At the Intersection of Music & Words

“I am beautiful no matter what they say/Words can’t bring me down…” ~ Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”

I join the chorus of million around the globe who are expressing their shock and sadness at the tragic loss of the iconic Whitney Houston. Her music – from the big, soulful ballads to the buoyant dance cuts – moved me at different points in my life. My favorite songs of Whitney’s are the gospel tunes from The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. It was a testament of her faith; her love of God and love for song evident in every note. It is no doubt she did what she was called to do on this earth. Whitney Houston shared her gift of song.

When I heard the news Saturday night, it rendered me speechless. I didn’t want to talk or tweet about it. I didn’t want to read the hundreds of tweets and Facebook comments, or countless news reports that condemned Whitney or laid blame or analyzed her demons. I didn’t find it comforting to wade through the stream of “what if” chatter, the negativity. None of that can bring her back to life. None of that can change or lessen the depth of the tragedy. She’s gone.

We will miss Whitney Houston mostly for selfish reasons. Her voice – its incomparable range and grace and power – could fill a space and touch something deep within our souls. We sang with her, ebullient and lovestruck. We slow danced as her voice serenaded us. We nodded our heads as she reminded us to exhale. We lifted our hands in praise to God as her voice twirled and swirled and leapt to the heavens.

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Rather than I chose to reflect on the good: the light and love that radiated from Whitney’s soul. I wanted to read how the writers and music critics memorialized Whitney’s gorgeous, angelic mezzo soprano voice and the legacy of music by which she will be remembered. I wanted to stand at the intersection of music and words and marvel as the traffic went by.

In a NY Times article on Whitney’s death Jon Pearles and Adam Nagourney wrote: “Ms. Houston’s range spanned three octaves, and her voice was plush, vibrant and often spectacular. She could pour on the exuberant flourishes of gospel or peal a simple pop chorus; she could sing sweetly or unleash a sultry rasp.”

LA Times ‘ Pop & Hiss – LA Times Music Blog writes about Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You”: “It’s two words — the “I” at the beginning of the line, and the “you” at the end — held for a few beats longer than most others could sustain but with ironclad control, that seals the deal, a single pair of syllables so convincing that it should have won her both an Oscar and a Grammy. She sings the words differently throughout; at first, it’s with love, then with conviction, then with desperation, a drama that unfolds across four minutes. She shaped notes so that they sounded like floating hearts one minute, only to explode as the emotion turned from love to loneliness.”

“Houston’s flawless voice was untouchable, and her versions of “I Will Always Love You” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are considered two of the highest peaks pop music has ever reached.”

Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press: “She was bigger than music. She was a lyrical narrator, expressing in that glorious voice what we were living.”

All the beautiful words written to capture the timbre and the essence of Whitney’s iconic voice will outlast any of the negative press surrounding the details of her death. In the end, what matters is that she gave us love.

Finding Inspiration

As a person who thrives on creative energy, I’m always intrigued by what inspires people to create art. I’ve been inspired to write poems by just a single word. There have been buildings, names and experiences that inspired my writing (including the novel I’m currently working on). There is just something invigorating and phenomenal about the fact that a tiny seed — a thought, an idea, a vision — can spur someone to create art that amazes, entertains and inspires.

Just like 96.99997% of people out there, I am a fan of Beyoncé‘s music. By no means am I one of her crazed stans, but I do enjoy her music…well most of her music. There are some songs of Beyoncé’s that I just don’t like. (Sorry, people.) Some songs of hers seem to come off as manufactured, formulaic, uninspired fluff. Beyoncé and her creative team of collaborators undoubtedly have their fingers on the pulse of whatever’s hot at the moment. Now that’s not a bad thing. But I have a greater appreciation for art that is organic, and not borne out of a trend or some commercial objective. There’s a distinct difference between “art for art’s sake” and art fueled by profit. I know I’m probably going to incite the wrath of a few stans, but Beyoncé’s proven that she’s a master of manufacturing wildly successful commercial radio-friendly hits. New York Magazine’s Amos Barshad seems somewhat disappointed that this time around she wasn’t trying to go the hit-making route. I am glad she didn’t. When I read about the what inspired her to create her latest album, 4, something clicked with me.

In a recent interview in Essence magazine, Beyoncé said she took a year off from music to live her life and be inspired by the world around her. She said that by working with the musicians from Fela!, the Tony-award winning Broadway musical her hubby Jay-Z produced, that she allowed herself to get lost in the music. “What I learned most from Fela,” she said, “was artistic freedom.”

I loved the fact that she stepped away from the commercial music machine to “have life experiences” to inspire her new project.  “Having time to grow as a human being was really inspiring, and gave me a lot to pull from,” she told Essence.

(If I may digress here, I do believe that Beyoncé severing professional ties with her father, the Machiavellian Mathew Knowles, was the best thing she’s ever done for her career. I’d like to think that with her father no longer ruining managing her has contributed to the artistic freedom that was the guiding force on her new project. And now back to our regularly scheduled program…)

Listening to 4, I can feel Beyoncé’s newfound artistic freedom. The fact alone that she wanted her project to have “vibrata, live instrumentation and classic songwriting” (as told to Complex mag) was enough to make impress me. Yeah, I know she doesn’t singlehandedly write her own music, but she contributes to the making of her music, and she served as executive producer for this project. There’s something beautifully raw and honest about 4. To me, it doesn’t come off as a bunch of gimmicky, pre-fabbed hits. It sounds like it’s just music for music’s sake. And I like that.

And speaking of inspiration, Beyoncé’s “Love OnTop”, an infectious up-tempo song with a distinct old school vibe, inspired Heather Traska (@heathertraska on Twitter) to do a mind-blowing a cappella version of the song. Check it out here:

Artscape Turns 30

Artscape is synonymous with summer in Baltimore. It’s the time of the year when people and all things creative converge in the heart of the city’s Arts & Cultural District, when quirky and edgy are normal and square is not.

My first and fondest memories of Artscape were when it was in its infancy, just a few years old. My mother put my sister and me in the car on hot Saturday in July and headed into town so we could check out this new free arts festival. I was probably 11 or 12 years old at the time. Life for me was about Michael Jackson and Prince and MTV and the Rubik’s Cube.

The 80s were bright and big. Shoulder pads were in. So was the Jheri Curl. As a child of the era, I was subjected to both. However, it was during that decade that I learned to appreciate creativity in all its glory. Looking at all of the outdoor art exhibits at Artscape, I marveled at the wild, quirky artwork on display. I remember seeing painted toilets, newspaper and foil fashioned into art, and many other unthinkable things. Nothing inappropriate, just strange.

I embraced Artscape. It was a big playground for the creative types. Individuality and expression were celebrated. People sang, danced, ate, and danced some more. My mom, my sister and I walked around that first year and took it all in. Artscape became an annual tradition.

This year, Artscape turns 30.  To mark the occasion, Artscape are going retro. 1982 to be exact. There plenty of beats and eats to take in this weekend. Add to that karaoke and improv comedy and storytelling workshops, and shows paying homage to pop culture (Think: all the 80s toys and fashion your nostalgic heart can hold).

If you’re in the area this weekend, head on town to the Mt. Royal area. You can plan out your Artscape experience, or just let it happen. Whatever this case, you won’t want to miss all the music, the performances, the food and the shopping. (Come to think of it, I bought the cutest pink & green purse from Artscape a couple of years ago. Now I can’t find it. Someone must have borrowed it permanently. I also bought a cute pair of pants made out of 100% Egyptian cotton sheets. Now I can find those, but can’t fit them anymore. Oh well.)

Happy Birthday, Artscape!