Saturday, March 02, 2013

Leah Kardos: Machines

This review originally appeared at the indispensable I Care If You Listen blog.

Among the many recent “sky-is-falling” tropes in the music world, one that has been widely circulated, endlessly repeated as if inevitable, is the notion that “the album is dead.” Maybe. When digital music distribution entered the marketplace, it was widely assumed that people would simply cherry-pick the tracks they liked, and thus ignore or undermine any web of relationships or concepts an artist might have woven between and among tracks. “We’ll never have another Sgt. Pepper!” was the panicked conclusion. Like many such notions, the unfolding reality is turning out to be a bit more complicated. In my opinion, the prospects for the album seem as promising as ever. Leah Kardos’s new recording, Machines, provides a fine argument for this thesis. From the processional opening “Incantation” to the coda of “Sleep Modes,” Kardos creates a singular musical journey.

A few months ago I bought Kardos’s debut album, Feather Hammer, and thought it one of the best of the year. I was struck by the fluid ease with which she blended compositional styles and techniques, while honing a distinctive sound of her own. That album focused on her relationship with her primary instrument, the piano. (I take the title as describing an idealized conception of keyboard touch…)

Her new album, Machines, finds her moving confidently forward in a number of ways. Her writing and playing remain extremely assured, but her production technique has soared. While both albums are comprised of thematically-related material, Machines has a more deeply-rooted organicism that makes it a remarkable achievement. Oftentimes when I get a new recording, I listen through and then bounce among the individual tracks that have caught my ear. With Kardos’s new album, I dial up the opening, hit “play,” and then continue until the end.

Despite the title, which evokes images of a cold, hard-edged musical conception, Machines is a deeply nuanced album: warm, rich and evocative, and powerfully emotional. Kardos explores notions of isolation versus solitude, how we connect (or don’t) via the internet or other electronic means, and “the cheapness of words.” Her lyrics are taken entirely from spam emails that she acquired and then subjected to cut-up techniques, via David Bowie and William Burroughs. This produces a surprisingly personal and subtle reflection on her chosen themes. (The curious may find her lyrics reproduced on her website, along with the original spam messages whence they came.)

While Feather Hammer was an entirely solo endeavor, Machines is abetted by the musicianship of soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and cellist Catherine Saumarez. The addition of the other musicians adds further richness to the sonic palette and provides more opportunities for Kardos to deploy her production skills. In Wolk-Lewanowicz she has found a superb vocalist whose ease in many styles is a perfect match to Kardos’s own genre-smashing approach. Her flexibility and range of color is such that I kept checking for additional vocal credits, not quite willing to accept that I was hearing the same singer every time.

(Above: l-r Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and Leah Kardos)

Kardos’s sound world is one that appeals to me greatly, calling for hefty amounts of Fender Rhodes amidst more delicate sonorities like kalimba and other bell-like timbres. The purity of these sounds is nicely balanced by use of ambient and environmental material. Attempting to pinpoint her stylistic whereabouts is a fool’s errand, but I’ll mention some personal reference points. Kardos is clearly well-acquainted with the entire span of electronica history and one hears the breadth of that knowledge continuously, from earlier practitioners like Cluster and Eno, as well as more current electronica artists. A few tracks seem to have echoes of the Icelandic group Múm, but that may say more about me than Kardos. I mention these in order to throw out a couple points of musical latitude/longitude, not from any certainty that Kardos is referencing these artists, but because they share similar musical terrain and timbres.

Machines has a wholeness that is quite remarkable. But equally impressive is the manner in which Kardos conceals her virtuosity. Nothing draws attention to itself; everything is deployed in pursuit of an organic integrity. I had listened to the album several times before my attention was conscious of astonishing passages such as the intertwining keyboard lines that close “The Closeness of Distance” or the poly-temporal percussive underscoring of “Highly Active Girls.” The entire album is beautifully paced, with each individual track fitting into a larger whole. The phrase “song-cycle” is entirely apt. Many tracks stand easily on their own merits, although that’s not really how I wish to experience them, any more than I would wish to hear “Die Nebensonnen” apart from the rest of Winterreise.

In a recent article in The New Republic, David Hajdu wrote, “Electronica, the sound of our moment, has something in common with the earliest known music, which was the accompaniment to ritual: neither was made just for listening.” For me, Kardos’s Machines fits this description in the way that it attempts to create a map of our paths between the virtual and the corporeal worlds. She listens attentively to her materials and contemplates the way in which our online communications are changing our perceptions of ourselves and each other. In the age of Facebook, the meanings of words like “friend” have shifted substantially. Kardos creates an aural sextant via which to navigate this new and uncertain landscape.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pere Ubu: Lady From Shanghai

[Update: I've corrected the David Thomas quote below, which I'd mangled slightly. I've also added a clarifying sentence and changed a word or two.]

"I think it's dangerous, Max, Videodrome... —Because it has something that you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous." Masha, speaking to Max Renn, in Videodrome.

"The truth hurts, just not bad enough." David Thomas, singing on "Lampshade Man"

I've always found the above quote from David Cronenberg's Videodrome to be the most significant line in the film. The film baffled me when I first saw it and it has continued to do so, as I suspect it was meant to do. I'm still trying to understand a lot of it. I'd say it's Cronenberg's most prophetic work, although I'm not sure "prophecy" was really what he was going for when he made it.

I mention the movie and the quote because I feel that one of the reasons that Pere Ubu remains important and relevant ("dangerous," in the parlance of Videodrome) nearly four decades after their inception, is because they have a philosophy. You have to have your feet firmly placed on a standpoint. Nothing of significance gets done without that. I do not claim to fully understand the creative process that has yielded the legacy of Pere Ubu. But I can surely appreciate it. And I'm still trying to understand it. Their new album caused me to reflect on this anew.

First off, this is an astonishing assemblage of musicians, and perhaps the band's most powerful lineup in their history. A blasphemous notion for many long-time listeners, but I think it's true. The core of this group has been together for approaching twenty years, the newest member having joined in 2006 (guitarist Keith Moliné), with David Thomas being the only original member at this point. Bassist Michele Temple and drummer Steve Mehlman play with a synchrony that is actually frightening. Moliné and synth player Robert Wheeler deliver chaotic, complex and intricate textures, soundman Gagarin dances in the digital, and David Thomas's voice remains one of the most peculiar and evocative instruments in all of music.

The sound is dry, astringent, almost desiccated at times. Thomas declares the album to be "dance music, fixed," which makes some sense. There's definitely an electronica dimension present here, though evoked indirectly, mostly. The presence of the EML synthesizer, which is one of the keynote sounds of any Ubu production is still here, but abetted by a wider palette of electronic colors. And the beats produced are calibrated to produce befuddlement on most club dance floors.

Pere Ubu abandoned the policy of printing lyrics in their albums a long time ago, though they can be read at their website. But in an unusual gesture (and concurrent with this release), Thomas published a small book, Chinese Whispers: The Making of Pere Ubu's Lady of Shanghai (cover shown below), which offers some insight into the band's methodology and recording practice, as well as compiling some of Thomas's other writings. I would not say it's necessary to read it to understand the album, but it makes for a useful and provocative addendum.

I tossed one of Thomas's quotes from the book onto a Facebook posting the other day and was immediately bombarded with a flurry of energetic (if not infuriated) responses. I'm contemplating using this in my teaching for that reason. In a manner somewhat akin to John Cage's writings, Thomas hammers down some outlying fenceposts, and provokes you to figure out your own position in relation to these. I think that's a healthy thing. The territory that Thomas marks off is one that few could reside in comfortably, but that's OK. "I'm on the outskirts of Nowhere," Thomas sings in "Mandy," indicating he's well aware of his remote address.

My friend Jay Batzner just tweeted on an unrelated matter, about striving to "sit with discomfort" rather than respond in a reflexive and unthoughtful manner. This is hard to do. And I think this is actually a neat summation of Pere Ubu's discipline. They've learned to sit with discomfort, and embrace that action. In describing the evolution of the track "Lampshade Man," Thomas was clearly not enthused with the germinal musical idea presented by Keith Moliné: "Working with the demo recording, which is the basis of what appears on the album, drained away my will to live as I listened to it over and over at Suma in the early stages of figuring out what to do with it." But Thomas remained unflinchingly present with the discomfort, and forged an astonishing track. The entire album works this way.

And Lady From Shanghai is that nearly-extinct creature, an honest-to-goodness ALBUM. I really find it hard to discuss individual tracks easily. I've been listening to it from beginning to end, and I really hear it as a single musical statement. Your own reaction may differ, but that's where I'm at. Pulling up to the outskirts of Nowhere.

Interesting place. I may want to stay here a spell.

Addendum: only in retrospect did it occur to me that all the various viewpoints that I'd shoe-horned into this posting were all produced by persons named David. I'm not sure that means anything. But it might.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Of the Making of Lists, There is Not Much Point...

I don't pay a whole lot of attention to best-of lists, but this year I got lured into making one, and I thought I'd share it here. This is not a "this is absolutely the BEST stuff of 2012" as much as a "this is what gripped my attention this year..." sort of list. I don't keep up with new recordings like I used to, and it's gotten a whole lot harder to do so anyway. The world is filled with astonishing music and I am probably NOT the best person to consult for current information on what's going on. As I've gotten older, I've retreated into a few passionate interests. The recordings on this list are in no particular order. Clicking on a title link takes you to an approved means of purchase.

McIntire Top 10: 2012

Wandelweiser 'Und so weiter' (Another Timbre)

Here's a six-disc set that I just bought, and it'll take me the main portion of 2013 to get a real grip on it, but this is a major musical movement that you'll be hearing more about in the future. They've been around since the early '90s and have amassed quite a discography. You might as well get in on it now. My friend Andy Lee described this as a great Wandelweiser "starter set," and I think that description hits it perfectly. If you're wanting to explore the terrain that lies between "music" and the hum of your refrigerator or a slow, quiet scraping sound, this is the place to start. Don't be in a hurry.

Daphne Oram: The Oram Tapes Volume 1 (Young Americans)

Daphne Oram was one of the great early pioneers of electroacoustic music, and she's been sadly neglected over the years. I'd read about her in accounts of electronic music history, but I'd never heard any of her music until recently. Specifically, last June, when I walked into Weirdo Records on Mass. Ave in Cambridge, MA. This was the first thing that my eye focused on upon entering the store. My ears have been focused on it ever since...

Mikel Rouse: Boost/False Doors (Exit Music)

Mikel has been making compelling and ultra-smart music for a long time. Not one to get locked into a particular sound, this release finds him pairing heavy dance beats and his recent interest in slide guitar. No artist since Prince has been this good at self-production, or as prolific. If there were justice in this universe, Mikel would have won several Grammy awards by now. He'd also be on our $100 dollar bill. Check out "Hurdle Rate," or "God Said No."

Jürg Frey: Piano Music (Irritable Hedgehog)

Right, so I produced this album myself, and it features my good friend Andy Lee. Big deal. It's still gorgeous and amazing and baffling and utterly unlike anything you've heard before. Be the first person in your zip code to own one.

Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller (Zappa Records)

I bought my first Captain Beefheart album in 1976. It didn't make any sense to me. I didn't think I liked it. But: I kept playing it, for myself and my friends. Eventually, the genius that I apparently sensed was there through some intuitive means, became more and more apparent. This album was recorded in '75, but through a series of unfortunate events it was locked up until this year. One of the Captain's best ever, and Zappa's production crew have mastered it beautifully.

Peter Hammill: Consequences (Fie!)

I've been listening to the music of Peter Hammill ever since I bought a Van der Graaf Generator album for 98 cents at a W.T. Grant department store in 1976. This release is somewhere around his 50th. Each Hammill album takes a particular tack and on this one it's heavily vocal, with most of the songs examining the vagaries of language, its limitations and frustrations. Fans who are hoping for a collection of rockers will be disappointed, but the songwriting is subtle and profound.

Leah Kardos: Feather Hammer (Bigo & Twigetti, via Bandcamp)

My good friend Andy Lee steered me towards this recording, and it's just fantastic. It's also a fantastic deal right now.

Can: The Lost Tapes (Spoon)

The last couple of years have seen me really digging back into a lot of the experimental rock that intrigued me years ago. The Köln group Can has been a big part of that digging. Three discs of unreleased studio material and none of it is spurious. If you're a fan of the group, you really can't miss. I blogged about it a while back, and you can read about it here, if you want to know more. Another treasure I grabbed at Weirdo Records.

Conrad Schnitzler: Rot (Bureau B)

Schnitzler was a fascinating artist who delved into all manner of media. He also helped found Tangerine Dream and Kluster. His solo albums are even more astringent than those he made with collaborators, and they're being reissued. Rot (German for "red") shows him carefully exploring the potential of the EMS VCS-3 synthesizer, also known as the "Putney." For that reason alone, he's like a brother to me.

Pere Ubu: A Ghost Town Goes Where You Want to Go (Hearpen)

Pere Ubu has been around since the mid-1970s and this live release of a show from 2006 is amazing and shows why they've remained a relevant force. Simply for the wonder of the astonishing synchrony of bass/drum team of Michele Temple and Steve Mehlman would make this a savvy purchase. Keith Moliné's guitar and Robert Wheeler's synth offer a chaotic counterbalance to the driving rhythm. David Thomas's vocals remain one of rock's perplexing oddities. I've heard him do "Final Solution" a bunch of times. This recording makes me sit up and hear it anew.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Nielsen Symphonies: A Live-Blogging Account

A few months ago my good friend Erik Klackner laid in sufficient provisions to sustain him through a listening of all seven Sibelius symphonies in one sitting. It turned out to be a great read, and inspired me to go back and experience a couple of those pieces anew. I liked his spontaneous and irreverent approach, taking on the music in real time, with a more visceral reaction. I've long admired Klackner's musical perceptions and this seemed like a great way to deploy them. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I immediately proposed that we should do the same thing with the Nielsen symphonies as a team, in the same session. Klackner said "ok," and then we simply had to find a mutual time in our schedules to do it. Last Thursday was the day.

We had little to aid us in our enterprise except our wits, a couple of laptops, the scores to all six symphonies, several audio formats, some antipasto, two hearty brews (Chicken Killer barley wine from Santa Fe and Unibroue's Ale on Lees, via Trader Joe's), and some Basil Hayden bourbon for when the going got tough.

We played them in order, pausing between movements to record our observations and get more food. I noticed right away that Klackner types about four times faster than I can. He's also much funnier than me. In the interests of time, you may want to just head to his blog and save yourself some annoyance. Occasional discussion on various points was also part of the process. There's little in the way of deep analytical contemplation. If you're looking for that, try Robert Simpson. We chose our selections somewhat randomly, and Nielsen fans will doubtless rage at our eccentric selections. There are many fine Nielsen recordings that we probably should have considered, but didn't. You'll find nothing from Herbert Blomstedt's able cycle with San Francisco, Karajan's account of the 4th is a favorite with many listeners, and lots of others. Other fine Nielsen interpreters we unaccountably ignored included Theodor Kuchar, Ole Schmidt, Osmo Vanska, and Myung-Whun Chung. (Feel free to vent your rage in our comments section below.) I would have liked to try Ormandy's reading of the 6th, which I was once told is very good, but seems counter-intuitive to me. I recorded my thoughts in a fairly telegraphic manner, though I have expanded/clarified things here and there. Anyway, here we go:

6:36 pm: Symphony no. 1— Michael Schønwandt/Danish National Symphony Orchestra DVD (DaCapo)

1. Very Brahmsian opening. Nice to hear the clarinets w/ their crystal mouthpieces--bright and dark all at once. For a first symphony it's very assured--absolutely solid structure, beautiful pacing. Many of the characteristic Nielsen tropes are already in place. Schønwandt is really good--clean gestures, un-self-indulgent, crisp.

Somewhere in here, Klackner and I ponder whose first symphony is the greatest. Shostakovich 1 is our informal consensus, though we need to spin Nørgård's first together sometime to get Klackner's reaction. But Nielsen's rates pretty high up there. Maybe that will be the premise for a future blogging adventure. How many first symphonies can we listen to before madness sets in and we leap into the icy waters of the Missouri?

2. Lovely, just lovely. (Have I EVER listened to this symphony before? I'm pretty sure but it's been years, if I have.) Gorgeous, and highly exposed horn lines, elegant fragmentary interlocking motives. Nothing here is trying to rock the world to its foundations, but you sense an intense guy ready to take on all comers. Klackner mentioned that N. was playing in the orchestra when this premiered; a strange place to be sitting, no doubt. The second violin parts are going to be scrutinized... This barley wine (Chicken Killer from Santa Fe) pairs very well with Nielsen's rustic temperament.

3. "What an odd, odd... [long pause] It was an interesting mix" (Klackner). Counterpoint. Gorgeous counterpoint, with a very folk-ish sensibility. The direct, unassuming manner of someone from the countryside. Nothing draws attention to itself--the melodies are plainspoken, the climaxes well-shaped but not overdone. Incredibly exposed horn lines--sound so easy, look like nothing at all on the page, but… When hornists have nightmares, these are the passages that chase them across trackless wastes, with dripping razor-like fangs...

4. "It's a doofy main theme, but he handles it so well..." (Klackner) This gets again at the rustic temperament idea. Having grown up amongst Yankee farmers, I think I recognize it. Clean, lean and powerful. RDSO sounds fantastic throughout. N's time in the second violin section seems to have taught him the value of inner voices; it's the counterpoint, a word that I should probably just copy so I can keep pasting it in every other sentence.

N.B to readers: what a fricking steal this set is: (Schønwandt/Dausgaard on DaCapo)

7:43 pm: Symphony no. 2— Morton Gould/Chicago Symphony Orchestra CD (RCA)

1. Good Lord, that's a powerful opening. This is one badass orchestra. An underrated period for Chicago in my book. Everybody pines for the days of Reiner or Solti, but this interregnum shows that a very different story was possible in Chicago, if only Martinon hadn't been run off before he could really settle in with this group. Morton Gould just shot up 400% in my estimation. Been 'way too long since I played this. And N's orchestral confidence apparently ascended about 400% as well. All the same techniques abide, but with more fizz and certainty. Klackner points out that N wrote this the same year as his opera 'Saul & David.' Sheesh.

2. Wow. Melodies that never quite go where you expect them to. How is it that no-one mentions about N in any discussion of great orchestrators? Probably because none of it draws attention to itself.

3. Intense counterpoint, amazing interlocking lines deftly unfurled from section to section, gorgeous doublings, without the "brown gravy" effect. More emotional ambiguity than ever. The brass climax is truly unnerving, and then we land in B-flat major. We don't deserve to, but we do.

4. Pow. Wild ride. N doesn't prolong climaxes. Wham, bam, done.

8:37 pm: Symphony no. 3— Jascha Horenstein/BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra iTunes download via Plex on Roku (BBC Legends)

1. Forthright. Horenstein gets it. The orchestral playing is a bit scrappy, but so enthusiastic it doesn't matter. Klackner and I have somewhat divergent views on Horenstein but seem in alignment on this performance. After his directorship of Dusseldorf Opera (28-33) he never had a full-time residency again. The strings' intonation is a bit dodgy (which I'm more tolerant of than many), but the woodwinds sound fantastic.

2. Gorgeous. When the singers come in, it's such a startling moment, and yet entirely convincing. "Here's just one more way of [N] saying 'I don't give a shit.'" (Klackner on hearing the entrance of the voices.) Nielsen seems on the surface to be staying cautiously inside the symphonic tradition, but underneath the comforting, familiar architecture is a guy who is modernizing the plumbing, putting in brand-new wiring and brilliant light fixtures. Oh, and adding switch-back staircases that don't go where you think they will.

Ever the practical Dane, Nielsen helpfully indicates in the score that the singers may be replaced with a trombone and a clarinet, but it would lose a lot of the character. Has anyone ever recorded it that way? Also notable in the practicality department is Nielsen's restraint int the instrumentation department. No Straussian hyper-orchestra here. Even in the later symphonies, the array expands, but not much compared to other orchestral composers of the time.

3. N likes grace notes almost as much as I do... "Major?Minor? I'lll shift between the two with abandon! Whee!" Good god that is one weird-assed ending...

4. Grand. You could graduate to this opening. PhD, cum laude. And then the oboe enters and you realize that N is the original Dr. Sardonicus. Ah. The rug is pulled away again... "Just when it couldn't get any weirder, here's a small canon..." (Klackner) Nielsen's endings are always so matter-of-fact, unpretentious.They close down the musical argument, but seem to be composed by a guy who would like to grab a beer before the bars close, two if possible. The workaday musician element intrudes.

10:02 pm: Symphony no. 4— Jean Martinon/Chicago Symphony Orchestra LP (RCA)

1. Yeah, so we're listening to two performances by Chicago, and from the same year. Big deal. They kick ass and it's our blog. So there. (You could even get them on the same CD if you wanted to. And you should.) The thing that makes me sad whenever I hear Martinon/Chicago recordings is the contemplation of what legacy we'd have if he had stayed there for ten years or so. He never conducted as good a group again, in my estimation. He completely gets the Nielsen vibe—the ambiguous emotional states, the pacing, the fake-out transitions, the "grand" music that says, "you really think life is fucking GRAND, well, just wait a bit..."

Klackner and I mused a bit on why this guy's music isn't in the center of the repertoire, without really getting anywhere. The command of structure, the orchestration, the ease with line and counterpoint, it's all there. The Nielsen sesquicentennial is coming soon (2015, mark your calendars), and I'll be surprised if there is more than token acknowledgement of the fact. In Denmark Nielsen was on the 100 Kroner note (see above) for years, here Ives had a 32-cent stamp for a few months. Maybe something to do with the national psyche, in the same way that Delius doesn't really connect broadly outside Britain. If you don't have that cultural wiring, you don't really get it.

2. As to why Nielsen matters to me so much, that is another question. I think it's something to do with our common rural upbringings, and a Northern sensibility. No sentimentality, no nostalgia. Nielsen certainly isn't happy with the way the world works, but he also doesn't kid himself that there's some lost "golden age" that he wishes would return. And occasionally there's joy, unalloyed joy. And that matters a lot to me as well.

3. For "poco adagio quasi andante," this opens with quite a punch. [And somewhere in here I simply stopped thinking about anything and listened in wonder. You should probably steer over to Klackner's more clear-eyed account for the details. Something about timpani...]

I would insert here that if there's a classical harbinger of the arrival of Keith Moon, it's to be found in the timpani parts of Nielsen, along with the upcoming side-drum solo in Symphony 5.

10:37 pm: Symphony no.5— Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic CD (CBS/Sony)

1. Wow. I've listened to this performance so many times, and the sheer strangeness of the piece and the over-the-top delivery are such a perfect match it still floors me. Here's where N really gets radical with form, and totally bails on sticking to the four-movement formula. It's really a clarinet concerto in disguise and Stanley Drucker just owns it. His silvery brilliance and Nielsen's lines just merge perfectly. And the slow, meticulous build over acres of time is a major achievement. Study and learn. Then, whoever that side-drum player was was either a stone cold genius or got totally lost and refused to admit it. He completely diverges from the score and just doesn't care. Neither do I. I really have a hard time listening to any other performance after this one.

2. Morton Feldman once told a group of students to beware of the avant-garde because those figures were actually conservatives, despite their fancy theories and spiffy notational allure, that it was often composers whose nature was concealed beneath a familiar surface that were the true innovators. He then whistled a few bars of Sibelius. He could just as easily have used Nielsen 5 to make the same point. This movement is so bizarre and so utterly thrilling. Once again, Nielsen doesn't whang away on the final climax. When you've said what you need to say, you should stop talking.

(Portrait of a man who no longer gives a rat's ass)

11:32 pm: Symphony no. 6— Thomas Jensen/Danish State Radio Orchestra Flash drive to iTunes to Plex on Roku (Pristine Classical)

1. "Sinfonia semplice." Huh. Ain't nuthin' semplice here pal. This whole piece could just be one of the most elaborate musical pranks ever pulled. "Where's it going? Who the hell knows?" Hmmm, here's a delicate passage with glock and flutes. Now here's some bitonality! Biff! Pow! I think you could play this symphony attacca with the 5th and it'd sound absolutely natural, an organic continuation. The motives and figuration are so similar, though this is a MUCH darker piece.

So much of this piece feels like the musings of a guy who is wondering why the hell he ever went into this line of work in the first place. An extended musical middle finger. I was once told that Nielsen declared that anyone who said they wanted to become a composer should be taken to a lonely place and beaten with a cudgel until they changed their mind. I've never verified that, but listening to this piece, I have no doubt that N could have said this. Ah here's the end of the movement. Look a major chord! "See? I am too in a good mood!"

2. Ah, Dr. Sardonicus has returned, and he's brought luggage for an extended visit. If you thought the first movement was weird, you were mistaken.

3. "Proposta seria adagio" is the indication on this movement, which is apparently Italian for "I don't give a flying fuck what happens any more." The thing is, it's Nielsen again writing in a way that would typically suggest a certain result, but the actuality is far different.

4. Oh good, a theme and variations. Nothing strange can happen here, right? I mean, there's that theme to keep everyone in line... Now the strings want to play a nice waltz, but the brass keep kicking them in the nuts. It's clear to me why this doesn't get programmed all that much, just because it would confuse the hell out of audiences. None of your Beethovenian heroism and certainty for this guy. The sense of struggle is there, but that's it. Symphonic audiences bristle when you point out that life is confusing and uncertain and your hopes will probably be smashed with a hammer and thrown into a wood chipper. Though I bet the Irish, Scots and Newfies would get Nielsen. And the Welsh. Which, interestingly, comprises most of my ancestry.

Coda: This was a really interesting exercise for me. I've been dwelling in a much different musical world than this for the last few years, and have really slowed down on my orchestral listening. But Nielsen still speaks to me, and powerfully. That's a wonderful discovery.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Wanting to say a few things about John Cage: Cage at 100

[What follows is a revised/adapted transcript of a talk I gave at the University of Central Missouri, as a prequel to a presentation of an electroacoustic work of mine, written in honor of Cage's 100th birthday. In the anecdotes I share, the quotations are as accurately rendered as I can remember them, but it's been a long time.] So:

September 5th of this year was the 100th birthday of John Cage, whose contribution to music we will be pondering, discussing and arguing over for a long time to come. It seemed appropriate, if not necessary to reflect on his influence. In my own musical life, I have been immeasurably rewarded by listening to his music, reading his books and struggling with his ideas. Part of the presentation this evening includes a work of my own, written in gratitude for his work and in honor of his centennial.

The outlines of his life are well-known. He was born in Los Angeles the son of an inventor, graduating valedictorian of LA High School. After some study and travel, he settled on music as his life’s work, studying with Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schoenberg. He began writing music for percussion ensembles in the 1930s. Working in Seattle at the Cornish School, he invented the prepared piano, and wrote many works for it, most notably the Sonatas and Interludes. In the 1940s he began to study eastern philosophy, which deeply affected his aesthetic direction. After receiving a copy of the I Ching (the Chinese oracle) he began composing using chance procedures, and abandoned traditional compositional methods. In 1952 he composed his most famous work, 4'33” a work of silence. Gradually, after years of impoverished circumstances, he became a celebrity, appearing on television and on college campuses across the country. He was the music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Ensemble, and over the course of his almost 80 years, he wrote over 350 musical works, in all genres: orchestral, chamber, theatrical, opera, piano, and electronic. He also wrote books and painted, creating works such as this one:

My talk tonight will be somewhat informal, and anecdotal. I think this is actually entirely appropriate, perhaps essential, as Cage loved stories, and telling them. I’ll share a couple which are not well-known. I share these because I think they reveal more than more conventional lecturing would. And, they’re funny. Here’s the first:

My undergrad alma mater is Nazareth College of Rochester, a small liberal arts school founded by the Sisters of St Joseph. At the time of this story it was an all-girls’ school. John Cage visited the campus to perform on a couple of occasions, and my composition teacher Albion Gruber told me of one of the most notorious episodes. Cage performed with his ensemble, which at that time included Gordon Mumma, among others. Cage sat at a desk, tossing coins, and then scribbling instructions on paper and handing them to his musicians. Everything was highly amplified, even the desk itself. When Cage tossed the coins, they landed on a copper plate, also amplified. Albion told me that when the coins hit the plate, they made the most piercing sound he’d ever heard, it hurt. After a couple times, everyone in the audience would automatically cover their ears whenever he picked up those coins to throw them. This continued for about two hours. At the end, there were only about four people left in the audience, one of whom was a young student whose sensibilities were so offended she had to confront Cage. “You mean to s-s-say, you call that MUSIC?!?” she sputtered. Cage looked at her and smiled for a moment and then said, Well, you HEARD it, didn’t you?”

This, for me, sums up Cage’s philosophy: if it could be heard, it could be music. For many, this was a kind of blasphemy, a cop-out. For others, it was an inspiration, and a way forward.

Cage died in 1992 shortly before his 80th birthday, but the controversies that swirled in his wake have not subsided much. Depending on who you happen to be reading, he has prompted various people to categorize him as a “charlatan,” a “musical philosopher,” a “kook,” “dangerous radical,” or “minimalist.” No doubt those who lob such terms have their reasons, but I wish to focus on a description which for many seems almost impossibly difficult to apply to Cage: “composer.” That Cage has had a huge impact on music and influenced many composers is generally assumed, but a problem arises in discerning which aspect of Cage’s musical work is primary. Which John Cage are we describing?

For many, it is the composer who shunned the traditional musical values of “inspiration” and “beauty” and instead made chaotic works through chance procedures. Like this trombone part for his Concert for Piano and Orchestra:

Is it the composer of delicate works of beauty, such as the String Quartet in Four Parts?

Is it the audaciously brilliant inventor of the prepared piano, and the hours of repertoire that he wrote for the instrument?
[Update: For another piece of prepared piano repertoire, here's my high school school band mate Charles Peltz conducting the Callithumpian Consort at New England Conservatory, in a fine reading of Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. I'd be highly remiss not to link to it. Charles and I have had highly divergent musical lives, but Cage has been an important point of intersection.]

The composer of deeply personal musical depictions of searing pain such as Four Walls or A Valentine Out of Season?

Is it the composer of his “silent work” 4’33”?

Is it the organizer of overwhelming immersive environmental works such as HPSCHD, Roaratorio or MusiCircus?

Is it the writer of books such as Silence, which multimedia composer Robert Ashley described as “arguably, the most intelligent and influential book on music theory in the second half of the twentieth century?”

Cage’s detractors seem to focus on whatever piece offends them the most, and allow that to embody his entire career, overlooking or else ignoring any other of Cage’s music that might balance the picture. After Cage composed 4’33” and devoted the remainder of his career to using chance procedures, many in the music world wrote him off as a ridiculous figure. He lost a number of valued friendships. But I think the score examples shown all point to a composer who valued listening above all else, and disciplined himself to find new sounds in every new work. And the incredible care that Cage put into his scores argues persuasively for his dedication to his art.

Here’s another story, told to me by the computer music pioneer, Charles Dodge. He’d had Cage come talk to his students at Brooklyn College, and was driving him back to Manhattan, this was sometime in the late 1970s or early '80s, I think. By this time, Cage had stopped tossing coins to generate chance material and was using random numbers generated by computers. Dodge explained that a random number generator is dependent on the amount of memory available, and back then computers didn’t have much. So after a point, the “random” numbers will repeat themselves, but only after tens of thousands of numbers. Cage had used these random number lists for quite a while and then, as he explained to Dodge, “You know Charles, I was horrified to discover that those numbers were REPEATING themselves!” Dodge said that he asked Cage how he felt about that. “Well, at first I was worried that I’d invalidated all the music that I’d composed, but then I realized that I hadn’t used the repetition INTENTIONALLY.” Dodge said, “And who else but John would have ever noticed the repetition?”

I find Cage’s work to be highly influential, but not in the sense that composers tried to sound like him. He has few imitators. Rather, they took his concepts, his attention to LISTENING, and his open and joyous attitude and then applied them to their own pursuits. Robert Ashley observed, “We were influenced by Cage as a composer who took his work "on the road," when nobody else would play it, and who submitted to countless interviews, in a good natured and humorous style, about his compositional technique. We were influenced by Cage as a courageous person and as a spokesperson for contemporary music." I would add that for myself, one of Cage’s greatest assets was his capacity to risk appearing foolish or ridiculous. This might be the most important lessons that he had to offer anyone.

When Cage appears on the 1960 TV show I've Got a Secret, and is about to present his piece Water Walk, the host Dave Garroway, says, "Inevitably Mr. Cage, these are nice people, but some of them are going to laugh. Is that all right?" Cage simply beams and says, "Of course— I consider laughter preferable to tears."

As do I.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Discography of Drones (selected, incomplete)

A while back a discussion emerged on Twitter about composers who wrote drone pieces. My name was mentioned as a likely source of information, which was probably a mistake. But I am interested in drone-based works, and herewith share a few recordings that I have found worthwhile. It is by no means complete in any sense. And many (if not most) artists on this list, like Niblock, Palestine and Radigue, have far more recordings available than I have mentioned here. But it might get you started.

See a glaring omission? Please add your own suggestions in the comments.


 Rhys Chatham:    A Crimson Grail (Table of the Elements, Nonesuch)
                              Guitar Trio Is My Life (Radium, Table of the Elements)

Tony Conrad:       Early Minimalism Vol. 1 (Table of the Elements)
                             Slapping Pythagoras (Table of the Elements)

David First:          Privacy Issues (droneworks 1996-2009) (XI)

Henry Flynt:        C Tune (Locust Music)

Fripp & Eno:       No Pussyfooting (DGM)
                            Evening Star (DGM)

Jon Hassell:         Vernal Equinox (Lovely Music)

Catherine Christer Hennix: The Electric Harpsichord (die Schachtel)

Alvin Lucier:        Music On a Long Thin Wire (Lovely Music)

Phill Niblock:       Young Person's Guide to Phill Niblock (Blast First)
                              Four Full Flutes (XI)

Charlemagne Palestine:   From Etudes to Cataclysms (Sub Rosa)
                                         Strumming Music (Sub Rosa)
                                         Schlingen-Blangen (New World)

Eliane Radigue:              Adnos I-III (Table of the Elements)
                                       Triptych (Important Records)
                                       Trilogie de la Mort (XI) Vice-versa (Important Records)

La Monte Young:          Second Dream of the High-Tension Step-Down
                                      Transformer (Gramavision)

Friday, September 14, 2012

William Duckworth (1943-2012)

It's been one of the greatest honors of my musical life to have helped produce a disc of William Duckworth's magnificent piano work, The Time Curve Preludes. I didn't ever meet him and only exchanged a few emails with him over years, but his music had an incalculable effect on my life and work. I listened, studied his scores, read his books. It seemed inevitable that our paths would cross at some point, but circumstances never aligned and Bill succumbed to pancreatic cancer this week.

Many postings have already been made and I will not attempt to expand upon them further. Kyle Gann knew him well and wrote a lovely tribute in the wake of his passing. My friend and fellow irritable hedgehog, Andy Lee has posted a moving tribute here.

If you did a formal survey of "most influential composers" Bill's name would probably not appear very high on the list. His music didn't have the cache needed to snare the big prizes. But literally ALL of my musical colleagues know and admire his work. We composers seldom agree on much, but Bill's music garnered incredibly broad enthusiasm. The web has been flooded with testimonials of his marvelous teaching and celebrations of his work. A subtler, but perhaps more telling sort of "influence." I, for one, am eternally grateful for his presence.