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American Routes on American routes

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View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When we're not roadtropping across America, Matt works as a web programmer, and I'm a Benjamin Franklin fellow finishing up a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania. I've blogged about this before: one of the dirty little secrets of being a music Ph.D. is that after a few years of studying music fulltime, most of us find ourselves listening to less and less music outside of school. I got to a point where I couldn't stand listening to music in the background anymore while I worked, did chores, ate, or drove. It's hard to say exactly why this is the case, but it's something to do with losing the ability to turn off the part of the brain that analyzes each piece, and at times being so saturated with music that listening to it feels too much like work. There's also something grating about listening to music when there's a part of your brain that is trying to compose; it's as though a voice in your head is yelling, "Shut up! I'm trying to do complicated math, and listening to these numbers is making me lose count."

The one consistent exception that I didn't mention in the blog entry I linked above is that I love listening to American Routes, a public radio show that is ostensibly about jazz, blues, and roots music, but occasionally branches out into other eclectic genres of American music. It's hosted by Nick Spitzer, who, as I just discovered from the linked bio page, is a Penn alum who used to run WXPN. Although we have Sirius satellite radio, we've listened to more American Routes than anything else while on the road; they have a terrific archive of past shows that you can stream from their website. Matt's iPhone handles the streaming, and it's plugged into the aux input of our car stereo (although it's apparently playing havoc with his "unlimited" AT&T data plan. "Unlimited." Pffft.). It's the perfect Great American Roadtrop Adventure soundtrack. Sometimes I get out my mandolin and jam along for hours while Matt's in the driver's seat.

I was interviewed by a fellow grad student at Penn a few weeks ago for a paper she was writing about the way composers listen to music (she's also a composer and has also experienced the phenomenon I describe). I mentioned the fact that I listen to American Routes, and we were trying to dissect why I can do that. After a couple of moments batting around theories, I suddenly came up with: "It's music without the bullshit." I'm not sure I can define what that means more clearly, but saying it out loud, I realized it felt absolutely right. It's music without the bullshit, and I can listen to it without my brain even trying to find the bullshit. Happiness.

Right now, I'm sitting in Basin Street Station, and since we've listened to so much Amerian Routes, we're trying to figure out if it would be creepy/weird to go to Tulane University and try to find the American Routes office so we can leave a donation and gush at them a bit. Is that weird? It's probably weird.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: New Orleans
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Posted by mormolyke 13:43 Archived in USA Tagged music new_orleans american_routes basin_street

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I don't know if you made the effort to search out the "Routes" studio at Tulane the other day, and I don't know whether Nick Spitzer can accept direct donations, but it wouldn't have been creepy or weird -- he appreciates your appreciation of the show! I was once a PhD student also and I'm now a professional academic, and my mother is a professional classical musician and I've been on the edge of her professional world all my life. I can understand how you feel about music; likewise, I think I can speak for many people in saying that it means a lot when people like me (and Nick) hear people say such thoughtful things about what we do and what we are trying to accomplish and say that they find personal meaning in our efforts -- especially when they themselves are so passionately committed to similar undertakings. Good traveling and good listening!

by David

Hey guys. Thanks for this lovely travel soundscape essay. So glad you are on both the intangible and geographic American Routes.
I would have been happy to see you at Alcée Fortier Studio @ Tulane. I was just at my 40th Penn Reunion and did a 16 song CD more or less from 1968-72 music scene in Philly/at Penn. If you can't get one from Drew Tye at Alumni House, I will mail you one. I have done some of the road tripping you describe. Also, picking music, finding themes and hosting the program, I find as well that' it's hard to listen to music informally without processing it for radio land.
Meanwhile, I've been nudging Deans and others at Penn to get the folklore and ethnomusicology folks and kindred spirits into a circle or wheel to start rolling our ethnography of performances in the cityscape and beyond. Get serious about the vernacular humanities as they used to be when there was a folklore dept.

THX also to my friend David, also a Penn from back when person for his kind comments.

Travel safely on American Routes

Nick Spitzer

by nick spitzer

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