— cool music and cool instruments that play themselves — 

As the technology writer for The New York Times, David Pogue gets to see and play with a lot of cool stuff. Of course, he must also handle the hassle that accompanies testing and reporting on beta versions — and often, only the “working” models — of the latest high-tech gadgets.

Pogue seems to be just the right guy for the ‘technology translation’ job. He’s enthusiastic about the hardware and software but diligent in testing and reporting the good, the bad, and the ugly of operations and user-friendliness. He knows his stuff, but he also seems able to speak “ordinary people” well enough that we can read his New York Times tech columns, watch his special TV reports about the giant electronics shows (usually on CBS Sunday Morning) or his Making Stuff series (on PBS), and feel we’ve actually learned something about such formidable topics as HDTV, digital cameras, or firewall software.

In late 2005, a Pogue NYT article highlighted a DVD of something a bit hard to categorize, even for this self-described techno-geek: Animusic. After bemoaning the loss of wonder that accompanies growing older, his column noted,

“A few weeks ago, …I encountered a piece of high-tech art that’s unlike anything that’s come before. It’s a DVD called Animusic. Its blend of music, visuals, humor and science is so new and so brilliant, it triggered feelings of fascination, laughter, amazement — and, yes, wonder.

“And I’m not alone. When my wife and I played this DVD for guests and relatives over Thanksgiving, everyone was suddenly talking and exclaiming. Our elementary-schoolers have watched it repeatedly, announcing when the good parts are coming. And our 14-month-old baby dances, stomps and twirls, waggling his hands in the air, possessed by the purest response of all.

“So what is Animusic? It’s hard to describe, of course, because it’s not like anything else — that’s the whole point. But this much is safe to say: it’s a DVD of music videos — computer-generated, photorealistic animation (think Pixar).”

Obviously, Pogue’s a fan, as is his family. And, having seen some excerpts during a local public television fund-raiser, I am, too.

Pictures of the covers of the two DVDs now available at the Animusic website give a glimpse of the ‘characters’ — the animated instruments — that play themselves playing the music. Watch a clip or two online to get the look and feel for what the DVDs hold, and you’ll probably be plunking down your plastic for a copy.

After the exposure in Pogue’s column and on public television, Animusic even had to beef up its Web servers to handle the traffic. Seems something good is going on here….

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Playing for Change

— “peace through music” — 

At a time when the world needs all the hope, optimism, and concerted positive action it can get, more and more good people are getting involved and making a difference.

One such effort involves building music and art schools around the world, linking them in a global effort to bridge cultural boundaries and create the conditions for peace. It’s called Playing For Change: Peace Through Music.

Featured on PBS’ Bill Moyers’ Journal, Playing For Change is a film and a foundation to support the development of musicians and artists with a website offers a lot to see — and hear. Watch clips from the film, join the mailing list to keep up with their work, and learn more about what you can do to help.

Even if you only watch the website mash-up of the song “Stand By Me” sung by musicians in their native locations — New Orleans, New Mexico, South Africa, Amsterdam, Brazil, Moscow, Spain, and more — all cut together visually and harmonizing with each other, you’ll have a really good time. And that’s worth a lot these days.

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos


— dynamic country singer with Everywoman issues — 

This flamboyant red-head with the knock-your-socks-off voice first hit the music charts as part of the country duo known as The Judds.

Wynonna and her mother/singing partner Naomi gave us such Number One hits as Why Not Me; Mama He’s Crazy; Turn It Loose; and Love Is Alive. When Naomi’s health hit a snag in the early 1990s, forcing her to retire from The Judds, Wynonna faced a major turning point: give up performing or try to make it as a solo artist.

The choice to continue performing on her own won out, albeit not without doubt and fear. But she persevered, and Wynonna continues to rock the rafters wherever she sings, even if her choice and her life included no small measure of challenge.

Early in 2004, Wynonna’s health had become a concern for her family, her new husband, and herself. Knowing of Oprah Winfrey’s success in gaining control over her weight and health concerns, Wynonna approached Oprah about getting herself back on the right track. Oprah and her trainer, Bob Greene, met with Wynonna, who agreed — with her mother Naomi and sister Ashley — to share her/their story on national television. Oprah and crew laid out a plan and began to follow Wynonna’s “Journey to Health” on episodes of the Oprah show. And as Oprah operates her own network — OWN — we can continue to keep up with the Judds’ ongoing journey.

On Wynonna’s website, you’ll find a personal diary of her “Journey to Health,” as well as links to her music, tour dates, personal appearances, news releases, and information about The Judds. It’s a true and heartfelt dialogue from a real person coping as best she can with issues that face us all. The music’s pretty fine, too.

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

John Gorka

— a quirky musician with a wry sense of humor and wonderful songs — 

John Gorka says he creates folk music. If that means funny, sharp, and memorable lyrics, as well as tunes that stick in your head, he’s right. And he’s very, very good at it.

As a singer-songwriter with a 25-year career, Gorka’s bountiful body of work slides under your skin and won’t leave you alone. His music asks you to think but also lets you have a good laugh and a great time.

Gorka’s voice gets richer and more expressive every year, while his sensibility stays sharp. His songs use deft poetry and interesting melodies to comment on the challenges of life, love, family, culture, and the state of the world. A knowing smile hides beneath witty lyrics and solo acoustic guitar riffs.

By making fun of himself and his penchant for trenchant commentary, Gorka invites you to watch this “angry young man” grow older but no less willing to settle for anything, as he makes you grin and enjoy it. Whether it’s the story of the Flying Red Horse, Houses in the Fields, The Land of the Bottom Line, or any of the other memorable songs packed into his repertoire, you’ll find a wise comment that makes you smile and holds your heart.

While Gorka’s CDs are great, if you haven’t seen him in performance, make the trip. In concert, you’re treated to his self-deprecating humor — look forward to I’m From New Jersey and a host of other songs — and the dichotomy he faces trying to be a performer who “puts on a good show” while not being as slick as the typical packaged entertainment from the mega-media outlets and touring rock stars.

Gorka has just enough bend in his approach to provoke grins and giggles whether you’re in the audience for the umpteenth time or the first. Given that he generally receives a standing ovation after a performance and often returns to the stage to share even more, Gorka manages to be both a crowd-pleaser and a great musician.

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Janis Ian

— a singer/songwriter from the Sixties still tells it like it is — and plays a mean acoustic guitar — 

In the midst of that amazing 20th century decade known as “The Sixties,” a tiny fifteen-year-old female singer/songwriter appeared without fanfare on the popular music charts and blew a hole in our preconceptions about what lyrics and tunes can do to reflect life.

Janis Ian, a self-described high school misfit, took on the taboo-of-the-time regarding interracial dating in her song Society’s Child and began a long career of spot-on social commentary and wonderful, heart-capturing music.

By the late 1970s, Ian had released a series of incredible albums — Stars (containing the title song, as well as Jesse, Without You, and Dance With Me), Behind the Lines (with the teen-misfit anthem At Seventeen, in addition to Tea and Sympathy, and When the Party’s Over), and albums Aftertones and Miracle Row.

Although her profile wasn’t high in the 1980s and 1990s, Ian never gave up music or stopped recording. Her first live album, Janis Ian Live: Working Without a Net, was released in 2003. Early in 2004, she released Billie’s Bones. In today’s vernacular, she totally rocks — and her website is way kewl.

Ian brought Iowa fans up to date in a stunning 2004 live concert at CSPS, the funky performance center and art gallery in the New Bohemia (NewBo) district near Czech Village in Cedar Rapids. To say she hasn’t lost her touch is an understatement. Ian is absolutely golden. Alone on the stage with her tricked-out electric-acoustic guitar  generating spine-tingling tones that filled the house and heart, Ian shared old and new music, stories of her career and move from New York to Nashville in slyly hilarious commentary, proving herself a masterful performer.

On Ian’s award-winning website, you’ll find a complete discography (yes, she has remained musically active for the last thirty-some years) and interesting tidbits about the songs and albums, such as this inside scoop:

Society’s Child was originally recorded for Atlantic Records, who paid for the session; after they heard it, they quietly returned the master, saying they could not release it. Years later Jerry Wexler (president of Atlantic at the time) apologized publicly to Janis for this, saying ‘If any company should have released Society’s Child, it was us.’ Artie Butler played both organ and Janis’ harpsichord intro on this; because it was recorded onto only eight tracks, he had to run back and forth between the two instruments during the session.”

Beyond the typical website staples, such as links to the discography, MP3s, merchandise, a message board, tour schedule, and a chat room, you’ll find links to Ian’s lyrics, information about her musical equipment, a list of “awards & incorrect facts,” and the Pearl Foundation, named after her mother.

As Ian told the story to the crowd at CSPS, she took the royalties from one of her chart-topping songs and put her mother through college. When her mother died, Ian decided that establishing the Pearl Foundation, which funds scholarships for returning students, would be a fitting tribute to her mother. It’s also a typical meshing of Ian’s personal and social activism, great tunes and all.

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Language of Music

Words we write with the intention to have them read in silence carry a different tone than words written to be read aloud. Pitch, timbre, inflection, meaning, and more can be implied or perceived directly from the words we choose, how we string them together, and the media channels where we distribute them.

While we often connect with words on paper or on screen, we may also hear them speaking to us from the soundtracks of movies, videos, podcasts, or radio shows — any of which may add “background” music for greater impact.

Music itself is a language we humans share — even if you don’t think you can sing. And music may be a much stronger part of who we are than we typically realize.

Maybe you’ll become a believer when you watch Bobby McFerrin create an impromptu chorus, unrehearsed but on pitch and in tune, from the audience at the 2009 World Science Festival. In just over three minutes, he demonstrates our common, powerful, and moving connection that rises naturally — with just a bit of thoughtful, playful guidance.

Bobby McFerrin and the Power of the Pentatonic Scale (video — 03:04)

How did you respond to McFerrin’s demo? Was that you I heard singing along?!

©2011 Jill J. Jensen/Clarity from Chaos