Tuesday, May 05, 2009
About a year and a half ago, maybe longer, someone in Record Club came up with the idea to execute a variation on the exquisite corpse process, well known since early Surrealist times. In our case, we'd draw lots to determine sequence, two rounds of varying order. The first person would select a piece of music, using whatever criteria he or she desired, send it via e-file to the second who would choose a track that bore some kind of relationship to it. That relationship was, of course, up to the recipient to decide--musical, lyrical, textural, whatever. He or she would then mail their selection to #3 on the list and so on, cycling through everyone twice. So each person would only be aware of the track they received and the one they chose. The person in the 10 slot would carry the additional burden of relating the piece to both its precedent and the original #1 choice, thus completing the circle.
It took a while. But the results were finally unveiled last night and, I must, say, it worked spectacularly well, in several respects. The segues were beautiful and/or exciting, the connections multi-level and the arc of the evening wonderful.
I'll attempt to reconstruct the sequence from memory, though I'll be omitting many of the specifics. More space is spent on my pieces simply because I know my thoughts about them.
1) Nina began with an achingly beautiful a capella Shaker hymn, sung by a woman with a quavery but resolute voice (I'm thinking this area is a source for Robin Holcomb). It carried a very uplifting lyric, in the "things are bad but that's all-right" vein. Very pure and spare, something I'd love to hear more of.
2) Dan chose to shift gears only slightly, picking a piece by Pentangle, also featuring an unaccompanied female voice. I think it was the traditional song, "When I Was in My Prime" from the "Cruel Sister" album. Fuller than the previous track but equally gorgeous, expanding both the sonic range and the cultural palette.
3) I was on the receiving end of Dan's piece. Of course, I didn't have any idea of Nina's choice but, in retrospect, I liked the way this worked out both because the preceding two songs were quite short and that mine, while introducing non-vocal sounds for the first time, did so quietly. For a number of years, I'd thought of bringing the lengthy "Traditional Medley" from Henry Kaiser's 1991 album, "Hope You Like Our New Direction!". It had several advantages here: first, it was, in itself, a medley of several musical styles between which Kaiser had discerned a relationship, in this case, acoustic US blues and Vietnamese danh tranh music, here performed incredibly by Ngoc Lam. I liked the idea of embedding a mini-version of the exquisite corpse procedure within the larger...body. Second, the connection between it and the preceding Irish ballad only became apparent in the last 4-5 minutes of the 13-minute track when Kaiser's band, to the surprise of most listeners I daresay, breaks into a cover of the Dead's "Cold Rain and Snow" with Robin Petrie on vocals. The song itself carries some amount of Celtic aspect and Petrie's voice isn't all that dissimilar. I thought of the echoing motif in visual terms, the model (Dan's piece) followed by unrelated forms for a space before an altered model emerges some ways away. Plus, it's simply a lovely cut.
4) Nayland, though he didn't know the details of my piece, had picked up on the US/Asia connection and thought to split the geographical difference. He then brought down the room with a song from Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and his group, Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau. I'd heard of, but don't think I'd ever heard this late, large singer, a condition soon to be remedied. Dan pointed out that the structure was fundamentally C&W but transported to other dimensions. It also featured guitar playing quite akin to some on the Kaiser (ironically, that album also contained a Hawaiian song, which I'd previously brought to RC, the sublime "Kanaka Wai Wai" with Raymond and Elodia Kane). Fantastic song, amazing voice, singing about seeing a star through night fog.
5) Julia picked up on the romantic longing for the shining star, opting to shift from spirituality to angst with a great track from PJ Harvey's first record, "Dry", "O Stella", the opening lines croaked out, "o stella maris you're my star". The volume and intensity level had clearly arched. It's a powerful number, especially the rhythm section.
6) Dan upped the ante further. An aficionado of Scandinavian pop and rock bands, he unearthed a slab of a piece, a hard-driving number by, I regret to say, a group whose name I can't recall. Arggh. [edit: "Big Time" from the group, Soundtrack for Our Lives] It turned out to represent the apex of the evening in terms of solidity, things having coalesced from the vaporous Quaker hymn to this raw bolus of sound. A pick-ax and/or acid bath might be needed.
7) Which Nayland duly provided in the form of a skittering, nervous Art Bears piece. You could almost see the trio of Frith, Krause and Cutler hacking away at and gleefully dissolving the preceding edifice while retaining the anarchic rock spirit. Frith was on violin here, sawing madly, and the piece contained a false ending or two, once of which involved tape manipulation.
8) This was sent to me. I seized on Frith's violin and the tape work and also felt the desire to decompress matters further (without knowing about Dan's piece!). At the time I received the file, I happened to have recently heard Cor Fuhler's disc as DJ Cor Blimey and His Pigeon and especially enjoyed the track, "Man-Ray-Nance", which featured Cor on his keyolin, improvising rebab-style [one of the interestingly disturbing aspects of this piece is how convincing, to my innocent ears, Cor's playing is. I'm sure I would have guessed at a North Indian source for the string work, this despite the rhythm being clearly derived from a wavering tape]. It's quite a relaxed work, languid and warm and has the added and irresistible feature of, a couple minutes prior to its conclusion, shifting gears via tape warpage, morphing into a slow dance groove redolent of Jon Hassell and including taped speech concerning pigeon breeding. This last section also provided a kind of "ledge" for the next person, a feature Julia made brilliant use of.
9) She was interested in the collage aspect of Cor's piece and chose one by The Books, a fascinating track mixing (I think) mbira playing with newsreel coverage of a public art event in Venice (Georges Mathieu?) wherein a reporter is splashed with gold and black paint as "the maestro" works on a cross figure. [Just checked--the track is "Venice", from the 2005 album, "Lost and Safe".] Astonishingly, the reporter's commentary includes the lines:
And opens the canvas and out comes twelve
pigeons! Ha ha ha!
Twelve homing pigeons have just flown out of
Maestro, what are you doing?
10) Latching onto the cross imagery from The Books' piece, Nina had the inspired idea to achieve the circular connection by presenting an extraordinary sample of "sacred harp" or "shape-note" singing. I don't know the precise source, but presumably it was a large congregation (not a practiced choir), likely from somewhere in the southern US, singing a harrowing Christian hymn, the dark obverse of the Shaker's light, an immense, stoic army marching resolutely toward death. Hugely powerful and scary at once. Nayland remarked that had this been a Muslim group singing in Arabic, most US listeners would be hiding under their beds. Remarkable sound, the hymn absolutely belted out in only rough consonance. Perfect yin and yang beginning and ending.
A beautiful arc, both in intensity and even lengths, going kind of S-S-L-M-M-M-M-L-S-S. Beautiful gamut of music, each piece evincing its own strengths and connecting, intentional or otherwise, to its neighbors.
It worked so well, in everyone's estimation, that we immediately decided to do another and drew lots.
Guess who goes first?
Thanks to Dan, Julia, Nina and Nayland for a great evening and for a wonderful ongoing experience.