Exploring Helmut Lachenmann

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Once in a while, I like to dip into UbuWeb: Sound. Part of the Ubu online collection of avant-garde art and video, it was originally conceived as a library of sound poetry but now encompasses a generous spectrum of experimental music, too.

I cherish the idea that these mostly out-of-print works have a home, but I have to admit, I also revel in the obscurity of it all. So much art from so many unfamiliar names. So much history! It’s a playground for hipsters of the avant-garde: “I was into Laurie Anderson back when she was doing actual songs! On vinyl!” (Check out “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”)

So one day — the day I found that Laurie Anderson page, actually — I decided to spin the big wheel. Push the cursor blindly, investigate a name. It could have been someone extremely famous like Phillip Glass or Don Cherry. But I lucked out and got a modern classical composer of great renown who had so far escaped me: Helmut Lachenmann.

His purview is “musique concrète instrumentale,” meaning the extramusical sounds that can be squeezed out of musical instruments. His pieces are like noise sculptures, full of extended playing and improv-like atmosphere. The sound of “a beetle on its back,” the Guardian says, quoting the instructions from one of Lachenmann’s pieces.

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Ubu’s collection includes two of his works, from a 1986 recording on the Col Legno label; it’s still available on eMusic. A string quartet called “Gran Torso” fills the space with creaks, scrapes, bow bouncing, and the occasional wisp of an open-stringed tone. I can see how pieces like this might have informed works like Elliott Sharp’s “The Boreal.”

Even abstract noise can be used to carve a trajectory, a pacing, as “Gran Torso” does. The activity ebbs and flows in a storytelling fashion. It’s enjoyable.

The secon piece is “Saut für Caudwell” for two acoustic guitars, played in clackety percussive style that I would have mistaken for violins. It gets into a snappy rhythm with the guitarists chanting in German — simple stuff, a 1/4 time signature in a sense. That’s followed by a dynamic segment of springy, scraping sounds.

Exploring elsewhere, I’ve found that when Lachenmann’s aesthetic is applied to an orchestra, the result is pretty much as I expected — lots of sparse abstract sounds, but a wider variety that comes at you from a multitude of directions. I’m also trying to get into his solo piano piece, “Serynade,” which combines moments of fluid virtuosity; sudden, shrill bursts; and long bouts of silence.

I know there’s a whole world of musique concrète to discover, but for now, I’m happy exploring Lachenmann’s corner of it. His work essentially involves extended techniques on acoustic instruments, a milieu I’m more than familiar with, but I’m finding fresh aspects to his music. Despite the abstractness of it all, I think I can feel a common style and personality in the pieces I’ve heard so far.

Here’s a performance of “Serynade” by Mexican concert pianist Anna Paolina Hasslacher. It’s also on her Soundcloud page, but I like the way this camera angle reveals the techniques involved.

November 28, 2017 at 11:07 pm Leave a comment

Rocking A Love Supreme

Karl Evangelista/GrexA Love Supreme (Brux, 2017)

coversmallYou can tell from the start that this isn’t a conventional reading of A Love Supreme, and not just because it’s guitar-based. Karl Evangelista and the band Grex start the piece with the same kind of wide-open introduction as the original, but in a voice that suggests what’s to come: a hard-digging psychedelic guitar opera.

With guitar and keys, bass and drums, and a couple of sparkling trumpet solos, it’s a satisfying treatment — a 25-minute EP being released as precursor to Grex’s next album. The structure of the four-movement piece remains intact, and there’s even a drum solo to open “Pursuance,” as on the original. What’s different is the transformation of the themes into rock form. Check out “Resolution,” where Evangelista plays the snakey composed line while Grex backs him with sinister chords.

 
The seminal moment of the original piece is Coltrane singing the “a love supreme” chant at the end of “Acknowledgement.” I can’t believe I never noticed this, but Coltrane sings his phrase in each of the 12 different keys. On Grex’s version, it’s the band who plays that theme, hopping from key to key while Evangelista’s guitar dances over the fast-shifting landscape.

The rock treatment is interesting when you consider that the original is based on wide-open modal playing — no ostinato, no riffs to clutch onto. Rock, of course, relies on repeated themes and rhythms that back the solos. It’s a fun translation, as “Pursuance” turns into a head-bobbing rocker with a solo of fuzz and feedback. “Psalm” becomes a cooldown study in slow-burning guitar and electric piano.

Listen to (and buy) the whole album at Bandcamp.

November 23, 2017 at 12:39 pm Leave a comment

Greedily Gobbling ECM

ecm grayblackI’ve avoided Spotify all this time. I already have too much music that I don’t listen to. I’m not interested in the pop stars and generic categories (“relaxing jazz for the office!”) offered on the service. And I have a problem with the fact that artists aren’t compensated fairly — Spotify, like many net economy startups, is a bit of a freeloader.

What’s changed my mind is that ECM Records joined the fray. As of Nov. 17, the label is offering its catalogue on a variety of streaming services. Apple and Amazon are included, but I give those guys too much money already. Spotify has the advantage of in-home tech support through my teenage daughter, who uses the app relentlessly.
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Limitations of the service became apparent quickly. I was disappointed to find out you can’t just shuffle-play an entire label. (As iTunes should have taught me, things like record labels — or songwriters, or musician identities in general — are not valued in a webstreaming world.)

And I don’t trust Spotify to build me a “radio station” using an ECM album as a seed. I still remember the Last.fm experience — I asked it to play artists similar to a particular jazz leader, and it picked jazz artists who played the same instrument. Start with Charles Mingus, and you ended up with Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, and so on. To be fair, I did accidentally hit the Spotify “radio” button next to an ECM album, and it started me off with a Rune Gramofone track. Not a bad guess. Still — I’ll save the algorithms for when I start exploring Spotify’s free-improv catalogue, which is surprisingly extensive.

The solution to getting what I really wanted — a pseudorandom sampling of ECM goodness — was to built a playlist. I’m just throwing albums into it, as if I’m a game-show contestant with a shopping cart and a time limit. I’ll add and delete as the whim strikes, or as I find that a particular album doesn’t suit me. Interestingly, the playlists are the one feature my kid hasn’t experimented with. So much for tech support.

Here’s a smattering of what I’ve thrown into there, or plan to:

Mal WaldronFree at Last (1970) — From 1970, ECM catalogue number 1001: The very first. I’m not sure we even had this on vinyl at KZSU (and the KZSU library itself is a trove of ’70s and ’80s ECM vinyl).

Jan GarbarekSelected Recordings (2002) — Part of the :rarum series of compilations that ECM put out around the turn of the century. I figure the series will be a good way to survey some of the artists I’ve paid short shrift to, like Garbarek.aec-niceguys-185

Vijay Iyer SextetFar From Over (2017) — Because I haven’t gotten around to hearing it yet. What? Stop judging me!

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys (1979) — Because I’ve never heard it, and it’s listed in Len Lyons’ 101 Best Jazz Albums book. Lyons openly admits that doing a “best jazz albums” book is rather ridiculous; in reality, the book is a chronicle of the major jazz movements. It helped me understand why Coltrane and Miles are so revered, for instance. Anyway, in the “Free Jazz” chapter, he uses Nice Guys to introduce the Art Ensemble. I should listen.

The Codona Trilogy (1979, 1981, 1983) — Simply titled CodonaCodona 2, and Codona 3, these albums tapped the “world music” thing before it was a thing, featuring Collin Walcott on sitar, hammer dulcimer, and tabla. Along similar lines…

Jan Garbarek, Anouar Brahem, Ustad Shaukat HussainMadar (1994) — Sax, oud, and tabla. I added a few Brahem albums to the playlist, following up on my explorations of jazz oud.

Andy Sheppard QuartetSurrounded by Sea (2015) — Never tapped into Sheppard after getting early exposure to him in a freely improvised context. I knew his regular stuff wouldn’t be so far out, but it’s nice, especially with that ECM touch.

November 22, 2017 at 11:13 pm Leave a comment

Things Lost

IMG_8767There’s plenty of heartbreak in the aftermath of the fires that ripped through Sonoma recently. So, in no way is this the saddest of the fire stories — but it’s still poignant.

KQED science editor Craig Miller did a story once on the field recordings of Bernie and Kat Krause. Their Wild Sanctuary project captured more than 4,500 hours of audio, documenting the “soundscape” of the planet.

The audio is backed up, but the studio that helped make it all happen is gone, along with troves of original tapes.

Miller and the Krauses visited the remains of the studio. Text, photos, and audio here: Amid the North Bay Fire Ruins: A Lost “Sanctuary” for Nature’s Music.

November 18, 2017 at 10:21 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne (and Paul Motian) in 1983

Tim BerneMy First Tour: Live in Brussels (Screwgun, 2017)

berne-firstIt’s a lo-fi cassette recording but wholly satisfying, and a nice little slice of history.

My First Tour is a 1983 recording that Tim Berne is giving away on Bandcamp. It’s in the same spirit as the Unwound triple-CD that documented Berne’s Bloodcount quartet in concert (more on that in a later post).

“Why am I doing this?” Berne writes. “Because I think this has a side of Paul Motian that maybe isn’t well documented and worth hearing.”

True. Motian is often raucous and aggressive in this session, capped by his solo at the excerpt of “Mutant of Alberan.”

 
It’s not as if Motian hasn’t played loudly before. I remember him having a similarly dynamic solo on Keith Jarrett’s The Survivors’ Suite. That “Alberan” solo gets outright vicious, though. You get to hear the rawness behind the performance, and that’s an aspect that elevates this recording, as it did with Unwound.

Elsewhere, Herb Robertson delivers a tremendous trumpet solo on “Flies,” going absolutely nuts, backed by Motian’s high-speed brushwork. And if you want to hear Motian in a more contemplative mood, there’s “No Idea,” which lingers pensively around Motian’s sense of open non-timekeeping.

“Tin Ear” is one of the songs that I don’t think ever made it onto an album, and it’s a blast. After a swingy start, Berne kicks into fast free jazz, with Motian’s furious rhythm. That track has another raucous Motian solo as well.

I enjoy hearing alternate versions of tunes, so this collection is a treat from that standpoint as well. There’s more where this came from, on the 5-CD Empire Box that documents Berne’s early albums with Robertson, Motian, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, and more. Discs 4 and 5 are on Bandcamp.

UPDATE 11/22: Discs 1 through 3 are now on Bandcamp as well: The Five-Year Plan, 7X, and Spectres.

November 4, 2017 at 11:24 am 1 comment

The Roughtet: Biggi Vinkeloe’s Improv Crew

Biggi Vinkeloe RoughtetAu Quotidien (Edgetone, 2017)

vinkeloe-roughtetYou should hear this album for the friendly vibe of its quartet, their balanced approach to improvised jazz, and the solid interplay on the two live tracks included at the end.

But I’d also be happy if you read the liner notes, either with the physical CD or on Bandcamp. I happen to find them deeply insightful. And yeah, I also wrote them.

Which creates an interesting opportunity: I can review this album by plagiarizing myself. Man, is this going to be easy.

Vinkeloe, from Sweden, has been a frequent visitor to the Bay Area and a longtime participant in the music scene here. She’s also been involved in some interesting projects lately, including the Swedish jazz group Amazonas and her own Jade project blending the moods of jazz with choral sacred music

Au Quotiden is more like a meeting among friends, a mood that makes for a light and lively session.

Au Quotidian mixes the confidence of the familiar with the excitement of the unknown, the musicians keying off one another’s invisible cues to create a fluid, elegant machine,” I wrote.  (“Invisible” was a poor choice of word, as visual cues, even the kind that simply signal the end of a piece, probably played a large role during the recording session.)

“The band gets a ‘jazz’ infusion from [Joe] Lasqo’s piano chords, adding spots of color to a stormy track like ‘i would think so’ or the slapped groove of ‘je ne sais pas.'” (The song titles are entirely lower-case.)

Let’s see if I was right. Here’s an excerpt of ‘i would think so.’

 
And here’s part of “je ne sais pas,” which I later also cited for cellist Teddy Rankin-Parker’s “grooving bassline.”

 
I should mention that Donald Robinson on drums is a crucial part of this chemistry; he’s played with these musicians for years, including Vinkeloe. Check out Blue Reve  (Eld 2009), a trio album with Robinson, Vinkeloe, and bassist Lisle Ellis.

Au Quotidien is appended with two live tracks that feature some particularly lively interplay. Again, from the liners: “‘how wonderful'” features Vinkeloe’s joyous yet balanced overblowing and a full palette of sounds from Robinson.”

Here I’ve combined a couple of segments to give you a feel for all that:

 
To conclude: “throughout the album, Vinkeloe herself leads the crew through varying moods — the spiky excitement of “vous ne comprenez rien,” the dark, unhurried mystery of “cela commence mal.” She spins powerful tales herself on the horn, but this band carries those talents to another plane — four storytellers, weaving a narrative together.”

October 28, 2017 at 2:45 pm Leave a comment

Squeak

When does one expect to hear high-pitched saxophone overblowing?

Not during the ballad “I’ll Keep Loving You” as performed by Jackie McLean.

 
Yeah, that was a surprise.

Jackie McLeanDuring stops at the public library with the kids, I’ve been checking out arbitrary CDs. It’s kind of a way to keep in touch with more mainstream fare — “normal” classical music, the occasional ECM disk, or jazz masters who have been neglected in my collection. That’s how McLean’s Let Freedom Ring wound up in my headphones.

What I didn’t know was that in 1962, McLean was listening closely to the likes of Ornette Coleman. Turns out, the New Thing is the concept behind the title of the album I’d checked out, Let Freedom Ring.

This is by no means a free jazz album, but moments of overblowing pop up regularly among the four tracks. It’s less incongruous on a bouncy, upbeat track like “Omega,” but that’s what makes the moment on “I’ll Keep Loving You” all the more delightful.

Let Freedom Ring was a conscious foray into free jazz, not just for McLean but also for Blue Note Records. “Soon it would be recording Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Larry Young, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and other new stars,” Graham Wood wrote in Perfect Sound Forever. Cecil Taylor recorded two of his greatest albums for Blue Note and even Ornette Coleman was recruited. The success of Let Freedom Ring was all Alfred Lion needed to be persuaded.”

“Melody for Melonae” is rich in the sound I associate with ’60s Blue Note; it might be the best introduction to McLean’s mix of the old and new. The squeaky parts pop up shortly after the 4:30 mark.

Among McLean’s albums, Let Freedom Ring seems to be where the posthumous accolades have gathered — this small profile on NPR, for instance. Wood, in Perfect Sound Forever, seems more taken with its successors: Destination… Out! and especially One Step Beyond. I suppose that’s where I’ll be traveling next.

October 21, 2017 at 12:02 pm Leave a comment

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