Sunday, July 23, 2006


Back around 1976, when I was busy exploring all the outlandish prog-rock that I could get my hands on, I would go to extraordinary lengths to acquire some cool new LP that I hadn't yet heard. Obsessed, I once drove about 120 miles to buy a single Captain Beefheart record. While I was on that trip, elsewhere in the store I spotted a weirdly cool album cover, a double LP set called 'Magma Live.' I knew nothing about Magma, but I bought it anyway, mainly because the band boasted two keyboard players, a violinist, and most of the songs were really long. This seemed promising to me. I got the record home, and found that I did indeed like the album. In fact, for sheer strangeness, the group went toe-to-toe with Captain Beefheart.

Magma was formed in 1969 by a French jazz drummer named Christian Vander, whose main musical influence was the late-period music of John Coltrane, along with classical composers like Carl Orff and Bela Bartok. Vander's father was a well-known jazz pianist, and the young Vander got to meet many major musicians as a youth, including Coltrane. He was also fascinated by classical music, especially Orff and Bartok. The membership of Magma as never very stable, except for Vander and his wife Stella, who sang. (They can be seen at the left in the picture below.) Also, a vocalist of remarkable range and flexibility anchored the group during their most productive years, Klaus Blasquiz. (Seen to the far right.) Others came and went, but these stayed.

Vander had a vision (literally, according to some accounts) of an ecologically devastated Earth, and he began to compose an epic science-fiction saga as a sort of metaphor, a warning for mankind. Realizing that the French language was entirely unsuited for the sort of music that he envisioned (not enough consonants for the percussive sounds he heard), he created his own, called Kobaian, after the planet Kobaia, which is central to this saga. All of Magma's early albums are sung in this language, which has a very Slavic/Germanic quality. (One can even find a Kobaian/English dictionary online!) Klaus Blasquiz proved to be as committed to this musical vision as Vander was, and his contribution to this concept was integral. His singing is quite extraordinary, employing falsetto, "fry-tones" and other extended means of expression.

Magma, circa 1975.

Back in the late 70s and '80s, I collected pretty much everything that was available by this group. I owned at least ten or twelve albums of the band back then. When cds came along, and I simultaneously went through some intense personal upheaval, I sold them all. I hardly thought about this band for at least twenty years or so. A few weeks ago, I was surfing around the iTunes store and I thought I'd see if there were any Magma albums. I figured this was a total waste of time, but I typed the name in the search window and hit "enter." And nothing came up. Nothing, except about 17 albums or so, and several of them very inexpensive. I sampled a few of them and found that they sounded even better than than I remembered. A bunch of downloads later, I had a new collection. And Magma's music was even more impressive than ever. Further revelation came in the newly released live recordings from the BBC in 1974. Wow. (And not expensive, either.)

When I first listened to Magma, I had good instincts about music, but no technical or theoretical means of assessing what I heard. Now, they make even more of an impression, because I can clearly hear the polyrhythmic intricacies that Vander concocted. They made many fine albums, but for a one-disc intro to their music, Magma Live is the best. It features one of the best lineups that Vander ever put together, playing at an incredible level of virtuosity. The first track, the 30-minute "Kohntark" is a tour-de-force of visceral playing, welded to extremely sensitive compositional technique. Vander's drums are here better recorded than on some of their studio albums, too. Magma differs from other jazz-rock bands of their time in their singular musical vision, which eclipsed any individual aims in the group. There is no ego here. Soloing is minimal, or tightly controlled, according to Klaus Blasquiz solos were usually composed out by Vander. And the physical stamina that they had in playing pieces like this, with precision and endurance far beyond most bands, is truly exhilarating.

Christian Vander, today.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

iTunes will be my downfall...

I don't have an iPod. My wife does, my daughters Rachel and Eileen each have one, most of my composer cronies have one. But I do have a Mac and I use iTunes, and so a while back I started nosing around the iTunes store to see what I could find. Not much, at first. But, eventually I pulled out a few British Invasion hits that I wanted to drive around with, and then scooped up the Patti Smith tunes that I really couldn't live without, and then I started looking in earnest for all of the strange stuff that occupied my attention for about ten years, from 1976 to 1986. (All of the LPs that I no longer have, but wish I still did...) Didn't find much at first. But recently iTunes has expanded their catalog by a tremendous amount, and the selection has become a bit frightening, especially for an old prog-rock fan like me. Here's what I've been downloading:

Van der Graaf Generator. (See my earlier postings on this band) Most of the band's catalog is available on iTunes, along with bonus tracks. Remastered and sounding as relevant as ever. Their live album 'Vital' is downright scary in its visceral impact. And now it's available again in its original form.

NEU! A German duo consisting of two original members of Kraftwerk who left after the first album. "Motorik" was the term they coined for their style, and it fits. Their first album is remarkable, their second has some dreadful tracks along with some brilliant ones, and a later EP was excellent. Thanks to iTunes, I only buy the good stuff.

Magma. I have to say that I searched iTunes for this band with absolute certainty that nothing would turn up. Nothing did, except something like seventeen albums. If you know who Magma is, the astonishment that this statement should evoke needs no explanation. For those who don't: Magma was/is a French band led by jazz-rock drummer Christian Vander, and featured a constantly-changing lineup. Their unique sound was mainly owed to the fact that their primary influences were late John Coltrane and Carl Orff. They also sang in a language of their own invention, epic compositions of a science-fiction saga that I never quite understood. A band that helped define the term "acquired taste," but somehow I acquired it, and now I can relish their stuff yet again. They sound even better than I remember, maybe because now I can more easily perceive all of the polymetric stuff that they were doing back then. Expect a separate posting on this band soon. 'Magma Live' is their best.

Other stuff that I'm astounded to find on iTunes:

Captain Beefheart. iTunes has a great selection of his stuff, and I hope more will arrive soon. A thrill was finding "Here I Am, I Always Am," in both demo and released versions. This amazing song, which I've long wanted in digital form, is notable for being one of the few pop songs with metric modulation.

Ange: a French prog band that was really quite awful, but I liked 'em for a while. I could try them again, if I want to.

Faust: a German band whose LPs were amazing pieces of audio and visual art. Minimalist and noisy, they've recorded a lot since I stopped paying attention to them.

Be Bop Deluxe: a British prog/pop combo led by guitar virtuoso Bill Nelson. Lots of their stuff still sounds great. If they start putting out Bill Nelson's gigantic solo catalog, I'll be really excited.

Cecil Taylor: Lots of Cecil's recent recordings are out on iTunes. Frank Zappa once said: "If you want too learn how to play the piano, buy a Cecil Taylor record."

Tangerine Dream. I loved this band, up until about 1980 or so. Some of their early stuff still appeals, and they are a bigger influence on my own music than I'd probably care to admit. 'Stratosfear' and 'Rubicon' were as good as anything that Pink Floyd did, I think. 'Phaedra,' too.

I'm sure I'll discover more soon. Expect updates.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

'Earth Dances' anew

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is a crotchety composer fom England's north, who grew up near Manchester. He and I both share a working-class background, the clarinet as our main instrument, and a tendency to compose highly linear music. I owe Sir Harrison a debt of gratitude, as my encounter with his music enabled me to move forward as a composer in a way I would have not found otherwise. 'Secret Theatre' in particular affected me deeply, and I recently travelled to Rochester to hear it performed live at Eastman. I don't listen to his music as often as I once did, but there are a few pieces that I greatly admire. 'Earth Dances' is one such piece, and this new recording with Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble Modern Orchestra is phenomenal. It's available for download from iTunes. It's been available in Europe for over a year, but has not been issued stateside yet. When I learned of the iTunes release, I didn't hesitate.

'Earth Dances' is a sort of "'Rite of Spring' on steroids," at least that's how I have described the piece to my friends over the years. The work (for large orchestra) is in one continuous thirty-three minute movement, with the material unfolding in six different layers, at varying speeds, evoking the relentless geologic heavings of the earth. A glance at the score shows this easily, with the work's lapidary construction as visible as it is audible. Obtaining clarity within and between all of these layers is an impossible job for a conductor, but Boulez makes it sound easy. The two earlier versions, conducted by Eötvös and Dohnanyi, made quite an impression on me, but this is the first recording where I felt I was really hearing everything with the right balances. An overwhelming work just became that much more perceptibly overwhelming.

Monday, June 12, 2006

György Ligeti

Today is a sad one, due to the passing of composer György Ligeti, the best of the best. His music occupies a unique place in our world. Devoid of sentiment, whimsical, bizarre, and utterly astonishing in its continuous discovery of new sounds where there seemed to be none left to be discovered, we are left with no one who can fill his shoes. In my years of studying music, I have yet to encounter a fellow composer who did not admire his genius, which was to learn everything from everyone, from Brahms to Stockhausen to Steve Reich to Nancarrow to African pygmies. I heard him lecture at Cornell in 1993 and literally swooned when he played a cassette recording of the second movement of his then brand-new Violin Concerto.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tom Verlaine Returns

Photo by Barry Brecheisen. From

This week I learned of not one, but two new releases by Tom Verlaine, guitarist from the amazing NY punk band Television. These, after a hiatus of fourteen years. Verlaine has been active all this time, composing film scores and touring, but has resisted a "careerist" sort of path. Finally lured back into the studio, he has brought forth a complementary pair of albums, reflecting his various musical inclinations. 'Around' is a collection of instrumental vignettes, spacious and atmospheric. Listeners looking for guitaristic fireworks will be disappointed, at least to judge from a couple of the customer reviews at Amazon. But if you're listening for exquisite tone, and a perfect sort of inflection and timing, don't hesitate. Verlaine is joined by Television bandmates Billy Ficca on drums and "the illustrious, the ever-elegant" Fred Smith on bass. 'Songs and Other Things' is just that. Here he's joined by sidemen Jimmy Ripp on guitar, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and Fred Smith. While I wouldn't rate this as Verlaine's best solo effort, it does offer a satisfying handful of new material. His playing is undiminished, and his poetic lyrics are as good as ever. At this point in his career, he seems far more concerned with understatement and indirection in his playing than any display of overwhelming virtuosity. He remains one of the most musicianly guitarists to be found anywhere, and I'm glad to have these new documents of his art.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Happy Buster Cornelius Day

Trenchant (or at least semi-trenchant) musical observation will be resuming shortly at this location. My UMKC semester is nearly over, and I'm closing in on my teaching semester as well. In the meantime, today (May 3rd) is Buster Cornelius Day. If this holiday has somehow eluded you until now, click the CbJE: Absolutely More! link to your right for further details.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

and here they are...

Here in this dramatic action-photograph, we see Owen James and Chloe Louise pondering the relative merits of growing up in a post-minimalist household. Will a steady diet of Ives, Cage, Feldman, Reich, Adams, Duckworth, Gann, Lauten, Johnston and Branca (not to mention the Colorblind James Experience) really make them smarter?

Mozart? Who's Mozart?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Recent Listening: Glenn Branca

Many new sounds have been assailing my ears of late, but the guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca have been getting a lot of airplay. These are pieces that are certainly not for everyone—they take dissonance to a new realm of intensity, but once (or if) you adjust to Mr. Branca's soundworld, they're pretty cool. I've listened to Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 8 & 10, which seems like a good overview of his work. Symphony 6 seems to be the most interestingly organized and organically coherent, though they all have their strong points. Symphony 9 is actually for a regular symphony orchestra, and doesn't do as much for me as the ones for guitar ensemble. I have Symphonies 8 & 10 on a dvd, where you get to see Branca in action as a conductor. He seems to be the Downtown answer to Leonard Bernstein—passionate in gesture, though you wouldn't necessarily know exactly what he wanted at any particular moment. On the first pass, it became tiresome to watch, but I'll try it again on the big speakers and screen.

Branca became interested in pure tunings some years back and his pieces explore aspects of that realm in some way or another. They are also extremely loud, and probably need to be experienced that way in order to hear the overtone relationships that he manipulates. I suspect that the CDs hardly do justice to the concert experience, and I see that he's currently touring with a piece for 100 guitarists called Symphony 13: Hallucination City. I'd make a trip to hear that one, I think...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

On not valuing humor...

"Dying is easy—comedy is hard."

I teach music theory, after a fashion. Mostly I try to get my students to think, and most of them don't like that too much. Much of my time as a theory teacher is spent explaining (at least to the extent that I myself understand them) the harmonic activities of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, along with Chopin, Schumann and my own favorite, Schubert. Our society has a comfortable distance from these characters and we've elevated them to a sort of secular sainthood, thereby stripping them of their humanity. For me, one of the predominant features of their music, particularly in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, is its humor. My teacher Albion Gruber once said that there should be "peals of laughter in the concert hall" when we listen to their music. When's the last time you heard someone laugh out loud at a Haydn piano sonata? Or did so yourself? Only in the context of his operas do we give ourselves permission to laugh at Mozart's music, and Beethoven, who could be a sort of musical Jim Carrey at times, we don't regard as having a sense of humor at all.

More recent figures have had difficulty as well. Frank Zappa's music has never gained traction in concert culture largely due to its irreverent humor. Also, as his copyist David Ocker pointed out, symphonic patrons have some unease about works with titles like "Bogus Pomp" or "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation." Peter Schickele fences his humor off in a musical alter ego—P.D.Q. Bach. John Adams's hilarious "Grand Pianola Music" is in my view one of his finest works, and is the one most savaged by critics. (Good for J.A. for frequently conducting F.Z.'s "Bogus Pomp," too.) Poul Ruders told me that he thought Cage's finest quality as a composer was his sense of humor, but I'd bet that that's what most bothers his detractors. "Seriousness" takes precedence in our culture, and Cage sure didn't appear to be serious by any normal standards.

I recently ordered Kyle Gann's cd 'Nude Rolling Down an Escalator—Studies for Disklavier' and when it arrived found myself laughing in delight at several of the pieces. Kyle has a great musical wit and lovingly deploys it, celebrating different musical styles and lampooning them at the same time. I played a couple of examples to my theory students, particularly one piece wherein Kyle whizzes through all twelve major keys in the space of 48 measures, and in unexpected ways. Since the focus of our theory class for months has been studying techniques of modulation, I thought, "Wow, here's a great illustration of the expressive potential of modulation!" Dumb me. They sat mute, in (as far as I could tell) blank comprehension of the music. Not a smile was cracked, anywhere in the room.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's recurring trope was the idea that if mankind loses its capacity for empathy, then the very notion of humanity is compromised, perhaps lost entirely. If our sense of humor passes away, are things much different?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Playlist: 8 February 2006

Ben Johnston: String Quartets 2, 3, 4, & 9; Kepler Quartet (New World 80637)
Kyle Gann: Nude Rolling Down an Escalator—Studies for Disklavier (New World 80633)
John Luther Adams: Strange and Sacred Noise (Mode 153)
David Lang: The Passing Measures (Canteloupe 21003)
Peter Garland: The Days Run Away (Tzadik 7053)

Mostly postminimalists seem to be in heavy rotation in my disc player these days. The Ben Johnston (he's actually NOT a postminimalist) disc is a new release, first of a projected series of all of his string quartets. Keep 'em coming, this one is amazing. Kyle Gann is one of a very few composers who can make me laugh out loud with sheer delight—and four separate pieces on this release do just that every time I play them. John Luther Adams makes a profound and mystical racket in 'Strange and Sacred Noise,' a big cycle of works for four percussionists. David Lang's 'The Passing Measures' is the least showy piece for bass clarinet and orchestra imaginable; the term "Feldmanesque" is appropriate here. And the title track of the Peter Garland disc has haunted me for months with its unabashed serenity.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Blog Maintenance

Sharp-eyed observers of this blog will notice that I've been experimenting with different background colors. This is in an effort to come up with a somewhat warmer and easier-to-read look. Comments are appreciated. I personally like the white-on-blue content, but I'm not quite sure about the silver titles against the blue. The pictures seem to look good on this background as well. Stay tuned. I also fixed the link to Kyle Gann's Postclassic Radio station, so that it works now, in case you tried it before and got frustrated.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Happy Birthday, Morton Feldman

A busy day awaits, but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge this baffling and wonderful composer who has provoked more astonishment, confusion and delight in my being that any other composer I can think of. A loud, boisterous (an adjective that doesn't even begin to describe some stories I've been told) man who wrote the quietest, most delicate pieces of music we've yet heard. And some of the longest ones. Relatively obscure while he was alive, now we're all trying to grapple with his legacy. I never met him, but my friend Thomas L. Hamilton did. Hearing Feldman's "The Viola in My Life" in Buffalo in 1996 is an experience that I'll be grateful for as long as I live. I hope wherever he is now, the musicians are playing as softly as he wants them to. (Above image from Feldman archive at University at Buffalo)

Update: the crew at the KC Symphony that I work with had a banner Morton Feldman B-Day, listening to "Clarinet and String Quartet," "The Viola in my Life," "Coptic Light," "Why Patterns?" and a few others.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Derek Bailey, R.I.P.

British guitarist Derek Bailey passed away yesterday at 75. One of the foremost exponents of the style of free improvisation that emerged in the 1960s and '70s, Bailey was a remarkably industrious musician, churning out dozens of albums and performing at a harrowing pace that only seemd to increase in his old age. He had incredible technique, summoning sounds from the guitar that had never been heard before and forged a highly personal style utterly devoid of sentiment. He could play spontaneously in real time material that other avant-garde composers would have had to labor for weeks to produce. And he developed a circle of dozens of musician collaborators that encompassed such musicians as Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, John Stevens, Steve Lacy, John Zorn, and Pat Metheny.

The NY Times obituary included the following description: "Mr. Bailey explained his art unpretentiously, often simply as a matter of personal choice, but his style of playing guitar was a kind of reaction against all systems in music. By the 1970's it had become a system unto itself - a virtuosic, physical one, of clicks and chimes and harmonics and aggressive bursts of volume, arrhythmic and nonlinear but still coherent and powerful." (Read it in its entirety here: )

His music posed as many questions as it answered, and remains a provacative legacy for many of us. For me personally, it sparked a questioning of the notion of notation that I struggle with to this day. In addition to his many albums, he also wrote a fascinating book on improvisation. It's nearly impossible to recommend anything, but for the interested, check out his 'Ballads' disc on Tzadik (where he refracts jazz standards into his own fragmentary language), his duo work with Evan Parker, or the amazing three-disc set that he made with Pat Metheny and two percussionists, 'The Sign of Four.' I admire his solo recordings on Incus as well.