Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Concert (and CD) Review: "An ear alone is not a being" - Bonnie Whiting plays John Cage, 4/29/2017

"Bonnie Whiting, head of the UW's Percussion Studies program, performs music from her newly released Mode Records debut, 51'15.657" for a speaking percussionist, by composer John Cage. ...(This is her) realization of a solo simultaneous performance of John Cage's 45' for a speaker and 27'10.554" for a percussionist. These are vintage pieces, music from the mid-50's and part of a series of timed works that Cage enjoyed mixing together and referred to in notes and letters as "the ten thousand things." -- from the University of Washington School of Music website

Ms. Whiting played three pieces.

A Flower
Quietly the music begins. Tapping on the closed piano – using it as a percussion instrument – reminds us that this music is “experimental”, but what we’re hearing is indigenous music from another culture. Wordless chanting suggests a lullaby, fading into silence. Near the end, the voice becomes muddied with a couple of “special effects”; thinner, spectral – but this is merely to remind us that it is music from somewhere else. It is quite beautiful.

Chatty voice and a loud drumroll startled us into awareness that the music is going in a different direction now, and announced what is by far the longest piece on the concert: “51'15.657" (Realization Of 45' For A Speaker & 27'10.554" For A Percussionist)”. This is actually two of Cage’s pieces performed at the same time. Playing two (more or less unrelated) pieces at the same time is, of course, a feat of technical virtuosity for a single performer; but that is not why we are listening. Bonnie gave a short speech before playing, reminding us that both pieces were drawn from random matrices of possibilities: the speaking part was written (about several topics) and then cut up and pasted together in a new configuration; the percussion part was drawn from imperfections in the paper which Cage was using to compose. There is also leeway as to which percussion instruments are played. Bonnie’s “realization” of the work used a rack of suspended pot lids (Harry Partch, revisited), a gong, two drums, a kalimba, bamboo wind chimes, several noisemakers including a turkey call, and brief (less than a second) samples activated with a foot pedal. The result is a collage of sound. Ricochet-clusters of clangs and bongs bounce around ambiguous words: fragments of observations about silence, sound, composition, Zen, the music of Bach and Debussy, and personal anecdotes. There are momentary breaks in the commentary for throat-clearing (she mentioned beforehand that she actually had a cold, so the audience could guess which throat-clearings were in the piece and which weren't), drinking from a water bottle, striking a match (which failed to flame up) and brushing her hair. The manner of composing and playing, of course, prevents anything continuous or “logical” from emerging; but that of course is the point. Letting go of expectations, we listen in expectation of any sound. Though sometimes strident, sometimes even comical, the overall effect is that of tranquility. Thus it is not all that different from the quiet “indigenous” music at the beginning.

The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
The concert concluded with another melodic miniature for singing voice and closed piano (a memorable recorded version of this piece is by Joey Ramone). Here, the harmonic language is rarified to the point of near nonexistence: the voice sings only three notes, variously rhythmed. Cage did a miraculous job of pulling an earworm from these three notes, however; one goes away humming the tune. “Cagean” ambiguity is found in the piano-tapping part and the words: the former suggests but never quite establishes a meter, and the latter are derived from James Joyce’s great experiment in letters, the stream of (un)consciousness novel “Finnegans Wake”. It is one of the most mellifluous passages in the book, describing the character Issy in botanical terms (“wildwoods eyes and primarose hair, mauves of moss and dahne dews / how all so still she lay 'neath of the white thorn / child of tree / like some lost happy leaf”) – but again, the readers are never sure if Issy and her two siblings actually “exist” or are merely fragments of the sleeping narrator’s psyche, and in this passage, Issy may actually be dead. Thus, although the music seems straightforward enough, there is still Cage’s aesthetic of holding back and waiting to experience anything.

The CD
After the concert, I bought one of the CDs (it’s also going to be available on blue-ray) and had Ms. Whiting autograph it after seeking a pen for several minutes.

There are two more pieces on the CD. The first is “Music For Two (By One) [Realization Of Music For...]”, another mashup of a speaking piece and a percussion piece; this continues the soundscape of 51'15.657” but uses some different percussion and links the shorter melodic pieces with fragments of singing. The second is “Connecting Egypt To Madison Through Columbus Ohio, Cage, And The History Of The American Labor Movement (Incorporating Music For Marcel Duchamp & Variations 2)”, a third mix, performed by Allen Otte. Here, the two worlds are mixed even more as gamelan-like “prepared piano” undulates under Mr. Otte’s political speeches. The result, however, as often in Cage’s work, is (non-)chaos which leads to extreme refinement to tranquility.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Concert Review: Seattle Composers Salon, 3/3/2017

"The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!" from the Seattle Composers Salon website

Sheila Bristow: Two Songs
Mystical lyrics, translated from Medieval texts by Sheila herself – she commented that it was good to be able to take the same meanings but tweak the rhymes to work in a song setting. The music was beautiful, deliberately simplified (melodies over ostinati, though both were often elaborated upon to flow with the text), modal (I recognized one of the modes from Hildegard’s chants – H. was the author of the first text) and very classical (in a Hovhaness mood) with soprano, ‘cello, and piano. A contemplative introduction to the evening’s concert.

S. Eric Scribner: Tree and Stone, performed with The Sherványa Nocturnal Music
Carol Levin, Keith and Karen Eisenbreys, and I performed two of my aleatory pieces at the same time. Or rather, we played one while the audience played the other. “Tree and Stone” (the audience piece) was the “artificial remix” of the piece that we played last summer at Volunteer Park; shaking pieces of partially shredded paper substituted for shaking tree branches, and knocking on the chairs substituted for hitting stones together. The result “sounded more treelike than the original” according to one participant. The other piece goes with my novel “Tond”, and is a form of indigenous classical music of the (imaginary) Sherványa civilization. Bug guitar (“baby kora”) and detuned ukulele formed a microtonal background for quiet modal shifting of melodic fragments. There will be a much longer version of this piece played (at the same venue) next September, hopefully corresponding to the release of Book Three of Tond (in which a performance of this music is part of the plot).

Ivan Arteaga’s band ComManD: Thaumaturgy
Interactive digital music at its finest. Sax, percussion, and a dancer mixed with the electronics in a collaborative way – the dancer, for example, had sensors on her wrists and ankles that transformed the sounds as she moved, so the music was composed by the dance as much as for it. There were two sections; the first omitted the sax and the second (mostly) omitted the percussion, but they worked together to form a twelve-minute whole. Ivan seemed to be the spokesperson, and commented at length about the use of electronics and how the software was written by the performers. ( “At length”, is not a negative comment here; it was fascinating, if arcane, and the audience members kept asking more questions.) I didn’t get the names of the other performers, but would like to hear (and see) all of them again.

Blake Degraw: Electronic Quartet for Humans
Extreme saxophony often abruptly cut short. A quartet of saxes, arrayed around the room, wailed and screamed in perfect synchrony, starting and stopping instantaneously or in layers. The “electronic” part was actually audio cues in headphones that the performers wore; but the effect of the music was that of a highly amplified electronic quartet: one sound, for example, would begin at point A and then travel around the room, processed into other sounds. “Interactive” in the way that Ivan’s piece was, and an interesting reversal – in the past, electronic sounds have been used to imitate (imperfectly) acoustic instruments. Here is the reverse, and it’s fascinating.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Magical (Sur)realism" and Music

This is a discussion I started on social media with the intent of putting it in this blog. As in previous such discussions, the initials are changed except for mine.


Me: After reading “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Marquez and “Grimus” by Salman Rushdie (as well my friend Karen Eisenbrey’s “The Gospel According to Saint Rage”, which has traces of the same genre), this question occurred to me: To what extent is “magic realism” in fiction the same as / similar to / different from surrealism in art? (Never mind their different origins.) Does either have any kind of counterpart in music? (Don't count song lyrics and 1970's rock album covers.) What do you think?

RQ: I think of magic realism as "surrealism lite" - that isn't to disparage it, just to acknowledge that for some readers (and film viewers) full on surrealism is a bit too much to stay with, but a little dab can spice things up a bit for those who are less inclined toward hard-core experimentalism but appreciate something that challenges "reality". And although Breton and other vintage surrealists allegedly had a disdain for music, there are free improvisers who have made surrealism the basis of their practice for decades - check out the music of LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams, and Hal Rammel for starters.

LoDonna Smith on her music: in the early days, we tried real hard not to be influenced by anyone, but to go into that trans: trance...transport...transportation... trans... transcend... transcendence... transcendprovisation... that comes from transfiguration... from tranced out... psychic automatism...! (whew)

We tried to steer clear of anything that sounded "like" anything else and sometimes engage in just raw energies leading the body into making all this noise but with a "listening ear to shape it" like free composition so when you'd hear a rhythmic set up, you'd solo on it, or set something up and watch Davey do guitar theater with it, or duel it out in flights of fury, or float slowly… or make imaginary landscapes – all of these were areas, not idioms...

Hal Rammel: My parents were both artists, …so I grew up in a house where making things and exploring new ideas were everyday activities. I decided in my teens that I wanted to pursue a similar course, and started drawing and making collages. This was all of a piece with reading, listening to Jazz, watching movies… I had been exposed to modern art throughout my childhood, so the historical continuity, the groundwork, was firmly at hand. Abstract and surrealist painting and imagery fascinated me, so in my reading I doggedly pursued the art, poetry, and theater of the early Twentieth Century. I knew there were new directions to take those ideas in new times—this was the early 1960's—and I still feel that way.


IR: I agree with RQ’s analysis. True surrealism in books/movies has a decidedly different flavor than magical realism. See The Milagro Beanfield War or Like Water For Chocolate for an example of what I consider magical realism, and perhaps The Life of Pi or Alice In Wonderland for surrealism.

Me: I see the original Alice books as quite satirical, on both politics and the formal logic on which politics is supposedly based. Thus they represent a third genre which may be linked to the other two. Movies inspired by those books, however, go in as many directions as there are directors who have made them.

RQ: There are of course the "classics" of Surrealist cinema from the 20s and 30s, like Buñuel/Dali, Cocteau, Man Ray, Cornell, etc. Some recent films that I think qualify and recommend are the films of the Brothers Quay (their animations, but especially their narrative films with actors, like Piano Tuner of Earthquakes and Institute Benjamenta) Jodorowsky, some of David Lynch's work, and Holy Motors, which I saw recently and loved.

Me: The different flavor is often brought up. Surrealism supposedly has a definite edge of disquiet, as in the art of De Chririco, Max Ernst, Dali, and more recently, Geiger. Though the latter two are more or less commercial brands, the "disquiet" is still there. Magic Realism seems more wondrous and, well, magical. However, Miro is often considered surrealist, and I would say his work is often humorous and whimsical rather than disquieting.


Me: Concerning the disquiet, C. S. Lewis wrote the following in his sci-fi novel “That Hideous Strength”:

“[Mark] got up and began to walk about. He had a look at the pictures. Some of them belonged to a school of art with which he was already familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair… There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. At first, most of them seemed rather ordinary, though Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only it the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details — something odd about the positions of the figures’ feet or the arrangement of their fingers or the grouping. …Why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace… Long ago Mark had read somewhere of “things of that extreme evil which seem innocent to the unintitiate,” and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.”

Me: Lewis was stating that surrealism, in representing the unquiet of the subconscious, taps into something truly sinister that we have bottled up, and thus it (surrealism) forms a sort of bridge to the demonic. The subconscious, as explored by Freud and then overlaid with Christian morality, becomes a frightening repository of evil.

Madeleine L’Engle expresses an opposing view of this same disquiet. I am unable to find the exact quote, but I remember her stating that the subconscious has become nasty because we have bottled it up. It should be the creative urge, but has turned into something quite different. This idea, subconscious=creative, minus any “nasty” aspect is, of course, what the original surrealist artists meant by liberating the subconscious to achieve higher states of creativity. (It should be pointed out that Madeleine L’Engle practiced the same religion as Lewis: a form of Christianity quite different from, and in many ways opposed to, our more familiar American fundamentalism. Their differing views on the same topic point to variety of thought within a larger system.)

A parallel theme comes up in the anime “Madlax”, where the antagonist learns how to unleash everyone’s subconscious desires – leading to a bacchanalian and ultimately bloody apocalypse. This antagonist, though, believes that he is a savior, and is doing this in order to liberate everyone from societal demands, and at the same time fulfil their wishes. (A digression: “Madlax” also uses what I call the “split soul” idea, an apparently uniquely Japanese plot element also seen in at least one novel by Haruki Murakami: a single soul is divided and shared among two or more characters. I am not sure if this would qualify as either a surrealist or magical realist idea, or something else altogether.)


Me: “Magical Realism” does not have that disquietude. In “100 Years of Solitude” – the man who is always attended by a flock of yellow butterflies; the woman who is taken up into heaven because she is too beautiful and too wise for the earth: both of these seem miraculous rather than sinister. Also, they are narrated as if they were common events, not something dredged up from an ominous dream.

JD: I write Realistic Magicalism.

LD: The closest thing to what I would want magical realism to be, in film, is "Beasts of the Southern Wild".

MJ: I've always had the feeling (and you'd have to ask the writers to confirm if it's the case) that magical realism consists in authors narrating "magical" things that had actually happened to them or their community. The magical quality ensues when many of these actual narrated occurrences are stitched together, in effect concentrating the magic. This kind of thing crops up in my songwriting: after a night dancing in a mosh pit at the Highline I noticed that I had sustained a tear-shaped bruise over my heart thanks to somebody nailing me in the chest with an elbow at some point. Hence the song, “Tear-Shaped Bruise.” Surrealism is so hard to define, because it has to do with different kinds of things: narrating or painting dream images, "found" materials, experimental procedures such as chance-games or "exquisite corpse." An actual example of a surrealist technique is Karen's employment of "St Rage" in her book, after she noticed the lighted STORAGE sign with the O light out (ST RAGE).

Me: So essentially you’re saying that chance occurrences can be seen as “magical” and play a part in one’s personal narrative. Discussion of chance occurrences in art of course lead to the music of John Cage and followers, where events made to happen at random often do not in fact sound random. So by that definition, and not one involving the subconscious, we have arrived at a surrealistic music.

And by the way, we’ve probably all experienced “magical” (or “glitch in the matrix”) events. I’ve had a couple myself that were a little on the weird side.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mini Reviews: Four Recordings from SIMF

I picked up these four recordings featuring Seattle-area (and other) artists during the “merch-mart” last weekend at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival.

Seattle Phonographers Union: Building 27 WNP-5

The Seattle Phonographers Union improvises ambient music entirely with unprocessed field recordings. On this vinyl album, they join the ranks of Stuart Dempster and Pauline Oliveros (“Deep Listening”), Etsuko Ichikawa (“Echo at Satsop”), and Paul Horn (the seminal “Inside the Taj Mahal”) exploring the acoustics of “natural” (i.e. not electronic) echo chambers with striking beauty and subtlety.

There are two long tracks. The first was recorded in “Building 27”, a decommissioned aircraft hangar, the other in WNP-5, an unfinished (and unused) nuclear cooling tower (the same place where Ms. Ichikawa made her recording). Both produce massive, though slightly different, echoes. The pieces themselves feature ocean sounds, birdsong, hollow didgeridoo effects, machine noises, crows and human speech transformed into huge walls of sound (a startling, even frightening, effect).

My major question is the choice to release this on vinyl. Vinyl reproduction of sound is premium, particularly for the deepest bass notes; but due to the nature of this music, any surface pops or clicks stand out sharply and distractingly. Other than that, I would recommend this album to anyone interested in stretching the boundaries of what music can be, and to anyone interested in fascinating excursions into pure sound.

Lori Goldston (cello), Konako Pooknyw (drums), Karl Blau (bass) and Dave Abramson (percussion): Talking Helps

A 7” single that includes two untitled tracks (and no “A” or “B” side), this is an exploration of slow, improvised rock. One of these is melodic, the other more of a wall of sound in which Lori’s electric cello recalls Hendrix’s guitar but with dark "heavy metal” deep bass distortion. The other instruments are understated; the percussion, as opposed to the drums, is barely audible. Both tracks (or sides) are short ("pop" length, under four minutes) and I’d like to hear more.

C. Spencer Yeh (violin) and Paul Flaherty (sax), with Greg Kelley (trumpet): New York Nuts and Boston Baked Beans

Any record of free improvisation featuring a saxophone is expected to have at least one wild rip-snortin’ screech-and-honk fracas. It’s almost a stereotype of the genre, and it’s somewhat ironic that a style that is supposed to supersede all styles has produced this recognizable style. And, guess what, this entire album is one giant shrieking, snarling, squealing, squawking, caterwauling commotion. But as you listen, you realize that this is not by any means a bad thing. Within that rather narrow confine, the artists produce a surprising amount of variety. There are deep drones. There are vocal sounds against silence, then against a harmonica. There are impossibly dense clouds of noise. There are snippets of jazz standards and pop tunes. There are scintillating high violin tremolos, some possibly played in the manner of the Chinese pipa. There are unexpected hints of the blues. There are shimmering microtones. There are are the two women on the front of the CD (and one on the CD itself) who apparently don’t exist, unless they are C. Spencer and Paul in drag (there are drawings of three men in circus costumes on the back cover; they are not the musicians who are playing either.) Unexpected, unexplained, and yet somehow exactly expected. Fun.

Masashi Harada Condanction Ensemble: Enterprising Mass of Cilia

Conducted large-ensemble improvisation has been around since Bernstein led the NY Phil for a set on the 1965 LP “Music of Our Time” (and again in 1972 for “Pluto, the Unpredictable” on a Young Persons’ Concert TV show). This Masashi Harada CD continues the tradition, though the ensemble is decidedly non-classical. Basically the CD is an exploration of instrumental textures, ranging from nearly silent skitterings to massive waves of chaos. Any performer is permitted to, at any time, break with what is being conducted and interpose their “own” material; this results in some startling juxtapositions (for example, a series of repeated notes that begin on a violin but take over more instruments and soon declare war against the atonal jumbles that are still occurring). Most of the CD is a lot of fun, though I would have preferred to have a few more solo passages here and there, or a break from the emphasis on texture to include something more “compositional” or even melodic – this is possible to do when improvising.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Third Day of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival 2/4/2016

The Workshop

"Improvising Together: A Listening and Playing Workshop for Dancers and Musicians led by dancer Sheri Cohen and musician David Knott. We’ll use listening practices and interactive scores to illuminate the material shared between musicians and dancers and make our improvisations clearer and richer." from the Wayward Music Seattle Website

The “scores” were verbal instructions, ranging from simple yoga-ish awareness exercises (“…now listen to the sounds furthest from you…”) through small ensemble pieces to two long full-ensemble free jams. Once of the more interesting sets was for small ensembles: “five people participate: each make one gesture – sound or movement – and pass it to the person across from you; then, at some point, all agree (without saying so) to let the score ‘decay’ and all do what you think needs to be done at that moment.” There was some discussion whether this was to let the score “decay” or to make it “ripen”. I would argue for the latter.

Commentary heard during the workshop (not exact quotes!):

“This is the first workshop of this type where I’ve seen babies allowed. It gives it a whole different, and beautiful, atmosphere. (That particular little one there) is really getting involved, though he’s getting a really distorted picture of what it is to be a grown-up.”

“Lots of little stories emerged (during the group improvisation). I liked the part where one dancer on the floor grabbed the left foot of another dancer on the floor, and held on. It was like a struggle.”

“I found that, with the music, I could listen to what was happening and then I had three choices: play something similar, play something different, or play nothing.”

“There’s a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that expands on those ideas: after observing what is happening, one has the choice to do the same, do something different, do nothing, do something supportive, or do something destructive.”

“...At a certain point, the piece didn’t need me. So I withdrew. Then I was thinking about going back in, but was hesitant – am I really needed at this point? – but then one of the musicians came up behind me with some loud, strident notes and then I knew that it was time to start again.”

“There was a long point in the middle where the music all came together. It was serene and beautiful. It was in B-flat for quite a while.”

“It was in B-flat and nice and pretty and new-agey, so I decided to kick it up a notch and add some dissonance.”

“For the record, I never played in B-flat.”

“What does all this discussion of B-flat mean to the dancers? There’s nothing in the repertoire of dance movements that corresponds to something like B-flat, just as there’s nothing in the world of music that corresponds to this.” (moves arm)

“I beg to disagree. There are languages that both dancers and musicians share. If I were to play this,” (plays a swinging jazz riff) “the dancers would dance in a certain way.” (They did).

“One of the interesting things about a workshop for improvised dance and music together is that it gives permission: I’m seeing musicians do things with movement, and dancers making sounds.”

“Improvisations involving more than one person grow more complex as one learns. For example, two dancers may improvise in unison by both doing the same movement,” (sitting, two dancers move feet in the same way) “but then make gestures that are related but not the same.” (The same two move their feet in slightly different ways).

“Some things were going on that only one or two people could see. I liked it when I saw you, dancing by yourself, over there by the ramp.”

“There is a continuum between improvising and composing. I have a long piece that I’ve been working on for years, playing individual notes on the piano for long stretches of time. Sometimes it seems like it’s completely composed, since I’ve put severe limitations on what I can actually play. Other times, it’s completely improvised second by second.”

"There was a little tension - a thickened plot - made by the fact that there were three pianists and only one piano."

“Dancers and musicians have something like a clock in their head. There are twenty minutes left; I think we’ll all know exactly when that twenty minutes is done.”

The Concert

Evan Woodle (drums) & Mike Gamble (electric guitar; Portland)
Modal/atmospheric sounds on guitar; athletic playing twisting knobs on amplifiers and signal processors as much as on the guitar itself; delicately clink-chiming cymbals and metallic percussion with occasional more forceful drum rumbles.
Favorite moment: sudden quiet. Evan played miscellaneous metal pieces that are sitting on a towel (a subtle clatter); build-up with guitar gradually fading back in.

Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), James Falzone (clarinet), Arrington de Dionyso (woodwinds)
A much longer set beginning with raucous screech-honks, settling into extended developmental arcs of sound. James’ clarinet sometimes suggested klezmer, providing a momentary resolve to the harmonic language.
Favorite moment: theatricality. Twice during the performance, Arrington picked up a homemade instrument made from plumbing (a single mouthpiece but two sounding pipes; something of a mutant, bagless bagpipe) and then proceeded to NOT play it. Suspense – we all wanted to hear it – in this case, suspense with no payoff. A dream deferred is a dream lost – a tragedy of denied expectation played out on stage.

Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Catherine Lee (oboe; Portland), Lisa Cay Miller (piano; Vancouver BC), Bonnie Whiting (percussion)
My favorite set of the evening because of the piano, percussion, and extreme contrasts. Fast, clattery ricochets of small gongs and metal shards accompanied longer melodies and drones from the string and wind instruments, and there was a bizarre high-pitched screech sliding upwards from the inside of the piano. I asked Lisa later how she’d done it – apparently the clear part of a cassette tape case can be dragged across the middle piano strings to set them vibrating lengthwise in the manner of Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument.
Favorite moment: simplicity. The piece came to a false end, and all the effects were left behind. Lisa started playing lush post-impressionist chords, while Heather played a viola melody that slowly simplified itself until there were just three notes left.

Douglas Ewart (woodwinds; Minneapolis) w/ Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Lori Goldston (cello)
Several distinct movements, fading into one another. Douglas played drones and slow melodies on home-made wind instruments (including a slide didgeridoo or “slydgeridoo” as I called it), interacting with Steve’s percussive and electric-bass-ish electronics and more drones from Heather and Lori. Faster melodies emerged from this. Lisa appeared on the stage from out of the audience, and tossed a stainless-steel bowl into the piano. Chaos. Then Quieter. Then Douglas made a sudden transition to racous music again by blowing a claxon on the soprano sax. Full-on decibel-stretching screech-honk AEC madness; Lori’s and Heather’s quieter instruments were effectively drowned out but continued to provide background texturing. Gradual fade-out, but this stereotypical ending was not to be: Douglas brought back the loudness, but this time with a lyrical subtone and a recitation of a poem about John Coltrane. Steve’s electronics ended.
Favorite moment: all of it.
At the end, Douglas unexpectedly released two “percussion instruments” that had been sitting on the table next to his home-made winds. They were actually tops that spun around on the floor with a quiet rumble, gradually slowing and growing louder. One fell (I thought it would trip the other, though it didn't), then the other fell, and the hall became silent. Then raucous applause. “There was no other way to end this festival” was a motto that appeared at that point, passed from person to person. Maybe a tradition has started and similar tops will announce the end of next year’s as well.

A Final Note

To the guy at the "merch mart" who bought two of my CD's and then disappeared while I was getting your change, contact me. I owe you six bucks.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Concert Review in Poetry, Art, and an "Optigon": Seattle Phonographers Union 1-19-2017

Lights dim, sounds dim
Songle distantce foghorn
Emergence of electronic dronenotes, not electronic, microtones shift inside grains of watersound
Yellowhite trumpet
Chimes begin, bigbells, churchbells, splintersounds of smallbells in wind
Then LOUD horn in fog, trombone’s dark grey didgeridoo
Answered by aviary, left side
Answered by people speaking, right side
Answered by clangclunks, middle side
Answered by didgeridrone fade, no side
Answered by high halfstep semichord, upward
Trum(crows)pet horns drumming toward chaos, downward
Blue French horn mourns end of ambience

Waves filter through cement pipes
Nocturne - cricketsong
Cold shootingstars in darkness

Now sounds get strange:
Trombone belches, French horn farts, trumpet squeeeeeeeels

Eww! Ewww! Ewwww! cries a strange bird
(While they sing in church)
Waves cresssssst, trumpet says Oooooowup!

Quieter gray water
River of yellow bells
Tributary of tawny trumpet-tones
Volume increases, violence begins
Car horns blare red
Answered by bass bells
Answered by wailing French horn
Answered by an announcement: crackling voice, language unclear
Lake of allcolored bellsound
All sounds dwindle except one ghostly whooshwail complicated hum

Jet passes by overhead
Thundroar in night sky
Adds silence as music ends.

"Seattle Phonographers Union – a collective of artists improvising with unprocessed field recordings – perform one of their infrequent “ambient” sets, with group members dispersed around the space and playing through an array of individual sound systems. Even more unusual, tonight they break one of their own rules and are joined by instrumentalists Greg Kelley (trumpet) and Tom Varner (French horn)." From the Seattle Phonographers Union Website.

This is my visual impression of the concert. Each line is one note or sound.

Often during the Phonog Union concerts, several false endings make it obvious that the music is improvised. This concert, a longer set (and with added soloists) seemed to be a single extended composition in three movements. The brass players added another dimension that bound the various sounds together in a musical whole. (This was neither better nor worse than the more obviously unplanned performances, merely a different experience for the listener.)

Now - I mentioned a trombone. This was actually an incident so bizarre that it spawned a neologism. Here's what I wrote about it on a social media site:

New word:

Optigon (n. variant of "optigone"; portmanteau of "optical" and "gone", perhaps influenced by "octagon" and similar words): Something which you see or observe, but when you look it up later or go to show someone else, is no longer there. A type of optical illusion. For example, "The trombone player at the Seattle Phonographers' Union concert last Thursday was not actually there; he was only an optigon created by the lighting and acoustics in the room."

No, I can't explain it. The concert of sounds was beautiful, however, and I recommend that anyone around the Seattle area go hear their next one, phantom brass players or not.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A seasonal Digression: “Experimental” Christmas Music

This is an expanded version of something I posted (on my previous music blog) in 2010.

First: Messiaen's “20 Aspects of the Baby Jesus”; this is indeed “different” from the standard piano playing of Christmas standards (i.e. in hotel lobbies during this season). I’d like to hear this instead, sometime! There also exists a “Little Suite for Christmas” by George Crumb, in the same vein, but darker and using a number of Crumb’s inside-piano techniques (I’ll concede that Christmas music probably shouldn’t be dark). It has a rendition of the “Coventry Carol” in the middle, mostly monophonic and plucked.

Another one is the interlude, “For the Birth of Christ”, from the African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. Predating music with digital samples, this uses Fanshawe’s own recordings of traditional African music but is mostly a large “classical” work for chorus, piano, and rock band. Some of it sounds oddly dated now (like a 1960’s rock opera that never quite got going) but this interlude is worth listening to. Both relaxing and tense, the piano adds an atonal accompaniment to a love song from Sudan. In the original vinyl release, the love song was panned too far to one direction and the piano too far to the other, and they switched sides in the middle (an unnecessary and unnerving special effect); but that was fixed on the CD reissue.

Some “pop” oddities: There’s a full-orchestral Christmas tune by Japanese folk-pop-rocker Reimy (on her self-titled album from 1990; her barely-controlled childlike voice stands out in stark, weird contrast to that grand accompaniment), and Bob Dylan did a Christmas CD.

I checked out the latter from the library, asking the question: What happens when everybody’s favorite non-singer and arguably the last of the beatnik poets decides to take on Christmas carols? Answer: not much. It just sounds like anybody’s cantankerous but loveable great-granddad wheezing Christmas songs in a karaoke bar. Charming in its way, but definitely not classic Dylan. (Maybe he meant it to be ironic; but ironically, the irony is lost.)

Another "pop" suggestion is not really all that "alternative" or experimental in any way, though it may be off of some people's radar. Nicole C. Mullen, Gospel and CCM singer with an amazing voice (in complete contrast to Reimy's and Dylan's quasi-singing) has a CD called "Christmas in Black and White". This puts the political counterpoint back in the Christmas message, and is more relevant in today's "trumped" world than it was when it came out in 2002.

Last, and probably least, there's my own piece "Angelconcert" on my CD "PianoSphere" (my name is listed as S. Eric Scribner, if you want to look it up).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Worst Music, Revisited

I thought I’d revisit an old meme (now gone) that’s been annoying me for years. Though I’m glad that it’s gone, my question is really how it got started in the first place. I started a Facebook discussion about it. Not huge numbers of people wrote back (several just “liked” the postings), but those that did had some interesting insights. The names (and initials) have been changed except for my own.

Me: Here's an open question about music. I might include the answers in a blog (but I won't post any names).

Middle school and high school kids today no longer mistake classical music for "elevator music" or muzak. But back in the 1970's, as a classical music listener (and a teenager), I ran into that misconception all the time. Here's the question, or series of questions: How did that misunderstanding get started? Did you think it was true (if you were a kid then)? When did you realize it wasn't true? How or why? Why do you think it isn't a "thing" anymore? Are there actually any similarities between those two genres? (I consider them to be complete opposites.)

I have some theories. I'll post them as this discussion gets going.

BX: Classical more often than not tends to be several minutes if not nearly an hour or so long. Most "pop" music is typically 2.5-7min and that's for the shortest to longest, again..typically. Elevator music to me has always clipped the crescendos and other climaxes...or whatever. I presumed this to allow for the only rise and fall to be left at the physical approach. As if the music were the only bearings one could grasp, in case they feared lifts. Nothing too one way or the other, yet better than Muzak. I honestly can't readily point out Muzak, it's not "music." Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Lol

Me: "Elevator music" and Muzak (same thing - "Muzak" is a brand name) do clip all the climaxes, etc. They're purposely banal, because their purpose is to be ignored. The individual "cuts" are about three minutes long, because they're based on the same music as other "pop". At least that's what I think; like everybody else, I mostly ignore them.

TQ: I blame Mantovani and stuff like this:
(Classic 1970s commercial for the mail-order album "120 Music Masterpieces" featuring actor John Williams. This one aired on WTBS on July 12, 1980 but dates back to 1970 or 71. - YouTube commentary.)

Me: Makes sense (that was one of my theories, that attempts to "popularize" orchestral music actually had a completely different effect). He pronounced title of the Borodin piece "Polyvetzian" Dances!? At least the orchestral bits still have a little dynamic range, even though they're chopped up.

TQ: There was this pretty entrenched middlebrow/suburban aesthetic that managed to smooth all the edges off of classical music - 101 Strings, Kostelanetz, etc. Mantovani: "Perhaps 25% of the people like the classics and about 25% like the Beatles. I aim to please the 50% in the middle." Bingo.

SN: I was not exposed to much classical music growing up, except for what was used occasionally in pop culture and TV commercials. And I didn't pay much attention to elevator music, unless it was a tune I happened to recognized (which wasn't often).

OJ: As far as I can hear, most ambient music these days consists of playlists of pop songs. In really mellow environments you hear New Agey or instrumental folky stuff. And in other places you'll actually hear bona fide classical playlists. I very very rarely hear the old school string orchestra Muzak, and when I do it really jumps out at me--feels like time travel. So I think that's your answer: ambient music used to be orchestral, hence easily mistaken for orchestral classical music, but now you rarely hear that kind of muzak.

Me: One of my theories was that the older muzak used string sections, but then, so did a lot of top 40 (Heart "Dreamboat Annie"), jazz, and even the dance craze of the time: disco. And to me, “ambient” doesn’t mean “background music” but refers to a specific genre of semi-experimental electronica: Brian Eno, et al. Maybe I’m being too rigid there, because the word “ambient” of course means part of the background.

TQ: Ballard Goodwill has the best Muzak - last time I was there I heard the Jam, Buzzcocks, XTC, Lene Lovich, Dave Edmunds, Costello; in past I've heard the Slits, Banshees, Kate Bush, etc.

OJ: Even Fred Meyer in Lake City makes me do a double take with some frequency: Ramones, Replacements, Costello et al.

BJ: Music is a type of thought. Some thoughts are subtle and complicated, and are meant to be paid attention to. Some thoughts are not, or do not reward close attention.

BD: I lived in Florida as a child, in a small town, so elevators did not exist for me. I always associated classical with orchestras back then. In today's world, kids SEE classical musicians daily in YouTube along with the genre title. The internet has clarified much past musical genre confusion in general through sight.....not sound. A label in today’s world carries more distinction.

Me: About "seeing" classical musicians: I have a DVD of videos of Xenakis chamber music. I've occasionally shown it in a class where I'm teaching. The pieces for string quartet "look like" classical, so kids have actually asked me if they're by Beethoven or Mozart. But there's a piece for piano and trombones, and here they (the kids) don't know what to make of it, despite the fact that much of this piece "sounds" more "classical" that the string quartets.

QB: Myself I am grateful that I was forbidden access to mainstream culture, and so among my childhood favorites was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and remains so to this day (how we managed to have records, not to mention the means to listen to them, amazes me even now). I remember how my father explained to me that this work concerned itself with death, he having barely survived tuberculosis and blacklisted along with my mother as a communist, though they were to find that their beliefs and aspirations were the sort of thing that were sure to deliver you post-haste to the Gulags or even a bullet in the back of the neck in the "worker's fatherland". My response to the closing pages of the sixth movement (Der Abschied) was that if this is death (I must have been somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six years old) I was more than ready for the quiet ecstasy of that moment in the music when all desire and torment is resolved into bliss. And thus I was immunized from the start against all forms of mass culture, from "The 60's" to post-modernism, never mind Muzak and am eternally grateful (I have always thought that it would be interesting to sabotage elevator music systems and let fly with the opening of the Mahler 8th, good for the souls of those aboard).

Me: I often sabotage background music in a class by playing something that actually "works" as (pseudo)Muzak - baroque and jazz work well - and then slipping in some Messiaen or George Crumb.

WM: I had parents who actively listened to classical music and disdained "easy listening" muzak. So I was taught never to confuse the genres.

Me: Me too, and it never even crossed my mind that someone might consider them similar, which is why I was so surprised and insulted when other kids at my school insisted that "bay-TOE-vin" (that's how they said it) was "that annoying and depressing music on KSEA" (an easy-listening station). I thought that one or two kids were kidding, until a whole 7th-grade class threatened to "pound that 'elevator-Mozart' out of me". (A similar phrase had been used against me in 5th grade for telling another student to stop insulting a film about avant-garde music that a guest music teacher had shown.) I actually did almost get beat up once for playing a piece in the style of Stravinsky at a school talent show, though in that case it was because the bullies said that I had embarrassed them by “just pounding on the piano” and that I “needed to be punched once for every note in the song”.

WM: Good grief!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album Reviews, Old and New: ELP, Seawind, Steven Michael Miller, and Yoko Kanno

These four reviews were originally published on Sit Down Listen, in slightly different versions.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: Do the "Works" Still Work?

This was in my vinyl collection, and after digging it out of storage, I promptly ignored it for several months. Back in the early 1980’s, I’d rocked out to it. But now, all I could remember about it was huge, blown-up ostentation, grand sonic spectacle based on… not very much. Not that the concept was bad, of course: a solo project by each of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer, then the three of them together for a finale. But, “crossover” has never worked for me (though that may be a relic of being a kid who listened to classical in an era when the “hip” kids subscribed to the meme that classical and Muzak were synonymous); so I was bothered by the idea of a major rock album being backed-up by a large (and sometimes seemingly unrehearsed) symphony orchestra. Then I listened to Symphonic Zeppelin again, and thought, well, a rock orchestra works well there, so maybe I could give this ELP LP another try.

Side One presents Keith Emerson’s “Piano Concerto no. 1”. Very classical concept, including the three movements. But, as a classical composition, it is deeply flawed. (Two obvious examples: in the first movement, the atonal intro and the jazzy cadenza have nothing to do either with each other or the rest of the piece; and the development section doesn’t really go anywhere, it just presents a second theme and then noodles around with its rhythms.) Yet I sat there listening to every detail, transfixed. Why? Answer: it isn’t classical at all, and I subconsciously wasn’t listening to it as classical. It’s an extended piece of progressive rock. Its interest and excitement are not derived from the composer’s personal rendering of classical formal structure, but from interplays of odd meters, alternation of solos and ensemble playing, and a building-up of high-energy riffs. The fact that only the keyboard remains unaltered (and the guitar, bass, and drums have been replaced by an orchestra) doesn’t really change anything: under that symphonic exterior, this is something that Tull, Yes, Floyd, Rush, or Kansas could have done during their most “prog” periods. And yes, it’s a lot of fun.

Not so with Side Two, five songs by Greg Lake. These are mostly forgettable power-ballads, with a voice like Neil Diamond over-singing, awful lyrics with forced rhymes, and runaway overdubbing. One song is recorded at about half the volume of the others, though it’s supposed to be a louder, rock number. Another features harmonica and elevator-guitar amplified above a string section, for an unnatural, forced sound. Despite all that, it’s not a total wasteland. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” has some interesting key-changes. “C’est La Vie” uses some memorable French folk instrumentation. Both are minor earworms; just ignore the words. “Closer to Believing” provides the “slow movement” for the entire double album, with shimmering strings that sometimes venture into atonality and even suggested mircotonality, and a contrapuntal passage near the end that is “classical” in the way that Emerson’s “Concerto” was not. The lyrics, to this song at least, aren’t all that bad either.

There are three actual classical “works” included in the Works. The first of these has a heavy metal title, and begins side three, Carl Palmer’s solo project: Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” from the “Scythian Suite”. This “barbaric” music (under the heavy influence of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) is more or less played straight, though the addition of Palmer’s continuous, flailing drum soloing turns it into a hectic, scary big band number (with strings). The rest of the side consists of more instrumentals, some great, some forgettable, all but one with manic drumming. There are two named after cities: “L.A. Nights” is a run-of-the-mill rocker with guitar solos, while “New Orleans” is an amazing bit of funk featuring wah-wahs. “Bach Two-Part Invention in D-minor” is the second classical piece; in this arrangement of the keyboard piece, Palmer plays mallets instruments rather than drums – but the string section is off-key and ruins the whole mood. “Food for Your Soul” isn’t really, though it includes an actual drum solo (no other instruments) and a nod to Ian Anderson’s flute. Finally, “Tank” is an arrangement of an instrumental from ELP’s first album. Oddly, Emerson’s keyboard improvisations in the middle section are transcribed note for note for violins, and again, they play off-key. Ugh! They should have left it alone – and, in the third section, they do – the three of them play what sounds like the original (with a slightly different keyboard solo) and add blasting brass chords behind them. Exciting, but in the end it’s merely an arrangement of the first version. And for some reason, it leaves out the drum solo.

Side 4 begins with the last of the three actual “classical” pieces, and the one that is the most transformed: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Very symphonic at first (though with some added – and unnecessary – reverb), but ELP’s masterstroke was to turn this into a rockin’ blues number. The blues-rock emerges slowly, but eventually the Copland comes to an end and we’re left with a keyboard solo over a driving beat, sounding like nothing so much as an electric organ version of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”. The music adds more and more blue notes, finally going completely, gloriously, insanely, Hendrix-y, atonal. Riffs from the Copland reemerge, and then the Fanfare is back, though the beat (and electric organ) are still there. The two styles duke it out until the end. This is my favorite part of the Works, though I don’t know if it’s worth buying the whole double album for this one track.

The last and longest song is “Pirates”, which attempts to be a grand finale by summing up all that’s come before. There are long orchestral passages (careful listeners will notice fragments from Emerson’s “Concerto”), synthesizer solos, sea chanties, Renaissance music, and odd meters, all leading to a rockin’ climax. Lake’s overwrought vocals finally find vindication as the thoroughly unsavory character of the pirate captain, though perhaps more suitable for the Broadway stage than a rock album.

So in the end, do these Works still work? Yes. No. Pick and choose between them: some are brilliant, some are fossils from an age of forced gigantism, most are in between. The concept and the orchestrations are interesting at times, banal at others, and the whole album has a consistent problem with volume balance. Now that I’ve listened to it again a couple of times, I’ve enjoyed it – but I might be embarrassed to recommend it heartily to others. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.

A (Not So) Hidden Message from Funky Winds from the Sea

I first came across this record in college: Seawind, the album, by Seawind, the band. My friend introduced me to it. Though not one of those all-time masterpiece records, it is still unfortunate that it subsequently has been lost to time and obscurity. This is a cool 1970’/80’s funky music, akin to Earth Wind and Fire, with intricate rhythmic interplay and smokin’ horn solos.

The first track, “We Got a Way” starts up the funk immediately, though perhaps a little dated because of the “disco” beat. Like most album openers, this is intended as a hook, and thus (as if often the case) it’s catchy but less interesting than what follows.

In “You Gotta Be Willin’ to Loose (Part II)”, Pauline Wilson shows her vocal pyrotechnics in a (far too short) series of one-note glottal sound effects mixed with the words; the effect is almost pre-rap. I’ve also heard the same sound in Afropop, such as Toure Kunda Live. There’s no “Part I” to this song on the record, though it does sound slightly unfinished (or rather, un-begun) and may actually be a “jamming” coda to one that was not included.

The next two songs introduce the “theme” and message of the album (which, once one realizes it, was already present in the first two songs anyway). This is actually “Christian music”. It is not an example of bait-and-switch, though – the band was not trying to draw in unsuspecting listeners with “groovy” music and then hit them with an unexpected "religious" message. They were trying to do the exact opposite – put the musicianship back into the such music, where it had sorely been missed.

I had previously thought that no genre of music was so dull, so mind-numbingly banal, so badly written and performed (and consequently so ineffective at communicating its own message) as 1970’s/80’s “Contemporary Christian Music”. I once proclaimed to an acquaintance (and a big fan of the music) that it was neither contemporary, nor Christian, nor music; and I refused to listen to it because I am a Christian. Since then, of course, “Christian music” itself has improved to the levels of composition and musicianship of “regular” – whatever that means – mainstream pop and rock; but Seawind is both and an album and a band from back then in the dark ages.

To be fair, there were of course, even then, a few other bright lights among the many feeble flickers in the genre. John Michael Talbot, at least in his early albums such as "Come to the Quiet", was playing a kind of Renaissance-influenced folk music that was both interesting and magical. With his brother, Terry Talbot, he also recorded at least one interesting acoustic “prog” rock album, "The Painter", though it was a little heavy on the falsetto. Resurrection Band’s "Colors" was blistering hard rock / early metal; it sounded mostly like AC/DC with an occasional odd meter. Phil Keaggy was a master guitarist comparable to Dire Straights’ Mark Knopfler (though his lyrics tended to be as awkward as those of Little River Band). Kerry Livgren (of the band Kansas) made one good prog-rock album ("Seeds of Change") and one good R&B/rock album ("Timeline") before the record producers apparently told him to get more commercial.

…And then there was this record. Its Christian message was there, but never (unlike a lot of others in the same genre) “tacked on” to the music. The music and the lyrics, and therefore the message – no song with lyrics can avoid having a message – were melded into a seamless whole.

…End of disclaimer, and back to the songs. The third, “He Loves You” is a little more subdued that the previous two. The funk gives way to a gentler, slightly Brazilian feel, while Ms. Wilson shows the soulful side of her singing. There are moments where she sounds like Nina Simone.

“The Devil is a Liar” is a sermon to avoid worldly delights (which will leave you empty). Musically it is a combination of the styles of the previous two songs, with both a funky and lyrical side.

In “Love Song / Seawind”, the album takes a turn and things start to get really interesting. Unfortunately it begins with the unpromising vocals of Bud Nuanez over acoustic guitar – he attempts to sound like Jim Croce but doesn’t really. Then “Seawind” (the song) fades in, and we’re in a different world. Soprano sax, played by Kim Hutchcroft, over open fourths and fifths on acoustic guitar, recalls nothing so much as Paul Winter’s “Icarus”. Later there are hints of prog-rock synthesizers and off-beat drum accents. Fade out. With this, side A ends refreshed.

“Make Up Your Mind” is a throwback to Side A. The funk is back in force, now with Maynard Ferguson-style trumpet on top. The song suffers from disco vocal interjections (“get down!”) and thus, as sometimes happens, sounded “groovy” at the time it was recorded, but now, forty years on, just elicits a snicker.

The remainder of Side B is two long songs, both instrumental. “Praise (Part I)” (there’s that “part of a song” thing again) begins with blues piano and a sax tune, leading through several jazzy solos. There is a brief spate of scat singing (Ms. Wilson again), and the trumpet parts recall Miles Davis’ later work, such as "Tutu".

Then comes the epic. “Roadways (Parts I and II)” (finally, a song with both parts!) drops all pretense of being a “popular” number and is instead a full-fledged jazz composition. Enigmantic, slightly rock-ish sax and drums begin, leading to quietly dissonant electric piano chords, played by Larry Williams. An angular melody on the soprano sax winds along, sometimes doubled by flute. The soprano sax solos, with some “extended” techniques. Gradual crescendo, and a brief encounter with Chick Corea’s “The Brain” before repetitive-minimalist synthesizer begins the second part. There is a loud but measured full-ensemble outburst, then the music relaxes and the melody of the first part returns, now on trumpet doubled by electric organ. Soprano sax ends, with tranquil rhythms underneath.

If all of this analysis sounds dry, the music is most assuredly not. It’s not really a masterpiece, though it’s certainly a surprise for anyone who thinks that music from its time and genre had to be insipid and clichéd. It’s also a good addition to anyone’s collection of funk and even jazz from the same period.

Steven Michael Miller Between Noise and Silence

I ran across this memorial retrospective set of CDs at a concert of artists who’d worked with Steven Michael Miller. Since I had not heard of Mr. Miller at the time, I asked about the music. In the ensuing conversation, I was convinced to buy the CD set. I wasn’t disappointed.

There are eight CDs in this set, titled "Between Noise and Silence". The first CD is a collection of pieces called “Subterranea.” These are all very much twigs on the same branch. Majestic synthesizer chords and drones mingle with atmospheric, heavily echoed samples of various “outside” sounds: wind in trees, rivers, animals, traffic. Occasionally there is a serpentine melody on the Balinese flute. Overall these pieces remind me of nothing so much as the ambient music of Brian Eno (such as "On Land" or Side A of "Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks"). Perhaps there is also a little Ingram Marshall, who, it turns out, worked with Miller.

CDs 2 and 3 are a collection of improvisations, mostly collaborative. These are more avant-garde in style than the music on CD 1. In a way, though, they continue the same aesthetic. They are mostly hazy, half-audible extemporizations in space-time, with a lot of (real and suggested) silence. There are a few louder moments, such as in "Duo I" with David Dunn (electronics) and "Duet 2" with Steve Peters (electronics and field recordings); but generally these walk a tightrope between ambience and experimentalism. It is a world previously navigated by Cage and Feldman (though in a very different style).

CD 4 is a single long work, the installation titled “Glass Piece,” the audio part of an installation dedicated to Annea Lockwood (legendary electro-acoustic composer). This piece is the sounds of glass, certainly; to me it is the reverberations of great crystalline gongs and bells, each as large as a house, tapped and rubbed very gently.

CD 5 is a set of pieces with a much harder aesthetic, also purely electronic. “Slow Fire” is edge-of-your-seat tension created from samples of Ligeti’s string quartets and piano music, greatly slowed and amplified. At first listen, this is a drone piece – tones seem locked in hypersleep, barely moving – but careful listening reveals complicated interactions (as in both Ligeti and in drone music). “Three Pieces for Chris Mann” is its antithesis: musique concrète sounds come and go so quickly as to be unidentifiable. “In the Absence of the Sacred” is another high-tension study in found sound; here is some of the same prerecorded material as on CD 1 but treated as a harrowing lament for lost cultures.

One of the most fascinating pieces on the set is the short “Pulse Canon.” Tiny blips gather in an accelerating, cosmic polyrhythm, and become a relentless storm. More description would ruin the idea. It’s easy to hear what’s going on, but it has to be heard to be heard...

“The Flow of Time” is somewhat more ambient, but on this recording it seems to be merely a prelude to the next piece. “Pohon Bergunga” is from the sound-world of Xenakis’ “Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromede” (on "Perspectives of New Music" vol. 28): a mad, wobbly cluster of siren-like computer-generated fractal glissandi that sometimes slow down to reveal that they are made of other (faster) glissandi, which in turn are made of still faster glissandi. “Twin Canon” is essentially the same piece made from stable drones rather than unstable slides. Overtones fade in to reveal that they are made of still higher, more microtonal, overtones, which in turn… Both pieces are fascinating as concepts, but to me at least, they are (like that one Xenakis piece) so mechanical and high-tension that they are nearly unlistenable.

CD 6, probably my favorite in the set, presents some pieces that are midway between the ambience of CD 1 and the nail-biting of CD 5. They may be quite different to different listeners. “Recirculations” seems at first merely a reiteration of “Twin Canon” – but one is struck immediately by its slower (!), more laid-back mood and straining to produce consonant harmonies from its dense microtonal overtones. (I have used similar resonances as the idée-fixe “mystic chord” in my day-long “StormSound Cycle” – in my case, they were made from partials from the deep bass sound, under the white noise, of waves crashing against a shore.) Eventually the sound collapses into a world of giant gongs heard from somewhere far away in an endless dimly-lit hallway, then builds back up to its opening material. “Points of Origin” is a piece of musique concrète in the style of Annea Lockwood (to whom it was dedicated); sounds are combined in interesting ways and unexpected juxtapositions, but are not processed. “Recirculations II” is a fantasy of CG reverberations that sometimes seem oddly akin to human speech, though altered and scattered into sonic nebulae that are somehow both ecstatic and sinister. Lastly, “Motors” is a drone piece made from unaltered recordings of electric, well, motors. This would seem to be completely non-musical (or even anti-musical) material, yet Miller manages to draw out a rich array of harmonies and microtones. This is a fascinating composition made from the most unpromising of material.

Taken all together, these form either a single day-long “album” with each separate CD a lengthy “song,” or a set of regular-length albums. In either case, the various pieces seem to comment on and extend each other. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as it should be in any great album.

There are two more discs in the set. One is a DVD of videos featuring Miller’s music, and the other is a collection of pieces by other composers, in tribute to Miller (which forms an “album” in its own right). I will review one or both of those at a future date.

Yoko Kanno: A Shape-Changing Ghost (in the Shell)

I found this CD in the same case as the DVD of the TV show. I’d checked it out from the library. I didn’t like the show that much, but the CD was a bonus, and later I got my own copy. Most of the music was composed by Yoko Kanno, with whom I was familiar from the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. She is a well-known film composer in Japan.

A note before I continue: the title of the album (and the show) is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Although this some of the quasi-English that’s popular in Japan (i.e. “Walkman” and “Pokari Sweat”), it isn’t nonsense. Meaning can be teased out of those two brand names by someone familiar with Japanese: a Walkman is probably something that goes with you while you walk, and “Pokari Sweat” is roughly like “Sweatbuster”. Likewise, "Ghost in the Shell" is probably better translated as “Spirit inside the Shell (of the Machine)”, and refers to the possibility of artificial intelligence being smart and complex enough to have a soul. (This is a cyberpunk world of artificial hackers and martial-arts wielding cyborgs.) “Stand Alone” refers to several episodes of the show that stand by themselves, not related to a larger story arc in the series. “Complex” is COM-plex, the noun form; an amalgamation of such “stand alone” episodes.

Back to the CD. An interesting thing about Ms. Kanno’s music is that we aren’t quite sure what we are listening to. It shapeshifts continuously. It’s mainstream “popular” music, certainly, but it defies all attempts to stick it in one of those boxes that the music industry provides for us. On the surface it’s mostly electronica, though more haunting in mood (however, hardcore Aphex Twin and Moby fans may dispute that it’s really “electronica”, and since when did electronica acquire that style of singing?) It’s reminiscent of 80’s post-punk bands like the Cocteau Twins and the Eurhythmics, but “world music” fans will notice a definite Balkan flavor. Some tracks are pure hard rock, others are funk, some are J-Pop (but with those strange vocals again); some are hybrids. Part of this ambiguity is created by the fact that, though Ms. Kanno composed most of the music, it’s being played by more than one “band”. There are different instruments and different singers – and sometimes the individual musicians move from one band to another. And yet somehow it all ties together. Ms. Kanno has a distinctive style which manifests itself mostly in a couple of unusual compositional techniques that affect how the music flows in time (more on those later) – and the overall shape of the album is that of a single, large-scale composition.

The lyrics, where they appear, are sung in amalgams of English, Japanese, and Russian.

The first track, “Run Rabbit Junk” (one of those quasi-English titles again, though I can’t explain this one) is played by Hideyuki Takahashi, and gets the music off to a loud punk/metal start with a driving beat. About halfway through, the listener is treated to one of Ms. Kanno’s compositional techniques: everything suddenly seems to stop but the rhythm and momentum are still there subliminally, and (after a few dreamlike seconds) they burst into the foreground again. Following this, the vocalists exclaim their ownership of a number of three-letter cyberpunk abbreviations – though I don’t know where this leads in the show.

ヤキトリ (“Yakitori”) is mostly 70’s – 80’s guitar solos. At times it sounds like the solo at the end of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, with its stumbling off-meters; other times it reminds one of Van Halen, with lots of notes that don’t really coalesce; mostly it could be music for a monster truck rally. Fun, but grating after a while, and too over the top for my taste. (Yakitori is, of course, Japanese chicken kabobs.)

Ms. Kanno’s signature style begins with スタミナ・ローズ (“Stamina Rose”), though not very promisingly at first. Technobeat-driven synthesized African marimbas underscore Balkan harmonies sung by Ms. Kanno herself (under the name of Gabriela Robin).

“Surf” continues in somewhat the same mood, though relaxed and with a flute. Another of Mr. Kanno’s compositional techniques is in evidence: this is a slower piece, definitely, but there’s still that nervously quick (though understated) electronica beat underneath. It’s as if there are two pieces running along at the same time, diametrically opposed yet producing a harmonious whole.

“Where does this ocean go?” almost continues the same song, though now with heartfelt vocals by Ilaria Graziano. The lyrics, a little “slice of life” in English, seem a tad awkward at times (particularly the line about the man with a head like a melon), though the song expresses the classic longing for adventure. Björk’s “Hyperballad” has a similar tune (as noted on several websites), though Ms. Kanno’s piece isn’t really a cover and is more appealing musically.

“Train Search” is another guitar solo like “Yakitori”, though shorter and more composed. It is obviously background music to an action scene and doesn’t really do anything for the album. To me, it actually interrupts the flow of the music – and when I put this album on a playlist, I moved it next to “Yakitori”.

シベリアン・ドール・ハウス (“Siberian Dollhouse”) is a mysterious slow movement, at first with blues riffs on guitar, then with Ms. “Robin’s” half-audible vocals under dark synth ambience, and finally with a rising horror-glissando (leading unexpectedly to a major chord) and recalling The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.

“Velveteen” picks up where “Siberian Dollhouse” left off, though relaxed. The rising horror has become a mere police siren. The beat starts up, and the rest of it is essentially a “pop” number – though in a minor key and with samples of traditional pow-wow songs under the instrumental parts.

“Lithium Flower” returns to the rock world, and brings back the male vocals, this time by Scott Matthew. This could have been a hit by any 70’s or 80’s rock group; English lyrics about an idealized woman are sung in a slightly gravelly voice over modal guitar cycles. Retro. Reminds me of early Foreigner.

“Home Stay” is an instrumental that is again retro – this time it’s classic funk. There is a trick in the bass line: it is actually one beat longer than the rest of the tune, so that every time it returns it’s on a different accent. I notice things like that.

“Inner Universe” is something of a recap of what has gone before. Electronica again, very fast beat under rather slow music again, Balkan voices again, with tight harmony. Again, as in the opening number, everything stops (but doesn’t) and then it builds back up. Several repeats of the refrain are harmonized differently, building to an ecstatic climax. It’s beautiful to hear, but if this is electronica, it’s from another world.

“Fish – Silent Cruise” is the longest song (except for “Yakitori”), and the climax of the album. Basically it’s all one long crescendo, accumulating from quiet, reflective wordless singing to techo/symphonic overload. Again, slow music with a fast beat. Some of the ambience is created by a real symphony orchestra, not synthesizers.

“Some Other Time” is a slow bubblegum pop number, here a bright-colored relaxation after the tension of “Fish – Silent Cruise”.

“Beauty is Within You” follows, and forget it. There isn’t much beauty within this overdone pop ballad, which, interestingly, wasn’t composed by Ms. Kanno...

“We’re the Great” is a very slow number for guitars and male vocals; it serves as an introduction to the final piece, モノクローム (“Monochrome”). This is something both truly unusual and completely familiar at the same time: electronica/pop over random synthesizer beeps. Though completely different stylistically, this is somewhat akin to some of the experiments by Pink Floyd (remember the random synth notes in “On the Run” on Dark Side of the Moon?). It brings the CD to a refreshed conclusion.

There are two more cuts, brief excerpts from loud, up-tempo songs found in the series (and on later volumes of a CD set). Those are better in their full versions, so I won’t talk about them here. I removed them on my iTunes playlist.

In the end, this is just a soundtrack album – but it’s more than that. The songs are (mostly) interesting, and there is a wide variety of moods, tempi, and instrumentation. They tie together, in large part because of that recurrent “slow music over a fast beat” and because of related modes and harmonies. Ms. Kanno was composing individual “pop” numbers in various styles, but with an ear to how they would sound together (both on the CD and as a soundworld for the show). The result is well worth a listen or two, especially without the anime to which they belong.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Just for Fun: Renamed Instruments

A friend sent me some of these, and I made up some more. My apologies to anyone who plays any of these instruments; actually I like all of them.

The "catpipe" and "duckpipe" were of course used as such by Sergei Prokofiev, and the bassoon could also sound like (with a nod to C. S. Lewis) a "toadpipe". ...And, come to think of it, there are a couple of other types of Twang Tables: the koto and its relatives come to mind.