Musical Biography

I cannot say definitively whether my listening tastes originated from the selections my mother played on our home stereo when I was a young child. I am certain, however, that the opportunity to hear classical music provided a foundation for the kinds of music to which I would gravitate up to the present day. My mother’s own tastes in European classical music were relatively traditional. In particular, I remember Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, whose Farandole would compel me run around our rural 1960s ranch style house in the kind of frenzy a five-year-old could muster. Whether from a single album or multiple ones, the music of other composers seeped into my head as well, including the Strausses (the Viennese family and Bavarian Richard), Gustav Mahler, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and many others. My mother also played broadcasts of European classical music on the radio, most memorably the Detroit-based WJR program Adventures in Good Music, hosted by the always avuncular Karl Haas.

At some point in later childhood, I quietly renounced European classical music, remaining in line with what I perceived as my peers’ attitudes towards it. However, I felt a similar indifference towards popular music as well. This became clear from an incident in grade five, when a group project required students to select a theme song for a mock political campaign. Everyone else in my group knew the two songs they considered using, but I had never heard them. When I informed them of this, they seemed to wonder how I could not have heard of those songs. Nonetheless, they were kind enough to play cassette tapes of them for my benefit, and I obligingly picked the one that seemed to sound better. The names of the songs remain lost to memory.

Even during my period of indifference to most music, I enjoyed the soundtracks that accompanied action, adventure, and science fiction movies, usually by composers like John Barry, Akira Ifukube, and John Williams. Alongside my engagement with the onscreen stories of suave international men of mystery, oversized beasts wreaking havoc in Japan, and power struggles in distant galaxies, my interest in their accompanying music likely related to what my mother would play. As I learned years later, many of the best-known movie scores by Williams hearken back to techniques used in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, roughly encompassing the 1930s and 1950s. Many of the best-known film composers from that period, such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Franz Waxman, had immigrated from Germany or Austria to the United States, bringing with them the influences of European classical composers familiar from my childhood. In more recent times, Williams has also drawn directly upon the techniques of such composers for his own scores (Audissino, 2014). In a way, it seems likely that such connections accounted for my renaissance in enjoying European classical music, which began as I entered high school.

One Friday in October 1987, I opened the heavy bottom drawer of a marble-topped chest in the dining area to look at my mother’s collection of LP albums. One in particular brought back memories of childhood: Age of Gold, a Columbia compilation of music by various Russian composers, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. I recognized the name “Tchaikovsky,” but none of the others on the compilation, even though their music sounded familiar once I started playing the album. As I listened to pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, along with Alexander Borodin, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich, I ended up enjoying much of it. To some degree, it brought to mind the sense of wonder I felt from hearing the same works during my childhood. Consequently, I wanted to find more music by these composers, including different versions of the same pieces.

Within a year, I began to develop a keen interest in Austro-German composers, especially from the latter part of the nineteenth century and a bit into the twentieth. My mother played some of them on her boombox, having upgraded recently from LP albums to cassettes. Although I eventually acquired a few of my own cassettes of Richard Wagner, I looked in vain for vinyl versions of his music in that mystical dining room drawer. I did, however, find an RCA compilation album entitled Richard Strauss’ Greatest Hits, which brought back long-forgotten memories of enjoying excerpts from the composer’s densely-orchestrated and vivacious works. It left me as thrilled as Age of Gold, if not more so, and made me wish that he was known, at least outside classical circles, for more than just the opening from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Furthermore, upon investigating Gustav Mahler beyond my mother’s recording of his First Symphony (Titan), another favourite vaguely remembered from childhood, that composer re-entered my domain of musical interest a year or two later. With Strauss and Wagner, Mahler completed a triumvirate of my primary favourite composers. Their musical techniques and the sonic effects they create more or less continue to act as foundational guides for the kinds of music I enjoy and hope to find, regardless of genre.

My interest in the possibility of similarity among different musical genres, in particular between European classical and the kinds of popular music preferred by my peers, began to emerge around the time I rediscovered the former. Related to music’s importance to adolescents’ perceptions of other people, as well as one’s own identity construction (North & Hargreaves, 1999), I believed that there was something wrong with me, and that I “should” enjoy the same kinds of music as my peers. Since I openly professed a preference for classical over popular music, the response I received from many of my contemporaries made me feel like an outcast. At times, I felt that I should keep my inclinations hidden and pretend to enjoy the music my peers preferred. I also wondered, however, if I could find popular music that somehow seemed “similar” to my favourite European classical pieces. At the very least, I believed this would help me build social connections with my peers, while remaining true to my own musical interests.

Conversely, since I already enjoyed European classical music, I believed that I should like more of it than I did. Nonetheless, I found that I preferred certain composers over others. At times, I even found that certain popular musicians engaged me more than some European classical composers. Just the juxtaposition of both kinds of music seemed part of the appeal as well. Such cognitive dissonance became especially apparent when I would visit music stores. A particular favourite from my late teens and early twenties was the Harmony House location in Holland, Ohio (a suburb of Toledo), where the latest popular hits would accompany my perusal of cassettes or compact discs in the classical section.

Joining high school chorus helped me become reasonably familiar with what had become “classic” rock, which was the central focus of the chorus’ “60s Star Light Drive-Inn Theatre” show near the end of my grade 10 year. That same school year, I purchased my first rock recordings, both “greatest hits” compilations of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. School dances provided another entrée into more recent popular favourites, some of which I ended up enjoying as well. At least on the surface, Tiffany’s “Could’ve Been” was worlds away from the music I listened to at home. However, a memorable slow dance (with a major crush I had at the time) made even Strauss and Wagner rather distant from my mind for its three-and-a-half minute duration.

Around the same time as the chorus show mentioned above, my parents were making plans to move into the town limits of Montpelier, Ohio. Prior to that time, we lived a few kilometers west of the village of approximately 4,000 residents, located almost midway between Chicago and Cleveland. Also contemporaneously, hip-hop was emerging as part of the mainstream culture, and reaching the ears of my peers. Kitwana (2005) writes that its increasing popularity among white youth in the United States at that time reflected trends in “new racial politics” (p. 23). She cites such factors as a sense of alienation within the context of growing economic globalization, as well as the increased prominence of political and cultural contributions by African Americans after the civil rights movement. I cannot say for certain the degree to which these factors applied in Montpelier specifically, but I remember a number of my contemporaries appropriating the related slang (or their understanding of it). However, it was around this time that long-standing local businesses and industries began to close or fall to mergers. In fact, my family’s move into town related to my father’s loss of a job he had held for over 30 years, and the necessity of him taking a lower-paying job out of town for the same number of hours.

At least for me, the deep bass of hip-hop would occasionally bring to mind the usage of timpani by composers from the aforementioned late German Romantic triumvirate. At one dance, I cheered loudly upon hearing 2 Live Crew’s “Banned in the USA.” This did not necessarily derive from a deep enjoyment of the music or the group specifically, but rather the way the song addressed the implications of the obscenity-based bans of their 1989 album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. Although different in context, official actions taken against the group seemed sufficiently similar in my mind to controversies involving some of my favourite pieces of European classical music, such as the bans and Bowdlerizations imposed on Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera Salome. In both cases, the album and the opera became a succès de scandale in their respective times and places. As Nasty as They Wanna Be ended up selling millions of copies as a result of the publicity it received, with some purchasers considering the potential historic and monetary value of unopened albums (Price, 2006). Although Strauss’ privileged status ensured that he was never under threat of arrest for Salome, even in Imperial Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II worried that it would harm the composer’s reputation. However, Strauss noted that, “’The harm it did me enabled me to build my villa in Garmisch’” (Kennedy, 1999, p. 150,).

When I began undergraduate studies at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), approximately 50 kilometers north of central Columbus, my interest in European classical music did not seem quite as odd. Compared to my hometown, I found a number of peers who listened to both popular and European classical music, and who admitted to enjoying the latter. My roommates from my first two years at university, including a music major from New Orleans, had a range of complementary tastes, and they helped build my own musical interests in different directions. As well, another music major friend would wear a Bach t-shirt one day and a Metallica t-shirt on another day. This provided one of the first hints that my previous dismissal of metal, primarily related to its hometown associations with people uncharitably called “scummers,” was the product of a reflexive musical and socioeconomic snobbery. It also acted as the first hint of connections between metal and European classical, whose well-documented affinities and deliberate connections would become increasingly evident to me over time.

As I got to know more students with diverse musical tastes, I began to find popular music that somehow resonated with me. I had already developed an interest in some classic rock, including not only The Beach Boys and The Beatles, but also The Doors through my oldest brother’s influence. At university, Queen and Jimi Hendrix became prominent favourites, along with specific songs from other musicians, such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana’s album Nevermind. Even after university, and into the present, my tastes have continued to expand to accommodate an increasingly broad range of musicians, such as Fiona Apple, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, David Bowie, Anna Calvi, Cocteau Twins, The Cure, Annie “Poe” Danielewski, Duke Ellington, Brian Eno, Garbage, Isaac Hayes, Leoš Janáček, Janis Joplin, Alanis Morissette, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Frank Zappa, and Rob Zombie.

Given that I gravitate towards music that does not share readily apparent similarities, I considered the possibility that logical reasons had to exist for such seemingly incongruous tastes. This is particularly true for connections I have noticed among the European classical and popular music I enjoy, regardless of their creators’ intentions. As recounted in a number of postings on this blog an overall sonic “effect,” a series of notes that brings to mind a motif from a particular work, or a combination of other musical and extramusical elements can somehow trigger such connections.

All of these elements, along with my own dissatisfaction with the seemingly genre-based recommendations from such sites and Amazon and YouTube, remained leitmotifs in my life as a music listener. However, I did not think about them in relation to library and information science until 2008, when the primary author of an article about emotion-based tagging on the music streaming site last.fm asked me to develop a system for assessing levels of tag agreement among coders (Neal, Campbell, Neal, Little, Stroud-Matthews, Hill, & Bouknight-Lyons, 2009). In the process of working on my contribution, I noticed that certain genres, such as European classical and jazz, were missing from the “top ten” songs with the highest number of tags for each emotion. From there, I formulated my own research agenda, which manifested itself in an exploratory theoretical framework for cross-genre music information retrieval (Neal & Neal, 2009). In 2010, admission into the LIS Doctoral Program at UWO afforded me the ability to actively pursue research into conceptualizations of musical similarity. Since that time, I have also written and submitted related publications in a variety of forms, including a chapter for an edited book (Neal, 2012) and a posting for the Association for Information Science & Technology Blog (Neal, 2014, July 29), as well as articles for both the Ontario Library Association’s official magazine Open Shelf (Neal, 2014, November 10) and the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres’ official journal CAML Review (Neal, 2015).

 

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