Schoenberg and an Art Journey

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Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.

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Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

January 15, 2018 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

MZM

Miya Masaoka, Zeena Parkins, Myra MelfordMZM (Infrequent Seams, 2017)

mzmPicture1-500New combinations of familiar names always make for a compelling bill in jazz or improv. I don’t think I’ve encountered any two of Zeena Parkins, Miya Masaoka, and Myra Melford together in any project, so the idea of all three dabbling together in the studio is irresistible.

It’s an all-strings combo — Melford on piano, Masaoka on koto, and Parkins on harp — but Parkins also adds electronics for a wider range of sounds and a sense of sustain.

They explore a wide set of strategies and moods on MZM. “Bug” goes for a straightforward attack, driven at times by a pulsing of dense piano chords. Along similar lines, “Eight-Burst” is a briskly moving piece that turns up the electronics from Parkins, coupled with some frenzied koto and splashy, jazzy piano from Melford.

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Copyright Heike Liss

On the slower side, “Saturn” tracks an appropriately spacey vibe, spiced by reverb on the koto. “Rosette” and “Spiral” likewise provide good doses of creeping, lingering atmosphere. The latter builds from the koto’s rich, mysterious twang in pure form. Melford sprinkles icicles from what might be a toy keyboard, while Parkins provides a deep throb of a bassline, subtly moving underneath.


I like the tight-knit rumble in the piano on “Retina,” which eases up as the piece progresses. And then there’s “Ant,” an edgy track full of small, curled-up sounds. It plows forward on the back of a stumbling piano non-rhythm and small stabs of koto, led by squelching electronics. It feels like a conscious effort to create something different, and it works — a new shape architected by three masterful improvisers.

January 12, 2018 at 10:09 pm Leave a comment

A Night at the Octopus

IMG_3464 dialectic imagination cropI did make it up to Oakland for the Dialectical Imagination show that took place the day after Christmas. The Octopus Literary Salon is a small place, with a capacity of maybe a few dozen in SRO conditions, but when it fills up, as it did on this night, it makes for a cozy, lively atmosphere. Certainly a lot of people were friends and family of the musicians, but that’s OK — it’s community, and it felt good.

Dialectical Imagination is the duo of Eli Wallace on piano and Rob Pumpelly on drums, building grand towers of classical and jazz. In support of their second album of 2017, they played three long compositions, filling the little space with sound.

The first included a row of sleigh bells as an instrument, kind of a nod to the season. The piece maintained a highbrow, regal sound, taking a stance of grace and nobility.

 
If that first piece came from one direction — from a place of grace and nobility — the second, “Hatch,” seemed to come from all angles at once. It was more aggressive and featured a powerful drum solo, where Wallace got up from the piano, hopping and dancing in place while shaking bells madly, his hair disheveled from the beanie he’d been wearing.

They closed with a song that included some lovely and borderline new agey melody — but with enough intensity to be Not Safe for the Hallmark Network. Lots of chromatic soloing that veered off the rails.

One of the opening acts was Wallace’s Brooklyn roommate, saxophonist Ben Cohen, fronting a trio calling itself 1_lu_1. Cohen and a guitarist fronted the music, but I found myself really impressed by the drummer. His style looked physically awkward at first, but he did just fine and brought a good flow to the music. The individual choices made by Cohen and the guitarist didn’t always work for me, but even at those moments, the trio melded well, making for some satisfying improvisations.

Solo electric guitarist Jack Radsliff, from Eugene, Oregon, led off. He played pretty, melodic pieces augmented by some loops — all of it stemming from some involved, fancy fingerwork. His short set held the audience’s attention and was a nice, relaxed way to kick things off.

You can get a taste of Cohen in a polished trio on the album Viriditas (check out “Front Country”), but this live duo track with drummer Tim Cohen is closer to what we heard at the Octopus:

 
Radsliff, meanwhile, has an ensemble album called Migration Patterns. Here’s the track “The Wick:”


 

January 8, 2018 at 11:31 pm Leave a comment

16 Bars in an Elevator

This is cute: A band crammed into an elevator for one number. Probably not the first time this has been done, but it makes for a novel video.

I love the way the vibraphone exactly fits the space. Makes it even more cramped.

The band is a quartet fronted by drummer Chris Hewitt, and the tune is “Sixteen Bars for Jail,” by Ches Smith. You’ll find the original on the album Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl, 2010).

January 5, 2018 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

A Sampling of Sun Ra

sunraWe make a big deal out of David Bowie’s multiple musical personalities, but what about Sun Ra?

He’s an avant-gardist, but his catalogue also embraces pop: doo-wop, swing, and, sincerely, Disney showtunes. At the same time, some digging will reveal stuff that’s beyond even the usual scope of free jazz, like the sparse group improvisation “The Magic City” or the album Strange Strings, where Arkestra members improvise on exotic stringed instruments they hadn’t yet learned how to play.

Volunteering at KZSU gave me exposure to some of this music, and now I can explore it even further. A wealth of Sun Ra material came online this fall, available on Bandcamp and eMusic. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start.

sunra-otherDiving in almost at random, I gave a listen to Other Voices, Other Blues, a 1978 live session with John Gilmore on tenor sax and Michael Ray on trumpet. There’s no bass; Sun Ra provides basslines with his keyboards while Luqman Ali holds down the drum kit.

The 1970s synthesizers can be a dated distraction on tracks like “Bridge on the Ninth Dimension,” but all is forgiven when a Gilmore/Ray free-for-all emerges later. Even under the fluorescent glow of synths, that’s some heart-warming free jazz there.

One track that really caught my ear was “Along the Tiber,” a more traditional jazz piece. I think it was a matter of encountering that song at just the right time and mood for me; it clicked. That Sun Ra sticks to acoustic piano on this one helped.

 
I’ll probably delve into the 1978 funk of Lanquidity next. That album got re-released on CD by Evidence Music in 2001, part of a small Sun Ra block that was sent to us at KZSU. I never gave it the attention it deserved, and I can say that for a lot of Sun Ra’s catalogue.


 

December 26, 2017 at 11:22 pm Leave a comment

More Grand Gestures for Piano and Drums

Dialectical Imagination performs Dec. 26 at the Octopus Literary Salon (2101 Webster St., Oakland), 7:00 p.m.

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath (Atma Nadi, 2017)

dialectical-wrath.jpgNote the subtle difference in title. Dialectical Imagination’s previous album referred to “Songs of Rapture,” while this new one is about songs of wrath.

The strategy remains the same: High-energy improvisations that mix classical precision with free-jazz-like abandon. Dialectical Imaginations is the piano-drums duo of Eli Wallace and Rob Pumpelly, both hammering away ecstatically.

The new album, which officially releases on Christmas Day, can be pre-ordered on Bandcamp. And on a personal note — it’s hard to find good music shows during the holidays, so I’m glad to see the Octopus cafe in Oakland booking these guys for the day after Christmas.

The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath is full of lengthy high-energy segments, but it’s not just random bashing. Both players execute a deliberate accuracy even when they’re bashing away — as on “Autopoietica I,” which combines a flurry of piano sticklers with some stormy drums.

 
“Autopoietica II” shows off the duo’s more subtle side. It’s still full of bombast, but at lower intensity, with Wallace splashing fluidly around the keyboard and Pumpelly battering furiously but quietly at the toms. The piece ends with a slower movement, with the kind of drama that evokes the crashing ocean surf.

“Strength and Presence” is where the “wrath” really kicks in — a 13-minute musical attack, with both players relentlessly filling space. It’s a signature moment, albeit a long one.

The track that’s available for early sampling on Bandcamp is “Hatchling,” which builds from a quiet opening where Wallace’s jazz influences, including possibly Cecil Taylor, are more clearly on display.

December 22, 2017 at 12:52 am Leave a comment

Back Pages #4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount

berne-bloodcount(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.

Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.

Screwgun’s first release was Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.

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I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”

Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.

More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.

I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.

I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.

Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery best. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (It’s at the top of the photo above, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts and got pretty good audio out of them — another practice that’s common today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.

The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older tracks like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”

 
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound  is the place to look.

My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.

But that dream got chipped away, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.

Screwgun, despite tougher odds, lives on; screwgunrecords.com remains Berne’s home page, where he still sells CDs and now offers MP3s of some out-of-print titles. (Unwound isn’t among them yet, but you can find it on Bandcamp.) The label recently produced a Matt Mitchell solo CDForage, and a Berne/Byram art book called Spare. Long live DIY.

December 17, 2017 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

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