat.

By the end of  2011 they had been joined by longtime friends and active recording artists’ Sabeel Azam – lead guitar, backup vocals; Scott Soffer – bass; and Ryan Ward – drums, percussion, backup vocals.  Pupa is the principal vocalist and plays guitar while Hencken plays keyboards, synth, and supplemental percussion. “We had to translate this album Winter’s Grave from this unforeseen ‘no-expectations’ little project into a band, and we went with the people we grew up playing music with.  We had no idea it would become such an evolving and organic experience in sound”, continues Pupa.

Vows are now consolidated as a touring band and they have pledged to further embrace variation and innovation in their live performances. That statement of intent, straight from the band’s bio, tells you that the audience will be part of the journey too. Go see the cartographers at their craft.

The Curator, June 2012


The Curator’s Office – The Discreet Charm of Brooklyn

Americans have always been sensitive to any erosion of the hard-won civil and personal rights enshrined in the Constitution of The United States of America. Whenever something challenges those tenets of lifeliberty and justice for all there have often been two prominent forces rising to meet the threat. One is the intelligentsia who seek to amplify and apply the rigour of the law, and the other is the voice of the nation’s youth.

The Young Americans who are making new music for today do not seem to be overtly politicised but they do seem to be concerned about something. It could be the phenomenon that is touching all of us everywhere and all of the time. Is it the prospect of living in a world that is always on, always awake and constantly online? Is it the concern that the machine is managing us and not, as it should be, the other way around?

The dichotomy of socialized technology is that you are never alone with Twitter but you can never get a minute’s peace from adfomation with no message other than “buy” or “sell”. Your Facebook friends are fun, but are they holding you prisoner in front of your device when you could be outside lying under a tree? Hell, you might even be able to write a new song.

The web has the capacity to bring us together in unprecedented ways but is it also keeping us apart? The heart of the dichotomy is this; socialized technology gives the individual the opportunity to be a presence in the world – visible, accessible and contactable. It also leaves us exposed, vulnerable and ultimately revealed as even smaller still in The Grand Scheme of Things.

There is no attempt to make musical connections between the Young Americans featured here. If anything is discoverable here then it is that diversity of form is prevalent and a widespread acceptance that contemporary music in America is a family affair. The genres are kissing cousins not distant neighbours. What is evident is that these young writers and players share a common cause when they seek to make direct contact and communicate freely with their audiences. A like or a link will not suffice. They know that modernity means a joined-up world but it will only keep us apart if we forget to say share real thoughts, concerns worries and emotions.

A significant number of new artists are musically trained and come to their craft with an educated mindset. Others are self-taught while many are still negotiating the learning curve that, in truth, never really has an end point. There are players here who have been around the block already and they bring their worldliness to bear on a creative spark that can never be crushed.

What I like about all of them is they make music with an understanding of how it is going to be heard. They come prepared and disinclined to experiment on your time. When you have bought your ticket you are ready to listen. They are making sure that they are ready to play.

The songs, by and large, contain melodies that stick up for themselves regardless of instrumentation or stylistic flourishes. There is structure and dynamic within considered arrangements. They understand the need to avoid cliché and know a side-step from a two-step. Some of them can even write good intros – an under-rated skill in itself. They also read other writers and take inspiration from literature to create an astonishingly well-lettered, urbane lyricism.

Young Americans on INSTRUMENTAL will introduce you to music from a big country that is not so large that new friends can’t be found. This music, of course, is not the slightest bit representative of current (all) American music everywhere. My good woman is not The Time Traveller’s Wife and I have no psychic powers. However, I think that there is a common desire and very real need to engage in a conversation with their listeners. They are candid about the things that they are thinking and feeling, and there is recurring theme of reassurance. It’s not The Times They Are A-Changing they are rattling out, but the more affirmative and collectively delivered message of Let’s Work Together.

It’s interesting too that some of the most intimate sounds are either associated with or coming out of a suburb of the nation’s loudest city, New York. I have cherry-picked a few artists who have badged Brooklyn as a hotspot of musical activity. They are indicative of the way that musical ideas and direction are no longer governed by uniform fashion or slavish adherence to form. They play what they like for people who listen to whatever they please. It’s a meeting of the minds that is going to flummox the majors when it comes to plucking the superstars of tomorrow from all of this merry fragmentation. In the meantime, go see a band, buy their CD, be a fan. These days, the distance between the listener and the player really is that small.

Barkhouse are a young three-piece outfit from the heart and soul of Brooklyn. They line up as: Will De Zengotita on guitar and vocals; Jay Mort on bass, keys and vocals; and Olmo Tighe on drums. They are tight like family, not least because Will and Olmo are cousins and Mort is a childhood chum.

This is a band very much at the beginning but it’s plain from the recently released bandcamp EP that school has been out for some time now. They play regularly on the burgeoning Brooklyn scene and their songs have a solid, brownstone core and an uncommonly warm rock’n’roll heart. Barkhouse know how to use minor keys to create a soulful feelgood feel that is quite distinct from the vogue-ish  fatalism of folk and the drowned sorrows of country.


Will is doing something confidently courageous by fronting up on guitar and lead vocal the way he does. He’s taking responsibility for the songs and I think that self-assurance grows from the knowledge that he’s among friends both on and off stage.

The Aviation Orange are a guitar/synth/percussion-pop ensemble from Brooklyn who have strength in numbers and in songs. They are interested in layers of sounds that take the prehistoric twiddling of 1980’s effeteness to a witty and sophisticated new level.

Perhaps unwittingly, they also help to further validate the art of electronic song as a mature discipline. If electronica is a much broader church than it was when Kraftwerk droned down Der Autobahn then it may be because the congregation can now join in on the chorus.

The Aviation Orange are: Mike Nesci on guitar and vocals; Cherie Hannouche on keys and vocals; Alex Beninato on guitar and vocals; Kate Rogers on bass and vocals and Josh Harris on drums. I like them immensely and their calling card tune Radio earned several upward arrow clicks on the volume-o-meter.

Beast Make Bomb are dynamite in a small package from Brooklyn but there’s nothing sinister about them. In fact, they are guilty only of rockin’ in the free world in the most honest and forthright way. I first noticed them in a video diary from SXSW on the Re-Think Pop Music site. The performance was hi-energy, rip-this-joint, get down and get with it, beer-drinking loudness and a great song too. You need a bit of attitude to play this way but who would have thought it possible in Brooklyn? Or am I being naïve?

The current Beast Make Bomb line-up is: Glenn Van Dyke on lead guitar (the truffle thief); Ceci G on guitar and vocals and attitude (the one with the tangled hair); Sam Goldfine on bass (the one with the smarts) and Hartley Lewis on drums (the one that likes giraffes). Now, I could tell you a thing or two about giraffes but that will have to wait for another time.

The Yes Way look like slackers. They have a slacker type name and a slacker approach to biographical detail. So far, I have gleaned that red lights bother them, that they like The Mets and that four years is their idea of lead-in time. But really, theirs is not lazy music. It underscores what I have been saying all along about a duty of care to the listener. Their song is for you and in order for it to deserve your attention it does not come as a dashed-off signature. Their core strength is that they are a singer’s band. The songs are like telephone calls from the soul and compel you to listen.

It’s guitar-led music with a cause and several effects. The playing is understated in accompaniment but it roars through the open gaps in the narrative whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The rhythm section could easily idle along in a 4/4/ if they chose to – but they don’t. Some of this music has come out of jamming for hours I think. It’s an expensive investment in time and effort but the dividends are delicious.

The Yes Way are: Nick Burleigh on guitar; Aaron Mendelsohn on guitar & lead vocals; Jesse Bilotta on drums and vocals; Ian Mellencamp on bass & vocals; Josh Rouah on keys & vocals.

The Yes Way

The Curator, June 2012


Berklee on STORY+

Berklee. It’s one of those names that you know is important but you don’t quite know why you know that.

I can tell you that, “Berklee College of Music is a nonprofit, coeducational institution of higher learning incorporated under the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The college is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and authorized under federal law to enroll non-immigrant students and to train veterans under the G.I. Bill of Rights.” That might help.

Furthermore, I can tell you how to get there too. The campus is clustered aroundMassachusetts Avenue in Boston about four blocks from the Charles River. However, if I tell you that Berklee is a world-renowned centre of learning for students of contemporary music covering everything from folk to rock to roots to jazz and hip-hop then that would be more instructive. In fact, it is the further education pathway into the music industry and its ambition and achievements are breathtaking.

Berklee was founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk (b. 1908) on the principle that one way to prepare students for productive careers in music could be through the study and practice of contemporary music, or jazz as it was known at the time. In 2012, it’s all ART, and popular music no longer has to justify itself to a sniffy academia. But it wasn’t always so.

Lawrence Berk with students

Berk was born and raised in Boston’s West End and was playing professionally as a pianist in dance orchestras by the time he was 13. Nevertheless this wasn’t a full-time occupation and he continued in school until he graduated from MIT with a degree in architectural engineering in 1932. However, there were few engineering jobs available during the Great Depression and he moved to New York City, where he became a staff arranger at NBC. He later studied with music theorist and teacher, Joseph Schillinger. When World War II broke out, he returned to Boston to work as a mechanical engineer at Raytheon.

After Schillinger died in 1943, Berk became one of 12 authorized teachers of theSchillinger System. He began teaching part-time on Saturdays with three students, but eventually quit his job at Raytheon to teach music full time. In 1945, he purchased a three-story building at 284 Newbury Street in Boston and opened Schillinger House.

Under his direction, enrolment in the first nine years increased tenfold, the curriculum expanded to include music education, and alumni began appearing in nationally famous orchestras led by people like  Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. This is probably the first incarnation of Berk’s perceptive take on the fluidity of popular music. Jazz  that you could dance to marked the first post war-wave of youth-driven popular culture. The kids couldn’t get enough of that stuff, and Kenton’s tune The Peanut Vendor was a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  They listened to it, danced to it and revered it. Many of them wanted to take up instruments and play it too. Berk was tapping into the Zeitgeist and not for the last time either.

In 1954, he changed the name of the institution to the Berklee School of Music, after his son, Lee Eliot Berk in order to give it a unique identity quite distinct from the musical establishment. It was an inclusive institution for inclusive music. He consolidated the faculty with  some heavy hitters from the jazz fraternity such as trumpeter Herb Pomeroy (1956), saxophonist Charlie Mariano (1957), drummerAlan Dawson (1957), and reed player John LaPorta (1962)  to the faculty. He wasn’t a man to waste a minute and as early as 1957, he instituted an innovative LP and score series, Jazz in the Classroom, featuring recordings of big band arrangements and performances by the school’s best students, packaged with copies of the arrangements.

He wasn’t one for standing still either and in 1962 the school established the first college-level instrumental major in guitar. Rock ‘n’ Roll had been King for a while but this initiative was taken just as the Beatles were emerging over the horizon and things would never be the same. Prescience or just good fortune? You decide – but don’t take all day about it. This is what Lee Eliot Berk had to say on the subject, “Once we began accepting electric guitar as a principal instrument in 1967, it opened the door to the whole electronic revolution”.

In 1966, Berklee awarded its first bachelor of music degrees and moved into larger quarters at 1140 Boylston St. Under Berk’s leadership, the school offered the first college-level courses in rock and pop music and composing forcommercials. By 1970, it had become the Berklee College of Music where other curriculum firsts included an electric bass guitar major (1973), and the creation of a jazz-rock fusion ensemble (1974). Berklee’s synergy with the ascendant musical forms of the moment seems now to be something akin to clairvoyance. The early 1970’s marked the beginning of the short reign of heavy riffing prog-rock outfits prefaced by Cream whose bassist Jack Bruce re-wrote the book on rock bass. In the mid-1970’s west coast rock flourished and racked up the sales. But it was Weather ReportIan Carr’s NucleusThe Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever whose influence was far-reaching in the continuing affair between Rock technology and the source code that is at the core of Jazz.

Berk’s final major expansion of college facilities took place in 1976 with the establishment of the Berklee Performance Center. This 1227-seater auditorium is located on Massachusetts Avenue where an adjoining building is used for additional classrooms, rehearsal facilities and the college library. The venue is the former Fenway Theatre, a movie palace built in 1915, which has been thoroughly converted for use as an auditorium.

Naturally, it hosts an incredible variety of artists and performers, not least those from the student cadre. But it isn’t simply a concert hall conveniently attached to a college. “We see the Performance Center as a giant classroom where people can learn about performing and the technical side of presenting a show,” says Rob Rose VP for Special Programmes. The Performance Center was funded through a 25-year government bond issue to the value of $7m which the college finished paying back a few years ago.

After he retired in 1978, Lawrence Berk served as chancellor until his death in 1995. His son, Lee Eliot Berk (b.1942) succeeded him as president of the college in 1979 and the college entered a new phase of expansion and innovation.

Under the younger Berk’s leadership, further diversified its curriculum to create new majors, including Film Scoring, Music Production and Engineering, Music Synthesis, Songwriting, Music Business/Management, and Music Therapy.

Lee Berk graduated from Brown University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Boston University in 1967. From there he worked closely with his father first serving as bursar and supervisor of the Private Study Division. He continued to realize the vision of his father by expanding the size of Berklee’s urban campus and widening the curricular offerings in the areas of music technology, music business, and music therapy.

He made his mark early on when his book Legal Protection for the Creative Musician, won the prestigious Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP in 1971 for best book in music. It is a not only a core text but it is also a marker for a sea-change in relationships between artists and the an industry that has a poor reputation for playing fair. Artists who got royally ripped off probably did not read this book. The effort to educate musicians in the business of music continued under Lee Berk’s tutelage and as early as 1992 the Music Business/Management major became available.

However, it is the affinity with innovations in music production and recording technology that has helped make Berklee what it is today. The on-site campus technology has a three-year replacement cycle so state-of-the-art comes as standard.

Berklee, in contrast to many other music colleges and conservatories, became technologically sophisticated from the outset and it is this distinction that has given the college such a strong identity. The move into technology alongside Berk Jr’s ability to forge working business partnerships has been the making of Berklee as the college of the music industry.

The strong business ethic and the astute management protocols don’t tell the whole story of Berklee though. It was born out of a passion for popular music and that a genuine desire to offer educational support and direction to aspirations of gifted young talent. That continues today with a strong commitment to outreach local and international outreach programmes. Every year, talented youngsters from the Boston area are identified and funds are raised to give them scholarships to summer programmes and many of them have matriculated into the college.

The college also offers a Music Therapy major based on research indicating that music therapy had been a recognized discipline since World War II. However, it is the Berklee of 2012 that finds itself eminently resourced to allow students using technology to create new avenues of exploration in music therapy. The courses have only been running for about seven years but they are already delivering tangible results. There have been especially gratifying achievements among students working closely with cancer and Alzheimer’s patients, and young people with learning disabilities.

If Berklee still sounds a bit elitist to you then I think it may be a matter of asking what is not provided in music education elsewhere. Berklee began with a vision, a plan, and people who cared. It made it’s own luck. That good fortune is being delivered back to all of us in the form of musical riches from the recent past, the vibrant present and the highly promising future.

The Curator, June 2012