Thoughts on Ride’s “Pulsar”

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Ride’s new single “Pulsar” since its surprise release last week. 

(Via Google) 

pul·sar <ˈpəlˌsär/>


a celestial object, thought to be a rapidly rotating neutron star, that emits regular pulses of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation at rates of up to one thousand pulses per second.

Much like pulsars send out waves of radiation into the universe, musicians emit waves of sound into their surrounding atmosphere. There is little guarantee that their music will be heard, and of those that do hear it, there is no guarantee anyone will comprehend it, much like the people who first encountered pulsars didn’t quite realize what they were seeing. 

These days, music can live far beyond the lifespan of its creators and reach a much larger audience thanks to things like sheet music and audio/video recording, but there is something undeniably special and lucky about being alive at the exact right time and place to experience music coming into existence, much like the luck of being in the exact right situation to witness celestial events. Even if your gaze is trained in the right direction, if your mind is not open to new experiences, you may miss out on the magic being born right before your eyes. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps in Paris (and the riot that followed). Beethoven’s 9th. 

Ride has straddled the line for me between popular music and art music for some time. Simplicity is deceptively difficult, and these guys are masters at crafting a pop song that feels natural and inevitable, like it has always existed (Twisterella, Cali, Vapour Trail). But, it’s the complexity and the unexpected twists and turns of tracks like Seagull, Nowhere, Drive Blind, and more recently, Weather Diaries and Integration Tape that are what really intrigue me about this band. I wasn’t aware at first that the band had attended art school, and it was only relatively recently that I learned more about the depth and breadth of their artistic and musical knowledge. But even as a kid, I could sense that there was something different in this music that attracted me, something I responded to before I could even articulate what it was. I may not have fully understood what I was witnessing in the musical landscape back in the 1990s, but I certainly haven’t taken my eyes and ears off it since. 

My first listen of “Pulsar” was, sadly, on my iPhone speaker – I was too impatient to wait the six hours or so until I was home from work. I liked the track, but didn’t have any real thoughts about it other than “what a gorgeous fuzzy racket!!” It wasn’t until I heard it turned up loud on better equipment that I grew to love the track, and reading drummer Laurence Colbert’s comments on his Facebook page about the inspiration for the song really gave me an appreciation for its complexity. 

Like an onion, “Pulsar” is multi-layered sonically and lyrically. I already interpret it in multiple ways, and I’m sure more ideas will reveal themselves in time as my perspective grows and changes, but what a wonderful metaphor this track is for the band. In a crowded field of stars, it’s easy to miss the glowing, vibrant energy of this group. You have to know where to look and be open to hearing something new. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the lucky ones to be living in the right time and space to witness the pulsar that is Ride, live. And while the finished product is a full band (+ Erol Alkan) effort, I think there’s something beautifully poetic about the fact that the genesis of this song came from Loz, the literal pulse and heartbeat of this group.

Transmission received, guys. And it’s a stunner. 

Ride – Pulsar (YouTube)

Earnestness, honesty, and Appalachian Spring

I spent the last couple of weeks following my favorite band (Ride) on tour through 8 shows in the UK and US. Anyone that has done this can tell you that far from being the same show every night, each show had a distinctly different vibe to it (at least in my opinion). Yes, many of the songs were the same, but there’s no such thing as two shows that are exactly the same. There was one show in particular that was full of so much frisson that I was convinced the band must have been arguing backstage before the concert! But for the most part, the concerts were full of joy and camaraderie, both from the band and from the audience. It was genuinely moving to see the energy flowing back and forth between those on stage and those in the hall – seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t attend live concerts, you’re missing out on something special!

I had a short chat with one of the band members after one of the shows. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing more about my work as a classical musician, and asked me some rather deep questions. The one that stuck in my mind most was the question of what I would play just for my own pleasure, without considering the obligation of upcoming gigs or things like that. I knew as a songwriter, he was approaching this question from his own perspective as a creator, and though I can’t know for sure, I am guessing that he generally feels more motivated to play his own songs and write original work versus doing covers. My perspective as a performer is pretty different, though.

Classical musicians (and actors, and dancers) occupy a strange role in that we are the conduit for someone else’s work. If you are a rock musician and you write a song, you generally perform it yourself. You are the primary source, and the listener can hear it directly from you (or through your records). If you are a sculptor or a painter, the public can see your vision directly as it comes from you. However, if you are a choreographer and you are envisioning a ballet, there’s no way you can perform the role of all the dancers yourself. If you are a composer writing a string quartet, or a percussion ensemble piece, or a symphony, you need players who can take what you have in your imagination and bring it to life. These creators are working with such a large palette of colors that they need to collaborate with performers (outsourcing at its finest!). Conversely, performers such as myself need composers in order to help us say what we don’t have the language to say on our own, and to reveal part of us in the process, both to ourselves and to the audience.

I do feel that musicians show themselves in their art, both in their writing and their performance. I won’t claim that I fully “know” anybody solely through their creative output (that would be silly), but of the composers I’ve met and worked with, the music they write really does tend to be reflective of their personalities. No naming names here, but the earnest, emotional, honest people write music that feels that way. The prickly, suspicious, veiled people that eat sarcasm for breakfast write that way. The performers who are egotistical and brag a lot offstage definitely perform that way, and for me, it mars what I have come to hear. I don’t blame performers for wanting to impress an audience, but I’m not attending concerts to hear amazing finger technique or to be wowed by rock histrionics. The music I’m most attracted to transcends the methods used to create it and it is a direct line from the creator to your soul. It’s probably one reason why I am so enamored of singer-songwriters… they lay themselves bare and are speaking directly to the listener, without hiding behind stage fireworks or other things meant to dazzle. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be so real. With Ride, I feel like all four of the members of that band definitely show their true selves both in their writing and in their performance, and it’s one reason that I have had such respect for them for 25 years (and counting).

Some months ago, I had gotten hired to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (the original version for 13 instruments) at the end of July. When I realized that rehearsals would start just a few days after the end of my Ride tour, my first thought was that I hoped I’d get back into performing shape quickly (two weeks off is a lot for the embouchure!). But, given that I’d performed this piece many times before, I wasn’t too worried about being able to handle it… it was more about wanting to do this piece justice. If I could equate my personality to a particular composer’s output, I’d have to say I feel like I am closest to the music of Aaron Copland. What attracts me to Copland’s music is the sense of openness, and honesty, and lack of artifice. Any music that makes so much use of the “open” intervals (octaves, fifths) has a way of sounding really honest and pure. There’s nowhere to hide bad intonation in intervals like these! No way to fake it. Anyone that knows me knows that I have no poker face, and while I do use sarcasm and dark humor from time to time, I am generally a really earnest person and I don’t try and obscure my true self. Does this get me into trouble? Occasionally. It would be safer for sure to hide my true thoughts. But I’m not going to try and pretend to be more complex or layered than I really am – people can see right through that, and wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. If people are going to dislike me, I would rather they dislike the real me, and not the person I’m pretending to be.

Copland described the Duo for Flute and Piano (of which the first movement is one of my favorite things to play) as “a work… direct in expression and meant to be grateful for the performer.” I understood this instinctively when I first encountered this piece as a teenager, and it still moves me today when I perform it. I may not have written the notes, but I feel both Copland’s intention behind the notes, and the personal meaning that I could not have expressed without him giving me the language to do so. I am humbled to be able to help his music live on past his lifetime. While I sometimes wish I had the drive to compose (I greatly admire composers and anyone that creates new art), I do feel like I am meant to be exactly what I am – a vessel, a translator (which is meaningful to me, as my late father worked as a Korean-English translator!). I won’t be remembered past my lifetime, but I am not bothered by that. I am part of a bigger picture, a small fragment of a great and mysterious whole, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, to answer the question of what I would play for myself, just for my own pleasure, I would say the answer is anything that celebrates the soul within. Sunday’s concert is something I’m very much looking forward to – it is a gift and a privilege to be able to share my innermost feelings with an audience, and it’s something I look forward to every single time. And on that note, I’d best get practicing. 🙂

Live recording of me performing the first movement of the Copland Duo, 2009. It’s not flawless, but it’s authentic, which is my goal in life these days.

A message for my fellow gig-travelers

Do people think it’s weird that you travel, sometimes great distances, to see live concerts? Do you derisively get called a fanboy or fangirl? I sometimes get a reaction akin to, “I can’t believe you’d fly/drive all that way for just a concert!” Once, I got that statement while sitting on a plane with a couple who, no joke, were traveling to see a college football game. They failed to see the irony (or the similarity).

It’s socially acceptable to state that you’re traveling to see things. Cities. Monuments. Natural wonders. But, I suspect I’d start to get funny looks from people if I were to say I was traveling solely to feel the Mediterranean sun on my face, or to taste tapas in Spain, or to smell the scent of orange blossoms, or to hear what Tokyo sounds like at night. Why does our sense of sight get all the glory, when there are so many avenues to experience the wonders this world has to offer?

Not everyone is aware that live music is a multi-sensory experience. People think about music as just something you hear, but live music is felt just as much as heard. I’m not a synesthete so I can’t say I see, taste, or smell music, but it definitely feels three-dimensional to stand and feel waves of sound crashing into you and penetrating your bones. And, sharing the moment with a few hundred or thousand or tens of thousands of fellow fans makes the moment all the more special. Why did the couple next to me on the plane make the effort to travel across state lines to attend a game they could have watched on TV? For the same reason I traveled to see a beloved band that I could have just listened to on my home stereo.

Online streams are great for when I can’t travel, and my hat is off to fellow fans that painstakingly post photos and videos to share their excitement with those who can’t be there. I can appreciate that others try and capture the moment with their phones and cameras, but when I look at pics and streams and video, I’m looking at the moment from the outside. In my memory, I’m inside the moment being created, right before my eyes and ears. Despite pictures and audio and video recordings, no one will ever experience that night exactly the way you will in that moment, because they will not be there to know how it feels, in that exact time and space. That, to me, makes all the inconvenience of travel worth it.

Monuments are all well and good, but I feel a much stronger pull and a greater sense of urgency to travel for more intangible, ephemeral things. Sakura blossoms in the spring. The Northern Lights. A mind-blowing cup of coffee. The sound of crashing waves. And, increasingly, the full-body experience of live music. What is more ephemeral than being present when an artist brings his or her creation into the world? Besides, speaking as a performer, it’s always more fun to perform when the audience is enthusiastic about the music being created. You, the audience, are an integral part of the equation, and your energy can mean the difference between an okay show and an unforgettable one.

So, my fellow gig-travelers, don’t feel apologetic or guilty or embarrassed for chasing the fleeting but intense beauty of live music. Many people can say they have seen the Eiffel Tower, but how many can say they’ve witnessed Eva Cassidy perform live? (I wish.) I’ve traveled a fair few miles to see musicians whose work I admire. I’ve never regretted a single moment of those shows, but I definitely look back with regret at the shows I had the chance to go to but didn’t. I am not likely to get to experience everything I want to in life, but given a choice between getting a selfie with a koala and being part of a one-night only musical experience that will never be repeated exactly as it was that night? Sorry, koala. (Call me if you take up the piano, though.)

Reflections: Ride, Terminal 5 (New York City), June 4, 2015

January 2016
This is not a review, as I am not a rock critic. Even if I was one, there is no way that I could be objective about this particular concert, or about this particular band. Since discovering Ride’s music in 1992, my mental image of them had developed almost exclusively through their recordings; I missed out on seeing them live in the 1990s because of the combination of my youth and of bad timing. Having never seen them in the flesh, I couldn’t properly envision the fact that this music that meant so much to me was created by real people. By 2014, Ride had become a bittersweet memory in my head; a missed opportunity; a symbol of a world that existed beyond my reach as a teenager. It’s silly in retrospect, but Ride had morphed in my head in those two decades from fact to myth, and in that time, I sort of forgot that these musicians were humans that still walked this earth.

I don’t think I need to explain the whirlwind of emotions that hit me when the banner was unfurled in Barcelona. Everyone reading this probably felt them right along with me.


I have crossed state lines before to see other bands, but I was anticipating this sold-out concert in New York like none other before in my life. Usually, I go to concerts alone, both by circumstance and by choice. I know very few people in my “real life” that like the same kind of music as I do, and unless I know other people who are as passionate about the band as I am, I prefer to be alone as the music takes over my senses. However, for this show, I did bring my husband, both because he had never been to New York before, and because he needed to be properly introduced to the music that had become part of the fiber of my being.

The opening act (Ash) finished its set and my senses began heightening as I anticipated what was to come… it felt like all of the colors and sounds around me were intensifying. Just before Ride came on stage, I felt a strong wave of emotion – not quite sadness, but the feeling of saying goodbye to the life you currently know, because it’s clear that what is coming next will change your world as you know it. And good lord, was I right.


It’s hard to properly describe the breathless wonder I felt at hearing the sheer power and beauty of this music in person. I was utterly overwhelmed within the first minute of Leave Them All Behind. Standing in the third row at stage right, my entire body was shaking with the waves of sound coming off that stage. Steve’s powerful bass playing resonated deep within my bones and kicked off a night where I wasn’t just enjoying the music, I became the music. I exhilarated in the incredible vocal quality of Andy’s guitar playing (especially during Polar Bear – was that an e-bow?). I had previously heard Mark sing live on a solo tour, but his voice this night was even better than I had remembered. Loz has always been one of my favorite drummers on record, but finally getting to witness his spectacular playing live sent chills up and down my spine. The first four songs in the set (LTAB, Like a Daydream, Polar Bear, Seagull) were a perfect, mesmerizing 1-2-3-4 punch. I never had a chance to catch my breath; the combined forces of all four of these artists had my heart racing like mad. I didn’t mind.

After the blistering fire of Seagull, the chords to Sennen rang out in the hall. What a beauty. It was the perfect choice for this point in the set; the sound was truly three-dimensional and surrounded the crowd in a musical embrace. For some reason, I had never imagined that I would get to hear this particular song live, so it was an extra special treat to be enveloped by the shimmering, swirling sound of Andy and Mark’s guitars.

Cool Your Boots was next, and it made me unspeakably happy to get to see and hear Loz’s artistry on display in the outro. It’s like he was simply shaking the beats out of his sleeves! By this point in the set, I was in such awe that my head was a joyful mess. If someone had asked me a question at this moment, I am pretty sure I would have been completely incoherent, with a huge, goofy smile on my face.

Being so close to the stage was an overwhelming experience. I usually opt to listen to concerts further back in a hall, for acoustical reasons. However, this was one concert I needed to see to believe, and it was almost too much to process at times, to know that I was about 25 feet from this glorious racket. I kept catching myself closing my eyes to immerse myself in the roar but then I would force them back open to see the incredible reality in front of me. For once, I didn’t want to live in my head. The world I wanted to live in was right where I was, right in front of my eyes.


At the time I am writing this, seven months have passed since this show, so small details about the night have been lost in the ether of time, but what hasn’t been lost is how the music made me feel. I was wide-eyed with wonder. Natural Grace was a surprise – I didn’t think Ride would be including anything from Carnival of Light, so how lucky for me that they happened to choose my favorite track from that album! The opening to OX4 fooled me for a moment because the drum beat is so similar to In A Different Place, but there was no mistaking the sheer joy emanating from that stage as the band transitioned from Motorway Madness into the main part of OX4. It sounded like a plane was taking off! The amazing songs just kept on coming. Dreams Burn Down blew my hair back with its power. Paralysed was an unexpected, devastating song to hear live (in the best possible way). Obviously, Vapour Trail is a perennial crowd favorite, and I can still hear the gasps and shouts of recognition from all of the people around me. It was a sweet feeling to be swept up in the excitement, being surrounded at last by others that understood and shared my deep love for this music. In that moment, surrounded by strangers in a faraway city, a part of me finally knew what it felt like to come home.

Ride closed their set with Drive Blind, and what a closer it was! Steve’s sinuous bass line was simultaneously menacing and alluring… I was as transfixed as if I was looking into the eyes of a beautiful predator. That captivating sound, plus the seductive sway of the melody, the ferocious playing from all four men… it created a massive roar that made me want to chase it and disappear into the realm from which it came. I thought that my mind could not be blown any more than it was at that moment, but you all know I was wrong, don’t you? I should have known that these four souls would know how to take us even higher.

Side note: The security guard standing at the stage barrier was a statue for the majority of the gig; he simply stood facing the crowd with folded arms and a blank expression on his face throughout the show. However, when the noise section of Drive Blind hit, I could see the previously unflappable poker face give way to a look of complete confusion that clearly said, “What the FUCK is going on?!” My delighted, cathartic laughter in this moment probably made it look like I had lost my mind. In truth, I had! And I have never been happier for the loss.

The encore started off quietly, with a hushed, reverential, ambient-sounding passage in my favorite major key (B). I was racking my brain to figure out what this was; it didn’t sound like anything from their catalogue that I could recognize. Something new, perhaps? Another part of me was yelling at myself to stop analyzing and to just enjoy, so I did that. Then, the guitar riff started… and that unmistakable drumbeat kicked in. I stopped breathing. If there was one Beatles song I would have chosen to hear Ride cover, Tomorrow Never Knows would be the one. When Mark started to sing John Lennon’s immortal words, I felt my hands rise up involuntarily as I blinked back tears for this amazing gift. I still can’t believe that I was there to witness this in person.

By the last song (Chelsea Girl), I was on one of the most intense emotional highs I had ever experienced in my life. To me, this song is full of the exuberance of youth, and it embodies the rapturous, heart-pounding feeling of embarking on living a life of one’s choosing. In it, I can hear dreams starting to become reality. What a perfect song to end this unbelievable show. The concert had surpassed all of my expectations and I was completely stunned by what I had just witnessed. Ride had yanked my soul from my body for the duration of their performance and as I returned to earth, I suddenly realized that I was worn out from being put through the emotional wringer, my voice was hoarse, my feet were aching… and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

On the walk back to where we were staying that night in Hell’s Kitchen, I asked my husband what he thought. He enjoyed it, particularly the fourth song. Unbeknownst to him, Seagull is my favorite Ride track of all time! He may never be a fan like I am, but at least I know he’s got good taste.

The two other Ride shows I saw later in 2015 were both memorable in their own ways (memorable enough for me to write nearly 6000 words about them combined! Don’t worry. I’m NOT going to publish those), and I have no doubt that if I’m lucky enough to see another Ride concert in my lifetime, it will be a night I won’t soon forget. But no matter what’s in store in the future, this concert at Terminal 5 will forever stand out in my head as the moment where I was able to rewrite the ending to a story I had thought was finished; where I experienced the ecstasy of having a dream fulfilled; where I found out that sometimes, reality is even better than anything the imagination can come up with! What a privilege it was to be a Ride fan in 2015.

June 2016
Now that a whole year has passed since this incredible show, reading what I wrote above reminds me of a journal entry from another life. Seeing Ride live changed me forever. I don’t mean that they changed who I am as a person (I’m still my earnest, introverted, wordy, unguarded, slightly kooky self); I mean that I reached a whole new level of respect and admiration for this group that I thought I knew. It’s a testament to the creativity and strength of their recordings that Ride had managed to become my favorite band, without having witnessed their amazing presence live. As a performer myself, I know that live music has a magic to it that recordings just can’t capture, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by how my feelings for this band intensified upon experiencing them as they were meant to be experienced. What a lovely surprise it was.

A thousand thanks to Ride for creating music that resonates with so many of us across the globe, and for taking the chance on this reunion. How poetic that something invisible can be so beautiful… even though music can’t be seen, it changes the air it touches. It exists in this world but is also not part of this physical world. It’s not trapped in museums; it can be everywhere at once, in people’s ears and hearts and minds. Music travels to places that can’t be found on a map, and journeys through time in ways that a single human life will never be able to comprehend. What powerful, important work it is, to be a musician! Nietzsche was right; without music, life would be a mistake. And I know that very little has felt as right in my life as that fateful moment when I turned on the radio and heard the music of Ride for the first time.

Loz, Steve, Mark, Andy – Thank you for coming to North America so many times last year. Now, it’s my turn to come to you. Looking forward to the September UK shows. 🙂

Terminal 5 set list, courtesy of The Ride Archives (

Leave Them All Behind
Like A Daydream
Polar Bear
Cool Your Boots
Black Nite Crash
Natural Grace
Dreams Burn Down
Time of Her Time
Chrome Waves
Vapour Trail
Drive Blind
Tomorrow Never Knows (The Beatles)
Mouse Trap
Chelsea Girl

“…listen to the colour of your dream…”

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of being an extra with the Dallas Symphony in their collaboration with Classical Mystery Tour, a Beatles cover band that performs with symphony orchestras around the U. S. I have played this gig before with other orchestras, probably 4 or 5 times, so it would have been easy to write this off as “just another gig,” but as a Beatles fan, this is always a fun program for me to be involved with. However, coming just a couple of days after the passing of George Martin, this particular run of concerts had a particular poignancy about them.

Intellectually, I know there was a time in history before the Beatles and that there are millions of people that died never having heard their songs. There was a time in history before Beethoven as well! But emotionally, it is nearly impossible for me to fathom an existence without the music of the Beatles. These songs have woven their way into the fabric of our society in innumerable ways and they connect everyone who has heard and loved this music to each other. I feel like you could go practically anywhere in the world today, and start singing to a complete stranger: “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad…” and they would finish the lyric for you (well, unless they were shy about singing or they decide to call security!).

They’re Beatles lyrics, aren’t they?”
I don’t know, sorry.”
Of course you do! Everybody’s born knowing all the Beatles lyrics instinctively. They’re passed into the fetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff. Fact, they should be called “The Fetals.”

–James and Helen, Sliding Doors

I was born at the tail end of 1979, so I have never known a time when the Beatles didn’t exist. I delved deep into the Beatles catalog while in college (being the nerd that I am, I took a course on the Beatles and their impact on history), but I knew many of their songs already before that point, somehow. These songs have become part of my DNA over the years; the lyrics are firmly embedded in my long-term memory. So, it was a blissful sensation to sit back during the concerts and hear the audience singing along, because I could tell that this music was just as important (if not even MORE important) to them as it was to me! It was unbelievably hard not to sing along with every tune (when I wasn’t busy playing flute/piccolo).

Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Smiles await you when you rise
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.

–Beatles, “Golden Slumbers”

The Beatles song that holds the most emotion for me is Golden Slumbers. I have had one pet in my life, a beautiful rescue Corgi named Penny. Her time with our family was much too short (only about 18 months) before she passed from cancer, but one of her favorite things to do with me was to ride in the car, and I would sing to her as I drove. Silly songs, mostly, but she seemed to like it. When she got sick and we had to make the heartbreaking decision to put her to sleep, I vowed to myself that I’d sing to her as I said goodbye, to be sure there was something familiar for her to hang onto as she made her final journey. I was barely able to do it, as I was crying while holding her, but those words gave my heart a voice in that moment that I couldn’t express any other way. This song always takes me back to that moment and I have fought back tears more than once in performances where this song appears on the setlist, but it’s also a comfort that in this small way, I can call her memory back to me any time I want.

For this and many other reasons, I can’t be blasé or complacent about the music of the Beatles. Music of all kinds is so meaningful to so many people that it’s my responsibility as a performer to always give 100% of my effort and heart to a gig. Everything I play is potentially someone’s favorite song/piece ever. Everything I play could potentially mean something very special to someone listening. There is no unimportant music. It’s something that I think the people involved in putting the Classical Mystery Tour concerts together understand instinctively, and even if I wasn’t a Beatlemaniac, I think I would be inspired to give my best to these concerts because that’s what these guys do, time and time again.

The concerts closed with a rip-roaring, adrenaline-filled version of Twist and Shout, and the rumors are true… I did in fact get up out of my chair and dance at the front of the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center. People that know me in real life were pretty shocked, because I do NOT give off the impression that I would be the kind of person to do this (introvert, bookish, etc.). However, I did it for a few reasons: 1) There was a lovely lady in the violin section that started dancing, and what fun is it to dance alone? I decided to join her. 2) This music just makes you want to dance!! 3) As I’m getting older, I care less about I look to other people. I’m not a good dancer, and I certainly could have stayed seated and secretly wished to myself that I had the gumption to get up, but I figured, I’ve never been “cool,” so why try and start now? I may as well embrace my inner dork and go for it. I would rather regret doing things versus regretting not trying.

The Beatles themselves are not immortal, but this music, with its life-affirming character, will live forever in history and in the hearts and minds of all of those lucky enough to be alive to experience it, whether live or on record. How lucky we are to be alive in a world where this music is such a universal truth!

Review: Porch Culture Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural (Tyler, Texas)

Music is my mood-altering substance of choice, even moreso than coffee. It encompasses nearly every waking moment of my day… I am constantly listening to music, making music, imagining and striving for an unattainable perfection in music. The kind of music I gravitate to depends on my mood, the time of day, and what I have going on. Sometimes I want something familiar, with no surprises. Sometimes I need a shot in the arm to get me moving. Sometimes I want to hear a piece of music that demands my full attention and will not let me multitask.

When was the last time you listened to music without doing something else (like driving, or playing with your smartphone, or eating at a restaurant, or jogging)? I love having a soundtrack to my daily life, but sometimes, the music needs to take center stage and I become a supporting character to it, and not vice versa. I think this is one reason I (and I daresay others) really enjoy listening to vinyl records. Records and turntables are bulky, they’re not portable, they’re not convenient… they won’t go where you go. Don’t get me wrong – I have an iPod (my 5th gen classic is still kicking, 10 years later!!), I use my iPhone for music, I have CDs… but the inherent inconvenience of vinyl makes listening to music a special event, and that is sometimes exactly what I need, and what the music itself deserves.

Case in point: I have a gorgeous remastered limited edition Mobile Fidelity pressing of Ryan Adams’ “Love Is Hell” album. I’ve listened to it about twice since getting it last year because it is the sort of album that stops you in your tracks and DEMANDS your full attention. It is not content to be background music – especially not with the incredible sound quality. I don’t put it on unless I know I have an hour free to devote to immersing myself in the world that he creates. Next to hearing a live performance, vinyl is my favorite way to listen (really listen) to music.

How does this apply to coffee? Well, I’ve found that different methods of brewing will amplify and dampen different aspects of the coffee beans, much like raising and lowering treble/bass levels. Some brewing methods result in a coffee that will slip easily into the background, and some methods will bring a richness to the fore that will make it impossible for you to focus on anything else.

I have had a lot of natural-processed Ethiopian coffee over the past few years, and I have a pretty good idea of what to expect when I see one for sale. This bag was no exception, so it really became more of a question of how to best enjoy this coffee, as opposed to “will I enjoy this coffee?”

Whole bean: Bright aromas of mixed berry (raspberry, blueberry) jam.

French press: Not my favorite; this cup had a plasticky aroma. I have come to expect this though from naturally-processed Ethiopian coffees so it wasn’t a surprise.

Chemex: Despite setting this on slightly too fine of a grind (total extraction time was 4:40), this made a smooth cup of coffee that tasted like a combination of milk chocolate and red berries. I enjoyed this very much; the french press cup was harsher tasting in comparison.

AeroPress: Smooth and fuller-bodied than the Chemex cup. I didn’t need to add any water to this. There was a slightly powdery finish to this coffee. It was perhaps a little heavier in texture than the Chemex cup, but they were both appealing in the same ways (smoothness, flavors). The AeroPress is of course a lot quicker to prepare, so that might be the way to go if you’re only making one cup and are impatient!

V60: This method created a cup that was rather muted in flavor. After the lively yet smooth and pleasant Chemex and AeroPress cups, this was not what I was expecting. If the cups were music, the V60 cup was like listening to music through crappy headphones.

Summary: Stick to brewing these beans in an AeroPress (if you’re brewing a single cup) or a Chemex (if you are brewing for multiple people… or for one if you are REALLY thirsty) for the best, most balanced flavors.

From the roaster: Wild berry. Sweet pastry. Buttery.

Porch Culture Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural

The music on your unique coming-of-age soundtrack.

As a musician, my view on this is no doubt skewed, but based on what I’ve observed among society at large, people develop a deep and personal relationship with the music that they love. The music industry has gone through its ups and downs, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that a life without music would be unfathomable to most people! One genre within that umbrella, however, seems to be a no-go zone for many: classical music. What do those two words bring to mind? The answer will vary for everyone, but I think for a large percentage of modern society, the associations are not necessarily positive. Despite its long and storied history, it is an art form that has been fighting to survive in the public consciousness and in the court of public opinion.

In addition to my work as a performer, I also teach 30 private flute students, ranging in age from 11-18 years old. They come to me for flute lessons, to supplement the instruction they get in their band programs at school. Most of these young people will not become professional musicians, and that is fine! I’m not necessarily here to create more flutists. I feel my role as their teacher is to teach them life skills through music (punctuality, responsibility, accountability, time-management, the ability to break a large task into smaller, manageable goals, etc.), as well as showing them the joy and satisfaction of self-expression with this language that expresses more than words ever can.

While I knew that my students generally like music (they wouldn’t be in their school music programs if they didn’t!), I was curious about what my students’ attitude toward classical music would be. I decided to informally poll them, asking them to tell me the first thing that came to mind when I said, “classical music.” Their answers really gave me some food for thought.

Old/dead people.
Music from a long, LONG time ago.
Violin. (Oddly, no one said flute!)
Good to study to.
My parents’/grandparents’ music.
Blue. (I will come back to this particular answer later!)

I then asked them if they ever listened to classical music for fun. Naturally, the ones that said classical music was boring said no. But, even the ones that expressed a liking for it mostly said no as well! A few did say yes, but the majority of my students do not listen to classical music unless they “have to” (for band class, etc.). This then led to me asking if they listened to other kinds of music for fun (pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, etc.). Not surprisingly, most said yes (several had looks of, “well, DUH” on their faces).

In a previous post on this blog, I mentioned an interview from the Sound Opinions podcast where a representative from the streaming music service Spotify talked about the listening habits of their users. Basically, their research showed that young people (teens, twenty-somethings) kept up with popular music and spent time seeking out new music, but that these habits slow down as people age and by age 33, most people stop looking for new music and they prefer to stick to what they know they like. The music that people fall in love with in their first few decades of life will be music that they love for the rest of their lives.

“Having been brought up in a very musical household, I think anybody who, like me, has a family where everybody listens to music… it is still an incredibly special thing when you first discover some records and bands that are just yours.” Lauren Laverne, BBC 6 Music, February 5, 2016 

When I entered middle school, my small music collection was an assortment of what my parents listened to, what my friends listened to, and what my older sister listened to. I enjoyed music already, but it wasn’t until I discovered my local alternative radio station (KROQ 106.7 in Los Angeles) at age 12 that I started getting obsessive about it. For me, it all started with The Cure and their album Wish. This was a band that no one else I knew liked – this was perhaps the first group that felt like it was uniquely mine. The spring and summer of 1992 felt like a fever dream of discovery as I basically listened to the radio nonstop and discovered the wonderful world of indie, post-punk, and shoegaze music. In a time period where it seemed like all of my preteen classmates were obsessed with grunge and hip-hop, I definitely was an odd duck, not that I particularly cared. There was something kind of satisfying about feeling like I had a musical secret, and how this music felt like a portal into a world where I belonged. My love for these bands continues to this day, over 20 years later. It’s entirely possible that I might still like them if I had only discovered their existence last year. But, I think the fact that I discovered these bands during those important formative years plays a big part as to why this music so much to me. I do buy new releases from new/current bands, and enjoy them (in some cases, immensely!), but if Spotify’s research is correct, it’s going to be the music I listened to from my teens and through my twenties which will mean something particularly special to me throughout my life.

The other musical world I lived in during my youth was the classical music world. I started flute lessons when I was ten years old, and it was an activity that came quite naturally to me. Classical music was something that was always around when I was a kid; my dad loved listening to all sorts of classical music (particularly classical guitar, which he also played). Hearing Luciano Pavarotti, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, James Galway, and Andres Segovia at home was pretty much a normal everyday activity. However, the classical music that I ended up developing a personal connection to was not the same as what my dad liked. Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius pieces with the LA Philharmonic made me feel like I had found what I had found with shoegaze music when I was 12. I absolutely fell in love with the way that a Mahler symphony can make you feel so small and yet so all-encompassing at the same time. Debussy and Ravel’s music featured some of the most deliciously perfumed harmonies I had ever heard. Later, in graduate school, I became fascinated with the way that minimalist music made time stop and made me feel like I was entering another dimension. This wasn’t my parents’ classical music. This was music that felt uniquely mine.

“Hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” The Smiths, “Panic”

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. They are classics for a reason, of course. Musical geniuses, visionaries… but my students seem to see them as old hat. It’s music from a long time ago, that they can’t relate to, that doesn’t feel uniquely theirs. I’m generalizing (of course there are people that are deeply passionate about these composers!), but I wanted to show my students that classical music is more, MUCH more, than the narrow definition that most people have of it (Bach through Beethoven, orchestra, piano, etc.).

As an experiment, I chose to play a short excerpt from a recording for my students. The piece I chose for this first week was Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Yes, it was a selfish choice because I love it, but I also chose it because I knew most of them would have never heard anything like it. Reactions included the following:

“This isn’t classical music. This sounds cool!”
“What IS this?” (said incredulously)
“I really like this!!” (Three students had this reaction – two are in middle school and one in high school.)
“It’s orange and purple!” (This was from the kid that said classical music was blue. We talked a bit more and figured out that this child is a synesthete. How cool is that?)
“It sounds like we are flying through space!”
“I’m not sure what to think about this. Is this music?” (We then went into a long discussion about what constitutes music. Pretty deep territory!)

A few of my students also made the connection that the cover art to the recording I played for them really looks like the music sounds, which made them appreciate the music on a whole different level. The student with synesthesia expressed a liking for the Reich, so I then hopped on YouTube to play a video of the same composer’s Music for Pieces of Wood which had a series of colorful blocks added to punctuate the different entrances. The student then stated, in that authoritative way so characteristic of 13-year olds, “The colors in this video are ALL wrong.” (I love this so much.)

People have been sounding the death-knell for classical music for a long time. Classical album sales are down. Symphony orchestras are frequently in the news these days with stories of financial troubles, management lockouts and dissolution. However, there are also bright spots. Up from the ashes of the Honolulu and New Mexico Symphony Orchestras rose new orchestras (the Hawai’i Symphony and New Mexico Philharmonic). The Minnesota Orchestra weathered a punishing 15-month lockout at the hands of their management and emerged as an even stronger artistic force with a rabid audience fanbase. In recent seasons, major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and Dallas Symphony (just to name a few) reported record ticket sales. I know my view is pretty orchestra- and USA-centric; I hope you’ll forgive me that as this is my spiritual and physical home. I think despite the glimmers of hope, everyone agrees that new audiences need to be reached, and key to this is outreach to young people, to help cultivate the next generation of classical music lovers.

My time with my students is too short as it is… approximately 30 minutes (on average) once a week for just seven years of their lives if I’m lucky. We have much that needs to be covered in our lessons: tone, breathing, finger and tongue technique, posture, dealing with nerves, dealing with disappointment, cultivating an inner strength that will carry you through life’s challenges. But I am also hoping to add a love for the creative possibilities of classical music to that list. I want the students I come in contact with to know that classical music isn’t “old music” or “boring,” but that it’s vibrant and exciting and colorful. It’s being written today, at this very moment, by men and women all around the world. It’s important to me that I do this now, when my students are in their teen years and are the most receptive to discovering new music. One thing I’ve learned in my time as a teacher is not to underestimate young people… I’m regularly blown away by things my students teach me!

I plan to play all sorts of things for them, but I will concentrate mostly on living composers, because I want my students to really feel connected to history in the making. I want them to feel like they are part of a larger tradition that started hundreds of years ago and will hopefully continue for hundreds of years after we all depart from this earth. I’m not interested in making them forget about other types of music (heck, just try and take my Ride and Smiths and Nick Drake records away. I dare you). Life is much too short to limit ourselves to one genre! But in an age when many adults feel classical music is unapproachable or elitist or not for them, I want the kids that I see on a weekly basis to feel like classical music (whatever branch of it they most connect with) can be uniquely theirs.

Dr. Margaret Fischer is a freelance flute and piccolo player in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who probably spends way too much time thinking about unanswerable questions. She is privileged to teach a group of inquisitive, bright, receptive kids every week who make her realize how much more there is to learn in the world. She also can’t wait to see what happens when she plays John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” for her students this week.

A letter to the band Ride.

(If you come here for the coffee, please come back tomorrow. This post is for Ride and Ride fans. It started with me trying to compose a Tweet, then a Facebook post, and then I realized it was really too long for even that so here we are.)

Dear Andy, Laurence, Mark, and Steve:

It has truly been a privilege and an honor to be a Ride fan for the past 23 years. I discovered your music in 1992 when I was 12, and many times over the years, I’ve lamented that I wasn’t a bit older and that I hadn’t discovered Ride’s music sooner so that I could have experienced your music live. However, I do think that your music came into my life at exactly the right time for me, and it’s been a source of wonder and inspiration for me for over two decades.

Fast forward to 2015, and I am in disbelief that I hold in my hand a ticket to see the four of you at Terminal 5 in New York City. I was excited, but also nervous about how I would feel to see one of my dreams come into fruition. How could mere mortals live up to the pedestal I had built up in my head? The moment right before the four of you launched into Leave Them All Behind will always be burned into my brain – the anticipation, the energy crackling in the room, the moment between nothing and SOMETHING – art being created right before my eyes and ears; beauty coming into the world out of thin air. The first phrase knocked me absolutely breathless, and you all just kept on coming at us. Song after song, I was struck not only by your legendary sonic assault on our ears, but the fact that it wasn’t simply loud for loudness’ sake – there was a majesty and a gravity to it that just can’t be experienced any other way. I was torn between closing my eyes to give myself over to the rapture of the sound, and opening them to really see this moment that I had been dreaming of for so long. I alternated between both. Loz’s drumbeats became my heartbeats. You all wrestled my soul from my body and took me on an unforgettable musical journey that night.

That first Ride concert of mine was magic and an incredible gift that I never expected to receive, and I knew that I had to experience it again if I could, so I was thrilled to make plans to see you in Birmingham, AL and in Austin, TX. When I found out there was a possibility of meeting you all through the VIP tickets, I jumped at the opportunity but had some misgivings about it… I am not great at meeting new people, much less my musical heroes, and the last thing I wanted was for you to feel put-upon or uncomfortable. It was refreshing to get to talk a bit to Loz and Steve and to find out that you’re all just four normal guys, who happen to make some of the most extraordinary music I’ve ever heard. Though I didn’t get to chat with Mark or Andy, I could see them interacting with other fans with genuine smiles and it warmed my heart.

As a classical musician, I feel the societal pressure at times to justify my existence and my value to the world at large. The conception is that music isn’t a “real job,” or is somehow not essential for life. Yet how many people out there can imagine their lives without music? It plays an essential part in our joy at celebrations, and says what words cannot in moments of deep sorrow. It lets us experience empathy by allowing us to get inside the soul of another. It expresses that which cannot be said any other way. It is both deeply rooted in its time, and transcends time to touch people far removed from when and where it was written. The best music not only touches our souls and reminds us what it is to feel, it captivates and inspires the mind to see how much beauty there is in the world. Music and art may not be essential ingredients for life, but they are keys to truly living.

There might be a finite amount of energy in the world (“energy converted, never gone…”), but I think there is the possibility of an infinite, unlimited amount of beauty. There are those that destroy beautiful things and injure the psyche of humanity, and there are those that make creating beauty their life’s work – challenging, thought-provoking, soul-touching, life-altering beauty. You gentlemen have done and are doing something so noble with every note that you play and every breath that you breathe. I may have felt I was born a little too late, but I also feel so incredibly lucky to get to share this space and time with the art that you create.

2015 has been a dream come true. I may never get the chance to meet you again (and I do regret not being able to thank and talk to all four of you), but what I did get to experience has been more than I ever could have asked for. I think one reason that I respond so strongly to your music is because you are expressing what you know and feel to be true, which is why I must thank you again for sharing your truth with the world.

Hope to see you all at a future show. I will be a Ride fan until my dying day, and probably even after that.


Review: Octane Coffee Costa Rica El Higueron (Atlanta, Georgia)

A recent interview I heard on the Sound Opinions podcast was discussing the music listening habits of Spotify users, and the featured guest stated that their internal research indicated that most people who use the Spotify streaming service stopped listening to popular/current music at an average age of 33, and that people maintain a lifetime affection for music of their teens and early 20s. This made me think about my own music listening habits (at age 36), and while I still do seek out new releases, I don’t do it at nearly the frequency that I used to (it takes a lot of time and effort to stay current!). Do I maintain a love for music of my youth? Absolutely. In fact, I discovered my favorite band of all time, Ride, at the age of 12, and I just spent this past weekend crossing state lines to see them play two amazing shows. Would I love them as much as I do now if I had discovered them when I was 32 instead of 12? It’s an intriguing question.

One of the main reasons that I started this blog is so that I could have a record of my thoughts about particular coffees as I do these tastings. I wanted to learn everything I could about what’s out there and figure out which coffees I do like and which I don’t. As I’ve been doing this, my tastes have been evolving and I have learned to appreciate new things. For this reason, I’m reluctant to rule out drinking anything entirely, but I think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my preferences for now. There’s music I appreciate on an intellectual level (but which doesn’t touch my soul), music I like, music I love, and music that makes me marvel that I exist in a world where that kind of beauty is even possible. I’m learning I am starting to feel this way about coffees as well.

Thus far, I’ve been less than thrilled with Costa Rican coffees. They haven’t necessarily been terrible coffees, but they have made me feel like I was on an awkward blind date, made me sob uncontrollably, and smelled like gasoline several days after opening the bag. On the one hand, I want to educate myself and learn everything I can about something before dismissing it as just “not my thing”… after all, not everything is love at first sight. It took me a while to get into cilantro but I love it now! On the other hand, life is short, and I question how much time I want to spend drinking coffee I’m not in love with, you know? Maybe that’s why people tend to just stick with the music they know they love as they get older.

Octane Coffee is an Atlanta-based company that has been in operation for 12 years, but has expanded into roasting and wholesale coffee in the last 4 years. They have cafes in three states: Georgia, Alabama, and West Virginia. Their website doesn’t feature their single-origin coffees, probably since they don’t even offer the option of online purchasing, but it does list coffees that are available wholesale. I only mention it since the names are amusing to me: Super Regular, White Lightning, and Gravy. I picked up this bag at their Homewood location in Birmingham, Alabama, and decided on this bag of Costa Rican coffee because it was in the optimal freshness window and the tasting notes sounded intriguing. Keeping an open mind as best as I can!

Whole bean: Smells like black tea leaves and bing cherry. Not a very sweet aroma. There is a slight hint of some sort of stone fruit (I wrote in my notes: plum??? Maybe??). Confounding.

V60: This is like tea + a splash of milk in texture and in flavor. It rings hollow in my mouth, like I’m getting just the outer edges of a sound and not the center. There is some bitterness on the finish, even with just a 2:47 extraction time.

AeroPress: The concentrate tasted like lemon pith. Adding water brought out a flavor like peanut shells. Not the peanut itself, but the sort of cardboard-esque flavor of the shells. I was suddenly taken to Texas Roadhouse in my head (and for those of you unfamiliar with this establishment, it’s the sort of place where people eat peanuts while waiting to be seated and they throw the shells all over the floor).

Chemex: Initial impression was that it had a chemical smell to it, but I think it was just that the top end was so strong. I can’t say it smelled like fruit or flowers or nuts or anything concrete, though – it just smelled astringent. It did seem to get better as I drank it. There was a slight tang to the aftertaste, like banana. Unfortunately for me, I hate bananas.

French press: This had the richest body of the four cups, and while the flavor was similar to the Chemex rendition, the thicker body seemed to make everything a little less objectionable by bringing more depth into the mix. If I had to pick a favorite preparation method for this coffee, it would be this one.

Summary: I’m close to dropping Costa Rican coffees from my playlist altogether, as I never really seem to be able to get into them. To me, they’re like a coffee version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (incidentally, a band quite popular in my teens, but one I never could get into!). I can’t fault Octane, as the beans do look beautifully roasted, and I can appreciate the work that went into this bag, but if I encounter another chance to buy Octane beans, I’m getting something else.

From the roaster: Floral, toffee, orange blossom, banana, lemon

This company does not appear to currently sell beans online, but you can purchase Octane Coffee at one of its retail locations in Alabama, Georgia, and West Virginia.

Octane Coffee Website

Review: Ascension Brazil Rainha Farms (Dallas, Texas)

Sometimes, when I talk to people about the flavors in coffee, they get confused and think that I drink flavored coffees… you know, stuff like Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Peppermint Mochas, Red Velvet Frappuccinos. I admit that I enjoyed some vanilla lattes in my youth, but I haven’t had a “flavored” coffee in quite some time. You won’t find any flavored syrups in my house! What I’m referring to are the different flavor characteristics inherent in the different bean varietals, grown in various parts of the world. This post on single-origin coffees gets into this topic in more detail.

I’ve been drinking a lot of African and Central American coffee lately, and I’ve been awash in flavors of berry, citrus, flowers, honey… lots of bright, interesting tastes. But you know how sometimes all you want is something simple and comforting? I love being challenged musically as much as the next musician, and I find complexity to be irresistible… but sometimes you just want uncomplicated pop or stadium rock. Sometimes, after months of listening to Joy Division, John Adams, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sufjan Stevens, Shostakovich, of Montreal, Steve Reich, and Radiohead, nothing else will do except for some Journey, preferably while driving with the windows down and singing along at the top of your lungs.

(I can’t believe I just admitted this.)

(And for anyone out there making fun of me right now, would you be comfortable with me opening up your iTunes collection and letting me see EVERYTHING you have in it? I am guessing I’m not the only one with musical guilty pleasures out there!)

Brazilian drip coffee is not something I seek out on a regular basis, because to me it’s like a coffee version of stadium-rock; big, crowd-pleasing flavor that has mass appeal. I generally prefer more complex, layered coffees. But, for those days where you don’t want to be pushed or stretched, it’s comfort food in a cup. I stopped at Ascension Coffee’s Dallas location the other day for lunch, and this bag was among the freshest coffee (at 3 days old), so I opted to give it a try.

Whole bean: Creamy, malty, milk chocolate aromas.

V60: At a 2:50 extraction, this cup was a bit bitter and it “smelled like coffee.” In my book, because I typically look for layers of flavor, it struck me as a bit boring. However, drinking it was like a throwback to a different, less complicated time. Adding a splash of cream took away the bitterness and made this cup taste like Nestle Quik. Hello, childhood!

AeroPress: Rich, nutty flavor that had a fair bit of acidic bite to keep things awake. Just for fun, I added a glug of heavy cream and a bit of sugar. This cup became a chocolate milkshake. Holy cannoli, it was rich.

Chemex: Light-bodied but smoother in flavor overall than the V60 and AeroPress cups. This was pretty easy to drink black. 

French press:  As I expected, this cup was smooth, full-bodied, and the richest in nut/chocolate flavor. Comforting. It enveloped me like a fleece blanket. Uncomplicated and soothing.

Espresso: Out of curiosity, I chose to pull this as a single-origin espresso. I actually think I liked it the best in this preparation! Though I didn’t experiment much, the shots that my Silvano produced were complex, a little brash in their acidity, but sweet. Very drinkable!

Summary: Get this if you like chocolate milkshakes, or if you want a coffee that will hold you and tell you everything will be all right. It’s not a coffee that will make you question things, or that will push you out of your comfort zone. Rather, it is mac and cheese. It is Journey’s “Faithfully.” It is a hug from an old friend.

From the roaster: Brazil nuts, toffee

Ascension Coffee Roastery Online Store