Saturday, June 30, 2007

I don't know the first thing about traditional Korean music. Well, maybe I know a thing or two, but not very much and certainly not enough to even remotely tell whether a given performance is up to snuff. For "Korean" you can pretty much substitute any non-Western ethnicity you wish (and a host of Western ones as well), no matter how much of a given area's music I've heard. Trying to recall my first exposure to Korean music and I'd guess it was one of those kodo drum ensembles which can be mightily impressive. I'm sure I heard at least one such group before Laswell began promoting Samulnori as a part of SXL and on their own, both very enjoyable recordings. And I knew a bit of Sang Won Park's work in improvisatory contexts; Jin Hi Kim's as well. the hell do I know if they're actually "good" by Korean standards or just flashy enough to impress Westerners, a kind of Riverdance imposed by cynical Korean marketers on an unwary, world music hungry West? Does aesthetic merit somehow osmose through the barriers of ignorance, revealing itself to sufficiently sensitive ears?

I wonder about this often, including this morning when I was giving second listens to two discs I'm loving a lot, the World Music Library items I recently bought of Korean Kayagum Sanjo Music. I figure it's reasonable to defer to the judgment of the folks who recorded the music (the producer is Nishida Katsuhiko), that they had some basis for winnowing out the better contemporary practitioners of this art. What else can one do? There's no way I'll ever have near enough time to really study this, or any area's, music in the depth required to do it justice. I can only skim the surface, probably a molecule's thinness of skimming at that.

So, if I report to some interested acquaintance that this music is "great", it's with the nagging knowledge that I'm basing this judgment entirely on my own history, my own superficial knowledge of the genre, not in any understanding of the music or culture from which it arose. In practice, given that most of my acquaintances are from roughly the same background as myself, this is all well and good but part of me awaits the knowledgeable Korean who reads this and says, "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about! Chukp'a and Kim Tong Jun are the Kenny G. and John Tesh of Korean music! They suck royally!" Thus abashed, I'd dutifully hunt out more able musicians.

But for now, in potential ignorance, these are damned fine recordings. Still waiting to hear the King World Music Library release I don't find pretty fantastic.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

fwiw, my write-up of MIMEO's "Sight" was posted at Bagatellen this afternoon. Hoping it (the disc, not the write-up) generates some discussion. Richly deserved.

Finished McCarthy's "The Road" yesterday. Enjoyed it (if that's the appropriate term) though not as smitten as many. For all the bleakness of the imagery, I never quite feel that his language is at the harsh, unpitying level it needs to be. There should be more Beckett in there, somehow.

Began John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure".

btw, thanks to all the folk (dozens!) who flocked here via links from sites covering the Vision Fest. Feel free to stick around.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Well, what with all the foofaraw about my Vision Fest comments, I thought it would be a good time to dip back into my vinyl trawling and, wouldn't you know it, we find ourselves at the edge of Braxton territory. Among other things, listening to the still astonishing "For Alto" serves as a fine tonic for much of the tired, uninspired playing heard this past weekend.

I'm pretty sure my first exposure to Braxton's playing came when I heard Dave Holland's classic "Conference of the Birds" LP, probably in '73. I was getting the NMDS catalog at the time and they carried the Delmark label so I quickly went and ordered "For Alto".

Where to start? For one thing, Braxton is 23 years old here. 23 fucking years old. (Allow me an aside: Were there any 23-year old or younger musicians in evidence last weekend? Not that I saw. Hell, were there any audience members that young? ahem, sorry) You have this amazing young musician issuing two LPs worth of solo, improvised alto saxophone. I hope younger readers realize how utterly unprecedented this was. There had been a handful of recorded solo saxophone performances in jazz including Coleman Hawkins and Dolphy, but an entire record? Two records? Improvised? Yikes.

(Another lovely facet: Braxton is already dedicating his pieces, deferential to those who inspired him even as he blazes new ground. Fantastic, on Side One, to have dedications to both Cage and Cecil Taylor.)

After a brief, soft piece dedicated to Jack Gell (who, iirc, was a teacher of Braxton's?) we're launched into the Cage piece. What the relationship is might be hard to fathom but this is one rip-roaring, assaultive, unfailingly and volcanically creative improv. Stick this baby on stage at Orensanz and everyone could've gone home. I just goggled "Murray de Pillars", the dedicatee of the following, lovely track but find little outside of Braxton references though he may have been partially responsible for a Black Panther mural in LA. It's a fine early example of the sort of attack Brax would engage in periodically, contrasting delicate, flowery lines with harsh, abrasive ones, self-contained arguments. The Cecil dedication is in a similar vein as the Cage but more leapingly joyous with something of an explosive dance feel. He hits blue notes than erupts off them; very Tayloresque now that I think about it.

The sidelong "Dedicated to Ann and Peter Allen" (don't have my Martinelli discography handy to check the composition numbers) is the one that doubtless gave me the most trouble throughout the first 15 or so years I owned the album but is now possibly the deepest, most intriguing track. While the basic content is fairly lyrical in the best tradition of Brax free balladry, much of it impinges on the ultra-quiet territory explored much, much later by players like Butcher, Rainey, etc. Breath-tones, soft key taps, areas of silence, they're all here. It's not an area he frequented too much later on (to this degree anyway, unless I'm forgetting something) and I wonder what he'd say if asked why not? In any case, it's quite a beautiful piece, one that post-AMM fans should give a listen to.

The first cut on Side Three is a great early example of the kind of yearning, quasi-blues cry that would crop up again and again in his solo output; always felt Braxton dug deeper into this sort of song than any of his contemporaries. The second is a tortuous, wrenching piece, his alto sounding as if being torqued out of shape while being played. It also prefigures the kind of low pedal points Roscoe Mitchell would later use in pieces like "Eeltwo"; curious who was influencing who....It concludes with some wonderfully controlled multiphonics.

"For Alto" closes with another sidelong piece, a dedication to the late Leroy Jenkins. Again, one of the amazing things about this entire project, even aside from a double solo saxophone album in the first place (in 1968) is that Braxton makes absolutely no concession to conformity, doesn't remotely approach a standard, play in regular rhythm or confine himself to melodic or even post-Coltrane tonalities. The structures are rocky, irregular; in a word, difficult. Maybe only Mitchell (as heard on his contemporaneous "Congliptious") was in the same ballpark. This final piece is damned brutal, juxtaposing long pure tones with outrageous blats and squawks; very slablike. Richard Serra set to music should sound something like this.

Fantastic recording, still excites almost four decades later.

23 years old.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Some of my Vision Fest grumblings have been serving as gristle (I meant to say "grist" but I think I'll stick with gristle) over at Darcy James Argue's blog, as well as Dan Melnick's Soundslope. Mr. Argue takes the criticism in stride while Mr. Melnick has some issues with it.

I don't mean to pick on Viz Fest as such too much, it's simply the one time during the year that I'm likely to attend events featuring music of this nature, only because friends from Jazz Corner come to town and I greatly enjoy their company. Truth to tell, I'd rather sit around the backyard of dba and talk, but I figure it's also a good chance to minimally reinvestigate some music I was, more or less, pretty into for a long time. Almost inevitably, what I hear raises the same sort of issues that sprang to mind back around the early 90s when I felt the avant jazz scene was becoming increasingly stale and, in a word, conservative. (I won't go over the exceptions I've encountered yet again, just pausing to say that, as anywhere else, exceptions do occur).

I suppose these feelings have intensified in recent years due to the research I've done on Keith's book, particularly the transition involved with the original musicians in AMM from the sort of (adventurous, surely!) jazz being created by Mike Westbrook and London-based bop bands around 1965. These fellows perceived the situation pretty clearly, how stultifying things had already become and how even those jazz musicians who were breaking away from the strictures of bop still retained their own "security blankets". Now, I'm sure this sort of casting off of crutches is no easy thing by any means and one would necessarily allow time for certain concepts to sink in. (and, to be sure, one is under no obligation to abandon these structures at all; there's perfectly adequate Dixieland being played today, just as there's perfectly adequate bop and free jazz). But if you've chosen to push things, if you're out there advertising your work as "free", well dammit, it should be free. And forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding "free" to mean exactly what it says. It doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians, a hierarchy of solo order (it doesn't mean solos being obligatory at all!). It doesn't mean constructing a situation where you can't do this and you can't do that, no matter how much musical sense it makes at the time. It doesn't mean you can't stop playing when you have nothing to add. It doesn't mean that when the bassist starts soloing, the drummer automatically reverts to cymbal tapping mode while the horn players look on (they can't play of course! that's against the rules!) and the pianist dutifully punches out a handful of appropriate chords. Many listeners might be able to ignore this structural aspect and just enjoy what the musicians are doing. More power to 'em. I can't.

(I hope it goes without saying, but it probably doesn't, that the issue isn't as cut and dried as I may make it sound here, as hopefully indicated by the good performance of Matt Shipp the other night and other more or less solid sets. The above mixes individual examples with the pervading sense of the Festival, and other concerts in the same territory, I've acquired over the past 15 or so years. Nothing, certainly no art form, can be circumscribed so neatly)

All of these tacks are perfectly fine and valid in certain contexts, of course. Nicole Mitchell created a lovely, Randy Weston-ish set a couple years ago at the Viz Fest but (implicitly, at least) made no pronouncements as to its being "free" and, as a listener, I had no feeling that any such label was being evoked. I saw Harold Mabern a few years ago and his performance has stuck in my memory as both very traditional and hugely creative. But the great majority of music being performed at Viz ain't free and, for my bucks, shouldn't in good conscience mislead people into thinking that it is. Insisting on that aura, imho, weakens the music. For the most part, it's every bit as essentially conservative as what's being presented uptown at Wynton's place. Different veneer, very similar core.

End of rant.


Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Charles Mann - 1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
When I saw Robert out in Seattle a couple weeks ago, we discussed Netflix to which I'd recently subscribed. Robert mentioned that they carried a few eai-related DVDs including one by Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng. I just got around to searching for it. The reviews of people who'd rented it are pretty amusing:

1.0 Stars
This has got to be the worst thing ever created by mankind. It looks like someone ran an osciliscope [sic] and put a test pattern signal on for the so called music. If there was justice handed out for wasting other people's time, I would give these people the death penalty. Horrible...just horrible.

1.0 Stars
"feast for the senses" Ha, more like a piddly little ration. Terrible, terrible, terrible! Don't waste your time with this drivel!

1.0 Stars
This is a complete waste of film. I watched 5 minutes of it in disbelief then fast forwarded through the rest of it just to see if it got any better. It didn't. The visuals are VERY lame. The music (music?) is beyond terrible. I don't think it can even be called music, its just high pitched annoying sounds that never seem to end. This is seriously a waste of 'creativity'. zero stars!!!

Needless to say, it was quickly added to my queue.

I forget which other ones of interest Robert said were to be found here but anyone else who's come across worthwhile things of a musical nature, please advise.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A brief report on two evenings from the Vision Fest.

Friday night proved to be fairly solid, more so that I would have guessed. The 50 violin piece (more exactly 38 musicians, including seven bassists, two cellists and five violists) turned out to be an arrangement, by Jason Kao Hwang, of Leroy Jenkins' "New York", from the Revolutionary Ensemble's "People's Republic" album. The arrangement itself was quite beautiful, containing sonorities that reminded me of "Skies of America". Unfortunately, Billy Bang's conduction of the improvised sections was clumsy and obvious. Would've worked far better as a through-written piece.

Roy Campbell's band was OK as well, especially the first number which recalled John Handy's music from Monterey (are we sensing a theme here?). Inconsistent, but not bad.

The highlight of the evening (of both nights, actually) was Matt Shipp's solo piece. I'm not overly familiar with Shipp's work and have only seen him a handful of times but this was easily the best I've heard him sound, an opinion I later heard echoed by listeners with presumably vastly more experience with his music. I heard a lot of Ellington in there, specifically the rugged Ellington of "Money Jungle" or, even better, Duke via early Dollar Brand as heard in some of his knottier recordings like "African Sketchbook". Shipp interpolated several standards including "My Funny Valentine" and kept things consistently shifting but solid, only dipping into Cecil territory here and there. Nice set.

I skipped out during the Patricia Nicholson set, always an excellent option, returning for Fred Anderson/Harrison Bankhead/Hamid Drake. They were fine, though nowhere near as inspired as the Anderson/Bankhead duo had been a few years ago. Granted, there's only so much one can expect from an 80-odd year old fellow, so props to him for anything he still creates. Really thought Drake was playing insensitively a lot of the time, often trampling over the other two. Would have much rather heard just the duo.

Didn't stay for Myra Melford.

The second evening was far more inconsistent. Came in for only the last few minutes of the Ganelin trio which sounded pretty ok though I heard they kept things at one (loud) level for the entirety of the set.

The Eddie Gale/Prince Lasha sextet didn't do much for me. Gale sounded decent but my Kidd Jordan tolerance levee was breached early on and I had to go outside for ten minutes or so. Back for the last half hour of the set, nothing much moved me. I purposefully placed myself out of sight range of the stage area so as not to inflict Ms. Nicholson on my retinas though I dutifully moved to the railing of the balcony late in the set so as to objectively ascertain that, yes, she is as abjectly awful as ever. Pete C. said he was always reminded of the old Jules Feiffer cartoons of the girls flinging out their arms, exclaiming, "I'm a dancer!". Exactly.

Rob Brown's set, which began with some execrable electronics work from Guillermo Brown, wasn't doing the trick for me, so I went out for some dessert with Scott and the inestimable Al from NYC. Back for the last half of Whit Dickey's performance, wherein Sabir Mateen played exactly the same notes I've heard issue from him a dozen other times.

Things didn't promise to improve from there with Amiri Baraka's group, so we took off.

The odd (sad?) thing was that the better music from each evening almost inevitably referred directly to earlier great music. So you get pastiches of Handy, the Art Ensemble, Ellington etc., which are enjoyable enough but hardly possessing any "vision". Not surprising, of course, but still. Worse, as always, for something describing itself as "free music", countless strictures were constantly in place. There was rarely a moment where you got the idea that a given musician could do anything that came to mind. Solo order tended to follow the standard routes (horns to piano to bass to drums). Hell, the whole "solo" thing was sometimes laughable. During Dickey's set, bassist Todd Nicholson was soloing and Dickey's accompaniment (not as a joke) was tapping the ride cymbal in a "ching-chinka-ching" pattern. It's 2007 and people who are purportedly experimental, avant and free musicians are still doing "ching-chinka-ching". Jesus.

Favorite non-musical moment was simply laying eyes upon the only surviving Blue Note, Louis Moholo-Moholo. That was worth everything else.

Friday, June 22, 2007

So I pretty much always, these last few years, end up attending at least one jazz fest event per annum, basically due to the fact that several people I know from the jazz boards come into town for the Vision Fest and I enjoy hanging out with them. Though the vast majority of what tends to be presented there falls into a category I'll gently describe as "boring" (to me), and often worse, occasionally some jewels emerge that, of course, I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. Last year there were two (Bill Dixon/George Lewis & Joe Morris/Barre Phillips). Several years ago I saw a stunning duo performance by Fred Anderson and Harrison Bankhead. Even if I'm not very sanguine on the art form as such these days, it remained a joy to experience two musicians who did it so well, not incidentally laying waste to most everything else on the program, actually playing "free" jazz.

I'll be heading back tonight and tomorrow. This evening the above duo augmented by Hamid Drake will be playing, so I have some hopes for a good set. Otherwise a bunch of things that seem, on the face of it, eminently missable: 50 violins in tribute to Leroy Jenkins, Mat Shipp solo (potential, but not holding my breath), Roy Campbell's "Ahkenaten [sic] Suite" (avoidable on title grounds alone) and *shudder* a Patricia Nicholson dance/art project which should serve as a perfect time to run over to Katz' for a nosh. Another Jenkins homage with Myra Melford and Mark Taylor closes things out.

Tomorrow, Vyacheslav Ganelin plays with a trio which could be interesting for historical reasons. Maybe. Eddie Gale & Prince Lasha are with a larger group; again, historically curious, although Ms. Nicholson is threatening to dance during the set....a Rob Brown Quartet and a Whit Dickey trio will likely do nothing for me and I'll be certain to exit before the finale, Amiri Baraka's Blue Ark (although, who knows?, that could turn out to be the highlight....)

We shall see.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Man, what a weekend.

Things got off to a rocky start after my ill-advised ingestion of an Egg McMuffin-like object on the plane. I'm fortunate in being nonallergic to virtually anything of which I'm aware, but I do have a sensitivity to a kind of salmonella-related bacteria found in undercooked chicken or eggs that leaves others unharmed. The symptoms are pretty routine: a bad headache about two hours after eating the tainted foodstuff followed by nausea and (preferably) a quick vomiting episode to remove the poison. Well, the headache set in about an hour before landing at Sea-Tac. Given that we were flying overland, I'd chosen a window seat since gazing out over the landscape from 35,000 feet is one of my favorite activities. This can have its own drawbacks, however, like being hemmed in by a very fat couple in their 70s, snoozing away, who I didn't have the heart to ask to move. So I patiently abided, waited out the landing, taxiing and snail-like filing off the plane, rushing to the nearest men's room and attempting to disgorge the offending substance. Only achieved moderate success there but it was all I could do at the time. Stayed on the depressingly long rental car line, feeling abjectly miserable. Got the car and wended my way out of the lot. Just as I pulled up to the booth where someone lurked to check my rental papers, there was a sudden, unpleasant upwelling in my throat, one which was successfully squashed while the lady in the kiosk took her sweet time checking to make sure every i was dotted. I was desperately scanning the area beyond the booths for a propitious place to heave but, seeing none, drove up the ramp leading out of the airport. Happily, there was a stretch of scrub brush off to one side with space enough to park. I did so and bent over the grass, managing to bring up a substantial amount of yellowish matter. Great start!

I still felt pretty crappy and not a little dizzy, but since I had a 1:00 hook-up scheduled with Hatta, I dutifully drove up to the Capitol Hill section of Seattle arriving just about on time and meeting Robert on the street. The Vietnamese place at which we'd hoped to dine was either no more or undergoing renovation so we trudged to a very cool bar restaurant. I was still queasy enough that the idea of actually eating was dubious in the extreme and even having a beer seemed to be pushing things, so I settled for nursing an iced tea. About an hour into our (excellent) conversation, I began to revert to normality. Thanks for putting up with me, Robert! Great to see you.

Left about 4PM to drive to Tacoma to meet our erstwhile Jersey City neighbors, Scott & Paul who moved out there about 1 1/2 years ago. Traffic on Rte 5 was miserable as they'd predicted and the 30 or so mile drive took 2 hours. Vainly looked for Mt. Rainier on the way. Their place was a lovely, quiet 50s house into which they'd sunk substantial bucks renovating things, really nice with a great garden, views of a bridge out over the sound, the Olympic mountains in the distance.

Drove back up to Sea-Tac Saturday morning to pick up my brother Glen and then further up Rte. 5 to Burlington, at which point we turned onto Rte. 20 heading east for Mazama, about 120 miles distant. Now this was my first time in the northwest at all (closest I'd ever been was San Francisco) but for many years, I've pored over road atlases, plotting cross country drives that I'll probably never get around to taking, and Rte 20, which actually stretches from coast to coast, always struck me as an enticing road, especially from North Dakota westward. Well, at least through the Cascades, it surpassed all expectations. What an incredibly, jaw-droppingly beautiful area of the world! The mountains are aptly named as you could hardly go 100 yards without encountering a waterfall, ranging from roadside spritzes to mammoth drops of several thousand feet emerging from the snowcaps and, well, cascading down. Everything is just so huge! The vistas are ridiculous, the mountains fierce, towering and simply massive. The streams in that area--which are everywhere--carry glacial runoff, causing the water to assume a pale, milky green hue that you normally associate with tropical beaches. Amazing lakes (Diablo Lake, in particular), a virtual rain-forest of fir trees, rockfalls that obviously impinge on roadways once in a while, 20-foot high snow drifts, in mid-June, coming right down to the road when we were about a mile in altitude....just incredible.

Another astonishing thing to us (not to those used to micro-climates, I guess) was how quickly, once you head down the eastern side of the range, the climate, soil and vegetation changed from northwest rain forest to a near-desert situation. The trees were sparser and of a different species (less dense, dryer looking), the soil became sandy and the temperature rose about 20 degrees in the space of a mile. (I think the desert proper begins another 40 or so miles east)

Mazama, population 283, lies only about ten miles past the crest of the Cascades, at the western head of the Methow Valley. The nearest town, sporting a robust population of 700 or so, is Winthrop, lying another 15 miles to the east. We pulled in around 3 PM at the rough-hewn lodge where we'd be staying, the Mazama Country Inn. Just outside the parking area, there was a single bench on one side of a broad field about 1,000 feet across. On the opposite side there was a stand of pine at the base of a rocky massif extending about 2,000 feet up (the general altitude of Mazama itself is about 2,500 feet), running east/west. It was a sublime spot, one where I spent a good bit of time whenever possible over the next couple of days. (No, I don't carry a camera, sorry).

Picked up my aunt and uncle, Irene (Babe) and Mel, at a nearby inn, and drove them into Winthrop, up another mountain to the Sun Valley Lodge, a rather fancy and impressive joint with commanding views of the Valley, where there was a dinner attended by about 50 people. Irene and Mel's kids, by the way, my cousins Jana and Tracy, are two of my favorite people in the world and it's always a great joy to see them. It was the bar mitzvah of Jana's middle son, David, that brought Glen and I out there to begin with, incidentally, Jana and her husband Ron having moved out to this part of the world from Seattle about seven years ago. I guess I shouldn't have expected anything less, but their circle of friends was fascinating, including east coast transplants like themselves as well as folk who'd been born and raised right there in Winthrop. Some great, great people. Just to mention one--Martin Koenig, an ethno-musicologist originally from Manhattan, who was responsible for several albums in the Nonesuch Explorer series including some of the Bulgarian ones. Who'da thunk? He is apparently in possession of a vast store of "ethnic" 78s from the 20s and 30s, much like the material that appeared on the Secret Museum of Mankind series. He hopes to get some of it out through the Smithsonian Folkways label, which has expressed interest. Can't wait!

The bar mitzvah was held at Jana and Ron's house the next day. I can't imagine this occurs too often out there, getting the feeling that many of the locals, when informed of the event, figure a new saloon is opening. Even in Mazama, their place is at some remove, located at the end of one arm off the valley proper, about 7 miles outside of "town". An amazing place, nestled between three mountains (one of which, two years back, sported a massive crown of fire, the flames licking at the top of the ridge about two miles distant. The evening's entertainment--before they had to evacuate for a couple of days--was to watch pine trees explode), with a stream and pond at the base of their "yard". I might move in next month. *drool*. Ron and the son-of-the-day David are avid golfers and they've built two par threes on their land, including one with the green on the other side of the pond, about a 130 yard shot from the furthest of three tees. They use a rowboat and net to retrieve the majority of balls which fail to reach their destination. I took one shot and succeeded in not embarrassing myself, hitting it high and straight though overshooting the green a bit.

The service was held outside in front of about 100 people. It was long. Afterwards, though, more great conversation into the evening, great food, excellent mojitos. A totally lovely couple of days out there.

Had to leave the next morning, Monday, but not before consuming my second breakfast of mouthwatering, deep-fried, cinnamon encrusted French toast, accompanied by possibly the best bacon I've ever tasted. The drive back was just as beautiful as coming in; of course, we were seeing all manner of things we'd missed on the way out including one ridiculously imposing, awesomely rugged stand up near Washington Pass. Holy moley. Gotta retrace my route on Google Earth later and identify some of these things. Back down to Sea-Tac and arrived in Newark, where the terrain is somewhat less mountainous and the rivers a bit less clear, this morning about 1AM.

Normally, no matter how much I enjoy a given vacation, I develop a substantial itch to get back in a few days. Not this time. Not at all.

Awaiting me on arrival and listening to this morning:

Mike Hansen - At Every Point (Etude)
Agusti Martinez - Are Spirits What I Hear? (Etude)
(Various) - Traditional Korean Music, Sanjo and Vocal Music (King)
Chuk'pa - Korean Kayagum Music: Sanjo (King)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Brief hiatus. Flying out to Seattle tomorrow morning, visiting friends and cousin Jana who lives in a burg called Mazama (pop. 283 last I checked) somewhere on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Never been in that area before so I'm looking forward to the trip.

Back Tuesday, see everyone then.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The first time I ever met Keith, in Boston at an AMM performance in 2000 (? I think that was the year), he talked about his appreciation of failure and of the impossibility of actually communicating with other musicians (via music, I would think, but maybe in general given subsequent developments?). On the other hand, it's not something you particularly want to believe so maybe you test it a bit.

MIMEO did something along these lines, as I understand it, with the performance at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2003 where members were grouped in various small configurations around the space at enough of a remove from each other that no individual could hear what the ensemble in its entirety was doing. People who were at this event can comment as to how they thought it worked; the CD issue necessarily provides a false picture though it may or may not have merits on its own terms as an "independent" artifact.

Rowe extends this communicative trust one level further, eliminating any possibility of the ensemble members knowing for a fact what each other is doing, but asking them to create work as though they do. He certainly shapes the outcome by requesting that each only contributes 4-5 minutes worth spread over an hour, thus pretty much insuring a relatively sparse sound field. One could imagine each member impishly figuring on doing five concentrated minutes of squall, sequenced over the hour by going alphabetically, perhaps, believing that the others would be thinking similarly. Could've happened, but didn't. Even if this occurred to someone (oh, say, Pita :-)) the risk of being the only one to act on it might be too intimidating.

This is one of the places where Prisoner's Dilemma issues arise, the whole notion of Cooperate or Defect. There's a difference though, and a salient one. In PD situations, the individual is looking to maximize gains for himself; the paradox arises when it's clear that everyone will do better if all cooperate, but it's risky to choose to do so because a single defector can screw things up for everyone else. In the MIMEO situation, the desired outcome is a "good" piece of music, something that almost necessitates cooperation so the temptation to defect should be minimal. What would constitute defection, though, in this case?

I didn't know the back history when I saw AMM with Formanex and John White at Vand'oeuvre about five years ago. They were performing a few pages of Treatise and (to make it brief) whereas the two ensembles were creating pretty restrained sounds, White sat there creating the most godawful racket, replete with recordings of babies bawling, sheep baaing, lord knows what else. It was pretty jarring and uncomfortable. In fact, it was so blatantly bad that I half-figured something must be up. Cornering Keith afterwards, he acknowledged that he had indeed asked White to "make noises that one simply doesn't do in this context, normally", ie, in extremely poor taste as opposed to restrained tact (poor taste versus tact, however, could easily be another discussion). Made me substantially reconsider what I'd just heard, "rehearing" it in this new light. (Jon disagreed with me on this, incidentally, presumably still does). It was only in recent years when I researched early performances of Treatise (1964-65) in which White was involved that I discovered that this practice of his has a long pedigree. Early on, he understood that works like Treatise were too often approached with a seriousness that verged on the religious and, moreover (I'm guessing), any ostensibly free system that said, implicitly or otherwise, "These things shall not be done" is suspect and ripe for deflating.

But how would one distinguish between considered actions like White's and simple grandiose posturing, someone in MIMEO playing guitar god for a few minutes or belting out a Celine Dion song? Good question, I have no idea. Except that I think it would come through somehow that, for lack of a much, much better word, you'd feel it.

Anyway, just some further thoughts on this release which, in fact, I've yet to listen to a second time, rather preferring to think about issues raised on first listen.

As far as the sounds go, the imposition of pattern recognition where there is none (?) on the part of the listener strikes me as one of its more fascinating aspects. Like seeing faces in clouds, you just can't help yourself.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Test post. Having trouble loading images for some reason; getting a lengthy text string...

[ok, just something strange in the edit box where the image isn't appearing as normal, but since it's showing up on the actual blog, fine. Apologies for the side-tracking]

Oh, picked up the other new Erst, "©haos ©lub", a double disc from Erik M and Dieb 13. Only one listen, wasn't too taken with Disc 1 which struck me as having an oddly retrograde character re: collage technique. Liked Disc 2 very much, though....even the last track, which I won't spoil for anyone who has yet to hear it. Just one listen so far, though, so...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Keith mentioned the idea for this MIMEO project quite a while back, maybe as much as two years. I was immediately taken with the notion on several levels, not the least of which is its relation to Prisoner's Dilemma issues.

[I suppose there are readers who don't know what I'm going on about, so for their benefit: MIMEO is a 10-11 member ensemble of musicians wielding electronic instruments including guitars, computers, synthesizers and other such stuff. It's a collective group with individual members initiating projects for given occasions. They've only performed a relative handful of times since, what, around 1998, due to the unwieldy nature of the band, conflicting schedules, etc. This is their fifth release (? someone check me on that). The idea behind this recording is the following: each of the members of MIMEO, who are normally geographically apart from one another, was to create 4-5 minutes of music spaced over a one hour CD. They were to do so as if they were in performance with the others, anticipating what they thought the others would do and adapting their contribution accordingly. The music, of course, could be as spread out or concentrated as they wished. Each musician would send his or her CD to a mixer (Marcus Schmickler in this case) who would, without listening to any of the entries, merge them onto a single disc. Then, a record company would be found who would release this product without listening to it beforehand, so that the first people to actually hear what MIMEO had accomplished would be those who bought it in a record shop.]

Keith conceived of this as a homage to Cy Twombley who, though the story may be at least partially apocryphal, reportedly would on occasion blindfold himself and making markings on canvas with a brush held in his left hand. The title of the disc, "Sight", is a multi-level play on "Cy T".

Well, the finished result arrived yesterday. It raises several questions (at least), some of them perhaps uncomfortable. I'll write more later, I'm sure. But first impressions - 1) purely musically, it works very well. That is, if I was unaware of its nature, I think I'd find it an enjoyable, sparse, recording, fascinating in the way events overlap or don't. The unintentionality of this interaction is absorbing to "watch" unfold. My mental picture was of sitting in some high perch overlooking a city park, choosing ten or so "items" to concentrate on (people, dogs, trees, cars, whatever) then observing the patterns formed by their unwitting interaction. Humans always look for patterns and causality--you can't help it--and it was great fun to momentarily, just for a second!--think of how nice it sounded when two elements emerged "in unison". 2) It seems as though everyone took Rowe's advice to heart, that is, there aren't any overt displays of "listen to me!" noise, no one opted for five minutes of intense guitar-wrangling, etc. I did sort of anticipate, correctly, that someone (who?!) would insert a brief little squiggle right at the 60 minute mark. Although....I suppose someone could have adopted the John White approach, the intentional doing of things "that aren't done" and erupted brutishly. I'm glad, I guess, no one did, but I wonder if that would have been "wrong".

One question that crossed my mind while listening: Almost automatically, you tend to think of this as a one-off affair. It would be absurd if this method was used often by various groups. But why not? I'm sure it won't be and part of me says, "Well, of course, it wouldn't make sense." But why do certain ideas seem to naturally fall into the "one time only" category and others don't?

I suppose the biggest question most listeners will have, particularly those not sold on the virtues of taomud, is: What does it say about the genre that a recording such as this isn't all that distinguishable from one done by musicians in the same space, at the same time? Well, is it or is it not, firstly. Secondly, if so, is this really a problem?

[Big thanks to Richard for putting this one out! (Cathnor)]

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Finally saw my first Bela Tarr film, "Werckmeister Harmonies", over the weekend. Jon Abbey, among others, had been touting this fellow (mostly for "Satantango", iirc) and Robert Kirkpatrick recently wrote up this one on his fine blog, A Spiral Cage (link to the right). Thanks, fellows, for the prompts.

We recently capitulated to the inescapable charms of Netflix and this was my first choice. An amazing film, both formally and emotionally, one I can easily imagine watching many times (one of the reasons I prefer owning DVDs rather than renting, having the thing near at hand when the mood strikes). One of its strengths is its openness to numerous interpretations, a number of which I've read in the last couple of days, several of which seem equally persuasive (the sign of a deep work). I like the general notion of an "innocent" (Janos) being buffeted between the forces of co-called science (the harmonic system of the title), so-called politics (the riotous mob following the ravings of the dwarf) and so-called mysticism (represented by the whale).

I have to admit, I could probably watch the movie bereft of any content aspect, simply wallowing in the images and sounds. Tarr's been called "minimalist" which seems as off-base as using the term for Feldman. There's so much to see in virtually every frame. Happily, Tarr has no problem lingering; there are only 39 shots (from what I understand) in the 140 minute film and almost every one deserves contemplation. If I had to single out a couple of favorites, they'd include the night-time scene of the whale-trailer entering town and the incredible tracking shot of Janos and his uncle walking to meet the protest group. Too many to list, though.

Already looking forward to watching it again as well as checking out other Tarr work. ("Satantango" not yet available, I don't think)

New Listening:

Songs and Music from Turkmenistan (World Music Library) Fantastic!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Just a pointer: There's an excellent interview with Tom Johnson over at Dan Warburton's Paris Transatlantic

Johnson's work has always greatly interested me even as it, in my estimation, ranges from the excellent (Rational Melodies, Failing, An Hour for Piano) to the unbearable (The Chord Catalog). The interview covers a wide range of topics, many pretty fascinating, especially if you're mathematically inclined. It weirdly verges (descends, one might say) into the composer's commitment to Christianity in the form of a kind of Lutheranism espoused by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister involved in anti-Nazi activities in the 30s and 40s (including the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler). Johnson's superciliously dismissive of those (like myself) who are dismissive of Christianity without offering any better comeback than asserting that atheists just haven't studied religion enough to appreciate it. OK, then. But despite that relatively brief detour, well worth a read.

(Still one of the great covers)

Trying to think back how I became aware of Branca's music. It was when "The Ascension" was issued, in 1981 and probably either through a Village Voice article or having heard something on KCR. I was entirely unaware of his no-wave experience with the Theoretical Girls and some other bands. But around that time I was just beginning to acknowledge the possibility of rock still having something to offer (not an easy sell for me at that point!) and the notion of someone doing instrumental music with massed electric guitars was intriguing.

Well, this album knocked me out. Much has been written, accurately I think, about the basic Romantic constructs behind Branca's music, the way it has more of a fundamental resemblence to Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff (think "Isle of the Dead") than post-LaMonte Young maximal dronage. And I'm sure that's part of what appealed to me, that sort of approach still having a pull at the time, especially when layered with modern trappings; likely still does, truth be told. "The Spectacular Commodity" has an amazing tension-and-release aspect, a pure orgasmic thing that's undeniably (if amygdallically) effective. I still find the title cut to be the strongest, also the one that points most clearly toward the direction Branca would take in ensuing years with those huge, cloudy masses. The conclusion of that piece remains one of the more exciting things I've ever heard.

Hee-hee. Happy I could locate an image of this one. Don't think it's been issued on disc? A split LP on Giorno Poetry Systems. The Branca piece, "Strange Smells", was written for Twyla Tharp. It's first half is pretty much as stellar as anything on "The Ascension" but it comes to a grinding (intentional) halt about midway through and lurches awkwardly to the end. The Giorno tracks are great fun, the cantankerous old lech (I realize now that he was only about 46 when this was recorded) ranting and raving about day-today botherations.

We got here yesterday We're here now And I can't wait to leave tomorrow or I'm spending my whole life being around people I don't wanna be with.

Pretty fun stuff, Giorno excoriating over bass and drums (Philip Hagen and a pounding David Van Tieghem).

I caught Branca in action for the first time at St. Marks Church in 1982, an event that would eventually be issued as Symphony # 2. I remember arriving late and
having to take a seat up in the balcony (or choir loft). It was a kind of rotunda, several of his homemade guitars (banks of three or four 2x4's strung with guitar string) around the perimeter with normal guitars and basses and Wischerth's drum set. The interior of the circle, about 20 feet in diameter was vacant save for an enormous "bass drum" some five feet wide, set at an angle to the floor, maybe a 20 degree tilt. I'm not sure how much of a profile the percussionist known as Z'ev carries these days but he was a rather impressive figure back then. Bare-chested (though there may have been leather straps crisscrossing his upper body), he strode into the center of the space carrying a club or two with which he began to beat said drum. Loudly. He soon attached heavy chains to his wrists, those chains in turn attached to various sheets of metal, basins and Allah knows what else. He proceeded to twirl (a word that seems too dainty here) these items around him, transforming himself into a sun about which rotated an asteroid belt full of metallic detritus creating an ungodly--and fantastic--welter of noise, the bangs and clangs resounding through the church space (I have a sneaking suspicion the duration of this prologue was cut for the disc release). For sheer physical endurance, it was an impressive enough display. Eventually the band proper assembled and the volume level rose even further.

Two things stood out at the time. One was that such a huge volume could be generated by such minimal physical action on the part of the guitarists, especially on the homemades. They played them "percussively" with thin wooden rods, moving their hands all of a couple of inches , looking for all the world as though they were gently tapping. The second thing was the way the overtones resulting from the varying tunings of the guitars manifested as a buzzing, palpable presence deep within my ears. I swear, it was like a molecular choir had taken up residence on my stapes. Amazing effect.

Saw Branca and his ensemble twice more after that, once at Lincoln Center (Alice Tully Hall) which I think was part of a subscription series for many of the attendees, resulting in the amusing spectacle of older folks scurrying rapidly toward the exits moments after the music began. Branca hurling himself around the stage probably didn't help. (btw, his, erm, conducting antics are pretty annoying). The last time was at the Kitchen for a performance of his Symphonies #8 & 10, maybe 1999 or so? I think my interest had begun to pall a bit but I have to say, that concert was extremely strong. It was a relatively small group, maybe 7-8 guitarists, but it was also in a smaller space and they filled it up and then some. Come to think of it, the recording of those pieces is likely the last thing I've really heard from him.

[Addendum: John Cage once famously referred to Branca's music as "fascist". I can see his point (using the term in its loosest sense) but...there's some nexus along the line from "fascism" in the aesthetic sense, ie, an insistence on rigid form, a perceived martial quality, etc. and transcendence that might be achieved by the hyper-concentration on just such a form (think Vermeer). I believe that Branca at least approximates, however distant, this last in tracks like "The Ascension", and some of the "cloudier" moments in later works, though I admit that Cage's comment slides uncomfortably close to the bone. A knotty little issue, imho.]