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.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Clarification

John Cage was a COMPOSER.

NOT a "musical philosopher."

NOT a "conceptual artist."

NOT a "charlatan."

He wrote things down and musicians made, and continue to make, sounds based on those inscriptions. This is what composers have done, and continue to do. The delight felt by musicians and listeners at these made sounds has not been unanimous, but it has been substantial and continual. Any philosophical discussion arising from Cage's work has been merely an ancillary public service.

Please resume your own sound-making activities at this time.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Critics: We Need Them

[Update update: On December 18th, 2014, the New York Times fired Kozinn. I've edited a few spots to reflect that, and removed the old link to a failed petition to reinstate him.]

[Update: I changed the wording in the opening paragraph to more accurately reflect the change in Kozinn's status at the Times, and added the link at the bottom.]

News broke today that Allan Kozinn was being relegated to the post of "general cultural reporter" at the New York Times, a backwater assignment. The reasons are murky, but it certainly has nothing to do with the quality of his work. This is of a piece with much of our cultural landscape today: the publishing industry is in crisis, and so once-key positions at major newspapers are cleared to make way for, what exactly? As a composer, producer, and occasional member of various arts boards, I cannot but wonder at the wisdom of such a move. I wonder more at what it says about the state of arts journalism. Kozinn is an exceptionally able critic, at ease with contemporary music, historic performance practice and a recognized authority on the Beatles. Try finding any two of those qualifications in another writer.

Virgil Thomson's first review for the New York Herald-Tribune (entitled "Age Without Honor") quoted his friend, the painter Maurice Grosser, as saying "I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York's intellectual life." I understand now why it is becoming less necessary to open the New York Times arts section with any regularity. With the side-lining firing of Allan Kozinn, the Times moves ever closer to irrelevancy.

Criticism is perhaps the most underrated of all the journalistic pursuits. Everyone thinks they can do it, and very few can. Frequently critics are all tarred with the same broad brush, being labelled as disgruntled wannabes. But the best critics offer something valuable: perspective. A good critic's writing will give you new insight into a concert you attended; it will help you understand the importance of a concert you missed. And over time, the accumulated work of a worthy critic (even one with whom you regularly disagree) will leave a permanent impact on a community. The measure of Allan Kozinn's writing can be felt in the outrage and indignation that is spreading across the internet. Composers, musicians and music-lovers rightly see that a crucial ally is being stricken from their midst.

A critic without bias is a critic not worth reading. Bias is essential. But not incompatible with being fair-minded. Virgil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw, Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann were biased, opinionated critics. They had values and they fought for them. They were not always right, but they were nearly always perceptive. Which is why we can still learn things from their criticism, about their age and the artists that inhabited it. With Kozinn's sidelining (emblematic of a wide-spread and disturbing trend), I fear the art of our own age will be that much more opaque—to ourselves and our descendants.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Music That made Me Cry: Stockhausen's 'Hymnen'

Here's the cover to the LP release of Hymnen that came out back in the '70s, which was the format upon which I heard it first. I was an undergrad at Nazareth College of Rochester, and I was probably a sophomore when I first ran across this album. There was a record store near the college, and my friend and composer ally Tom Hamilton (not the Tom Hamilton who has worked with Robert Ashley and others, though) and I would swing by there a couple times a week, just to see what was new. For some reason the store stocked a lot of Deutche Grammophon cut-outs pretty regularly, and for a spell, they had a ton of Stockhausen's music. I bought pretty much all of it, over a period of several months.

I'm a little unsure exactly WHY Stockhausen's music appealed to me so much. Probably due to the same yearnings that made Siddartha and Steppenwolf (the Hesse novels) grip my attention in high school. Stockhausen's music was spiritual and intellectual AND it sounded really cool, at least a lot of it did. At any rate, I bought every album I could get my hands on. At one point, I probably had something like 50+ albums. One time when the ROVA Saxophone Quartet was rehearsing at my house, Bruce Ackley (their soprano player) was looking through my LP collection and when he got to the "S"s he exclaimed, "Holy shit, It's Stockhausen Central over here!" A proud "collector moment" for me.

So, as I was saying, somewhere around 1985, I find this Hymnen LP set and it's priced to move, so I grab it and bring it home. I recall it being pretty late and so I put it on the turntable and listen on headphones so as not to wake up the house. It's four sides of electroacoustic music, based on national anthems. I'm not sure what to expect, but I start listening and I do not take the headphones off until I've played the entire piece. Somewhere in the third "Region" of the piece, I realize that tears are running down my face. I can point to no rational explanation for this, except that there was something so rich and inexplicably RIGHT about the piece; it created a world in which I wanted to dwell forever. If I'd had any prior doubts, this was the moment where I knew that electronic music was central to my musical life.

Oddly perhaps, I've never really tried to analyse Hymnen. I've never wanted to. Other works have prompted me to dissect their workings, so as to understand (and possibly snaffle) the techniques therein. Not Hymnen. It seemed important to me that it retain a certain inexplicability, and it has. At one point during the writing of this posting, it crossed my mind that I should do a bit of research to bolster my musings here (I haven't read about it in years), but I decided not to. Rather, I would encourage you to discover the piece the way I did, if you've never heard it before. I think the research should follow the experience, not precede it. There is a posting of the entire work on YouTube, but I've chosen not to link to it because whoever uploaded it put the regions in the wrong order.

Chances are good that if you do listen to Hymnen, it won't have the same effect on you. It's one of those pieces that I suspect you have to hear at just the right point in your life or it's lost on you. It's almost two hours long and it's uneven. Most of my electroacoustic composer friends hardly acknowledge it at all, or disparage it mercilessly. They find it horribly dated, lacking in sophistication somehow. Stockhausen's earlier (1950s) electronic masterpieces Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte are considered his real achievements in the genre, and certainly they are much more disciplined works. Later works like Telemusik and Hymnen (or any of his subsequent electronic works), are rarely discussed. They never came up in any of the classes I took, nor were they mentioned by any other composers I knew. If you surf the net for comments about Hymnen, they tend to be either "this is the biggest load of crap ever" or mystical homilies exalting its sublimity. I don't think either approach casts much light on the music, but it does say something about its polarizing effect.

At some point in the late 80s or early 90s, I hit a point where Stockhausen's persona (and by extension his music) began to trouble me. I sensed that he was encouraging/enabling a personality cult and as the first parts of the Licht opera cycle emerged I felt that his ego had expanded to the point of lunacy and delusion. He didn't improve matters with his supremely egotistical and insensitive pronouncements about 9-11. I decided I didn't want to be a member of the cult and began selling off all but a few select albums. I didn't listen to any of his music for a long time, but in recent years, I have slowly relaxed that policy a bit. I still don't play his music all that often; my tastes have changed a lot over the years. But when I do listen, it's usually to Hymnen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

If you can only have ONE Peter Sculthorpe CD...

Peter Sculthorpe: Earth Cry; Piano Concerto William Barton, didgeridoo; Tamara Anna Cislowska, piano New Zealand Symphony, James Judd, conductor Naxos 8.557382 (Released February 2005)

[I wrote this a while back as a CD review, but in response to a recent Twitter discussion that centered around Sculthorpe's music, I thought I'd post it here. I've updated it slightly. Hopefully I'll write on his string quartets soon.]

Will Peter Sculthorpe’s time ever come? Long known as Australia’s preeminent composer, his music is rarely performed beyond his country’s shores. His elder statesman status at home has not helped his music gain much traction abroad, and we are all the poorer for it. This release on the Naxos label makes a strong argument for a wider appreciation of his music, offering five works from Sculthorpe’s orchestral oeuvre, all from within the last thirty years.

Sculthorpe (b. 1929) was among the first of Australia’s composers to attempt to forge a national style that looked to Eastern and aboriginal models and materials, rather than those of the European musical heritage. His music is highly original and disarmingly direct—what he calls "music of straightforward line and structure"—tending toward leanness and transparency and often rather short in duration. He often uses aboriginal material in his writing and tends to favor stringed instruments, piano and percussion. His melodies are spare and simple, with an emphasis on repetition and variation of timbre rather than tonal development. He frequently rearranges his works for various forces; many of his works exist in more than one realization—indeed, one work here, From Oceania, is a revision of a 1970 version. He seeks to convey his sense of the continent's history, its landscape, and the harsh, incessantly blazing sun.

The opening work on this disc, Earth Cry, is perhaps the most openly “Australian-sounding,” with its featured didgeridoo soloist. Cast in four distinct sections, it is emblematic of Sculthorpe’s unaffected language. The violins often play in unison, and the composer in general avoids any “sophisticated” orchestrational techniques. Sculthorpe doesn't trade much in extended techniques or "modern-sounding" musical language, but there is a keen musical sensibility at work here and his priority is to communicate without emphasizing the musical skill involved. Like the "artless art" of Mozart, Sculthorpe's music is much more than it seems to be at first.

The largest work on the disc, and to my ears its centerpiece, is the Piano Concerto, from 1983. This is an extraordinary piece, and soloist Anna Tamara Cislowska performs the subtle part with insight and aplomb. This work is more expansive than many of his pieces, but not especially extravagant in gesture; essentially ruminative for most of its twenty-one minutes, it has some powerful moments nonetheless. I find its conclusion one of the most finely judged and satisfying endings I've ever heard. Ian Munro, with Diego Masson conducting the Australia Youth Orchestra recorded an earlier version of this work, which was my introduction to the piece (Tall Poppies TP 113, coupled with oboe and cello concertos by Carl Vine and David Lumsdaine, respectively), and there is yet another recording available, unheard by me at present (“Australian Piano Concertos,” Eloquence CD 426483, coupled with piano concertos of Ross Edwards and Malcom Williamson). The Naxos recording is a much stronger performance than Munro/Masson (though the Australian Youth Orchestra sounds pretty terrific for their level of experience), and might be preferable for its all-Sculthorpe couplings as well.

The disc is rounded out with Memento Mori, From Oceania, and Kakadu, each displaying a distinctive aspect of Sculthorpe’s art, making an ideal introduction to his music. The New Zealand Symphony plays exceptionally well under Judd, as they have on many other fine recordings. And with Naxos’s attractive pricing, no-one has an excuse not to hear this important composer in some of his strongest musical statements. Vigorously recommended.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

More Can to consider...

The French have a marvelous word, "introuvable," which a friend of mine once translated as "unfindable." "Unobtainable" is the usual rendering, "rare" or "lost" might do as well in a pinch, but I think his word choice had more nuance. The amazing German band Can has just released a three-disc set of "introuvable" or "lost" tapes, though it appears that they actually pretty much knew where they were all along. Now they've been combed over and the best material from the thirty-plus hours of rediscovered archived tape reels is now in the public sphere for all to consider, and even for those who think they've heard all that Can has to offer, I think this set offers some surprises. For just one indication, try "Graublau." Here the Can commandos demonstrate for other members of the Krautrock school how to really do that whole "motorik" thing. That's a start...

I once described Can to someone as "the sort of a band that might have resulted if Karlheinz Stockhausen had decided to supervise a merger of the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground." That doesn't begin to cover their strange synthesis of styles and techniques, but it's a beginning. Two of their members DID study with Stockhausen, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist/sound designer Holger Czukay. Schmidt eschewed any conventional keyboard role, rarely playing supporting chord progressions or melodic material, instead producing unearthly textures and slowly-building gestures. Czukay's bass playing was a model of economy and he studiously crafted a lean foundation that would support the widest possible array of harmonic options. Jaki Leibzeit, a former member of the Manfred Schoof Quintet, was their drummer, one of the most remarkable, hypnotic time-keepers in all of rock. Michael Karoli was their guitarist, a soloist of endless invention and gorgeous tone. His lines had an effortless fluid grace; he seemed incapable of repeating himself.

But the thing that made them remarkable, especially in their prime, from about 1969-74, was that elusive element known as "chemistry." In combination with their two notable vocalists, Malcom Mooney ('68-70) and Damo Suzuki ('70-73), they set a new standard for invention and productivity, and they sounded like no other band in the world. Their last studio album came out in 1989, and the statement remains true to this day. The Lost Tapes material is largely taken from this "golden age;" most of the tracks are from ca. 1968-'72, a handful from '74-'76. The compilation was assembled by Irmin Schmidt, aided by his son-in-law, Jono Podmore.

"Chemistry" is an oft-abused term, sometimes implying that the parties involved played no active role in the result, it was merely a happy accident. Maybe, but I think that in most cases it also means that the parties involved have (or had) an understanding of the implications of their working together, an awareness of the potential and thus a responsibility to realize it. In the case of Can, this took the form of thousands of hours of rehearsal and improvisation. (I once read in an interview that they rehearsed daily for ten years, several hours a day.) These would be recorded by Holger Czuckay and then edited into a compact, coherent form. The bulk of the material on The Lost Tapes is material that they saved from these sessions, but never found the right context for release.

I recently played a class of mine "Halleluhwah," from their greatest album, Tago Mago. Within seconds of the opening, the entire class (none of whom had ever heard of Can) was utterly mesmerised, heads nodding in time, throughout the classroom. (If you know the song, you know what I mean. If not, try it; you'll do it too.) The class was astonished to learn that it was released 40 years ago, even more astonished to learn that it was recorded without multi-tracking. Edited down to its eighteen minute length from a two-hour improvisation, it remains as as powerful as the first time I heard it.

As was the case with a lot of great bands, I came to their music late. The first Can album I purchased was a compilation called Cannibalism (on LP) sometime around 1979. I was struck by how utterly timeless and unrooted their music was. Listening to "Father Cannot Yell," the first track of theirs which I remember hearing, I found myself falling into that state of bafflement, where all the elements seem to indicate one thing, but you find yourself unmoored and experiencing something completely different. They sounded like a rock band on the surface. Instrumentation, rhythms and energy all supported this concept, but their progressions didn't seem to go anywhere and they made musical choices that most bands would have avoided. I didn't know what to call it. Now, I'd just call it "Can." They became their own genre.

The other aspect of them that took me forever to discover was that their live shows were nothing like their recordings, in that they made no effort whatsoever to reproduce those recordings onstage. I never had the opportunity to hear them live, so I could only go by what I heard on their studio albums. Recently I began listening to the many live recordings that circulate among fans, and discovered I had only a partial measure of their greatness. Having listened to a fair number of live recordings from this era, their performances used their "songs" in the most general sense, as a template for improvisation, not a work to be performed with any consistency. I've heard live versions of "Mother Sky" that bore only the most vague relationship to the studio recording. Performances would often feature "spontaneous composition," wherein the band seemingly telepathically united to form a new work on the spot. This ability surpasses other "jam" groups (IMO) such as Phish or the Grateful Dead, in that their pacing is flawless and the interplay between the musicians is completely integrated. They are listening, to one another more than themselves. [Update] A comparison of the studio version of "Spoon" with a live version from 1972 makes this argument more vividly than I ever could.

Can essentially broke up in 1979, long past their musical peak. They had moved ("progressed" seems an inappropriate verb here) from playing live-to-two-track to working in a multitrack studio and with that much of their spontaneity was lost. As Irmin Schmidt noted, "In the very end, we were not listening to each other any more, which was giving up the main thing, the heart and soul of Can." The reformed in 1986 with Malcom Mooney, and made an album Rite Time (not released until '89), but their era as a group had pretty much ended. Michael Karoli passed away in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, and the possibility of a reunited Can passed with him. They played on one another's solo projects (some of Holger Czukay's solo albums are essentially Can productions), and have carefully protected and maintained their recorded legacy. The Lost Tapes simply expands and deepens that legacy.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Over the Hill

Rock music has been primarily the province of the young. When I was active as a rock musician, I was in my early thirties and even then I felt old for the task on numerous occasions. I've blogged about Van der Graaf Generator before here and here, and I don't have a great deal to add to those postings. But I recently saw/heard them live at the show of which poster is pictured above, and a few new thoughts have floated in. I don't really intend to write a "review" of that concert, though. What is more presently on my mind is what their continued presence means to me today.

Many bands have come and gone in the years since I first heard VdGG. And when most groups of their era reform, it's primarily to perform as a "nostalgia" act, recreating the sounds that beguiled the fans all those years ago. Lots of bands do this. Typically, they play primarily (if not exclusively) older material. There's nothing particularly wrong with this, but VdGG have chosen a different path.

When I heard them in Arlington, MA (accompanied by my 24-year-old daughter, who knew barely a note of their music), I was struck by their refusal to succumb to the temptations of nostalgia. This is not to say that they played none of their older repertoire; they did. The material presented spanned at least 40 years. But easily half the show was given over to music that had been written since their reformation in 2005. And the centerpiece of the concert was Flight, a twenty-three minute suite that was composed in 1980, and which had only been performed by Peter Hammill with post-VdGG configurations. When I first heard the piece all those years ago, on Hammill's A Black Box album, my first thought was, "This should have been a Van der Graaf song..." Never in a million years did I ever think I would hear it in that context. It's an extended meditation on human existence, using images of flight as extended metaphor, somewhat in the metaphysical fashion of George Herbert or John Donne. As a text, you could easily pull several PhD theses out of it, it's that dense and intricately written. Plus, the lyrics are deployed over some of Hammill's most complex music, odd time signatures everywhere. To perform it live from memory struck me as both reckless and heroic. And they did, and it was all of that and more...

One of the hallmarks of VdGG's approach to performance has been to embrace the element of danger, the willingness to risk failure, disaster, embarrassment. And the reason why they remain for me a vital force is because they've not abandoned that core value. Their show was a powerful experience for me for another reason. I'm presently headed well into my sixth decade and VdGG's performance provided an ideal to strive towards. I'm still trying to find a full-time job in the field I love. I try to bring new music into a world that that the world neither encourages nor welcomes. I carry onwards, but there's plenty of days when i wonder why I bother.

VdGG's show was a lesson in persistence and fortitude. Peter Hammill struck me as frail and uncertain at moments during the show, yet his dignity and humor in the face of aging, while in pursuit of a young man's vocation was inspiring. Hugh Banton, the band's organist, was a study in concentration and understated, astonishing musicianship. Never has a musician been so motionless and accomplished so much. And Guy Evans, their drummer, played with the intensity of someone a third his age. If they can summon this energy, I thought, I should strive to do the same. The title of this blog posting was meant to be ironic; these musicians are anything but "over the hill." Yet they seemed to be keenly aware that their time is limited and every moment counts. And so it does, as was further driven home to me upon the news of the passing of a young fellow composer this week. The closing words from Flight speak to that: "No looking back from tomorrow, no, there'll be no looking back on today; better be looking on to tomorrow... better think on today."

And from the penultimate song of their set, which IS entitled Over the Hill:

If we're living our lives as though God's at our shoulders,

if we're giving of our best, by an effort of will,

then we'll be up for the test,

we'll never know when we're over the hill.

So. Onwards. Towards, and over the hill.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Jean Sibelius Saved My Life

This man composed a symphony in 1915 and sent it far into the future to save my life. Without a TARDIS.

In the spring of 1996 a major relationship in my life was falling apart and I didn't know what to do about it. So, I let it continue to erode. Eventually the woman decided that moving back to her home state 1500 miles away seemed like a smart thing to do, rather than continue to endure our joint financial instability and my own Hamlet-like internal conflicts. Intellectually, I was able to convince myself that this was the right and proper thing to unfold, and so it came to pass. I told myself it would be better for both of us. I even believed that.

After she moved away, I moved to a new apartment, and pondered things. The dimensions of this loss became more and more clear to me; I was overwhelmed by my foolishness. I also stopped sleeping. At all. I could not sleep; every night was a waking torment from which I could not escape, every day I became that much more unable to manage even the simplest functions. I was wide awake and exhausted to my core. I was also becoming more and more unglued from reason and overwhelmed with despair. I found myself consumed by suicidal thoughts.

Somewhere in the midst of this phase, I found a sheet anchor of sorts, a thing that kept me grounded and prevented me from harming myself, from doing anything foolish or self-destructive. I started listening to Jean Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Over and over. At some points, I played it around the clock, all through the day and all night long. Over and over, for probably a month or more. Through some inexplicable means, the piece gave me a reassurance that the darkness that I was experiencing would pass, that things would get better, healing was possible. And, eventually, slowly, that did happen.

As this is a music blog, I feel obliged to mention that the performance I listened to repeatedly was that of the Boston Symphony under Colin Davis (Sir Colin Davis, now). It was recorded in the mid-1970s and still sounds pretty fantastic. You can find it for an extremely reasonable sum, coupled with more of this fine composer's work. It might save your life, too.

I write about this for a number of reasons. One is that that experience has had the effect of making my own involvement with composing, recording and teaching just that much more urgent. Sibelius didn't write the piece thinking that it was for the explicit purpose of bringing souls back from the brink of despair, though it had that effect on mine. My impression is that he spent a good portion of his own life on such a brink. Colin Davis didn't harangue the strings into a more perfect blend and intonation during the recording session because, "Hey! C'mon people, we're trying to save a life here!" But that was an eventual outcome.

I cannot tell you why it was THAT particular piece and no other that I needed to hear at that moment in time. It's not even my "favorite" Sibelius symphony. (That would be the Third or the Fourth.) But that doesn't really matter much. It does matter to me that people understand that placing art into our world is not a frivolity, a waste. It's easy to argue otherwise, especially in our current political climate. But it matters. It matters with the urgency of a difference between life and death. Literally, sometimes. The great children's writer Daniel Pinkwater once told about working late night after night on an art project in college, and feeling a complete lack of purpose to it all. It was during the tumult of the Vietnam era and assassinations, with widespread social unrest and uncertainty making him feel that his own artwork was self-indulgent and pointless. Pointless, until another student whose battle with alcohol had led him to the point of suicide confided that it was seeing Pinkwater working far into the night that had kept him going and motivated him to seek help for his addiction. After that, Pinkwater said, it became vital that he keep on working, so as to support his fellow student. He began to realize that his steady modest efforts had unforeseen consequences. He's still hard at work, decades later.

So I plow forward, doing what I can to bring new music into the world and to share it with whomever I can. I teach, compose and produce with the conviction that if Sibelius's Fifth was my lifeline, then I ought to throw as many others out for whomever they are meant to be grasped by. Maybe even decades after I'm gone. I don't kid myself that I'm on any sort of par with Sibelius as a composer, but I know I have a role to play, however modest, and it's important that I do it as well as I know how. HOW that importance will manifest itself is unknown.

And that woman, whose departure caused my world to overturn? Yesterday we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

[Update] I'm truly grateful to the overwhelming response to this posting. In response to Robert's comment, I added a link to a superb reading of Sibelius's Third (with Colin Davis leading the New York Phil), brought to my attention by blogger supreme Erik Klackner. You should be reading him instead of this right now. Another friend pointed out that the old Davis/Boston set that I played endlessly isn't that good compared to recent readings. True enough. But irrelevant to my condition back then. Interestingly, I rarely listen to the Fifth any more. But I know it's there if I need it.

Lastly, I would not want to suggest that artists are incapable of selfishness or self-indulgence. We are, yes indeed. But it's an occupational hazard that we all have to negotiate as best we can. And the benefits can be profound and life-changing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Few Ideas for How to Support Musical Artists

This cute fella has a better chance of survival than your local record store...

With all of the discussion about artists being deprived of income, the obvious question is, "OK, so HOW can I get music in a fashion that will maximally benefit the artists I care about?" Glad you asked. Here follow a few ideas:

Buy directly from the artist. They almost certainly have a website. Use The Google to navigate through the Web of Intertubes and check them out. If they have a means of purchase through their website, that will almost certainly benefit them the most directly. If not, they will probably tell you where to go. If they are on Bandcamp, buy through there. Anyone selling on Bandcamp will get a higher percentage of your purchase price than anywhere else. Bandcamp is the most positive development in the music world to come along in a long time. Explore it. You'll discover an ocean of great stuff.

Buy from an artist-friendly distributor. There are many, depending on what kind of stuff you're into. Tons of indie artists of all genres are at CD Baby. They are good people; order from them with confidence. Like European prog or obscure rock? Check out Artist Shop. Or Burning Shed. More into the avant garde? Try Forced Exposure. Share your own favorites in the comments section.

Support an independent record store. These are becoming extinct so, you might not even be able to find one locally. But hey, you care about pandas and hedgehogs and baby harp seals, right? Well, independent record stores are even more endangered. I personally owe an incalculable debt to The Bop Shop, which IS still in business. I live a long way from there now, but I try to call in a couple orders a year. Their owner, Tom Kohn, is a great guy who has done more for music in his town than nearly anyone else. If you're in Rochester NY, you should stop by. [Update] I just got back from a trip to Boston and lo and behold while walking down Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, I strode by Weirdo Records. I was compelled to enter and upon doing so found the most wonderful trove of electronic and avant garde wonderment. A joyous discovery, and I know I shall return there one day... (In the meantime, they will have a steady stream of web orders coming from from my direction.)

Support their [your artists'] Kickstarter campaign. Lots of projects are being funded this way nowadays, and we may jump in on this bandwagon as well at some point. I contributed to a documentary for Pinball Films a while back, got some spiffy swag, a dvd of the doc and the deep satisfaction of helping make a worthy project happen. Think of yourself as a "co-executive producer."

Buy from iTunes. iTunes isn't perfect, but they're ubiquitous and a substantial percentage of your purchase WILL make its way to the artist. We make more from a download from iTunes than a physical sale on Amazon. Your favorite artists probably will too. [Update: this will depend a bit on whther or not they have their own label. If so, you iTunes dollars go a lot farther towards the artist.]

Things that should be great but aren't:

Spotify. Spotify is a fantastic streaming service that originated in Europe. Their library is vast and the interface works very well. Initially I thought they'd be an awesome force for good. But they pay independents a laughable pittance. Our Spotify revenue after almost two years? Eight cents. Even if you subscribe to Spotify (as opposed to using its free version), the artists you love are getting squat.

Amazon. I have a serious love-hate relationship with Amazon and use them for some purchases. My big complaint is they've become a Leviathan that has destroyed about as many independent businesses as Walmart. If I can get it somewhere else, I do...

And then...

This kind of consumer activity creates a healthier symbiotic situation, sort of like lichens... All of the above has focused on the "helping the artist" perspective, but you the listener benefit as well. How? Well, for starters, this will set you on a much more individual path in your musical consumption. You'll become a more discerning listener. You'll be more sensitive to the ups and downs of an artist's career. You'll feel a lot more connected to the artists you care about. And in a couple of years, your music library will be a whole lot more funky and personal than it is when you just vacuum up (or download) the same stuff as everyone else. Sure, you can download the complete catalog of anyone from Pirate Bay in minutes, but that doesn't help you or them. Like I said in my previous post, "If you truly respect their work, the highest compliment that you can pay them is to spend your own money on their efforts."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Which I Chime In on a Matter Under Discussion...

Letter to Emily White at NPR's "All Songs Considered"

If you haven't already encountered the essay linked above, please take a moment and go read it. I haven't much to add to its argument, except to say that I think it states well the problem of trying to produce new music in today's climate. One of the troubling matters of our time is the ease with which recorded musical content can be "shared." So-called "free culture" has inculcated a sense among many that only the stupid pay for stuff like music or videos. Musicians have forever been cheated out of income, but the scale upon which it now happens is new and more vast than ever, and never before has the audience itself colluded with the usual cast of shady managers, sleazy record labels and other unscrupulous figures to bilk the artist of rightful income. This is a problem that cuts across all styles and genres.

I have a personal stake in this issue, as I am a composer and operate a small label dedicated to electronic and minimal music. Together with my friend R. Andrew Lee we've released four physical cds so far. We've recorded standard-setting discs of piano music by William Duckworth, Tom Johnson, and Ann Southam. We have yet to get a single negative review and our efforts have been lauded as being among the finest recordings available in this genre. We are really good at what we do. And we have wonderful ideas for future projects that would help shape the understanding of the genre we love and build a legacy from which new music could be created.

All of this is rewarding and artistically satisfying, but for one thing: we don't break even. Not even close. This summer, we will record three more albums of minimalist piano music (over seven hours of music), all of which has yet to be either recorded by anyone, or recorded professionally. Our recordings' technical standards match the best in the business, despite being recorded on a shoestring budget. We produce albums for what other labels would spend on pizza and Mountain Dew. But we don't break even. This doesn't come as a surprise to us, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow. One producer and label owner (far more experienced than myself) told me flatly: "New music recordings do not recoup their production costs."

In the big scheme of things, this is not a catastrophe of any sort, merely the current norm of how the world works. My own attitude is primarily one of exasperation rather than anger. It comes with the territory. But I think our world could be so much richer if listeners understood and acknowledged that their role is not a passive one. They are part of the creative process, whether they realize it or not. Audiences shape their artists' path just as much as the artists themselves. If an artist or group feels supported and empowered by their audience, wonderful, magical things can happen. (Ask any jazz or rock musician.) If not, the artist may give up or be forced to stop without ever realizing their full potential.

So here is one more heart-felt plea from some artists who do not care to get rich, do not want anything more than to be able to continue: If you hear a stunning original recording, a performer that intrigues you, that moves you, perhaps even irritates you; take note. If you truly respect their work, the highest compliment that you can pay them is to spend your own money on their efforts. Go hear them perform, buy their stuff. Give it to others for birthday and Christmas gifts (the only kind of "sharing" that really counts). It will do more than help keep those artists going. You may find that their work will keep you going, too.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Peter Bergman, R.I.P.

One of my most precious inspirations, since my late teens, was/is the LA comedy quartet, the Firesign Theatre. Though their most significant work was done in the late 60s and early 70s, they remained a potent, if intermittent comedic force to the present day. They had no peers apart from Monty Python and probably had as much influence on me as an electronic artist as any composers. A week doesn't go by that I don't listen to them. Their best recordings are suffused with a kind of exuberant wordplay, whimsy and multi-layered complexity that was entirely new in comedy. Peter Bergman was the organizing force that brought them into being.

Without filling too much space, it's fair to say that Bergman had an eventfulness of life and career that exceeded that of almost anyone. He was present at or an instigator of many watershed moments of recent cultural history. He asked questions, connected dots, and celebrated life. His most recent activity was to revive his long-standing Radio Free Oz program as a daily podcast. In its current form it was a melange of political ad parodies, insightful commentary and effervescent humor. I subscribed, enthusiastically. Heading into his early seventies, the notion of slowing down seemed unknown to him. Aware of the past, he look forward. I thought he provided a good example for how to live out one's later years. The LA Times obit provides a good precis of his life and work. And this quote concluded his last podcast before he passed away:

“Take heart, dear friends. We are passing through the darkening of the light. We’re gonna make it and we’re going to make it together. Don’t get ground down by cynicism.

Don’t let depression darken the glass through which you look. This is a garden we live in. A garden seeded with unconditional love. And the tears of the oppressed, and the tears of the frustrated, and the tears of the good will spring those seeds. The flag has been waived. It says occupy. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy the banks. Occupy the nursing homes. Occupy Congress.

Occupy the big law offices. Occupy the lobbyists. Occupy…yourself. Because that’s where it all comes together. I pledge to you, from this moment on, whatever it means, I’m going to occupy myself. I love you. See ya tomorrow.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bat Chain Puller, finally.

The musical career of Don Van Vliet, known to the world as Captain Beefheart, is filled with some astonishing highs, counterbalanced by some dismaying lows, both artistically and financially. By all accounts a difficult man, he treated his fellow musicians poorly, even as he heaped ever more musical demands upon them, while not fully acknowledging their contributions. By the mid-1970s, he'd already burned through a couple of fine backing groups, and via a series of exceedingly naive and short-sighted deals, found himself starting anew. Frank Zappa lent a hand by signing his old high school buddy onto his 1975 tour as a vocalist, documented on the Zappa/Beefheart 'Bongo Fury' album. Despite this, Don managed to bite yet one more feeding hand and alienated Zappa to the point that they were not speaking to one another by the end of the tour.

Returning to the studio in the spring of '76 with his loyal and long-suffering drummer, John "Drumbo" French, Zappa sideman Denny Walley, and a couple of new recruits, Beefheart recorded what should have been his unassailable return to form, a return which potentially would have resulted in critical acclaim, plus solid sales and touring revenues. But the album got caught in a legal showdown between Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen, who was also the manager of Beefheart, Tom Waits and a few others. Cohen had been playing fast and loose with Frank's money, and the 'Bat Chain Puller' album master got stuck in a vortex of litigation. Eventually Beefheart recorded new versions of the songs, which were released over the remainder of his recording career on the 'Shiny Beast,' 'Doc At the Radar Station,' and 'Ice Cream for Crow' albums. While these tracks have been available for some time to hard-core fans on the 'Dust-Sucker' bootleg, the sound here is clearer and far more immediate. In fact, this album may boast the best-recorded vocals of Don's entire career. (A real accomplishment, as Beefheart was notorious for not staying "on-mic" while recording.)

I would maintain that the recording is one of the best of the entire Beefheart oeuvre. The clarity is immaculate, yet avoiding the desiccated quality of 'Clear Spot.' (While the production on that album is very transparent, I've always found it to be somewhat airless.) BCP has edge, brilliance, and a natural quality that sets the standard for the later albums. John French served as musical director for the recording, coaching the musicians and running rehearsals. No musician better understood Beefheart's intent, and the success of this collection is due in no small part to his efforts. French's direction gave birth to some of the tightest, yet utterly fluid performances of Beefheart ever. Hearing these versions, I'm struck by how consistent the arrangements are on the later albums. It seems possible, if not likely, that these performances were the models from which the later band members learned these songs. Don's vocals are a bit looser and more expressive than on the later versions, noticeably so on tracks like "Floppy Boot Stomp" "Owed T'Alex" and the bizarre standard, "Harry Irene." One previously unheard treasure is "Hoboism," an impromptu improvisatory collaboration between Beefheart and Walley, captured on cassette and astutely preserved by the session engineer, Kerry McNabb.

'Bat Chain Puller' is beautifully packaged, with illuminating notes by John French and Denny Walley, plus a moving postscript by Gail Zappa. Fabled British DJ John Peel asserted that Beefheart was perhaps rock's "one true genius." With this release, the evidence supporting that statement mounts ever higher.

Interested? Order here: