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One4

Six time brackets for the “left hand” and eight for the “right….” Numerals on staves are cymbals and/or drums chosen by the drummer. The sounds to be made are either long…or very short…. Dynamics are free. Only one sound per bracket.

***

Two and a half years ago, when I first saw the score for John Cage’s One4, my first thought was that I needed to re-notate the score to make it more user-friendly. While I appreciate the simplicity of Cage’s notation, it’s doesn’t do the greatest job at making clear the overlapping of parts and the progression of brackets through time. So I drew this:

The more traditional notation exposes all of the overlapping time brackets. The pink post-its indicate which instruments I’d chosen to use as well as potential start/stop points in performance.

I was nervous to tackle this piece because it seemed as though it would take great effort to train my brain to read four staves of music simultaneously. However, the piece is surprisingly easy to perform once you dive into it (once I stopped worrying about messing up). After two days of rehearsal, I was ready to record:

There is bound to be some debate about what counts as “drums” and “cymbals”. I watched a number of other performances on YouTube and decided I could make some concessions. I’m happy with the performance and hope to tackle other solo Cage works in the near future.

Ramblings In A Chromatic Field

I often listen to the music of Morton Feldman when I’m doing the final handwritten notation of one of my pieces. Feldman’s music is often long, and I take a long time to get my notation looking just so. So it works.

This time it was “Patterns In A Chromatic Field”. And when the piece ended, I was struck with some thoughts—which I felt compelled to record. So I present to you an audio recording of my ramblings about this piece and Feldman’s work in general. Transcript below.

“It just ends. And it feels like it could—it could go on…infinitely. It begins that way, too. It just is. The piece just is. And it seems to have always existed. It seems like something that could have always existed. Um…in the same way that there’s an argument about whether numbers exist. Like, did we discover numbers? Or did we invent numbers? Are numbers something that are just intrinsically part of the universe? And that’s how I feel about Feldman’s work. Eh…that it just…exists. There’s no narrative to the piece. There’s development, but it’s not something like a beginning, middle, or end development…in the way that, like, the end of a piece has developed a theme that began early in the piece. In Feldman’s work, it could be that the beginning of the piece is development of a theme that appears in an original form at the end of the piece. In fact, the whole piece is development of a theme that we don’t ever hear. So, in that way it feels like…the piece is a slice of something. The…uh…you know, the middle piece of bread. And we don’t see the beginning and we don’t see the end. And I think it was Feldman who said something about he gets rid of the first twenty measures of a piece after he’s written it? I know I’m misquoting that, but…I mean, that is…that’s how the piece feels. It just—it just begins. In fact, it’s not even a beginning. It just…we—it picks up. That’s what I should say. The piece doesn’t “begin”…eh…it “picks up”…in the middle. And that middle happens to be the first thing we hear. So…um…that’s why I like his work. It just…it just is. It just exists. And doesn’t…um…attempt to be anything.

Naked Piano Playing

On Sunday (May 12, 2019), I finished up a four-month run at the theatre, performing in two shows for Capital Repertory Theatre, in Albany, NY. The first was a 3-week TYA tour of Friend Of A Friend, a 45-minute play with music about the enslavement and release of Solomon Northup and the surrounding social and political climate. The second was a mainstage production of Shakespeare In Love, a theatrical adaptation (also with music) of the 1998 film of the same title. The end of this extended artistic period means a few things for me: 1) I have to resume work at my day job cooking in a restaurant, 2) I have to begin looking for auditions and other artistic projects to work on, and 3) I have to think about what I’m doing with my life in general. With a week’s vacation ahead of me before going back to the restaurant, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my art-making process and what it means for me to be an artist. I’m not sure this reflection will help settle the question of No. 3, but it’s worth a try.

When I was at college at SUNY Purchase, I took a class with Lenora Champagne called “Performing The Self In Society”. It was a class on performance art, specifically solo performance. Think of the work of John Leguizamo, Spalding Gray, Diamanda Galás, Laurie Anderson, etc. We learned about the history of solo performance and its connection to, but distinctness from theatre; how personal narrative drives the art form, rather than being presentational in nature. As a final project, we each crafted our own solo performances to present to the class, workshopping them in snippets throughout the semester. The class was extremely valuable to me for a number of reasons (coming out of my shell, using my depression as a fuel for art, etc.), the most important being I began to understand that in every moment of life, we choose to present a different version of ourselves to the world. Cultural theorists have spoken a lot recently about “code switching” in reference to the way we change our speech depending on the social situation. (Adele Givens has a great bit about this.) Lenora (and I) would argue that our speech is not the only thing that is switched. Rather, every choice of every day is part of a highly curated self-representation, an art project that extends for the duration of our lives. This is not to say that we consciously think about these choices. Rather, informed by our perceptions of others’ perceptions of us, we are all complicit, to varying degrees, in how we present ourselves to world.

I bring up this class because I was reminded of it while thinking about a comment offered to me by a friend of mine about my lyrics. We were talking about a big concert I had several years ago when he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I found your music really compelling, but your lyrics left something to be desired.” I was immediately offended, but I wanted to know what he meant by that. He went on to explain that he felt they were a bit one-note and that had I more worldly experience under my belt—travel and so forth—I might be pushed to write about different topics and themes. Now, it’s true that for the majority off my songwriting career, 18 years and counting, I’ve focused on two things: relationships and mental health. My friend made an astute and accurate observation regarding my topic choice, but something still didn’t sit right with me. That conversation took place 6 months ago, and ever since I’ve been trying to figure out why his comment stuck with me, irked me so much. I’ve always been content and proud of my lyrics, perhaps more than my music. But it’s taken me this long to be able to say with confidence that, no, I don’t think any amount of worldly experience would change my lyrics. I’m not interested in the representation of the natural world, in describing experiences outside of myself, nor do I care for poetics and superficial imagery. I care most about describing my inner life, and no amount of travel and culture could fundamentally alter the fact that I care about exploiting myself above all else for artistic gains. In this way, I’ve come to consider myself a solo performer rather than a musician, and every medium of expression I take up, whether it be songwriting, classical composition, visual art, theatre, or even on social media, is a branch on my solo performer tree. My personal narrative has been artistically executed systematically over nearly the last two decades and can be thought of as a single, long-form work of art.

Now that I’ve defined what it is I do, I want to discuss a philosophy that’s been brewing in my head for quite some time. But first, I want to reference a few of my album covers to illustrate my point.

Each of these covers has imagery with no obvious meaning to anyone but me. A collection of houses, the chemical structure of dopamine, a drawing of a mouse and a ghost, a stuffed turtle at a party: they could mean anything, and they have, at best, tenuous relationships to the songs’ materials. So why choose these images to grace the covers of these projects? In truth, I’m more concerned in displaying imagery that has deep meaning to me than showcasing something decipherable. And these images aren’t meant to be decoded, either. It’s more important to me that the viewer knows that they have meaning to me than to know what that meaning is. In fact, I would go a step further and say that I have no interest in relating to the viewer (or listener) at all. All the art is created for me and sometimes other people are there to experience it too. This art is cathartic in nature and serves no purpose other than catharsis, which is inherently self-serving. Therefore, I would like to coin (if it hasn’t been coined already) the term Personal Symbolism to define the kind of art I create. It is distinct from ordinary symbolism in that the “Personal” refers to the products of expression that 1) symbolize something in reference to the artist, and 2) that exist only for the artist. There is a Turtle wearing a party hat on the cover of my ninth Christmas album because 1) that means something to me, and 2) because I don’t need you to know what it means for it to have meaning. The catharsis comes through the act of expression alone and not from having anyone relate to the products of that expression.

Now that I’ve completely intellectualized the issue, what does this philosophy mean for my work? Well, part of my current crisis is that I’m trying to define what success means to me. Unsurprisingly, my current definition is at odds with my approach to art-making. While I don’t need anyone to know about my art for it to have value in my life, I can’t build a career in art without the support of others. I need people to buy tickets to my shows, download my albums, come see readings of my musical, and interact with me on social media. How do I engage an audience when my work is purposely opaque? And how can I continue to write new material when I don’t always feel as though people want to engage with it? Is it worth continuing to make new work when the old work hasn’t been released/has no way of being heard? I’m thinking specifically about my classical compositions. With my Cummings Project, I’ve written hundreds of pieces, but only a handful of them have ever been recorded, never mind heaving been heard by anyone. I have pieces written for large ensembles and there’s little chance they’ll ever be performed unless I end up in grad school or with a connection to an orchestra that wants to play them. (Honestly, the same is true for the solo, duo, trio, and other small ensemble works, too.) Why bother? I don’t actually have a good answer for that. I write them because it makes me happy. And I also hope that after I die, someone will find them all, neatly catalogued and expertly notated, and figure out what to do with them. In that way, I’m actually preparing much more for my death than setting myself up for success while I’m alive. That’s not meant to be morbid, just realistic. As for my albums, I’ve actually had a modicum of commercial success, albeit locally. My 2016 concert at Proctors Theatre was very well attended and the EP and short film I was releasing at that show have been praised by everyone who’s heard and seen them. I’ve been a part of two great bands, most notably, Stockade Kids, and have played all over New York state. I don’t mean to just list my accomplishments, but in terms of how it relates to this Personal Symbolism, my career path has largely taken me into bars and clubs where I play 3-hour sets of covers for a few hundred bucks a night. That’s not cathartic, and the work isn’t mine. It reminds me of a story from John Cage’s Indeterminacy, wherein he’s asked, “Mr. Cage, are you willing to prostitute your art?”, though at least in his case, he was using his own compositions. While I appreciate the work and money, and I enjoy performing for performing’s sake, plus I like seeing my friends and family who come to these shows (not to mention the attention for strangers; even though I have no desire to relate to other people, who doesn’t like attention and praise?), it does make me a bit of a whore. That’s how I feel, anyway. In the theatre, too, I’ve tried to inject my philosophy into all of my work. It’s easy to do when I’m writing the score to a musical. (My writing partner, Cleo Handler, probably doesn’t even know all the small references to other works of art, including some of my own, that I’ve included in the score to our show, From The Fire; not because she’s not smart enough to get them (she’s actually incredibly astute), but because I’ve buried them on purpose.) It’s harder to do when I’m acting in a show. How does one remain faithful to a philosophy of selfishness when the very nature of acting requires one to become someone else? The way I see it, I’ve tried to tap into all of the parts of myself that would most identify with a given character. (There’s probably some famous acting technique that encompasses this idea, but I’m not good with studying all that, so forgive my ignorance.) Last year I was in a TYA show where I played a slave master. The obvious question is: “So, Justin…what part of you is racist?” The answer, truthfully, is “lots of parts”. I’ve got unconscious biases just like everyone else, even some conscious ones instilled in me at a young age by society at large that I have to actively stave off. If I can tap into those biases and figure out what makes a person act on them, then I’m doing justice to the character. So really, I’m myself on stage, even in a role that, on the surface at least, couldn’t be less like me. In this way, I’m expressing nothing other than my own experience, even as I say someone else’s words. This is consistent with Personal Symbolism.

So back to No. 3. What am I doing with my life? Well, the real question is: How can I make a career out of doing nothing other than expressing myself? It would seem that imperative that I find other people who support my philosophy. And there have been people. I owe much to Maggie and Margaret, Artistic Director and Assistant Artistic Director, respectively, at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany (where I just finished Shakespeare In Love) who have cast me in 8 shows over the last 5 years. They don’t know specifically about my approach to art-making, but they’ve obviously seen something in me that they want to use in their own art-making. I would love to find patronage like that in my composing and songwriting. If only a rich family could give me money to make art without stipulations. More realistically, I need to be accepted to a PhD program or sign a record deal. There are often a lot of strings attached to both of those things, but I’ve been careful in the past not to sign up for things that aren’t consistent with my personal philosophies. So it’s unlikely I would apply to anything or sign any contracts that would take away an uncomfortable amount of my artistic freedom. Maybe that’s an unrealistic and naïve expectation on my part that will actually prevent me from succeeding, but it’s a risk I’m comfortable taking if it means maintaining philosophical and personal integrity.

AUDIO: Music For Prepared Guitar

I wrote Music For Prepared Guitar in 2008 as a response to all of the prepared piano music of Cage I was listening to at the time. I was in the second half of my freshman year as a composition student at SUNY Purchase, studying under Suzanne Farrin. At that point, I’d been playing guitar for six years, but I’d never once put anything on the strings of my guitar. I can remember the possibility of this development exciting me, so I wrote this short, quiet piece for my prepared guitar.

Inexplicably, I never wrote another piece for the instrument, prepared, again. The piece uses paper clips, which are prone to movement and falling off, thus magnifying the need to play quietly and delicately. Maneuvering on the strings between all the paperclips can be difficult too; any brush of the paper clip can send it flying of or into the guitar itself. The chart for the preparations looks silly too. It involves measuring the strings and calculating the paper clips exact placement, which will be infinitesimally different in length from the bridge on every guitar. (The need for such a conversation chart was itself a response to the lack of such a chart in Cage’s works, which can result is wildly different-sounding pianos, and my need for exactitude.)

I haven’t played the piece since 2008. So, when I found the score while cleaning my music cabinet, I thought it might be a good idea to make a recording, if only for posterity.

One12

I purchased the score for John Cage’s One12 several years ago, when I was living in New York City. It has sat in my filing cabinet of scores and every now and then I’d thought about working on it, although the task seemed too daunting. All those numbers, 640 in total. And then actually performing it, it must take forever, right?

I don’t know what changed, and I don’t know what made me think of of the piece (maybe it’s because I’ve been voraciously consuming classical recordings for the past two weeks), but I was bored last night, so I took out the score, and I set about generating the 640 numbers, setting out my camera and desk, and making a video.

This video is the only performance of One12 on YouTube, and perhaps one of the only (if not the only performance) on the internet.*

One12 is part of “Without Notations,” works collected and edited by Andras Wilheim, apparently never published. The single-page holograph indicates that the performer prepare a score consisting of 640 random numbers between 1 and 12. For each number “1”, the performer speaks an “empty” (non-substantive) word; each “12” corresponds to a “full” word (noun, adjective, etc.). For numbers “2-11”, the performer produces a phonemic sound drawn from the word for the number, e.g. “t” or “too” for 2. The performance is improvisational.

– from JohnCage.org

*For several years after I posted it in 2008, I had the only complete performance of Cage’s Aria on YouTube. YouTube is now flooded with half-hearted performances of the piece.

GRAMMY 2017 Picks

What an odd year. It was rap’s year. Well, every year seems to be rap’s year. Rap consistently breaks more new ground than any other genre. Still. Trap music prevailed, and influenced rock, pop, R&B, and dance so much so that I don’t think there’s any coming back from it. More than just rap, it was a year for Black artists. Beyoncé put out a record, so I think that’s proof enough of my statement. More than just music, it was a year for Black People, in both positive and negative ways. We could not escape day after day of news of the killings of unarmed black citizens. And we could not escape white people talking about how racist Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance was (white people will make anything racist; white people are so privileged, they feel the need to be included in oppression just so they can stake claim to more things). My picks this year reflect that. And as always, these are picks of who will win, not who I think should win.

Record of the Year (A Producer and Engineer’s Award)

“Hello” – Adele
“Formation” – Beyoncé
“7 Years” – Lukas Graham
“Work” – Rihanna Drake feat. Drake
“Stressed Out” – twenty one pilots

It was Beyoncé’s year. ‘Nuff said. The only thing that could have come close was “Hello,” and despite its ubiquity, the quality of the record itself does not compare to that of “Formation”.

***

Album Of The Year

25 – Adele
Lemonade – Beyoncé
Purpose – Justin Bieber
Views – Drake
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth – Sturgill Simpson

See above.

***

Song Of The Year (A Songwriter’s Award)

“Formation” – Beyoncé
“Hello” – Adele
“I Took A Pill In Ibiza” – Mike Posner
“Love Yourself” – Justin Bieber
“Seven” – Lukas Graham

This is a tough category. I think that the scansion problems in “Hello” should keep it out of the running. But I do think the song’s ubiquity will prop it up, even though the songwriting and instrumental accompaniment isn’t as strong as “Formation”.

***

Best New Artist

Kelsey Ballerini
The Chainsmokers
Chance The Rapper
Maren Morris
Anderson .Paak

Look, Anderson is great. What a strong debut. But Chance, although he’s not exactly new, deserves the win here for exactly that reason. He has a refined rawness that comes from having been able to cultivate his product over many years to great success. (Personally, I would have chosen Gallant to win this category, but he’s still fairly unknown.)

***

Best Pop Solo Performance

“Hello” – Adele
“Hold Up” – Beyoncé
“Love Yourself” – Justin Bieber
“Piece By Piece (Idol Version)” – Kelly Clarkson
“Dangerous Woman” – Ariana Grande

Nobody is hitting these vocals like Beyoncé. I am NOT a Stan for Beyoncé, but this was the song that made me look at her in a different light. Her vocals are effortless, whereas Adele’s are labored. Justin doesn’t do anything with his. I hate Kelly Clarkson. And Ariana’s are overproduced. Hands down: Bey.

***

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

“Closer” – The Chainsmokers
“7 Years” – Lukas Graham
“Work” – Rihanna feat. Drake
“Cheap Thrills” – Sia feat. Sean Paul
“Stressed Out” – twenty one pilots

This is tough because I can see reasons for all of these artists to take this award. But there’s an effortlessness in both Rihanna’s and Drake’s performances that take this track to another level. As much as I despise them, I might have almost picked twenty one pilots to take this category, were it not for my favorite shipped couple, RiRi and 6 God.

***

Best Pop Vocal Album

25 – Kelly Clarkson
Purpose – Justin Bieber
Dangerous Woman- Ariana Grande
Confident – Demi Lovato
This Is Acting – Sia

First off: Is Demi Lovato still a thing? Secondly: I’m not a huge fan of The Biebs, but he really had me bobbin’ out to a lot of his tracks, and that’s saying something.

***

Best Rock Performance

“Joe (Live from Austin City Limits)” – Alabama Shakes
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” – Beyoncé fest. Jack White
“Blackstar” – David Bowie
“The Sound of Silence (Live on Conan)” – Disturbed
“Heathens” – twenty one pilots

It is strange to see Beyoncé nominated in this category, but she and Jack White knocked it out of the park on this song. That same effortlessness I spoke about earlier is apparent on almost every track on Lemonade, this song being no exception. Bisturbed’s cover of the classic Simon and Garfunkel song tries so hard to be something important and it fails. The same goes for “Heathens” (and every other song twenty one pilots puts out). Yes, I think a broader definition of what Rock is might been needed to give Bey the win here, but I think that’s important, right?, that we pay attention to artists and song that break boundaries and not give them awards simply because they do that, but because they do it well.

***

Best Rock Song (A Songwriter’s Award)

“Blackstar” – David Bowie
“Burn The Witch” – Radiohead
“Hardwired” – David Bowie
“Heathens” – twenty one pilots
“My Name Is Human” – Highly Suspect

It is ENTIRELY possible that the Academy will give this to Bowie because he died. And they probably will. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Radiohead deserves this over everyone else. Nevertheless, here I am, giving my pick to Bowie.

***

Best Alternative Album

22, A Million – Bon Iver
Blackstar – David Bowie
The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey
Post Pop Depression – Iggy Pop
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

To be clear, I really dislike Bon Iver’s latest project, and I can’t say that I much care for Bon Iver at all (except when he’s singing with Francis). But, he’ll get the aware for being…I don’t even know…Bon Iver?

***

Best R&B Performance

“Turnin’ Me Up” – BJ The Chicago Kid
“Permission” – Ro James
“I Do” – Music Soulchild
“Needed Me” –  Rihanna
“Cranes In The Sky” – Solange

Ugh…Solange. Ugh. 😒

***

Best R&B Song (A Songwriter’s Award)

“Come And See Me” – PARTYNEXTDOOR feat. Drake
“Exchange” – Bryson Tiller
“Kiss It Better” – Rihanna
“Lake By The Ocean” – Maxwell
“Luv” – Tony Lanez

For me, this is a toss up between PARTY and Rihanna. And I’m tempted to say that Rihanna will win this. But there’s something about Drake’s influence, especially this year. If it weren’t Beyoncé’s year, it would have been Drake’s year. Also, I like to imagine a scenario where DNCE and Maxwell put out their songs on the same day and they both went: “Fuck…”.

***

Best Urban Contemporary Album

Lemonade – Beyonce
Ology – Gallant
We Are King – King
Malibu – Anderson .Paak
Anti – Rihanna

Fuck.
Do I think that Gallant’s record is better than Beyoncé’s? Yes.
Do I not understand how it’s even possible to have that many incredible songs (every song, in fact) on a debut record? Yes.
Will Beyoncé win this award? Yes.

***

Best Rap Performance

“No Problem” – Chance The Rapper, feat. Lil Wayne and 2Chainz
“Panda” – Desiigner
“Pop Style” – Drake feat. The Throne (Jay Z, Kanye West)
“All The Way Up” – Fat Joe and Remy Ma, feat. French Montana and Infared
“THat Part” – ScHoolboy Q feat. Kanye West

First: I had no idea Jay and Kanye referred to themselves as “The Throne” apart from that album. This is weird to me.
Second: This isn’t even a contest.

***

Best Rap/Sung Performance

“Freedom” – Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar
“Hotline Bling” – Drake
“Broccoli” – D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty
“Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West feat. Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and The Dream
“Famous” – Kanye West feat. Rihanna

If “Ultralight Beam”, “Famous” would have won. So…I guess the was Kanye’s category all along. And it’s not even Kanye’s verses that win this award for him, it’s Chance’s verse. Best verse of the year.

Side note: Drake doesn’t rap once on “Hotline Bling”, why is this song nominated in this category. They should have replaced it with “Freestlyle 4”.

***

Best Rap Song (A Songwriter’s Award)

“All The Way Up” – Fat Joe and Remy Ma, feat. French Montana and Infared
“Famous” – Kanye West feat. Rihanna
“Hotline Bling” – Drake
“No Problem” – Chance The Rapper, feat. Lil Wayne and 2Chainz
“Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West feat. Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and The Dream

See above.
And if “Ultralight Beam” weren’t in this category, “No Problem” would win.

***

Best Rap Album

Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper
And The Anonymous Nobody – De La Soul
Major Key – DJ Khaled
Views – Drake
Blank Face LP – ScHoolboy Q
The Life Of Pablo – Kanye West

I think The Life of Pablo might be a better album than Coloring Book, but I just know Chance is going to win this. And he deserves it. His first major release is one of the strongest records of the year, comparable to Lemonade, TLOP, and others.

***

I wrote this post a little too late and they already gave the award for Best Music Video to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. But we all know I would have picked this to win anyway, so I’m giving myself a point regardless.

 

AUDIO: Songbook: 2 little whos

Cleaning off the desktop on my computer, I came across this demo version of 2 little whos from my Songbook cycle of Cummings settings. Unfortunately, I didn’t enunciate very well. But the melody and the character of the piece comes though clearly.

The text reads:

2 little whos
(he and she)
under are this
wonderful tree

smiling stand
(all realms of where
and when beyond)
now and here

(far from a grown
–up i&you–
ful world of known)
who and who

(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
incredible is)

My 2016 GRAMMY Picks

Another year, another round of GRAMMY picks. I feel like every year I say “This was rap’s year!” But seriously, this year was rap’s year. And not in terms of popularity. More than any other genre, rap brought sophistication and energy to music. Of course, we saw huge pop hits, and the usual players are nominated herein (T. Swift, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Drake). But it was a huge year for newcomers (The Weekend [not really a newcomer, just new in mainstream popularity], Fetty Wap, Charlie Puth, Meghan Trainor). If I say to say that the year belonged to one artist, however, my pick would be Kendrick Lamar. Not only was To Pimp A Butterfly a massive commercial and artistic triumph, but he appeared on several crossover recordings the (“Bad Blood” remix, and Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me”) and nearly tied Michael Jackson for the most GRAMMY nominees in a single year (11; Michael had 12).

Below are my picks for the winners of this year’s awards. Many of these categories found me choosing winners that I didn’t think we the best in their respective categories, but felt the Academy would choose them anyway. If there were any conflicts, they’ll be noted below each category.

So here goes…

Record of the Year (A Producer and Engineer’s Award)

Really Love – D’Angelo And The Vanguard
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars.
Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
Blank Space – Taylor Swift
Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd

If I can say one thing about this year’s awards, it’s that it won’t be a runaway for Taylor Swift, not like in years past. While many called 1989 a crossover success, I think the writing comes off just as bland as she’s always been.
***

Album Of The Year

Sound & Color -Alabama Shakes
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Traveller – Chris Stapleton
1989 – Taylor Swift
Beauty Behind The Madness – The Weeknd

The Weeknd’s album sounds like the same song 14 times. 1989 tries too hard. And the others probably aren’t on the Academy members’ radars.

***

Song Of The Year (A Songwriter’s Award)

“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
“Blank Space” – Taylor Swift
“Girl Crush” – Little Big Town
“See You Again” – Wiz Khalifa Featuring Charlie Puth
“Thinking Out Loud” – Ed Sheeran

If “Alright” doesn’t win, we might as well elect Trump our president because nothing will matter anymore. Seriously, I don’t understand how anything else measures up to Lamar’s manifesto

***

Best Pop Solo Performance

“Heartbeat Song” – Kelly Clarkson
“Love Me Like You Do” – Ellie Goulding
“Thinking Out Loud” – Ed Sheeran
“Blank Space” – Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

Everyone else in this category is bland, processed, and passé. (When will Kelly call it quits?)

***

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

“Ship To Wreck” – Florence & The Machine
“Sugar” – Maroon 5
“Uptown Funk” – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
“Bad Blood” – Taylor Swift Featuring Kendrick Lamar
“See You Again” – Wiz Khalifa Featuring Charlie Puth

It was really hard for me not to give this award to Kendrick. You may note I didn’t say “Taylor and Kendrick”. That’s because Taylor doesn’t deserve anything with thing song. It’s boring. It’s trite.(“You know it used to be mad love”? Give me a break.) Kendrick’s verse is (and, god, it pains me to say this) o…kay. It’s not great. But it does make the song a hell of a lot better. And therefore, “Uptown Funk” will win its rightfully deserved award.

***

Best Pop Vocal Album

Piece By Piece – Kelly Clarkson
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence & The Machine
Uptown Special – Mark Ronson
1989 – Taylor Swift
Before This World – James Taylor

I really don’t like Taylor Swift’s music. I really really don’t like Taylor Swift’s music. In fact, I think Ryan Adam’s 1989 was a better album. But just like in years past, nothing will stop the Academy from awarding its golden child the win in this category. Close second: Uptown Special

***

Best Dance Recording(A Producer and Engineer’s Award)

“We’re All We Need” – Above & Beyond feat. Zoë Johnston
“Go” – The Chemical Brothers feat. Q-Tip
“Never Catch Me” – Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar
“Runaway (U & I)” – Galantis
“Where Are Ü Now” – Skrillex And Diplo with Justin Bieber

Again we have Lamar putting his name on something that is unlike anything else in its category. The other nominees are all to similar, despite sounding different. They rely on the same tricks and gimmicks. “Never Catch Me” is just catchy enough, just powerful enough, just different enough to win.

***

Best R&B Performance

“If I Don’t Have You” – Tamar Braxton
“Rise Up” – Andra Day
“Breathing Underwater” – Hiatus Kaiyote
“Planes” –  Jeremih Featuring J. Cole
“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)” – The Weeknd

Damn, if I didn’t wanna pick “Breathing Underwater” to win. But it won’t. But, god, I hope it does. It’s unlike anything else in the category. And the vocals are just so tight and so smooth. But it won’t win. It’s like the Bernie Sanders of this category (and I’m a Bernie supporter). It’s too perfect to win; that’s it’s downfall.

***

Best R&B Song (A Songwriter’s Award)

“Coffee” – Miguel
“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)” – The Weeknd
“Let It Burn” – Jazmine Sullivan
“Really Love” – D’Angelo And The Vanguard
“Shame” – Tyrese

Again, I find myself in a situation where I give the pick to a song that really should come in second place. I’d love for Miguel to take this one. But the playfulness of “Earned It” (“Imma care for you/’cause girl you’re perfect…/you deserve it…/’cause girl you earned it”) is too irresistible. It’s one of the few songs about sex that I’d actually play while having sex. It oozes sex (and not in a sentimental or cliché way) and it just works. And if I may, I’m going to sound like a terrible newscaster or sports writer and make the pun that when it comes to my pick, The Weeknd “earned it”. (Ew. I feel gross now.)

***

Best Urban Contemporary Album

Ego Death – The Internet
You Should Be Here – Kehlani
Blood – Lianne La Havas
Wildheart – Miguel
Beauty Behind The Madness – The Weeknd

I really fell in love with The Internet this year. And though I feel in love with Lianne La Havas a few years ago, I think her sophomore album, “Blood” (my runner up in this category), falls short of my expectations for it.

***

Best Rap Performance

“Apparently” – J. Cole
“Back To Back” – Drake
“Trap Queen” – Fetty Wap
“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
“Truffle Butter” – Nicki Minaj feat. Drake & Lil Wayne
“All Day” – Kanye West Featuring Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney

Hardly does Fetty Wap rap on “Trap Queen”. Disqualified. I like every other song in this list (including “Trap Queen”), but as I mentioned before, Kendrick brought a level of sophistication to To Pimp A Butterfly that no other artist in any genre did.

***

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration

“One Man Can Change The World” – Big Sean feat. Kanye West & John Legend
“Glory” – Common & John Legend
“Classic Man” – Jidenna feat. Roman GianArthur
“These Walls” – Kendrick Lamar Featuring Bilal, Anna Wise & Thundercat
“Only” Nicki Minaj feat. Drake, Lil Wayne & Chris Brown

***

Best Rap Song (A Songwriter’s Award)

“All Day” – Kanye West Featuring Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney
“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
“Energy” – Drake
“Glory” – Common & John Legend
“Trap Queen” – Fetty Wap

Re: “Energy”: it’s too low key, vocally, to win this category.
Re: “All Day”: Despite much how much I like this song, the Academy would never choose a song that said the n-word so much, I could never say it had a chance of winning. Not even in 2016.
Re: “Glory”, it’s already nominated in the Rap/Sung category.

Re: “Trap Queen”, see Best Rap Performance.

***

Best Rap Album

2014 Forest Hills Drive – J. Cole
Compton – Dr. Dre
If Youre Reading This Its Too Late – Drake
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
The Pinkprint – Nicki Minaj<

This is the strongest category in the entire gamut. I think the only album that comes close to TPAB is 2014 Forest Hills Drive. But even that isn’t a close second. We’re talking about the entire black experience compiled into a 79 minute recording. And it isn’t just because of the historical significance that I chose this record to win. The musical sophistication is unmatched here. And this just isn’t the forum to get into why TPAB is so great. Maybe I’ll write about that in a later post.<

***

Best Musical Theater Album

An American In Paris
Fun Home
Hamilton
The King And I
Something Rotten!

If anything is going to beat Hamilton, it’s Fun Home.

***

Best Song Written for Visual Media

“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)” – The Weeknd
“Glory” – Common & John Legend
“Love Me Like You Do” – Ellie Goulding
“See You Again” – Wiz Khalifa Featuring Charlie Puth
“Til It Happens To You” – Lady Gaga

I’m gonna make some controversial statements. No one would care about “Glory” if Common and John Legend didn’t sing it. No one would care about “See You Again” if Paul Walker didn’t die. “Love Me Like You Do” is the the most noncommittal love song ever. And Lady Gaga sounds ill.

***

Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Gerald Barry: The Importance Of Being Earnest
Andrew Norman: Play
Stephen Paulus: Prayers & Remembrances
Joan Tower: Stroke
Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields

I can’t believe it, a comedic opera that actually made me laugh.

***

And that’s it! What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my picks!

2015: 100 Poems

Another year, another 100 vocal works.

1) two brass buttons
2) maybe god
3) what is a voyage?
4) first robin the;
5) Songbook: I’m very fond of black bean soup
6) Songbook: kumrads die because they’re told
7) Songbook: open his head, baby
8) Songbook: maggie and milly and molly and may
9) Songbook: O the sun comes up-up-up in the opening
10) i go to this window
11) Songbook: mary green
12) Songbook: o purple finch
13) Songbook: devil crept in eden wood
14) Songbook: red-rag and pink-flag
15) Sapphics
16) Summer Silence
17) A Girl’s Ring
18) What is thy mouth to me?
19) Songbook: “though your sorrows not
20) Songbook: mr youse needn’t be so spry
21) Songbook: If freckles were lovely, and day was night,
22) how
23) wanta
24) christ but they’re few
25) Diptych
26) because it’s Spring
27) Songbook: “summer is over
28) f
29) my specialty is living said
30) Songbook: jake hates
31) Elegy: being
32) Songbook: 2 little whos
33) chas sing does(who
34) life hurl my
35) logeorge
36) On this street
37) Impressions: i.
38) Impressions: ii.
39) Impressions: iii.
40) Impressions: iv.
41) Impressions: v.
42) Impressions: vi.
43) Impressions: vii.
44) nor woman
45) hair your a brook
46) Songbook: a pretty a day
47) Impressions: viii.
48) nonsun blob a
49) (once like a spark)
50) Songbook: when life is quite through with
51) her
52) when god decided to invent
53) “daughter” uv eve
54) XX
55) trees were in(give
56) once White&Gold
57) i was sitting in mcsorley’s
58) i will be
59) raise the shade
60) Songbook: yes is a pleasant country
61) hist wist
62) why from this her and him
63) Songbook: in time of daffodils(who know
64) Four Women
65) Songbook: my uncle
66) you notice
67) the moon is hiding in
68) Thanksgiving (1956)
69) i shall imagine life
70) ta
71) up into the silence the green
72) float
73) Songbook: of evident invisibles
74) moan
75) Songbook: that famous fatheads find that each
76) in making Marjorie god hurried
77) (beLls?
78) “think of it:not so long ago
79) bud
80) helves
81) only this darkness
82) lucky means
83-85) Three Songs of Winter
86) Songbook: Ad Huc Sub Indice Lis
87) nine birds(rising
88) Lord John Unalive
89) Wing Wong
90) You shall sing my songs, O earth.
91) MARIANNE MOORE
92) you are not going to,dear/this fear is no longer dear
93) yonder deadfromtheneckup graduate of a
94) neither could say
95) my mind is
96) Item
97) Songbook: Dedication
98) mr. smith
99) Songbook: Where’s Madge then,
100) joys faces friends

Also: e ([p.788, Complete Poems] which was written not remembering the poem had already been set in 2014).