Archive for April, 2016

Henry Threadgill Deep Dive

threadgill-hatCheck out this 2011 interview with Henry Threadgill, who of course won a Pulitzer Prize last week. The interviewer is Ethan Iverson, pianist for The Bad Plus and an authoritative new-music thinker and blogger, whose specialties go deeply into jazz history, music theory, and classical music.

It’s some serious stuff. Iverson had to “audition” to Threadgill over the phone before doing the interview — and this was a BBC3-sponsored interview, not a case of some guy calling up to say “Hey, talk to me for my blog.” And even if it was, Iverson certainly isn’t just “some guy.”

You can understand Threadgill’s concerns when you read his explanations of the Zooid band and the musical language that the players studied for a year before performing in public. He composed in a way that abandoned major/minor concepts, to open up the space for freedom — but not absolute freedom. There were still rules:

It has nothing to do with serialism at all. In serialism, you have a series of notes. Could be 12 notes, five notes, whatever the series is. Well, this is a series of intervals; the first series is five, then four, and the next one is seven, and the next one three, and the next eight, and the next four, and every one of them is different and they exist for period of time. The written music that’s on the paper, everything is moving according to that. Not necessarily every interval that is up there, but when we improvise, we can take a lot of liberties because that is what the musicians have learned how to do. Now the players with me, they can do anything they want to do, because if you understand what you can and cannot do, then that means you can do everything since you understand those two things.

As for why Iverson had to audition, it’s because Threadgill wanted to carry on a conversation in terms like this:

One piece of harmony can have as many as 14 faces. … Let’s say the sound of C, C-sharp, F-sharp; it can have the face of G, C, E-flat, maybe. It can have the sound of E-flat, F, E. It can have the sound of F-sharp, G-sharp, A — because it comes from a family. This family is like your biological family, like your brothers, sisters, mother and father all share DNA, it is the same thing. This has nothing to do with major/minor substitution

Do I hear all of that on the Zooid albums? Did I hear anything equally deep when I saw Threadgill’s Double-Up perform in February? I’m aware of a sense of structure, of a background order that’s keeping things together — and I’m aware of a sound, in the macro sense, meaning you can tell by ear that this is Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and not some other band or bandleader.

I can tell something’s there, even if the details are beyond me.

All of this leaves me feeling even more inadequate than usual when I look back on my previous Zooid review, where I said things like “Gosh there’s no chords” or “gee I hear afropop.” It’s easy to feel like a big shot when reviewing music; easier still for the musician to make the reviewer feel like an idiot.

April 24, 2016 at 2:08 pm 2 comments

Wild Sound

ThirdCoastPercussion@2xGlancing at the stage before a performance of Glenn Kotche’s Wild Sound, we got a good idea what to expect. All the detritus, tools, stray wood pieces — a suburban garage exploded — suggested a Cageian experience in sound and improvisation.

Turns out, Wild Sound is a lot more than that. It’s structured and partially composed, including melodies. And gets the audience involved, both literally (we got to make noise) and figuratively, in the sense that the piece involves the sounds and sights of instruments being built.

It’s a piece by Glenn Kotche, who’s best known as the drummer from Wilco but is also a classical composer with a respectable discography on labels such as Nonesuch and Canteloupe. Wild Sound was the last in a short series of hip, modern-classical evenings called Pivot, which on this evening was hosting Third Coast Percussion, a creative quartet that’s also the ensemble-in-residence at Notre Dame University. The performance, in early April, was also my first visit to the SFJazz complex in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.

thirdcoast-IMG_1884Wild Sound progresses through the four elements of water, air, fire, and earth, with a coda that transcends all four and could be called just “civilization.” At the same time, the “settings” of the piece start out primitive — Water draws inspiration from jungle rainfall, Air from the swirling winds of deserts and chapparel — and eventually shift into urban society. After a surprisingly quiet Fire segment, Earth went all-in with steel girders and concrete.

The whole piece was backed by abstract video projections, occasionally overlaid with real-time video of the performers, and a backing soundtrack of field recordings Kotche made on tour. I don’t think we were meant to think of the nature-to-civilization progression as a bad thing. It felt more celebratory, and the Earth and Civilization sections included some of the most engaging segments of the piece.

The best part, and the most pleasant surprise, was the realization that the players were assembling instruments as they went. Wild Sounds does include a lot of Cageian randomness, as expected — one segment has a guy rattling large marbles in a bowl, and he eventually dumps them on top of two other musicians who are busy performing the actual composed melody. But along the way, you start to realize that some of the “randomness” is productive work.

It’s sneaky, and it adds to the fun. One guy loudly slapping wood blocks onto a table turned out to be building an honest-to-goodness marimba, finely tuned. A more subtle bit of work is the guy who was cutting wire at another table. That became a kind of slide violin: one hand (or person) plays the string, the other sets the tuning.

The sounds of construction also factor into the piece. Early on, one player was slapping packing tape onto the end of a tube, unrolling the tape as loudly as possible. Obviously, this was going to be used as a tribal drum later on — but during the construction, the unraveling of the tape contributed to the surrounding noise.

By the time the Earth section came around, it wasn’t any surprise to see the power tools come out, complete with safety shields. Drills, power screwdrivers, and even a welding torch, I think, got applied in small amounts — because one power tool makes enough noise to make the point. The piece was created with help from Notre Dame’s engineering department, by the way.

thirdcoast-sticks-crop-IMG_1887We got to participate, too. During Water, one Third Coaster pantomimed instructions for us to rub our hands and slap our thighs, emulating rainfall. Everyone was also handed small, ribbed balsa-wood sticks when we entered the theater. These became percussion instruments during Earth, when we got instructed to scrape out certain rhythms.

This concert was co-sponsored by The Exploratorium, which was so fitting — it all felt like the kind of “performance” exhibit they might host. In a post-concert talk, one of the Third Coasters (was it David Skidmore?) pointed out how inviting the instruments were. Anybody in the audience could wander on stage, pick something up, and make music. The group takes particular glee in that aspect of the piece, he said.

The first four movements of Wild Sound are quite a feast, but there’s still a major surprise in store for the dessert course. (This is a SPOILER. If you’re reading this in advance of going to see Wild Sound, you should probably stop here.)

The four large brackets at the back of the stage were, predictably enough, used for hanging sheet metal and other implements, which got bashed around for the raucuous parts of Earth. Turns out they have another purpose in Civilization — they hold synthesizers built inside transparent plexiglass. These are essentially keyboards that get played vertically, and the conclusion of Civilization is a long, through-composed melody for a quartet of these instruments. (You can see them for a moment in this promo video.) The sci-fi sound of the synths, and the fact that you can see the circuitry inside, create a futuristic air. The melody itself is pleasant and relaxing, suggesting that yes, this is our home today. Spotlights indicate who’s playing at any given time — and there have to be a lot of rest breaks for each musician, considering this segment is rather long and the blood is running out of their arms whenever they’re playing. It’s a peaceful ending and a chance to digest everything that’s happened in the preceding hour.

Wild Sound was written specifically for Third Coast. They performed it only about 10 times in the past year, Skidmore said — because it’s such a production. In addition to all the equipment, tools, and materials required, the performance needs a videographer, a lighting technician, and a soundboard engineer (some of the instruments’ sounds get enhanced with a computer) who are familiar with the piece.

That makes Wild Sound all the more rare. I don’t think it’s an experience that can be captured well enough on DVD. If it’s coming to your town, go see it.

April 20, 2016 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

Henry Threadgill Won a Pulitzer

medalblackbackground236It’s nice that Hamilton won a Pulitzer and all, but the real thing to celebrate is that Henry Threadgill won one.

In the category for music, the Pulitzers honored In for a Penny, in for a Pound, last year’s double CD from Threadgill’s Zooid group. It’s only the third jazz honoree, the last one being Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar in 2007 and Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields in 1997.

The award is a nice bit of recognition for Threadgill, one of the surviving pioneers of the AACM and a contemporary of New York’s loft-jazz era. It’s also a feather in the cap of Pi Recordings, which has been consistent in celebrating fresh and innovative jazz. (Some might call it too academic, which is fair — but me, I eat that stuff up.)

threadgill-pennyIn for a Penny It is highly improvised, but it’s far from random — like Cecil Taylor’s music, it has a sound. There’s strategy and organization to the chugging, bubbling rhythm, and the players are Threadgill veterans who have built up the intuition and mental muscle memory to execute it (seemingly) with ease.

If there’s one difference from other Zooid albums, it’s in song structure. The four long pieces making up the bulk of the album are mini-suites; there are pauses where the band takes a breath and then moves into some new mood or style. Threadgill was going for an ambitious, epic scope, and it works.

For more reading, check out Nate Chinen’s report for The New York Times — richly written, as always. And do take a moment to read the Pulitzer committee’s announcement. The jury in this case was chaired by Julia Wolfe (Bang on a Can) and included violinist Regina Carter. They know their stuff.

So, is Henry Threadgill going to rest on his laurels? Of course not. He’s already got another album out.

April 19, 2016 at 7:44 am Leave a comment

Nashville Electric – Orville’s Folly

Nashville ElectricOrson’s Folly (Edgetone, 2015)

nashville-orsonThis long-form performance of electronics and electric instruments was created in 2015 as a live, improvisational soundtrack to a long-lost Orson Welles silent film. (The film wasn’t silent by choice — more on that in a bit).

It’s a continuous journey of sound and activity, with a foundation of howling-wind synthesizers setting up the background for brighter guitar and violin sounds — small curls or wide washes, heavily treated to add to the electronic mesh.

Everything is done for texture and effect; it’s a noise piece, in essence, with a prevailing mood built from lots of small details. It’s foreboding but not entirely dark. I imagine the music putting an eerie cast over the silent black-and-white footage.

The piece — two major sections recorded in the studio, plus a “closing credits” segment recorded in concert — starts out with an anthemic buzz of synths and electric guitar, with the occasional electric-violin tone drifting past for a dash of color.

Part 2 tends to be more sparse, with the string instruments playing more individualized roles. One attractive segment focuses on a traceable guitar riff, as if played at the end of a distant corridor. A choppy violin takes the foreground later, again in a distant, filtered vein, behind a deep electronic pulsing.

As with any soundtrack, the music is inspired by film — and, as a result, our listening of the music can be colored by the nature of that film, even if we can’t see it. I listened to the album first, then researched the Orson Welles film in question, “Jangadeiros” (“Four Men on a Raft”). Knowing what happened really does cast the music in a different light.

“Jangadeiros” was part of a larger project called It’s All True — a movie that Welles eventually decided was cursed, based partly on an anecdote involving a voodoo needle driven through a script.

A fictionalized quasi-documentary that evolved in a convoluted process after Pearl Harbor, It’s All True was meant to be a trilogy of stories filmed in Brazil. But, as explained on the Edgetone Records site, the film wasn’t the feelgood exercise that RKO Studio and the U.S. Government (a backer of the film) were expecting. Welles’ budget was slashed to a single black-and-white, silent camera, and the project deteriorated, never to be completed.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 12.00.38 PM

From “Jangadeiros

“Jangadeiros” survived in footage that was discovered in 1981. It’s actually meant to be a happy and triumphant story about four fishermen who rafted for 61 days — 1,650 miles without a compass — to protest to the goverment, in person, about the feudal nature of their industry. They were being forced to deliver half their catch to raft owners, leaving the fishermen themselves in poverty. The protest worked; Brazilian president GetĂșlio Vargas didn’t come through on all his promises, but the fishermen were at least granted the privileges of unionized workers.

The tragedy came later. Using the original four fishermen, Welles was filming a re-enactment of their arrival in Rio de Janeiro harbor. (Rio was the capital at the time.) But the raft overturned, and the fishermen’s leader, Manoel Olimpio Meira, was lost.

So … back to Orson’s Folly. The mood doesn’t strike me as full-on ominous. But it’s not exactly happy, either. There’s the eerieness that comes with the dredging-up of old, dead history; the heavy tragedy of Meira’s death; and the doomed nature of the project itself.

“Jangadeiros” happens to be available on YouTube, so you could play the album alongside it for the full effect. The footage is shadowy, but it’s professionally edited and does tell a fictitious story related to the four fishermen. I gave it only a minimal try. I think I prefer to let the visuals and the mood build in my imagination.

April 9, 2016 at 9:05 am Leave a comment


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