Monday, July 15, 2013

Joni Mitchell and the Perception of Small Differences in Musical Performance

[being written 7/16/2013]

This will be part of the Los Angeles in the 60s, 70s, and 80s topic, when that gets organzied]

It seems to be a human capability to listen to music and perceive tiny differences in performance. We are able to do this even on music they have not heard recently and even on music of considerable length. Who has not had the experience of hearing a song they knew well on the radio and then suddenly realize that this version is slightly different, it turns out to be a different version of the song never released, or from a demo made by the band, or for the European release, perhaps a live performance somewhere.

This fabulous demonstration of signal processing and memory storage and acquisition must have a purpose, the sincere but naive Darwinist, exclaims. Perhaps. But it could also be the accidental result of some other capability or capabilities that evolved and was selected because it was useful for some other reason or reasons entirely. Perhaps it is part of how we recognize when we are home, audio being such an important sense. Perhaps it is part of the amazing "friend or foe" recognition circuitry that lets us know if someone is of the tribe or not of the tribe, or whether the ritual is being performed correctly. Whatever it is, it seems remarkable how well it works.

For whatever reason, if there is a reason, that we have this capability, I have a story about it from when I lived at the beach and worked at the RAND Corporation.

In the 1970s I lived at the ocean in a rent-controlled apartment complex called the Seacastle Apartments. The building is famous for being a well known hotel built in the 1920s (I think), then a run-down dive near the beach during the 1940s and 1950s, and finally received a million dollar grant from HUD (Housing and Urban Development) to fix it up and turn it into low-income housing in the 1960s. The owner took the $1,000,000 and went to Mexico and HUD ended up owning the building by default. This being Los Angeles, I am pretty sure they tore it down to put up something so the rich could enjoy the view and get rid of the worthless poor and middle class people who were there before.[Correction... it is still there, sortof.  It has been turned into something called, which are expensive townhouses for rich people.  They must have gutted the place to rebuild it].  I lived there in a cave, very inexpensively, and worked at RAND.

A Google Earth view of the Seacastle Apartments now turned into Townhouses for Rich People

There were apartments in the front that faced the Pacific ocean. Not fancy, and very tiny for the most part, their view was unbelievable. Very, very difficult to get one of those apartments, and when you had one you did not want to give it up. This is in Santa Monica 1/2 block south of the Santa Monica Pier and on the Promenade, the real Promenade, not the shopping center, the walk path in front of the beach.

There were many colorful stories about this building some of which might even have been true. Of course the HUD story above is one of them, but there are also stories of the period when "ladies of the night" worked the building in the 1950s, of famous surfers who had lived there, and famous musicians and writers who could not afford even the low rent, and so forth. One story was that Joni Mitchell still had an apartment there, on the 2nd floor, in the front, or perhaps a boyfriend did, or perhaps she kept a poor boyfriend there who was also a musician, a starving one. The stories differed. I never believed any of them. It was all just local color to me, worth repeating, but very little chance of being true. Or maybe it was true once, long ago, but no longer.

I don't remember why I was able to be in front of the Seacastle to watch a sunset, as I usually worked at RAND from noon to 2AM or so. So this was probably on a weekend as I had started to take one day a week off, as I noticed that seemed to help my work in the long run. Whatever the reason, I was sitting on the wall between the promenade and the beach and watching a spectacular sunset, which probably meant that the Santa Monica mountains were burning down. A fire was always good for enhancing sunsets, adding all that debris from the burned houses of Malibu millionaires would always contribute to our sunset quality. They should burn Malibu houses down regularly as it would improve our quality of life.

It is the nature of apartment buildings of this type that you can hear everything, and I could hear that someone in the front was playing music. It was a Joni Mitchell album and I could hear it in the background and I did not pay any attention. It was not very loud, you could barely hear it above the sound of the ocean. I knew her albums well and I had seen her perform live on several occassions and I was very familiar with her music.

Joni Mitchell live on the Johnny Cash Show 1969

I was watching the sunset and not paying any attention when I realized that something was wrong. The music was different somehow, not much, but different. It was definitely Joni Mitchell, and it was one of her songs, but this was a performance I had never heard before. I am not sure if it was the phrasing, or the pacing, or something about the guitar accompaniment, or what it was. Her voice was very soft in the background and the sound of the ocean intermittantly overwhelmed her singing.   Whatever this was, I thought, it was very well done, her voice sounded wonderful, completely alive, as well as I had ever heard it.

I don't recall what songs she played, but it was early Joni Mitchell and to my memory it sounded similar to this one from the premiere of the Johnny Cash Show in 1969.

The music stopped in mid-stanza. She played guitar and seemed to be talking to someone. I couldn't really hear. The music started again in mid verse, then stopped, then switched to another song and she played for a few more minutes, pretty much just playing around, and then she stopped.

Joni Mitchell was upstairs, behind me, on the 2nd floor somewhere, watching the sunset with someone and the window was open and she was just practicing or more likely just goofing off.   The reason she sounded so good, of course, was that it wasn't a recording.

I listened for a few minutes and then it stopped and I never heard her again.

So you see, sometimes the crazy stories you hear are true.

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