One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music, hit me with music
– Bob Marley
When Chick Corea died, several friends texted me to offer condolences.
We’re not related by blood, Chick and I.
He isn’t even one of my all time favorites – like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Angelique Kidjo.
But Chick Corea is on this record that I share with special people, and when I do, I can feel this crazy-zealot look in my eyes – like I know I am hyping this but it’s impossible to set your expectations too high.
I’ve been thinking about writing about this record for awhile, but given his death, now I need to – to commemorate his legacy with this homage to him, to music.
I’m not sure where this story “starts,” but let’s say it starts with Stevie Wonder, who is my favorite musician of all time.
In 2005, my friend Iqram and I went to Live 8 in Philadelphia, where Stevie headlined. Prior to the show, we of course knew some Stevie tracks – everyone knows Signed, Sealed, Delivered and Superstition and I Just Called to Say I Love You.
But I don’t think we realized the MAGNITUDE of Stevie Wonder until this live show. We both got The Complete Stevie Wonder on iTunes and just went really deep, obsessed.
Over the years, Stevie held a sort of religious status for us.
After work one evening at a karaoke dive, drinking beers in silence as old friends are able do, suddenly, Iqram was at the mic doing a phenomenal rendition of Ribbon in the Sky – he must have been practicing for months.
A Sunday night at The Groove in Greenwich Village, the house band started playing the intro to Another Star – a deep cut from Songs in the Key of Life. We looked at each other like holy shit is this really happening? and the vocalist blessed the fifty or so of us in the bar with a performance that would have rocked a stadium.
Countless nights in the office at 289 7th Ave, above the Dunkin Donuts, working til 11pm, 1am, 3am – with either Natural Wonder or Live at Last blasting on repeat.
My friend Julian, who joined Venmo as a software engineer just after graduating from college, said to me years later, “I just thought you guys were taking tons of Adderrall all the time.”
Nope, 100% pure Natural Wonder.
Many nights, after working late, we’d head over with whoever was around to Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant on 8th Ave at 51st St, where The Pedrito Martinez Group played a few nights a week while an old Cuban guy sat at a table by the front window, rolling cigars.
Pedrito’s performances here were a religious experience that always left me thinking this is what people talk about when they talk about the Muse. Pedrito, the band – they were channeling the energy of the universe, the music coming through them not from them…
I remember once we were exploring a deal with Square, and after some technical discussions at the office, we decided to do a more social, get-to-know-you meetup for dinner. We, of course, proposed our regular spot, our church, a place that we couldn’t believe existed – which was – miraculously – just up the street.
We couldn’t wait to share the secret.
Imagine you had stumbled upon a hole in the wall where Ray Charles or Nina Simone or Bob Marley did a weekly house session – way before they were playing only concert halls and stadiums. You know you can never experience the thrill of the discovery again yourself, but if share it you can still to see the surprise and wonder in the eyes of a first timer.
After about twenty minutes, one of the Square guys said it was kind of a hard place to have a conversation, which said more to us than hours of conversation.
A few minutes later, the table directly in front of the stage opened up. A bunch of us left to go sit closer to Pedrito.
It was on Live at Last that I first came across Spain, and for a long time I thought it was a virtuoso instrumental interlude that led into Stevie’s introduction of the band members.
Years later, I learned it was a Chick Corea tune.
In July of 2019, I was digging up music for a lap-swimming playlist – looking for epic, rolling, long, complex tracks – things I could get lost in, things I would never bore of – and Spain came to mind.
I went hunting for a great live version on YouTube, and after I listened to a few, the YouTube auto-play recommendation algorithm gave me this:
A few days later, I sent this email to a bunch of friends:
Every once in a while, I come across a song that I listen to about 100 times in a row when I find it.
This just happened with Chick Corea + Hiromi’s Old Castle (a Youtube Rx after I was listening to Chick Corea’s Spain)
Here are a few of those tunes I have collected over the past decade or two:
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0UXH6Yr5vWIwUSc64tEKsg?si=atJgWjkyQ6CRnVQFx_Mi4w [ https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnu7eB7Iy5lqv0FbkdGuGLQku1hPadmEi ]
There might be a few more, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind when I thought about making this playlist.
I’ve tried sharing the list with friends who are musicians, asking – what is the link between these tunes? I feel like there is some latent feature that connects them, something that would be obvious to someone who knows more music theory than I do – more than zero – I have to admit don’t understand music. I have no ear for pitch, only hints of rhythm – it’s all very arcane.
I thought maybe eventually someone who listened to the playlist might send a reply, “hey, this is kind of obvious, but did you know these tunes are all in a 3/3 time signature and the melody loops back on itself in a certain way and this is called …” Maybe someone would explain what it is I love in music more broadly and feel deeply connected to despite my ineptitude.
Andy confirmed the phenomenon, but I got none of the explanations I was seeking.
For awhile, it became a kind of noir detective story. I had my own hypotheses – unrelated to music theory – informed by my conception of the brain as an information processing machine designed to make predictions about the world, reduce uncertainty.
Here, I might start getting into Jürgen Schmidhuber’s Driven by Compression Progress: A Simple Principle Explains Essential Aspects of Subjective Beauty, Novelty, Surprise, Interestingness, Attention, Curiosity, Creativity, Art, Science, Music, Jokes or the paper that led me to it, Nicholas Hudson’s Musical beauty and information compression.
But I won’t.
I don’t even have to ask Iqram what he thinks about this mystery. I know his answer, it’s in the lyrics to his song Happiness in Music:
Happiness in music
Happiness in music
Undescribable. Indescribable. Undescribable.
Something about the title – Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest – seems to corroborate, also seems like an answer.
And this is the punch line of this story, really.
We have solved the mystery and we’re not even half way through.
The rest is just some memories and feelings and ramblings about the heat death of the universe… so many thousands of words to just try to say “Old castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest” and still fall short…
In college, I studied philosophy, computer science, formal logic – I have always been very interested in understanding.
Learning of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the social construction of reality – these were sort of – difficult – moments for me.
But, over time, I have grown to find something soothing about Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest as a particular kind of answer that doesn’t come naturally to me.
And, this must be part of what I like about it. It’s a counterpoint, something I’d never come up with myself. Like music itself.
I can totally imagine a universe with no music. It’s a dark place – and what’s truly terrifying is that if you were born into this alternate universe you wouldn’t really have any idea what was missing.
So, I have infinite gratitude for the type of mind that creates music.
I remember a cab ride with my friend Kunal, in New York. A Bob Marley tune came on the radio, Put It On or Redemption Song. Kunal said:
Bob Marley is a saint.
And I could think of no truer statement.
This is the kind of truth of Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest. It’s not something you understand, but it also doesn’t feel like one of those lies that you convince yourself of to escape despair.
How could it be a lie? There’s not even a verb. It just is.
Music is a different kind of truth, a different kind of physics, too, where perpetual motion machines exist, energy is not conserved.
Sure, audio playback requires energy, but when I imagine balancing out all the equations, the amount of energy I receive from certain tunes far exceeds the electrical power input.
The summer between my freshman year of college and sophomore year of college, I was in Atlanta living with my mom, and I worked with my friend Vincent for our AP Physics teacher, Mr. Gramith, who had left his job at the high school to start a home improvement business, More than a Carpenter. (This religious reference makes me realize now that I’ve been throwing around all sorts of “sacred” / “reverence” language, but for the record, my only saints are Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.)
One of the jobs we did that summer was building small church. One week we had to lay plumbing connecting the building to some main water or sewer line. We had a pickaxe, a spade, and a few shovels, and we dug a ditch that was 15 feet long x 3 feet wide x 3 feet deep. We listened, on my Sony boombox, to Outkast’s Acquemini and Dispatch’s Silent Steeples many many times that week.
In this conversation at Long Now, Julia Watson paints this beautiful picture of “singing to the baby rice” as an example of how music, dance, and ritual can help get us through maintenance work:
Stewart Brand: Well there’s a thing on maintenance that bears relation here which is maintenance usually is pretty boring. Creation is exciting and a lot of the kind of projects that you’re describing are highly collaborative a lot of people got to get together at the same time and make the thing happen. And one of the ways I suspect that people work around the boring aspect of maintenance is to turn it into ceremony or ritual or you know make a big kind of dance-y musical religious or whatever deal about it. Did you find that out there?
Julia Watson: Yes, I did. That’s, you know, a wonderful parallel. There was a system called the subak and it’s in Bali and that’s the rice terrace system, and they have a system of ceremonies, rituals all throughout the year, and the one I always refer to – which I think is just so beautiful – is the “singing to the baby rice.”
It’s her response to Stewart Brand, who notes that music is particularly helpful when work is “boring” or when it requires coordination (synchronization) of a large group.
When I’m doing boring work – like tedious data entry or a repetitive manual motion or something that doesn’t require active cognition – I can get into a trance state or flow, allow the work to recede and the music to enter the foreground.
If I’m struggling to wrangle a more complex idea and I try to listen to music, the music enters the background.
I don’t love backgrounding music – and I feel I do this more and more often. Maybe it’s because I’m doing work that’s less repetitive than digging ditches. Maybe because I drive less – driving was always great listening time.
It’s not just that, though…
I do still pretty much always have music playing – my mom called me a few months ago, and when I picked up, she said:
Are you at home? Oh really, I’m surprised… I don’t hear any music.
But it’s so easy now to “listen” to music while surfing the internet on a computer or phone, and these activities demand too much cognitive attention to really qualify as listening.
I remember many many days when I was younger, sitting in my room, just listening to music, doing nothing else.
These days, it feels like such a delicious indulgence when I do this. When it does happen, it’s glorious, and, I think, I really need to do this more often. But then how often do I do it?
It’s just too easy to get pulled into all the problems of the world, and it kind of feels like you need to apologize when you look away for a moment…
Well, God is in Heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
– Bob Dylan
On dark days, all the evidence is suffering, corruption, much of it by the hand of humanity. Misanthropy is the only “logical” response.
When I try to be optimistic, try to remind myself that it’s my choice to look at things positively, it feels exactly like one of those little white lies you tell someone so you don’t hurt them. The glass half full thing just feels like a trick for battling despair.
Even the beautiful becomes bittersweet with the heat death of the universe looming.
And then I can return to one of these transcendant songs and think, people did this, too. Maybe everything in life is suffering, but at least there is one thing to find joy in – music.
It doesn’t feel like the glass half full trick – it’s not as presumptuous, doesn’t overextend it’s claim in a way that lends itself to refutation, rationalization.
The Weekend did a live performance at the Superbowl – and it made me deeply sad. It was like every other Superbowl music spectacle, a 30-second sliver of every hit, the same dance choreography, the same everything, different band.
It wasn’t the performance on stage that made me sad, and I’m not trying to discredit The Weekend – on a big enough stage, everything can feel a little mass produced. Even when Stevie Wonder – and I think by now it’s clear how much I love Stevie Wonder (∞) – even when he headlined the main stage of Jazz Fest a few years ago, I was far more excited for shows in fifty person bars than for the mass production on the fairgrounds.
But the really sad thing about the Superbowl half time show is not what’s happening on the stage – it’s this feeling of manufactured hype where it’s clear the audience is performing enthusiasm rather than connecting with the music.
Of course, there are exceptions – watch this girl in the audience (t=164) in this heart wrenching Gaga performance – I cry the way she does every time I watch:
But, this sort of thing is rare in a crowd. The really special moments for me were never a big production – they were always more intimate.
Those nights at Guantanamera and Groove.
Neo-soul Mondays at Time in Philly with Jason and Iqram – Luke on keys, D’Angelo covers a staple.
A Youngblood Brass Band show at Drom in the East Village with my sister, and the opener covered what may be her and my favorite song of all time – Talib Kweli’s Get By.
A Wednesday night at Madrone Art Bar on Divis with Eric and Rob. The house band, Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy, did an extended tease of an intro to Papa Was a Rolling Stone, at least five minutes of just some hi-hat and subtle bass before touching any hint of the melody.
This night Andy, Delano, and I took some PayPal folks to a Bryan Sutton bluegrass set in the basement of Rockwood Music Hall. A grammy-level performance left everyone with an I-can’t-believe-what-just-happened look in their eyes after.
A magical night with Nam, Jason, CC, Jenny, and EJ for Weedie Braimah and The Hands of Time at Music Box Village in New Orleans – maybe the best show I’ve ever been to. (I found it on YouTube, watched it last night, and I almost cried at t=335, I don’t know why.)
The other show contending for my number one – underneath the New Museum with Andy for Akron/Family. It felt like the band walked around the floor with the audience for half the show and the audience sang the vocals for the other half. (The week after Chick Corea died, Andy told me that Akron/Family’s Miles Seaton died. It made perfect sense that the two of us would share a moment of silence for this death – the first time we would do this, probably the last time – not that others did not / will not merit the reverence, but somehow this one holds more mutual significance and therefore will be the one that stands for all the others.)
Angelique Kidjo with Iqram and Mark in the front row at Zellerbach. I high fived Angelique at the end of Djovamin Yi.
Packed into the little back room at Barbes with Jesse, Asha, and Rob for M.A.K.U. Soundsystem. Afterwards, we Citi-biked around Prospect park til 2 or 3 in the morning. We stopped at a fountain to watch a flock of swans bathing in the water and the moonlight. Some cops found us and told us the park was closed.
And of course…
Bluegrass jam sessions Saturday nights at the edge of the world in Red Hook, feeling good again for a few hours whenever I make the trek. Once, I ran into Ali there and she looked at me like, of course you’re here tonight, even though I lived three thousand miles away at the time. (I’m moving back to NYC this year. Someone asked me why. I said I want to be in the back room listening to bluegrass drinking a Hi-Life when the world ends. If we’re gonna sit around and wait for the heat death of the universe, let’s do it around the piano. )
And if the world does turn, and if London burns
I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar
I want to be in a band when I get to heaven
One thing is bothering me about all this: Old Castle is a Hiromi tune from Spiral, but if you listen on YouTube or Spotify, the artist line will say: “Chick Corea & Hiromi.” I don’t think it’s just an alphabetized attribution… Chick’s Spain pointed me to Hiromi’s Old castle, but that can’t be why he’s listed first…
In any case, let’s give credit where credit is due – this homage, prompted by the death of Chick Corea, is inspired by a Hiromi tune. So I guess it’s a eulogy for Chick Corea, an homage to Hiromi.
And I suppose all these intimate memories of deep listening point to some of the most significant moments of my life, too. If someone were giving my eulogy, would they understand this significance, would they even think to mention the listening, or would they point instead to the striving that is so easy to confuse with meaning?
Camus understood. He said that the triumph of Sisyphus was in the descent…
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
All of this makes the Superbowl spectacle even more profane – taking this sacred act of listening – the offering up of a few of our precious, finite moments – and just performing it without feeling it.
Just going through the motions, like in The Graduate, where you can see how this kind performative profanity creates a pervasive dissonance between what’s said and what’s felt.
The counterpoint is (of course) the soundtrack – it’s always perfectly in tune with whatever Benjamin is feeling.
I remember seeing The Graduate for the first time an academic summer program I did between my junior and senior years of high school and talking to my mom about it on the phone the next day.
She had also seen it when she was about my age and loved it. And she loved the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, too.
My mom and I had connected over music before – Bruce Springsteen comes to mind – but something about sharing The Sound of Silence, April Come She Will, Scarborough Fair felt different. These were not so much love stories or ballads about heroes of the streets so much as they were elegies. Confrontations with melancholy, despair, disillusionment.
Thinking about my mom listening to these got me thinking about her with a new kind of compassion. Before this, I thought of her as my mother – a source of love and wisdom and authority. Now there was also a fragility. I imagined for the first time as another human confronting the knowledge of her imminent death. Before, when I’d considered the fact that she would die, it was from my perspective, not from hers.
A line from Michael Pollan’s book How to Change a Mind comes to mind:
It was the first time I saw my father as a son.
It was the first time I had stared into the abyss with my mother – maybe with anyone.
It was at this same summer camp where I can now see another almost forgotten piece of the puzzle. One of the math teachers led an afternoon ballroom dance lesson a few days a week: waltz, swing, tango, salsa.
I loved the tango, because it was so cool – we practiced to Por Una Cabeza, from the Scent of a Woman soundtrack.
But my favorite was salsa, because it was so playful. I remember this one flourish we learned where the man spins and presents his cheek to the woman, pursing his lips, expecting a kiss – and she pushes the cheek away, spinning him in the reverse direction.
One year in in college, I found myself at some Latin American student club end-of-year party at a bar in Center City Philadelphia – Slate I think, long closed. I wasn’t in this club – a friend who was also taking guitar lessons from Iqram brought us.
We danced all night to salsa music and I remember thinking I must have Cuban blood – not because I am a great salsa dancer or anything, but because something about the energy felt really natural.
It was more subconscious then – and I don’t think I could have explained it this way at the time – but looking back now, part of it must have been an amazement at a the purity of positive energy and authentic camaraderie. I was just so attuned to irony and critique and self-consciousness – I always felt a sense of awe when I found myself somewhere it seemed to be truly absent. This night knew nothing of the performative aspect of the Superbowl spectacle audience.
A few weeks, I went to the campus library looking for Cuban records. The library had a catalogue of CDs, mostly classical, but also some world stuff, that you could borrow as a student.
I asked for help at the reference desk, got a few leads. One sounded particularly interesting: Afro-Cuban Dream … Live & In Clave!!! by Bobby Sanabria.
Looking at the Moto Perpetuo playlist, a track from this album, Nuyorican Son, is my earliest discovery on the mix.
After that, probably either Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – which I believe I first heard when Jason covered it at Chris’s Jazz Cafe in Philly once – or the Curtis Brothers Quartet’s piano and conga cover of Chopin’s Op 25 No 2.
So maybe if we’re trying to properly assign attribution for this homage, the path was: summer camp salsa, to that salsa party, to Bobby Sanabria, to a Chopin cover, to Stevie, to Chick Corea, to Hiromi’s Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest.
I’m always interested in the provenance. Maybe that noir detective impulse, or the desire to understand the latent connections that people don’t typically share when they share the thing itself.
If this is a detective story, it is a backwards kind of mystery, where we started with the answer and looked for a question.
Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest
If this was the answer, what was the question?
What is music?
What makes it so good?
How does it exist?
What would we do without it?
Who’s this story for?
What do you do?
How would you describe yourself in a sentence?
When you look back on things from your deathbed, what will you think about it all?
Try it out, as the response, to all of these:
Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest
Sounds right to me.