A single guitar starts “One Zero – Periodic Orbits from Chaos to Order and Back,” two notes that sound at first like the beginning of a thousand rock songs. But within three seconds, the guitar has jumped away from that and into a more complex world of triplets and gnarly scales, playing a line filled with menace and beauty. Another guitar joins it, and another, and another, until four guitars are playing the same line in unison. There’s a lot of information — and emotion — packed into that figure.
And then it’s over, in 34 seconds.
“One Zero” is the opening statement to New Haven-based musician Shawn Persinger’s Halloween Baptizm, a suit of 13 pieces clocking in at 22 minutes. Persinger wrote the suite for a quartet of theoretically any four instruments in four different registers. Could be a typical string quartet. Could be a piccolo, a clarinet, a tenor sax, and a tuba. In Persinger’s case, because he’s a professional guitarist, he recorded Baptizm all on his own, playing each part on various types of guitars in different registers. Between other projects and the day-to-day life of being a professional musician, it took Persinger about a year.
And because Persinger is also a writer, he decided to keep a journal about the process of recording Halloween Baptizm. Soon the journal spilled out into Persinger’s thoughts about everything from jazz to the Beach Boys, how much art an artist really needs to create, and the science and the future of popular music. The result was a book, that Persinger called Nobody Knows I’m Famous: A Year in the Life of an Unknown Musician.
Is Nobody Knows I’m Famous a companion to Halloween Baptizm? Is the album a companion to the book? Should they be taken as a complete whole? Are they really separate things with just a few connections between them?
The answer to all of the above is yes.
As Persinger wrote on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, about his own style of music, “my idea/style is the modern primitive melody: exploiting an abundance of contrary characteristics … yet attempting to make those opposing characteristics as catchy as possible, creating ambiguity and contradiction … and allowing my melodies to be dark yet playful, sophisticated yet naïve, technically demanding yet sloppy, haphazard yet exact.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
That Persinger is so good at describing and analyzing his own music — and the music of others — makes Nobody Knows a really fun read for anyone who’s interested in thinking about music and how it works. Persinger is a fearless writer, smart, opinionated, and surprising, and not afraid to slaughter a sacred cow or two.
Like Brian Wilson.
“To me, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the musical manifestation of someone trying too hard,” Persinger writes of that much-revered album. “Brian Wilson does manage to achieve an elegant cohesion of craft and artistry on ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice”; however, the remaining 11 songs on Pet Sounds are uneven and anemic, straining to prove themselves.”
For a lot of musicians and music critics, those are fighting words. But they’re delivered with knowledge and sympathy. Persinger knows how the album was made; he points out that Wilson was essentially all alone in creating Pet Sounds, while the Beatles had each other and producer George Martin in making Sgt. Pepper, which Pet Sounds partially inspired. He implores us not to believe him, but to return to the album, listen to it, and decide for ourselves.
Though his last paragraph brings us up short. “The next time someone tells you Pet Sounds is brilliant, ask him/her to name four songs from that record other than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows.” I promise you they won’t be able to, because none of the other songs are catchy or memorable. Pet Sounds was a good idea but it is not a great record.”
I tried Persinger’s experiment on myself. I could name “Sloop John B” and “Caroline, No” off the top of my head. Then I cheated and looked at the track list for Pet Sounds on Wikipedia, and remembered that I also liked “I Know There’s an Answer.” There are eight more songs on the record that I had no recollection of.
Maybe that makes me a dilettante. Maybe it means I don’t know as much about music (or at least American popular music) as I should for someone who plays it and writes about it a lot. But it also got me thinking, about separating the reality of the music from the myth about the music.
And in pulling back that veil, Nobody Knows I’m Famous makes for a compelling read, and Halloween Baptizm a compelling listen. Persinger might think that maybe Frank Zappa made way too many albums, and a lot of music criticism irritates him.
But first of all, he’s harder on himself than anyone else. “There are a number of serious faults with my fingerstyle guitar technique,” he wrote on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. “This is due in part to 1) my lack of regular practice (and performance opportunities), 2) my lack of desire to perfect my technique, and 3) my self-limiting belief that it’s ‘good enough.’” He goes on to describe being invited to teach a masterclass to guitar students whose technique, as it turned out, “far surpassed my own. And their skills included a superfluity of qualities — tone, speed, agility, dynamics, and endurance. It was eye opening.”
So why play at all? Because technique, knowledge, and analytical ability only go so far. Out there beyond all of that is the ability to move people, to make them cry, or laugh, or think, or dance. In all his years as a professional musician, Persinger has never lost sight of that.
Thus on June 5, 2016, he wrote lovingly of the recently departed Bethany Music and Dance (BMAD), a giant party held on the last Friday of every month for several years, which would find dozens of musicians and dancers descending on retired physician Bill Fischer’s sprawling farmhouse in Bethany to, well, play music and dance. (The reins have been taken up by a group operating out of the Oxford Grange calling themselves GOMAD.)
“What are the feelings that BMAD arouses?” Persinger wrote. “Joy, hope, camaraderie, pleasure, trust, and love. Simply put, BMAD parties are some of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had.” Persinger champions amateur musicians at every turn — people who play for themselves, or for their friends, for the joy of playing.
Running with that idea, Persinger has the wide-eyed chutzpah to state a very disarming thing. “I like to believe that a new ‘popular’ music will arise in just a few more years,” he wrote on August 10, 2016. “By then … musicians and audiences will have had time to reevaluate music’s role in contemporary culture. By then music may find a new and rewarding place in a world dominated by computer technology that encourages musical creativity and innovation as well as a symbiotic relationship between all genres and technologies…. I’m suggesting pioneering ideas and applications — something unknown and unforeseen right now. I find this prospect exciting.”
So do I. It’s a future I want to hear.
And all of this — the fierce intelligence, the sharp criticism, the honed ideas, and the hope for the future — are at play musically in Halloween Baptizm. It’s Persinger putting his music where his mouth is. Baptizm is there for people to reject or embrace, criticize or get lost in, dismiss or admire. Is it the latest expression of a set of well-worn ideas, or is it a step toward the music of the future? You’ll have to listen, and read, and judge for yourself. And then, maybe write something, or play some music, of your own.
Halloween Baptizm and Nobody Knows I’m Famous are available for purchase at Amazon (follow the links). Click below to hear an interview with Persinger about the album and the book, along with parts of Halloween Baptizm, on WNHH’s “Northern Remedy.”