Reworking Labor: Organizing Fashion Models, and a New Role for Unions

Reworking Labor – Organizing the Runway

The New York Times

Articles in this series examine the changing face of labor as the nation’s unions and collective bargaining rights decline.

Previous Articles in the Series:

A.F.L.-C.I.O. Has Plan to Add Millions of Nonunion Members

The Workers Defense Project, a Union in Spirit

Tackling Concerns of Independent Workers

To the Editor:

Re “Stepping Up for Models” (Business Day, Dec. 24):

I agree that labor organizations like the Model Alliance are necessary within the fashion industry. Models are abused at work and underrepresented. In the article, Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham University and director of its nonprofit Fashion Law Institute — established with the support and advice of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, says the Model Alliance is not planning to form a union.

“Founding a union makes a strong oppositional statement that scares off people,” she says. This soft-hands approach sounds like pandering to a deeply patrician industry that routinely eats up and spits out thousands of young women. It feels like the ladylike thing to do.

While I stand in solidarity with the Model Alliance, I believe that the modeling industry could use some shaking up. Recently, Vogue magazine once again violated its own under-age model initiative — one highlighted in the article — by placing a 15-year-old girl in its pages. The business of fashion is liberal and progressive on its exterior, yet it has a “do as I say, not as I do” mind-set.

Now is the time to take off our kidskin gloves. Fashion models need the power of a union and the binding agreements it can create between workers and their employers. As it stands, the Model Alliance is in only an advisory position, one that requires others in power to make and enforce the changes needed. At its bottom line, this is a women’s rights issue, and teenage girls are being abused. Unionizing is the only way forward.

JENNIFER SKY
New York, Dec. 24, 2013

The writer is an actress and model.

To the Editor,

At first, the article might seem to be a novelty item describing tall, svelte women opting to be represented by an organization that will certainly not be a union and will not negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. But it does raise vital questions about the future direction of the American labor movement.

Why do labor unions have to be exclusively collective bargaining agents? Why can’t unions effectively serve as a voice for professional workers, self-employed workers, lower level managers, mobile workers who change jobs frequently and even unemployed workers?

Are America’s unions now too tradition-bound in what they do and whom they do it for?

These are crucial questions. The fate of America’s unions depends on their being seriously and repeatedly asked, if not always successfully answered.

GARY CHAISON
Worcester, Mass., Dec. 24, 2013

The writer is a professor of industrial relations at the Clark University Graduate School of Management.

Via The New York Times

Why Didn’t J.J. Cale Become a Superstar?

This animated Op-Doc explores why J.J. Cale, who wrote such classic songs as “After Midnight,” “Cocaine” and “Call Me the Breeze,” never achieved stardom.

Published on Dec 17, 2013

Read the story here: http://nyti.ms/1hgxHFk

NYT on Google Plus: http://bit.ly/WnAshF

Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll – The New York Times

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Chad Batka for The New York Times
Lou Reed performing in New York City in 2010.

Lou Reed, 1942-2013
Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll

By BEN RATLIFF
Published: October 27, 2013
The New York Times

Lou Reed, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had a major influence on generations of rock musicians, and who remained a powerful if polarizing force for the rest of his life, died on Sunday at his home in Amagansett, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 71.

The cause was liver disease, said Dr. Charles Miller of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Mr. Reed had liver transplant surgery this year and was being treated again until a few days ago.

Mr. Reed brought dark themes and a mercurial, sometimes aggressive disposition to rock music. “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” he once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”

He played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealizing sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic. But his early work assured him a permanent audience.

The Velvet Underground, which was originally sponsored by Andy Warhol and showcased the songwriting of John Cale as well as Mr. Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-I.Q., low-virtuosity stratum of punk, alternative and underground rock around the world. Joy Division, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were descendants. The composer Brian Eno, in an often-quoted interview from 1982, suggested that if the group’s first album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years — a figure probably lower than the reality — “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Mr. Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings. Among the most noteworthy of those records were “Transformer” (1972), “Berlin” (1973) and “New York” (1989). The most notorious, without question, was “Metal Machine Music” (1975).

Beloved of Mr. Reed and not too many others, “Metal Machine Music” was four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, with Mr. Reed altering the speed of the tape recorder; no singing, no drums, no stated key. At the time it was mostly understood, if at all, as a riddle about artistic intent. Was it his truest self? Was it a joke? Or was there no difference?

Mr. Reed wrote in the liner notes that “no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself,” but he also defended it as the next step after La Monte Young’s early minimalism. “There’s infinite ways of listening to it,” he told the critic Lester Bangs in 1976.

Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band in Freeport, N.Y., Mr. Reed started singing outside of the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent. That sound, heard with the Velvet Underground on songs like “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” and in his post-Velvet songs “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Street Hassle” and others, became one of the most familiar frequencies in rock. He played lead guitar the same way, straining against his limitations.

Mr. Reed confidently made artistic decisions that other musicians would not have even considered. He was an aesthetic primitivist with high-end audio obsessions. He was an English major who understood his work as a form of literature, though he distrusted overly poetic pop lyrics, and though distorted electric guitars and drums sometimes drowned out his words.

Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942, in Brooklyn, the son of Sidney Reed, a tax accountant, and Toby Reed, a homemaker. When he was 11 his family moved to Freeport, on Long Island. His mother survives him, as does his sister, Merrill Weiner, and his wife, the composer and musician Laurie Anderson.

Generally resistant to authority and prone to mood swings, Mr. Reed troubled his parents enough that they assented to a doctor’s recommendation for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens; in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment.

After transferring to Syracuse University, he fell into the circle around the poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, one of his English professors. Mr. Reed would later resist being pigeonholed, but his college profile suggests a distinct type: an early-’60s East Coast hipster, a middle-class suburban rebel in love with pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and street-life writers: William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., Raymond Chandler, Allen Ginsberg.

He clearly absorbed and, at least at times, admired Bob Dylan. (“Dylan gets on my nerves,” he said in 1968. “If you were at a party with him, I think you’d tell him to shut up.” Twenty-one years later he would tell Rolling Stone, “Dylan continuously knocks me out.”)

While in college he wrote “Heroin,” a song that accelerates in waves with only two chords. It treated addiction and narcotic ecstasy both critically and without moralizing, as a poet or novelist at that time might have, but not a popular songwriter:

I don’t know just where I’m going

But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can

‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man

When I put a spike into my vein

And I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run

And I feel just like Jesus’ son

And I guess that I just don’t know.

After graduation Mr. Reed found work in New York as a staff songwriter for Pickwick International, a label that capitalized on trends in popular music with budget releases by made-up groups. Among his credits for Pickwick were “Johnny Won’t Surf No More” and “The Ostrich,” written for a nonexistent dance craze and sung by Mr. Reed himself.

When Mr. Reed met Mr. Cale, a musician working with La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, they wanted to combine early-1960s rock with the drones of classical minimalism. They jammed with the guitarist Sterling Morrison, one of Mr. Reed’s Syracuse friends, and the poet and visual artist Angus MacLise on percussion; he was soon replaced by Maureen Tucker, the sister of a college friend of Mr. Reed’s. With Mr. Cale playing viola, keyboards and electric bass, they named themselves the Velvet Underground after the title of a book by Michael Leigh on practices in nonstandard sexuality in the early 1960s.

The band played their original music at Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village, where the filmmaker Barbara Rubin came by with Andy Warhol. He quickly incorporated the group into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a touring multimedia performance-art happening with dancers, film projections and the German singer Nico.

The band’s association with Warhol lasted from late 1965 to late 1967, and Mr. Reed was thereafter generally full of praise for Warhol, whom he saw as an exemplary modern artist and New Yorker. A proud New Yorker himself, Mr. Reed squared off against West Coast rock and declared his hatred for hippies. In a 1968 interview, he characterized the San Francisco bands of the time — the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane especially — as “tedious, a lie and untalented.”

In mid-1970 Mr. Reed left the Velvet Underground and moved back to Long Island, where he worked for two years as a typist in his father’s firm. He made a disappointing solo record toward the end of 1971, but David Bowie, a Velvet Underground fan when there weren’t many, helped advance Mr. Reed’s career: he started playing Velvet Underground songs in concert and helped produce Mr. Reed’s album “Transformer” in London. It rose to No. 29 on Billboard’s Top 200, but as with nearly everything Mr. Reed did, it took time to spread through the culture.

“Walk on the Wild Side,” a quiet, jazzlike single from the album about the hustlers and transvestites around Warhol at the Factory, introduced a new character in each verse and included a reference to fellatio that slipped past the censors; it became an FM radio staple and Mr. Reed’s only Top 40 hit.

In January 1973 he married Bettye Kronstad, whom he had met in 1968 when she was a student; by July, after the recording of the album “Berlin,” they were divorced. For several years afterward, Mr. Reed, whose sexual identity seemed to be as fluid as the songs from that time suggested, was romantically involved with a transvestite named Rachel, whose last name has long been uncertain; she was private, but their relationship was public. Rachel, it was assumed, inspired much of his album “Coney Island Baby”; she is also pictured on the cover of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a greatest-hits album.

Mr. Reed’s look toughened in the mid-’70s toward leather, bleached crew cuts and painted fingernails. He revisited his rickety, strange and vulnerable Velvet Underground songs on the live album “Rock N Roll Animal,” making them hard and slick and ready for a new order of teenage listeners.

By the end of the ‘70s his interviews and songs were full of a drive to change his way of living. In 1980 he married Sylvia Morales, who became his manager and muse. She was the subject of, or at least mentioned in, some of his most forthrightly romantic songs of the 1980s. But their relationship ended toward the end of the decade, and he met Ms. Anderson in the early ‘90s. They lived together in the West Village for more than a decade before marrying in 2008. They continued to live in the West Village as well as in Amagansett.

In middle age Mr. Reed became a kind of cultural elder, acting in films by Wim Wenders and Wayne Wang, befriending the Czech leader Vaclav Havel (who smuggled a copy of a Velvet Underground LP into Prague after a visit to New York in the late 1960s), creating multimedia stage productions with the director Robert Wilson. His own work moved between mature, elegiac singer-songwriter reports on grief, tenderness and age and wilder or more ambitious projects.

“The Raven,” a play and album, was based on writings by Edgar Allan Poe and included the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the singer Antony Hegarty. For the album “Lulu,” an aggressive collaboration with Metallica based on Frank Wedekind’s play, he found himself in a “Metal Machine Music” redux, once again attacked by critics, once again declaring victory.

He got together with Mr. Cale, Ms. Tucker and Mr. Morrison for a one-off Velvet Underground reunion in 1990 and a tour in 1993. (Mr. Morrison died of lymphoma in 1995.) And he eventually returned to his dark anti-masterpiece after the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transcribed “Metal Machine Music” for an electroacoustic ensemble in 2002; in 2009 Mr. Reed performed improvised music inspired by that album with a group, including Mr. Krieger, called Metal Machine Trio.

Sober since the ‘80s and a practitioner of tai chi, Mr. Reed had a liver transplant in April at the Cleveland Clinic. “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry,” he wrote in a public statement upon his release. “I am bigger and stronger than ever.”

But he was back at the clinic for treatment last week. Dr. Miller, who performed the transplant, said Mr. Reed decided to return home after doctors could no longer treat his end-stage liver disease. “We all agreed that we did everything we could,” Dr. Miller said.

Just weeks after his liver transplant, Mr. Reed wrote a review of Kanye West’s album “Yeezus” for the online publication The Talkhouse, celebrating its abrasiveness and returning once more to “Metal Machine Music” to explain an artist’s deepest motives.

“I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are,” he wrote. “You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 30, 2013

An obituary on Monday about the singer, songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed contained several errors about Mr. Reed’s first wife. She is Bettye Kronstad, not Kronstadt. She was a student when they met, not a cocktail waitress. And their relationship ended after, not during, the making of Mr. Reed’s album “Berlin.”

A version of this article appears in print on October 28, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll.

Behind Rolling Stone’s Cover, a Story Worth Reading – New York Times

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By DAVID CARR
Published: July 19, 2013

Of all the outraged responses to the Rolling Stone cover of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old suspect in the Boston marathon bombings, those from Boston were particularly acute. Mayor Thomas Menino wrote a letter of protest to Rolling Stone and several retailers with Boston ties said they would not sell the controversial issue.

And then on Thursday, Boston Magazine responded to Rolling Stone’s editorial decision with one of its own, publishing photos of the manhunt and arrest of Mr. Tsarnaev. The images were taken by Sgt. Sean Murphy, a photographer with the Massachusetts State Police who was described as “furious” about the Rolling Stone cover and accused the magazine of “glamorizing the face of terror.”

His protest, which included graphic photos of Mr. Tsarnaev during his capture, ended up creating a controversy of its own. According to Boston Magazine, Sergeant Murphy was relieved of duty just hours after he turned over hundreds of photos to the magazine.

Mr. Murphy’s actions may have put him in hot water at work, but it is not hard to understand the emotions that drove his decision. News developments, and the way they are presented in the news media, always fall harder on some than others, especially victims, families of victims and first responders.

The ubiquitous footage of the fall of the World Trade Center towers is disturbing for anyone to watch, but for the many thousands of people related to people who died there viewing that footage produces a far different experience. Similarly, people who are related to victims who lost their lives or limbs as the result of the Boston Maraton bombings — Mr. Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to federal charges in connection with bombings — were appalled by the magazine’s decision. But the misery of some should not determine the value to the whole. There are things we need to know, including the fact that Mr. Tsarnaev, almost banal in his teenage aspects, is suspected of having become a cold-blooded killer.

The power of visual context was vividly illustrated on Wednesday when vast swaths of the Internet — and several prominent retailers — vehemently protested the Rolling Stone cover.

Actually, it wasn’t the who, but the how and where. With his thick, tousled hair falling into his eyes above direct brown eyes and a young man’s goatee, the reported bomber looked like many other American teenagers. Except there he was on the cover of the Rolling Stone, a storied piece of American cultural real estate about which songs have been written.

Absent that context, the image was unremarkable. It was a self-shot photo, or “selfie,’’ and there is no more ubiquitous photographic image in the current media age. Young people use their phones to take pictures of a lot of things but they love taking pictures of themselves. They strive to look as good, and as hot, as they can. Those who found the styling offensive can blame Mr. Tsarnaev. That photo is the way he wanted the world to see him. It was a compelling enough image that The New York Times decided to use it on its front page, where it came and went without a great deal of reaction.

In other words, it was not the image of Mr. Tsarnaev that ignited outrage, it was the frame. With its headline callouts to Jay Z and Willie Nelson on the current issue, and a history of hosting rock luminaries, there were suggestions that the magazine was conferring iconic status on a man who has been charged with a brutal act of terrorism. People suggested that Rolling Stone used the image to sell magazines, which, of course, they did. Editorially, the cover was a win. (The Boston media writer Dan Kennedy called it “brilliant.”)

When is the last time someone said to you, “Did you see the cover of Rolling Stone?” In a cluttered informational marketplace, magazines are in a dogfight for attention, not just with one another, but with every other form of media.

Part of the mass umbrage would seem to stem from a misunderstanding of the magazine and its cover. From the very beginning, Rolling Stone has seen long-form journalism as part of its mission, and more recently has proven its journalistic chops with important stories about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and the so-called vampire squids of Goldman Sachs. Those were good, important stories and while the profile about Mr. Tsarnaev did not break a lot of new ground, it did an excellent job of explaining how someone who looked like the kid next door radicalized in place and, according to the federal charges, decided to attack innocents to make a political point. There is civic and journalistic value in finding out more about who this person is, and if the cover created in-bound interest, that would seem to be to the good.

Still, many piled on, accusing Rolling Stone of a cynical play for attention while they sought some of the same in their reaction. The actor James Woods, among others, found himself on the moral high ground, issuing a profane and personal rebuke to Jann Wenner, the owner and publisher of Rolling Stone.

The story and cover treatment of Mr. Tsarnaev was clinically an act of journalism. Commercial and editorial motives were at work, as they are when almost anyone publishes anything. People who read beyond the cover discovered that the pretty boy on the front appeared to have deep, nascent ugliness in his heart. Just as you can’t judge a book (or a magazine) by its cover, the kid behind that confident selfie was, it seems, a big, hot mess.

To Tug At the Heart, Music First Must Tickle The Neurons

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Via The New York Times

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

“The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview.

“The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns.

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, began puzzling over musical expression in 2002, after hearing a live performance of one of his favorite pieces, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27.

“It just left me flat,” Dr. Levitin, who wrote the best seller “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton, 2006), recalled in a video describing the project. “I thought, well, how can that be? It’s got this beautiful set of notes. The composer wrote this beautiful piece. What is the pianist doing to mess this up?”

Before entering academia, Dr. Levitin worked in the recording industry, producing, engineering or consulting for Steely Dan, Blue Öyster Cult, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. He has played tenor saxophone with Mel Tormé and Sting, and guitar with David Byrne. (He also performs around campus with a group called Diminished Faculties.)

After the Mozart mishap, Dr. Levitin and a graduate student, Anjali Bhatara, decided to try teasing apart some elements of musical expression in a rigorous scientific way.

He likened it to tasting two different pots de crème: “One has allspice and ginger and the other has vanilla. You know they taste different but you can’t isolate the ingredient.”

To decipher the contribution of different musical flavorings, they had Thomas Plaunt, chairman of McGill’s piano department, perform snatches of several Chopin nocturnes on a Disklavier, a piano with sensors under each key recording how long he held each note and how hard he struck each key (a measure of how loud each note sounded). The note-by-note data was useful because musicians rarely perform exactly the way the music is written on the page — rather, they add interpretation and personality to a piece by lingering on some notes and quickly releasing others, playing some louder, others softer.

The pianist’s recording became a blueprint, what researchers considered to be the 100 percent musical rendition. Then they started tinkering. A computer calculated the average loudness and length of each note Professor Plaunt played. The researchers created a version using those average values so that the music sounded homogeneous and evenly paced, with every eighth note held for an identical amount of time, each quarter note precisely double the length of an eighth note.

They created other versions too: a 50 percent version, with note lengths and volume halfway between the mechanical average and the original, and versions at 25 percent, 75 percent, and even 125 percent and 150 percent, in which the pianist’s loud notes were even louder, his longest-held notes even longer.

Study subjects listened to them in random order, rating how emotional each sounded. Musicians and nonmusicians alike found the original pianist’s performance most emotional and the averaged version least emotional.

But it was not just changes in volume and timing that moved them. Versions with even more variation than the original, at 125 percent and 150 percent, did not strike listeners as more emotional.

“I think it means that the pianist is very experienced in using these expressive cues,” said Dr. Bhatara, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Paris Descartes. “He’s using them at kind of an optimal level.”

And random versions with volume and note-length changes arbitrarily sprinkled throughout made almost no impression.

All of this makes perfect sense to Paul Simon.

“I find it fascinating that people recognize what the point of the original version is, that that’s their peak,” he said. “People like to feel the human element, but if it becomes excessive then I guess they edit it back. It’s gilding the lily, it’s too Rococo.”

The Element of Surprise

Say the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is playing a 12-minute sonata featuring a four-note melody that recurs several times. On the final repetition, the melody expands, to six notes.

“If I set it up right,” Mr. Ma said in an interview, “that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud, and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.”

But that happens, he said, only if he is restrained enough to save some exuberance and emphasis for that moment, so that by the time listeners see that musical sun they have not already “been to a disco and its light show” and been “blinded by cars driving at night with the headlights in your eyes.”

Dr. Levitin’s results suggest that the more surprising moments in a piece, the more emotion listeners perceive — if those moments seem logical in context.

“It’s deviation from a pattern,” Mr. Ma said. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.”

He cited Schubert’s E-Flat Trio for piano, violin and cello as an example. It goes from a “march theme that’s in minor and it breaks out into major, and it’s one of those goose-bump moments.”

The departure “could be something incredibly slight that means something huge, or it could be very large but that’s actually a fake-out,” Mr. Ma said.

The singer Bobby McFerrin, who visited Dr. Levitin’s lab and walked through several experiments, said in a video of that visit that “one of the things that I have found valuable to me in a performance, whether I’m performing or someone else is, is a certain element of naïveté,” as if “as we’re performing we’re still discovering the music.”

In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

The Musical Brain

The brain processes musical nuance in many ways, it turns out. Edward W. Large, a music scientist at Florida Atlantic University,scanned the brains of people with and without experience playing music as they listened to two versions of a Chopin étude: one recorded by a pianist, the other stripped down to a literal version of what Chopin wrote, without human-induced variations in timing and dynamics.

During the original performance, brain areas linked to emotion activated much more than with the uninflected version, showing bursts of activity with each deviation in timing or volume.

So did the mirror neuron system, a set of brain regions previously shown to become engaged when a person watches someone doing an activity the observer knows how to do — dancers watching videos of dance, for example. But in Dr. Large’s study, mirror neuron regions flashed even in nonmusicians.

Maybe those regions, which include some language areas, are “tapping into empathy,” he said, “as though you’re feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage,” and the brain is mirroring those emotions.

Regions involved in motor activity, everything from knitting to sprinting, also lighted up with changes in timing and volume.

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing.

“We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

The Levitin project found that musicians were more sensitive to changes in volume and timing than nonmusicians. That echoes research by Nina Kraus , a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, which showed that musicians are better at hearing sound against background noise, and that their brains expend less energy detecting emotion in babies’ cries.

Separately, the Levitin team found that children with autism essentially rated each nocturne rendition equally emotional, finding the original no more emotionally expressive than the mechanical version. But in other research, the team found that children with autism could label music as happy, sad or scary, suggesting, Dr. Levitin said, that “their recognition of musical emotions may be intact without necessarily having those emotions evoked, and without them necessarily experiencing those emotions themselves.”

A Matter of Time

The ability to keep time to music appears to be almost unique to humans — not counting Snowball the cockatoo, which dances in time to “Everybody,” by the Backstreet Boys, and became a YouTube sensation. Both the Levitin and the Large studies found that the timing of notes was more important than loudness or softness in people’s perceptions of emotion in music.

This may be a product of evolutionary adaptation, said Dr. Kraus, since “a nervous system that is sensitive and well tuned to timing differences would be a nervous system that, from an evolutionary standpoint, would be more likely to escape potential enemies, survive and make babies.”

Changes in the expected timing of a note might generate the emotional equivalent of “depth perception, where slightly different images going to your two eyes allows you to see depth,” said Joseph E. LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University.

And musical timing might relate to the importance of timing in speech. “The difference between a B and a P, for example, is a difference in the timing involved in producing the sound,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, a music scientist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. “We don’t signal the difference between P and B by how loud it is.”

Michael Leonhart, who played trumpet and produced for Steely Dan, said he thought “the ears of most people have started to become less sensitive to dynamics” as music recordings crank up the volume and “the world has become a louder place.”

Subtle timing differences, on the other hand, are critical, Mr. Leonhart said, citing a triplet figure in the beginning of Steely Dan’s song “Josie.”

“The tendency is to start rushing it, to get excited,” Mr. Leonhart said. But the key is “to lay it back, don’t rush, make sure it’s not ahead of the snare drum. It changes the slingshot effect of where things snap and pop.”

Mr. Simon plays with timing constantly, surfing bar lines. He squeezes lyrics like “cinematographer” — six short notes — into the space of a two-syllable word, and will “land on a long word with a consonant at the end, so that you really hear the word,” he said. “My brain is working that way — it’s dividing up everything. I really have a certain sense of where the pocket of the groove is, and I know when you have to reinforce it and I know when you want to leave it.”

Musicians like Mr. Simon consider slight timing variations so crucial that they eschew the drum machines commonly used in recordings. Dr. Levitin says Stevie Wonder uses a drum machine because it has so many percussion voices, but inserts human-inflected alterations, essentially mistakes, so beats do not always line up perfectly.

And Geoff Emerick, a recording engineer for the Beatles, said: “Often when we were recording some of those Beatles rhythm tracks, there might be an error incorporated, and you would say, ‘That error sounds rather good,’ and we would actually elaborate on that.

“When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom — after a while you don’t hear it.”

Unknown, Maybe Unknowable

Of course, science has not figured out how to measure other elements of musical expression, including tone, timbre, harmonics and how audience interaction changes what musicians do. While there may be some consensus about what makes music expressive, performers say it is hardly immutable.

“Every day I’m a slightly different person,” Mr. Ma said. “The instrument, which is sensitive to weather and humidity changes, will act differently. There’s nothing worse than playing a really a great concert and the next day saying, ‘I’m going to do exactly the same thing.’ It always falls flat.”

Ms. Cash, who on a recent road trip listened to multiple versions of Chopin nocturnes and quizzed herself on which pianist she preferred, learned a lot about musical flexibility after developing polyps on her vocal cords in 1998.

“Because of these little polyps I’ve had to learn how to resing some of our songs, use breath where I used to use force, use force where I used to go delicate,” she said.

“The World Unseen,” on her album “Black Cadillac,” “gained some curves and some sweetness that I didn’t realize was there,” she said. “We recorded that really late at night, a live track, and it wasn’t that good of a vocal. The producer said he wanted to get a better vocal so we did it a few more times, but we kept going back to that live version. I keep it in a certain part of my voice. If I do it too breathy it sounds cloying. If I hit it too hard, it sounds like rock.”

But thinking things through goes only so far. For one melody, Mr. Simon started out using the words “going home,” he said. “But I said I’m not going to write ‘going home.’ Nothing interesting about that,” he said. “Then I stumbled on this word, ‘Kodachrome,’ which of course, had no meaning.”

In Dr. Levitin’s lab, Mr. McFerrin gamely tried several experiments, including seeing how long he could hold his hand in ice water while listening to different types of music (an effort to find out if music can ameliorate pain). He described a story by Hermann Hesse in which a violinist, granted his wish to be the best musician he can be, vanishes as soon as he starts to play.

“He completely disappears into the music,” Mr. McFerrin says on the video. “And I think that’s actually a big key to a successful creative moment for me, is when I disappear, and maybe the audience disappears into the music and becomes so engaged in the music that you forget that you’re even there.”

As Ms. Cash put it: “Some things you can break down, and some things are ineffable. Some things are just part of that mystery where all creative energy comes from. It’s part of the soul. Music is an ever-moving blob of mercury.”

Check these links:

How Musicians Communicate Emotions

Scientists have been trying to unravel what specific components of music make it emotionally expressive. The following quiz is based on research by Daniel Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University.

Experiment 1 – What Moves You More

Experiment 2 –  More Than Human

Experiment 3 –  Randomness

Experiment 4 –  Teasing It Apart

Want to do the Quiz?  If yes, you can do it HERE

A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2011, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: To Tug At the Heart, Music First Must Tickle The Neurons.

Tribeca Film Festival (NYC): Revisiting the Buckleys – Video

RevisitingTheBuckleys

The biopic “Greetings From Tim Buckley,” screening tonight in the Tribeca Film Festival and heading into theaters on May 3, aims to commemorate the brief music careers and lives of the folk singer Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, who followed in his father’s musical footsteps. The film primarily takes place in 1991 and focuses on the organization of a tribute concert for Tim at which Jeff (Penn Badgley) will perform some of his father’s songs. It explores how Jeff perceived his father and how it affected his own emerging career. In this video, which looks at a musical performance by Jeff, the director Daniel Algrant discusses his process and how he came to cast Mr. Badgley, who performed songs live in the film.

Tribeca Film Festival
WATCH VIDEO HERE

Synopsis

In 1991, a young Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”) rehearses for his public singing debut at a Brooklyn tribute show for his father, the late folk singer Tim Buckley. Struggling with the legacy of a man he barely knew, Jeff forms a friendship with an enigmatic young woman (Imogen Poots) working at the show and begins to discover the powerful potential of his own musical voice. Greetings from Tim Buckley is filled with stirring musical performances and the memorable songs of a father and son who were each among the most beloved singer/songwriters of their respective generations.

A Tribeca Film / Focus World Release
Film Information

Year: 2013

Length: 99 minutes

Language: English

Country: USA
Cast & Credits

Director: Daniel Algrant

Screenwriters: Daniel Algrant, David Brendel, Emma Sheanshang

Cast: Penn Badgley, Imogen Poots, Ben Rosenfield

Producers: John Hart, Patrick Milling Smith, Amy Nauiokas, Frederick Zollo

Executive Producers: Brian Carmody, Jill Footlick, Allison Kunzman, Ben Limberg

Sources: Tribeca Film Festival, The New York Times