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Writing About Music (Honors 345A)

This guide features essays written by students as part of the class Writing About Music (Honors 345A, Fall 2018).

Music & Remembrance (Peter Schultz-Rathbun)

Music and Remembrance

It was at a little jazz joint on the north side of Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a sultry summer night near the end of May. 
The hot season was ending, so when the sun sank down and a breeze came up and the temperature fell toward ninety, evenings were sweet relief. The night before a friend returned to Italy, we all went out to this bar that was hosting an open-mic jazz night. We’d met through a shared volunteering opportunity, and now we were unraveling again, each one back to our own country. It was bittersweet, both because, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d probably never see him again, and because it reminded me that the sand was running out of the glass. My own night was coming. 
The music, unsurprisingly, varied in quality. The guys on the bass were solid, but then the bass is sort of the background, so you’d have to try to make it noticeably bad. The piano varied from “Trying hard, but not enough skill to keep up” to “Wouldn’t be that bad if he would actually pay attention to the rest of the instruments.” The drummers displayed a much greater range, from “Wow, she’s actually pretty good” to “Reminds me of the time I lit off a string of firecrackers in a metal garbage can.”

And then there was the saxophone player. . . .  Man, oh man, this guy could play! The only problem was, he played with so much passion that he couldn’t sustain it. He’d go on strong for a while, but then he’d get carried away and hit a glorious solo, and the veins on his neck would bulge until you feared for his safety. And then, when the vein on his temple resembled a raging python, he’d have to rest. And I’d think it was about time to call it a night. But soon he’d rejoin, and the sound of the saxophone would make you think the night might go on forever. . . and you hoped it would. As long as the sax screamed out its defiance, all the other instruments came together, and the music just worked, like the baking soda that transforms the thick, unappealing lump into something light and warm and airy.

It was the kind of music that makes you think you need to step outside and get some air, and then you remember that you already are outside, and you realize that there is nowhere to hide. You can’t escape the warm evening breeze playing in the palms, or the soft sound of the water in the moat, which has been lapping gently at the crumbling stone of the Old City wall for 700 years, and will be, still, 700 after you are gone. It was the lights on the water and the smell of street food rising up to meet you, and underlying it all, a sense of nostalgia for something that you hadn’t actually lost yet, but which was inevitably slipping away. 

If you understand that, then you’ll understand why, every now and then, I like to find a screaming saxophone piece, and I turn it up, and let it run, and remember.

Juicy (Peter Schultz-Rathbun)

Juicy: Getting Past the Money-Green Leather Sofa
 
“It was all a dream.” One of the most iconic openers in all of rap, and subtly reminiscent of another line by another man that had a dream. Biggie Small’s hit single Juicy, from his 1994 debut album Ready to Die, is autobiographical, detailing Biggie’s rise from poor ghetto kid to successful rapper. But it’s more than just another rags-to-riches rap song bragging about material prosperity. Biggie does flaunt his wealth, but he remains stubbornly cognizant of the poverty that shaped him. The focus of the song is not so much on the money and fame as on the act of success itself, and the fuller life which becomes possible for Biggie and his people. This makes Juicy a variation on all those other rap songs, subtle but important.
 
Biggie wants to be clear that he wasn’t always this successful. In fact, he admits that, as a kid, he “never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff.” He goes on to elucidate why his dreams felt so far out of reach: “thinkin’ back on [his] one room shack,” mentioning his life of crime “packin’ gats”, and acknowledging having dropped out of school to sell drugs. But the story doesn’t end there.
 
In the space of five years, Biggie completes a stratospheric rise from an unemployed high-school dropout to the world-famous face of the East Coast rap scene. Of course, the critique “the money changed them” is so common in the rap industry that every successful rapper must claim to have stayed true to their roots. But Biggie actually walks the walk, and you feel that in the song. This isn’t to say he’s not going to partake of the fruits of his success: “Damn right I like the life I live.” It’s just that he hasn’t forgotten what he came from, as he proves with the wonderfully pithy line “Call the crib: same number, same hood.” And he hasn’t forgotten the people he came up with, either. “My whole crew is loungin’, celebratin’ everyday no more public housing.” Biggie takes care of his own because success, like life, is best when shared with friends. “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.” 
 
Juicy dropped only four years after the Berlin wall did, as America was finally shrugging off the fear of communism. Just when people must have been questioning whether the American Dream was still viable, Biggie showed us that, here in the land of opportunity, you could still go from abject poverty to self-made millionaire practically overnight. “. . . [T]o all my people in the struggle. . . don’t let ‘em hold you down, reach for the stars.” That’s what Juicy is all about; Biggie achieving the American Dream as he defines it. Perhaps not everyone’s American Dream involves a “money-green leather sofa”. But it’s not about the money and power for their own sake, it’s about achieving the dream so that you can give it to the people you care about.
 
And if you don’t know, now you know!
 

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