Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Reviews of Two Books on Music: "Music After the Fall" by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, and "From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate" by Nathaniel Mackey

I found these two books in the public library and had a lot of time to read them during the coronavirus pandemic. They are both on the topic of experimental music, though experimental in different ways, and the books themselves are quite different. (I also left both of these reviews on the library website.)
"Music After the Fall" by Tim Rutherford-Johnson There has been a change in the zeitgeist of popular music recently. When I was in high school in the 1970’s any music older than the Beatles was taboo (and any newer music that wasn’t rock was equally taboo). All that has changed. With the advent of hip-hop and its sampling and use of the turntable as an instrument, older music is available (and often re-purposed), and kids today are as likely to listen to Led Zeppelin and even Glen Miller as they are to Drake. (My parents’ or grandparents’ music – unthinkable to my generation!) What Mr. Rutherford-Johnson has done in this book is chronicle that same change of culture in the (previously academic) world of contemporary classical music since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once secluded in the proverbial ivory tower with mostly atonal compositions that could be understood on their own (as music) but seldom were given a chance to be so, “modern” classical has entered (or perhaps infiltrated) the commercial music scene. The borders are porous now. What began with various forms of “tonal” minimalism and ECM’s groundbreaking Arvo Pärt recordings in the 1980’s has continued to the present. The author presents all of the music’s multiple facets (and there are many!) without any preconceptions about what is “commercial” or “academic”. Likewise, he withholds judgement about the integrity of such a blurring (given the hostility of the classical establishment to “pop” music through much of the 20th century). All major movements and trends are covered, including some that were probably invented by the author to classify or at least investigate works that previously seemed orphaned in their own world. Included are Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, George Rochberg’s Third String Quartet (one of my favorites!), Turnage’s operas, the Wandelweiser Collective (new to me but I’m finding it fascinating), Luigi Nono’s “La Lontonana…” (another one of my favorites), Pamela Z’s “Gaijin”, Ali-Zadeh’s “Mugam Sayagi”, Merzbow, crossovers with electronica, ultra-long pieces like “Longplayer”, “classical” deconstructions of other material such as Isabel Mundry’s “Dufay Bearbeitungen” and Michael Finnissy’s “English Country Tunes”, experimental pieces with videos (music/cinema mashups?) and too many more to list here. The playlist at the end is long enough to keep one listening for months, and (since I haven’t heard ¾ of this material) I’m going to be doing just that.
"From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate" by Nathaniel Mackey This collection of fictional letters forms not so much a novel as a vast discussion on the subtleties and usage of language. Concepts are bandied about, words (and even characters' names) become puns (i.e. Penguin, a character, becomes Pen, then Penny, then E Po Pen, then King Pen, with lengthy discussions on the ramifications of each). Likewise, the characters themselves morph and mutate into new forms. Penguin and Penny are originally different people; the narrator "N." may also be Jared Bottle (the "broken bottle" of the title), who may also be Djbot Baghostus, who may also be (again) E Po Pen. All of this is tied together by the occasional third-person narration in the "Creaking of the Word" sections. Ostensibly the "story", what there is of it, is about musicians playing in a free-jazz band, the sessions of which cause surrealism (or at least "magic realism") to break into reality; but the more one reads, the more one realizes that this "story" may all be fragments of a dream (and a dream about language as much as about music). The surrealism may be the setting. As if to emphasize this, two characters remain in the dreams of the others -- at the same time. Perhaps the author is saying that reality and dream-states are indistinguishable while someone is experiencing them. At any rate, it's fascinating stuff; and Mr. Mackey's knowledge of jazz (and other music) is encyclopedic. Not an easy read by any means, but fun to explore.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Review of the Album "Air Drop" by Darryl Blood

This dropped into my inbox on day, and I decided to give it a listen. The title “Air Drop” conjures images of supplies descending by parachute, or propaganda leaflets scattered from a helicopter during wartime. This music has slight references to both (some pieces could be the gratefulness for food and equipment dropped into a remote location; others could be the flapping of papers in the wind, against a background of danger). Or it could be that the music has “dropped” through the air onto your computer or device (as it did with mine). The image of birds sitting on a wire suggests another, ickier image — but this is not reflected in the music.
There’s a lot of Pink Floyd, a lot of Brian Eno, and a lot of John Cage in this beautifully-produced suite of ambient keyboard pieces. That is not to say that it’s entirely derivative of other artists and composers (it’s not), but that inspiration comes from many sources which are amalgamated into a new whole. All in all, it’s quite beautiful. The first three tracks lay down the trajectory (or drop?) of the album. “Abernathy” begins with what could be the start of Philip Glass minimalism, but is then overlaid with a melody in what sounds like the Japanese pentatonic scale (in a different key so it’s actually not pentatonic) and the result is somehow reminiscent of the keyboard work in the “Dark Side of the Moon” album. The first “Air Drop” tune (#2; they’re out of order) is a prepared piano interlude that at first sounds microtonal; ambient drones sneak in underneath. The third, “Ardentia”, is straight from Eno’s “Ambient” series, though the melody slowly threads itself through what could be chord changes for a jazz standard. Again, very pretty, if in a slightly bittersweet mood. After these first three, the styles mix and merge. Scattered drumming splatters itself Jackson Pollock style across the prepared piano of the second “Air Drop” (#4), then settles into a steady, slow rock beat underlying the synthesizers in “Novella”. The third “Air Drop” (#5) features a very interesting compositional technique, sometimes heard in the Javanese gamelan: the steady pulse is relegated to the higher notes, while the lower pitches mark off time as deep gong-strokes. The relationship of “beat” to “chords” is inverted. (Miles Davis used the same technique in a slow bebop number, “Nefertiti”, though with a very different end result – it was laid back and infinitely “cool”, whereas Mr. Blood’s piece seems to be a series of nervous glances at a relentlessly ticking clock.) “Voyeur” is another ambient synth piece; then in the last “Air Drop” (#1) the synth and the prepared piano have become one: we’re not sure which we’re listening to at any given moment. Finally, “Stille” (which could mean either “Silent” in German or “Quietly” in Danish) resolves everything with a set of majestic chords that seem to sound from a great distance. The last “Air Drop” piece (#3) is not on the album. I’ll resist the pun about the piece being dropped and assume instead that it did not fit into the overall shape of the album. If the present pieces are any indication of what it’s like, I’d like to hear it by itself sometime. In general what we hear plays on the aspect of “air”: much of the music floats, is blown by wind, or becomes wind itself. In the end, it disappears from the air altogether, slowly departing into infinite space. We listeners are left earthbound, of course, but we are glad to have heard it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

CD Review: Ball of Wax volume 60 (60 x 60 = 60)

I received this CD compilation in the mail after contributing a song (the way music has to be heard now, during the covid pandemic). I popped it in the CD player. More than once. Good stuff! One could describe it as a journey through a wide landscape of music, all in tiny steps (60 one-minute songs; no cut-offs or shortened versions), or perhaps it’s a huge chandelier made of tiny, perfectly-cut gems. Whatever. Just listen to it!


There’s too much here to do much more than list a few things that particularly caught my interest, so here goes. It begins with scattered voices over ambient-rock chords (“Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski” by Hart Slights) and a Beatles-ish song (“Rmembering Six” by the Ex-Optimists). These two form a perfect intro for almost any indie rock album. From there, it proceeds into widely varying territory. My own piece (“Fragments / Figments”) is something of an outlier, a “contemporary classical” piece of musique-concrète (while a lot of the others are various types of homemade indie-rock); but also there is a minimalist ode to Philip Glass (which does not sound like Philip Glass!) (“The Glass Cowell” by Tom Dwyer), a mysterious electronica soundtrack (“Warren Quarentino” by the Great Unwashed Luminaries – great band name!) followed by Biblical law handed down through foggy ambience (“The Lighthouse” by Red Weather Tigers). Doom metal makes an appearance (“Theme to Winterrose” by Hauras), followed immediately by a (Beatle-ish, again) happy pop tune (“Timothy” by Jose Bold) and several other 1960’s sound pallets. Then something that could be either Pink Floyd or Radiohead (!), “Turnstyle” by Greenhorn) and something else that could be Jethro Tull or Simon and Garfunkel (!!), “What we don’t know” by Bluehorn (green, blue, are they the same artist?). Phoebe Tsang uses a violin in a “Cat Remix” that really sounds like a cat. There are some beautiful, quiet ballads (including “No Matter How Long” by Levi Fuller). As hinted by the several pairs of tunes mentioned above, part of the genius of this compilation is the curating. Here’s another example: children singing with an old upright piano (“untitled” by ‘lectrified spit) is immediately followed by a memories of a school bell (“Gengen” by Small Life Form). Slightly later, these kids grow up (a little) and go through their teenage rebellious years with some 80’s punk (by Vic Bondi, Sonic Graffiti, and others). Then there are expletive-laden samples that become beats (‘ohshtmthrfkrwefkdnw” by The Pica Beats) and a horror soundtrack (“hearbleeps” by riceburger). There’s a classic villain song from a twisted musical (“The House is on Fire” by The Axis of Descent et al.) and classic soulful vocals (“The Slide Show” by Sam Russell) and even a subdued free-jazz number (“Too Smart by a Quarter” by The Vardaman Ensemble). All in all it’s a wild collection, a journey through many small towns that somehow are all part of the same vast empire. It’s worth hearing many times, and savoring. I know I’ll be listening several times more, and enjoying the journey.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ten More Albums (Jazz; Also Beatles, Battles, and Two Guys Named Chris)

Continuing the mini-reviews of ten albums from my collections of CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums during the corona virus lockdown. There was an unusual amount of jazz and improvised music this time, but I didn't plan that: Coltrane, Corea, and Coleman all begin with C. (Also, in the rest of the B's: Chris Brown, Chris Burke, Beatles, Battles. Anyone for "Fox in Sox" and the Tweetle Beetles?) As always, comments and questions are welcome.

Duets (Chris Brown et al.)
Here electro-acoustic source material makes a leap from prerecorded musique-concrète to improvisations on electric instruments. By turns mysterious, strident, sci-fi-ish, ethereal, danceable (for the very nimble) and dark, this provides resonances quite unknown until this album came out.

An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea In Concert
These two still do things on pianos that can’t be done on pianos. And, unlike several other musicians I can name whose technique is impeccable, the result is more than just a lot of fast notes. I especially like how the “riffs” bounce from one player to the other, both in standards and in improvisations, and the occasional use of extended techniques on the instrument.

Free Jazz (Ornette Coleman)
The father of a sub-genre, not entirely free improvisation. At times the music coalesces into obvious themes; at other everyone stops and starts at the same time. The bass solo and the series of drum solos are interesting in themselves. Whatever – it’s still fascinating: a lot of noise and a lot of music at the same time, full of colors, always changing, always the same, turning upon itself like a jazz homage to giant gothic stained-glass windows.

Gloss Drop (Battles)
Hocketting is a sort of metrical ping-pong game used in Balinese gamelan, the Medieval European "Ars Nova", certain genres of African music, and experimental pieces by Jo Kondo and others. Here, it makes a rare appearance in indie rock (along with, on other albums, a track or two by Dirty Projectors) and electronica. The result is a hyperactive, experimental, rhythmically precise chaos, and it's a lot of fun. It's also exhausting. The rhythms and the melodies seem to be one in the same, and both jump from instrument to instrument (and sometimes to vocals) and side to side and back to front. It's impossible to describe; one has to hear it, and then hear it again, to make sure that what you heard was really what was there. And please, hear it with the volume up.

Idioglossia (Chris Burke)
1989 post-punk beat-driven electronica with samples and wry commentary on culture, TV, and politics. “Get ready to give in to evil! Sounds neat! Extremely attracted to – evil!” Little did we know that this satire (probably on heavy metal music) would actually describe how American society would go in another quarter century. Also one of Max Ernst’s well-known supposed hallucinations, here rendered as a Devo-esque (or Warhol-esque?) glorification of style over substance: “The hat makes the man, a man made of Hat, replace the dinosaur…”

A Love Supreme (John Coltrane)
This 1964 masterpiece is one of the classic jazz albums. It’s also a fine introduction to Coltrane’s work, situated as it is between his “standard” style and his more interesting (and therefore less popular) experimental period. “Heads” and solos flow into one another freely in a jazz stream-of-consciousness; in fact, many of the jazz “solos” are more like classical “development sections”, where Trane takes fragments from the main theme and repeats them in various keys (that may or may not be related to the accompaniment). Then there are those timbral innovations, such as the chanting of “a love supreme” in multiple overdubs, and the timpani solo by the drummer, Elvin Jones. The whole album is a sound experience that is still as fresh now as when it was recorded.

The Number Pieces I (John Cage)

Music from the intense edge of silence; some of it is even more intense than silence and yet silence is a major part of it. The piece with rainsticks is perhaps the most beautifully held-back aleatory music ever conceived.

Raga Mian Ki Malhar (Hariprasad Chaurasia)
The light and easy sound of the last third of this flute and drum music fools the listener. Like Mozart or Chopin, it’s only simple on the surface. The extended introduction provides clues: the flute (here and there sounding very close to the Japanese shakuhachi) enumerates the notes of the raga slowly, one at a time, gradually increasing in complexity (but seemingly decreasing in volume) until all possibilities are exhausted. Only then does the tabla appear, in a second “movement”. For the listener unfamiliar with Indian classical music, this would be a good (and beautiful!) introduction. (When I published this, "tabla" had been changed to "table". Bleepin' spell-check.)

Right of Violet (Alex Cline, Jeff Gauthier, G. E. Stinson)
Free-improv jazz on electric instruments becomes a rock-based symphony. The entire album strikes me as being slightly too long, but the string of “compositions” has an interesting shape centering on the gorgeous “Sophia” for electric violin (with multiple delays) and gamelan gongs. “Metal” music preceded this, having built up slowly ex nihilo and then scattering into fossilized fragments; “Sophia” itself (herself?) then trails off in a similar manner, but the beauty remains even as the metal rebuilds itself and then subsides a second time. A hint of Vaughan-Williams lingers as the music concludes.

The White Album (Beatles)
Probably doesn't need an introduction. With this, mainstream pop stared across the abyss into experimental music (there’s even a tape collage!) but never quite made the leap. Maybe that doesn’t matter: some of this is a little dated now (and there’s a lot of awful baggage) but there’s still great melodic songwriting and some interesting ideas that pop artists are still coming to terms with. Worth several listens, even if only because (for better or worse) it’s part of our history.

So that's it for the music, for now. For another type of discussion altogether, check out the new sister blog of this one (it's about books, words, and random stuff about linguistics) and my new website about my books (yes, there's a book of this blog!).

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ten More Albums

Continuing the mini-reviews of ten albums from my collections of CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums. One needs something to do during the orona virus lockdown. As always, comments are welcome, and of course I'll post other topics about music (and art) as they come up.

Banish Misfortune (Malcolm Dalglish and Grey Larsen)
A classic of hammer dulcimer recordings, this collection of folk songs reflects a tenderness and directness of expression often buried under layers of erudition in other genres – yet it is no less complex or effective. As always, a pleasure to listen.

Batak of North Sumatra
Earworms lurk just beneath the surface in this collection of aggressive traditional Indonesian music that has nothing to do with the more familiar gamelan. The melody is as often carried by percussion as by the vocals and the omnipresent double reeds. This stuff rocked for centuries before the invention of electric instruments.

Carmina Burana (The Boston Camerata conducted by Joel Cohen)
Carl Orff fans: this ain’t that. These are songs from the original manuscript, in the Medieval tunes that have been used since the 1960’s (the manuscript itself has very little actual musical notation). These performances use innovations like rainsticks or the re-use of the “Dies Irae” melody – so these are not “authentic” versions – however, Medieval musicians would probably have innovated with what was at hand. These were bawdy drinking songs, after all…

Field Recordings (Bang on a Can All-Stars)
Exploring the noisy demilitarized zone between “new music” and indie-rock. Individual pieces vary from catchy minimalism to guitar-heavy drone metal to happy/comical circus music, almost all based on field recordings of some type. A musical experience, to be sure.

Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995 (Anthony Braxton)
One would expect this manic perpetual-motion machine to wind down at some point, but it keeps morphing and mutating, sprouting variations on its single running line of notes. It is both exhilarating and maddening music – and needs to be heard at least once to either relax you or put you farther over the edge.

Ordo Virtutum (Hildegard von Bingen, played by Sequentia)
This may be the recording that brought Hildegard’s music back into the spotlight after almost a millennium, yet this is a flawed record. The performances are pretty but often seem hesitant, there is at least one easily-audible flubbed tape-splice, and the celestial chorus of the finale is lackluster. The music of this proto-opera itself, though, is fascinating: melodies proceed in directions quite unlike any others (and also quite unlike the Gregorian chant upon which they are based). The instrumental parts provide drones and heterophonic accompaniments that would grow centuries later into the many types of harmony that we know today.

Piano Concertos (Béla Bartók, played by András Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer)
A grand explosion of rhythm from the first attack of modernism; Bartók is saying that the piano is definitely a percussion instrument, not the modified harp that the Romantic composers had made it. Concerto #1 is intense, dissonant and modernly “barbaric” in the manner of Stravinsky; #2 is an exciting ride; and #3 is unexpectedly lyrical and expressive – yet taken together, they almost form one large piece.

String Quartets Op. 18 #4, Op. 74 ‘Harp’, and Op. 130-133 (Beethoven, played by the Elias String Quartet)
What more can I say? Nearly flawless performances of some of the most profound music ever written. The “Harp” Quartet seems to have that instrument present; but it is not these “special effects” that fascinate us. It is the sheer range of expression. The slow movements are as serene as a starry night in paradise; the Grosse Fuge (Op. 133) rages against the existential abyss as effectively as much more obviously dissonant modernist music.

Sur Incises, Messagesquisse, Anthèmes 2 (Pierre Boulez)
The grand scintillating apotheosis of all that is post-serialist complexity. It curls around the listener like a diamond rainbow of notes, always changing, yet with no safe places. The three pieces (for 3 pianos, 3 harps, and 3 percussionists; for 7 cellos; for violin with electronics) provide the maximum differences in timbre.

Well-Adjusted (Beanbag)
Grunge rock at its loudest, full of fuzz guitars, fearsome (sometimes metal or rap) vocals, and an occasional microtone. A look at the lyrics shows that this is a socially-aware Christian band full of criticism of the “American dream” and the resulting suffering in other parts of the world: that uncompromising message is very effective when conveyed with this music. Musical innovations include changes of tempi against steady drumming and strident quarter-tones in feedback. The only cover tune is “Army of Me” (originally by Björk), here given a heavy bass-and-drums treatment that really conjures images of invading armies.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Ten More Albums

Continuing the mini-reviews of ten albums from my collections of CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums. One needs something to do during the orona virus lockdown. As always, comments are welcome, and of course I'll post other topics about music (and art) as they come up.

Along These Lines (Steve Barsotti)
Musique-Concrete along several lines: microsounds and granular synthesis, ambient soundscapes of field recordings, and a culmination in a distorto-Merzbow noise-blast. At the North Seattle Listening Club (2013), the latter piece led to a discussion about how music of this type is put together compositionally, given its obvious (intentional) lack of melody, harmony, or rhythm. My own take on this is that density can be the prime mover for this kind of piece; another club member argued (based on a previously heard, unidentified piece) for the importance of timbre.

Aromates (Abed Azrié)
The throaty vocals (sung in Arabic) sometimes seem harsh in contrast to the understated accompaniment of qanun (zither), nay (flute), ambient synthesizers and whispered rhythms on percussion. A closer listen reveals that that may be the point: a listener more familiar with the genre would probably know that the words are the most important part: it’s poetry, after all, and this recording is (no matter how different an aesthetic experience) more akin to rap than to the ambient music that it seems to be at first. Listening to the accompaniment is a pleasant experience: it winds around itself in heterophonic textures, complementing the up-front vocals, and is scented with occasional quarter-tones that do not create dissonance in this context. The total experience of this is both easy and difficult at first, and it’s quite unlike anything else.

The B-52’s
In which rock music (or 80’s “new wave”) sits back, drinks a beer, and has a good long laugh at itself. Why do we always take music so !@#&!! seriously?! As always, “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster” are hilarious, and I still don’t know what to say about that intentionally bad rendition of the pop standard “Downtown”… Pop meets dada. Some wild vocal pyrotechnics too.

Brandenburg Concertos (J. S. Bach, played by Musica Amphion conducted by Pieter-Jan Beldar)
There are several reasons that these 18th-century works are still considered some of the greatest masterworks of music: dizzying complexity, aesthetic balance and harmony, mathematical perfection, the sheer enthusiastic beauty of it all. Each piece is different, adding variety; yet each is similar, adding continuity if they’re all played together. (I don’t know if anyone has ever commented on the overarching formal structure that appears when they’re all played in order: reduction of instruments from large to small ensemble to strings alone, then repeat beginning with a different ensemble; the two pieces for strings alone begin with the same theme.) Some listeners have commented that this music can be exhausting because there’s no “punctuation” – true, each unfolds in a relentless stream of notes, but to me at least it’s that bubbling perpetual motion that forms much of the joy in these pieces. Played on 18th-century instruments, these sparkle in the way they would have to Mr. Bach and his audience.

Look What I Found (Tom Baker Quartet)
Compositions and improvisations (is there always a difference?); jazz from the shadows of classical music, understated, sharply delineated, mysterious, impressionist, anti-ambient. Many moments jump-cut to others, leaving the piece to unfold in fragments – which always connect up at the end, and the extreme ranges and timbres of the instruments are explored. The closer you listen, the more you understand.

The Lost Sonatas (George Antheil, performed by Guy Livingston)

Back then, the earlier sonatas were the most shocking modernism; nihilist punk-rock for the dada age. The later sonatas (numbers 4 and 5) were tamer and more classical, as if backing up and apologizing for the earlier indiscretion. Listening now: there’s not that much difference. They’re all rhythmically interesting, often lyrical, often catchy, sometimes dissonant but not in a surprising way. Hints of Gershwin and Prokofiev drift in and out with boogie-woogie. And, after all, it’s just piano music. Not that that’s a bad thing: Sonata no. 5 in particular is an epic masterpiece that should be admitted to the canon of great piano works.

Mister Heartbreak (Laurie Anderson)
Pop music that isn’t pop music. Absurdist tragicomic poetry. Beautiful voice, but often without melody. We still don’t know quite what this is all about, forty years later, and that’s still the fun of it.

On the Banks of Helicon: Early Music of Scotland (Baltimore Consort)
Exploring the intersection between folk music and the nascent European “classical” tradition. Catchy dance rhythms, achingly beautiful pentatonic melodies, and an occasional raucous bagpipe all bespeak of centuries of musical custom; contrapuntal details and refined vocals indicate a more academic approach; and intimate performances bring to mind chamber music from later centuries. Some of the musical numbers are reminiscent of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays, in their Elizabethan settings. This is a gorgeous recording, to be savored more than once.

Soliloquy (Phillip Arnautoff)
An extended solo for harmonic canon: the grand uber-zither of Harry Partch invention. Here it produces a meditation of tones, played in folk-like melodies and sweeping glissandi, never quite resolving into the familiar major or minor scales but always lingering somewhere near. Seemingly both intimate and infinite. Quite beautiful.

Symphony no. 4 / Chinese Songs (Kalevi Aho, performed by Tiina Vahevaara, soprano, and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä)
The Symphony: Sardonic dark carnival meets tragedy, in the manner of Shostakovich; with brooding strings, a hilariously sinister tuba solo in the sherzo, and subtle counterpoint and interplay of rhythms throughout.
The Songs: Atmospheric neo-impressionism, subtler (and more effective) than standard cutesy chinoiserie. Some of these appear to begin as folk songs, but then the melodies wander into unexpected directions. The whole piece stands in lovely contrast to the much darker Symphony.

So that's it for the music, for now. For another type of discussion altogether, check out the new sister blog of this one (it's about books, words, and random stuff about linguistics) and my new website about my books (yes, there's a book of this blog!).

Friday, May 1, 2020

Ten Albums

Well, I've decided to unshelf and dust off this blog during the corona virus lockdown, though with somewhat of a different focus. Obviously I'm not going to be attending many concerts to review: but while I'm stuck at home I have time to go through my entire collection of CD's, cassettes, and vinyl albums and give them all a fresh listen. I'm going to give mini-reviews for ten each time I post something here. As always, comments are welcome, and of course I'll post other topics about music (and art) as they come up.

As Is (Christine Abdelnour, Bonnie Jones, Andrea Neumann)
Shadows and hints from the border between silence, music, and noise. Once can almost grasp the first piece as a musical composition, but later even the form of the sounds is subverted into the ether. Ambience and cacophony are freely mixed, and in the end we wonder if there is a difference.

Aster (Aster Aweke)
The band is 1960’s R&B with a lot of brass – but those vocals (sung in Amharic) are something else entirely. Ms. Aweke’s singing has all of the melodic “turns” and expressivity of that style – but the quality is different in an indefinable way. There are also those two pieces of “chamber music” (songs accompanied by a single instrument): both of these are completely unexpected as she winds through improvisations on what are more akin to ragas (or “the blues”) than to “songs” or “musical numbers”. Another thing: it would appear that listeners to “popular” music in some countries have longer attention spans than in the US.

Lexical Music (Charles Amirkhanian)
The choice is yours: rhythm rendered as nonsense or nonsense rendered as rhythm. Either way it’s both hilarious and profoundly serious at the same time.

Messe des Jesuites de Pekin (Joseph-Marie Amiot, performed by XVIII-21, Ensemble Meihua Fleur de Prunus, Choeur du Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, and Musique des Lumières)
Beautiful resonances mark this 18th-century fusion, though fusion is never actually achieved. The two styles (Chinese and European) stand out in sharp contrast to one another; they alternate but never intertwine. Both are rendered beautifully and with nuanced singing and playing (the music for communion is particularly striking, with its apparently anguished outcries resolving into peace) but in the end this seems to be a patchwork. One wonders if that would still be the case if the records of this rare music were more complete.

Nice Guys (Art Ensemble of Chicago)
A tour of “free” jazz through roots reggae turning impressionist, atonal walking blues, mad klaxons, an alien gongscape, African drumming, hints of “mainstream” jazz, pointillism over silence, something approaching rock and roll, and finally, an ecstatic trumpet and sax kaleidoscope. Fun!

Sequencia (Susan Alexjander)
Vibrations of a hypothetical DNA molecule suspended in space, rendered as pretty music with shimmering microtones and fragments of many styles. The tuning is derived from the structure of the molecule itself, though this is not audible in the listening; the sound of this occupies the mostly blank space between free jazz and ambient music.

Set of Five (Abel Steinberg Winant Trio)
Violin, piano and percussion: beautiful echoes from the beginning or our era, and from the middle of all eras.

Strange and Sacred Noise (John Luther Adams)
Vast sound booms out into the still Arctic air; a thunderously subtle instability of rhythm in a steady state of timbre. The sounds of nature expressed as abstract volumes.

To Venus and Back (Tori Amos)
None of these numerous songs are particularly interesting from a compositional viewpoint (though they’re not really uninteresting either) and the lyrics intentionally aren’t clearly audible – so at first it appears that there’s not that much to be said about this album. However, her voice is versatile and often beautiful, the band makes some interesting walls of sound on the second (live) CD, and some of the piano parts are oddly reminiscent of Hovhaness’ jhala-inspired piano stylings. Those things alone make it worth a listen.

Wings over Water (Stefan Micus)
A souvenir from the 1980’s when “New Age Music” was something other than just generic prettiness. Tuned flower pots create a gamelan of the imagination; zithers and the sarangi (the latter played as a percussion instrument!) form resonant accompaniments to the filigrees and arabesques of the Egyptian flute, and the voice – singing in an unknown language that “has no known meaning, therefore…” Beautiful stuff, and to me at least it’s still the same after many years.

So that's it for the music, for now. For another type of discussion altogether, check out the new sister blog of this one (it's about books, words, and random stuff about linguistics) and my new website about my books (yes, there's a book of this blog!).

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, ...in 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!