Monday, October 31, 2005

Weekend Playlist: 30 October 2005

Cecil Taylor & G√ľnter Sommer: In East Berlin (FMP 13/14)
Myra Melford: The Same River, Twice (Gramavision 79513)
William Duckworth: The Time-Curve Preludes (Lovely 2031)
Orlando Gibbons: Music for Harpsichords and Virginals (ASV/Gaudeamus 191)
Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts (EMI 474890)

Prog-Rock Classic, redux

Back around 1977 or so, in one of my forays through discount record bins I encountered a band called Van der Graaf Generator (later shortened to Van der Graaf). Floored by what I heard, I ultimately bought every one of their albums, plus all those of their singer, Peter Hammill. Never more than a cult group in the USA, they are largely forgotten. But back in the day, I thought them the superior of Genesis, ELP or even Yes. In the prog-rock scene, as it's now called, the only groups that seemed their equal or more were King Crimson or Gentle Giant. Van der Graaf's members were not technically better musicians than those of those other bands, but they had a vision and breadth of scope that was unmatched by any other group. While less polished than ELP or Yes, they were less pretentious, seemingly unafraid of failure, and forged their way into realms of dissonance that only King Crimson could duplicate. In their "classic" lineup they boasted a bizarre instrumentation—a lead singer who played electric piano and some basic guitar, a drummer, a saxophonist/flutist who often played alto and tenor saxes simultaneously, and an organist in the truest sense, right down to playing the bass parts on pedals, rather than bass guitar. And not a soloist in the lot—they were a true chamber ensemble. They dispensed with the usual verse-chorus-solo format very early on and favored playing elaborately contrapuntal accompaniments under Hammill's epic lyrics. Among the so-called progressive bands, they were the only one that had any credibilty in the punk world—Johnny Rotten professed to be a fan, and more recently the members of Radiohead have acknowledged VdGG to be a strong influence. And if you've possibly been searching for the missing link between free jazz, rock, and classical genres, look no further.

I also rejoice at the news that this lineup of VdGG has reformed after a 29-year hiatus, and from the reviews that I've read, they sound better than ever. They've recorded a new album, 'Present,' a 2-cd set of which one is comprised of new songs and the other a collection of studio improvisations.

I write this posting in response to re-hearing their masterwork—an album called 'Pawn Hearts,' recorded in 1971. In the rush of events that comprises my life, I hadn't thought about this band for many years, until last winter when staying with my friend Tom Kohn and we played some of their stuff again. I visited one of the websites devoted to the band, and got re-acquainted with their sound and vision. (You know how it goes nowadays—you get a thought about something or other, you do a quick Google search on it, and the next thing you know, you've got a hefty order on the way from Amazon.) Plus, I just turned 47, and so to celebrate, I ordered a copy of 'Pawn Hearts.' I hadn't listened to this album in at least twenty years, but if anything, I appreciate it more now than I did back then.

There are some warts to reckon with: Hammill's lyrics are overwritten, when not downright silly, and his singing is an acquired taste. The recording quality is not great; the technology didn't exist then to capture the sounds that they were going for and the production is dated, to say the least. But the rewards: Guy Evans' magnificent drumming (one of rock's greatest unappreciated timekeepers), Hugh Banton's amazing organ work, and David Jackson's incredible sax playing (a major inspiration to me, and probably the real reason I picked up the saxophone, though I never mastered that trick of playing two at once...). This was a band who sought to compose extended works on a symphonic scale, and succeeded more than most. Banton had a real grasp of organ literature, especially the French school of Widor, Alain and Dupre, as well as the music of Bach (he recently recorded Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' on an organ of his own design). Not as flashy as Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, he tends to get overlooked. David Jackson was a sort of British version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk combined with late Coltrane. "Gestural brilliance" was how one friend of mine summed up Jackson's strongest virtue as a musician; that and a truly distinctive tone. Guy Evans fluid time-keeeping could make 11/8 sound like 4/4 and then make 4/4 sound like nothing you ever heard in your life. And they played as a genuine ensemble, not a collection of soloists. When they were on, they made a truly glorious racket.

If you're curious, the newly remastered 'Pawn Hearts' is a good place to start. The mix has a clarity and depth that I never experienced from the album in the LP era. Hugh Banton's organ sounds better than ever, and they've added some bonus tracks that are much more than just filler.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Minimalist Masterpiece...

One of the many things for which I am grateful to Kyle Gann would be his advocacy of the music of William Duckworth. I had listened to Duckworth's "31 Days" years ago, and I even considered working on it, back when I was a sort of eccentric saxophone player. But his music dropped off my radar scope, until last year when I started listening to Gann's internet webcast "Postclassic Radio" in the morning (a link to same will appear very soon). Duckworth's music was a prominent feature here and whenever a Duckworth piece was on I found myself turning aside from whatever I was doing to simply listen. 'The Time Curve Preludes' is a collection of twenty-four "preludes" for piano. This appellation recalls the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach or Chopin's Op. 28 Preludes, though Duckworth is not interested in traversing the gamut of major and minor keys. Instead, each piece explores a particular rhythmic idea, in a highly concentrated manner. While the style is identifiably "minimalistic," Duckworth breaks from minimalist norms in a couple of ways. First, the pieces are short, and the aforementioned concentrated aspect is not often a feature of minimalist work. Secondly, literal repetition, a minimalist mainstay, is not found in much abundance here. Material is in constant flux, and Duckworth has an ear for dissonances that many minimalist stalwarts would rigorously avoid. There also is a harmonic richness and variety that sets it apart from almost any other piece of its kind. An underappreciated gem...

It's available from Lovely Music, Ltd., Lovely 2031.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Happy Birthday, Phillip Marshall...


One of the happiest musical (and otherwise) experiences of my life has been to make the acquaintance of Phillip Marshall, guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire. We met working together at the same record store around 1986 or so, and eventually played in three bands together: The Colorblind James Experience, The Hotheads, and Lalaland. The last two were formed by Phil. My involvement in Lalaland was very brief, but I went to many of their gigs as an enthusiastic listener. All three groups offered tremendous riches to the Rochester (NY) music scene, and each will eventually get ample discussion on this blog, but for now, let me say that Phil's musical scope was far too vast to be contained within one group. Common to all of them was a deep appreciation for musical tradition (particularly the blues and the legacy of the Beatles), combined with an ambition to explore new territory. Aside from his musical skills, Phil is one of the kindest and most decent human beings alive. This is well-known to anyone who knows Phil personally, but is also evidenced in his songwriting. His songs display an extraordinary empathy and insight that is on a par with that of Ray Davies or Elvis Costello. More on that in a future posting. Happy Birthday, Phil.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Unquenchable Enthusiasm(s)

For non-musical thoughts, fans of this blog will surely want to investigate the Enthusiasms of McIntire, easily accessed from the link just to your right. It's been kicked off in style with a terrific recipe for oyster stew... Check back often for updates. And more recipes.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Quick Followup...

To clarify and expand a couple of points from the last posting:

First of all, I really do understand the need to declare one's academic credentials. I just think that they really don't say all that much about our most personal and interesting qualities as musicians, composers, clamdiggers, or whatever we are. And it's certainly much easier to let your DMA from Cornell or somewhere do the talking about who you are...

Secondly, I am in favor of a flatter world—i.e. a world where the folks who are really doing the work get a fair share of the credit. So many individuals are doing stellar work out there—why do we only recognize a few? Why should I overemphasize Jacob Druckman in my bio, just because he's more famous, and I know that the people reading it will have heard of him? The fact is, it was Sullivan and Gruber who were in the trenches week after week with me as an undergrad comp student, and when I survey my musical values, it was they who had the defining influence. And this notion extends to every band teacher, chorus director and community music school instructor in our land, who labor simply because they love this art and thus devote themselves to the betterment of their students, with no thought of how it will affect their own careers or reputations.

I used to be ashamed of my modest musical background and its lack of "sophistication." Then (as a student at Nazareth College) I heard the music of Charles Ives, and I saw how he took similar musical experiences to what I'd had as I was growing up, and he turned them into great art. I realized that my heritage wasn't something to be ashamed of, but something to cherish and understand.

Credentials (Or: Towards Writing an Honest Bio)

We all have to write bios and resumes. And we all know from a recent FEMA director's example that they get padded all the time. But what if we really listed in those documents the actualities that really define us, the true measures of what we have to offer in our various disciplines? Would anyone hire us on those real terms? More to the point, I'm wondering, would anyone hire ME on those terms?

As a someday-soon-to-be-a-doctorate-holding-person, and one who is called upon to write a bio of himself every time he submits a piece or a paper to some conference somewhere, I have started rebelling against the norms that are followed by many of my colleagues. Usually the plan in a composer bio is to name-drop the hottest folks in the biz that you've ever been associated with, no matter how fleetingly. And all of your degrees, which are particularly important if they come from a major school. So you'll see bios of composers who declare they have "studied" with some titan of the craft, when actually they sat in a room with about 50 other student composers for an afternoon and listened to said titan offer a handful of comments on their or other people's work. I fell into this trap for a while, but I eventually realized its essential dishonesty, and I now avoid it. For example, I used to include Shulamit Ran (a fine composer who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back) amongst those I'd "studied" with, and I suppose that technically that I can do that. I DID have two lessons with her in the early '90s (plus attending lectures and masterclasses), but quite honestly, she didn't really affect the outcome of a single piece that I've ever written. Why should she have to bear some obscure responsibility for what I compose? I had a bit more contact with Jacob Druckman (another Pulitzer winner, and head of the Yale comp department until his death), but his expansive descriptions of working with Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, and the offhand musical wisdom that he offered to us over lunch or coffee were more memorable and important to me than were my actual lessons with him.

The two teachers who DID shape my path as a composer are less well-known, but far more important than any of the names I could drop: Albion Gruber and Timothy M. Sullivan. If anyone has had a say in how I developed as a musical thinker, they have, and much for my betterment. And my gratitude for their support and patient instruction of a hot-headed and willful egoist can never be exaggerated.

My earliest musical experiences consisted of playing clarinet in a small-town band and singing in the choir at the local Methodist Church. Humble as those are, they contributed to my musical identity in a profound way, and I ought to own up to that fact. And they probably have a greater bearing on the music that I write than anything else I can name, apart from playing for five years in the Colorblind James Experience, and a couple other groups, in the late '80s and early '90s.

There are still other experiences that should really be listed in my bio, and some of them may eventually start to show up there. For example, I worked for a few years in a record store in Rochester called the Bop Shop, and later managed one called Recorded Classics. Both were owned by a visionary music lover named Tom Kohn. Recorded Classics is gone, but the Bop Shop soldiers onwards to this day. I learned more about jazz and classical repertoire from working in those stores than I ever could have from any college course. In fact, I think that one of the saddest aspects of the current decline of independent record stores is the fact that this occupation can be a critical part of a young musician's education. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer places offer the riches that we could and did play and discuss daily in the Bop Shop or Recorded Classics. (In the course of a typical day at the Bop Shop, we'd spin a few sides of late Coltrane, some of the new European jazzers like Willem Breuker, some klezmer music, Howlin' Wolf, Bulgarian folk choruses, Elvis Costello's newest album, and a hefty selection of more obscure stuff... Over at Recorded Classics, we'd listen to Feldman, Cage and Stockhausen, along with Josquin masses, Haydn Piano Sonatas and Bernstein's Columbia recordings of Charles Ives. All this before lunch.) Beyond their purpose as retail outlets, these record stores functioned as a kind of cultural repository, an alternative library of sounds and styles. And as Tom Kohn has demonstrated in his 20-plus years of helming the Bop Shop, they can have an enormous influence on the local musical community. Would I be even close to the same composer had I not worked there? No way.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Formative Experiences (I)

I occasionally ponder my beginnings as a musician/composer/lover of music. Actually, it's as a "lover of music" that I was prompted to pursue those other two categories. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Lillian Russo, used to play a record by the Philadelphia Orchestra for my class sometimes, a collection of Grieg, Sibelius and Alfven. I came home and persuaded my mother to buy the same record so I could listen to it at home. We found it at a W.T. Grant store in Bath NY, a precursor of WalMart. (Good luck finding such a recording at a WalMart nowadays...) I would play it on the old Zenith record player in our living room, a console affair with vacuum tube electronics, so you had to wait a few minutes for the tubes to warm up before you'd hear anything. This stuff was far cooler to me than any pop music I'd heard at the time. (Iron Butterfly seemed to be ruling the airwaves back then, so I guess the competition wasn't really fierce...) I also had a soundtrack to the movie Exodus, which had one of the most stirring themes I've ever heard, composed by Ernest Gold. These recordings were my introduction to orchestral music. I didn't hear an actual live orchestra until I was about twenty years old.

Also while I was in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to be in band. My first instrument was the trumpet, a hand-me-down horn from my mother's brother Bill. We had a band director at that time named Ray Reed who was becoming mentally feeble, and wasn't really doing any genuine teaching to speak of. I would go to weekly group lessons and he never once noticed that I wasn't buzzing in the mouthpiece, but rather just blowing into it, making a soft whooshing sound and inducing severe lightheadedness. I would come home and practice daily, but I never once made an actual trumpet sound. This went on for weeks, but I figured that if I kept at it, eventually I'd have success. Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of an argument between my mother and her brother, and in a moment of spite, she gave him back the trumpet. I was now without an instrument, and I remember being a bit nonplussed at how this horn that I was trying to play had become a bargaining chip in my mother's argument with my uncle. The next day my mother took me to her sister Diane's house, and we collected her clarinet, an old Noblet. Diane showed me how to put it together, and she had a couple of old band books, including a fingering chart. This allowed me to teach myself what I was not getting from my band teacher. I was also very happy to be making actual musical sounds, and began playing hip tunes like "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody."

When I hit sixth grade, Mr. Reed was gently retired by the school board and they hired a new guy, a Mr. Murphy. He was a very good musician, an inspiring teacher, and I found myself highly motivated to practice. He was only at our school for a couple of years before he was asked to resign because of inappropriate behavior with a young band student. I remember the day that he annnounced that he was leaving as one of the saddest I ever experienced in school. I went home and shut myself in my room and played my Ringo Starr' single "It Don't Come easy" over and over for about two hours straight. (Nowadays, I'd handle such grief differently, I think.)

Mr. Murphy had put me into the high school band in the summer before seventh grade and I remember struggling to keep up with all of the "big kids." I enjoyed marching in town parades in these early days, but later came to dislike marching intensely. I also began to experience an ambivalence about my instrument that remained with me for years afterwards. Because I was a small, physically weak and slow kid, and the only male in the school district who played the clarinet, I was regarded by my classmates as insufficiently macho. I was also incredibly ignorant about sexual matters, which left me at a disadvantage with my Playboy-educated peers. I would walk to school during the summer to take my clarinet lesson, and this one kid would stand on his porch and yell "Faggot!" at me for as long as I was in view. This, combined with the fact that absolutely NO rock bands that I listened to ever used a clarinet, left me with the gnawing conviction that this instrument was an albatross. By the time I reached high school, I'd lost a lot of my motivation to practice. I occasionally read other musician's accounts of their formative years and often they relate that they picked up their instrument in an effort to attain social acceptance. For me, the clarinet did the opposite—it marginalized me even further.