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 The fact that only the keyboard remains unaltered (and the guitar, bass, and drums have been replaced by an orchestra) doesn’t really change anything: under that symphonic exterior, this is something that Tull, Yes, Floyd, Rush, or Kansas could have done during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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Steve Peters’ “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” at Good Shepherd Center 9/25/15

“Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a new evening-length work by Seattle composer Steve Peters. Inspired by research into his family history in the Azores, this evocative sonic poem explores themes of migration, diaspora, memory, identity and emotional/cultural ties to place.

A chain of nine volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are an isolated region of Portugal and the western-most edge of Europe. American whaling ships began arriving in the 18th century, taking on Azorean men as crew; this began a long pattern of emigration and the establishment of Portuguese enclaves in New England, California, Hawaii, and Canada in which Azorean cultural traditions and contact with the archipelago have persisted."
- From Wayward Music Seattle

The Music:
Field Recordings and Ambient Sounds from the Azores, recorded by Steve Peters; instrumental music composed by Steve Peters

The Band:
Lesli Dalaba, trumpet
Beth Fleenor, clarinets
Paul Kikuchi, percussion
Naomi Siegel, trombone
Greg Sinibaldi, saxophone
Joshua Parmenter, additional electronic processing
Rafael Carvalho, viola da terra (Azorean guitar), recorded.

The music was played in the dark.

The beginning was an enigma of sound: percolating lava pits gurgled and led into a crescendo of sea-sounds. Saxophone and trombone blatted from behind and to the side, not really imitating the ocean noises and not really contrasting with them either; merely providing a man-made commentary. This in turn led to an uncanny soundscape of squeals and chirrups and nasal “ewww-ewww-ewwwws” like strangled wind instruments. I assumed this to be a birdcall, though it was more alien than avian and as bizarre as the Japanese kijibato pigeon, which I call the “repeater” and mentioned in a previous post. (After the performance, Steve Peters answered another audience member’s inquiry about it, that it was the call of the Cory’s shearwater, common in the Azores. He said the first time he heard it, at night, it scared the #:@!! out of him.)

Crickets and barnyard animal sounds provided a brief, overlapped interlude, leading to a sudden quiet and then the tolling of a bell. Now the music entered the world of human sounds; at first chanting and bells in church, then an electronic fantasy of modulating bell-tones and – eventually – recognizable brass bands. The latter met and mingled in an Ivesian cross-jumble, though the music they were playing was clearly from a European tradition. During this, an aspect of the performance came to fore: in the dark, we could see shadows of the players moving, but not exactly what they are doing or what sounds were linked with their movements. Paul Kikuchi was on the stage with percussion – a large gong hung behind him like a dim sun in space, and a shadowy bass drum sat to his right – he moved around and between them and appeared to be playing, but it was far from obvious exactly what parts of the ambience came from him (except for a loud gong roll during the most abstract section). This added a definite sense of mystery…

The marching bands receded into mysterious clicking. These were the songs of sperm whales, which the Azoreans (and Americans) used to hunt in their whaling ships, not the more familiar melodies of humpbacks. The band added quasi-melodic sputters that seemed to emerge from the sea-sounds behind the whales.

With the abrupt appearance of modal melodic material from the band, the piece entered its last section – or last three sections. Mr. Peters said that he intended this part to represent the people (and music) of one place in the world migrating to another place in the world: hence, melodies for clarinet, sax and trombone with ambient accompaniment from a processed Azorean guitar (as always, Ms. Fleenor’s clarinet was perfect here); then more sea-sounds leading to a chaos of (talking) voices, half-heard mechanical sounds, and squawks from the band; then a recap of the same melodies, slower and with birdsongs and bells in the background. Ambient processed guitar: fade to black. End. My reaction to this was that, once I knew what the “program” was, it was completely fitting with the story. However, when hearing it the first time, I thought that the piece could have ended after the first section of melodies, and that there was one too many movements. This could probably be a mental holdover from my earlier experience with Seattle Phonographers’ Union concerts (of which Mr. Peters is a member) – these are unplanned performances (improvisations, really) with sampled sound, and often they have more than one false ending. In that case, it adds to the fun and spontaneity; in this “composed” piece, however, I found it a little overdone. This is my one and only (and very slightly) negative comment; otherwise, “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a masterpiece by one of Seattle’s musical luminaries.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Concert Review: John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” in the Park, Seattle, 9/19/2015

“Inuksuit” is an Inuit word for the roughly anthropomorphic piles of stones formerly left to direct travelers in that northern part of the world. This work by John Luther Adams was an attempt to make auditory inuksuit, an “evidence of human presence”; a pile of sounds upon an outdoor landscape.

We arrived on time at Seward Park, Seattle, for this outdoor event, and found that it wasn’t really ready yet. There were percussion stations scattered around the lawn behind the amphitheater; some were collections of drums, others racks of cymbals and gongs, still others random assemblages of glockenspiels, Tibetan singing bowls, and bright plastic vuvuzelas. Some were attended by percussionists dressed in black (MIB and WIB), but others seemed to have no one nearby.

We took a seat in the amphitheater, and waited. There were only a few people about, but gradually others gathered. At some point I realized that most of the percussionists had congregated by a small temporary stick sculpture about thirty feet away, and were beginning to blow through “megaphones” made of paper – producing the tiniest whisper of a sound. The piece was actually beginning, though at first it was indistinguishable from the sounds of the breeze.

Gradually they moved to their percussion stations, as the music became louder and more strident – sirens, honks and trombone-like howls began to sound from all directions. The first drum beat happened behind me, signaling a definite change to the next section. As more and more drums permeated the soundspace, we began to walk around and listen from different angles (as many, though not all, of the by now sizeable audience was doing). At one point nature synchronized itself to the music: as a particularly dramatic gong rang, a bald eagle appeared in the sky, seemed to survey the scene, and then (as the next gong rang) soared to elsewhere. The music progressed through thundering gongs and cymbals into delicate ringing reverberations, mostly from the glockenspiels – a myriad of wind-chimes all playing (if you listened closely) the same melodies, but scattered through time. By the quiet end, something of a sonic fade to white, many of the players had gathered again by the stick sculpture.

The effect of hearing this outdoors is one not easily forgotten. As opposed to in the concert hall, where music of this type is usually heard (whether “conventional” classical or “experimental”, like this), the sound was thinner, more scattered, yet more ambient. It seemed to be coming from all directions or perhaps out of the sky or the earth – undoubtedly Mr. Adam’s idea (he has commented that he wanted to make music that would awaken an environmental consciousness). The score consists of blocks of time, with each musician moving at his/her own pace, playing each part, but not necessarily synchronizing with the others. The result is a scattering of tones from all directions, with each part recalling others but recurring as part of an unpredictable continuum and development – rather like listening to sounds of nature.

John Luther Adams is a composer whose music is often inspired by nature in Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. Another one of his pieces, “Become Ocean”, has a connection with Seattle: commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. It, however, is intended to be performed indoors in a standard concert hall setting.

*Another contemporary use of the ancient inuksuk sculptures: in Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi novel "2312", inuksuit (plural) have become a form of artistic expression on the planet Mercury as it is being colonized by humans – along with "goldsworthies" (from Andy Goldsworthy).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Disaster? (Maybe Not...)

Last Friday night (8/28/15), Keith Eisenbrey (composer, pianist, percussionist) and I (ditto) played a concert consisting of two relatively long pieces: Keith’s “Etudes d'execution imminent” (piano solo) and my “garbage symphony” called “Sounds, Found” (prerecorded sounds with found objects used as percussion).

What was startling about the concert wasn’t the music, though of course it was avant-garde. Keith’s piece in particular was very beautiful, with its spare, minimalist (not repetitive-minimalist) aesthetic and tendrils of melodies derived from mathematics.

What was startling about the concert wasn’t that few people showed up to listen: this is standard for the Wayward Music Series Concerts, which tend to be woefully under-attended.

What was startling was that, of the few people who came, there were far fewer by the end. So, as I commented to Keith, “Well, we are now officially avant-garde musicians. We have played a concert that cleared the hall.” (I did manage to clear a hall once before, at an open mike in California. I played as part of an unrehearsed folk music band that sang – or screeched – too loud and jarringly off-key. I guess we should have practiced a little first. Other than that, I have to go clear back to my days in Junior High School to remember a performance that tanked this badly.*)

When this occurs, it always leaves a question. Did they leave because the music was awful, like that folk band I just mentioned? (Hey, gimme a break! It was subtitled “a garbage symphony”!) Or, did they leave because the music was too innovative and too interesting, as happened famously to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Phillip Glass? Or, did they leave because the music was somehow both awful and too interesting, a sort of negative fusion of punk rock and classical/jazz? Since I composed the longer of the two pieces (and the one that seemed to cause most of the problem), I can’t really comment. I would hope that it was “too interesting” (I once had a radio DJ tell me that) and that a repeat performance would bring in more people who’d been frightened off the first time.

There is of course a third option: simply that the audience left because the music wasn’t quite what they wanted to hear, rather like expecting to hear Beethoven and getting The Pogues or vice-versa. Or that time I took a couple of the white cubes at the salad bar in a vegetarian restaurant, expecting tofu, and got feta cheese.

The music itself: Keith’s piece consisted of eight movements of various lengths, all fairly quiet and sparse. Background sound filtered in from outside, which he’d stated before that he didn’t mind – it adds to the ambience. In my opinion, the music wasn’t quite “ambient” enough for this; I tried to concentrate on the intellectual basis of the music but found myself distracted. However, I thought the composition itself was quite beautiful (and not really derivative of anything else I’d heard) and I’d like to hear it again. That description is a little vague, but I can’t really make more comments, having not really grasped the intent of the piece. At any rate, his part was definitely not the part of the concert that tanked...!

For my “garbage symphony”, Keith and I played (or more accurately, made noise with) our collections of pots and pans, plastic and glass bottles, CD storage racks, sticks (no stones), metal pipes, cardboard boxes and seashells – as well as a bunch of semi-instruments like a zoob-toob, a toy koto with the bridges removed, a broken Lao harp, and my “slab gong”. (The latter is a precarious contraption that always gets destroyed in performance – or at least ever since Neal Kosaly-Meyer accidentally wrecked one during a Seattle Composers Salon and I followed by deliberately smashing the other one. In this concert, the single slab gong was taken apart twice: the first time on accident [I put it back together during a later movement] and the second time on purpose.) Anyway, we improvised our parts, though there were instructions that I’d written as a “road map” to make sure we got to the end of each section at roughly the same time. Each section, as in a lot of my music, was delineated by a prerecorded track played over the house loudspeakers: recordings of skateboards, industrial air-conditioning units, wandering through a street fair, road construction, slapping wooden railings, airplanes, a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing”, street musicians, and a collection of other miscellaneous noise and music. That was the idea, of course, to “explore” the continuum from noise to sound to music.

Well, partially. Maybe mostly it was just to have a lot of fun bashing and whacking things.

And that was that. From a performer’s viewpoint there were moments of beauty in it, though its overall concept was perhaps a little dada/nihilist. There were quiet moments, of course, and, after I moved to the piano for the last two sections, it was supposed to end serenely. Not many stayed around to hear that part.

Maybe we’ll have to repeat the performance again and see what happens. If anything.

*About that junior high school performance (1970's):

It’s rather amusing when I tell it now… I had written a modernist-classical piano sonata that I entered in a state-wide composition contest, and I won. I thought that since my piece had won the contest, the kids at the school would like to hear it, so I played it in the talent show. After I finished, another boy asked me if I’d written that “song”. I answered that I had, and his response was to intone sarcastically, "…it figures." I was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean when I suddenly found myself surrounded by the two school bullies and their thugs, proclaiming that I should be punched in the face once for every note in the song. A teacher came over and broke this up before anything happened, but the teacher warned me that “I shouldn’t play such experimental music in the talent show”. Then, after school, one of my friends came over to my house and told me that I’d really messed up by playing something so “abstract” in the talent show, and all the other kids would hate me for it. Most of the other kids scoffed at the idea that it had won a contest when I told them... For the record, the piece was neither "experimental" nor “abstract” – it was simple folk-like melody, played exactly the same way five times, with a different accompaniment each time. Oh well – there’s no accounting for peoples’ perceptions.

Addendum 9/8/2015: A Listener's Reaction to the "Garbage Symphony":

From a Facebook message: "By now I presume you've read Keith's blog. I concur and feel most of what he says there, and was planning to write you after I read your Soundscroll, which seemed to express doubt and frustration over the event. I don't think either are warranted. It's hard to get people out for challenging stuff, and it's hard to get most people to stick around for work that requires stamina or re-adjustment. “Sounds, Found” is a tough and honest piece. Hearing it involves hearing that doesn't seek climaxes, high points or low points, and it involves having a high tolerance for disorderly mess. … [It] was a complete and full evening of music on its own. Though only about an hour, it was definitely a concentrated hour... I'm glad I was there. Your music is not like ANYBODY else's and it takes us places nobody else does. I absolutely look forward to hearing what you do next, and if you ever decide to program this piece again, I'll definitely be back for seconds." N

(He stayed for the whole performance.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: Improvised Benefit Concert for Paul Hoskin, 7/31/2015

“Veteran Seattle improviser, contrabass clarinetist and concert organizer Paul Hoskin is currently in the hospital with very serious ailments. He had planned to play a duo concert tonight with Arrington De Dionyso, so instead Nonsequitur is organizing a benefit concert to help him out, with many members of Seattle’s improvised music community participating. All artist fees and audience admissions will be donated to assist Paul in his recovery.” – Wayward Music Website

What I’ve decided is that we’ll go basically in alphabetical order except for a few people who have to leave early, who will start. Every five minutes, a new person will come up. When the new person comes up, the person who’d been playing the previous five minutes can either stop and let them solo, or can decide to keep doing a duet with them. Likewise, when the next person comes up, the first person could still keep playing if they want or they can take a break and come back and play with someone else later. There will be no intermissions, it will be non-stop continuous hit music.” – Steve Peters, organizer of the concert (not an exact quote). [Applause]

Impressions of the Music

Wally Shoup (alto sax): Bluesy with spaces and variations.

Neil Welch (tenor sax and electronics): Beautiful atmospheric ambience; saxsamples with echoplex.

Christian Pinnock (trombone): Subterranean grunts and wails from the depths of the subconscious.

Arrington De Dionyso (contrabass clarinet): Heavy metal overtone growl-screeches against a backdrop of stark silence (and at first, Mr. Pinnock’s trombone). This was somewhat in the manner of Mr. Hoskin’s sonic explorations.

Stuart Dempster (bass trombone): Apocalyptic sounds, though quieter and more resigned than those of Mr. De Dionyso.

Beth Fleenor (clarinet): Continuing Mr. Dempster’s sound-world, though gradually evolving into the lyrical. Hints of Balkan music, though slowed. None of Ms. Fleenor’s signature vocal pyrotechnics since the “heavy metal” part of the concert had been earlier.

Sue Ann Harkey (guitar): All sounds derived from open strings; the guitar on the floor and played in the manner of the Chinese guqin (and later, hammer dulcimer). The hall was filled with peaceful reverberation.

Greg Kelley and Jim Knodle (trumpets): The “second movement” began with two solos, both of extreme silence punctuated by the quietest sounds possible on the trumpet – ordinarily a loud instrument of course, but here almost inaudible, whispered, wind-like.

Susie Kozawa (home-mades and objects): half-heard, half-forgotten lamentations from a lost civilization; then metallic echoes from a spring-gong that released a rainbow of harmonics when tipped away from the floor; then plastic percussion frog-croaks to accompany:

Carol Levin (harp): electric, with rhythmic delay and pentatonic suggestions of both Celtic and Chinese music (and a wah-wah pedal). Resurrected the tranquility of Ms. Harkey’s guitar.

At this point, several musicians came up in quick sequence. There were four on stage at one point. David Milford’s violin, played in the Indian (rather than more familiar European) manner continued the “world music” mood of Ms. Levin’s harp. A second harp, this one acoustic, was added by Monica Schley, in glissandi and guitar-like strumming. China Star brought in the soprano sax; avant-garde plunks and stutters added punctuation to what was already happening.

Slowly everyone cleared, leaving John Teske (string bass). Very quiet overtones led to double-bowing (with two bows).

Jenny Zeifel (clarinet): quasi-melodic fragments across all registers of the instrument brought the music to what at first seemed like a tranquil coda. But then, strange vibrations began to filter in from elsewhere. Several of the other wind instrument players (and Ms. Kozawa’s percussion) were joining in. They progressed slowly, trancelike, to the stage, and ended the concert in a flourish of noise and shifting chords.

The concert was recorded so that Mr. Hoskin can hear it. Latest news is that he is recovering, and I think he will like the recording.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

K-T-R and other Stringed Instruments

This is a discussion that occurred on a linguistics page on Facebook. I thought musicians might be interested in it. I’ve changed writers’ names – actually I’ve given them fictional initials (except ME, which is, uh, me) – and provided explanations (in italics) for those unfamiliar with linguistics jargon.

ME: Here's one that touches on two of my interests: linguistics and music. Has anyone else noticed the Eurasian preponderance of words for stringed instruments that have three consonants: a K or S (or a voiced derivative), a T, and an R. Guitar, sitar, santur, zither, kithara, cittern, to name a few. This looks like an example of widespread borrowing (the word went with the thing) but the dictionary etymologies usually suggest different origins. There are a few others that are somewhat similar, from outside of the main area where these words are found: krar and kora (both in Africa and missing the T) and koto (in Japan and missing the R). Are these earlier borrowings? Or is there some common root word here? (Nostraticists might suggest an answer, but I think it's too recent an invention for this to be likely.) Or all some of them coincidences? Other stringed instruments have names that are entirely different. ...And, here's a really weird one -- the word "string" in English begins with the same sequence, minus the vowels...

BC: Guitar, zither, kithara, and cittern are documented cognates. The other stuff just sounds like coincidence to me...

(Cognates: words that share a common origin in related languages, for example, “apple” in English and “Apfel” in German.)

CJ: What if the names describe how they sound, when I think of string instruments I think of k's and t's.... it must be something common, like the fact that most languages I've ran into have m for mother, and b, f, or p for father.

LG: Similar to violin, string bass, zither and harp. (The words sound like, or at least describe, the instrument's sound.)

KT: When you pick six common sounds (k, s, g, z, t, r), a concept, and a continent, and look in languages on that continent for words for that concept containing a couple of those sounds, you are very likely to find a number of them even with no borrowing.

As for cognacy, consider that the proto-language whose existence this suggestion entails would have existed far longer ago than the oldest proto-languages that we have firm evidence for (for example, Indo-European, which is probably about 6,000 years old). Now consider some facts about sound change and meaning change.

(Indo-European: a large family of related languages, including many in India, Europe, and places between, such as Iran [Persia].)

(Proto-language: the [extinct] language from which members of a language family descended.)

Sound change: consider the Proto-Indo-European sound *dʰ. One example of a root containing this sound was *dʰeh₁y, meaning 'suckle, nurse'. The first sound in words starting with that root is now /f/ in Italian (e.g., /fiʎo/), /θ/ in Greek (/θili/), was /d/ in English until these words dropped out of the language (/delu/, /deːon/), and has been completely lost in Spanish (/ixo/), to give a few examples. So in about 6,000 years, *dʰ turned into /f/, /θ/, /d/, and nothing—totally different sounds: three different places of articulation, voiced and voiceless, fricative and stop, and nothing whatsoever.

(The “weird symbols” stand for individual speech sounds, called phonemes. These symbols are used in the science of phonetics and not in any actual language. The asterisk before a word or symbol for a sound indicates that it has been reconstructed and is not in the language now. The paired slashes, before and after, indicate a word being written with symbols, not the way it is actually written in the language.)

Meaning change: that same root *dʰeh₁y has descendants in Romance languages meaning 'son/daughter,' in Greek 'nipple,' in Kurdish 'mother,' etc.

(Romance languages: Languages descended from Latin, an Indo-European language.)

If, as you suggest when you suggest that some of these words (other than the set already pointed out) may be cognate, there was some kind of root *{k,g,s,z}-{t,θ}-r in a language that is ancestral to all of the ones you mention—namely Japanese, an uncertain West African language, and Greek or Arabic depending where the guitar word originally came from—this word would have been used many, many years before Proto-Indo-European was around. Since it was around longer, you would expect it to have changed even more in both sound and meaning than that example Indo-European root did, and it would be pretty likely to have dropped out of the language entirely—words do this a lot (I don't think there's any evidence that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, for example, had string instruments). In summary, if a root in a proto-language that old did survive into a number of geographically and linguistically distant modern languages, it would almost certainly not have recognizable similarities anymore in those languages.

Also, the kora seems to have been invented in the 16th century [according to online sources], so people would have had to hold onto the ancestor of the word "kora" for literally thousands of years, probably more than 10,000 years, before finally applying it to this new instrument. Similar situation for the koto, whose precursor instrument was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century [according to online sources].

DH: It looks like the examples you give fall into two classes: 1. Guitar, zither, kithara, cittern--from Greek kithara. 2. Sitar--loan from Old Persian. What the two have in common is that both contain a shared root meaning 'string,' which is apparently "tar" in Old Persian, and presumably something similar in PIE or other shared ancestor. It's worth noting that "psalter" is also in this group, with the Greek 'psallein' meaning "pluck". "Santur" might be a loan from this Greek word.

(“Loanword” and “borrowing” in linguistics refers to words moving from one language to another, for example, using the word “sushi” in English.)

(PIE = Proto-Indo-European)

EF: Yes as KT explained so well, it's PIE!

ME: Yeah, I thought it was too recent an invention to be entirely PIE or something even older (see my note about Nostratic, if it ever existed). "Krar", by the way, is Amharic, I think, and "santur" turns out to mean "hundred string(s)" in Old Persian.

KT: Most historical linguists reject the idea of a Nostratic family, fyi. I think the similarities among these words are coincidental, except the ones we already know are borrowings.

(Nostratic: A hypothetical language super-family including Indo-European and several other large families.)

ME: I looked up some lists of stringed instruments in the world, and I think I might have figured this out. There are three groups of words here. 1. Those obviously related to "guitar". 2. Others with the root word "tar", meaning "string", as mentioned above. These are all IE, of course. 3. Non-IE outliers: kora, kwitra, and krar in Africa, kantele in Finnland, and koto in Japan. These look like more eroded forms. More likely, they are accidental resemblances though I should note that the African examples are in the traditionally Orthodox and Islamic areas of Africa (which are geographically closer to the homelands of Indo-European), and other words for stringed instruments in Africa and Asia (and Europe) sound completely different. I might propose an earlier borrowing for one or more of these, though Idon't know which ones.

JW: I wonder whether there is any true acoustic similarity between the names of string instruments and the sounds they produce, say, "s", "z", "c" for the continuous sounds, "k", "t" for the pizzicato or pinching of the strings. Maybe just a coincidence?!...

KT: Yeah, I think just coincidence. The problem is it's pretty easy to imagine an onomatopoetic relationship between any randomly selected segments and things (especially things that make noise).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Retro Review: A Different German Music, Maybe Not So Different - Stockhausen's Piano Music on Vinyl

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, and as part of a series on "Krautrock"! - on Sit Down Listen Up.)

I think that when I was twelve or thirteen, my music teacher (composition and classical piano) pulled a fast one on me. One day I passed by his coffee table, as once a week, on my way to play the piano. Sitting on the coffee table that day was a two-record boxed album, the Complete Piano Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. “Don’t ever listen to that. It’s absolute junk,” my teacher growled, and we went on with the piano lesson. Later, of course, I asked to borrow the album. He gave it to me with a snarl (and probably a wink), and I took it home and listened to it – and of course, since it had been denounced as garbage by someone who represented the Powers That Be, I loved it. My teacher never made another comment about it.

Eventually I bought my own copy (and later, the three CDs by a different pianist – including more pieces that hadn’t been written when the records came out). However, the LP set, though monophonic, still has more of the spirit of the mid-century avant-garde than the more recent recordings. The CDs are too slick: they don’t have the necessary roughness that one associates with the style.

The pieces have abstract titles following the avant-garde tradition, actually derived from classical titles such as “Symphony no. 3” and “Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A major, opus 6 number 4”. Stockhausen’s pieces are simply titled “Klavierstück” (“Piano Piece”) and numbered with Roman numerals. Since these titles don’t really mean anything, the listener is free to imagine whatever he wishes.

Side A of the first record consists of Pieces I through VIII, missing VI, which takes the entire “B” side. The first four are short studies in the “total serialist” style; every note is derived from a series of notes treated mathematically. These pieces are interesting enough in their own way, but (to those unfamiliar with the procedures in the style) can sound like just random notes. I like them mainly as a chaotic introduction from which the order in the rest of the pieces emerges. Piece V begins to group the mathematics-derived notes into clusters, and we catch evanescent glimpses of melodies and rhythms. These are scattered in VII, which counts as a “slow movement” and surrounds most notes with silence and imaginative reverberations from the piano itself – made by complex overlapping of various pedal techniques. VIII is interesting in that it is nearly the antithesis of both V and VII; here, “total serialism” returns, fiery, in loud clusters and dissonant chords.

Piece VI, the “B” side of the album, was recorded on a different piano. Musically it is a longer version of V, with shadows of other methods of organization (melodies, rhythms) underneath the avant-garde atonality. The difference in the piano, however, produces a completely different effect – there are harsher high notes and much louder overtones floating above the bass, which makes me wonder how the quieter VII would sound if played on this same piano.

Side A of the second record includes Pieces IX and XI. Piece IX is one of my favorites. If I may indulge the reader in an extended synesthetic metaphor, the piece is shaped like a fancy ornamental goldfish, though one with a fantail and an extraordinary number of fins. It begins with two long decrescendos on a single chord – an unusually “stable” moment for Stockhausen – (these are the two parts of the fantail). What follows is a long exposition that slowly unravels the chord into a serialist piece (this is the body of the imagined fish). Along the way, there are both some startlingly romantic, melodic gestures and some thick dissonance. The chord keeps reappearing in small moments of repetition, recalling the beginning (these are the fins, which resemble the showy fantail but are smaller). Finally there is a leap to the highest registers of the piano, where scintillating tones sound over an occasional bass pedal point – I’d like to say this is the head of the fish, but the image fails at this point and I’d say, rather, that it reminds me of scattered stars in a galaxy. It ends in freeform silence, the opposite of its beginning. The final two notes are not literally the same two as in VII, but sound similar and thus tie the two pieces together.

Piece XI is a chance piece; a set of composed fragments that may be played once or twice in any order, with the tempo and dynamics instructions coming at the end of each previous fragment. The amount of engagement with the score must make this piece fascinating to the performer; but as an audience member it’s always seemed more interesting in theory than in practice. Even in a style of music that often deliberately sounds random (even if it’s not), it seems to lack direction and coherence. In Kontasrsky’s performance, there are clusters of quick arrhythmic chords at the beginning, and then it merely seems to meander along never reaching the same level again. (However, I once remixed it with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and got some beautiful synchrony.)

The last on the album is Piece X. This is the sonic climax; a scarifying labyrinth of tone clusters (including “banging on the piano” – there is a wonderful Youtube parody of this part…!), rapid glissandi (played with gloves on the hands to avoid injury), tremolo, trills, and, slowly emerging from the chaos, melodic fragments (one was lifted by Takemitsu as part of an idée-fixe for his piece “For Away”) and – finally – restful silence. The piece, and this two-record album, ends with a sonic “fade to white”, though my copy is rather old and includes a fair amount of scratches and surface noise at this point.

Stockhausen couldn’t really go any further in the same direction as X and XI without too much strain on both the pianist and the listeners. Subsequent Piano Pieces (still titled the same way) are lighter, more melodic, and introduce the element of humor. Those, however, are not included in this set of records. Where music such as Piano Piece X did go is somewhat surprising: rock music.

American rock bands, it seems, have always been somewhat reluctant to drop the beat and engage in a little exploration of sound simply as sound (with the obvious exception of the Grateful Dead’s “space” improvisations). British (i.e. Pink Floyd) and European (such as “Krautrock” bands) have been more open to the idea. In a three-CD collection of early “lost tapes” by Can, there are a number of long instrumentals that go firmly atonal and explore the shape of the sound, much as in Stockhausen’s IX (remember the fish?) and X. The bassist, Holger Czukay, studied composition with Stockhausen. …And so, what goes round comes round: Stockhausen’s early Piano Pieces, in the “total serialist” avant-garde style, were probably intended as a rebellion against “normal” rhythmic and melodic development, but as the works proceed, a new kind of order emerges and crosses over to rock music, and thus is right back into “normal” aesthetics. The history of both types of music – “classical” and “popular” – is richer for it.

Multimedia Installation Reivew: Gabriella Denise Frank's "Ugly Me" at Jack Straw, Seattle

Walk in
Distorted selfies greet you with a smile,
A guffaw,
A bellylaugh

Fashion pictures on the other wall spell “UGLY”
Perfect plastic airbrushed clones

On the third wall,
reflective metallic material spells “ME”
A conversational voice hovers in the air,
Stories about cameraphobia.

This was the first installation I’ve seen where my first reaction was laughter. The distorted selfies are fun-house mirror projections with giant noses or big protruding teeth or two heads. They contrast with the fashion-magazine cut-outs on the other wall. Yet, aren’t they all distortions of reality? Doesn’t the beauty industry distort reality to sell us products? Isn’t it all really to get us to buy more?

Who needs rock and roll?
Who needs songs about saving your soul?
Plastic music, plastic food,
Cellophane tunes for that synthetic mood
You got your inspiration from a vending machine,
It's an audio starvation diet,
Mannequins on a shopping spree,
Who cares if you like it? - Buy it.
– Resurrection Band, “Elevator Muzik”

But this is more than just a critique of pop culture. The word “ME” on the third wall says it. Anyone who views the installation is “ME”, of course… So in the end, we are part of the culture that says beauty, and what's manufactured to show to others, is everything. In this installation, we take a step back and laugh at ourselves for such a ridiculous idea, and then move beyond it.

“UGLY ME is a multi-media sound installation that explores the interplay between appearance and self-worth through fashion photography, distorted selfies, and spoken prose. Twelve original works read by the author play as a backdrop to a series of comical personal images and large-scale typographic collage. Visitors are encouraged to listen, linger, and contribute their own selfies to the investigation.” – Jack Straw website. The installation runs through August 14th.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Word(less) Music

(Unlike most of my blog posts, this one isn’t a review of a concert or an album.)

I'm assuming that other people have experienced the weird psycho-musical phenomenon that I'm about to relate, and that there's a name for it. It's probably somehow related either to synesthesia, mondegreens, having a “song stuck in your head”, or some combination.

Here’s the set up. I must have been nine or ten years old. The radio was on at home, to a classical station. Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Tune” came on. At some point, I began singing along with the words. “…Under the apple tree, under the apple tree…”

“What do those words have to do with ‘Variations on a Nursery Tune’?” asked my mom, quizzically.

I answered, “I don’t know, but that’s the words.” I thought to myself, why would the words relate to the title if the composer didn’t want them to? (Or, why would they have to relate to “Twinkle twinkle little star”, the nursery tune on which the piece was based?) I don’t remember her response, but when I listened more closely, I realized that that, of course, this was an instrumental piece, for piano and orchestra. There was no singing. So where had the words come from?

A couple of years later, I had forgotten all about it, and it happened again. I was at a symphony pops concert with some family friends. The orchestra was playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”. I don’t think I’d actually heard the second theme before then, because when it started (after the more famous part), I nearly folded over with hysterical laughter. All I could do was gasp between spasmodic giggles. The words were so ridiculous! …But nobody else seemed to think that the crazy rhyme was as funny as I did.

It turns out again, of course, that there isn’t any rhyme – but I clearly heard, “lumpkin pumpkin pie / it’s a lumpkin pumpkin pie / yes a lumpkin pumpkin pie / and it’s lumpy all over / all the way up high”. There was no way for me not to notice it – those words were (and are) as intrinsic to the music as its instrumentation, tempo, and rhythm. If I listened carefully, concentrating on the instruments, I could try to ignore them; but even so the rhyme buzzes away in the background.

Once, another (even loopier) version of the same suddenly appeared. The Danube happened to come on a classical radio station, and suddenly: “lumpf gallumpf galai / it’s a lumpf gallumpf galai / yes a lumpf gallumpf galai / and it’s flopping all over / really makes me cry.” In the half-second that followed, I mumbled, “huh!?”, blurted out “They changed the words!”, then, “What the @&!! is a lumpf gallai!?”, and finally, was glad that there was nobody else at home to hear me. Now, when I hear the piece, I wait to see which version it’s going to be... There hasn’t been a third one.

(Anyone who’s wondering about “hearing voices” at this point needn’t. I don’t actually hear anyone singing the words – the words are merely there, as part of the music, in the same way that the notes are there.)

There are a small number of purely instrumental pieces where my brain stubbornly insists that there are words – these “lyrics” are usually nonsense, as the above examples, and I hear them as plainly as the instrumental parts (or even more so). I don’t notice that they actually aren’t there until I think about it. The finale of the Nielsen Third has “high above the hill…” (why “above” rather than “upon” is one of those mysteries that goes with this phenomenon); Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” contains a descending scale that sings “selus unta crobita”, pure nonsense that sounds like it might mean something in Latin but probably doesn’t. And speaking of foreign languages, here’s the strangest part: this involuntary mental trick isn’t limited to the sounds or combinations of sounds that can occur in English (obviously, my native language). There’s part of Harry Partch’s “Castor and Pollux” where a plucked string clearly sings out “nyairf-nyoi”, with the Y’s as a consonants as they might occur in Russian. When I first heard this piece, I was unaware that this combination of consonants was possible (it never occurs in English at the beginning of a word, and I was twelve or thirteen years old and didn’t know any foreign languages or anything about linguistics) – but I clearly heard it and struggled to write it down or explain it to others. (Of course this Partch example might just be an extreme case of onomatopoeia. But then again, I’d always pronounced “thirteen” and “fourteen” with a "foreign" sound that doesn't exist in English either, the Japanese double T. It made it easier for me to learn Japanese pronunciation later…!)

This bizarre mental gymnastics seems to be limited to orchestral music – and Harry Partch – I’ve never noticed it in chamber music or jazz or other types of instrumentals. Of course it doesn’t happen in rock or rap or pop because those already have words.

So what of it? Is this something that only happens to me? Has anyone else had this experience? Is there a name for it? Comments and commentary are welcome, as are suggestions that I seek professional help.

As the bumper sticker proclaims: You’re just jealous because the voices talk to me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seattle Composers Salon, 7/10/2015

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.

First up: Keith’s piano pieces. Or, piano piece. This was a set of very short pieces (the shortest was about thirty seconds) intended to follow after “One” by Keith’s former music teacher – this was “Another”. The six pieces had evocative titles and hypertext:

(Sphinxes can appear most anywhere) – chords.
(Scarabs love to scuttle among the sphinxes) – three scuttles of notes, very very very short.
(Pools stay put) – beautiful, seemingly immobile, languid sounds.
(Potions can be mixed together, bit to bit or batch to batch)
(All options remain open) – these two sections acted as the “classical” development section.
(Smoke is where it ends) – gradually dissipates into the atmosphere.
(As an alternative, try not filling the clavichord with ping-pong balls.)

Next up: The continuation of the mythological trio by Nadia Kadrevis. This is an interesting concept, where the instruments take on the rolls of invented mythological figures (as I once imagined a symphonic-rock version of Tolkien’s “Music of the Ainur”). Here, an angular, modal melody kept reappearing, though the three instruments often used it as a springboard into their own material. It was quite pretty, and the soprano sax (though unfortunately getting out of tune near the end) inevitably recalled Paul Winter and Oregon (the band). The third and last installment will be in a future Salon.

After the introduction (and stage reconfiguration): the next installment of my “garbage piece”. Part one: traffic and yelling in the street, and clang and clatter from pots, lids, sticks, cardboard boxes, and zoob-toobs. I’m afraid that I gave the wrong impression about this, saying that it was a reflection of political noise but containing samples of Pentecostal street preachers. I was not saying that they are supplying the noise. Sometimes they do, but more often they rail against it. The noise is actually coming from all directions in the U.S. government right now. Part two: more traffic, giving way to children playing, a high-school performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”, a 78-record of vintage big-band jazz, an indie-rock band, and bells and reverberations at St. Mark’s Cathedral. All of this was recorded on a single summer evening three years ago. Anyway, following fragmentary instructions, Keith Eisnebrey and I played a scattering of miscellaneous objects as percussion. These “found object” parts create random rhythms that gradually synch up (or not) to the jazz and rock. An audience member asked about the relationship of the recorded sound to the objects on stage: there really isn’t any. This piece is merely about the differences and similarities of noise, sound, and music.

There will be a full performance of this "garbage symphony" at 8:00 on August 28th, at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103. Keith and I will play the found percussion, and Keith will also play a piano set.

Lastly, Kam Morrill presented a piano trio (violin, cello, piano) in three movements. Minimalism in the manner of Steve Reich gradually opened up into neo-classical. There was a beautiful pizzicato section; a symphonic gesture that recalled the Tchaikovsky 4 or the Mahler 2. The middle, slow, movement developed a single long melodic line, stretching it to the breaking point (I was reminded again of a symphony, the Bruckner 7) and then abruptly resolved in a different direction. The dance-like, syncopated finale was an unexpected merger of Ginastera and, again, Steve Riech: Latin-inspired dance rhythms were crosscut with other Latin-inspired dance rhythms a smooth harmonic language in open fourths, fifths and major seconds. Despite these disparate influences, the piece presented a coherent and sonorous whole that seemed much shorter than its fifteen minutes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Waywords and Meansigns: Finnegans Reawakening as Music

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, on Sit Down Listen Up: One Album.)

Now this is an interesting idea: the “whole wholume” of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” set to music by various musicians, not as a set of songs or an opera but as a single day-long composition. I’ve listened to about two-thirds of it so far, and it promises to be something greater than the sum of its parts. It is available for free download or streaming audio at Waywords and Meansigns.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, FW is an epic (some would say impenetrable) stream-of-consciousness dream narrative with the barest thread of a plot. A man, H. C. Earwicker, or just HCE, is sleeping. In his dream, he becomes a landscape on which is reenacted the fall of man, symbolized by Humpty Dumpty’s fall and the fall of Tim Finnegan from a ladder. Later in the dream, Earwicker commits an uncertain crime, and is put on trial. Anna Livia, or ALP (probably Earwicker’s wife in his non-sleeping life), presents a letter which will maybe exonerate him; but the letter is either lost in a chicken coop or just unreadable, and is mocked instead. The dream then shifts to three other characters, either Earwicker’s children or fragments of his own psyche (or both): the lowlife Shem the Penman, the heroic Shaun the Postman (aka Juan and Yawn), and the flighty Issy (aka Izzy, Lizzy, and Tizzy). These three regress to their childhood – and while growing up again, Shaun proves to be Earwicker himself. The meaning of “wake” shifts from Tim Finnegan’s funeral to the idea of “waking up” or resurrection, and (though the last monologue is given to Anna), Earwicker awakens and the novel abruptly cuts off – or loops back around to the beginning.

This unresolved fragment is hardly a storyline for a novel. (To be fair, the book is actually much more complex and has literally hundreds of minor characters who float in and out of the dream.) But it isn’t really about plot; it’s not really “about” anything. The interest comes in Joyce’s use of language: the entire tome is a vast puzzle on wordplay, shifting (and very complex) symbolism, and dream imagery.

In this recorded version of chapter one, interest is also created by the music and the readings. Acoustic, Irish-tinged repetitive minimalism (mostly on a mandolin) accompanies the first part; this later gives way (during the “Mutt and Jute” conversation) to electronic hums and whistles, and then more subtle harpsichord and scratchy strings (for the Prankquean sequence), then “retro” synthesizers (in the Japanese pentatonic scale) and Indonesian kacape. Though James Joyce was Irish, the voices don’t have a particularly Irish accent but they do sound European – adding, perhaps, another international layer to the already multifaceted text and music.

This works well with FW, of course, with its fractured stream-of-(un)consciousness. The music becomes another layer of the dream. …But I could imagine this as a new type of literature, made for and disseminated on the internet. Musicians and authors could work together, producing words with music that are not “songs” but something closer to films (but without the visual element!). There are precedents, of course. John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” (with David Tudor) certainly counts. I myself have occasionally read a poem or a chapter of a book that I’d written, at the Hugo House (Seattle), with music that I had composed specifically for the background. (I am also still trying to gather musicians to make a recorded version of the “Shervanya Nocturnal Music” that appears in my novel “Tond”.) I had thought of this type of activity, however, as a continuation of the live improvised music accompanying “Beat” poetry and thus perhaps a form of non-rhyming rap – I hadn’t thought of producing an extended composition that goes with (or is part of) an entire novel.

The second section (Book 1 Chapter 2) didn’t at first seem to be “music” to me, but simply an actor reading an audiobook. My opinion changed about two-thirds of the way through, where the “Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” begins – ambient synthesizers trail in from somewhere, unnoticeable at first, and then other voices (all spoken by the same actor) appear. As the ballad itself proceeds, with music partially provided by Mr. Joyce (there is a page of “sheet music” in the novel), it becomes something of a commentary on a nonsensical Irish song sounding as if in the middle of a Broadway musical. The spoken section at the beginning was merely an extended introduction to this.

The trial scene (Book 1 Chapter 3) is accompanied by alt-rock and circus music – perhaps a confirmation of the parody in this scene. Joyce, like Lewis Carroll in “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, was pointing out the absurdity of the court system of the time.

The least satisfying part so far (to me) is the long chapter which contains the “Mookse and Gripes” sequence. This is one of my favorite parts of the book, with its captivating surrealist imagery ripped right from our subconscious: the weirdly macho, armor-encrusted Mookse; the scruffy Gripes (sitting in a tree, made of grapes, and apparently fermenting as the narrative proceeds); their enigmatic but weirdly perfect insults to each other (“Uskybeak! Ungulant! Uvuloid!”); the shimmering cloud-girl watching them from above (she rains into the river after they depart); the “tears of dusk”; the woman “of no appearance with chills at her feet”, and so on. All very interesting, but the problem occurs with the narrator. He renders the entire chapter as the Mookse might, in both a snooty “posh” accent and quasi-drunken slur (with crowd sounds in the background), and it’s difficult to distinguish the characters – the pompous, professorial poohbah who pontificates the parable is particularly problematic to pin down. This could be a meta-comment on the Wake itself; as in most dreams, characters morph and mutate into one another – but in this audio version, it’s simply less interesting.

More successful are the character sketch chapters. Book 1 Chapter 5, a satire on Anna’s letter becomes, at some point, satire on the Book of Kells (Medieval Irish calligraphy) and then Finnegans Wake itself. The music to this section is a series of drones, gradually becoming a Celtic “slow air” and then an Indian raga, and it is very beautiful. The description of Shem the Penman and his ramshackle mansion is likewise delivered over minimalist string quartet music that v e r y slowly emerges from seemingly endless drones. In this case the voice is electronically slowed (slightly) and lowered (considerably), fitting for the effect of the dream. The last chapter of Book 1 is gossip about Anna, accompanied again by alt rock and circus music (and some freeform improvisation); this is a lively and pointed commentary on the ubiquity but immorality of wagging tongues.

Book 2, chapter 1 is the central part of the novel, and the beginning of the densest dream-language. This is presented as a triptych. The opening and closing sections are almost hip-hop, with sections of a heavy beat and samples from pop and rock (“…another one bites the dust…”, “call me maybe…”) and the Ride of the Valkyries. The middle section is rendered as Beatnik poetry (with a slight “Punk” edge) over jazz improvisations and cross-cut with fragments from probably more than fifty recordings of various types of music. The dream has expanded its borders into other times and places. Other chapters of Book 2 are treated similarly except for the “Nightlessons”. This is forty-plus pages of the gobbledygook that the adult worlds of history and mathematics must seem like to children, with equally incomprehensible footnotes by the three kids, some of which (the footnotes) are supposed to sound “intelligent”. Most of this chapter is sung by a single female voice, a capella – a masterstroke by the musician, Liz Longo; one thinks of it as Anna singing the lessons to her children.

I have not heard all of the rest of it yet. Obviously, the extreme length is an impediment to sitting down and giving one’s full attention to listening to this for any particular amount of time. The question arises: to what extent is this an “album”? To what extent is this even “music”? My answer to first question is perhaps obvious: It’s an “album” in that it’s a set of musical “numbers” that occur in a particular order and were intended to be heard (at least once) together; and it is (like the greatest “albums”) more than the sum of its parts. Most “albums”, of course, are between thirty minutes and an hour, appear on one or more recorded media, and can be listened to at one sitting. But there are much longer examples. Double albums such as the Beatles’ “White Album” are of course a little longer but still can be listened to at one sitting if one makes the time. The same with symphonies – I hear these as “albums” intended to be played live (though of course they can be found recorded too); again, most are between thirty minutes and an hour, but some are much longer. The Mahler Third, Bruckner Fifth, and Shostakovich Seventh are all around ninety minutes in length. Operas and musicals are longer still (these, at least in performance, have a visual element, but are again found recorded – music only) – the Mother of All is Wagner’s “Ring” – and here the idea stretches as to what can be experienced at one time. Sound installations and conceptual pieces such as John Cage’s “To Be Played As Slowly As Possible” are the longest of all – these can last for months, or years, or even centuries. (I myself have done a two-month installation.) Of course no one can listen to the whole of one of these; they are more an immersive experience that one can be a part of for as long (or short) as one wishes. But they are “albums” in that they are (sets of, not necessarily) musical “numbers” that are intended to be played together and are greater than the sum of their parts.

The second question, “Is it music?”, is to me at least, more subjective. On one level it’s meta-music: “Finnegan’s Wake” (with the apostrophe) is the title of an Irish ballad, the story of Tim Finnegan’s fall (and resurrection) – referenced in Joyce’s novel. The novel contains other musical references as well. On another level, it’s a discussion of the differences and similarities between music and speech: because much of the fragmented style of writing is not understandable on a literal level, the reader sometimes has to be content to listen to its melody, almost as one listens to the sound of a foreign language as music.

Dismissing all naïve, cultural-based ideas such as “music has a beat and chords”, my music teacher when I was in middle school defined music as “organized sound expressing emotion”. I would change it slightly to “sound, other than speech, made on purpose, as expression”. By either definition, this rendition of Finnegans Wake is music as much as it a reading of the novel. It joins musical compositions basedon the Wake, by John Cage, Stephen Albert, Toru Takemitsu, Benjamin Boretz, Witold Lutoslawki, Harry Partch, Samuel Barber, and scores of others (including a musico-dramatic “work in progress” version by my friend Neal Kosaly-Meyer – reviewed last December in this blog). What else it is, is up to the individual listener.